Billboard Cover: Mumford & Sons on Their Banjo-Free New Album, Personal Obsessions and Why Kanye West Is the 'Only Rock Star Left'

Mumford & Sons photographed on March 31, 2015 in West Hollywood.
Austin Hargrave

Mumford & Sons photographed on March 31, 2015 in West Hollywood.

A hangover-nursing English band seeking an oasis of quiet, clubby Britannia amid Los Angeles' hustle and sprawl could do worse than the Penthouse Bar at the West Hollywood Soho House on a Tuesday afternoon. Which might be why Mumford & Sons have encamped there during a visit that seems to make them all a little wary. "Whenever you hang out in a city, it starts seeping into you a bit," frontman Marcus Mumford, 28, says with a mischievous laugh. "That's why I don't like hanging out in L.A. for too long."


On one side of the bookshelf-lined space, Mumford's management team huddles around a long table, plotting the rollout of the band's banjo-free third album, Wilder Mind, which will arrive May 4. Mumford basks catlike in a sunbeam, with his left leg, which he injured during a recent soccer game, canted out in front of him. Guitarist Winston Marshall, 26, is draped over a matching armchair with his back to a panoramic view of the city. They're dressed almost identically, in tailored sport coats, blue oxford shirts open at the collars and tight black jeans. Rock-star skinny and sporting near-shoulder-length locks, Marshall looks like he could have wandered off the set of The Last Waltz; Mumford, with his boyishly cropped hair, sockless boat shoes and a sturdier frame, is more Trading Places-era Dan Aykroyd.

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The band is playing two secret rehearsal gigs at the nearby Roxy, a tiny venue by Mumford standards, but home to historic shows by heroes of theirs like Bruce Springsteen. They're honing a set list of new songs, from groovy, atmospheric tunes like the title track to the revved, Strokes-y attack of the second single, "The Wolf." (The lead single, "Believe," has racked up more than 5 million YouTube views.) After two years of work on the album, these gigs are the first taste of the group's new sound, which is less frenetic, more expansive and totally devoid of the deeply patinated O Brother, Where Art Thou? vibe it has long mined. (The band played two more special shows in New York on April 6 and 7.)

It's hard to think of a modern band so defined by one thing -- a tub-thumping acoustic attack -- that has switched gears as radically as Mumford & Sons. Every new track features drums played by Mumford (who started as a drummer as a teen) or Wilder Mind producer James Ford, best-known for his work with Arctic Monkeys. Marshall unreels epic, chiming electric-guitar leads while keyboard player Ben Lovett, 28, explores deep-space textures and bassist Ted Dwane, 30, locks in as part of an actual rhythm section. It's not folk or folk-rock or anything-rock: It's pure, ambitious, U2-scale rock'n'roll. "We'd been itching for a long time to do something different, and we picked the right time to do that," says Mumford. "Well, maybe it was a bit late. Because we'd been a band almost as long as The Beatles, and this is only our third record, you know?"

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In September 2013, frayed at the edges from five straight years of touring and performing, Mumford & Sons shut things down for the foreseeable future. "People forget that if you're going to write songs about living, you've got to live," says Lovett. "You get to travel and meet people [on tour], but you can't really write songs about that."

The hiatus didn't last long, though. The band got together in Dwane's London studio after just a few months. "We missed each other," says Dwane sheepishly. "We started getting creative, and when we have that, we instinctively turn toward each other." The break allowed the time and freedom to make Wilder Mind's sonic shift. "It created a space for our creativity," says Mumford. If they're afraid that the move might alienate their massive fan base, they're hiding that anxiety well. (Mumford & Sons have sold a combined 5.9 million copies of their first two albums, 2009's Sigh No More and 2012's Babel, in the United States, according to Nielsen Music.) They're making music that's closer to how they see themselves now: as a cool, self-assured young rock band that storms onstage more like Led Zeppelin than The Weavers.

"It's much better to do the thing you love and give it everything you've got," says Flaming Lips frontman Wayne Coyne, whose band is playing several of Mumford & Sons' Stopover festivals this summer. "I see them doing that with their music and their shows. That, to me, is punk rock."

