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Interview: The Lumineers talk new album III, songwriting and UK tour

We caught up with Wesley and Jeremiah from the band as they release their third album.

The Lumineers
Credit: Decca

Since bursting onto the scene with their signature song Ho Hey back in 2011, The Lumineers have become one of the most popular and well-known bands around.

With two platinum-selling albums under their belts and sold-out tours, their unique blend of folk, rock and Americana, along with their trademark energetic live shows, has won them fans around the world. Now they’re back with their latest record, appropriately titled III, which tells the story of three different generations of the Sparks family.

Ahead of the album’s release, I sat down with band members Wesley and Jeremiah to talk about the record, their approach to songwriting and their upcoming UK tour.

You’ve just released your new album – can you tell us a bit more about it?

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Wesley: Yeah, it’s called III and we joke that it’s uncreatively our third record, but it’s divided into these three parts. So for each part there’s a person in the same family, the Sparks family – there’s a grandmother, her son and her grandson. Their names are Gloria, Jimmy and Junior Sparks. We made a music video for every song on the album, and that’s pretty different for us, and a new thing.

I think it was for us a really interesting way to present the album to ourselves as a person imagining taking it in, because a lot of our friends, when they’re not quite sure if they’re putting out a record or an EP, they’ll give us an EP and I’ll devour it. I’ll listen to it over and over. But with a whole album sometimes I’ll delay the listening to it. I just got one yesterday and I was like, ‘let’s snooze that til October 1st when I have some time’. It’s a weird habit.

So I think… I was gonna say microdosing [Jeremiah laughs]. But you’re basically just trying to trick someone into listening to an entire piece of work. The whole LP in these three chapters or however you want to word it, EPs. So that sort of sums it up.

Was that visual approach something you wanted to do when you started making the record? Or did it evolve that way?

W: Just after. I mean, honestly the whole concept of the album emerged after the songs were written and the album was sequenced and done. It was kind of like, I had just moved, I came home from the studio to this house where stuff was in boxes, and I pulled out this journal. I don’t know if you keep journals but if you look at your old writing it can be fascinating. So many thoughts I had from 12 years ago are exactly, frighteningly the same [laughs]. Some of my worries are the same and some of them have really evolved.

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But one of the things I read in there, it said, ‘three EPs, make up one EP but stand on their own’. And I was like, ‘man, I wonder if we could do that with an album’. And then I was looking at this album and I was like, ‘I see Gloria and I see Jimmy, maybe there’s a third character in here’. And then it kind of emerged – I would describe it like a photo in a darkroom that kind of comes out.

There’s a certain type of artistic intelligence that I lack where I couldn’t sit down and just from the beginning say, ‘you know what we’re doing? We’re gonna write a song about this family and we’ll start with Gloria’. I think we just were good enough to try to write a good record. So I think it’s very important to state that because I have a lot of respect and amazement at bands that can sit down and do that. But for us it was more like looking at what we already had and being creative with those materials and telling the story.

And for me I looked at what I’d written and said, ‘well this is a really honest record’. It scared me a little bit that the people I was singing about were that exposed, and this family gave them some cover that I think allowed me to feel justified in what I was singing to an audience each night. Because I wasn’t maybe exposing something that would make them feel really ashamed or make them do something to themselves. I think when your family member is an addict and is unstable in some ways, you’re worried that you’ll say something or do something that sets them over the edge. That’s the thing and the blood is on your hands. I think that’s always a big worry. And so just trying to give them anonymity but also just trying to tell the story as clear as we could was the tricky tightrope to walk.

Did that personal aspect change your approach to writing the record?

W: I mean, I just didn’t name a name. I made up a name, Gloria, and everything else kind of went as usual. It was just I felt no need to make it… It got pretty specific. There’s lines about ‘give back my chair, give back my keys’, like those were real things that happened when you evict someone from a place that you were trying to help them and get to them. I think that there’s a lot of brutal honesty in it, it’s just not to the point of like… I grew up listening to Eminem where he’s like, in this very amazing way, talking about his mom and all these people in his life. Whereas my approach, it’s just not how I’d do. I admire him for doing it that way but I just wouldn’t do it the same way.

