It took them a while to enter the spotlight, but The Lumineers, in Leeds next month, are here to stay. Duncan Seaman reports.
Seemingly arriving from nowhere, The Lumineers have been one of America’s biggest musical success stories of recent years. Yet behind the fanfare and three million sales that greeted their self-titled debut album, and its catchy calling card Ho Hey, lay years of toil.
For drummer Jeremiah Fraites, who founded the band with singer and guitarist Wesley Schultz, back in 2002, the decade they spent making ends meet while trying to sustain their musical career was instructive.
“It was not even comparative obscurity, but actual obscurity,” he says of their long years in the wilderness. “I think it was really healthy for us. I’m 30 now and Wes is 33. I think it was really helpful in that if we were 24 or even younger when we started writing music together I think that would have been really bad.
“If you start to write and make music and then all of a sudden you’re successful you might get the idea in your head that it’s easy or that ‘I deserve this’ or something.
“Ironically I thought we were going to ‘blow up’ or become famous a long time ago with our old material that was very different. Then at some point I just reminded myself who cares about that? It’s fleeting and superficial. To just write music that makes you feel really good and that you feel good about is a very honourable thing to do.”
When The Lumineers – augmented by the arrival of cellist and vocalist Neyla Pekarek – released their first album in 2012, initially via a US indie label, their expectations were for a distinctly modest 5,000 sales.
“I’ve heard a lot of people tell us, ‘Hey, you guys are very humble or down to earth’, I don’t really understand how else we would be,” says Fraites. “We are just ourselves.
“I think any success we’re seeing is comparatively later in life, as opposed to the Justin Biebers of the world, or the people that hit fame really too early. I read somewhere this idea that the day you become famous for real you’re kind of frozen in that mindset for the rest of your life, so if you’re famous at 12 or 14 it’s very possible that you might be a 14-year-old for the rest of your life. Even though you’re ageing you’re still mentally in this weird time vortex. I think the obscurity was really helpful for us, honestly.”
Unusually perhaps for a band who had been going for ten years, they weren’t that accustomed to life the road. “We didn’t really tour that much,” says Fraites. “There are some bands that do that for a decade and they’re in the van every night travelling across country. I think for me and Wes it started out as a project of just trying to write songs together and write music and try to push the boundaries of our own minds and limits and barriers we had with music.
If you can have humble expectations and try to find internal ways to feel good about what you’re doing that’s always the best.
“It was very trying to make time for music. You’re kind of controlled by making money so there’s that aspect that plagues everybody, you have to make a compromise, ‘Well, do I do what I want to do or do I do what I have to do?’
“At one point six or seven years ago, that was a pretty intense time. Me and Wes lived together and we worked together at this Japanese restaurant in Denver, Colorado, and we also worked on music together every spare waking moment we had. It was a struggle and it was difficult, but you couldn’t have planned it because a lot of the best songs we wrote together I’d be on the couch playing on a guitar and Wes would be making a coffee and he’d be ‘Hey, what’s that?’ and I’d say ‘It’s something I came up with’. We were around each other so much there wasn’t this thing of ‘We should get together on Sunday and I’ll show you some new songs’. We lived on top of each other so much that it wasn’t even forced; it was just happening so much.
“Now that we’re both married and don’t live together we have to go out of our way to send each other emails or memo ideas on the phone.”
Their second album Cleopatra arrived in April, four years after their first. Fraites explains much of that period had been spent touring the world when Ho Hey and their debut long-player became an international hit. He says the only time he’d been aware of any pressure over the follow-up came when friends talked about the dreaded “sophomore slump” that has afflicted many bands.
Thankfully once writing sessions for Cleopatra began in earnest any qualms fell away. “The first song that we finished in the demo phase was Ophelia, which just happened to be a single off the record. I felt that once that song was done I stopped living my days in fear. I was like, ‘Just write music that you love, that gets you high and that you feel good about’.
“I felt a song like Ophelia was really cool to me as an artist because there’s no guitar. I guess we’re kind of known as Americana, acoustic or whatever; it’s just piano and drums primarily and Wes’s vocals. It felt like we were flipping the script a little bit. We’re not changing our sound completely but we’re not copying and pasting from the first record.”
The affirmation for The Lumineers came in the album’s first week of release. In the UK Cleopatra knocked Adele off the top of the album charts. “I think that was only the opening week but I’ll take it,” jokes Fraites. “That was pretty crazy. Around the week of release that’s almost the part that I don’t like because on one hand as the artist you’re like ‘The fans are going to get to hear this’ but then there is all that talk from your external team, they really do care – and I understand – about those numbers. The artist in me was like ‘I’m just happy this is going to be released’, I can’t wait from my friends and my peers and fellow musicians to check this out’ and I felt like there was a lot of focus on ‘You guys are Number One, how does that feel?’ It’s not bad, obviously, but I think back, if we start to expect Number Ones or we expect Grammys that’s the danger in success.
“It’s funny. We fly a lot and I would say that nine times out of ten the most people that complain on airlines are the people in business and first class because they have such a high expectation of how they’re supposed to be treated and what they think they deserve. People in economy think ‘Hey, we get a bag of peanuts, we’re fine’. I feel like that parallel is pretty true in music too. If you can have humble expectations and try to find internal ways to feel good about what you’re doing that’s always the best.”
The Lumineers British tour earlier this year sold out. This autumn they return for a string of dates that includes Leeds. Fraites is looking forward to seeing more of the country. “We’ve been on tour since March or April and I think that for the first time we’ve actually had time to spread our wings and travel around and explore different parts of the country [we are in], that’s been really cool,” he says.
The Lumineers play at O2 Academy Leeds on October 24. For details visit thelumineers.com