"They're rockers," says Daniel Glass, president of their label, Glassnote. "Yes, they had banjos; yes, they had kick drums; but when they come into town, it's a rock'n'roll experience. It's late nights. They live to tour and to play."

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Mumford and Lovett attended the private Kings College School in Wimbledon, where they played in a jazz crew with the awesomely terrible name of Detente. During a short stint at university, Mumford met Marshall, son of a hedge-fund executive, who came through town with his band, and within a year the three regrouped in London, met Dwane and began to play the music that propelled them to unlikely fame. A spiritual thread runs through the Mumford-penned lyrics of their debut, a result of his religious childhood. His parents, John and Eleanor, launched the U.K. branch of an evangelical church called the Vineyard, which Bob Dylan famously joined for a time in the 1970s. Mumford stopped attending his parents' church as a teenager and no longer describes himself as a Christian, although he still acknowledges a deep spiritual faith.

Providentially, perhaps, the band's breakthrough moment in the United States came with the 2011 Grammy Awards, as it blasted through "The Cave" before backing Dylan -- another folkie-turned-rocker -- on "Maggie's Farm." The experience echoes through the Mumford & Sons story, with Mumford writing music for the Coen Brothers' folk-scene flick Inside Llewyn Davis and contributing to 2014's Lost on the River: The New Basement Tapes, an LP of songs written to unused Dylan lyrics. "It was pretty weird," says Lovett of the Grammy rehearsal with Dylan. "He was incredibly unassuming. He wants to slot in and do his thing. It wasn't until the night of that he warmed up and started cracking gags."

With Sigh No More's inescapable hits "Little Lion Man" and "The Cave," the band ushered in a new era of earnest, harmony-drenched, heartstring-yanking radio hits, including songs from their buddies Edward Sharpe & The Magnetic Zeros ("Home") as well as American Idol soundalike Phillip Phillips (also "Home") and even Avicii ("Wake Me Up!"). "We didn't want to claim responsibility for the sound, because there were bands like Fleet Foxes doing it before us," says Mumford. "And some of it was great, and some of it was f-- ing awful. But naturally, we started our journey away from that stuff."

It took a little while -- the band's second LP, Babel, is a more refined take on Appalachia-toned stomp. That disc helped the group rise even higher, headlining festivals from Bonnaroo to Glastonbury, winning album of the year at the 2013 Grammys, selling out arenas around the world, playing for President Obama at the White House and launching its own Gentlemen of the Road traveling festival.

With Wilder Mind, the group has finally arrived in an entirely new place -- and apparently, not as the result of anything even as formal as a band meeting. "There's never an overt discussion of sonics, or direction, or inspirations," says Dwane. When the act began hashing out the record, the material its members individually brought in already seemed to be in the new mode. "We were all in the same ballpark," says Lovett. "The drums came out immediately."

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Written during trips between New York and London, Wilder Mind carries the spirit of both cities. Mumford says of the New York sessions, which began at a Brooklyn studio owned by the band's buddy Aaron Dressner of The National, "We're not like The Velvet Underground, but it infused an attitude. You can get away with more swagger in New York than you can in London."

Wilder Mind is also the first album where all four members contributed songs of their own and they all collaborated on the lyrics for a song. The music comes from varied emotional and geographical places. "The stories are raw and active," says Lovett, "rather than being nostalgic or retrospective."

In 2012, Mumford married actress Carey Mulligan (his father conducted the ceremony). During recording, he mostly lived in the United Kingdom. His take on matrimony? "I feel a bit more like a grown-up, but a lot of the time I don't really feel like a grown-up," he says. "That's marriage to me." Lovett got engaged and bought a house in Brooklyn's upscale Cobble Hill; he runs the indie label Communion (home to bands including Bear's Den and Tennis). Marshall and Dwane, meanwhile, had major relationships collapse. "2014 was a pretty bad year for me," says Marshall. "Quite a lot of loss." He pauses. "Playing stuff like 'The Wolf' is so f-- ing cathartic." (He seems to be adjusting to single life, with reports that he was getting close with Katy Perry following a Berlin warm-up gig.)

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How does it feel to be putting out a major rock record at a time when even U2 felt the need to partner with Apple for its last album release? It doesn't seem to worry the band. As Marshall and Mumford point out, there are tons of vital rock acts out there, from Foo Fighters to Jack White and The Black Keys, not to mention veterans like AC/DC. As Marshall puts it, "There will always be a f--ing huge rock band." But after a moment, he suddenly seems less sure.