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You’ve mentioned a lot of this record is pulled from old journals and bits of music you’ve held on to for a while. Is that typical of your approach to songwriting?

W: We try to salvage things. It’s almost like part of what we do is like a salvage yard. I can give a few examples, like the last song on the album, it’s called Salt And The Sea and that has the first idea that Jer said he ever wrote creatively, on piano maybe?

Jeremiah: Yeah, probably like 2005 or something. A long, long time ago. First creative idea, not trying to cover a song or anything. I think part of us, we just remember a lot of that stuff. We have a weird, specific cataloguing system where there’s a great amount to remember.

W: I think Jimmy Sparks too.

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J: Yeah, Jimmy Sparks, the bones of it are very old – probably 2007 or 2009.

W: Yeah, it’s like a dozen years old. I remember being in China and working on that song. That was 2007.

J: The song Life In The City, which is track two, second single off this album, that could have been on the first album very easily.

W: Yeah, that was from ’08. Most of it is.

J: It didn’t feel ready.

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W: And then a lot of it’s new though. It’s an interesting thing. I think some things a certain amount of time passes and you trust the idea, and then other ideas you just know work. And I think we had our doubts or weren’t quite sure. In the case of something like Jimmy Sparks we had the right melody, but terrible lyrics. There was no story to it. I remember hearing Yesterday, the Beatles song, was [sings] ‘all I wanted was some scrambled eggs’. He didn’t have any lyrics but he knew it was a great melody. And I think that’s equally important, is to not pull the trigger on some great melody that you’re just half-assing the story or the lyrics. So I would say most of the time our album is half we’re pulling from the dusty shelves of things we’ve kept, because we knew the rest of the song maybe sucked but that bridge or that chorus or that line was really good. And we hold on to that and then throw out the rest.

There’s also quite a mix of different sounds and styles on the album. Was that something that was key in terms of developing the characters?

W: Maybe. I wouldn’t say it was a conscious thing. Like Donna, for example, the sound of that piano, I just really loved that. Jer came up with that and I was like, ‘what is that?’ I felt like even when we went to record it, we recorded it in a more proper-sounding piano, it didn’t sound the same as the demo because it’s an upright and we took the face of it off so you could hear the hammers. You can hear the shifting on the piano bench and you just hear everything. It felt like I was next to the person on the piano bench. And so I think something like that, maybe the conscious thing we were doing was we were searching for things that were distinct to us. I’d rather it be distinct than just be catchy or anything else.

J: I think too like the way we dress up the album when we’re writing it, it’s just us two, so a lot of these piano ideas or guitar ideas sometimes you’re like, ‘oh that would become a bass, that would become a horn section’, whatever crazy ideas you have. And a lot of it’s sometimes just necessity. It’s a weird example but that first movie, Jaws, have you seen that?


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J: OK, so apparently the animatronic shark, they had so many problems with it that that’s why you don’t actually see the shark that much, and that’s what makes that movie so terrifying. So it’s actually like Spielberg said, out of necessity you don’t see the shark that much, because whatever they had, like a female nickname for the shark, Gladys or something, the shark was just so janky that they didn’t show it that much. I feel like it’s kind of a cool parallel. There’s these things that in the studio out of necessity we just put on the track, and then when we got in the real studio we were like, ‘that sounds pretty cool’. Or it sounds distinct as Wes said, or refined.

W: The piano on Leader Of The Landslide, that was supposed to be something else for sure. We were imagining electric guitar or some sort of odd instrument getting put in there. Then we showed it to the producer, and he was like, ‘what’s wrong with the piano?’ And we said, ‘I don’t know, we just assumed it was a placeholder’. But it made it. It gave it this character that I don’t know it would have if you added all this other stuff that built it up in a way that blended in.

