How an alt-folk trio on a Nashville indie label (with a staff of six) sold half a million albums, scored two Grammy nods and became the breakout act of 2012
"Live, 'Ho Hey' seemed to work well in getting people's attention," Schultz says of playing the song prior to the album's release. "I didn't know if it would work on record. I didn't want it to be a gimmick song, because it can be scary if it's the only thing people know you by. We've been happy to see that people know the whole record."
Schultz and Fraites grew up together in New Jersey and attempted to make a go of it in New York. Working multiple jobs limited the amount of time they could spend writing and playing music, so they made their way to Denver where the cost of living was cheaper and the music scene encouraging.
They spent every Tuesday performing at the Meadowlark Bar's open mic night, forming a friendship with Stelth Ulvang, who introduced them around town and now plays piano in their touring band.
The two wrote extensively-Schultz is the lyricist and the two work together on the music-and as they developed their sound, they sought another element-the cello, specifically-and placed an ad online.
"I was cruising Craigslist to find things to keep me busy," says Neyla Pekarek, who answered the ad while looking for a way to put her freshly earned degree in vocal music and music education to work. She hadn't played the cello since high school, but joined the band and would, over time, also play electric bass and piano. "I have received a tremendous musical education the last few years."
Fourteen months after becoming a trio-with Schultz on guitar and Fraites handling drums and mandolin-the two of them flew to New York for a residency at the Living Room. Pekarek showed up, too, but with the intention of telling them she was out, as the financial burden had become too heavy.
At that point, they had recorded 50 originals, but had yet to release anything. Greene, intrigued after seeing a video of the band, was among the 70 or so people at the Living Room.
The band members handed her the recordings, which she said they could do better in a proper studio, eventually signing on as their manager and taking them to Bear Creek, northwest of Seattle where Onto Management is based.
The band found the process-10 days of recording and four days of mixing-easy, as it knew precisely how it wanted to present the music. Greene and Meinert started shopping the album while the band was touring.
It meant a few more trips to the Hotel Cafe and other like-minded acoustic-oriented clubs around the country. Offers to open for such acts as Brandi Carlile and Old Crow Medicine Show came in and soon the group's entire 2012 was filled with shows. In June, the Bing commercial coincided with the rise of the single and "Ho Hey" kicked into a higher gear.
"I view it as exposure, and we have to be comfortable [with the ad]," Schultz says. "There are so many things we've turned down." If one thing unites the inclusion of "Ho Hey" with its ad placements, it's been complementary storytelling between the visuals and the music. The spots for Bing, "Silver Linings Playbook" and E.On Energy (a U.K. synch) share celebratory messages about enjoying the little things in life; the Dick's Sporting Goods commercial is every bit as uplifting.
On the day they spoke with Billboard, Schultz was vacationing in Paris, Pekarek was running errands in Denver, and Fraites was waiting for his piano to be delivered from storage to his Denver home. He said its arrival means he can start working on new songs.
The band, which is now a five-piece on the road, will take January off after wrapping eight opening dates for Dave Matthews Band on Dec. 22 and two sold-out hometown shows at the 2,200-capacity Ogden Theatre in Denver on Dec. 30 and 31. Fraites figures things will start to die down, even though Robinson, returning to a baseball analogy, thinks the Lumineers' game is only in the third inning.
Fraites, well aware the act had nearly four years to write its first album, sees a challenge ahead, with pockets of time to work on new material. "I assume this is unnatural with all the directions we've been pulled in," he says.
He provides a small anecdote about going for jog a day or two after Thanksgiving. He could see two people about five blocks away and he could tell they were moving, but couldn't determine if they were coming toward him or moving away. He saw it as a metaphor for the fame he and the band were experiencing: Is it coming to greet them or staying just a bit ahead? It's not a question he has an answer to yet.
For his part, Schultz says he has had neither the time nor inclination to look back on what the last year means. It's easy enough to leave that job to Robinson.
"I always say that we have on this project the opposite of what the industry is used to," Robinson says. "The reality is bigger than perception. Usually perception is bigger than reality. It's really happening on all fronts on all levels. People are just realizing this is a huge record, this is a huge band."
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