You know your band is doing pretty well when you check your imminent tour dates on the other side of the Atlantic, and you notice that the venues have all been upgraded from modest clubs to much larger halls, and what’s more, the promoter has added two extra-large dates on the end of the tour to match public demand. The Lumineers, the American folk-rockers from Colorado via New Jersey, are in this unique position, having seen their imminent UK tour undergo the equivalent of a balloon being pumped up to twice its original size with a big old helium nozzle.
‘It’s crazy.’ laughs chief Lumineer, Wesley Schultz. ‘Maybe it’s because of our massive talent… No, we’ve had such a crazy year, it’s like nothing surprises us and everything surprises us at this point. It’s like being in a movie or something. The wind is finally at our back. We’ve been at this for a little while and it’s strange how it’s all snowballed.’
The band, multi-instrumentalists Schultz and Jeremiah Fraites, plus cellist Neyla Pekarek, have experimented with a variety of names for some years, without troubling the attention span of most music consumers, but since 2011 their profile has skyrocketed thanks to hit singles ‘Ho Hey’ and ‘Stubborn Love’ and their self-titled debut album, which was released in April 2012. Does Schultz look back to a point when it felt like it was all finally going to happen for his band?
‘Well, one important moment came when we talked with our management for the first time back in March 2010,’ he muses. ‘We were so excited. This was in New York City, where we were doing a residency at this really great place called the Living Room. They came from Seattle to see us and we were like, “These people flew all that way to see us?” Then they said they wanted to work with us, and we said, “Holy shit, they want to work with us!”’
Schultz continues, ‘What was really funny, though, was that the next night we drove up to Portland, Maine, and it was sub-zero outside and we outnumbered the patrons in the place. That’s very indicative of our musical career. You think you’ve got it, and then you get humbled again very quickly. But signing with management was definitely a big moment for us, and another one was when we completed the album. Others were when we played on [prime-time US TV shows] Conan O’Brien and Saturday Night Live. Those are “you have arrived” moments that are pretty hard to wrap your head around.’
To top off the Lumineers’ astonishing recent couple of years, the group were also nominated for not one but two Grammys in the Best New Artist and Best Americana Album categories for 2013, although the awards ultimately went elsewhere. ‘Yeah, that was amazing too’ he says. ‘I think those nominations were indicative of the fact that people take us seriously, and maybe that people will listen to the record and buy it and even come out to shows. Maybe we’ll have some longevity in this business, where it’s very hard to find that. We’re just looking to have a career. Even just to be in that conversation changes things. You’re the same band and you make the same music, but people perceive you differently.’
In the world of showbiz, particularly in America, a Grammy nomination – let alone a win – defines your band permanently, we warn him. ‘That’s what our manager said to us,’ he replies. ‘He said, “If you died tomorrow, they’d always remember you as a Grammy-nominated artist”, which is a really morbid way of looking at it…’
In the early days, Schultz used to play a tried and trusted brand of guitars, before stepping up a notch a few years later. ‘When we started out, I used to play a Yamaha SG 150 acoustic. I’m a really huge fan of those guitars,’ he says. ‘My mom played one, although I hated it at first when I’d just started playing because it had a fat neck and it was kind of hard to hold down the strings. Then I found a small-bodied version, and I used that forever. It started breaking down on me a little more than I liked, though, so I moved on to a Martin 0018. It’s a beautiful guitar and I play it hard every night. Other guitars break down but so far, so good. I just got myself an older Martin from 1967, the same model.’
Does the thought of taking a pricey Martin out on tour trouble him, we wonder? ‘Not really,’ he says, with good reason as it turns out. ‘I’ve had all my instruments stolen, so I know what it feels like to lose them. I’m not too worried. I lost my mom’s guitar, and that was the irreplaceable one. It happened when the band got robbed back in September 2010. They took our cello, two electric-acoustic guitars, our bass guitar, a little bit of drums, some personal effects and other gear: the only stuff they left was the heavy stuff that they couldn’t carry, like the keyboard and most of the drums.’
