The stakes are higher now we are 10 years on, say Mumford & Sons
Nearly 10 years after they shot to fame with their Mercury-nominated album Sigh No More, Mumford & Sons remain a fixture on the global touring circuit. Ahead of their Irish dates next weekend, the four-piece speak to Alex Green
RIDING high after finishing their fourth album and halfway through recording their fifth, Mumford & Sons are at a crossroads.
Looking back, the folk rockers recognise a time they were restricted by the music that made them famous. Looking forward, they see a 60-date world tour and a new-found creative freedom.
"We are in a particularly fertile, creative time," the band's banjoist and lead guitarist Winston Marshall says while sitting at a worn wooden table, tucked away upstairs at a bar in south London.
A few hundred people sit, eat and drink below in Flat Iron Square, a space that has become a cultural hub for the four-piece.
Over the course of an hour, members of the band traipse in and out of the room. Marshall is contemplative and whimsical, while singer and multi-instrumentalist Ben Lovett sits behind sunglasses as he shares the story of how he came to own Omeara, the venue he opened in one of the seven railway arches dominating Flat Iron Square.
Then comes Marcus Mumford, namesake and de facto leader of the group, and, after him, bassist Ted Dwane. Both seem clear-minded, presumably focused by the completion of their fourth studio album, Delta.
Recorded with super producer and "mad genius" Paul Epworth (Adele, Rihanna, Florence And The Machine) in London's Church Studios, the album sees the group settle into their new identity as post-Americana troubadours.
After two albums of banjo-forward rabble-rousing songs and one of unobjectionable indie rock, the group's latest effort sees them embrace a wider range of sounds.
Their most recent effort was influenced by the idea of "self-serving" modern love, the power of nature and, most poignantly, the spectre of death.
"I've felt much closer to death over the last couple of years," Mumford says as he puffs intermittently on an e-cigarette. "Partly personally, my family, but also with some trips with the charity War Child, who I am an ambassador for."
After returning from a trip to Mosul, a city in northern Iraq liberated from IS in 2016, Mumford looked out the window of his west London home to see Grenfell Tower burning.
"Like most of the community who live in that part of the city, I went down and stayed involved. That's really, properly changed my life," he says. "I've been listening lots and I'm starting to do a bit more. It's been very affecting."
Since then, Mumford has remained involved, helping the survivors of the fire that claimed 72 lives. He raised money through charity football matches and continues to work with Grenfell United, a group supporting survivors and grieving families.
Delta was also influenced by the birth of Mumford's second child with his wife, actress Carey Mulligan, a marriage that has attracted the lion's share of media attention around the band.
"The stakes get higher. I think it probably expands your capacity for empathy," he says of his child's birth last year. "Especially seeing other people's children in really hard situations."
Asked about the effect of the band's gruelling tour schedule on his family life, Mumford remains pragmatic.
"It's no more difficult than any other job," he insists. "I don't think we have any complaints in that sense. It looks different because we are away for longer chunks than if we had nine-to-five jobs in London," he adds.
"But I think being away from family is something you have to do when you work."
The album also sees the group collaborating more freely. Instead of the usual set-up – one frontman, guitarist, bass player and drummer – Mumford & Sons rotate their roles.
The group are less of a band and "more of a collaboration between four songwriters than it is like a normal band dynamic", Lovett explains. This may be one of the reasons they are so happy to poke fun at their choice of name, which portrays the group as one-man band. In the past they've called it "rubbish".
"The name is for sure a misnomer but it feels like it's us now," Lovett clarifies. "We kind of just got used to it."
Three years ago, Mumford & Sons released Wilder Mind, where they eschewed the folk sound to which they owe their success. Instead, they recorded an album of what many critics considered mild-mannered indie rock.
The reception was lukewarm and sometimes scathing, and Wilder Mind sold only 500,000 copies – one million less than their charts-slaying debut Sigh No More.
But on Delta the band have dusted off the banjos, the source of their success and also ridicule by parts of the press. Now, they are using the instrument in subtler ways. Delta is a complex, multi-layered affair that could only have been made in the wake of Wilder Mind.
But the group have no regrets, denying that their third record even divided their fan base.
Mumford suggests it was only the press who had been surprised by their change of direction.
"The more we played it, the more people have understood it. I think you are always a couple of years ahead of your audience," he maintains.
"I don't think people should have been so surprised and I don't think our audience were."
Dwane adds: "To our audience perhaps it felt slightly excluding of them, somehow. That wasn't intentional. We just wanted to make the record we wanted to make and we succeeded."
As the conversation draws to a close and the group part ways to continue their pre-tour preparations, Lovett has the final say.
"We just make the music we want to make. We'll keep on doing that. We did that with Babel, we did that with Wilder Mind, and that's what we are doing now."
:: Mumford & Sons play the 3Arena, Dublin, on Friday November 16 and the SSE Arena, Belfast on Sunday November 18 (ticketmaster.ie)