“We’ve never done an Afrobeat thing before,” says Mumford & Sons frontman Marcus Mumford with a slight laugh, seemingly aware of having just stated the very obvious. Rather, the British folk revivalists built their name — and, with more than six million copies sold in the U.S. of their three full-length studio albums, an incredibly successful career — by penning swelling, arena-sized anthems rooted in an austere, old-timey sensibility. But the band’s new mini-album, Johannesburg (out June 17 on Island), on which they’re joined by legendary Senegalese singer Baaba Maal, globetrotting experimental dance act The Very Best and South African pop trio Beatenberg, finds them sounding relaxed, loose and, in spots, even funky. “It has almost like an old-school, ’60s or ’70s kind of feel, where you don’t worry too much about capturing the perfect performance,” Mumford says of the mini-album’s five collaborative tracks. “Just get a vibe, you know?”
Johannesburg has plenty of vibe. The collective of artists recorded the album in a marathon session — “something crazy, like 35 or 40 hours nonstop” — shoehorned into the middle of Mumford & Sons’ maiden South African tour in January and February of this year. The recording studio, Mumford recalls, “was an old building in Johannesburg that was constructed as a bomb shelter-type thing — if there’s a nuclear holocaust, you go there, you know? You had to pass through security just to leave for a coffee or a smoke. So we figured, ‘We’ll just work…’ ”
The result was four songs arranged and recorded in two days (a fifth, “There Will Be Time,” was cut earlier in London; it has already topped the singles chart in South Africa). One track, “Wona,” was built around a lilting, staccato guitar figure that Mumford was inspired to write “immediately when we landed in Cape Town. I picked up a guitar and that was literally the first thing I played.” A day or two after recording the song, all four artists performed “Wona” onstage in front of roughly 25,000 fans at Pretoria’s Voortrekker Monument Amphitheatre. “It was seat-of-the-pants stuff,” Mumford says of the schedule. “But that’s what’s exciting about being a musician.”
The South African tour was something Mumford says his band had been hoping to embark upon for a while. “But you really have to plan it, because it’s not like you ever pass through South Africa on your way to doing other things.” The band initially booked three massive outdoor shows in Cape Town, bringing along Maal, The Very Best and Beatenberg as support. Tickets sold out almost immediately, and so they added three more. Somewhere in between, they recorded Johannesburg. “I think the fact that so many people wanted to come out and see us made us feel more ambitious,” Mumford says. “Like, ‘Okay, we have this audience; let’s do something special for them. Let’s tour, let’s record, let’s cram it all in.’ ”
Despite it being a jam-packed ten days, there was still time for some recreation: “One afternoon, we hiked all the way up Table Mountain [in Cape Town],” Mumford says, then quickly corrects himself. “Well, halfway up. It was the middle of the day and fucking hot.” The singer also spent some time “hanging out with friends of mine in a seriously poor neighborhood in Manenburg, where they work with people coming off drugs and that sort of thing. That kind of blew my mind, because I think it’s really easy to go to South Africa and forget about its really conflicted past, and how much that affects the present as well. But we tried to immerse ourselves in the whole experience.”
And, possibly, take some of that experience back to England. Mumford reports that his band is currently in the writing stages for its next album, the follow-up to 2015’s chart-topping Wilder Mind, and as a result of the South Africa trip “probably feel freer now in our musical decisions than we did before.” When they enter the studio again, the singer can perhaps also look to his time working with Maal, whom he characterizes as “one of the most extraordinary vocalists” he’s ever encountered, for inspiration: “He’d sleep 12 hours in a studio session, wake up, do the best vocal take you’d ever heard in your life and go back to bed.”
Which is not how Mumford works?
“Not quite,” he says with a laugh. “Me, I spend six hours fretting, and then a few hours fucking it up. Then, maybe, I get something right at the end.”