J: I think we’ve been avoiding the pitfalls of the classic symphony since album two. We’re trying to avoid that because I think that’s a classic. If you add a bunch of strings to songs it’s going to sound good, I guarantee you. It’s probably gonna gain more fans categorically if you do that. But it’s too obvious of a move, I think.

W: But we did do that on the B-side.

J: Democracy? That was cool. [laughs]

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Do you feel this record has almost been a transition of sorts in terms of your sound and your approach to your music in future?

W: It’s weird, because we started making music that was very reminiscent of the later half of the record. I would say the answer to that is sort of yes based on those. I feel like Gloria could be on Cleopatra or it could be maybe on the first record in some ways.

J: For sure.

W: Life In The City was almost on those albums and things like that.

J: Yeah, I’d like to think it’s an evolution.

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W: The later half, when you hear it, you’ll kind of see what we mean. But we were making really dark, almost like prog music. We were doing a lot of strange time signatures and very dissonant chords and we kind of moved away from that on album one. And some of this stuff was borrowing ideas from those times.

J: It’s been cool to come full circle, where you’re like, ‘we’re not that, we’re not that, we’re not that, hey, we are that’. That’s what’s seeping to the top. It is ironic, there’s a duality to it where it feels like an evolution or departure, but also it’s never felt more true to ourselves. So that was really liberating on this album. I don’t think it was ever pre-meditated but, ‘let’s just selfishly write ideas, or let’s just do this because this will feel different’. It wasn’t that palpably different in that mindset, it just kind of came out that way. And it was ‘don’t question it if it feels good’.

You’ve been working with Kevin Phillips on the visual aspects of this album – how did that come about?

W: Yeah, we saw his movie. It was almost like the greatest resume for someone else to just watch what they would do without you in the way, and so Super Dark Times was his feature film. I really fell in love with it personally because you could mute it, you could… it was just beautiful visually but then there were these dark undertones and plot lines. The actors look like real people. I was sometimes wondering, were these people cast or were they just in the town he was shooting in? But they were just too talented to actually be not actors.

But it gave me a lot of food for thought, like, ‘OK, if we made music videos the way we saw them in our heads and that matched what was going on on the album, what would it be?’ It should be about real people that look like real people, and it should be this really beautiful imagery mixed with some darkness, some ugliness. How do you find that balance? And so watching his film was like… I don’t really know who we would have used had he said no, put it that way. He’s like a perfect match in the sense of what he naturally does is what we were gunning for, and he did it brilliantly. It was a lot of work. We finished the album ahead of time but then he had very little time to do this big project, so we were really lucky that he said yes. But it’s almost like, [Jeremiah] made the analogy earlier about Quentin Tarantino not making a romcom. You hire someone for what they’re passionate about.

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J: I read there was a director brought in for this Game of Thrones episode revolving around Hodor, ‘hold the door’, the time travel and he worked a lot on Lost, which was a crazy time travel show if you could call it that. But his expertise was brought in. That really sweet guy that we met, that director.

W: Oh yeah, I have his book on my coffee table.

J: Name’s blanking but same idea – bring in the specialist, so to speak. And Kevin felt like the perfect person for that.

Are there any of the films in particular that are standouts for you?

J: I think Gloria when the baby has the bottle of vodka, I think that was a really potent but also intense thing to watch. And I guess on the flip side of that, when the husband of Gloria, William, has her on her shoulder and then vice versa a minute later they’re kicking at the screen door. It was almost this cartoonish, comical absurdity that revolves around addiction, alcoholism. At the very core of addiction is an extreme thing and then that causes extreme reactions and extreme emotions and extreme just everywhere. So I think there was this real sense of, ‘wow, this is so heavy’, and then also this sense of levity and dark comically showing the absurdity of the situation. Within Gloria there’s so much emotions and we were like, ‘wow, this is sad’ or ‘wow, this is kind of happy because it’s so absurd’. There’s a lot. But those two moments for me in Gloria really stood out.

