That toothy twang of a banjo is a delightful sound to hear. Admittedly, the trusted banjo has had a bit of a reputation in modern times. You wouldn’t be the first to think of bearded, toothless rednecks sitting beside a swamp, chewing tobacco and plucking on their instruments.
Now imagine that sound amplified 120 dB to 80,000 adoring fans. A sea of adrenaline-pumped superfans screaming, sweaty and singing along to the lyrics. That’s the sort of swamp UK band, Mumford & Sons, pluck their banjos in. Combine with that electric guitars, massive musical gestures and thudding drums and you’ve got a Mumford & Sons concert.
At the time, kids in 2009 were listening to heavy metal, electro-pop and hip-hop, and the new sound of Mumford & Sons was different, exciting and thought-provoking. Comprised of four mates from London, the band made a huge shock wave around the world from their humble beginnings. Releasing their debut album, Sigh No More, in 2009, they sat on the fringes of the mainstream music scene, producing hoedown-waltz-indie rock. And then they sky-rocketed. They’ve since released three more highly successful albums, peaking Billboard top 200’s, won Grammy’s and world-wide recognition. Mumford & Sons is, undeniably, one of the most recognizable names on the planet.
We got to chat with banjoist, vocalist and lead guitarist, Winston Marshall before the band’s Delta tour in January at Western Springs in Auckland and talked music, Delta and the future of the band.
How did Mumford & Sons come to be?
We were all playing in different bands in London around 2006 and collaborating with each other. Marcus, the [lead] singer of the band, had some songs and invited about 10 people to help perform them. After a couple of months, that whittled down to the four of us and we just started playing gigs around London. We played every venue we could and supported lots of different, cool artists. Before long, we were touring around the country. At the time, we all loved touring – that was our common passion. Whereas now, speaking for myself, I love being in the studio more than anything. I love that creative zone. But touring will always be the thing that unites us.
When did you first realise that you wanted to make music a career?
Since the age of 14, I was always ‘blinkered’ to that idea. After the realisation that I’d never become a professional football player, I decided that I always wanted to do music. I think everyone [in the band] has different stories. Even when we first started playing, we were all in different bands. We’re honestly still open to that. Everyone’s got their own side-projects and building on the concept of Mumford & Sons.
Did you guys always plan on having banjos as your defining Mumford & Sons sound?
I’m racking my brains to go back 11 years, but when we first started I think it was quite natural in a sense. That was sort’ve the music we were listening to. If I think about what we were listening to back then, we were listening to a lot of The Avett Brothers and Old Crow Medicine Show, a lot of old timey bluegrass music. Bon Iver and The National were bands that we loved but had an electric feel. There was great music coming out of London at that time too; Noah and the Whale, Laura Marling, Johnny Flynn. When I was a teenager, I was in a bluegrass band at school as well, not to say that our taste was limited to that. Between us, we liked every type of music. We loved hip-hop, rap, techno, pop. I’ve always loved pop actually.
What is the transitions like for the band in finding the right sounds for your albums?
We’ve always followed our gut and our passion. The music we make reflects the music we’re listening to. The lyrics too reflect what books we’re reading. Going into Wilder Minds, for example, we’d been touring relentlessly with folk instruments. At the time, I was in another rock band, Marcus was in a jazz band and Ted was in a blues band, so we were all desperate to play something that we hadn’t done up to that point. To be fair, we did have have electric songs on the first two albums. They were there but we just wanted to explore that further.
What was your favorite song to work on from your latest album, Delta?
The favorite song, writing-wise was Darkness Visible. The song before it, Picture You, was quite a well thought-out demo and we started jamming out chords on the back of it. It ended up being a 25 minute-long odyssey. At the time, we thought “that was fun”, but obviously it was silly because we couldn’t use it. Then the idea came of using John Milton’s Paradise Lost, which inspired the song Picture You. That just became a beast in a collaborative sense, but I truly think that that song would not exist if it wasn’t for the four of us. Delta has songs that individuals wrote, but Darkness Visible is the sum of the four of us.
Are you excited to come back to New Zealand for your January tour?
We’re always excited to come back! The only sad thing is that we’re not there for longer. Years ago, we came and did a couple of shows in Wellington and did Christchurch and had a f**king ball! We’re delighted to be coming back and your country’s been so good to us. It’s also amazing because you’re so far away from home, but to go that far and to be welcomed by people who are so kind and supportive and loving is just wonderful.
What does the future hold for Mumford & Sons?
Well, my personal dream is to make more music and get in the studio. We’ve already written most of the next album and we just need to get in and finish it. That’s what I’m really excited about. We love writing, making and performing music and if we can continue we will continue. That’s the dream.
Photography by Alistair Taylor-young