Back in 2013, at the Other Stage at Glastonbury, I watched firsthand as swathes of girls in flower crowns (the festival accessory du jour, also doubling as an intentional homage to twinkly ballad “Flowers In Your Hair”) surrounded the Lumineers as they made an impromptu foray into the crowd to the delight of fans. Jangly folk-rock vibrated into the air, with head-bobs accompanying their breakthrough single “Ho, Hey”, and hip sways to more sombre tracks “Slow It Down” and “Stubborn Love”.
It’s 6 years later, and while their Denver-hailed sensibilities have remained pretty much impact – I spot the telling pork pie hat as I meet lead vocalist Wesley Schultz and multi-instrumentalist Jeremiah Fraites at a London hotel café – things are very, very different now.
The now twice-Grammy nominated band are about to release their third studio album, III, out 13 September, a full visual album, split into three chapters, each its own EP, and each one following a separate character in the fictional Sparks family across different generations. Chapter I focuses on Gloria; Chapter II follows her grandson Junior; and Chapter III will revolve around her son Jimmy Sparks.
Their first release “Gloria” teased what was to come, an emotive chronicling of the destructive cycle of addiction, and inspired by Wesley’s own personal family experiences. There is despair. There is a car crash. The album is is darker than their previous material, feels somewhat unfiltered, and is heart-wrenchingly raw to an often unsettling degree. But it sounds very much like a band that has come into their own.
We caught up with Wesley and Jeremiah ahead of the release of III…
Congratulations on the new album. It’s been three years since your sophomore album. “Gloria” is obviously about addiction. Would you mind telling us a little bit about it?
Wesley: Gloria is about member of my family, but almost in disguise to give a little bit anonymity to that person. When your family member is an addict, you love them but you also don’t get to decide not to love them. You go through those ups and downs with them whether you like it or not. So a lot of the album is about when that happens to a family, and its through the eyes of Gloria, her son, and her grandson. One of the lines is “will you just decide, there are easier ways to die” – which has been said within my house a bunch of times about that person. It’s so tortuous and you wonder why someone wouldn’t end it another way? It’s a very slow and painful way to go, where you are ashamed of yourself, and you are full of pain. Which kind of backs up this idea that alcoholism is a disease and that no one would really choose this. So it’s a weird part of our world, at least in the US. There is a hesitation to talk to anyone about someone in your family having any sort of addiction because there’s a stigma attached to it, and no one wants to admit that.
I saw this line you guys used on Twitter that says “Loving an addict is like standing among the crashing waves, trying to bend the will of the sea” – would you mind explaining this a little bit?”
Jeremiah: My brother died of a heroin overdose when 19, and even though it was years ago, it’s still crazy to think and see someone go through anything to get whatever substance it is, alcohol or drugs. It is a weird thought, but imagine if you saw a bear in its natural habitat doing something like that. Where it just kept picking up a rock and the rock would fall and break its foot. The bear keeps doing that. I think we’ve become so desensitised to it that we see humans beings trapped in their own insanity and decisions. Naively, you kind of think just “have some will power, just do it”. And the most humbling part of it is that it was such an arrogant or naive way to look at it. It doesn’t work like that. I wish it did.
Was the album created from a place of anger, or understanding, or do you think its an amalgamation of lots of different feelings?
Wesley: It was kind of a therapy session. What has been really great about this album, and us writing together, writing 99% of the lyrics, it brought up a lot of dormant feelings I had about things, frankly I didn’t have to deal with that stuff for so long and you kind of forget. I remember when my brother did die, feeling all of this anger like “fuck you, why would be so selfish?” I was so angry for so many years and then you become sad and confused, like all the stages of grief. It’s so complex and intricate. I think it is important and that’s the whole point of music and art is that it’s cathartic and therapeutic. We feel that on stage. I could probably cry in two or three of the songs we are performing, but like maybe it’s vanity because I don’t want people to see me cry on stage. That’s a good feeling and a good sign that we are tapping into something honest and pure and not just saying “don’t drink” or “drinking is bad”. It’s a really pure and honest album.
Do you think this is your most raw album to date?
Wesley: Yeah, I think it is. I think the first album sounds like demos in a really cool and innocent way. It’s cute.
Jeremiah: And the second album feels more polished. This one there is not really an agenda. It’s more about what’s dope or that feels so cool to me. I think we teased the sounds out of us the best in this album. The way Wes’ guitar sounds, the way my piano sounds, the way his vocals sound – we thought “let’s use that bit your voice kind of broke up a little bit.” Sonically it imitated the broadness of the lyrics perfectly. I think that if this was a cleaned-up album with lyrics it would have been a disaster, and it would be like “where is the rawness?” It’s really believable the words Wes is singing about.