Marshall: There's a lot of rock out there. But it's no longer ... I don't think it's what our generation will be remembered for. I think it'll be Kanye West and Rihanna.
Mumford: (Shakes his head.) It just makes me a bit sad.
Marshall: Why, though? They're so sick.
Mumford: Rihanna? I think Kanye is sick. He's the only rock star left.
Marshall: We went to one of his shows in London. He played Koko, which is a small venue, like 1,500 people. It was f--ing mindblowing.
Mumford: It was f--ing amazing. There were a bunch of cool London grime MCs doing stuff. But then he gets up and just blows them all away. Says one word and the whole room just...that's rock'n'roll, to me.
Marshall: He's everything he claims to be. Maybe not God, but ... (Laughs.) He really is incredible.

For Mumford & Sons, this is a weird, amped time -- knowing the record's in the can, but not how it will be received by fans expecting another "I Will Wait." (Because smartphones aren't allowed at the secret shows, fans have yet to hear any of the album's tunes beyond "Believe.") Playing shows like tonight's at the Roxy is intense. "They're f--ing weird shows," says Marshall, "because no one has heard anything."

"It's like a first date," adds Mumford. "Like a Tinder date!"

When it's time to sound-check, the band goes against Los Angeles tradition and walks the couple of blocks to the venue. On the way, Lovett talks about a bar he recently opened with a couple of friends in Brooklyn. "One of the dangers of touring is you get used to not paying for booze," he says. "So this will help keep that dream going."

They all have interests and obsessions beyond the band. "The more success there is, the more I feel I need to work to earn it," says Lovett, who goes into the Communion office every day when the group's schedule allows it. Dwane is a serious photographer. Mumford has done outside -production work. Marshall, in addition to a stint co-writing songs in Nashville ("I don't know if I love country music enough to do that again"), has taken improv classes with the Upright Citizens Brigade in New York and has an idea for a comedic Web series he would like to put together.

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The band slides into the theater through a side entrance, leaving the fans lined up out front unaware. Inside, there's a used-guitar store's worth of vintage gear the group has accrued, and which provided part of the impetus for its electric move. "We'd all gotten some nice old guitars that we were really keen to play," says Dwane, who straps on a lovely Fender Jazz Bass and detonates a few oceanic notes. Marshall, playing a Les Paul, locks in with tour drummer Chris Maas on a series of riffs, including Rage Against the Machine's "Killing in the Name," which sounds authentically heavy. Lovett plays some icy synth lines, Mumford peels off a few blues-y chords, and after a couple of false starts they're synced up and leaning into the candy-crunch blast of "Ditmas," a Kinks-y album highlight that takes its name from the Brooklyn neighborhood that houses Dessner's studio.

Earlier, back at Soho House, Mumford had been talking about that song's title. "Naming songs is such a ball ache," he was saying. "So we'd just name them after whatever came into the engineer's mind." Mumford really wanted to call a song "Ray Fines" after the actor Ralph Fiennes. "Spelled wrong, because our engineer can't spell," he says. "The lads vetoed that. Being in a band is all about compromise." (The song became "Hot Gates.")

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Which raises a question: Just how democratic an enterprise is Mumford & Sons, anyway? There's a great Thom Yorke quote about Radiohead: "We operate like the U.N.," he said, "and I'm America." Mumford scoffs at the suggestion his band might be similar. "I wish that was the case," he says. "They walk all over me!" Marshall responds with a roll of his eyes and a noncommittal "Sure."

"That sounded like a 'no comment!' " yells Mumford as they both crack up. "You're such a dick!"

That night, Mumford & Sons take the stage to rip through 11 of Wilder Mind's 12 tracks for the second time in L.A. By all accounts the first night was a little off, with a lot of crowd chatter during quieter moments. But tonight, everything clicks. By the time they hit the strobe-lit blast of "The Wolf" the room is vibrating on a special frequency that only happens when really big bands play really small rooms. It feels like a homecoming. Or as Mumford put it earlier that day: "We adopted acoustic instruments. These are the instruments we grew up with."