There’s a Kurt Vonnegut quote that says every line in a story should either reveal character or advance the action. If it doesn’t accomplish one of those two things, it’s wasteful or performative.
The Lumineers, an indie-folk band who shot up the charts in 2012 behind their debut self-titled album and hit song “Ho Hey,” are guided by a similar approach in their songwriting. Very little time is burned before a Lumineers song gets to the point, and every note from that point forward is used efficiently, with no arbitrary bells or whistles that could potentially distract.
Their debut album coincided with the rapid rise of bands like Mumford and Sons, The Avett Brothers and The Head and the Heart. Seemingly out of nowhere, acoustic guitars, banjos and standalone kick drums were at the forefront, and The Lumineers had one of the biggest hits of the bunch with “Ho Hey.” The song held the top spot on Billboard’s Rock Song and Adult Pop Song charts for large chunks of 2012, spawning thousands of YouTube covers and becoming a wedding staple.
“The first record wasn’t meant for commercial success,” said lead singer and guitarist Wesley Schultz in a recent interview with Submerge. “It had a demo feel to it, so it caught us off guard. Everyone assumes that because you are on Top 40 it’s because it was by design.”
The “demo feel” Schultz describes is clear. The band built its following in Denver’s open mic scene, and the self-titled debut is minimalistic and sparse. But the melodies are undeniable, and The Lumineers let them do the heavy lifting.
While most of their indie-folk contemporaries put out several albums in the ensuing half-decade, The Lumineers saw more than four years pass before they put out their next full-length, Cleopatra, which came out in 2016. Between nearly four years of straight touring, they also penned the haunting lullaby sung by Jennifer Lawrence throughout the final Hunger Games movies.
“A typical touring cycle would be a year, year and a half,” said Schultz, who described himself as a songwriter above all else. “It actually kept us away from songwriting a lot longer than we’d have normally wanted.”
But that won’t be the case with the follow-up to Cleopatra. Schultz is settled in Denver with the rest of the band as they get to work on the next batch of songs. Schultz and I caught up by phone in early November to talk about the band’s rise, how they’ve formed their own identity and the role iPhone voice memos play in the songwriting process.
Why is the band jumping into a new record much more quickly this time?
You’re the first person to say that, because everybody seems to complain about the space between our records! The simple answer is we’ve always really gravitated toward songwriting. Performing and touring kind of came and we learned it on the fly. We’re songwriters at heart who found ourselves in a band.
The Lumineers record arrived in 2012 with a wave of other folk music. How did it feel to be a part of that moment?
It felt like the zeitgeist. I remember watching the Grammys and they had The Avett Brothers and Mumford and Sons, and Bob Dylan joined them. Then there was Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros and this whole wave of success—everybody standing on each other’s shoulders.
It’s nice when enough time passes and you can establish who you are. No one wants to be like, “You’re just like them,” but you’re always going to be put up against a reference point. Cleopatra helped push everything forward and turn the page.
We got to open for Tom Petty and U2. Those bands have longevity, and the ability to continually put out music that matters. If you do a good job at that, people will figure you out. You don’t have to be in such a hurry to be understood.
You identify primarily as a songwriter. When did you go from playing songs to truly crafting them, and who inspired you along the way?
If you follow the Beatles, you see that they learned other people’s music and put their own spin on it. I learned a lot of covers and could imitate a lot of singers, but it took a while to find my voice.
When we were making our record, our producer was telling us how hair metal was slaughtered by Nirvana. Those bands knew it was over. He pointed out that the [hair metal] songs had the longest intros and they were portrayed like gods and superheroes, flashy and ostentatious. Nirvana came in and said fuck that. Just tight pop songs. People don’t realize, but that’s what they are. [Kurt Cobain] had a lot of economy in what he did. I like the idea that you can say more with less. There’s a quote that says, “If I had more time I’d have written you a shorter letter.”
Has your approach to songwriting changed since the debut album?
The first record is straight to the point. We’ll always have elements of that, but it’s gratifying to take someone out of that comfort zone. We had a little room to do some stuff, knowing people will give us a chance.
I hear about Black Keys just going into the studio and coming out with a good record. We’re more of a tortoise pace. I’ve always related more to the guy who had to toil and obsess just to make sure it was the right way. That’s why we’re [writing in Denver] right now.
Has the music industry changed since The Lumineers?
I have a strange opinion on it. There used to be $15 to $20 standing between you and a new album. Now it’s a monthly rate, a friend’s password or it’s free. If a lot of people like music, they’ll come to your live shows. We’re a testament to that.
People are consumed with the idea that the industry is struggling. I’m a bad person to ask, because I feel very lucky to be in this environment. We have one-record deals, we put out records when I feel like putting out records and we don’t have to ask anybody what they think of them.
You’re playing in Sacramento with Portugal. The Man on Dec. 7. How well do you know those guys?
We got to tour with them on this big Australian tour called Big Day Out. We became fans of their music and watched their live shows. They’ve been around so long. It’s like a big storm rolling through and the house only stands up if everything in it’s really solid. They’re good live, and they know who they are. We’re really happy for them.
What’s your writing process and how will the next record come together?
There are 85 voice memos that are a total of two hours and five minutes on my phone. I’ll pick one or two out and start to chase them down and see where it leads. I love to try and marry two or three ideas. Through that you come up with other ideas that become orphans. You know they’re good but they don’t have a home yet.
The bridge in “Ophelia” used to be in “Sleep on the Floor.” It was in a few different songs. Those ideas are just objectively really good. You just have to see where it fits into the arrangement. It’s a really exciting thing.
The Lumineers will play 94.7 FM’s Electric Christmas with Portugal. The Man and Walk the Moon on Dec. 7, 2017, at Golden 1 Center. You can buy tickets online at Radio947.net/electric-christmas.
**This interview first appeared in print on pages 22 – 23 of issue #253 (Nov. 20 – Dec. 4, 2017)**