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W: Yeah, we called each other after watching it, stunned. You have ideas of what it’s gonna be in your head and then you see it. I mean, I like it but I think people are gonna hate this, and that’s OK I guess [laughs]. People need some weird stuff. We need to get a little bit more weird in general. As pop culture is moving into this PC, very mainstream, just so sanitised and this was a nice way of… I bet you because of the content on certain platforms or in certain circles it will be almost not watched as much because of that, but in a strange way I think that will make more people find it. It’s almost like there’s not enough of that and we’ve learned that.

I honestly can’t speak to this anywhere outside of the US, but in the US it’s become obvious that it’s been a taboo to discuss having an addict in your family or being addicted. It can prevent you from having a job, it could make if you’re dating someone and they mention it on their first date you’re like, ‘I wonder if they’re an addict’. It’s natural things to think, it’s not wrong, but it also within that group there’s a bunch of people that are keeping a secret together, and that’s an even heavier burden than the burden itself of dealing with addiction and I guess the far-reaching thing that it affects within a family and how it affects so much beyond what I would initially imagine.

You’ve said about it being surprising to people – has there been anything that’s surprised you about fans’ reaction to the new music?

J: I think how much it’s opened up people, whether on YouTube comments or more impactful in-person things. We’ve talked to interviewers much like yourself and after the mikes are off or before the mikes are on for that matter, they’ll say things like, ‘hey, I’ve been sober for four years, 20 years, 14 years or whatever’. It’s just an amazing way to get to the point really quickly and just see humans for humans and see that we’re all struggling. It’s been like the ultimate icebreaker, for want of a better description. I think that’s been really beautiful to see that, because it’s not just like, ‘hey, I like your music’. It’s like, ‘that song made me cry or this lyric made me cry’ or whatever, and that’s kind of the point of music or art. Not the point but it’s one of the points for sure, to really tease that out of people and make them feel such strong, raw emotions.

W: And in some funny way, I mean, when you listen about someone else’s heartbreak as an example, when you’re a teenager say, you think you’re the only one in the whole world that has gotten heartbroken. And when you hear that, you feel like your story’s being told. And I feel like in the same way, what you were just saying, the cameras have gone off in interviews and I would have crew people coming up to me and tell me. This one person, him and his wife had a problem with substance and their kids were taken away from them and they eventually got them back. He wasn’t angry about the music, he was very happy about the music, but he said he couldn’t really watch the videos. They were too soon for him.

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I think if there was a litmus test it would be the people who are living through it, are they feeling like this is telling part of their story? Because there’s prescriptive and then there’s descriptive, and this is descriptive. It’s not telling you what to do. It’s not prescribing. I think that’s the best kind. The most cringeworthy art can be very prescriptive – ‘here’s how you should live your life and here’s what’s wrong with society’ instead of just saying a story, ‘this is what really happened, in my life’. I have a friend who works in the political world but he wrote a book about changing people’s minds. I read it and the basic premise was just, instead of trying to tell people facts and statistics, tell them your story. It’s the fastest way to get change.

So I think I don’t know if we had change in mind when we wrote this album or anything, but if there is going to be positive change I would hope some of it is that people share with each other as friends – they show them the album and then say, ‘hey, my cousin or my mom or whoever else is dealing with this and I want you to hear this song, this is helping’. And then it opens up a little bit of a conversation. Because it felt like a muzzle was taken off of people in some ways, ‘oh I can let this out a little bit’, this demon.

You’re going on tour this autumn to support the album. What can people expect from those shows?

