The day before the Stopover, Mumford and Dwane are sitting on a couch backstage. A ping-pong table echoes nearby and one of the town’s two mayors has just left after some handshaking and small talk.

“I’m going to speak for myself slightly, but we went into record the second album in the same studio with the same producer as the first album and I think we expected it to be a similar process,” begins Dwane. “To think that two records would ever be made the same way was very naïve.”

A few of the differences: The band cut Babel over an eight-month period in between tours versus one month. With Babel, the band tracked some of the performances live in the studio. (Something Lovett says “we struggled with at times.” ) With Sigh No More, the group wrote one song while they were in the studio and went in with 11 complete ones; with Babel, they developed 16 or 17 songs in various states of completeness, and much of the writing was finished while in the studio. (Twelve made it on to the album.)

“We kept writing better songs during the process, so new songs would leap over all the songs we were going to record for the record,” Mumford says. "Writing-wise, we were more collaborative on this record and I think that comes through in songs like “Hopeless Wanderer,” which took a bit longer to write but benefited from various people’s input."

While it may seem obvious that there are two parts to any Mumford & Sons song – the lyrics and the music – it’s a popular misperception that Mumford writes all the lyrics. Marshall, for instance, was responsible for the early tune “Winter Winds.” While none of the members care to overly elucidate who’s contributed what songs to their catalog, what is clear is that lyrical process changed with Babel.
“We’ve all contributed some lyrics to the second album, which didn’t happen with the first record,” Lovett confirms the next day as he burns CDs for a DJ gig he has later that night after the band’s set. The band had writing sessions where they were each tasked with coming up with ten songs during the course of a day and would present their material to one another over dinner (and presumably drinks).

It was from this type of exercise that Dwane’s “Reminder” came into the fold along with Mumford’s “Where Are You Now,” which ultimately didn’t make the record. Sometimes the constructive criticism found choruses becoming verses.

“There was more of an open-table discussion about lyrics on this record than there was on the first record,” allows Mumford. “Presenting lyrics was less of a dead set thing. It was more like the lyrics were put on a trial a bit more which is good – I think.”

Trial or not, there’s a surprising consistency in lyrical tone not only throughout Sigh No More and Babel, but also between each 12 song album. If it’s not a love song in some form (the majority of tunes), then it’s likely dealing with man’s temporal existence on earth (about two on each). With Sigh No More, the latter two both had their genesis in John Steinbeck’s East of Eden ( “Timschel,” “Dustbowl Dance” ).

With Babel, it seems that the obvious outliers ( “Babel,” “Beneath My Feet,” ) take root in the band’s experience throughout these last few years and their determination to remain humble. Rarely has a band been so direct about not letting fame get the best of them as they are in “Beneath My Feet” : Keep the earth below my feet/ For all my sweat, my blood runs weak/ Let me learn from where I have been/ Keep my eyes to serve, my hands to learn.

The reason behind naming the album Babel appears to be twofold. The Biblical story of Babel is that of God thwarting man’s attempt to reach heaven by his own means. Working together – in part because they all spoke the same language – mankind began building an epic city with a tower that they planned to make high enough to reach heaven. While initially proud of mankind’s teamwork, once God got wind of their plans, he scattered everyone, caused them to speak different languages and ravaged the city. The moral of the tale, as applied to Mumford & Sons, is essentially this: Check your hubris lest you be smited. If a potentially multi-platinum album title isn’t a big enough reminder to keep your ego in check, then I don’t know what is.

The second reason the band agreed on the title Babel was through a “boldness” and “confidence” in the band according to Mumford. “It was like, ‘Yeah, people will say stuff about it but fuck it. That’s what we feel the album should be called,” he says in reference to the religiosity people might infer about the members or their beliefs. “We made the album in a time when a lot of shit – either personally, in the world around us and things around us – some of it was falling apart.”

In a similar way, Lovett says that the band had to actively try to not “retreat” on Babel in being overly conscious of “the vultures that are press and media.”

“We’re not there expecting to be judged, we’re writing music to communicate,” he says. “Music is expression but when you take into account the fact that now a lot more people are going to dissect it, you can end up trying to enshroud it with another layer of protection – of making it ambiguous or whatever….I hope the record’s as accessible [as the first] and hasn’t been muddied by those waters.”

Between the aforementioned numbers and the love songs (some of which are expectedly torturous), Babel’s overall sentiment feels fairly buoyant and, yes, accessible, despite some less than cheerful lyrics and melodies. But, as of last December, that wasn’t necessarily the case.

