An Interview With The Lumineers: Wesley Schultz Unveils The Stories Behind The Band’s Intimate Lyrics And Irresistible Sing-A-Long Songs
The Aquarian Weekly. July 27, 2016
Folk rock band The Lumineers exploded onto the scene in 2012 with a refreshing alternative to the chart dominating electronic music of the time and quickly built up an enormous following. Since then fans have been ravenous for a follow up to The Lumineers’ wildly successful, self-titled debut album.
On April 8, 2016, four years and five days after their first album dropped, The Lumineers—comprised of Wesley Schultz (songwriter/vocals/guitar), Jeremiah Fraites (songwriter/drums/piano), and Neyla Pekarek (cellist/backing vocals)—released their stellar second studio album. Cleopatra overflows with thought-provoking lyrics and clean, mesmerizing melodies.
I caught up with Schultz before the band departed for the European leg of their tour to discuss the writing and recording process of Cleopatra as well as the inspiration behind The Lumineers’ captivating songs.
Before we start I have to tell you, my husband and I were married last June and my father walked me onto our beach ceremony to “Dead Sea,” which I think is one of the most beautiful songs I have ever heard.
Wow. That’s really cool!
Then in a weird coincidence, we bought our first home this April, from our realtor, named Ophelia. Your music is a cosmic soundtrack to our milestone moments.
We’re following you around! I wrote the “Dead Sea” for the woman who is now my wife. She said that to me. She said, “You’re like my Dead Sea,” and I was like, “Did you hear that somewhere?” As a writer I was like, “Did you just make that up because it’s brilliant.” As a Valentine’s Day gift I recorded it. Little did I know it would even end up on an album, but it’s really cool you picked up on the meaning.
My husband proposed at The Barnegat Lighthouse in LBI where we were married the following year. I said, “This has to be the song. It’s just too perfect.”
Let me say one more thing then because it’s kind of cool and cosmic. My wife picked me up yesterday from the airport in this dress and I said, “Oh I like that dress.” She said, “It’s not new.” In the “Dead Sea” there’s a part, “Your father died and you decided to live it for yourself.” After her dad died she went on this trip and she was sleeping in the airport waiting for a flight and somebody took all her bags. “You left with just the clothes on your back. They took the rest when you took a nap.” She had just this dress.
And it was that dress?
Yeah. She was wearing it yesterday and I hadn’t seen it in years. It’s kind of cool.
Wow! That’s awesome. Let me first say congratulations on the new album. It’s really incredible. The sounds, lyrics and toe tappability of Cleopatra are consistent with the vibe of your self-titled album, but the unique character driven perspective of Cleopatra makes it beautiful in its own right. How were you able to avoid the dreaded sophomore slump?
Well maybe we weren’t sophomores. (Laughs) I’m 33 now so it took a while to have a freshman album. We had all these failures to learn from and all these life lessons before we were even in the spotlight. At this point Jeremiah and I have been writing music together for 11 years. It enables us to put out albums of a different quality than we would have had this all happened when we started 10 or 11 years ago. I’m sort of thankful that we had a delay so we were ready for our moment when it came because it would be really hard to follow something up if we didn’t have that experience.
There is confidence and perspective that comes in your thirties. You become comfortable in your skin and with your beliefs. I believe it makes you a better writer and I’m sure a better musician as well.
I think it does help. I’ve heard this idea about fame; that it crystalizes you at whatever age you get struck by it. If you make it to the radio it can feel like you’re some big deal of all a sudden. For us, having it happen later in life allowed us to have a different outlook on it than if it happened when we were 18 or 20. We formed an identity about ourselves long before anybody tried to form one for us.
The album is packed with poetic songs about love, loss, regret, and reflection. Can you explain the writing and recording process for this album compared to the experience of working on your first?
We tried to take the same conditions that allowed us to write the first album and applied those to the second. We rented this little house in Denver. We used a lot of old ideas that we had never used before or had written along the way during these tours. They would often be on a voice memo on a phone. You would look at those a year or two later, see what was good and build off of that. In this case we took six months to just work out all the demos and the demoing process.
We had 10 days to record and four days to mix on the first album. For this one we had 44 days just to record. Six weeks instead of a week and a half makes a big difference. You can take your time to do the song live the way you want to do it or do a take that is meaningful. We wanted it to have that vibe that it was real. I got to sing one song for each day and sometimes I would be playing the guitar take at the same time. “Long Way From Home” and “Gale Song” I got to do those live, whereas in our first studio experience I would sing four or five songs in a day that were all final takes. You lose something with that that I like on this album.
Do you have any song on the album that holds a more significant meaning or has a little bit of a stronger hold in your heart?
Lately it’s been, “Long Way From Home.” That is a song about losing my dad. He died on 7/7/07 at 7:07am. It was a pretty bizarre coincidence. Only a few days ago it was nine years and I hadn’t really written much about it. I felt compelled to talk about him getting sick with cancer. He died from the same thing that took his mother’s life, so I think I was just trying to process that. It was a hard thing to do but I’ve been able to now play that live for people and it’s been really cathartic.
On a technical side it’s a song that’s written in 5/4, which is a pretty strange time signature. It’s a time signature that you hear in the Mission Impossible theme. Duh, DUH, Duh-duh, duh DUH. You don’t really hear a whole lot of pop songs that are written in 5/4. So that was a challenge to try to make that sound not strange to a listener. Also we never really had a song end with the same turn of phrase. If you listen to a lot of great Bob Dylan songs, “Shelter From The Storm” you know where he is going with it but you just don’t know how he is going to get to that line. With this we use that line “long way from home” four different times but it means something different each time. On a lot of levels it was a really fulfilling song to write.