Anyone with a treasured instrument will appreciate the gravity of the following story. ‘It was bizarre,’ says Schultz, ‘because it happened in broad daylight. We were in Los Angeles and it was about 3pm on a sunny day. We were at this park and we were about to play a house show the following night, so all our gear was in the minivan, which we were driving. Someone broke into it, stole all the instruments and made off with them. We didn’t realise we’d been robbed until we opened up the trunk and saw that they had popped it open with a screwdriver or something like that.’
Did the local constabulary save the day? Ah, no… ‘We went to the police station the next day, because we wondered if we might get the gear back somehow, and the guy said, “Well, you’re in Los Angeles County and it’s now 5pm, and in the 14 hours since you lost your gear, we’ve had 3,768 crimes. You’re probably not going to get your gear back, but you should file it anyway.” We went straight from there to the house show and people lent us instruments. That was day two of a two-and-a-half week tour, and all the way up the west coast, we borrowed instruments, and it worked out great. But it hurt because all that gear was irreplaceable. My guitar was all broken in and it had a lot of nice scars on it.’
‘The ironic part was that it was worthless,’ he sighs. ‘It wasn’t an expensive guitar in the first place, and it was all beat up. I knew the guy couldn’t get anything for it.’
He’ll probably stick it on eBay if he finds out it belongs to the Lumineers, we tell him. ‘Yeah, he’ll figure out that it’s my guitar and forge my signature. I’ll probably buy it off him,’ sniggers Schultz.
So what guitars will he be bringing over to the UK? ‘My main guitar will be the older Martin and the backup will be the new one. I also play a hollow-body Guild, I can’t remember what year it is but it’s pretty old. It’s based on a Gibson 125. I’ve been messing around with different guitar amps, and I’ve got a Fender Bassman for the Guild. I just like a warm sound that reacts when I lay into it.’
Two extra musicians will be accompanying the Lumineers to these shores, he tells us. ‘Stelth Ulvang, who plays with us live along with our bass player Ben Wahamaki, plays a mandolin on stage, which I can also play out of necessity. Jerry and I recorded all the instruments on the demos which we recorded for the album, and then I played a bit of mandolin on the actual record, but Jerry’s more prolific than me: he plays pretty much every instrument. I play a couple of songs on piano too, but I’m not very proficient, it’s more about muscle memory. I just play it to get song ideas worked out.’
As a teenage guitar plucker, it was the world of stadium folk-rock that got Schultz into his first songwriting attempts. ‘I started playing when I was 15,’ he recalls. ‘What drew me to it was a Dave Matthews and Tim Reynolds concert that I attended. At the time guitar tablature was kinda hard to come by online, so I bought a magazine which would have tab for Tom Petty or Dave Matthews songs in it from time to time. I fell in love with the way Dave Matthews’ songs sounded. His guitar work is pretty complex for a guy who is pretty prevalent at singing, so I went to him first. We actually got to open for him not too long ago. It was full circle to meet him. I told him that story and I probably creeped him out. It was really cool. He was really gracious, all kidding aside: a really nice guy. I played a lot of acoustic and then got away from that and played electric for a while. Now I’m doing both.’
‘Those first songwriting sessions were fruitful but of dubious quality,’ says Schultz, although the simple joy of writing stays with him to this day. ‘I started writing songs pretty much as soon as I started playing guitar,’ he tells us. ‘I was, and still am, interested in writing songs. I remember in school tests you could choose to do multiple-choice exams or write essays, and I’d always choose the essay. I also wrote a lot of really amateur poetry as a young kid, and that applied really easily to when I picked up the guitar. It lent itself immediately to my first songs, which weren’t any good – in fact they were really bad – but I used to play them to get me started.’
