When the Lumineers first formed in New Jersey in 2005, the band struggled to get gigs at some of New York’s better small venues. In fact, playing clubs in the city turned into such an ordeal that the guys almost called it quits.
“It was difficult to crawl out of that and grow,” says singer-guitarist Wesley Shultz in a recent phone interview from Asheville, NC, where the band was rehearsing for the tour that brings it to Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse with Mt. Joy and JS Ondara on Saturday, Feb. 8. “It felt like a merry-go-round. I was working a few jobs, and [drummer Jeremiah Fraites] was finishing up school, and we were commuting back and forth between New York and New Jersey. It was at a breaking point.”
Schultz decided he wanted to leave New York/New Jersey, so he had what he describes as a “heart-to-heart” talk with his Fraites, and the band called it quits during that phone conversation.
But Schultz didn’t want the band to end, so he suggested the group just relocate.
“I pitched [Fraites] on coming to Denver,” says Schultz. “I thought if we had tried to make things work on a long-distance basis, it would never work out. He agreed. We went out to Denver. People thought we were finished, but we were just getting started. We made our way back to New York where we tried to play places like Mercury Lounge and Rockwood and all these places. We couldn’t get into them when we lived in New York. After we moved, we got into all of them. We went to Denver on instinct, and it just worked out.”
The band recorded its first album at Bear Creek, a famous studio in Seattle. Walking into the place, Schultz knew the band had taken a big step forward.
“It was amazing,” he says. “Walking into that studio was life changing. Up until that point, we had either snuck into studios or turned a room in our house into a recording studio. It was just guerrilla-style recording. We even went to the practice studio at Jeremiah’s university to record piano and a few other things. We would bring in laundry baskets that had microphones and all this gear to make it look like we were doing laundry. For us, [Bear Creek] felt like we had graduated to some other place or level.”
Released in 2012, the self-titled album delivered a hit with the careening “Ho Hey,” a folk-y tune that features softly strummed mandolin and call-and-response vocals.
Given the debut album’s success, there was a certain amount of pressure for the group to deliver an equally successful follow-up album.
“In some ways, there was underlying pressure, but I felt confident that if we knew the songs were right, things were going to happen, and it didn’t matter what kind of success preceded it,” Schultz admits when asked about the band’s second album, 2016’s Cleopatra. “We were confident. We were pressing a lot in the beginning but once we got going, it was fine. We started with ‘Ophelia’ and one of the last songs to be added was ‘Angela,’ and that was the last to be added and last to be written. It became one of our favorites. After it, I had a much better appreciation for why the sophomore slump exists. There were people who had rooted for us, and others who had bet against us. People said this kind of music was dead.”
In the wake of Cleopatra, which wound up going platinum in the States, the band decided to try something more ambitious for its third album. Initially, the guys thought they’d make three EPs that could stand on their own.
“When I started to write the songs, I began to look for themes that ran through them,” says Schultz when asked about III. “It felt very superimposed. Once we had these Sparks family characters — there was Jimmy and Gloria and Junior — it became an exciting thing.”
While the Sparks family members may be fictional, they’re modeled on real people. Schultz has a relative who’s battled mental illness and addiction and is currently homeless. Fraites’ brother died of a heroin overdose.
In another unique twist, each song on the album has an accompanying video, and the videos work together as a feature length film. A few weeks ago, the film even showed at the Toronto International Film Festival.
“For us, the ability to tell the story in a movie form and get it to be accepted into film festivals has been great,” says Schultz. “I imagined it as a movie but with no dialogue because the music is the dialogue.”
Schultz says he aims to empathize with the characters in the songs rather than cast blame.
“It’s painful to love someone like this who doesn’t know how to get out of their own way,” he says. “I think addiction is like standing in the ocean where you don’t appreciate the power of mother nature unless you’re standing in the ocean. What’s really humbling is when you get pummeled and thrown on your ass by something you thought you could handle. A lot of the album is telling the story of the addict and not just making it a one-sided story.”
Given the opioid and mental health crisis, the album comes at a particularly significant historical juncture. And yet even though the songs all possess a somber tone, tunes such as “Life in the City” and “Gloria” still possess that uplifting energy for which the band is known. With its working-class imagery, “Jimmy Sparks,” one of the album’s highlights, possesses a Springsteen vibe.
“The director of the music videos was adamant about how within these songs there’s so much love,” says Schultz. “It’s similar to a song about heartbreak. It’s because you love the person. You might hate what they’re making you feel, but it’s all derived from love. It was unexpected outcome. We didn’t think we were committing career suicide, but I didn’t think [III] would be as enjoyable to play live as it has been. It’s been really great, and we’re just getting started.”
The Lumineers, Mt. Joy, JS Ondara, 7 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 8, Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse, One Center Court, 888-894-9424. Tickets: $35-$299, rocketmortgagefieldhouse.com
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