For the Lumineers, the speed of sound means playing the White House as part of SXSLawn, then heading straight to the West Coast to play a sold-out show Wednesday night (10/5) at the Hollywood Bowl. It means selling out every last ticket at Madison Square Garden in less than an hour on the first show on sale for their first-ever arena tour. It means selling well over 100,000 copies of Cleopatra, the follow-up to their Grammy-nominated platinum-certified self-titled debut, to bow at #1 in the U.S., Canada, Australia and the U.K. It means having “Ophelia” declare residency at the top of the Alternative, Hot AC and Adult Alternative charts, just like “Stubborn Love” and the breakthrough “Ho Hey” before it.

The Denver-based trio of Wesley Schultz, Jeremiah Fraites and Neyla Pekarek have found a way to melt genres with an impossibly lean acoustic framing that’s not quite Americana, nor punk, nor heartland rock. Yet somehow elements of each exist in the raw ache in Schultz’s voice, the sadness or triumph that drips from the spare guitar, the propulsive ways the rhythms move. Well into their second album cycle, the Lumineers have come into their own: playing “Ho Hey” early in their sets, suggesting fans put down their cell phones and be in the moment, making pop music safe for the cello and investing the audience in their songs on a deeper level. In a rare pause in the global demand for their life-affirming shows, Schultz talked to HITS about the changes, the reasons to do what they do—and following the unconventional path.

(Official White House Photo by Chuck Kennedy)

I just saw you hold an amphitheater of people spellbound without a lot of pyro, big fancy production—just songs and a few instruments and your voices. You’ve come so far from the trio touring as “Ho Hey” was hitting.
Wesley Schultz: Our main focus is how to connect to the people, and to lift the songs up. I love the discussions after the show. Sara Full, our tour manager, has worked with everyone from Wilco to AC/DC and The Rolling Stones—and there are always ideas being discussed on the bus. But there’s also a lot of energy. Between working on the crowd’s energy and the craft of how [the live thing] works, there’s a lot of trial and error, but there’s also a lot of throwing it out there.

You’re really connecting with the fans. I remember seeing U2 at Public Hall in Cleveland before they really became “U2.” It was transcendent in a very simple and connected way.
Have you ever read Killing Bono? The guy who wrote our bio grew up with Bono, and they were in rival bands. It’s the story of how the band had their rise.

I often think of going to see Bruce Springsteen at Giants Stadium and how he made this football stadium feel like a little club. He’d go to the piano and the band would leave, then they’d come back. All these different perspectives and dynamics in a very fluid show.

Even though it’s a show, it’s more like a conversation you’re having with the audience.
You try to break down the wall any way you can. You go out into the audience, and the people have to change their body’s position, where they’re looking. They can see you’re right there, but they’ve also had to shift their physical being which puts them—literally—in a different space. It resets the audience. When you break down the wall like that, people who were halfway there are either going to commit, or they leave. A lot of the effort I make is to try to bring people into the songs. Like a joke the people in your life thinks is funny: the jokes are only funny because they get it. But I don’t want the songs to be so specific, because it doesn’t mean anything beyond your hometown.

"A #1 record is like having a blood test and being told,
'You have great cholesterol.'”

How do you mean?
For a long time, I resisted telling people what the songs were about. I thought it should be like a painter. Every painter can’t stand by their paintings, explaining each one. It’s up to the person seeing it. Songs are for the listener to decide. I liked the idea of mystery. It works for Bob Dylan, who explains nothing. But I thought about Springsteen, and that live record where he introduces “Growing Up” with the story about “My mom said you should be a writer and a little something for yourself, and my dad said you should be a doctor and get a little something for yourself.” That pulled me in. So this is the first time I’ve really told these stories. It changes things. It really pulls people in where they’d maybe take a pee break. Like “Charlie Boy,” about the uncle I’d never met. The story before it brings them in.

You write such detailed songs, small bits, but big truths.
I feel like we write these little scenes in movies. I love Bon Iver—his voice is so much like an instrument. The War on Drugs, all his albums evoke a feeling and a vibe, a whole concept album. But different artists do different things. Like Father John Misty, Warren Zevon, Dylan, Springsteen, artists I grew up on, I hope we can pull people into the songs.

