Mumford & Sons had the look of a band that would have a nice little career down on the folky side of the radio dial.
Obviously, any time you have banjos in the mix, and you don't look like Taylor Swift or the Dixie Chicks, that's probably as big as you're going to get.
But there's one element that can't be overlooked: Marcus Mumford has the Bono gene. It's that propensity to throw back his head, pump out his chest and reach to the last seat of the arena with a preacher-man's righteous fervor.
Mumford & Sons isn't a banjo band that rocks, it's a rock band with banjos. That was evident on the night of the big Grammy Awards showdown in February 2011 when the Mumfords took the stage with the Avett Brothers, who are actually brothers, to do their own thing and then back the ultimate folk-rock maverick, Bob Dylan.
The Avett Brothers, who had been building a cult following one show at a time for their bluegrass/folk/punk hybrid seven years before the Mumfords formed, went with a softer sell on the moody piano ballad "Head Full of Doubt." The less complicated, more polished Mumford & Sons went direct for the jugular with a teeth-clenched version of "The Cave."
Mumford & Sons lost that night for best new artist and best rock song ("Little Lion Man") but came out even bigger victors than the album of the year winner. The Arcade Fire's "The Suburbs," which topped the charts when it was released in 2010, jumped back up to No. 12 while the Mumfords' debut, "Sigh No More," which entered the charts at No. 127 (5K sales) in February 2010, shot to No. 2.
Suddenly, the folk-rock invasion of pop radio was in full swing, taking Mumford & Sons, which plays its Pittsburgh debut at the First Niagara Pavilion tonight, from old-timey niche band to double-platinum world-beaters.
Little Lion Men
Technically, Marcus Mumford could run for president, because he was born in Anaheim, Calif., to British parents. They moved back to England when he was 6 months old, and he grew up in southwest London in a strict Christian household going to the elite King's College School, where he met keyboardist Ben Lovett.
Mr. Mumford took his musical cues from the bluegrass-y "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" soundtrack (he was a little embarrassed to admit that) and Nashville string band Old Crow Medicine Show, which dates back to 1998.
"I first heard Old Crow's music when I was, like, 16, 17, and that really got me into, like, folk music, bluegrass," he said in the documentary "Big Easy Express." "I mean, I'd listened to a lot of Dylan, but I hadn't really ventured into the country world so much. So Old Crow were the band that made me fall in love with country music."
Mr. Mumford, who spent a year at the University of Edinburgh, was 20 when he formed Mumford & Sons in December 2007 with Mr. Lovett, string player Winston Marshall and bassist Ted Dwane. They eased into the West London folk scene, home to acoustic acts Noah and the Whale and Laura Marling, for whom Mr. Mumford played drums.
"I got a lot of confidence being on stage with Laura," he told the Herald Sun in Australia in 2010. "The first few years we played together she wouldn't say a word at gigs. We were doing shows where it was just the two of us. She wasn't talking to the audience so she asked me to. It was fun. I enjoyed the fact you can engage with hundreds of people -- and you can talk to each other and communicate."
In early 2008, Mumford & Sons, sharing management with the band Keane, caught the attention of Island Records A&R man Louis Bloom, who recognized their talent immediately upon seeing them live. "I thought Marcus' voice was very special and emotive," he told HitQuarters. "There was no one there for it, just a few friends, and they needed time to develop. Over the next six months I kept going to see them, and they were literally picking up fans every time."
That year, Mumford & Sons introduced its sound on a pair of EPs on Chess Club Records that included more lo-fi versions of future album tracks like "Little Lion Man" and "Roll Away Your Stone." In the spring of '09, the band hit a new stride during an 11-date tour of the UK with indie band The Maccabees.
"That was really when things started to change for us," Mr. Lovett told Billboard. "All of a sudden everyone was like, 'It's all right to like these guys if you like rock music.' "
For their self-financed debut, the band turned to Markus Dravs, whose production credits included not only their friends the Maccabees, but also the epic rock of The Arcade Fire and Coldplay.
"Sigh No More" was delivered, with songs dripping in earnestness, written with biblical embellishment and not a shred of the humor often associated with many old-timey bands. A curious touch, given the album's pious quality, was a breakout single, "Little Lion Man," that drops an f-bomb in the chorus.
