Article by: Colton Eddy
A tambourine jangle. A strum of a guitar. It’s the good-spirited sound of a pendulum swing back toward naturalism in pop music.
The Lumineers self-titled debut earned platinum and two Grammy nominations, mainly due to that massive lovelorn jam, "Ho Hey". With all the pegs of success, there’s been little time to soak it in: a Saturday Night Live performance, holding their own on the festival scene (Newport, Leeds, Lollapalooza, Osheaga) and Stephen Colbert welcomed this Colorado collective to his stage. All the while, critics suffocate them with Mumford & Sons comparisons. Even though their success is welcomed by the roots revival of the past few years, with toe-tapping melodies, The Lumineers’ gift for story telling is a product of their own, which is contrastingly sparse in the mighty Mumford..
Before their headlining gig at EdgeFest and amid the torrential downpour, bassist Ben Wahmaki and multi-instrumentalist Stelth Ulvang sat down to reflect on success, the folk explosion, and the musings of Alice Cooper.
Sticky: Welcome to Toronto. How was New York? How was the Colbert experience?
Stelth Ulvang: That was exciting. We didn’t have an interview, but now we’re making up for it by talking to you. We’re even more excited to do this!
Sticky: For you guys, as for being a headliner, do you enjoy that celebration of your music and being there to see the fans stretched in front, versus being an opener?
Stelth: I think so. In a few days we’re playing right before Big Boi of Outkast. Big Boi. So it’s really weird, sometimes, in these festivals when you’re sandwiched between a band that maybe you don’t musically jive with. So it’s great being an opening band, because you are basically calling the stops.
Ben Wahamaki: It’s a different thing. A different kind of energy if it’s the culminating thing of the night, you know? That moment that everyone was sort of waiting for. And there are also advantages to doing some of the earlier spots too.
Stelth: It means you get to stick around and see the band that’s headlining, That’s what this whole summer for us has been. I’ve seen probably fifty bands that I’ve wanted to see at some point. That’s an amazing thing to see that many bands in one summer.
Sticky: Is it a learning experience for you guys?
Stelth: Yeah! Learning is a good way to put it. We don’t get judgmental or talk shit or judge. We learn. Like, ‘Wow, I can’t believe that they’re doing that!’ I remember Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeroes and watching them play and watching him go out in the crowd and try to get people to tell stories on the mike, thinking that this guy is nuts! And you get this attitude, watching it happen, thinking that he’s nailing it. He’s killing it! And not that we do that, but it’s just great seeing a relative nature of how to get people into a show. It differs so much from band to band. Everything that you want to do, relatively is a balance of those two things.
Sticky: It’s been a crazy trip for you guys, between the Grammys and "Hey Ho". What can you remember as the culminating moment that slowed things down enough to realize what was happening?
Ben: This year. I don’t know. It’s kind of one congealed lump in my mind because I think that each time that we were arriving – like I remember when we got to South By [Southwest] and we were in the van, we heard that we were going to do Conan. It was just kind of that, where it was always like you never got to that thing that you were excited about. It’s like you were moving, you were excited about moving, and then you found out that you were going on vacation as you were moving.
Stelth: He’s just in the process of moving.
Sticky: Did seem like a very specific metaphor.
Ben: It is, but the whole thing has just been so surreal. Each time that it’d feel like, "Wow, I never thought I’d get to this point", there is to look a little bit farther on the horizon and it is even more crazy and awesome.
Sticky: While writing and putting together these songs, did you anticipate this reaction?
Ben: We weren’t because we weren’t writing these songs. [laughs]
Stelth: Well, we didn’t specifically write the songs. But, as the songs were being recorded, we were around. And even then, you know, I’ve been friends with the guys since they moved to Colorado, and seeing them play those songs in an open-mic and me playing open-mic after them, it all just being this one thing of "We’re just dudes hanging out in a bar playing and doing what we want to do". Nothing more is even at the tip of your mind or tongue and with Wesley [Schultz] - I don’t think we could have gotten here without him, stretching for as much as he has.
Sticky: Then fast-forward to seeing these songs being covered endlessly, including that parody on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon.
Ben: It’s crazy! Every time, it surprises us still. What is weird to me is that we’ve all spent so much time with those songs; we’ve played them in such different circumstances that it is really weird that it is the same song. Sometimes on television, sometimes it’s us playing it in the basement.
Sticky: How would you describe that transformation?
Stelth: I don’t know where it was where Ben said something along the lines of: "It wouldn’t be true to ourselves to adapt a song so much to a bigger stage". We do have small songs. We do have quiet ones and its really important to not go completely off course. We’re not supposed to play on a big stage. We are not necessarily that band! We don’t have horn sections and all these big things. We are a band that could play all these songs in someone’s living room still as they exist, and its good to be true to that and that translates.
Ben: I think that’s part of what’s cool about people singing along. It’s not like anthem singing along, in the sense that it is not necessarily the biggest show or the most dramatic moment. It’s just simple songs that people can sing along to. It’s us going up there and singing songs that -
Stelth: Memorable lyrics.
Ben: What’s that?
Stelth: The lyrics are memorable! Yeah!
Ben: [laughs] No, but I’m just saying that it’s not like the stadium moment at some of these shows. People singing along to "Ho Hey" is maybe a different vibe than that. Its pretty amazing to see people sing along to a song that’s made to work for small rooms on this huge scale. It is really cool to see that happen.
