Any young band looking for a case study of how to get their music heard by a wide audience would be wise to look to The Lumineers. Although founders Wesley Schultz (vocals, guitar) and Jeremiah Fraites (percussion) have been performing together since 2005, they released their self-titled debut album only in April 2012, two years after adding cellist Neyla Pekarek to the band.
Just over a year later, they were two-time Grammy Award nominees (for Best New Artist and Best Americana Album), were among the headliners at Bonnaroo and soon will kick off their first of three European tours this year.
Last spring, before releasing “The Lumineers,” the trio added bassist Ben Wahamaki and multi-instrumentalist Stelth Ulvang to the group, beefing up their onstage sound. This summer, they’ll play to enormous outdoor crowds at festivals and arenas, a far cry from the small clubs they visited just a year ago.
“A year ago, we were still transitioning into having a van and trailer,” said bassist Wahamaki, on the phone with Charleston Scene from a tour stop in Michigan last week. “I toured for two or three months where we were all sleeping on floors or six people to a hotel room, so it hasn’t even been a calendar year since we even each got our own bed. It’s been a really, really fast rise.”
So what takes a trio of dreamers playing acoustic music in their home base of Denver and turns them into an international sell-out touring band?
It starts with one really good song.
In The Lumineers case, that was “Ho Hey.” With its audience-friendly shouts of “ho!” and “hey!” followed by a sing-and-clap-along chorus that repeats, “I belong to you, you belong to me, you’re my sweetheart,” the song immediately connects with listeners from almost any musical background. And it didn’t hurt that one of 2012’s biggest films, “Silver Linings Playbook,” chose the song for its trailer video.
“I think it’s easy to get an illusion that just because you heard of the band very quickly, that it just happened,” said Wahamaki, emphasizing the years of work that came before and during the creation of their album, recorded in Seattle in 2011.
For Wahamaki, however, that came before his time with the band. Just a year-and-a-half ago, he was gigging around Colorado with various groups while maintaining a full-time retail job making and repairing jewelry. After Ulvang joined the band, he mentioned his friend, Wahamaki, as a potential bassist.
“It was a pretty wild thing. We did the whole ‘see how it vibes’ thing, and after two or three meetings, I hopped in the van,” he recalled. “It was a pretty stark contrast from working all the time to all of the sudden being on the road for the better part of the year.”
Silence and stomps
In their official biography, The Lumineers credit “roots revival” groups like The Avett Brothers and Mumford & Sons as paving the way for their own climb up the charts. In their pre-Grammy interviews, front-man Schultz acknowledged that a couple of years prior, there might not have been a place for a band like his at that level of critical acclaim.
It’s true that The Lumineers’ sound differs sharply from most of their peers at the top of the charts. If one were to look at the digital file of one of their songs and slow it down, they would notice gaps of silence during the songs, followed by huge spikes in sound as the members stomp the floor or shout in unison.
It’s that attention to dynamics that helps distinguish the group from other Americana acts, as well as the sheer simplicity of their songs, making them accessible and understandable to anyone.
Schultz admitted that anybody who is able to play an instrument can play a Lumineers song.
“For me, though, it’s much harder, in a weird way, than anything I’ve ever played before,” explained Wahamaki. “There are so many parts, as the bassist, that are pretty straightforward; quarter notes on the root. That’s exactly what most bassists would try to avoid because it’s almost like an ego thing, or it doesn’t look good.
“But we try to take a step back and look at the whole texture of what we’re trying to do, and kind of put simplicity as being our driving force. We’re listening to the songs and only giving them what they need and what’s appropriate for them, and not what’s appropriate for our egos.”
Wahamaki said that when he first went to see the band perform before joining it, the emphasis of silence on their dynamics stood out more than anything to him.
“I remember watching them for the first time and how refreshing that side of it was,” he recalled. “They weren’t just filling gaps with sweet licks or cool fills. I love music that’s all about embellishment, as well, but the sparseness is one of the things that people can relate to in our music. On the album, I find the space really endearing. It gives the songs an opportunity to breathe.”
