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Sun September 23, 2012
Music Interviews

Mumford & Sons: Finding Balance In 'Babel'

Originally published on Sun September 23, 2012 10:43 am

With a name like a hardware store, Mumford & Sons is a British folk-rock band with a huge stateside following. Babel is the new follow-up to the band's breakout debut, Sigh No More, but its fans haven't had to wait to hear the new material. That's because Mumford & Sons' members have tested new songs at tour stops as they are written. For them, it's part of the creative process.

"It gives you a lot of confidence in the studio if you've seen how people are going to react to the songs," singer Marcus Mumford tells NPR's Linda Wertheimer. "It's just been the way we've always done it. We did it with the first album when we [were] touring, and it would just sort of grow in front of an audience.

"It's not like we were treating the audience like guinea pigs or anything. It's just very integral to our process."

Mumford grew up a preacher's kid, and so it's natural to presume that the new album's title, Babel, takes on a certain biblical relevance. But the idea is far wider.

"There are matters of the heart and sort of spiritual considerations that most humans have — explorative, really," Mumford says. "We're inspired by such a range of things between the four of us — almost every genre of music has been embraced by one of us at some time, and just about anything can inspire a song."

Saving Intimate Moments

Four-part harmonies and stories are key to Babel, but so is space.

"We were quite intentional on this record with intimate moments and saving those," says Ted Dwayne, the band's upright bassist and vocalist. "Also, leaving a bit more space within songs — songs like 'Ghosts That We Knew' and 'Reminder' and, actually, 'Lover's Eyes,' which have instrumental breaks and all really intimate moments, and they're not shying away from being quiet as well as being loud."

That seems to be another key element to Babel: balance.

"In about December, last year, we got to a point with the record where we had enough songs to release an album right there and then," Mumford says. "We felt like it wasn't quite balanced enough.

"There was darkness to it — a bit too much weight to it, like it was a bit too serious. And a little obscure in places lyrically. [The question came up], 'Can we maybe think about being a bit more direct with the lyrics?' I was like, 'Well, yeah, but it means writing new songs. And then 'Holland Road' came about the same week in December and had this chord sequence I just fell in love with, and then I wrote some lyrics to it."

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:

Mumford and Sons sounds like a hardware store, but, of course, is the British band with a huge stateside following. They're out with a follow-up to their breakout album, "Sigh No More." We'd play the big track from that album - it's called "Little Lion Man" - but we can't because of language. So, we'll go for some of the new stuff.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I WILL WAIT")

MUMFORD AND SONS: (Singing) Well, I came home, like a stone and I fell heavy into your arms...

WERTHEIMER: The band's fans have not had to wait to hear the new material. That's because Mumford and Sons makes a practice of playing the new songs at their tour stops as they write them, road testing songs like this one:

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I WILL WAIT")

SONS: (Singing) But I will wait, I will wait for you. And I will wait, I will wait for you...

WERTHEIMER: Two members of the quartet - Marcus Mumford and Ted Dwane - join us from Colorado Public Radio in Denver. Welcome to our program.

MARCUS MUMFORD: Oh, well, hi, thanks.

TED DWANE: Hi, Linda.

WERTHEIMER: I must say that I searched for words to try to describe your music, and I found that in things that have been written about you - folk, rootsy, Irish, bluegrass - can you tell me what you call it?

MUMFORD: Well, there are so many things that we can't call ourselves. We definitely can't call ourselves bluegrass because we're not American. We're not Irish, despite a lot of people's preconceptions. We already feel like we were born out of the tradition of folk so much, so really we just kind of call ourselves a rock band really.

DWANE: Just a band, and we're only just that as well. We've never been called a quartet before, though. I really like that.

WERTHEIMER: Tell me about road-testing songs. Does that do something to your creative process? I mean, I was wondering if you, you know, like, you get down to recording them and you take out all the boring bits and...

MUMFORD: Yeah. That kind of is the creative process. I think it gives you a lot of confidence when you get in the studio if you've seen how people are going to react to the songs. It's just been the way we always did it. We did it with the first album when we're touring. And they would just sort of grow in front of an audience. It's not like we were sort of treating the audience like guinea pigs or anything. It's just like very integral to our process.

WERTHEIMER: Let's listen to the title track from the new album. This is "Babel."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BABEL")

SONS: (Singing) I know that time has numbered my days, and I'll go along with everything you say. But I ride home laughing, look at me now, that the walls of my town, they come crumbling down. And my ears hear the calls of my unborn son, and I know their choices color all I've done...

WERTHEIMER: Now, tell us about that song and why you chose "Babel" as the album's title and the track's title.

DWANE: Originally, it just came from the lyric in the song. That song has been called "Babel" since it was first written on the tour bus in Belfast, Ireland.

WERTHEIMER: Obviously, it's a biblical reference. Do biblical references come easily to you, Marcus?

MUMFORD: I mean they're...

WERTHEIMER: I'm thinking you're a preacher's kid, right? PK as we say in the United States.

MUMFORD: A PK. Yeah, obviously, they're a part of my growing up. So, if you're writing autobiographical songs, it would unnatural not to reference things that you grew up with in some way. In that way, they do come easily. But you also know that you're going to get asked questions like that. So, obviously, so we talked about it as a band using "Babel" as the title of this, you'll bring up questions like that.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BABEL")

SONS: (Singing) Press my nose up to the glass around your heart. I should've known I was weaker from the start. You'll build your walls and I will play my bloody part, to tear, tear them down...