The real thing?
The video for "Hopeless Wanderer," a song from the band's chart-topping second album, "Babel," begins with a foursome assembled in a sun-drenched country field, bracing you for an onslaught of rural-folk cliches.
But it's not Mumford & Sons. It's Jason Sudeikis, Ed Helms, Jason Bateman and Will Forte dressed up like them, and the cliches get turned on their head in a hilarious self-parody that ends up with them smashing their instruments -- something a lot of people would like Mumford & Sons to do.
It's a serious-minded band at last having a laugh at itself.
Since "Sigh No More" hit, Mumford has drawn its share of praise and scorn. To go with the Brit Award for Best British Album in 2011 and the shortlist nomination for the Mercury Prize, "Sigh No More" got a 2.1 (out of 10) review in Pitchfork, which began by taking issue with the band name: "It's a shallow cry of authenticity, but this West London quartet really does sound more like a business than a band, supplying value-added products at discount prices."
An NME blogger asked. "[Why] are Mumford & Sons so loathed? Because they're posh? Spiritual? Successful? Have an ampersand in their name? Include a grown man who calls himself 'Country' Winston Marshall? All valid reasons, but it seems the real target of people's hate is their inauthenticity. From their very moniker -- a punt at an 'antiquated family business name' -- to ripping off Shakespeare for their lyrics, the boys are trying to be something they're not. We can be sure that they don't drive tractors or walk around with hay hanging out of their mouths."
"I think Mumford & Sons are one of those weirdly polarizing acts, as a result of their popularity," says Guy Russo of the Pittsburgh folk band Broken Fences. "A lot of musicians I associate with had neutral or positive things to say when that first album came out a couple years ago, but as their fame skyrocketed, people act as though their music is and always has been corporate garbage. I see this with other hugely successful bands, like DMB and Coldplay. I feel like if those bands weren't so famous, indie music snobs would respect them a whole lot more, which is unfair; folks confuse overrated with talentless."
David Manchester, who fronts the Pittsburgh indie-folk band Arlo Aldo, initially heard them on the radio and was drawn in by the rootsy style.
"Then I caught their performance on the Grammys," he says. "There is something really refreshing and genuine about seeing the frontman of a Grammy-nominated band perform while obviously nervous. I think fame caught them by surprise."
If so, they figured out quickly how to grow it. "Babel" turned out to be a bigger, second helping of "Sigh No More" with more super-sized folk-rock anthems, including the rousing single "I Will Wait." At the close of 2012, "Babel" was the fourth-biggest album of the year (1.5 million copies sold) and the only rock title in the Top 10. It also found Mumford & Sons returning to the Grammy awards to win album of the year, as the Avetts' more nuanced "The Carpenter" settled for a best Americana nomination.
"We wanted to do something unashamed," Mr. Lovett said upon the release of "Babel." "We're confident and happy to be where we are as a band -- everything that's happened with us has exceeded expectations, and it's all been a surprise, it's all much bigger than what we were prepared for. So when we came to recording this record we had a choice: to shy away from that or to realize that people dig what we're doing, and make something robust, with that energy."
Triple A stations like WYEP-FM (91.3) were the first ones playing Mumford & Sons, before watching them jump to the pop stations. Although you might expect a backlash, program director Kyle Smith didn't see that ruining the band for its core listeners.
"Our listeners that enjoyed the band still like them, so we don't pull back from playing them. Like with many artists in our format we're able to continue to go deeper in their catalog while continuing to embrace the success of their big singles."
The Mumfords, who seem to be on course to be the next big stadium band, get asked a lot about where they come off playing rural Americana.
"The authenticity thing has never been an issue for me," Mr. Mumford told Rolling Stone. "Not since I came to the realization that Dylan, who's probably my favorite artist ever, the richest artist for me, didn't give a [damn] about authenticity. He changed his name. And modeled himself on Woody Guthrie. And lied to everyone about who he was."
Scott Mervis: email@example.com; 412-263-2576. Twitter: @scottmervis_pg. First Published August 29, 2013 4:00 AM