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INTERVIEW: The Lumineers

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IN THE WAKE OF THE MASSIVE SUCCESS OF THE SINGLE HO HEY AND THEIR DEBUT SELF-TITLED ALBUM, DRUMMER JEREMIAH FRAITES SPOKE TO CHRIS FAMILTON TO SHED SOME LIGHT ON THE LUMINEERS RAPID RISE TO FAME.

The pop world still constantly throws up one hit wonders and success stories that seem to spring from nowhere, gather momentum and work their way into the consciousness of millions. More often than not there is a savvy marketing campaign or novelty factor that drives those songs so when something with grass-root origins picks up steam and enters the mainstream it highlights how simple melodic hooks can still capture the imagination of music fans. The Lumineers are one recent example with their single Ho Hey now surpassing 50 million views on You Tube. It is an incredible figure for a folk trio that don’t trade in any particular schtick outside their brand of folk music and one that drummer Jeremiah Fraites struggles to conceptualise.

“It’s incredible, I’ll never forget my math teacher who said you can comprehend the numbers five or one thousand but you can’t comprehend the number one million. You really can’t comprehend one million of something so 50 million is way beyond my comprehension.”

Fraites is quick to point out that the other driver of their success has been radio, that traditional method of dispensing music simultaneously to millions of people. “Radio is still huge and we’ve found that wherever we go, whether it is Boise Idaho, Omaha Nebraska or Los Angeles and New York, radio has really been driving us along. We’ve had two fantastic singles and once people have heard those it has translated into them coming along to shows. I think overall radio has been the biggest bait to get people onto The Lumineers.”

Though they’ve only recently released their debut album, the core of the band (Fraites and singer/guitarist Wesley Schultz) have a musical history together going back to the early 2000s where they initially wrote heavy alternative rock songs in the vein of the bands they grew up on in the 90s. Fraites openly talks of playing in jazz and instrumental electronic bands and growing up listening to Metallica and Guns N Roses. It is a refreshing honesty in these times of forced authenticity and bands cultivating contrived images and brands.

“When we started writing it was mostly in the style of the music we grew up on, grunge-era bands like Stone Temple Pilots and Nirvana. We used to have a lot more electric guitar and heavy drumming and we did that for 4 or 5 years. I guess we just got sick of it, didn’t feel comfortable in our own shoes and started writing completely different stuff that was simple and acoustic based and we loved the addition of something like a piano. I feel like we failed a lot at what we used to do which was good as we found out what we do love which is what we are doing right now. I think the difference between then and now is that we’ll be able to play these songs in 10 years and still believe them. The other stuff had a short life span, a short shelf life. It was sort of a fad what we were trying to do and this feels more comfortable.”

As they started forming the sound of The Lumineers, one contemporary band stood out as an example of the musical ethos they were trying to work to and though theirs is a cleaner interpretation, they share many similarities. “One band in particular – The Felice Brothers – we really liked. Wes and I went saw them live and there was something really unique about them. They used acoustic guitars and an old shitty out of tune piano sound and I really liked it. It was really simple and it evoked much more emotion from that simplicity rather than trying to be as technically advanced as possible on their instruments so that was really something that helped us change our genre and made us realise there is something to simplicity and a cinematic beauty to it all that really attracted us.”

Fraites agrees that the recent spotlight on and success of folk-based acts in the commercial market has felt like a sudden focus on the genre but he can see why the best of those acts have achieved the success they have. “I think it was instant. Mumford & Sons were the biggest band all of a sudden and bands like Avett Brothers and Old Crow Medicine Show have been doing it for a long time and getting more attention. We’re part of that too I guess, alongside bands like Of Monsters & Men and Fleet Foxes and it feels like that has all been pretty sudden. I think that there’s a storytelling quality to what all these bands are doing but there is also a pop sensibility to these bands with drums and a heavy pulse and catchy melodies so I’m not surprised it is in vogue right now, because it has that pop sensibility.”

One pitfall of success on the scale they have been experiencing, from sold out international shows to Grammy Award nominations is getting sucked into long promotion and touring cycles that can distract and sometimes destroy a band. Fraites gives the impression the band are taking a realistic and sensible approach to that side of the music business. “We are doing the long haul on this album for sure. It came out in April of last year and we’re going to go out again this year, maybe on into 2014. We’ll see how it goes, we’re not going to burn ourselves out. We keep things in check and try to stay mentally and physically healthy. We are excited to start writing new music though, absolutely. We’ve been finding a little bit of time but now as much as we’d like or need.”

That next step, backing up and building on a big first album, is one they have already discussed and planned for. Even though they are only beginning to work on new ideas they have some strong ideas about how they will approach the next record. “We’re artists first and performers and entertainers second I think and right now we have a very poppy, happy-go-lucky image but there is a lot to our sound that we want to expand on eventually. There are songs on the record like Slow It Down and Morning Song where we purposefully put electric guitars on them to give our band some sort of an out. If the whole record was very smooth and clean and acoustic we would have boxed ourselves into a hole. Putting guitar on two or three of those songs toward the end of the record was done completely on purpose because we wanted to give ourselves an out, if we so chose to do that for the second album.”

With their star in the ascendant The Lumineers appear to have a game plan for their music and a level headed perspective on the quantum leap the band’s profile has undergone in the last 12 months. The fascinating thing will be seeing where the crazy ride takes them and whether The Lumineers have already hit their peak or whether it is only just beginning.

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