Mumford & Sons and Piers Morgan: it’s the perfect early evening light entertainment combo, according to the talent bookers at The One Show, where the heavyweight rock band and the professional contrarian find themselves a teatime double bill.
In the Mumfords green room before showtime, where there are more packets of Minstrels than are strictly necessary even for a band that has had three number one albums in America, there is some wariness about sharing sofa space with Morgan, but also some worries about the quickfire nature of television interviews generally. “We skipped the class on being funny and charismatic on TV. We’re normally quite sincere and insecure,” says frontman Marcus Mumford. “Which is a cool way to sell shit, right?”
To their credit, in the two minutes of chat they’re allotted, Mumford and keyboard player Ben Lovett, both 32, stick to the subject matter they planned: that they’re headlining Hackney festival All Points East this weekend, and more importantly, the work of the Grenfell Foundation, the charity which Mumford helped to establish to aid those affected by the Grenfell Tower fire in 2017. Not even Morgan can find a way to stick a pin in that.
“It’s coming up for the two year anniversary, and the publication of the Inquiry has been pushed back again, which is really devastating for people,” Mumford tells me before going on. While politicians jostle for power and Brexit dominates everything, he’s clearly frustrated that there hasn’t been enough progress with Grenfell. He watched the fire from his North Kensington flat and went to the site the next morning. Having just visited Iraq in his role as an ambassador for War Child, he was able to make a disturbing comparison: “Grenfell that morning felt every bit like a war zone. You could taste the ash in your mouth. But what’s amazing to me is how resilient and dignified the survivors and bereaved have been, and how organised they’ve been in staying together and not being ripped apart by all this tension, which would be such an easy thing.”
He continues: “They’ve come together and galvanised in an extraordinary way. They are determined for the legacy of Grenfell to be change for other people. They can’t change what happened to them but they can change other people’s lives. So many tower blocks in this country are still covered in the same cladding, with no sprinkler systems or fire procedures that are out of date. Unfortunately it feels like everyone’s been too busy doing other shit to really learn from this tragedy.”
Ever since their 2009 debut album, Sigh No More, went five-times platinum in the UK, Mumford & Sons have been a band that spreads the love. Emerging alongside their pals in the indie and folk worlds such as Laura Marling, The Vaccines and Noah and the Whale, they have gone on to promote smaller bands through the record label, Communion, and south London venue, Omeara, that Lovett co-runs. They have joined the likes of Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan and Neil Young on stage, and have been known to finish their gigs with all-star covers of With a Little Help From My Friends.
When they headline a festival, often it’s their own event, which they call Gentlemen of the Road and involves them curating an entire bill in a town that doesn’t usually host big bands such as Galway, Ireland, Dungog, Australia and Troy, Ohio. In 2017 they brought the concept to the existing sister festivals Latitude and Longitude, and now they’re doing that again, taking over All Points East in Victoria Park tomorrow.
It’s not just their day in name. They take this stuff very seriously. “If the lines are too long or there aren’t enough toilets, it really stresses us out. We didn’t want to do it unless it felt right. We’ve designed the stage. We spent months working on the line-up,” says Mumford. “We’ve got all these cool British acts like Jade Bird, Dermot Kennedy and Sam Fender, who’s having this massive moment right now. Then there are international people like Leon Bridges, and we’ve got Dizzee Rascal, who’s one of the most important acts of the past 20 years.”
The quartet’s rootsy Americana and penchant for the banjo (though there was none on their heavier, electric third album, Wilder Mind) admittedly doesn’t immediately suggest a Dizzee Rascal connection, but they are edging ever so slightly towards that world. Among the collaborators for their recent fourth album, Delta, was London rapper Octavian, the winner of this year’s BBC Sound of 2019, who has otherwise been heard working with hip producers such as Mura Masa and Diplo. “We tried some things out but he didn’t end up on the album,” says Mumford. “I hope we’ll do something in the future because I’m a massive fan of his.”
The closest they ended up coming to a rap interlude was on Darkness Visible, on which deep-voiced Louisiana singer-songwriter Gill Landry reads an extract from Milton’s Paradise Lost – much more Mumfords. The song, a mix of electronic beats and overpowering strings, is still a sign of a more experimental side coming to the fore. While Winston Marshall’s banjo is back on this album, it’s often filtered to be barely recognisable. There are also sleek digitised rhythms on Woman and an epic buildup to the stirring crescendo of the six-minute title track.
“Delta does sound to me like the culmination of 10 years work. I’m proud of it for that,” says Marshall, 31, who formed the band in London with Mumford, Lovett and bassist Ted Dwane, 34, in 2007. It’s a long album, for us. I don’t know what doing a dissertation feels like but I imagine it’s something like that. It felt like a massive load gone.”
“I felt more obsessed with it than when we were making the previous ones,” adds Mumford. “All of us were there for pretty much every minute of recording. We birthed it together.”
They also had more life experience to draw on for this album, when they became thirtysomethings and big things happened. “Three years’ experience between four dudes – that’s a lot to write about,” says Mumford. Marshall married the Glee actress Dianna Agron in 2016, but also went through a period of depression. Lovett got divorced from fashion designer Jemima Janney the same year. Mumford had contrasting experiences at hospital bedsides, having two children with his wife, the actress Carey Mulligan, and being present at the death of his grandmother. The song Beloved is about the latter event. “As you leave, see my children playing at your feet,” he sings.
“Some of the words came on that day, but then I found myself disgusted by my instinct to write it down and turn it into something,” he admits. “I just buried it in my phone and didn’t come back to it for six months. Then I bought myself a Hammond organ and found myself screaming that chorus alone in my studio. It was weird – like an outpouring.”
Music – sometimes it is a matter of life and death. As Mumford & Sons navigate their way from being “professional teenagers”, as Marshall puts it, to the weighty responsibilities of real adulthood, you can be sure they’ll get some good songs out of it.
June 1, All Points East, Victoria Park, E3. allpointseastfestival.com