W: Well, I mean part of it is we’re coming to play the O2 here in London. It’s exciting for us because we did the arenas in the US for the first time on our last record, and we’ve learned a lot. So the exciting part is we didn’t get to do that last time and we realised how much you can heighten a show, if you know how to use those things to your advantage – the lights, the videos, everything. It can be a heightened experience even though it’s a bigger room. Sometimes people are like, ‘oh I’ll see them when they come to a theatre or a small club’, but for us some of the most gratifying shows were these arenas. It sounds weird to say but to me it was totally a great experience. So part of it is you’re gonna I hope see a band that likes playing that kind of room. You’re not gonna wish for us to be in a club. It’ll be a great experience because we have some practice at it and truly enjoy that just as much as Hoxton Bar & Grill or whatever.

J: Yeah, our first gig was at Hoxton Bar & Grill. I think it’s called Colours now. And we’ve come a long way. But it’s cool to remember that.

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It’s quite surprising to hear you say that because so many artists say they prefer the intimacy of those smaller venues…

W: Well that’s the challenge I think. So I grew up, I went to see Springsteen at Giants Stadium which is enormous and I felt like the only one. I felt like I was right next to him and I had the second worst seats in the house [laughs]. I was like the second last row of the stadium and it was truly compelling. And that imprinted something into me of ‘how do you do that?’ How do you make something feel small even when it’s a bigger room? And so there’s a lot of different ways to do that I think. We’re still learning but it doesn’t mean that a show has to be watered down because it’s in a bigger room. So I think for us that would be like, if someone was gonna pay us a compliment it would be that they came to a show and felt that same way, because that’s what I loved about going to see shows – it didn’t really matter. I’ve also been to really big shows where you don’t feel very connected, it feels like you’re a passive observer. So there has to be intention there and you have to nail that part of it. But that’s one of the things we’re trying to do. We’ll see.

What have you learnt from being on the road over the years?

W: Yeah, we played a lot of New York City gigs for about five or six years, and then just moved to Denver and just started touring. So it’s probably been eight or nine years of touring. It’s not a ton of time. But in that time… like one of the years, it’s probably my only tour I’m really proud of, it was the Independent Music Awards and we won hardest working band of 2013. So we’ve toured a lot [laughs]. 300 days a year wouldn’t be weird at all to be on the road, and it still isn’t. So I think for us just the sheer number of hours spent and shows played, and now that we have more material. I so much more appreciate having three records out now where when you put together a set list there’s a couple of songs that won’t be on the set and you have to rotate them in and out. Whereas before we were using everything we had and then some covers. I remember playing Hey Ho twice in one set sometimes and it was like, ‘what are we doing?!’ But we didn’t have enough material to fill the time. We should have been opening for bands [laughs]. So I feel like there’s a greater appreciation for what we have because there was a lot of time there where we were trying our best to fill the time we were asked to play, instead of, ‘OK, we’re not gonna play Dead Sea tonight because we’re playing this other song’, which is the reality now. You have to choose whether certain songs are gonna make the cut.

What does the rest of 2019 look like for you? Are the record and tour the main focus?

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J: Well the film as a whole – all the music videos strung together – got accepted into the Toronto International Film Festival, TIFF, which is apparently a very big deal. Obviously not being in the film industry, now we understand how big of a really cool achievement that is. We’re really excited about that, because the music we’re very proud of but the film feels like this extension and visual manifestation of the lyrics of the music. So tour and that, but that’ll be a new phase to enjoy the visual side of this. Typically we’re always promoting just the sound, the audio, so this is a cool new way to do it. And the tour obviously in Europe will be all of November, so we’re very excited for that. We get to play some places like Portugal, Italy, obviously the show at the O2 in London is by far the biggest show we’ve ever played here, so that’s really cool.

W: Yeah, that’ll eat up most of our time [laughs].

The Lumineers’ new album, III, is out now.

See The Lumineers on tour in the UK and Ireland this November:

November 22 – The SSE Hydro, Glasgow
November 24 – Manchester Arena, Manchester
November 27 – O2 Arena, London
November 29 – 3Arena, Dublin

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