You debuted the video for the title-track of the album. What it was like working with such an incredibly innovative director and how was the concept for the video in which your band only makes a brief cameo developed?
We have an aversion to being in our music videos, unless it’s to serve our song or serve our video in some way. “Ophelia” made a lot of sense because it addresses what that song was about. I was telling the director Isaac [Ravishankara], “I feel kind of split about this,” and he brought that to life. Isaac had a grander vision after making “Ophelia,” of making a series of videos that were all encompassed by the title-track “Cleopatra.” It’s pretty cool. You’ll have to wait and see. There is going to be other videos that utilize the same characters in different ways. He’s got a pretty special idea that is going to be rolled out over the next months. I feel lucky that we get to work with him. The actor in that, the lady has just such an amazing look.
She looks like she has such a story. It was really well cast.
He did a great job. “Cleopatra” is inspired by a real person. That person has that kind of face that has a story and has that life that is so much deeper than you can imagine. With “Cleopatra” the reason I got into the story of this taxi driver lady was because I heard when she was younger she was in love with this boy. They were both 16 and her father passed away and then he comes in and proposes to her in the midst of the numbness she feels about losing her dad and she doesn’t say anything. She doesn’t give him an answer so he takes that as maybe a no and he leaves their very small village never to return. And she was in love with him. She felt like that was the person she was eventually going to marry. He left on a rainy day and tracked muddy footprints on her rug. She refused to wash the rug. When I heard she had not washed these footprints off it really hooked me in. I needed to find out more. It was just really compelling.
Your music is uncluttered and free from distractions. Do you feel that by eliminating theatrics and overwhelming big sounds you can get down to the marrow of the music and better connect with your fans through your lyrics?
I think cleaning the clutter out gives it some distinction. We’re in this weird place where it’s never been easier to record. There are a lot of toys and abilities to manipulate sound and build something up to extreme heights. A good song will translate whether it’s a baron or sparse arrangement or whether it’s built up. But you’ll never really know how good a song is unless you start there, unless you start from that sort of bare bones arrangement. We feel like it would be fun maybe at some point to build songs up and do that. We’ll play these amazing slots at festivals where people are pretty new to the music and we’re the only ones sometimes with one or two people on stage and a guitar and kick drum. It either turns someone immediately off or it draws them in, but there’s not really a middle ground and I like that about it.
When I’m listening to records I put Lumineers’ albums on as kind of a palette cleanser to get rid of the bullshit and get back down to basics.
I don’t know if anyone told you this, but The Aquarian wrote about Jeremiah and my project years ago. It was the only publication that would write about us. That’s why I wanted to do this interview. I was appreciative of the press. We didn’t have anybody wanting to interview us. They described our music as, “audio marijuana.”
We were known as 6Cheek. It was a terrible name. We made different music back then. I just wanted to say thank you to The Aquarian for giving us something we could use to try to get gigs.
That’s a great line to use too.
I moved to the place where marijuana is legal so there’s some sort of irony in that.
What influences helped develop the sound of The Lumineers? Who do you listen to on the days you need inspiration?
I think we’re some weird combination of if Feist and Billy Joel had a baby. There’s the stripped back part that is so vulnerable and sparse. That’s where Feist comes in. Then there’s this other thing where we’re trying to create little scenes of a movie. Every song is a distinct scene unto itself as opposed to being one long shot. All the tracks live in the same universe but they are very separate. That’s where the Billy Joel thing comes in. He is a really crafty songwriter that brought substance when a lot of people weren’t doing that in mainstream music. If we’re really serious about being artists I think that will inevitably keep shifting because you get inspired by something else.
It was cool, I think, accidentally to have somewhere to go from the first album to the second album. Having it be as sparse as it was and essentially having not a whole lot of electric sounds, gave us somewhere to go from the first album to the second that we didn’t really think about. It happened live and it was an easy, smooth transition.
You passed up contracts with major record labels and instead signed with Dualtone Records. For a band still early in what promises to be a long career turning down a contract with a big name record company was a risk. Can you explain why you chose to go with an independent label?
At this stage, no one is really selling records when you think about it, so I don’t know how much risk there really is. It’s about, agreeing with the mantra of that label at that time. When you sign with a major, you’re signing with a whole philosophy. If that major’s head gets axed you still are signed to that same label. There is a big merry-go-round. There’s a lot of personnel that changes over the course of the life of a record or if you sign a three-album deal, over the course of that. You may never have even met the guy who is now in charge of putting your records out. That made us a little uneasy. If we had the choice we would rather go with something that we felt had sustainability and stability to it, where they knew what we were trying to do and they were trying to help us get there.
I also think there is a natural evolution. If the majors are going to survive they have to evolve. The indies are showing there is different ways to do this now. I wouldn’t be against it. Overseas we’re signed to Deco, which is overseen by Universal so we do work with bigger labels, but so far, we only signed one record deal and I think that’s the biggest thing. Saying, “I don’t know where you’ll be in three years, but I’ll work with you for the next three and then we are going to own our records.” Having the autonomy is really helpful. If you’re gambling or betting on yourself you’re going to say, “I want to be a free agent as soon as possible again.” We want to be motivated and we want them to be motivated to do a good job.
What do you guys have up your sleeve next?
We’re touring relentlessly for the next year, year and a half. After that I think we will put out a record hopefully sooner than the last one. We’re touring a little smarter now. I think that will enable us to put out a record sooner than four years in between. So maybe three years. We’ll see.
The Lumineers will be playing at Prospect Park Bandshell in Brooklyn, NY on Aug. 3, the Stone Pony Summer Stage in Asbury Park, NJ on Aug. 6, and the Speed Of Sound Festival in Wappingers Falls, NY on Aug. 7. Their new album, Cleopatra, is available now. For more information, go to thelumineers.com.