Old-time sounds made new again: Mumford & Sons

Mumford & Sons call to mind the British folk acts of the 1970s, such as John Martyn, Nick Drake and Pentangle.

"Do I eschew the modern world?" ponders Ted Dwayne, the double bassist in the hot folk music troupe Mumford & Sons. "Well, I am wearing a waistcoat right now, I admit, but I also own an iPhone. Does that count?" It probably does. The group's members - Marcus Mumford, 22, (vocals, guitar, drums), Winston Marshall, 21, (vocals, banjo, dobro), Ben Lovett, 22, (vocals, keyboards, organ) and Dwayne, 25, (vocals, double bass) - are unafraid to sport shabby tweed jackets, onstage and off. "They're warm but hard to wash," Dwayne says.
They play acoustic instruments including the mandolin and banjo, and they occasionally sport moustaches. Many of their songs lean on the 1970s work of British folk musicians such as John Martyn, Nick Drake and Pentangle. They are also fans of bluegrass, country and jazz. The "trad" music and clothes seem at odds with their youth. Dwayne admits he finds much modern music a bore. "Electronic music or a DJ playing CDs doesn't excite me," he says. "Acoustic instruments are really raw and have a much bigger energy. That is something I can understand."
The band's debut album, Sigh No More, was released in the UK in October (the title was inspired by Shakespeare's Much Ado About Nothing). On the standout melodies Winter Winds, Little Lion Man and Sigh No More, the band's beefy arrangements are the perfect match for Mumford's gruff vocals. The group has injected real excitement into a tweedy musical genre. Reviews have been positive: the NME described Mumford & Sons as "a band who know they're onto something not just good, but spectacular", and Q Magazine said the album "swings from arresting fragility to hearty dynamics". The Guardian called them "Coldplay reincarnated as hillbillies".
But occasionally Mumford's songs of heartbreak and loss seem rather heavy to be sung by someone who is 22 years old. Perhaps that is why the band has sometimes polarised opinion. One reviewer snootily said Mumford & Sons name sounded like a "defunct timber supply yard", while another suggested the album was not a patch on the frenzied live performances that the band thrilled UK festival audiences with last year.
With characteristic even-handedness, Dwayne has taken these comments on board. "We have been criticised for not capturing our live energy," he says. "That is a problem. We call ourselves a live band and we are a live band. That's why a lot of the songs start slow and build into a big finish. Our songs are four to the floor so it's easy to get involved. When we play live people are really up for it."
Sigh No More was made in four weeks and produced by Markus Dravs, who also twiddled knobs on Neon Bible, the breakthrough album for the apocalyptic folk heroes Arcade Fire, another key influence for Mumford & Sons. Dravs imposed musical structure and discipline on the self-confessed chaotic band. "He really took the helm," says Dwayne. He also emphasised the band's backing vocals. Dwayne agrees that the ability to perform backup vocals live can be a surprisingly reliable way to predict whether a band has what it takes to reach the top. Tellingly, in Mumford & Sons, everyone sings.
"I was never a singer before," Dwayne says, "but singing backing vocals has given me the greatest joy in the world. Singing harmonies with your friends is a powerful thing." Unusually for a hot rock band, the group's members paid for the album sessions themselves - almost. "It cost between £10,000 and £20,000," Dwayne says vaguely, before admitting, "actually, our manager paid for it." (He was reimbursed when the band signed to Island Records.) It turned out to be a crucial decision. With no major record company on board, there was no A&R man in the studio advising the band which songs they should or should not record, which is usually the case with new bands.
"What you hear is exactly the music we wanted to make without reference to anybody else," Dwayne says. Mumford & Sons will tour the US next month, and Sigh No More will be released in the US on March 2. Although they have performed at the South by Southwest and CMJ musical festivals in Austin and New York, respectively, Dwayne says the band members are nervous about taking their banjo-driven songs to America, home of all the music they love.
"We are looking forward to going but we are a bit worried," he says. "Winston, who plays banjo for us, is concerned that there will be better banjo players than him in the audience everywhere we play. The last time we played there, he hid at the back of the stage." Their record company hopes that Mumford & Sons rootsy rock could strike a chord in the US, where "authentic" acts such as Dave Matthews are wildly successful. (Time Out New York has already given the band the thumbs-up, saying: "The Brit combo has a spine-tingling way with harmony.") Yet for Dwayne, the fact the band is playing America at all means they have already surpassed his wildest ambitions.
"I never thought we'd have an album in the shops," he says. "It's a dream come true to be able to survive off the music we want to make with no compromise." But would he stick to his guns if their fans tired of their folky ways? "It's important to embrace what is going on, but not jump on any old bandwagon," Dwayne says. "That is our mantra. Everything we do is haphazard. There's no planning. We've said yes to every gig we've been offered. But it feels natural. We are comfortable with where we are."