Mumford & Sons have become one of the most successful rock acts of the 2010s, with the British folk quartet bringing the music of their four albums across the globe and often to the top of the charts. And it all started 10 years ago, with Sigh No More. Released in the group’s native U.K. on Oct. 2, 2009, Sigh No More introduced Mumford & Sons — frontman Marcus Mumford, banjo/guitarist Winston Marshall, guitarist Ted Dwane and drummer Ben Lovett — as rock stars with a distinct folk flair, bursting onto the scene with the banjo-laden single “Little Lion Man” and aggressively touring to slowly grow a massive audience.
To commemorate the special anniversary, the band recently released a five-song live EP, titled Sigh No More Sessions, featuring a performance of “Little Lion Man” at Australia’s Triple J radio station. Are the recordings particularly special performances from the last decade? Apparently not.
“We tried to pick the ones that were least out of tune,” Mumford jokes to Billboard. He adds with a laugh, “That was a challenge.”
Billboard caught up with Mumford to hear what Sigh No More means to the group a decade after its release and reflect on the band’s early days. Below, Mumford shares memories of Sigh No More‘s U.K. release day (the U.S. release date was February 16, 2010), some of the album’s most timeless tracks, and how he feels Mumford & Sons have grown in the 10 years since.
On the first time they played “Little Lion Man” live:
“We were supporting Johnny Flynn at the ICA in London; we rehearsed [the song] all day and played it for the first time live that night. That was a big gig for us because we were all huge Flynn fans, and in our world, at that time, he was a huge celebrity. It was a high-pressure gig, and we had to get it done for that show. So everyone wrote their parts all in one day in the rehearsal. It was also the first gig that I was going to be standing up playing kick drum and tambourine. It’s vivid memory, that one.
“It went down well. Initially, four polite boys from London saying the word ‘fuck’ what, 18 times or something, in the chorus in the first song that sounded anything like a single was surprising. We’ve only ever played it once or twice with an edit, and then we just gave up on it. I feel like that song set people up to expect a foul-mouthed show, which suited us just fine.”
On how follow-up single “The Cave” came to be and its success post-“Little Lion Man”:
“We were in a place called Bannerman’s in Edinburgh, which is actually a venue I used to go to as a student at university — and the very venue where Winston and I reconnected an old friendship. We were back at Bannerman’s, and I showed Ben the idea, and he instantly was enamored by it.
“It was a straighter rhythm. ‘Little Lion Man’ had more of that aggressive two-step rhythm to it. We obviously added horns to that tune, which has always been a major part of the chorus of that song. We’ve been touring with the same four guys that recorded those horn parts ever since.
“We didn’t expect [‘The Cave’] to be a hit — I mean, it had suicidal imagery in the chorus [laughs], but it ended up having a life of its own as well. It still is a staple song for us, and an important song for us. And [like ‘Little Lion Man’], comes out of an emotionally real place that we can stand behind every night we play it on stage.”
On the Sigh No More album title:
“We decided on the [album] title after we did that song. That song had become the introduction to our live set, we played it first every night on those first two tours. It felt like it was an introduction to what we were as a band: Four songwriters, four singers, four instrumentalists. It felt like the right way to start the record.
“I was really excited to record that song, because we hadn’t had a demo of that song, we’d only ever played it live before we went in to record with [producer] Markus Dravs. The way it came out, I was really proud of. That felt like a natural thing to call the first record.”
On producer Markus Dravs’ impact:
“He’s been such an important person in my life, certainly, but [also] for the rest of the band. He’s been a huge influence on the way we make music. He’s the first professional we dealt with [laughs].
“We often do what we call a ‘Campfire Test,’ which is where we strip the songs back to just guitar and vocal again, and see if it still stands up. It was an idea that Markus had — so on the first record, we demoed all the songs with just vocal and guitar or piano, and if they stood up like that, then we knew we felt confident in recording them, and then we could talk about production on them.
“Despite whatever sounds you hear and whatever tricks you can pull out of a hat with production, it still needs to be, at the heart of it, something meaningful — something you can emotionally identify with that isn’t cliché. I think it’s healthy to be able to strip things back to one instrument, one voice, one story, and then see where you can go from there. We just did it for all the songs on [2018 album] Delta.”
On why “Timshel” is still part of their live set:
“It’s a song that means a lot to us, and has stood up over time in any situation, really. We can play it at the BRIT Awards, which we did, or we can play it around one mic at festivals in front of 80,000 people. We were intentional about not recording any instruments other than a guitar or a banjo — we wanted it to be voices and guitar. In a world that’s so busy and noisy, it felt appropriate to have at least one of our records be really intimate.”
On his memories from the Sigh No More U.K. release date:
“We were in Bristol — on tour, of course — at a venue that was on an old barge called The Thekla. A couple hundred people there. I remember opening a box of CDs, and I looked around thinking, ‘This is amazing, we’ve made an album and it’s out,’ and then it was back to work. We didn’t take too long to celebrate — we never have, really. When any successes have come our way, we’ve just sort of accepted it as much as we could and said, ‘That’s great, that’s wonderful, but now what’s next? Where do we go from here?’ We definitely sort of acknowledged it, and then we’re like, ‘That’s great, let’s go play a gig.'”
On how he feels Sigh No More introduced Mumford & Sons:
“I think we presented ourselves honestly, at least, at the time. When you start off in a band, you’re playing for fun with your mates. And then suddenly people are asking questions about them, and you have to talk about it. And then suddenly people are taking photographs, and that’s not at all what you set out to do. And that’s not that you set out to do — you set out to play.
“Looking back and seeing what we actually wore at some photo shoots, the whole thing was a bit of a joke to us to start with. None of us thought this would go very far, we were just having a laugh. A lot of it was quite goofy — like in interviews and stuff we were always quite goofy. I’m glad for that as well, there was an innocence and truthfulness to it.”
On how they’ve evolved since Sigh No More:
“In the early days, I think we felt very competitive. Songwriting was so deeply personal, and you felt like you had to get yourself heard in the studio with the lads. Now, it’s sort of like, ‘Yes, I want to be heard, but I also really want to know what Ben has to say, what Win has to say, what Ted has to say.’ Some days I trust their instincts more than my own. There’s that trust that just grows and grows and grows, and we’ve gotten better at trusting each other.”