From stripping at house shows to rain at Red Rocks, The Lumineers take us through the ups and downs of their formative shows.
Much of the frenzy that began to mount around the 2010s for the Colorado folk-rock outfit The Lumineers came from the desire etched into each of their songs to be not just heard but responded to. Driven by rudimentary, human rhythms (the rushing beat of a heart, the clapping of hands) and ushered by memorable chants that linger for days, songs such as ‘Stubborn Love’ and ‘Ho Hey’ – their much-synced, international mega hit – established a bilateral relationship with the listener that formed the foundation of both their live appeal and songwriting thereafter.
When leading members Wesley Schultz and Jeremiah (‘Jerr’) Fraites came to begin writing the follow-up to their emotionally dense 2019 concept album III, then, surely the prolonged remove of lockdown felt especially acute, throwing their symmetry with their crowds out of whack?
“Well, I wish I could write a song knowing exactly how a crowd would respond,” lead vocalist Schultz admits over a Zoom call. “There’ve been songs that we’ve written where I think it’s going to be this kind of thing, but it’s not and falls flat or is completely different. I had this conversation a long time ago with Rick Rubin, we met him backstage once and talked for about an hour. He meditates and his whole passion is not caring for genres or how a song comes about, but only if a song moves him. He just wants to feel music that’s universal, and that is the North Star for us when we try to write. Can we play this to kindergarteners? Can we play to old age pensioners? Can we play this in a barber shop? To people who aren’t from our walk of life? I remember busking in the streets, and if you sang and you meant it, people received it differently”.
It’s been a long time since Schultz could be found busking and playing open mic nights in New York and Denver, and Rubin is far from the only music stalwart that the band have brushed shoulders with and learnt from. Whilst supporting U2 on their Joshua Tree tour in 2017, Schultz took a lesson from one of Bono’s quirks. “He told me ‘I listen through other people’s ears’. He’s famous for playing his music for other people, which is funny, but what I admire about that is there’s not a whole load of self-consciousness. There’s trying to figure out if it’s working, almost like a comic working out their material, and if the joke isn’t funny it’s just not funny. But in music, it’s often, ‘Oh they don’t understand my genius’ or something, you know? But that’s not always the case, it might just be that the song could be stronger and you’re not willing to address that. So constantly we’re playing our music back to the trusted people in our lives, and you can just tell if they get goose bumps or start to cry, if all these emotions come out then you’re doing your job right. If they’re not, maybe it wasn’t what you thought it was.”
The record that resulted from Schultz and Fraites’ remote sessions is BRIGHTSIDE, The Lumineers’s fourth studio album, released back in January. It feels lighter than its predecessor in both tone and runtime, clocking in at 30 minutes, and with its capitalised song titles, has the kind of informal air that the frontman explains is a reflection of its process. “It’s based on voice memos, just last minute ideas. We went into the studio with these very sparsely planned out skeletons, still with a ton to do to flesh them out. We left so much to be decided in the studio, and it was the other stuff that made the record what it was. The lyrics weren’t completed, none of the instrumentation was figured out, none of the keys, BPMs, all the technical stuff that we’re normally almost OCD about. To leave that open and have the faith that it’s gonna be OK, it felt a lot more like improvisation when the past had always felt scripted. In that way you feel this more uninhibited side of us because that’s what it literally was. It wasn’t afraid to be wrong, I guess.”
As its title suggests, BRIGHTSIDE feels largely positive in tone but with a perceptible ambivalence, which is only natural given the context in which it was written. “I don’t think this album is positive, but I think it’s hopeful, and there’s a big difference”, Schultz confirms. A lot of positives coincided with its production, most notably the birth of his second child with his wife Brandy. But the simpler, freer approach to producing this album also took the band back to a time when there was less pressure on them, and with that comes a wave of nostalgia for their beginnings a decade earlier. “When you’re first starting out, the anonymity is a gift. We didn’t really have anything going for us until I was about thirty. So I had a lot of years behind the scenes to develop and make embarrassing choices that eventually, when I shared with Jerr and we showed the world our music, I felt like it was more dialled in and refined. This was that kind of return to innocence.”
But these days The Lumineers are a league apart from the anonymity they remember, and today (24 February) embark on their UK tour, filling stadiums and arenas in a land very dear to both of them. “Coming to the UK means a lot to me because Jerr and I spent some time studying there and playing a lot of coffee houses and bars. It might sound but cliché but we never imagined playing some of these venues and being able to take music from Ramsey, this little town in New Jersey, out to Denver and then have it accepted anywhere else, of any distance, much less overseas. So coming over there means a lot, but it’s extra sweet because we’ve already spent time over there and know how crazy it is.”