It’s only a matter of time before the Lumineers’ record company ask him to record those early songs and release them as The Lost Tapes or something equally trite, we suggest. ‘I know, exactly,’ he laughs. ‘I remember when Tom Petty did a greatest hits collection and he added ‘Last Dance With Mary Jane’, a B-side which had never been used, even though it was an incredible song. Mine aren’t quite like that,’ he laughs.
‘In fact,’ he adds, ‘I spent a lot of time in the beginning trying to prove that I was a decent guitar player and a good writer. After a while I began to concentrate more on writing about characters that were interesting to me. A lot of the songs were based on things I’d heard, or on something that someone had said to me, and I’d try to make something interesting out of that. There’s usually a lineage back to something that you witnessed or heard. That way the songs get a little more three-dimensional than just the usual good guy, bad guy, good-guy-and-bad-guy-become-antagonists mode.’
As for the actual music, Schultz took his cue from the American classics. ‘I grew up listening to just a few records, and they really impacted me. Leonard Cohen was really my top influence. I used to listen to [Cohen’s 1992 album] The Future over and over with my dad in the car. Bruce Springsteen’s Born In The USA was huge for me too.’
Presumably because Bruce is a local NJ hero? ‘You got it. He’s kinda like church if you grow up in New Jersey.’
In that case, Jon Bon Jovi must be a big hero too? ‘No comment.’
Yeah, like Jon Bon Jovi is going to read this… ‘Ha ha! Don’t let him. Talking Heads were huge for me. Those were the records I heard in my formative years, and then when I got a little older I got really influenced not by specific bands but by specific genres and styles. Tom Petty couldn’t write a bad song in my opinion, and Ryan Adams, more recently. The Stones still blow me away too.’
Are the Lumineers the kind of band who experiment with alternate tunings, we ask? Apparently not… yet. ‘I remember Jeff Tweedy from Wilco saying that his brain was cursed with too much knowledge and that made him start changing his tuning and playing in different styles. I’ll always remember that, but I think right now there are still a lot of possibilities. The tuning is always standard right now, but that will certainly change when we want to change things up a little. I’m intrigued by tunings though, I recently learned Led Zeppelin’s ‘Bron-Y-Aur Stomp’ and if you don’t play with an alternate tuning it doesn’t come off.’
So where did the Lumineers get their frankly curious name, we wonder? ‘We got it by accident,’ he admits with unusual candour. ‘We were playing a gig in Jersey City about four years ago and there was a guy announcing each band, which is strange in and of itself because that never really happens. He was an MC of sorts, and we went by a different name but he read the wrong sheet. I guess there was going to be a band called the Lumineers in the same time slot the following week.’
He continues, ‘We thought it was a good name, so we looked the other Lumineers up and they didn’t seem particularly active that night, so we just hoped for the best. We had really struggled with a lot of bad names in the past so it was kind of great. Sometimes it’s easier when someone just tells you what you’re called. Like when your parents give you your name. Imagine trying to name yourself as a baby. This worked out so much better.’
What terrible band names did Schultz and his team go through first? ‘Oh, man… as a joke, our first band name as Free Beer, because we figured someone would see that and come out to see us. Then we called ourselves Sixcheek, because there was this band out called Sevendust, and that was what we based it on. We figured that there were three of us, which makes six butt cheeks. It was a terrible idea. Then we went by Wesley Jeremiah, because we had lost a third member so often that it was usually just Jeremiah and me, but then people thought we were a singer-songwriter and it got really confusing for the venues. Then the Lumineers name came along and we got stuck with it.’
What’s odd is that if you go to their website, www.lumineers.com, you end up at a site advertising some kind of teeth renovation service. ‘Yeah, it’s a dental veneer. I know from friends who work online that they’re paying pretty big bucks to get ahead of us in the search engine world. It would be a weird thing to be looking for a band and then land on that site and suddenly realise, “Hey, I could do with some new teeth”, wouldn’t it?’
The Lumineers will be touring the world throughout 2013.