Saturday, 23 October 2010

Mumford & Sons

I sense the start of a Mumfords backlash, so it’s a good time to take stock…

Mumford & Sons sound like someone you’d expect to find in Yellow Pages. A firm of monumental stonemasons, maybe, or long-distance haulage contractors. In fact, they are not a family firm at all, even if their brand of infectious bluegrass-tinged folk appears so organic that they might have sprung fully-formed from some musical dynasty in a dustbowl state. In truth, they are four gifted young Englishmen from the London area whose live shows are selling out wherever they play (I know – I’ve tried booking.) Shortlisted for the BBC Sounds of 2009 Poll alongside such media darlings as Florence & The Machine and Little Boots, Mercury Prize nominees in 2010… Heck, the Mumfords even duet with the sainted Ray Davies on his latest album.

Formed in late 2007, they came together originally at the Bosun’s Locker, a now defunct cellar bar on the King’s Road where Marcus Mumford and banjo-playing schoolfriend Winston Marshall were promoting country nights. The two hooked up with another old friend, Ben Lovett on keyboards, and after adding Ted Dwane on upright bass, they had a band. And what a band! Their debut album, Sigh No More, released in October 2009, is an impressive record of how far they’ve come in a short time but could never quite convey the manic energy of their stage presence. A typical M&S number begins quietly, then builds into a catchy, rollicking hoe-down as Marcus takes lead vocals and guitar duties while somehow managing to play bass drum and tambourine with his feet.

Last year, the album release imminent, I snatched a few words with the band’s amiable frontman as they were on the road from Newcastle to Aberdeen. How did they find their sound, I ask. All four band members have a broad range of musical tastes, he tells me. Ted Dwane is “into blues”. Winston Marshall is “all about bluegrass music”. Ben Lovett shares a love of jazz with Marcus. As for Marcus himself, he admits to “lots of guilty pleasures” but singer-songwriters come high on the list. “When we came together,” he explains, “we found ourselves bringing together bits of those influences. But we’re developing. I don’t think we’ll ever stay in the same place for too long.”

Marcus has obviously had his moments with music journos who slap labels on what they do, so I skirt this issue with caution. “We’re not really ‘new’ folk,” he says. “We’re just copying everyone else. I wouldn’t really claim to be very original. People try and compliment you by labelling you in one way and actually it’s the most offensive thing they could say. Meanwhile they think they might be giving you a label you wouldn’t like and it’s exactly what you want!” His favourite description of the band was “London hillbillies”, yet “a lot of people would see that as an insult!”

It was my nieces who first told me about the Mumfords, long before the bandwagon got underway. It’s important to know what twenty-somethings are into, and I respect their tastes and thank them for the early “heads-up”. But if I’m honest, I don’t really think these boys are the great white hope of British music. Flicking through the current NME, I read that the likeable Marcus has just been anointed one of the “50 coolest people in music”. Yup – this is the point where I usually disembark from any bandwagon I happen to be travelling on.

Over on the fRoots forum there’s been a long-running and sometimes enlightening discussion of the Mumfords’ case, prompted by the editor’s assertion that he’d never give them house room in his journal, because they have no “roots in a tradition”. “Coldplay with a banjo”, peddling “epic faux-downs” – sums it up. I, too, find something inauthentic about their work, suspecting that it was all done a lot better forty years ago. And I’m puzzled by the fey religiosity of their lyrics. I wish now I’d asked Marcus what he means by “grace”, a word that occurs in more than one song. If I’ve got St Paul right, this is the notion that God’s forgiveness is not dependent on human virtue, but rather on a free outpouring of divine love for the human race, regardless of our moral rectitude or turpitude. Is that what we’re jumping up and down to?

Part of the above first appeared in R2 (Rock’n’Reel)

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