If the widescreen rock of the third Mumford & Sons album, last year’s Wilder Mind, didn’t convince you that they aren’t the band you think they are, perhaps they can persuade you this summer. “If people sign up to be fans of this band, they need to understand that we’re going to be moving on quite quickly and doing lots of different things,” says Marcus Mumford, former victim of banjo-and-waistcoat typecasting. “If they’re up for that, then they’re very welcome.”
The 29-year-old’s group has a long history of collaborations, playing on stage with giants such as Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan and Neil Young, and frequently ending their own shows with massed renditions of With a Little Help From My Friends that feature everyone from The Vaccines to Vampire Weekend. They also favour gigs that are off the beaten track, organising their Gentlemen of the Road Stopovers in towns as far afield as Lewes and Walla Walla. Combine the two and you find them in Johannesburg on a rare South African tour, recording five new songs with Senegalese legend Baaba Maal, Cape Town trio Beatenberg and Swedish/French/Malawian band The Very Best. The Johannesburg EP, which is anything but the cultural car crash that all those names might imply, is released today.
The songs were written and recorded over just two days in February this year at the South African Broadcasting Centre in Johannesburg, a Seventies timewarp not unlike the BBC’s Broadcasting House in London. “The studio was built during apartheid, totally dystopian, this windowless labyrinth. It shouldn’t be a natural creative environment but somehow it was,” Mumfords guitarist Winston Marshall tells me. “It feels like somewhere between Abbey Road and the hotel from The Shining,” says Johan Karlberg of The Very Best.
With so many musicians present (Marshall thinks 15, Karlberg suggests 20) from multiple nations, there was a lightning in a bottle feeling. They knew that they would be unlikely to be all together again any time soon, and the deadline helped. “Looking back, it could easily have gone badly, but definitely the pressure worked to our advantage,” says Karlberg, who took control of production in one room while Mumfords keyboardist Ben Lovett was in nominal charge in a second studio. “If we’d opened ourselves up to deferral, we never would have got it done. It helped to have those constraints,” adds Beatenberg frontman Matthew Field.
Never mind the recording process, tracking them all down for interviews is problematic enough. I manage to sit down with Karlberg and Field in Maidstone, at the studios where the collective made their first television appearance, on Later… With Jools Holland. That day, Mumford & Sons arrive, unrehearsed, at the last moment, because a gig on their US tour was put back a day for a basketball play-off. I finally catch up with them and Baaba Maal a month later, prior to an Amsterdam arena concert during which Maal arrives on stage to sing three of the new songs: the grandiose ballad Si Tu Veux, the zingy highlife guitar track Wona, and the everything-including-the-kitchen-sink monster that is There Will Be Time.
In South Africa, the latter has become Mumford & Sons’ first number one single anywhere in the world, but they admit that they’re not expecting it to overtake their more traditional fare back home. “I think it should. I think it’s the best thing we’ve done, better than Wilder Mind even,” says Marshall.
“But I don’t think it will, which is fine. We did it for artistic, enjoyable reasons,” says Mumford. “Unlike the other three albums,” he adds, with a smile, when he realises what he’s just implied, “which were VERY calculated. Where is there a gap in the market? For banjo!”
Maal is a stylish, quiet presence, beside them on the sofa in an electric blue suit. Later he will be absent during a surprisingly passionate post-gig backstage table tennis tournament. At 62 he looks younger than ragged rock star Marshall, 27, with his straggly hair, dirty jeans and tattoos. “I can admit, when they say we’re gonna have two days, I think it’s not possible. But when we did the first gig in Cape Town, I think yes, it’s gonna work. A lot of different characters but very talented musicians and such excitement,” says the Senegalese singer. He met Mumford & Sons when he performed with The Very Best at the Mumfords Stopover in Lewes in 2013. Later that year he invited Karlberg and Marshall to his own festival, Blues Du Fleuve, in his hometown of Podor, and both men ended up playing on his latest album, The Traveller.
“Wherever I go, when I see people who are close to me, I invite them to come and discover the music down there,” says Maal. “It’s every year in December, so it’s cold, it’s not hot.”
“It’s still fucking hot by the way!” says Marshall.
It’s this feeling of coming together for the love of music that comes across on the new songs. Yes, they help each of the collaborators to reach an audience to which they might not otherwise have access, but that’s a useful by-product, not the purpose of the project. “We were all there to play music. There was this attitude of willingness and generosity, and there were no headliners. It was a truly collaborative thing,” says Mumford.
Mumford & Sons have done this kind of thing before, though it may have passed you by. Back in 2010, the year after their debut album was released, they made a joint EP with Laura Marling and the nine-piece Rajasthani group Dharohar Project. “When you’re a new band, everyone’s looking to put you in some kind of box, so they can get their head around you,” says Mumford. “After a few albums you get to a point where you’re trying to deconstruct all that because you were never the ones that put it out there in the first place. We grew up playing all sorts of weird music and none of it was acoustic folk. It was never the plan to stay with that exclusively.”
The Johannesburg project, and Mumford & Sons’ long world tour, will come to a head in Hyde Park on July 8, where the four collaborators will each play their own sets, before coming together on the main stage during Mumfords’ show. “We chose the whole bill at Hyde Park,” says Mumford of a line-up that also includes Alabama Shakes, Kurt Vile, Mystery Jets and Wolf Alice. “Collaborating with other musicians is my favourite thing about being in this band. It’s the best thing we get to do, I think.”
And it’s very much a part of the day job, rather than an extra-curricular activity. “We don’t consider this moonlighting. It’s all part of the story of our band,” he continues. “The train tour, the tour on canal boats, the Indian EP, are all big markers in our life as a band but none of them are bigger than others. It all fits into the storyline.”
It’s a story that gets more interesting all the time. What banjos?
The Johannesburg EP is out today on Island. Mumford & Sons and friends play July 8, British Summer Time, Hyde Park, W1 (08448 24 48 24, bst-hydepark.com)