Sticky: Simplicity and the melodies from Lumineers, Mumford and Sons, Edward Sharpe, Avett Brothers, and the list goes on. There seems to be an urgency in this rise in folk taking over the top forty. Why do you think that its moment is now?
Stelth: I think everything comes in cycles and it is about damn time [laughs]. All of these artists – Edward Sharpe, Mumford and Avett Brothers and us have been writing music for years and years and years and nobody could care less. I think there were just enough of us doing it that it started to kind of infect its way into mainstream radio. But you know, it happened thirty years ago and twenty years ago... look at "Wonderwall". I mean, just dudes with acoustic guitars and harmonies. Even before that, there was Simon & Garfunkel and they were huge! They played Central Park in New York City, to what? Like 50,000 people or more – some crazy amount of people were into this thing, two dudes who were playing with one guitar sometimes and singing harmonies. So it has always existed. And then there were times, if we're to pick a year, like 1990, where there might not have been any acoustic guitars on the radio.
Sticky: Honourable mentions for the MTV Unplugged sessions.
Stelth: Yeah, that’s right! They did that, they did that. But I think it goes in waves and it is really cool that we’re on it - that we held onto our surf board long enough to jump on this one. A lot of bands throw it down. They get rid of it, thinking that this isn’t working or let’s just play in old folks homes, bluegrass, or I don’t know.
Sticky: Recognizing this folk explosion is defining the sound right now, with all these young bands modeling their songs after it, then Alice Cooper feels that your sound isn’t what should be identified as rock.
Stelth: I always want to jump to a bit of defense and say what our live show has become is still a lot more... not rock music, but you can see the influence of The Rolling Stones and you can see the influences of other bands that you wouldn’t call a folk band. Even something more recent – Arcade Fire, you know, the Canadian faves, they have a lot of folk instrumentation and nobody really calls them a folk band. But they are. They are, by all senses of the word, a rock band and they are incredible, and they’re doing that - playing horns, playing a cello and violins - and that’s awesome that you can do that and be called rock and not say that this is folk music because somebody would think something. Most of [our] album, I wouldn’t call necessarily a rock album or a folk album. It definitely bridges that. There is electric guitar on a lot of the stuff that we’ll play acoustic on and visa versa when we’re playing. Basically, our only folk instrument is almost the mandolin and a box, but you’d be surprised at how many people credit us to playing banjo! They’re like, "Man, I love when Jer plays banjo during something". We’ve never had a banjo on stage at all.
Sticky: Do you think you would be satisfied with packaging this album, something that you are all creatively proud of, and burying it away where nobody could hear it or share it with anybody?
Ben: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, the thing about this whole art is that there is this – it is kind of arbitrary, not to not sound ungrateful at all, cause it is amazing that this has all taken the curve, but we do this because we like it. We make this music because we like it. If we didn’t, we wouldn’t waste our time with it. We’re not doing it because we wanted to be some sick, weird, crazy sensation or some ridiculous idea like that. We just want to play some songs and if twenty thousand people in a town want to hear it, that’s great! They’re invited and it is awesome to have them and if three hundred people want to hear it, that’s great and we’re grateful to have that. So right now, it happens to be something that is sort of in vote. At the end of the day, that’s the most beautiful thing – when you do what’s good for your heart and make something that you like and you feel is satisfying. Then people love it for what it is.
Stelth: People forget that making a record is a form of documentation. It is a form of communication. Nobody, I think, writes songs with the intent for nobody to hear it; they do have something to say, in a way that nobody else has said it. Wes, writing these songs – a lot of them are stories and a lot of them hold real, strong meanings for him. Somebody can take that, listen to that and if that changes one person and they think "This means this, because I’m going through this exact thing and I’ve never thought of it as this", I mean, that’s incredible! Most people on a day-to-day basis don’t change someone’s life or change someone’s view on something.
Sticky: That’s got to apply a lot of pressure.
Stelth: That to me is a huge pressure! You’re being asked to be accountable for a sincere action because you don’t want to feed somebody bullshit. You want to give them something that you really believe in and I’m so thankful that I’m standing behind what Wes writes. And I know a lot of people could have been just paid musicians that are backing him up, a backing band. You see a lot of bands on MTV, they have backing bands – one person you know and the rest, maybe you never do. I feel like we all have invested ourselves in the music because we believe in it. There’s no pressure there because it just comes out of us.
Sticky: It looked like you guys are working on a documentary as well. How far back have you been documenting this?
Ben: These are just friends that were interested in starting to compile footage, a long time ago.
Stelth: I think they started around the time before our album came out, around the time of South By. They could’ve very easily, a year-and-a-half ago been like, "Well, this band ain’t going nowhere" and that was the gamble that they – that any documentary filmmaker should take with any new bands, because who wants to watch a documentary on a band that is already big? How often do you catch a band while they’re still small? So, if something comes out of this, it is definitely going to have a lot.
Ben: Just gathering, because it is good to have.
Stelth: We could show it to our grandkids.
Sticky: That’s the thing there. You have this album, this documentation to share forever.
Stelth: Yeah, yeah. That’s crazy because I have music that my mom showed me and obviously she was not on any of the liner notes, but that impacted my life. We just toured with this band - Langhorne Slim. The drummer’s dad is the drummer from Violent Femmes. You can tell that there’s pressure and there’s also a natural. That’s what I hope for, when I’m old.
Sticky: "Ho Hey" has become one of those songs that are sung at campfires – like "Wonderwall", like Violent Femmes’ "Blister in the Sun".
SU: And someday it will be covered by Paul Anka. We can hope.