Mumford & Sons Go Electric: The Blunt Brits on Their Polarizing New Sound

How do you top an Album of the Year Grammy? If you’re the UK band Mumford & Sons, the answer is to buy electric guitars and hope to not transform into Kings of Leon.

05.13.15 9:15 AM ET

Marcus Mumford, the charmingly stout front man of the band Mumford & Sons, is buzzing like a coked-up hamster on a wheel. His wild gesticulations and Twista-paced delivery have caused beads of sweat to formulate along the fault lines of his forehead. This, ladies and gentlemen, is Marcus Mumford on drugs. 

“I’ve had quite a lot of coffee, and quite a lot of codeine,” says a giddy Mumford, his foot trapped in an imposing cast resting on a coffee table. “I tore my MCL last week. I took drugs just at the beginning of the interview, and now I’m feeling really weird.”

It’s April and we’re sitting in a palatial two-story East Village apartment that the UK act Airbnb’s whenever they’re in town and need to spread their legs. The fellas are here to perform a pair of intimate shows at the miniature rock club Le Poisson Rouge to road test songs and drum up buzz for their third studio album, Wilder Mind.

Now, Wilder Mind is a departure of sorts for the folkies—it’s a plugged-in album replete with a temperate mix of arena-ready anthems and discreet, intimate ballads better suited for a smaller space like, well, LPR.

“A little bit!” Mumford says when asked if getting labeled as a “folk band” got frustrating. “Touring for six, seven years playing those instruments, we were kind of trapped and stuck with those instruments and wanted to play other instruments. Our musical tastes are much broader than our first or second album might say. But you have to start somewhere, and that’s fine.”

Mumford & Sons is, by this point, a household name. Hell, they’re probably the biggest band on the planet in their prime. The lads’ sophomore album, Babel, became the fastest-selling album of the year stateside in 2012, selling 600,000 copies its first week (and a total of 3 million), and was awarded the Grammy for Album of the Year. How the heck do you top that? By flipping the script, apparently.

“Between Sigh No More and Babel, we’ve pretty much said what we needed to say in that [folk] format, and to have narrow parameters like that stifles your creativity. We wanted to explore, and push the boundaries of this band creatively,” says bassist Ted Dwane.

The album’s producer James Ford, who’d previously worked with bands like Arctic Monkeys and The National, played a substantial role in skewing the group’s sound electric, and the guys acknowledge that “his working with The National bled into things.”

But they’re also quick to acknowledge that their teen years in bands were “pretty punk and rock-y,” and the only reason they began playing folk instruments to begin with was to go against the grain.

“It just felt unique,” says keyboardist Ben Lovett. “Growing up in bands, playing rock music, and listening to Deftones and Blink, it just felt like a reaction to that. We felt like we were taking a left turn while everyone was turning right, and it felt quite fun and quirky.”

Lovett was in a punk band called ADHD, while other members were in rock acts named Revolver, Sex Face, and Gobbler’s Knob—guitarist/banjoist Winston Marshall’s group.

Mumford, however, wasn’t all that punk-y. “I was in a jazz band called Détente,” says Mumford, causing Marshall to erupt in a wild fit of laughter. “That’s all you need to know, man. We used to play 40th birthdays, bar mitzvahs, weddings. We made loads of money, and I funded my year out of high school playing in that band. We played a lot of standards—Coltrane, Miles Davis.”

The band took a short break after touring Babel, and then regrouped in New York. They brought 30 songs to Ford, who said five of them were album-worthy. Wilder Mind came together rather quickly. Songwriting commenced in February 2014 and lasted six months, then they began recording in mid-September for about two months, splitting the sessions between London and New York.

New York’s influence on Wilder Mind is palpable, especially in the Big Apple ballads “Ditmas” and “Tompkins Square Park.” They say it’s their attempt at addressing “the issues of big city living,” including “looking at the differences between London and New York, and expressing the heavier stuff that is sometimes hard for men to tell each other because we’re really fucking embarrassed.”

OK, but a delicate, romantic ode to Tompkins Square Park, a place best known these days for late-night muggings and dirt weed? When I ask if they’d even been to Tompkins Square Park before naming the song that, Mumford raises his hands in the air and chuckles: “No, and since we named the song that, we’ve discovered why. It’s like, ‘Oh fuck!’”

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During their post-Babel hiatus—and before writing began on Wilder Mind—the guys took a trip to the Chicago Music Exchange. They were like kids in a candy store inside this sprawling mecca of musical instruments.

“It was seriously fun,” says Mumford. “We went to a guitar store in about June 2013 and each bought a serious vintage guitar for the first time. I bought a 1967 Blonde Fender Telecaster with a Gibson humbucker in the neck. A bit Keith Richards-y.”

“I sat in the guitar store for three hours and wrote the guitar part for ‘Monster’ in the store,” he continues, channeling his inner Wayne Campbell. “I just fell in love with this guitar but they had to pretty much shoo me out of the store.”

What Mumford & Sons is not interested in is altering their sound to become more “stadium-friendly,” like so many bands before them (cough, Kings of Leon).

“I find it really hard to talk about Kings of Leon, because I fucking love their first three albums. Then, when they released a song that didn’t make any sense called ‘Sex on Fire,’ I was like, ‘What the fuck is this?’” Mumford says. “We just like playing. We don’t think about the size of the crowd. Half the songs on the album are quiet, and not stadium-friendly.”

They’re also severely turned off by (and make fart noises at the mention of) Jay Z’s artist-owned streaming music service Tidal (“When they say it’s ‘artist-owned,’ it’s owned by those rich, wealthy artists,” says Mumford), but acknowledge that the music industry right now is experiencing “a total fuckin’ free-for-all moment” that “lacks accountability, but will sort itself out.”

As for the new sound, while the gang doesn’t expect “Dylan goes electric”-levels of backlash, they have braced for impact. “We expect it, but we’re not worried about it,” says Marshall. “We’ll lose people and gain new people. But we fucking love this record. We’re really proud of it.”

“I’m excited about how it will accelerate the story of our band a little bit,” adds Mumford. “I’m proud of the first two records, but I want to move on. I think as artists, if we can call ourselves that, you’re always a bit ahead of your audience. We’re already thinking about the fourth album and what we can do with it. We have quite an urge to express ourselves and we still feel quite prolific. We want to do the fourth album quickly on the back of the third one to develop the story of our band. I hope that 8 albums in, people will say, OK, the journey makes sense.