Mumford & Sons

PM's Question Time

Published in PM February 2009
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People + Opinion : Artists / Engineers / Producers / Programmers
This month, PM corners Marcus Mumford — lead singer and multi-instrumentalist with rocking London folk/country/bluegrass four-piece, Mumford & Sons — to chat about group dynamics, taking the summer festivals by storm and why he doesn't dig the word 'scene.'
Matt Frost
In 2008, a bunch of folk-loving musical mates, who'd been kicking around various small club nights across the capital for a good year or so, suddenly found themselves soaking up a smattering of the mainstream media spotlight. 17-year-old singer-songwriter Laura Marling was nominated for the Mercury Music Prize for her widely lauded debut LP 'Alas, I Cannot Swim', while Noah And The Whale — with whom Laura was originally a full-time member — managed to crack the Top 10 with their summer folk-pop anthem, '5 Years Time.' Towards the end of that breakthrough year, Mumford & Sons — who in various guises have performed as Laura's backing band — became the next group of these gigging friends to start creeping to the top of the pile. After the release of two 2008 EPs, which were received with a flurry of critical acclaim, not to mention a series of barnstorming live shows throughout the summer, Mumford & Sons were recently shortlisted by music critics in the BBC's 'tips for the year' Sound Of 2009 poll. This could turn out to be quite a year for them.
Performing Musician: Tell us about the name Mumford & Sons and how it relates to the group's dynamics?
Marcus Mumford: "I think we wanted it to sound like a family business, because that's what we think it is. We picked my name and it stuck, but that's not really the dynamic of the band. We're all on an equal footing, running it together and just having a laugh while we do it. We all put in as much as we can and we are very much a band, rather than a singer-songwriter who has a band. We all write, we all come up with ideas for songs and we all work as hard as each other."
PM: How does the relationship between music and image work for the band?
MM: "We definitely don't think that image is something to compete with your sound. I think people would be lying if they said they didn't care what they looked like, but we don't take it that seriously. Winston [banjo, Dobro and vocals] always wears his Reebok Classics and usually some sort of Manchester United paraphernalia! We definitely haven't sat down and had a meeting about an image, but then we are also not involved in that sort of music. It's not really pop in that sense, it's more folky, so we're not the kind of band that's going to sell on our image. I hope we're going to draw people in with our music!"
PM: What was your first gig like as a band?
MM: "Well, there were three or four first gigs, because one of us wouldn't be there because we'd be playing with someone else or something. Ben [keyboards and vocals] joined us slightly later because he was in a different band, but when he joined us full-time we started to become Mumford & Sons. Before that, we had a bunch of gigs in London, which were usually just folk nights that our friends were running and playing at. Winston used to be in a band called Captain Kick and the Cowboy Ramblers, which was a bluegrass sleaze rap band, who were, let's say, iconic in their status! They used to host the nights in this tiny little place called the Bosun's Locker in Chelsea, and at that time Noah And The Whale were playing there and Laura Marling was playing there and all of our friends were playing there. We were all just chilling out and it was a really fun time, but they were always really rammed. You could only fit about 80 people and usually there were about 120 people there. Those were our first experiences with sh*t sound and a lot of people talking over you!"
PM: What has been the best Mumford & Sons gig?
MM: "Some of the festivals we were lucky enough to play [last year] were amazing, like when we played on the Park Stage at Glastonbury. The stage was huge! And then from nowhere on the Sunday at 12 o'clock, when everyone's at their least best, there were like 1000 people there and it was just, 'Woah, where the f*ck did you all come from?' That was really weird, but it was an amazing vibe and it was a really good gig! Then we played the Green Man Festival and I had a bet with our tour manager that there wouldn't be 100 people there. We were playing in this tent and somehow we filled it. That was probably the most special gig so far. There were like 2500 people, and playing in front of that number of people is a huge responsibility, because they're all looking at you and you can't really f*ck up or make a sh*t gag."
PM: What has been the worst gig?
MM: "If we're having a sh*t gig, Winston will try and make it fun. We were playing at this Cambridge ball at one of the colleges and there was no one listening. Everyone there was in black tie, really snooty, and the sound was just terrible. I'd never realised how sound can affect your gig so much. In the end, we only played three songs and left, but in the third one Winston, who was really lashed, jumped into the crowd. I say crowd, but there wasn't really a crowd... he jumped off the stage and started wandering around with this banjo, grinding people to try and make it fun. That was very funny, but it was a pretty bad gig!"
PM: What do you want an audience to think and feel during and after catching one of your gigs?
MM: "Obviously, you want people to like you. That's a standard thing, I think, making people feel a bit better about life and maybe feel a bit better about our music. We did a lot of touring in the summer and we played a lot of gigs to a lot of people, and you do have good gigs and bad gigs, but a lot of the time we try to play to the point where we're happy with each other. When the guys in the band are happy with the performance, then you can't really go wrong, because a lot of the time it is 'you against us' with an audience. It shouldn't be, but often it is because you're the other side of the stage, so it's kind of like you need your brothers to be the ones you're really playing to!"
PM: How far would you say Mumford & Sons have been helped by being part of a kind of new 'folk scene' in London?
MM: "It kind of psyches me out when people say 'scene'. I guess that's what it is, but that word for me has connotations like it's the 'cool kids club'. The exclusivity associated with that word makes me cringe a bit. That's not what it's like at all. What I think is really fun about the bands that you'd say were in the 'scene' is that none of them are exclusive! We like switching around and meeting new bands, the line-ups are always changing, and it's neither exclusive to a group of people nor to a city.
"These guys we met in Brighton, Sons Of Noel And Adrian, are just ridiculously good, and there's a really good band from Sheffield called Slow Club, who are amazing! There are just so many bands and singer-songwriters around. We had a Christmas party gig this week at Cargo called Fee Fie Foe Fum, which was a repetition of an American tour we did with Johnny Flynn and Laura called the same thing. We had Derek Meins, King Charles, Peggy Sue, Jay Jay Pistolet, Cherboug, Johnny Flynn, and Laura and us, and that's what I love — playing music with people that I love, whose music I love. I wouldn't enjoy it half as much if the people weren't people I'd choose to hang out with anyway. And that's the charm of folk music, especially because it is people-y music in that you're telling stories through songs, and hearing your mates tell stories is always just a laugh!"
PM: What advice would you have for a band who are just starting to play gigs?
MM: "You shouldn't feel too precious about either where you're playing or who you're playing to. You've just got to carpet bomb at first for a little while, and I think we still are in a way. Say yes to every gig and just play! Don't be snooty about where you play or who you play to, because there's always someone who's a potential candidate to be converted to your type of music. Even if you're playing to a crowd of 50 people and 49 of them are chatting away to their mates and are more obsessed with getting drunk than listening to the music, there'll still be one person there who will like your music and even become a fan!"
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Published in PM February 2009