Not very long ago, despite platinum sales and a 2013 Album of the Year Grammy for Babel, making fun of the band Mumford & Sons was all too easy. They were Englishmen singing Americana. Their music was described as “bro-folk.” They wore beards unironically. On Wilder Mind, produced by James Ford (Arctic Monkeys, Florence + the Machine) and recorded in the Ditmas Park studio belonging to the National’s Aaron Dessner, the band moves away from their trademark folksy sound and the foot-stomping anthems to which fans are accustomed. The lush harmonies and old-timey percussion of “Little Lion Man” and “I Will Wait” have been replaced by enthusiastic electric-guitar solos and aggressive rock drumming. The album does not sound like it could've been recorded during the Great Depression.
“I don’t think [Wilder Mind] is a reaction to what anyone else thought,” says guitarist Winston Marshall, sitting with his bandmates in a luxurious Nolita apartment, and who just last year told Vulture, “Fuck the banjo.” “It was a reaction against the fact that we’d done six or seven years of touring with four instruments that largely weren’t our first instruments. I’m a guitarist, Ted [Dwane]’s a guitarist, Marcus [Mumford] is a drummer, but we’ve been playing banjos and accordions and all of this stuff. By the end of that, we were desperate to play something else, to do anything new.” The baby-faced, erstwhile banjo-picker — a former member of a ZZ Top cover band — now has long, rock-god hair and a plays a Gibson electric. At recent shows, he's even head-banged while playing new songs like “Snake Eyes” and “Tompkins Square Park.”
The band's meticulous harmonies are also scaled way back on Wilder Mind. They’re too laborious to record, says front man Marcus Mumford, but also, the band wanted to explore different sounds: “I really enjoy the vocals on the Arctic Monkeys records. There are no real harmonies there. You listen to Arcade Fire, and they’re really restrictive in their harmonies, but when they come, they’re really big.” There are only a couple of moments on Wilder Mind where old-school Mumford & Sons harmonies take center stage. “The Wolf” is an arena-ready love song that features the band’s calling card. When the crowd heard it for the first time during a small set in New York, it erupted; everyone immediately started pogoing in unison. “It’s the hardest we’ve ever played and the highest I’ve ever sung,” says Mumford, sipping coffee one morning after the show. “It’s exhausting.”
If being the punch line for jokes about mason jars and plaid shirts ever bothered the band, they never showed it. In 2013, just to prove that they, too, had a sense of humor, they released a parody video for “Hopeless Wanderer” starring Jason Sudeikis and Jason Bateman. “We try to center everything around the music,” Mumford says, sitting next to Marshall. “If it’s not about music, we’re not really interested.”
There are several New York references on Wilder Mind. Some are purely circumstantial (one day Dessner labeled a file “Ditmas,” and, ta-da, that became a song title), but Marshall and Mumford agree the album has a special relationship with the city in which it was recorded. “It’s the setting,” says Marshall, who, along with keyboardist Ben Lovett, has lived in New York for the past two years. “It’s not about New York, but it’s hard not to be influenced by this place. There’s always something to get involved in.” He also adds: “I want to bring UCB to England. We don’t have anything like it,” referring to the vaunted improv comedy institution, where he's taken classes.
Indeed, unbeknownst to the other members of the band, Marshall recently made his debut at UCB to deliver a monologue. (What was it about? “I don’t know, exactly. It involved condoms and being Jewish.” Are you Jewish? “Ish,” he says in a fit of laughter.) It didn’t go well. Still, UCB invited him to return in May to do another monologue before Mumford & Sons embarks on its 2015 Gentleman of the Road Stopover tour. “Nooooooo,” says Mumford disbelievingly upon learning the news. "That’s a miracle, mate!” He stuck out his hand for a high five. “New York,” says Marshall. “It’s the center of the world.”