That’s not to say that the quintet’s live show isn’t full of huge moments. To fill out a 90-minute set when its sole album is only 43 minutes long, they’ve been incorporating favorite covers by artists such as Bob Dylan and Talking Heads, as well as continuing to write and add new songs to the mix. Fortunately, the entirety of their album follows the proven formula of “Ho Hey.” Each song is a sing-along, and it takes hearing a tune only once for people to join in.
Throughout the show, The Lumineers structure the setlist to punctuate crescendos. A song that builds when performed live, like “Stubborn Love,” is preceded by a tune like “Slow It Down,” which may feature only Schultz and Fraites on stage.
“It’s kind of an easy ticket to just hit people with a rocking back beat and a thick bass line and be like, ‘Here you go. Are you ready to groove?’ ” said Wahamaki. Instead, The Lumineers give their audience breathers, prepping them with a slow song for the next, where they’ll be called on to join in.
“Doing a sweet walking line on the bass would be easier sometimes than sparse stuff that’s just textural,” he said. “But it makes the power behind those songs a little more valuable.”
Getting the word out
At times during the past year, “Ho Hey” has been the most-played track on Spotify, the forerunner of music streaming subscription services, which are poised to unseat purchasing and owning albums as the primary means for listening to music.
Despite comments by other artists decrying the low payment they receive from song plays on these services, Wahamaki said that The Lumineers embrace any method of getting their songs out to an audience.
“We had conversations when the record came out about the advantages and disadvantages of services like Spotify,” he explained. “Really, the whole M.O. of this band is to try to offer what we have to as many people that want to listen to it as possible. Whether they’re streaming or buying the record, we’re just grateful that people appreciate what we’re doing.”
What they’re not as OK with are the countless low-quality videos being posted to YouTube from phone recordings at their shows. At a recent show in Minnesota, Schultz actually stopped the group’s performance of “Ho Hey” to admonish the audience to put their phones away and be more present with them.
“There are always going to be people who have their camera out, and we’re not too concerned about that side of it,” Wahamaki elaborated. “What we’re concerned about is when you’re in the audience at a show and there are screens just blaring back at you. I find that really unpleasant, and it really kind of bums me out when people have this body of light above their head obstructing my view. It brings down the vibe of the show.”
Because The Lumineers incorporate audience participation and engagement into the core of their show, they find that particularly troubling.
“We want to be uplifting and for people to have a good time,” said Wahamaki. “We want them singing, smiling, clapping. It’s pretty bizarre when you’re on stage and there’s a phenomenal number of people holding these little boxes up, recording bad-sounding video that won’t look good either, rather than just enjoying it.”
At the same time, Wahamaki said he enjoyed it in 2012 when fans sang along to songs like “Big Parade” before they’d even been released. Today, fans in new cities are singing the lyrics to songs that have never been recorded, apart from live YouTube posts.
“When people show up and sing along to tracks that aren’t recorded anywhere, it’s cool that they have the opportunity to do that,” Wahamaki acknowledged.
The band takes a more laissez-faire approach to recording their next record than to fans recording new songs for them. Although their tour schedule has them hopping across oceans and performing consistently throughout the remainder of the year, The Lumineers said they’re beginning to look ahead at how they can coordinate their schedule to record a follow-up record. After the immense success of their debut, one might think they’d be feeling incredible pressure to replicate their sound while also building it into something new.
“It’s more our style to just try to work on stuff that we like and feel good about, and if people continue to join us in that, it’s a huge honor,” Wahamaki said. “In the end, it’s better to feel like you can live with something and that you can continually love what you’ve made for years after. We’re not the kind of band that flourishes under an attitude of feeling like we have to do something.”
If they stick to their formula of having fun and keeping things simple, it’s a good bet that their countless newfound fans will keep singing along.
“Really, the whole M.O. of this band is to try to offer what we have to as many people that want to listen to it as possible. Whether they’re streaming or buying the record, we’re just grateful that people appreciate what we’re doing,” said bassist Ben Wahamaki.×
The Lumineers will perform Friday at Family Circle Stadium.×
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