Describing the latest album from his band Mumford & Sons, Ben Lovett sidesteps much of the language artists often use to talk about their music. He doesn’t, for instance, refer to “Babel” as a bit of creative risk-taking, or as the product of divine inspiration.
Instead, the 26-year-old keyboardist says that the record was “forced out of this internal desire to prove that we have many more songs in us.”
Mumford & Sons released its debut, “Sigh No More,” in 2009 and immediately set about touring the world, playing concerts that grew steadily to a scale Lovett called “crazy.” (Last year it performed before an audience of approximately 75,000 people on the main stage at Coachella.) Before long the London-based group — which also includes singer-guitarist Marcus Mumford, 25; bassist Ted Dwane, 28 and banjo player Winston Marshall, 25 — had all but exhausted the tunes on “Sigh No More.” For 2012 it needed new ones.
“And I’m sure the third, fourth and fifth records will happen the same way,” Lovett continued, speaking recently after a show in Cairns, Australia. “There was absolutely zero calculation [with ‘Babel’]. No one ever came into the studio and said, ‘Turn that banjo up and we’ll make you into pop stars!’”
Yet pop stars are precisely what the band’s members have become. In October “Babel” entered Billboard’s album chart at No. 1, scoring what was then the year’s biggest sales week — bigger than Justin Bieber and Madonna — with more than 600,000 copies sold, according to Nielsen SoundScan. (Last week Taylor Swift broke Mumford & Sons’ record with 1.2 million copies of her new album, “Red.”)
To date “Babel” has sold 992,000 albums, while “Sigh No More” is at 2.54 million; right now both discs — which together have yielded a string of hit singles, beginning with “Little Lion Man” and extending through the new album’s “I Will Wait” — sit in the top 25 of the Billboard 200.
And on Saturday night Mumford & Sons will play the first of two sold-out concerts at the Hollywood Bowl before returning to the U.K. to finish the year with a homecoming arena tour.
“With ‘Little Lion Man,’ let’s face it: You kind of have had to ask, ‘Is there more?’” says Lisa Worden, music director at the influential L.A. modern-rock radio station KROQ-FM (106.7). “And there was: We had success with three tracks from the first record. I knew then that this wasn’t a one-hit wonder. This band truly has something.”
That something is spreading too: Following Mumford & Sons up the charts are acts such as the Lumineers, the Civil Wars and Of Monsters and Men — proudly old-fashioned roots-oriented outfits that seem to share little with the sleekly modish likes of Rihanna and Maroon 5.
“What they’ve achieved gives a lot of hope to bands like us,” says Taylor Goldsmith of the folky L.A. group Dawes, which will open Mumford & Sons’ Hollywood Bowl shows. “It’s four guys playing acoustic guitars and banjos and everything I feel like wouldn’t allow a stable career for a young band in 2012. But here they are.”
So how did these London lads carve out such an impressive space singing original songs about struggle and redemption?
Their strategy — not that they’d ever call it that — begins with touring, and lots of it. As Lovett suggests, he and his bandmates more or less live on the road, performing crowd favorites and honing new material in a variety of settings across the globe, from tiny pub gigs (including several recent ones in Dublin) to roomy amphitheater concerts to the daylong mini-festivals it put on this summer in out-of-the-way American cities such as Dixon, Ill., and Bristol, Va.
“I’ll be honest: Before they came here I had no idea who they were,” says Lt. Leslie Sonne of the Monterey Police Department. In late August Mumford & Sons touched down in the Central California town for what Sonne called a “well managed, very professional event” for 10,000 ticket holders. And now?
“I’ve since purchased both their albums,” Sonne adds cheerfully.
The band has been careful too with exposure, limiting interviews and television performances but encouraging easy access to its music. During the first week of “Babel’s” release Mumford & Sons allowed listeners to stream the album for free on Spotify — something the online service said happened more than 8 million times.
Lovett singles out the group’s performance with Bob Dylan at the 2011 Grammy Awards as a pivotal moment, and he’s certainly not wrong: “Sigh No More” enjoyed its biggest-ever sales week in the days following the telecast. “I think it introduced us to people who watch [awards] shows the way we grew up watching music on TV,” he said. “It makes sense that it would widen our audience. But we weren’t thinking about that at the time.”
Indeed, all of this maneuvering seems secondary to the powerful sense of belonging the band’s songs engender among its fans. Not unlike Adele, whose “21" was last year’s bestselling album, Mumford & Sons offers a chance to stand up for hand-played music in an age of machine-made pop; it embodies the feel-good realism of people singing and playing instruments onstage.
And yet the group isn’t didactic about its position, vastly increasing its appeal for listeners with no horse in the authenticity race. In a recent interview with National Public Radio, Marcus Mumford declined to describe the band’s music as bluegrass or any other traditional form, saying, “We just call ourselves a rock band, really.”
It’s a refreshingly anti-purist mind-set audible throughout “Babel,” on which acoustic guitars mingle with spacey sound effects and Mumford’s often-sensual vocals act as more than a lyric-delivery device. (Both of the band’s albums were produced by Markus Dravs, who’s also worked with the sonic tinkerers in Coldplay.)
And with its period-picture wardrobe and foot-stomping singalongs, Mumford & Sons openly embraces a spirit of big-tent showmanship — the residual effect, perhaps, of Mumford’s parents’ leadership role in the Christian-evangelical Vineyard church.
In April the frontman married the English actress Carey Mulligan, seemingly ensuring continued exposure to the dramatic realm.
With “Babel” out for only a little more than a month, it’s too early to say how much higher Mumford & Sons might fly — or how much further the band’s influence might extend. “We’ll have to wait and see if any of these other bands end up being more than just a song,” says KROQ’s Worden. “I’m not quite ready to put my money on the folk revival.”
Nor, truth be told, is Lovett. “We haven’t got very lofty aspirations when it comes to all that,” the keyboardist admits. “We’re not trying to restart any movement.”
The way he tells it, the band’s motivation is more immediate.
“It’s pretty much, ‘Oh, you’ve got a song? That sounds good. I feel the exact same way. Let’s play that tonight.’”