Mumford & Sons: In These Bodies, We Will Live. In These Bodies, We Will Die.
Marshall references Walt Disney in how the band found Babel’s emotional balance. Longtime animation fans, the band contributed an original song this past summer to the Disney/Pixar film Brave (“Learn Me Right” featuring the U.K. singer Birdy). One of the film’s executives told him that a guiding principle for the fabled animator was that for every laugh you have, if you don’t’ have a tear, then it isn’t worth anything. And vice-versa. “I think we got to a point where we needed a balance of other emotions to give the record a greater dynamism,” posits the banjoist.
Vis-à-vis song selection, there were also discussions about the album’s sonics. “In the studio, Ted was the healthy litmus test for things that were slightly experimental,” says Mumford. “Ben and I would say, ‘Do you think this is going a bit too far?’ And he would usually say, ‘Yeah.’”
Speaking to New Musical Express in October 2010, Lovett declared, “I would like—to an extent—to tear down everything we built with Sigh No More and start again with the second album.” In Bristol, he tells me that there were discussions about making a more lo-fi rootsy record, of not having banjo and of having Marshall sing lead on “For Those Below.” (The song will appear on the deluxe edition of Babel as a duet with Mumford.) In the end, Dravs and the band stayed fairly true to the Sigh No More’s sound, save for a few moments that feel cinematically sweeping.
“I could totally see a Mumford & Sons record without banjo, but we couldn’t image this record without banjo in the same way we couldn’t imagine the next record without Marcus’ vocals throughout,” Lovett says. “It’s a balancing act—we don’t want to confuse people. There’s a sonic familiarity with Mumford & Sons that we don’t want to fuck with too much.”
If you spend any time with the band, then you’ll realize that they’re actively restraining their musical explorations in deference to the music that’s catapulted them into the limelight. They’ve long talked about “serving the song” any number of times in the press but what that actually means becomes clearer in Bristol.
Some of Lovett’s greatest musical heroes are the jazz pianists Keith Jarrett, Herbie Hancock and Chick Corea whom he had the chance to meet at the Grammys last year in Los Angeles. He loves improvisation but within the live performances of Mumford & Sons, his playing is typically confined to the same melody lines over and over.
Marshall only recently learned banjo and, while he loves it—he even has a tattoo of one on his left shoulder with the word “tour” underneath it—if he didn’t feel compelled to serve the songs, then he’d be happy to ditch it in favor of an electric guitar. (I’m told he’s going through a very big punk phase at the moment, too.)
Dwane’s ongoing aspiration is to be good enough to play a four-night stand at the legendary London jazz club Ronnie Scott’s.
They all want to be better musicians—and the live setting sees them stretch out as a band with the addition of a fiddle and horn section—but the current crop of songs demand a leanness to the playing that negates any real exploration. Such self-restraint is harder than fans might imagine.
If Mumford, by his own admission, is the least technically proficient on his instrument, then he’s the most skilled lyricist of the group as its principle writer. Still, for the moment, it seems like he’s confined himself—and by extension the band’s other contributors—to lyrics largely cast in an everyman, spiritual tone about love, loss and redemption. While he’s constantly listening to music and reading literature to try and improve on his lyric writing, there’s no question that the current formula of addressing common feelings and emotions without specific details or descriptions is a key part of Mumford & Sons’ appeal in how it allows the listener to easily transpose their own experiences on to the music.
In Babel’s lyrics, there are 18 references each to some form of “love” and “heart,” in addition to a handful of other reoccurring themes and symbols that tread similar ground to Sigh No More. The struggle between the mind and body—the quasi metaphysical—is where Mumford feels most at home.
“I wish I was better at writing more specific songs,” he admits. “Dawes do it amazingly well. Springsteen, Dylan and Fleetwood Mac—those songwriters can be good with specific times and places, whereas I guess, as a band, we’ve gone a slightly different route to start with. This is only our second album and I’m hoping that might evolve.”
During the Stopover (and tour which they’re the opening), Dawes perform before Mumford & Sons. Mumford, as he does throughout the tour, joins the group for their song “When My Time Comes.” Afterward in Bristol, he sits cross-legged on the side watching Taylor Goldsmith wind his way through “A Little Bit of Everything,” a song whose transcendent lyrics belie the singer’s 27 years. After Goldsmith gets through one particularly poetic verse, I see Mumford shake his head in awe and utter the word “fuck” in expletive appreciation.
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Crystal Bowersox stops by Relix to perform a song from her new album, All That For This.
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