Wesley: It’s helpful that it’s not our second or first record because there are things you have to prove even if you don’t realise it. The third one, I don’t know if it’s with every band, but with a lot of bands, they have really good third records. You get the monkey off your back and you can just think “this is what I want to do” even if you don’t put out the record.
Jeremiah: We felt fearless, like yeah fuck it, let’s put out music that we love and we care about. It’s our third album, now is the time to do this.
Going onto the visuals aspect, all your videos have had a strong narrative. What made you want to explore having a visual with every song on the album? Was it challenging?
Wesley: It was a lot, the poor director, I don’t know if he ever slept. He did so much work on it. It was an opportunity to say “this is what this thing is about.” And it was kind of like really exciting to embrace this, and do it for the whole album, because it was in these chapters. It would reinforce what we are getting at. If you don’t hit people over the head with what you are singing about, they will definitely pick up on it.
You saying the first and second album felt like a demo, has there been any feedback comparatively that this one feels quite a bit darker?
Jeremiah: A lot of friends, family, and random fans we have kind of been previewing it with said that the last chapter is sort of dark. We think it’s cool.
Are you nervous for how people are going to receive it?
Jeremiah: It’s been cool. I wouldn’t change it even if the feedback sucked from the beginning because you can’t live that way. It is pleasant to see that people can get with it even if its different.
Wesley: We were joking because Jeremiah read the Harry Potter series and I’ll finish it probably tonight. I can’t wait for it to be over, but it’s great. She got so dark, if she would have questioned that impulse it would never have felt like a grown-up book or an evolution. The first one was all blue skies and clouds and the final two are decrepit and rusted over. It was encouraging. When we first started playing music, we were playing really dark rock. And then we liked that, but there was a little bit of vanity where we wanted to impress our musical friends and that was the goal. And then we wrote “Flowers In Your Hair” and thought “we really like this”, so we ran with that direction. It’s almost like returning to something we always liked, and hoping that our audience would be willing to come with us on something like that.
I saw you guys back in 2013 playing Glastonbury, and it was a really happy and uptempo vibe. Are you a bit nervous about this new darker material in a festival environment?
Wesley: We’ve played a lot of them already in this record cycle. Hang Out Music Fest and Bonnaroo and a few others. We are going to play “Jimmy Sparks” which five or even three years ago we would have never tried that, and it’s not out yet and is a really dark song. I think it motivates us a little bit and it’s a highlight to be able to do it. I think a lot of people are surprised by the fact that we have six people on stage with us, and it’s more filled out and more uptempo than maybe if you only heard a couple songs by us.
And yes, the line-up of the band has shuffled around a bit…
Wesley: We had five and then six on the last album cycle, so we are carrying that forward. Our string player Neyla left and Lauren who has played violin on every album since day one was never touring with us, but she was on all the albums. It’s kind of amazing that she was available when there was an opening and was already a part of all this music, so she’s stepping in and she’s been amazing. And the other guys: Brandon plays a little of everything – drums, mandolin, guitar and a bunch of other stuff, and it’s filled out the sound. It’s nice to at least catch people off-guard. I think these darker hues and being able to pull them off well, or singing from an honest place works. It’s not like contrived or something. It’s nice for us because you don’t want everything to feel like the same flavour.
And you’re going to be back at Glastonbury this year, how many times have you done it?
Jeremiah: This will be the third.
Do you like the British crowd?
Wesley: They are like the best in the world. It’s awesome. It feels very raw and people are in the mud typically. This year supposedly it’s going to be 29 degree celsius. We love it, and it’s one of the highlights when we get a chance to play it. Last time we played was 2016 so there was a ton of rain and there was still a lot of people at the set. That feels more moving because you think how terrible it is out there and people still show up. They should be in their tent taking cover and they’re not. We feel the enthusiasm at a festival like that where people are there to just be in the mud figuratively and literally, whereas other festivals people are just in the VIP section.
So you were on the Game of Thrones soundtrack – were you fans before?
Jeremiah: Huge fans. We watched the whole thing twice over. It was an awesome opportunity and they asked a lot of bands but we were still so honoured that we were asked. We had the skeleton for a song that we thought maybe wouldn’t be good for the new album, it’s kind of complicated, but it was what “Jimmy Sparks” started out as but we kicked that aside and it wouldn’t work so we gave up on it. And then this thing happened where Game of Thrones asked “do you have a song?”
What did you think of the last series?
Wesley: I didn’t like it. I feel like the writers must have gone on vacation or something. I couldn’t figure it out. The actors are doing their thing. People were only so mad because they were so spoiled and so pleased with so many unstoppable seasons. It’s a shame because people are questioning the whole show, like chill. We were all so disappointed because we love the show so much, which is the irony.