Indie Band Forging a Viable Career Without Compromise

With “Ophelia” perched atop the Mediabase Triple A chart for an astonishing 12 straight weeks while climbing to #3 at Alternative, The Lumineers have emphatically proved that the double-platinum yield of “Hey Ho” and “Stubborn Love” on their 2012 eponymous debut was no fluke. Sophomore album Cleopatra sold 108k units and landed at #1 on the album charts in April, as the folk-pop trio set off on yet another world tour. Calling from Dublin before a sold-out show, singer/guitarist Wesley Schultz talked about independence, resilience and leaning in at Coachella, while, on the other end of the line, HITSHolly Gleason listened intently while giving herself a pedicure.

How did it feel to have Cleopatra sitting at #1 in so many countries around the world?
It would’ve been hard if we had expectations, but we didn’t have any. We just wanted people to hear the music, for the album to connect with a lot of people. So it’s hard to wrap our heads around, because we don’t think like that.

It seemed like a long time between records—almost four years. Why did it take so long?
We were touring relentlessly—and there was this part where we had to decide, were we just not going to go to places we’d not been yet? Then we wouldn’t have seen South Africa, Japan and Latin America. We didn’t have a record deal beyond the first one, so there was no one telling us, “Hey! You have to get a record out. You need to follow up now.” We felt it was more important to put out a good record. You only have three to five records to make an impact, so it’s pretty urgent. If you’re only going to have people’s attention for that bit of time, you need to make it your best stuff.

Not having a label telling you what to do is freedom. Is that part of why you signed with Dualtone for The Lumineers?
Between our manager and our lawyer, Richard Grabel, we have a lot of wisdom to draw on, but they’re forward-thinking at Dualtone. We look for sustainability versus the exploitative nature of the moment. In today’s environment, it’s much easier than ever to be on an indie. Dualtone is in Nashville, which is the epicenter of everything, but it’s almost a mom-and-pop label. And they grew with us. We met the people with the cool beards wearing the cool clothes, but Dualtone has music nerds who do the work. We really liked working with them. They tailor-made the experience of promotion for the album, really focused on what was needed. One of my proudest moments was when they won an award for Best Label with four or five employees [at the 2013 Libera Awards]. We know all the faces when we go in there.

How was working with Simone Felice as your producer?
He is so well read and cares about lyrics. I’d seen The Felice Brothers in 2007 in a synagogue that had been turned into a bar. They were singing old gospel songs, and their set was so beautiful and deranged and out of sync.

How did it change?
Our aesthetics had shifted for this record. I was really interested in the guitar sounds I was getting, and Jeremiah [Fraites] was the same way with the drums. And it was something that had very little to do with knob-twisting. I’d say, “I’m in a dark cave and there’s water dripping in the background and a sliver of light ahead. Can you make it sound like that?” And they did. 

The lyrics really are important. They’re almost another instrument.
It’s like when someone says a sentence, but it’s really a short story. There was this Kings of Leon song before they were all “Sex Is on Fire” called “Trannie.” Just “fingers in the dirt/spitting out his teeth” says so much!

“Cleopatra” is one of those; so is “Sleep on the Floor.”
Well, Cleopatra was from Eastern Europe, a Russian Orthodox family. It’s all true. Her father passes away, and her boyfriend asks her to marry him, but she’s in mourning and doesn’t respond. He leaves and never comes back, and she loses the great love of her life at 16. But she’s a cab driver now; she has this courage in her confrontation with life—this defiance, almost, and a sense of humor.

“Sleep” is about wanting to get away, to do what it takes to realize your dream. I went to New York with high hopes; I wanted to find my tribe, people who were wanting to make art. But my whole time there was stressful. There was a bunch of rich kids whose parents were bankrolling their stay telling me about the five bands they were in—and I could barely be in one because of all the work it took to support it. All that conspires against art.

I’ve become very tired of all the Facebook and now Instagram posts. All these moments of how great our lives are. It’s like, when you start running a PR campaign for your life, you start having a distance from it. We’ve been making a deal with the audience [at shows], saying, “We’re all here now, and this is getting in the way. It’s distracting me—and probably a lot of you. So let’s take a few moments and really be together and really enjoy this.”

Is it working?
One of the big moments at Coachella was “Slow It Down.” We wrote and recorded it in a kitchen, so some people would’ve been hesitant to release it. But we went for it, quiet as the song is. Everyone took a baby step forward and really leaned in to listen. You’ve got to give people more credit and realize they’re open to it.

You’re one of those bands, for all the success, that flies below the radar.
We did a free show in New York when it was all starting to happen. It was, like, 1,000 people, but then another 1,000 showed up—and were being turned away. We felt so bad about it, we went out into the streets to thank them for coming [laughs]. They didn’t recognize us. People were rolling up their windows— and we were knocking trying to say “Thanks.” A few people saw Jeremiah’s suspenders, and they got it.

Cleopatra spreads your roots a little further. There’s some R&B under some of the songs.
I love Bon Iver and how he creates this one big world with every record. But I was raised on Billy Joel. Every album is a collection of worlds. Every song is its own orb. It was fantastic, instead of just “This is your genre.”

Do you think you’ll get beyond that? You all have such a singular sound.
In my own head, the last album was a first date, this blind date with the world. It was rushed and crazy and trying to put it all out there, your best face forward. Cleopatra was like we’d been on five or six dates and we’d built some trust, so they wouldn’t run out the door.

We try to lead with our music. Look at Steve Miller—I didn’t even 
know what he looked like. We just want to exploit this moment, for people to hear good music and really experience it. You’re sort of objectified, but we know that without the music you’re just the flavor of the month, which works till somebody else comes along.•

The BTS boys are newly minted millionaires. (9/28a)
A big tease for the upcoming edition. (9/28a)
We really should be back at school. (9/28a)
Is this like hitting the snooze alarm? (9/28a)
He's skilled at sowing chaos. Sound familiar? (9/25a)
We're full of it.
Getting global with it.
And this time it's not from our bong.
Shorter videos! Weirder trends!

 First Name

 Last Name


Captcha: (type the characters above)