A small drinking den under a pasty shop in London’s south west served as the stomping ground for the early noughties folk revival. A performance space for budding musicians, Bosun’s Locker has set the stage for many acclaimed artists, including the early serenades of Laura Marling and Noah and the Whale’s Charlie Fink. But its greatest claim to fame was match-making school friends Marcus Mumford and Ben Lovett with their (now) fellow band members Winston Marshall and Ted Dwane who, two years after connecting, formed Mumford & Sons in 2007.
And it wasn’t long before west London’s underground folk scene could no longer contain the band’s anthemic ballads. By 2009, the band released their debut album Sigh No More, which has sold more than 2.5 million copies, and spurred a global resurgence in what was a highly pop-dominated scene. Nine years after forming, the band’s constant desire to perform in rural terrain, explore diverse cultures and push musical expectations has been key to their lasting power. And while they cover much musical ground, Winston, the band’s bona fide banjo slayer, Dobro player and vocalist, explains that their philosophy is simple: “all we’ve ever tried to do [is] impress each other, to write things that excite the other person.”
The other thing that these Grammy Award winners do a lot is tour, but tour differently. In 2012 the quartet created the Gentleman of the Road Stopovers, a travelling festival that pops up in outside-the-square locations (think Troy, Ohio, and Guthrie, Oklahoma) for the sole purpose of celebrating each small town. When they played Hoboken, New Jersey, in 2012, there were 500 tickets set aside for residents only. Each location is chosen by members of the band just pointing to a city on a map. No territory is out of bounds.
“In 2012, we did a three-and-a-half-week tour of all of Australia where we went f**king everywhere, except Darwin I think. We did Dungog, which was f**king fun, it was a little cowboy town outside of Sydney. What we get out of it is the adventure,” says Winston.“It’s about meeting people, everyone’s so quirky and bizarre around the world – even though we’re probably the weird ones – but everyone’s got their own little weird and bizarre towns and we love exploring that.”
With many mega musos making 24-hour pit stops; landing, playing a huge venue and flying out again, Winston and his bandmates were keen to stay much longer during their tour of South Africa earlier this year. In the end, they played to 85,000 fans across Cape Town, Pretoria and Durban.
“Touring Africa has always been on our minds and I think it was a natural way in there because we just sold more records in Africa than any other continent. It’s a very weird country. There is still a lot of the rich white people and the poor everyone else and that’s still prevalent from the apartheid era. There’s a definite change to that… a bit more variety in races and there’s a black middle class. There’s still bizarre things about it because the townships are not just split rich and poor, the townships are split not just black and white, but black and coloured, which [in South Africa] is a term for mixed-raced and it’s a mindf**k. That is very shocking really.
There’s also stunning things about the country, everyone is so welcoming and warm from every walk of life, from Zulu witch doctors to the white middle class… we met every type of person, well we tried to anyway, the history of that place is f**ked up and it makes for a fascinating country.”
The band also used the time in South Africa to hire out two rooms in Studio 2 in the South African Broadcasting Corporation building, bringing together Senegalese sensation Baaba Maal, British DJs The Very Best and South African pop band Beatenberg. The result was 12 musicians moving back and forth for two all-day-and–all–night sessions “which meant that if they got bored in one, they could go to the other and contribute. There was a constant movement of ideas and people.”
Creating music in a tight space, with a community of different musicians who have different ways of writing, is no easy feat. The key to creating gold amongst the chaos? Trust – garnered from time working together. “If you don’t have trust at the start of it, it makes it difficult when you want to open up and be creative… It’s not just trust to share your ideas even if they’re stupid, it’s that you’ve got trust for the people that tell you no, that tell you that’s not such a good idea. If you love someone [and] you trust them creatively you can hear them tell you [no] and you’re not offended and you move on.”
The other key ingredient, according to Winston, is that all of the dozen musicians “admire the f**k out of each other”. Like any creative, the impact of getting the “deadpan stoic” Baaba Maal to start laughing and say, “Yeah, yeah, yeah, I like that,” was huge. “We are just trying to impress each other,” says Winston.
“We weren’t set on releasing a mini-album or EP, we were like, ‘Let’s get in the studio and make some music and see what happens.’ It was actually quite relaxed, which is actually quite different for us because the normal process is quite long, well thought-out, we take our time, we’re usually in [the] studio for two months or maybe longer, so with this one… it was just bish, bash, bosh.”
The end result, the EP Johannesburg, carried multi-layered instrumentals and thick textures throughout, revealing more is at play than just the creation of an album; there is a melding of two greatly diverse cultures. With Western music dominating airways globally, the notion that Western nations are the central melting pot for music creation is common, but false, says Winston. “It is very rare that [these collaborations] come out in the light and escape that ‘world music’ trapping. Even when I think of world music I don’t want to listen to it, I get put off by it.
“I don’t think [Johannesburg] is particularly cool, whatever ‘cool’ means, and it’s a shame. I think that will change as the world is getting smaller and smaller. We noticed in listening to all this music from South Africa and the rest of the continent, which I think you’d be hard-pressed to call world music, it is getting… in some ways more digestible by Western ears.”
The band is hoping their own contribution will be able to transcend language and cultural barriers. Recently returned from touring Europe in May, Winston observes this clear divide: “I think people are scared they won’t make money from it if it’s something not in English. We’re on the continent now in Europe and on the radio half the songs are in English but no one can speak English here. In the US, I’ve never heard of a song on the radio that’s not fully English, and the same for England… English people just don’t want to hear it. I think other cultures are used to English dominating everything, there’s something to be said for that.”
Between writing and performing, it’s the band’s downtime that proves essential to their creativity. It was a big reason why the group, after touring 2012 Babel album globally, took an indefinite hiatus and planned “to do very little”. Yet Winston cautions against taking too much time away from creativity.
“To tour for a year or two years you’ve got to keep momentum… so the danger in that is if you tour and take a year off creativity, you’re not going to get better at it, you’ll get worse. You’ve got to be proactive. We all have our different ways of dealing with being off the road… everyone has got different projects outside of music which is really key, I think just for sanity, to try and stimulate other sides of the brain.”
Adamant that creativity is a ‘use it or lose it’ type skill, Winston books studio time whenever he’s off the road. “My routine is to try and always be creative and get in the studio to keep that side of my brain ticking along.” In essence, he’s all for keeping the magic of creation alive.
“Magic is the word for it I think. Kind of chaos, but magic within that.”