MUMFORD: They're matters of the heart and it's a spiritual sort of considerations, which I think most human beings have explorative really. So, we're inspired by such a range of things between the four of us. Almost every genre of music has been embraced by one of us at some time. And just about anything could inspire a song.

WERTHEIMER: We have a song from the album, which is called "Lover's Eyes."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LOVER'S EYES")

SONS: (Singing) Do not ask the price I pay, I must live with my quiet rage. Tame the ghosts in my head that run wild and wish my dead. Should you shake my ash to the wind, lord forget all of my sins or let me die where I lie, beneath the curse of my lover's eyes...

WERTHEIMER: That's probably as good a song as any to talk about the sort of distinctive quality of your music - the four-part harmony and all of that. I mean, it doesn't sound like anything else.

MUMFORD: That was a key song for the record. That was one of the songs that came together quickest and when we were recording sat there quite well. We did a lot of that song live. If there was one song that someone had to listen to, to sort of understand what Mumford and Sons is about from this album, probably that song will be the best one. Like you said, it's got those elements to it.

WERTHEIMER: Well, what do you see as the elements?

MUMFORD: The four voices, some sort of a story. We were quite intentional on this record with intimate moments and saving those. And also living a bit more space within songs, songs like "Ghosts that We Knew" and "Reminder" and actually "Lover's Eyes," which have, like, instrumental breaks in them or really intimate moments in them and not shying away from being quiet as well as from being loud.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LOVER'S EYES")

SONS: (Singing) I'll walk slow, I'll walk slow, take my hand, help me on my way...

MUMFORD: I think the more we play, the louder we've got as a band. And so we've had to sort of tame that a little bit. And we wanted to on the record to give a balanced record. Also, when you're playing live, you just need the respite of a quiet song.

(LAUGHTER)

MUMFORD: Otherwise, it's just exhausting, you know.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LOVER'S EYES")

WERTHEIMER: Who's the one with the really deep voice?

MUMFORD: That's Ted.

DWANE: That's probably me, yeah.

WERTHEIMER: On the "Hopeless Wanderer," so let's just listen to a tiny bit of that.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HOPELESS WANDERER")

SONS: (Singing) So, when your hope's on fire, but you know your desire, don't hold a glass over the flame. Don't let your heart grow cold. I will call you buy name. I will share your road...

WERTHEIMER: So, the really deep voice - that's you, Ted?

DWANE: Um-hum.

WERTHEIMER: I bet that's where all the country music references come, because those are the groups that do have somebody singing in a really astounding bass.

MUMFORD: I think just from the very beginning, we kind of just gave ourselves a lot of rather strange limitations, which kind of steered the sound in a certain way. Well, it was also quite coincidental in the way we came together as four dudes, because our voices, they're into very specific categories that we needed. And actually, it was kind of the bluegrass, four-part categories. So, I'd sing the lead and then Ben would kind of sing the, whatever, the fifth above it, and Winston would always sing the country third, and then Ted would go an octave below, one of them down in the bottom. So it's quite funny that it just kind of came together like that when we first opened our mouths to sing together in 2007 in a little rehearsal space under a railway track in London.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HOPELESS WANDERER")

SONS: (Singing) Hold me fast, 'cause I'm a hopeless wanderer...

WERTHEIMER: Did any of you know each other?

DWANE: Yeah, we did, yeah.

WERTHEIMER: So, you didn't advertise in the London Sunday Times or anything.

MUMFORD: No, we didn't, no. But Ted was, like, the most intimidatingly cool person I'd ever met in my life.

DWANE: And then as you got know me.

MUMFORD: And then I realized that actually that kind of cool is very attainable.

(LAUGHTER)

WERTHEIMER: I want to ask you just for one more song. What should it be?

DWANE: Hmm, "Holland Road?"

MUMFORD: Yeah. That was kind of a central song for the record.

WERTHEIMER: Why? Why do you say that?

MUMFORD: In about December last year, we got the point with the record where we had enough songs to release an album right there and then. We felt like it wasn't quite balanced enough. There was darkness to it, a bit too much weight to it, like it was a little too serious, and a little too obscure in places lyrically. The boy said to me, can we maybe think about trying to be a bit more direct with lyrics? And I was like, well, yeah, but, it means writing these songs. And then "Holland Road" came about that same week in December. Ben had this chord sequence that I just fell in love with and then wrote some lyrics to it.

WERTHEIMER: So, Marcus, do you write most of the lyrics or is that shared work?

MUMFORD: Yeah, the majority. But then it's always kind of put through the Mumford and Sons mill so we all get to - it goes through a second filtration process, you know. We have an open-door policy to lyrics and we all throw down really.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HOLLAND ROAD")

SONS: (Singing) So, I was lost, go count the cards before you go to the Holland Road...

WERTHEIMER: Marcus Mumford and Ted Dwayne of the band Mumford and Sons. They joined me from Colorado Public Radio. Their new album, "Babel," is out this week. Thank you both very much.

MUMFORD: Thanks, Linda.

DWANE: It was fun talking to you.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HOLLAND ROAD")

SONS: (Singing) Down, you cut me down, and I will...

WERTHEIMER: You can sample a couple of songs from Mumford and Son's new album "Babel" at nprmusic.org. This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. Rachel Martin returns next week. I'm Linda Wertheimer. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.

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