Wind back the clock 18 years and inside the music halls of Kings College School in Wimbledon, two young friends are unwittingly starting a remarkable journey. From the dimly-lit dive venues of London to the bright lights of Glastonbury, via a private set for the Obamas at the White House, Mumford & Sons’ story is a fascinating one. Add to that a record-label, Communion, a new events venue in London, OMEARA, and a down-to-earth nature which makes you feel like you’re talking to an old friend, and you can’t help but like, admire and be somewhat in awe of Ben Lovett. Simon Lamb meets the man.
You met Marcus Mumford at school, was that where Mumford & Sons was formed?
We did have a band that started when we were 12 but it was nothing like what we do now. It did however teach us a little bit about hustling – going out and getting shows. To make some extra money, we were playing gigs on weekends aged 13 and 14. That was the beginning of a process.
Mumford & Sons started to form when there were different influences crossing as we were meeting people on the London circuit. There was a pub on Holloway Road called Nambucca which became really influential when we were about 17 or 18.
Were you just playing as a pair then?
No, we were playing with lots of people. We were subbing in. I was playing keys with five or six different acts. Marcus was playing drums with a similar number. So was Ted, who is the bassist, and Winston, who is the banjo player. So all of us were a part of a group of 150 - 200 people who were playing in little dive venues. Out of that we started to develop an identity and said ‘what if the four of us went and did this ourselves’?
I remember my University flatmate, who loved his music, was always trying to get us along to see ‘the next big thing’. After several evenings we’ll never get back, our distrust led us to missing out on one of your gigs in a small pub in Newcastle. A real regret. From those early days, you must have played in some interesting venues, is there one that stands out as the worst?
I actually remember that gig. That was the gig where the sound guy didn’t turn up so we had to work out how to put up our own PA system in the pub!
The truth is, we were 18 and just being in a different city and playing music was real fun. We didn’t care if we played to 20 or 100 people, we were playing just for the love of it. We weren’t getting paid so we were trying to be thrifty – the four of us with all our kit travelling around in Winston’s VW Golf and crashing on our friend’s floors at various University cities across the country. The whole period was a really heady time.
Is it ever difficult working with such close friends, in such close proximity over a long time?
It is great. I don’t know why it has worked so seamlessly. There has literally only been one or two heated conversations across the whole 10-years and they were resolved there and then. I think there has just been a lot of respect and the fact that we enjoy doing it together, more than anything else, is important.
When you look back on the 10 years, is there one gig which really stand out?
Annoyingly I can’t remember them! You think in the moment you are completely lucid but those moments, which are so special, are so overloading on the senses that if I tried to press a recall button in my head I just can’t seem to grab onto it. It is this that spurs on wanting to do it again.
Your songs have a real honesty to them. Is it difficult having to sing songs that might drum-up a sense of nostalgia?
Yes. All of our songs are autobiographical so the various relationships that have passed through our lives have ended up being the content of the stories. It can be difficult - although sometimes it is easier to put it into a song than say it out loud. It is like some weird sort of therapy!
You must have many heroes in the industry, if there was one gig in history that you could go back to and be present at, what would that be?
I actually get most excited about that early gig moment. I wish I was there when, say, Blur or Neil Young did their first club show. We were coming up at the same time as Adele and I remember her playing a show at The George IV pub in Chiswick. It was 100-150 people in the room and it was awesome.
Was that love for new music part of the motivation behind setting up Communion?
Absolutely. Also to be a purveyor of quality. It is an incubator and a discovery platform to help grow and develop artists. A lot of acts have come through Communion over the years and have gone on to do really well, like Bears Den.
And I guess Communion dovetails perfectly with OMEARA. What is the idea behind the venue?
From travelling the world, I’ve experienced a number of different ways of how getting together with friends and having a drink can be done. It felt like there was an opportunity in London to challenge the status quo of what a music venue is or what a cocktail bar might be so a lot of the ideas here are transplanted from other parts of the world.
Every cocktail is authored from scratch, a far-cry from the traditional English pub like my late-Grandfather’s in Walthamstow, and every music show we put on is a premium gig, creating those ‘I was there’ moments.
I think we are one of seven or eight venues that are challenging the norm. Over the coming years with people doing this, London will hopefully become a leading cultural city again. I think it is quite widely recognised that it has dropped behind the likes of New York, Berlin, Amsterdam and even Copenhagen.
Is there any music you are listening to currently which you think the Iris readers should specifically look out for?
Yes, there is some great stuff on at the moment. Jorja Smith, Liv Dawson and Maggie Rogers are three female artists who are really promising and exciting at the moment. There are others that Communion are investing a lot in; Dan Croll, Banfi and Joseph J. Jones. All three have records out this year, so if you get on it quickly you’ll get the bragging rights among your friends!
Desert Island Discs in 30-seconds – one song, one book and one luxury.
One song: Ooh La La by The Faces
One book: 98.6 Degrees by Cody Lundin
One luxury: My Dog, Blue
You wouldn’t pick one of your songs then?
<Laughs> Can you imagine being by yourself and only having your own song? Plus, if I wanted to hear one of our songs, I’d probably just sing it!
What's in store for Mumford and Sons in 2017/18?
We’re working on our fourth full-length album. But it is difficult. Whether it is a mixture of not having all the stories to be told yet or not having the way to articulate those stories. It takes time, you can’t just decide when you’re going to go and make a record, it almost has to make itself and then you go into the studio to record it.
And is it going to be a new direction? There was a lot of talk about the change in sound from the first two albums to your third, Wilder Mind.
I think there was probably more made of the directional change on Wilder Mind than needed to be. The reality is that all of the songs sit side-by-side without there needing to be any change of feel or mood. There was a slight change in instrumentation but it wasn’t as much of a shift as was made out.
I don’t know what instruments we’ll end up employing for this record but it will always just be four guys from London who write stories about their lives.
Words by Simon Lamb. The Iris Letter March 2017.