Mumford & Sons strums - and now rocks - Seaside Heights

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Mumford & Sons members (from left) Winston Marshall, Marcus Mumford, Ben Lovett, and Ted Dwane. The Grammy-winning folk band has gone electric on "Wilder Mind," its third album. "I don't think we ever felt like purists to one set of instruments or one style of songwriting," says lead vocalist Mumford. (James Minchin III)

Who are the two most famous sons of Yorba Linda, Calif.?

Yes, history buffs, you're right about one. Richard Nixon was born in the Orange County enclave that is home to his presidential library.

But the second name is a surprise. It's Marcus Mumford, leader of Mumford & Sons, the massively popular folk - and now rock - band whose plugged-in third album, Wilder Mind, topped the Billboard charts upon release this month.

"It's me and the Big Dick," Mumford says with a laugh, talking on the phone backstage before performing on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart.

During the Comedy Central spot, in which the band played the troubled Wilder Mind single "Believe," and "The Cave" from its 2009 debut album, Sigh No More, Mumford plugged the band's Gentlemen of the Road Stopover festivals, one of which will pull into Seaside Heights in Ocean County on June 5 and 6. Other acts include the Flaming Lips, Alabama Shakes, and Jenny Lewis.

But back to Yorba Linda. We know Mumford & Sons made its name by playing rootsy, acoustic, banjo-flecked music that fits into the loose category known as Americana. But aren't they English?

They are. Mumford himself was reared in Wimbledon in southwest London, where his parents, who were Christian missionaries, moved when he was 6 months old. (Meditations on faith run through Mumford's music, but in 2013, the songwriter told Rolling Stone, "I wouldn't call myself a Christian.")

That wasn't the end of the American connections for Mumford, who is married to Far From the Madding Crowd actress Carey Mulligan, a childhood pen pal who's currently on Broadway with Bill Nighy in David Hare's Skylight. (Sorry, gossip hounds: No personal questions were allowed.)

"We went back there quite a bit," Mumford says of the U.S., "and I've got friends there that are like cousins. And actually, their taste in music really informed my taste in music. They were really into Ryan Adams and Neil Young, so that's what really got me into the Americana stuff. It was really important in terms of my musical tastes as a teenager. I was sort of their English novelty friend, and they would always get [ticked] off that I could charm girls with my accent rather than my abs."

When Mumford & Sons emerged, the band was pitched to American audiences as part of a London folk revival, along with talented touring partners Johnny Flynn and Laura Marling, whom Mumford dated.

Since then, though, their pals have remained respected cult artists, while Mumford & Sons' sturdy, stadium-ready choruses broke though big time, initially with the 2009 hit "Little Lion Man." Babel, the 2012 follow-up, won an album of the year Grammy and ushered in more easily digestible pop-folk acts like the "Ho Hey"-ing Lumineers.

Along the way, the strummy Mumfords seemingly got blamed for every time an authenticity-seeking indie ensemble added a banjo. The band even saw its song "White Blank Page" covered by the Muppets, including a magician known as the Amazing Mumford, who is no relation.

All that acoustic-ness set up the sneak attack of Wilder Mind, which began as a collaborative project with producer Aaron Dessner of brooding Brooklyn indie-rockers the National. The release of "Believe" in March revealed a revamped band with nary a banjo. Like Dylan at Newport in 1965, Mumford & Sons had gone electric.

So, Marcus Mumford, is Wilder Mind really that much of a departure?

"No, it's really not," says the 28-year-old singer. "Especially when you line it up against our old records. We knew we were going to have to play these new songs next to the old songs. It's still my voice, and it's still our songwriting, and there are characteristics to the songs that are definitely us. But it's us with the other instruments we grew up with."

Mumford says he and his bandmates - Winston Marshall, Ben Lovett, and Ted Dwane, multi-instrumentalists all - have been surprised when doing press for Wilder Mind to learn from journalists just how closely the Mumford name was associated with the banjo.

"I grew up as a drummer, Winston grew up as a lead guitarist. We're going back to our first instruments," Mumford says. "We used acoustic instruments to do what we did on our first two records. That was really fun. We loved doing that, and we're going to continue to do that live.

"But we wanted to do something different, and, you know, our taste in music is very broad," says Mumford, who mentions Jonny Greenwood of Radiohead as a model musical adventurer. "I don't think we ever felt like purists to one set of instruments or one style of songwriting. We're not like the Punch Brothers."

Last month, a Daily Beast interviewer asked Mumford and Marshall about the celebrity launch of Jay Z's streaming service, Tidal. Marshall called the artists participating in the launch - such as Kanye West, Jack White, and Madonna - "new-school [expletive] plutocrats."

"We don't spend a huge amount of time thinking about that stuff," Mumford says, downplaying. "We make music. We're not that interested in the platforms people listen to it on. Any legitimate platform, our music goes onto it."

When it's suggested that earnest folkies rebranding as rowdy rebels could hardly do anything more rock-and-roll than talk trash to Jay Z, Mumford says that wasn't intended.

"The whole thing got blown out of proportion and taken out of context," he says. "I ended up having a conversation with Jay Z about it. He was gracious enough to give me a ring. And I get it much better now. He's trying to create a sort of farmers' market for music. It's sort of an old-school record store. Which I like, now that I understand the vision."

The Gentlemen of the Road Stopovers take place in small towns such as Walla Walla, Wash., and Waverly, Iowa. The show on the Seaside Heights beach will be headlined by the Shakes on Friday and the Mumfords on Saturday.

"As a musician, it's kind of a dream to invite some of your favorite artists to play this destination festival with you and your fans," he says. "It's like planning a wedding. We're complete micromanagers. From what beer is sold to making sure there's no corporate branding to the design of the stage."

How do they decide where to stop over?

"In the case of Seaside Heights, it's close to New York and it's close to Philly, so the catchment area is close to where we would want to play anyway," Mumford says. "And Seaside Heights is like a survival town. It's postapocalyptic. It's been beaten to [smithereens]. First by Sandy, and then by fire. But there's a survival spirit within the town, and it picked itself up because the people were so great. The aim of these things is to leave the town in a better place than we found them."

 


MUSIC

The Gentlemen of the Road Stopover festival

June 5 and 6 in Seaside Heights, N.J. Headliners are Alabama Shakes on Friday and Mumford & Sons on Saturday. Other acts include the Flaming Lips, Jenny Lewis, the Vaccines, the Maccabees, Dawes, Little May, Blake Mills, JEFF the Brotherhood, the Very Best.

Tickets: $179, $199 (camping)

Information: www.gentlemenoftheroad.com


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