“We sat down and listened to what we had and it felt pretty dark, dense and heavy,” reveals Mumford. “We made an intentional decision as a band to try and balance that out with songs like ‘Reminder’ and ‘I Will Wait.’” He says the aborted songs were more akin to “Broken Crown,” a feverish meditation on allegiance that hears him singing in a shouted growl. “[The rest of the band] said to me, ‘We’re lacking a little bit of the directness that we had on the first record – it’s all becoming a little obscure,’” continues Mumford. “We sat down and had those discussions, which are hard discussions to have because everything is so fucking personal.”

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.
It’s nearing midnight and the electronic African group The Very Best are closing out the Bristol Stopover with one more song on the second stage. When they break into “Will You Be There,” Marshall begins jumping up and down with excitement and drags his girlfriend out to dance onstage. “Let’s go. No one’s left behind,” Mumford chides, as he coaxes the rest of the backstage contingent to join them in dancing for the final number onstage.

All day, the members of Mumford & Sons have been attentively watching the bands they handpicked to play their festival. Their biggest concern is making sure that the bands and fans have a positive experience. They realize that their popularity has allowed them to become tastemakers and the more they can share their success with other bands, the better.

“They’re the kindest guys around,” says Goldsmith after his set. “Their fans are exactly the kind of fans we want to play to. There’s no better place for us to be right now.”

The night before the Stopover, the singer/songwriter Aaron Embry tells me that he’s impressed with all of the planning that went into executing the festival and tour. “They also take care of the logistics here,” he says placing his hand over his heart.

On my flight back to New York the next morning, I end up sitting next to the band Delta Spirit, who are returning from a festival in Nebraska. When I mention where I was coming from, the lead singer, Matt Vasquez, says, “Those guys have helped out some of my friends’ bands more than their [own] record labels have.”

Mike Luba, a producer for band’s Stopovers who also works with The String Cheese Incident, hopes that other popular bands will take notice not only of the Stopovers and artist camaraderie, but also of Mumford & Sons’ fan-friendly tactics in general. “This is a game changing shift to show what can be done if you’re willing to put your money where your mouth is,” he says. “There are no limits as to what this can and will be, as long as they keep making music and playing shows.”

Part of Luba’s point is illustrated by the fact that, at 1 a.m., Lovett has just wrapped up DJing to a small crowd of fans at a club downtown while, just down the street, Mumford and Dwane are sitting-in with an ad hoc group of local musicians and their touring horn section for a funk jam. While Lovett’s DJing sensibilities leave something to be desired and Mumford’s funk drumming could use a little more punch, it’s the idea that they’re making these efforts at all that resonate the most. I’m hard-pressed to think of another band this size that routinely engages with fans this way.

In speaking to all four twenty-somethings, each remains extremely enthusiastic about a life spent mostly on the road – the chance to make memories in places like Bristol and Dixon – despite the stress it may put on their romantic relationships or bodies. “We’re hungrier to tour now than we ever have been,” says the recently married Mumford. “I’ve also never been more aware of the importance of balance, of having time off.”

It’s just that – a sense of balance – that I come away with after observing the band for the weekend. They don’t take themselves particularly seriously nor are they overly precious about the music they’ve created. They readily acknowledge that many of the musicians they surround themselves with are, technically speaking, more gifted than they are. Their extracurricular activities are voraciously reading (Marshall), motorcycle riding (Mumford), photography (Dwane), concert promoting (Lovett) and playing any sport that comes their way (all).

Their idea of good time Friday night wasn’t remotely close to the cliché of hookers and blow – it was playing Marco Polo in a pool with Haim, Apache Relay, their managers and friends. Sure, there was plenty of drinking, smoking and some irresponsible firework lighting, but that was the extent of bad-boy behavior.

“We genuinely have a shitload of fun but it’s stable people trying to seek out stable people – the crew and everyone around us,” says Lovett.

It wasn’t that long ago that the band’s benchmark of success was simply being able to tour. “[Getting your] travel paid for and having a bed for the night – that was all that mattered for me,” Dwane says. “We could have gone on like that forever, I think. We had such a good time. It’s easy to feel nostalgic of that time – it was much simpler.”

Like the rest of the group, Lovett is pragmatic in his assessment of their future in understanding how hard longevity can be to achieve. “It will be interesting to see how we handle the plateau or the fall,” he says of the band’s popularity shortly before Mumford & Sons’ headlining set. “I think we’re grounded enough to weather that storm – but it has to happen.”