Do you have a favorite lyric?
My wife has a favorite lyric [laughs]. I always sang it to her when we were writing “Cleopatra”: “But I must admit it, I’d marry you in an instant/ Damn your wife, I’d be your mistress/ Just to have you around.” I find it funny that’s my wife’s favorite, but it is.

One of the songs that really moved me was “Long Way From Home.”
A lot of the lines were about losing my dad, but it’s also confessional. I don’t think I’d realized how deep it was going to go. It’s the only time I’ve wept when I was writing. “Hold onto hope, like a noose, like a rope/ God and medicine take no mercy on him.” I felt very lucky I got to excavate, and tell that story. You know, a lot of the doctors—who’re giving people these treatments for cancer—won’t take them themselves. So it could be sad, but it’s really just truth.

My dad had seen his mother go through these same things. All I could think was, "Now my dad’s seen his mom go through it—and he’s dealing with the same thing." It makes me wonder if there’s a time bomb inside me.

And “Gun Song” is another kind of revelation.
“I don’t own a single gun, but if I did you’d be the one/To hold it, aim it, make all the bad men run.” It was strange, as I am my father’s son: I look like him, act like him, wanna be like him. Only now—because I found the gun in his sock drawer—there’s this big divide. It showed me we all have secrets, and that was one of his.

Even with the two hit albums, the sold-out amphitheater tour—including the Hollywood Bowl this week—and selling out Madison Square Garden in an hour, you all just seem so humble.
Well, Jeremiah and I grew up in the same town, and for the last 11 years, we’ve spent every moment touring and writing and on the road. The underground DIY thing, there’s a humility that comes with it. And I think if we’d gotten the break at 20 that we did at 30, we wouldn’t be the same people because we hadn’t gone through all the hard work and wondering.

Well, you are proud of it.
A #1 record is like having a blood test and being told, “You have great cholesterol.” For the outside world, that’s how they measure it, but it’s just a fact. We’re making music to provoke people, to make them feel something and connect to me, the band, each other.

You raise the humanity bar. But as evocative as the lyrics are, it seems like it’s the rhythms and melodies that actually suck people in.
I had this epiphany. I heard this Beatles song, but it was Muzak, with all these weird instruments and no words. But I knew instantly what it was. And I realized: if you want your stories to be heard, a good melody could give your story wings.

So what comes first?
We figure out the melodies, then it’s almost a game of syllables. How am I going to express this, getting from A to where I want to be? And it works. Whenever I listen to my favorite Leonard Cohen song, he says so much with so little. Or Kings of Leon. “Fingers in the dirt/ Spitting out his teeth”—you just told a short story in two lines. Saying the most with the least.

Everything you’ve done is unconventional. After the massive success of “Ho Hey,” having a platinum album when physical isn’t moving, you could’ve cut any deal, but you stayed at Dualtone.
A lot of labels would’ve wanted us to work with Rick Rubin—and that would be cool, because his work is very good. But that’s not us. Simon Felice was the right person. When I met him, I felt like I’d found my tribe: people who value the same things we do, not these gross dark motivations. He just loves the music. And Simon’s had a great year. He did the new Bat for Lashes record, and it’s up for the Mercury Prize.

But the majors had to be offering you things you didn’t know you wanted.
Richard Grabel, our lawyer, who was Sonic Youth’s first lawyer and has been for 26 years, got us exactly what we wanted: a single record deal for each record. That lets us dictate the timelines and the pressures. By doing that, he’s insulated us from a lot of those things. I’ve never felt people buy something if you put it out quickly. Those rushing out to buy something are buying on name recognition, not music. That’s not what we do. Dualtone understands that: they didn’t hear the music till we were ready to put it out.

Unconventional, I’ll say it again.
Louis CK has a deal with FX—total creative control. He gets a little less money, but he can put whatever he wants on the air. It’s what you value. For us, it’s the music. It’s not like someone trying to make a big record. I feel a little out of place because we’re not trying to be quintessential rock stars. We realize we’re something else, and we stay true to that.

Photo: Joshua Mellin

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