It seemed only fitting ahead of their tour to unpack a few of the formative shows that lead Schultz and Fraites to where they are now, from the revelry house shows when no one knew their name to seeing orchestras perform their songs in the rain.
The first gig I can remember, we played at this place called The Pussycat Lounge in New York. We grew up on the doorstep of New York, right up New Jersey about 40 minute drive from the city. We never took the plunge until about 2005, when Jerr and I started playing together. So we get to the Pussycat Lounge but the doorman hadn’t arrived yet, and all of our friends and family, about 80 people, showed up to support us because it was our first gig in New York and we were spreading the word. The guy gets there, I remember him coming up this big flight of stairs – there was a burlesque club below, which I think is where it gets its name. The guy gets there with his bike around his shoulder like, ‘Who are all these people? You’re the first band!’ He was upset! He made everyone leave then come back in to pay him, it was the funniest thing. This guy was so angry with us for bringing so many people to the venue, which was so confusing.
We were going by Wesley Jeremiah at the time, but our first gig as The Lumineers was in Denver. I can tell you about that because I met my wife at that show. We go to play this house show, and I wasn’t that used to them on the East Coast, but then when I moved out west it was much more common. We’d just moved to Denver, it was our first gig there, and our piano player Stelth Ulvang at the time was in his own band. They had a show and needed an opener, and he knew we were moving there; he told my future wife, “I know the perfect band and they’re pirate music”. She was like, “Cool, whatever that means”. We show up and we’re supposed to open, because no one knows us or our music, but instead Stelth asked us to go on after, I think because they realised all the alcohol and drugs were running out, so by the time they would go on stage nothing would be left, haha! So we’re watching them play, the whole room knowing every word to every song, and eventually throughout the show his band starts stripping down and getting naked. Just spontaneously! It wasn’t planned, just one person did it and then another one. We had three people who were supposed to play in our band that night, but the third guy saw this and left, because he thought we’d have to get naked too.
So it was just me and Jerr, and everybody else was slowly leaving the party, but it was still a beautiful night. The first person to open the door to let us in to the party was the person who I’m married to now with two kids, Brandy. It was a crazy night where I though, coming from New York, that I’d seen all the crazy parties, and then that happened and turned out to be the craziest I’d ever been to. Unexpected, in Denver.
It’s funny, New York has been so kind to us since leaving New York. I don’t know why. We couldn’t get into a lot of clubs; I remember trying to get into the Mercury Lounge for ever, that was our mountaintop. There was the Rockwood Music Lounge, The Living Room and then the Mercury Lounge, the highest spot for what we could really do. We couldn’t get into them, and then once we moved to Denver and sent our demo to them all again for like the tenth time, they were all like, “Yeah come on through”.
I don’t know what it is, but also we toured with a crew that has been in a lot of different bands over the years, and one of the things they say often is that it’s strange how enthusiastic and not cynical the crowds are in New York. It’s actually beautiful, and there are probably other cities that shall remain nameless that are sometimes sticks in the mud, but New York isn’t one of them, and we feel lucky because I’ve been there and I’ve seen some tough shows there.
There are some really sweet highlights, like playing The Whitehouse, where the crowd were really stiff but we managed to make them open up and relax. But I would say what really sticks out to me is playing Red Rocks in the pouring rain.
We had a symphony that was going to play with us, and they get paid no matter what. It’s a union gig, so they don’t have to stay if there’s certain conditions, like if the temperature goes below a certain point or if rain hits or whatever. But this night had cold temperatures and rain, so I just remember about 80% of them stayed, but I watched their meeting and work out who was staying in this little cafeteria.
This was the first time we were playing with them, and they’re saying “Show of hands, who’s staying?” I remember watching wondering if any of them would stay, but it was such a magical night because the crowd was getting drenched; if you go to Glastonbury people just don’t care, but there are a lot of places where they do and they’re not as tough about the weather. In Colorado at that show, I was so touched that not only was the crowd full, but you had all these really talented symphony players with very nice instruments sticking it out and playing with us. That would have been in 2013, and really sticks out at me because of how grateful we were for everyone sticking with us.
Early on in New York we got in a car accident on the way to a gig. We hit another car and had to settle that, and then got to the gig and were told we couldn’t soundcheck because we got there too late. So we got on stage, and once you start your set that’s your soundtrack. When we left, to add insult to injury, we had a parking ticket that was way more than we got compensated for the gig. So we basically paid I don’t know how much to play a gig, it was so bad.
Once at another show, we basically bought drinks and bribed people to stay because we, the people on stage, outnumbered the crowd. There was like two or three people, so we made sure they stayed.
The Lumineers play Nottingham, Glasgow, Manchester and London from 24 Feb – 04 March. A limited amount of tickets are available here.