Marcus Mumford: Bonnaroo is a ‘very special place to us’

Mumford & Sons were reaching a critical and commercial peak in the summer of 2013. They were soaring high off of their 2012 release Babel, which sold almost three million copies in the U.S. alone, and were set to headline both Bonnaroo and Glastonbury that summer. Sadly, their Bonnaroo appearance never came to fruition due the an unfortunate illness striking the group’s bassist, Ted Dwane.

During the group’s three-show stint at the Greek Theatre in Berkeley, California, Dwane became ill with what he would later find out was a subdural hematoma, a severe brain injury that can be fatal in most patients. He sought medical attention while the group was in Austin, Texas and underwent surgery to remove the clot. Despite the surgery’s success and Dwane’s desire to trudge on, the band decided it would be best to put the rest of their U.S. dates on hold to ensure his recovery, leaving Jack Johnson to fill in for the band at ‘Roo.

“It was quite scary, but he’s just f—ing heroic as a human being and took it all in stride,” lead singer Marcus Mumford said in a phone conference on Friday. “He wanted to go straight back on the road because of the kind of person he is. But we all felt like the guy needed a bit of a break. So we decided to cancel, and we don’t take cancelling shows lightly. It literally takes like a brain injury to cancel a show. So we were gutted, but we thought it was exactly the right thing to do.”

After Dwane recovered, the band wrapped up their tour with a headlining set at Glastonbury and several other dates before going on a hiatus from the road. The group shifted their focus on recording their latest album, Wilder Mind, without the stresses of touring and allowing outside influences to affect the band’s songwriting process.

“(Touring) just makes the whole thing a little more stressful and probably squeezes your creativity more than necessary,” Mumford said. “With these songs we went and we wanted to record them behind closed doors and write them behind closed doors and then to present the world with them when we felt ready.”

Wilder Mind showcases a new direction for Mumford & Sons, as they shy away from the folk sound that drives the four-piece’s previous releases.  Gone are the banjos, mandolins and upright bass that served as the sound bed for the group’s biggest singles “I Will Wait” and “Little Lion Man,” as electric guitars and synthesizers drive the band’s new songs. Despite the sonic change, the core of what makes the group shine remains intact.  Their thoughtful, sentimental lyrics and uplifting choruses are still there, making the group’s transition much less jarring than some fans feared.

“The goal going into the record was really quite simple for us. It was just to make a record that we wanted to make and that came from a natural place,” Mumford said. “Then there were secondary things that came like really wanting to expand the kind of sonic palate of the band, to move ourselves on and keep current dynamic in that way because, as a band, we love so many different types of music that just doing what we did on Sigh No More and Babel again wouldn’t have worked for us. In fact, we would have just quit and not done it.”

Marcus Mumford of Mumford and Sons performs at the 2011 Bonnaroo Music & Arts Festival in Manchester, Tennessee. (MTSU Sidelines / Emily West)
Marcus Mumford of Mumford and Sons performs at the 2011 Bonnaroo Music & Arts Festival in Manchester, Tennessee. The band will headline this year’s iteration of the festival alongside Billy Joel and Deadmau5. (MTSU Sidelines / Emily West)

It was during the Wilder Mind sessions that Bonnaroo offered the band a headlining slot at this year’s festival. The group saw it as a chance to redeem themselves after missing the opportunity to headline in 2013.

“We thought headlining Bonnaroo [again] wouldn’t come for another however many years, if ever. So for that to be the first show that we were offered when we were in the studio making this album, it made us really kind of galvanize the end of the album process,” Mumford said.  “We thought it would kind of be like throwing our hat over the wall and then making ourselves climb over it.”

Aside from the redemption that will come when the band takes the stage on Saturday night of the festival, Bonnaroo has place in the band’s heart. Mumford says its “down and dirty” atmosphere makes it the American equivalent of Glastonbury, which he considers their “home turf.” He also considers their experience at 2010 festival one of the pivotal moments on the group’s rise to fame in America. That was the year they made their Bonnaroo debut and met songwriters Dave Rawlings, Gillian Welch and their “heroes” Old Crow Medicine Show. They all later joined forces for a performance of Old Crow’s “Wagon Wheel,” solidifying Mumford & Sons’ place in America’s folk landscape.

“When we got to America we were pretty nervous. With the sound that we had and the instruments we were playing at that time, we were kind of apprehensive about how we’d be received, especially by the kind of purists like Old Crow and Gil and Dave,” Mumford said. “They just welcomed us with open arms. It was unbelievable, so that was really seminal for us. Bonnaroo is a very special place to us.”

Mumford and Sons will be playing at Bonnaroo’s What Stage on Saturday night at 11 p.m.

To see our full archive of Bonnaroo coverage, click here.

Follow John Connor Coulston on Twitter at @JCCoulston.

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