In June this year, Mumford & Sons Ted Dwane found himself at the sharp end of a scalpel and, amongst the less serious consequences, a tour cancellation, pulling out of a series of large scale American shows after a clot was discovered in his brain. At just 28, the bassist’s four-piece had already been branded as the biggest band in the world (The Guardian, November 2012), bursting out of a backroom folk scene to a point at which their position as headliners of Glastonbury – billed alongside the Rolling Stones at one of the world’s largest and most prestigious festivals – simply seemed natural. Dwane’s operation, which has left him with a sizeable scar across his crown, did leave the eventual, triumphant appearance in doubt. Perhaps even more so than the press suggested at the time.
“In retrospect, there was a real possibility we wouldn’t play Glastonbury”, Dwane tells us from backstage at the bands’ Phoenix Park headliner. “It was funny, a couple of the guys had meetings after the surgery and reluctantly decided to cancel a bunch of shows in America, but we never talked about cancelling Glastonbury. I guess we were just too determined to do it.” Dwane’s already keen to put the entire thing behind him, professing a love for the scar rather than reflecting on its causes: “Apart from a pretty cool scar, things are all pretty good now. They shaved my head, so I woke up after the op totally hairless. It’s growing back slowly, but I can’t really help showing off the scar right now.”
The short term issues already seem to have been swept aside, though, and the popularity that led Mumford & Sons to this point has offered huge highs, not least a greater element of control. Alongside the major arena shows, Mumford & Sons are promoting their own, far more in depth town takeovers, the second ever of which was in Galway back in 2012. Tours have also taken on some unique qualities. “Where possible, we try to do something at every gig where we go to the back of the arena and stand and play; it’s nice to bring in the people who have been so far away for an hour for a few songs. Engagement is our primary goal, really. We want to connect with everybody. We did the tour of two halves in December in the UK, playing theatres of one or two thousand, having a few days off and then going back out and doing the arenas, which was really nice, giving people the option. We’re doing takeover weekend shows too, eight so far. It’s very much a collaboration, we want to get people excited about the place we’re playing, maybe with a local brewery and beer, lots of bands, bigger crowds. Basically it’s trying to be responsible, taking the best from all the festivals we’ve been to and trying to make something great. It’s hard to move on from the scale of show we’ve been doing, but this is the plan going forward.”
It’s an admirable way to use fame, one that the band arguably never even sought. Perhaps he’s simply being modest, but Dwane puts the friends’ success down to the cyclical mysteries of the music industry. “Everything’s cyclical. Things just go around and come back, and the reason for our success… we don’t really know. For us, it was quite an insular little world for a while. We were just playing songs to each other, and then in the pub to twenty people. And then a few years later you’re headlining Glastonbury. It’s quite strange, really, and a bit miraculous that it’s happened. We can’t really explain it, it’s just bizarre for us.”
You’d have to be living under a rock, though, not to have witnessed the extent of Mumford & Sons backlash at times. Publicity doesn’t come naturally to the band. Prior to interview, we’re politely asked by PR not to make Marcus’ wife a feature of our questions (she wouldn’t have been anyway, as it happens), and during Ted tells us they do as little TV as possible and hope to remain “not really famous”, how they still see themselves, now if at all possible. “We rarely get recognized in the streets”, he explains, “and when we do, people are just really nice. But we don’t subscribe to the celebrity world.” The twee folk tag, however, seems to have stuck, even if it doesn’t particularly fit with Mumford’s self image. “We don’t see ourselves as a folk band, we know what a folk band looks like and that’s not what we are” There’s a tongue in cheek addition to be had too: “We’re certainly not a rock band, either, by the way” (shortly before our interview, rock grand-God Alice Cooper had bizarrely ranted about the suggestion that Mumford & Sons might be, calling their ‘rock band’ title (cough), ‘an insult to rock’). “We’re just a band.”
Ted’s not afraid of addressing that critical element directly, either. “The cynicism does bother me a little bit”, he admits. “We all have our different levels of awareness about it and whatever. You know, it’s inevitable I think for every band that makes it big, and all you really set out to do is give people a good time. Most people seem to get it, you know, come to the shows, have a good time, we try hard to make sure the gigs are positive experiences, keep the ticket price reasonable and make sure things are done sensibly and responsibly. It’s hard to understand why people have such a negative reaction to something that’s really from such a good place. Get angry about something like the situation in Israel, not a band.”
Operating in the scale that they do, of course, means Mumford have to deal with varying perceptions: the cynicism in the States is less noticeable, for example (“The States is such a huge place with so much music, it’s easier to ignore something. There’s different charts, country charts, different genre stations, so if it’s something you’re not into, unlike here it doesn’t really arrive on your radar.”, Dwane suggests), but Mumford & Sons second album title, Babel, sees them referred to as religious instead.
It doesn’t take a great knowledge of Mumford’s lyrics to realise that’s untrue, and it’s also something Dwane’s happy to refute: “We’re not comfortable with being referred to as religious. I mean we grew up with that very much in our lives, but if anything it’s almost anti-religious really. We talk about growing up and addressing your relationship with religion, which is something a lot of people go through. But I don’t think any of us have been in a church for about ten years. We definitely aren’t religious. People hear Jesus, or Babel, in our case, and think oh wow, religion. It’s not the case.”
Perhaps the new touring cycle will see the end of the religious associations. Babel, after all, is nearly toured out at this point. “We finish touring Babel at the end of September”, Ted explains. “We’re going to have a proper break, as the last few years have been fairly non stop. We want to live, travel, spend time with our families. We never really stop writing, but there’s been no focused set up, so then we’ll get together and get ready for the album. It’ll probably be the end of the year.”
Despite not yet having been written, rumours have long swirled about the instrumental make up of that next album. In fact, the entire band are interchangeable in that sense, which leaves options incredibly open. “When people ask us about the changes in instrumentation, we just come up with a different answer every time. It’s been a theme of the first two records, and we see it continuing, though probably not in a way that will scare anyone too much. We’re a band with a spectrum of instrumentation and talent to use. The four part harmony is always going to be a big feature. Obviously guitar and strings. We’ll produce the best songs we can with what we’ve got. It’s funny that we’re all kind of on our second instruments. Marcus is a drummer primarily. I’m a guitarist primarily. Ben can pretty much just play whatever he wants.”
The future, then, is an open book. “We don’t really know what happens next. We didn’t set out for any of this stuff. The more control we can take over our own shows and records – we own all our own records – the better. Freedom is the key thing. We’re lucky to be able to design our own live show, our own road shows. We’d certainly like to make more records and be musicians. That’s all we ever set out to do. In terms of being big, it’s almost liberating where we go from here. Having done stuff like this, we can just get on with it in a way. In whatever career, there’s always the next ‘promotion’ to spur you forward, the next step. The good thing now is we can think a bit more laterally about what’s best for us musically, and for the band. I think we’re allowed some time in the sun in Cornwall, too!”
Being ‘the biggest band in the world’ has simple pleasures, evidently. As for that hyperbolic Guardian tagline? It’s come alongside being identified as British PM David Cameron’s favorite band (“It might be PR, but he has as much right to listen as anyone else, he’s just a bloke”). Ted deals with the suggestion with typical modesty: “We definitely don’t feel like the biggest band in the world. I mean it’s great that someone said that, but how do you quantify that? We’ve sold a lot of records, I guess.” Having outsold Justin Bieber by nearly two to one in the USA in 2012, that, more than anything else, is a measure of just how far from a backroom folk scene Mumford & Sons have really come. It’ll take more than a touch of brain surgery to stop them.