It’s a sweltering day in Johannesburg as Wesley Schultz of The Lumineers and I sit down to have a chat. He’s dressed as hipster as humanly possible, with an organic cotton shirt, skinny jeans and farmer boots and sports a ridiculously ginger beard.
His sunglasses reflect the harsh light coming into the band’s tent backstage and I can hear one of his bandmates say that South Africa has got to be one of the hottest places they’ve been to.
Wesley Schultz of The Lumineers performs at Johannesburg’s Emmarentia Dam. (Photo: Nikita Ramkissoon)
This is their last show of a three-year world tour of their self-titled début album that was released in 2012, and Schultz says it’s awkward to sum up the tour. “It’s kinda weird talking about it. We haven’t had time to reflect on it yet.”
“It felt like it gathered steam and it wasn’t just one thing that gave it steam. It was many things, which you don’t expect to happen when you get zero breaks but I guess that’s he nature of the beast. “
The album, which includes radio hit Ho! Hey! as well as others like Stubborn Love and Flowers in Your Hair. It’s taken the indie scene by storm with its folksy guitar and its foot-stamping, tambourine-driven beat. Ho! Hey!, with its chanted hos and heys and its upbeat chorus; “I belong with you/You belong with me”, has reclaimed a space for the acoustic on pop radio.
“I hope our contribution to music is to remind people that albums can be dynamic. I think that I was so happy that so many albums were purchased than just one song.
“It’s a healthy reminder that people will listen to the entire record if you take the time to make a good record and people are willing to go with you in different directions.”
Schultz says it’s good old-fashioned songwriting and taking a pop song in different directions. “That’s as simple as it gets,” he says. “I hope we represent a movement of being a real band playing our own songs with real feeling.”
The Denver-based band are made up of Schultz on lead vocals and guitar, Jeremiah Fraites on drums, Neyla Pekarek on cello, Stelth Ulvang on piano and Ben Wahamaki on bass.
The Lumineers sound like a band that got together in someone’s apartment and happened to record an album with a whole lot of friends, but Schultz says it was quite the opposite.
“We tried so many different things with each song. We home recorded for seven or eight years. We did a lot of experimenting and whittled it down, built it up and burned it down over again until a point where it felt really simple and natural but sometimes it takes a while to get there depending on your style.”
He says it was about “taking all the crap off”.
“We did a lot of addition by subtraction with the album and stripped away fat. If it wasn’t necessary, it wasn’t gonna be on the record. I think sometimes band s get caught up in inclusion and democracy. It’s not about that. It’s about vision.”
The band’s vision, he says, was to create a record that conveyed real feeling, even if it took ages to get there, because translating feeling into something communicable is difficult.
“It’s not about feeling good about being in a band, and so stripping the ego away is what we tried to create in the culture around this band. It’s always a challenge because we’re human beings and we have feelings with different visions.
“If someone is at the steering wheel, you have to respect that and when that’s compromised you compromise the song and it’s a hard sell to some musicians. You have to find musicians who are humble and don’t mind taking a back seat sometimes.”
Cool as folk
The music itself is simple and rustic-folksy, with a touch of pop that makes it accessible and radio-friendly, but it’s also quite cinematic in its storytelling. It’s nothing new, but it’s well-crafted and put together, which makes for not just easy listening, but for latching on to every emotion the lyrics takes you to.
With clever but rudimentary arrangements, the focus is drawn towards the lyrics in some songs, and sometimes, the arrangement is the centrepiece. There is never one member struggling to outdo the other, and never one instrument that leads.
Schultz says he’s been listening to some old traditional folk recently and The Lumineers is not folk in that way.
“I think what we tried to do is bring out the element of hearing these songs in our own lives that have told really vivid stories, and obviously traveling around with the idea of folk being of the people.
“We used to play living rooms and busk so a lot of the music we made was born out of that. We were traveling around and not playing a lot of clubs because they wouldn’t let us in the door so we used to play acoustic in New York.”
He says necessity is the mother of invention and it became about getting creative with acoustic instruments by virtue of the band’s situation. “Within that box you’re confined but you can get creative even with the limitation. It almost frees you up to make magic.”
The Lumineers released their album on vinyl with the CD and I tell him that more often than not, I see the album on vinyl rather than CD. He laughs when I say that the band has been appropriated into Johannesburg hipster culture.
“Vinyl and recording on analogue gives a lot of warmth that you don’t find on digital, which is debatable. But the tangible nature of holding a record in your hand and the album art seen as its meant to be seen is more real than an MP3 where it ends up on your phone.”
Schultz says that sometimes when they play in a small theatre they take the microphones down and play live as they would at home, and that’s the feeling vinyl gives you.
“It’s tangible and something you can wrap your arms around. It’s a reminder. We can so easily move away from that. The songs are what matter but it’s a way of reminding yourself where it comes from because it can feel so manufactured that you forget it all starts with a strum of a guitar.”
Not discrediting post-production, he says glossed and slick recordings sometimes hide a beautiful song. “We feel like we’re the band showing up underdressed but we believe in the songs and we believe it will shine through.
“It’s been really refreshing to see people respond without needing the back beat of a regular pop song. We wanted to make a record that’s dynamic – something that’s a living, breathing thing.
“When it’s hyper compressed it wears you out. You can listen but have to put it down after a while. Like coffee with twice the amount of caffeine. With simpler music, you don’t have to.”
Planning new album, playing an old one
The band will be heading to the studio after a short holiday.
“Jer [Jeremiah Fraites] and I had a couple months to write and now we’re gonna chip away at the next record in Denver in our rented house.
“We’re curious as to how it’s gonna turn out. The only difference now is we don’t feel quite as rushed. We might indulge ourselves. We felt rushed to get to the point we’re at now and I believe in Tom Petty’s thing of ‘don’t bore us, get to the chorus’. We want to make a complete record and we’re gonna take as long as it takes to make one.”
The band’s performance of all 11 of their songs from the début album was classy, slick and sounded as natural and intimate as a performance in a smoke-filled bar. Schultz even told everyone to put down their cellphones mid-song during Ho! Hey!, asking them to appreciate the music instead.
Hearing my favourite, Stubborn Love, was a cherry on the cake after a show that saw five incredibly talented musicians take their craft to another level. My only criticism is that it was so short.
I can’t wait to hear more from this band, who have taken folk and put it back on the musical map. – Nikita Ramkissoon
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