You'd think he'd have figured it out by now, but for the life of him Marcus Mumford still couldn't tell you where the songs come from or how you nudge the process along. Never mind the fact this minister's son has been the genial frontman of Mumford and Sons for more than a decade now, a songwriter among three others who still considers that part of the gig very much a caper. An unsolved mystery that has helped the band top charts, headline festivals and sell boatloads of records - but a mystery all the same.
"Man, I've never actually figured out how to write a song," swears the singer who, as we all know, can easily whip crowds into a hand-clapping, foot-stomping moment of synchronized ecstasy as he and the other guys tear through their folk-rock repertoire.
"I can't tell you how it happens, because a lot of the time it's an accident," he confesses to Billboard ahead of the Nov. 16 release of the band's new album, Delta. "A lot of the time, I just have no memory of it." It's not that he sits around wondering why the gods of inspiration can be so capricious. This is all really just another way of saying when you've functioned as a creative unit for as long as Mumford and Sons, bringing new music into the world is the product of an incomprehensible brew of talent and good fortune. And as Marcus' musician friend Noel Gallagher reminded him before the band actually started work on Delta in earnest, it's also about just doing the job, dammit, whether you feel like it or not.
"I actually saw Noel Gallagher at a pub, and we were talking," Marcus recalled. "He's such a nice man - I mean, he's a prick as well, but he's a nice man. And he said to me, 'what are you doing at the moment?' I said, 'ah, man, I'm taking a little bit of a break from writing. I've just found it a bit hard.' And he was like, 'Man, what the FUCK are you doing with your life if you're not writing songs? You're a fucking songwriter. Get on with it!' So I went out and wrote 'Delta' and 'Guiding Light' that week, as a result of that conversation."
Marcus, and for that matter the rest of his bandmates, may not be able to tell you what it is that lights the spark, but they can tell you the band is smack in the middle of its most fertile creative period to date. That's why Marcus decided the new record should be called Delta, after that fertile ground where things grow best. The title is also a nod to the much more literal fact that this album is the band's fourth, delta being the fourth letter of the Greek alphabet.
The new release is the follow-up to their 2016 EP Johannesburg and 2015's Wilder Mind, which debuted at No. 1 in the U.S., U.K., Australia, Canada, Ireland, the Netherlands and Norway. In celebration of Delta's arrival, the band -- which also includes Ben Lovett, Ted Dwane and Winston Marshall -- is hitting the road for a 63-date worldwide arena tour that includes a new in-the-round stage design. The tour, Mumford and Sons' largest ever, kicks off on Delta's release day in Dublin and runs through next spring, including several North American stops in cities like Boston, Washington DC and two nights at Madison Square Garden.
By this point, you could argue Mumford and Sons is approaching middle age as far as the lives of bands go, which might explain why they're comfortable shaking things up a little. That involves the new stage design you'll see on the tour and even the way they recorded Delta, which they did all together, not with band members spread out in separate studio spaces. Ted, the bassist, said the band is even starting to fancy itself more of a recording unit now than being the live act they're known for. And he raves about producer Paul Epworth's London studio. "It's beautiful. It's all in one room. There's no sort of divide between the live space and the control room. Everyone's involved and included in every minute of recording that's going on. You hear everything."
Indeed, Epworth pushed the band to try and step out of their comfort zone a bit on the new record, sonically speaking. Says Marcus, "Just making an album that sounded like any of the ones we'd done before wouldn't be that exciting to us, but we also wanted to embrace some of the things we've enjoyed in the past. Acoustic instruments, me playing drums, singing loud choruses and having really quiet, intimate moments. Some songs we do around one microphone, one take, straight to tape and put it on the record. And then some songs we approach like a fucking Skrillex song. Chopping up beats, starting on the computer, sampling the banjo, layering it up, tweaking it with effects. Process-wise, it's a very varied record. I think that could have led to a very disparate sound, but I'm proud of the fact that it feels like it fits together."
The band enjoyed the process with Epworth so much they've actually already started on their next album with him and are set to head back into the studio in a few months. From the sound of things, they would have actually had to try hard not to enjoy the process. Most evenings during the recording of Delta, the band had family and friends come through. "I think when you have other people come in, it makes you listen to the music you're making with a different ear," Marcus says. "On Delta, I performed in front of the speakers full -- like, fully turned on. Ten people sat around on the sofas, by the side. So at times it was like we were performing live in front of our very own small private audience, and that helped with the record."
You may well ask how they manage to still have fun and make art without letting late-stage Beatlesque acrimony and recriminations fracture the edifice. Each new record, it seems, brings the band closer together. They met, explains Ted, way back when, as a group of separate individuals standing behind the weight mostly of Marcus' initial batch of songs that formed the bulk of Sigh No More. With Babel, it got a little more collaborative. The band's mantra became, per its bass player, to just "serve the songs."
As Ted explains it, one of the members might bring in a well-formed idea -- or maybe just the idea for a chorus, or some unfinished snippet. What is this, the band then starts asking itself? What makes this good? What can we do individually and collectively to fortify it and expand it and make it great? "That's the process," Ted says. "We'd backed other bands early on, so I think we always understood the value of serving something besides yourself. Of making something bigger than the sum of its parts."
That bigger thing is the continuing story of Mumford and Sons, told in what will now be the fourth song cycle to emerge from the collective. In Delta, they all contribute songs and stories of their own, with the end product being a collection that touches on everything from birth to friendship, companionship, love and loss.
"We've had the opportunity to be at home a little bit more over the last three years, and when you summarize four peoples' experiences over a three-year period, you're gonna end up with a lot of stories. Some extremes, for sure," Marcus says. "Which, when you then summarize in lyrics, might sound melodramatic, but we're also biographical, so we have to - the only subject matter we have are the things we experience ourselves." Which, when you get down to it, is really the Mumford and Sons formula. They don't sing about abstractions or made-up characters, never have. No ornamentation for the lyrical Polaroids of their lives. Just straightforward tunes about the things they've seen, done and felt.
True to that, Delta finds the band doing what it's always done - four guys navigating the spaces between each other, aiming high, singing loud and telling stories about beautiful, mundane lives. "It's been like a marriage man," Marcus says, about the band. "We've made sure to maintain our relationship, I think, by all feeling equal creative investment in the band and not feeling like it's heavily weighted one way or the other to anyone. We've known bands where the keyboard player is the main songwriter and he's kind of territorial about it, which can lead to some fractious relationships in a creative collaboration. I think we've just over time learned to trust each other better."