Before they started booking appearances on Conan and touring with Old Crow Medicine Show and Brandi Carlile, Wesley Schultz and Jeremiah Fraites were working multiple jobs in Brooklyn just to pay the rent. Fed up with the city's music scene and its high cost of living, they turned their sights westward, moving to Denver with high hopes to live off their music. After finding cellist Neyla Pekarek through a Craigslist ad, The Lumineers started booking shows in Denver and touring cross-country in a Ford Windstar minivan. In the spring, the front-porch folk band's self-titled debut album peaked at No. 31 on the Billboard 200. They'll be at Groovin' in the Garden on Friday, opening for Brandi Carlile . We caught up with Pekarek to talk about the band's rise to folk fame and life on the road.
RM: You guys are known for getting the audience involved in your live shows, encouraging a lot of sing-alongs and hand clapping during the performance, but I understand you relied on your fans for more than just audience participation during your early tours. You used to arrive in a town with no place to sleep that night and end up crashing with someone in the audience, right?
NP: Yeah, we went a really long time without booking any hotels. Our first four tours that we did, we didn't stay in any hotels. Sometimes we had friends, and sometimes we just talked to enough people after the show and got invited to stay in people's homes. It was really nice.
RM: How did you manage that?
NP: A lot of it was just sort of brought on by them. We'd have a plan B to drive somewhere to a city where we'd know somebody or just get a hotel room, but people are very friendly. I think part of it comes from the kind of music we play and what kind of fans that draws. If we were a metal band, it might be a little bit different, but we play pretty happy music and have happy fans.
RM: What were some of the most bizarre shows you ended up playing on those first few tours?
NP: We played a lot of weird shows in the beginning. We were just doing everything DIY and basically finding anywhere where people would listen. We played a lot of people's living rooms. We played for a bar out in Maine one night. It was really cold, and as a band, we outnumbered the audience. There were four people onstage, and there were two or three people watching, and we begged them to stay. We bought them all a beer and told them if they didn't like it, they could leave, but they stayed for the whole set.
RM: You've come a long way from there, selling out almost every venue on your spring tour in a lot of cities you'd never even played in before. How does that feel?
NP: It's very unexpected. We're all just really happy to be playing music and not working a hundred side jobs just to make rent, being able to do something that we're really passionate about. The sold-out shows are an added plus and definitely something we're very grateful for.
RM: You guys have been touring pretty steadily for the past two years. I've heard you carry a box full of items that remind you of home with you on the tour bus. Can you tell me a little bit about what's in that box and why you take it with you?
NP: Yeah, it's a cigar box, and it's got a random assortment of things in it. It varies a lot, but right now it's got a picture of me and my best friends, it's got stickers in it, a flashcard with a math problem on it. Sometimes it's things that I find out; some things are from home. I have a friend right now who's touring with the cast of Beauty and the Beast. He goes to a lot of the same cities that we do, and he's been leaving me treasures in various cities that we overlap in. I have to go on scavenger hunts to find them. Sometimes they're added, too. He left a key in Austin, and it was there for like, four months. The funny thing is, we got all our instruments stolen out of the van last year, and so I had to borrow a bunch of cellos along the way. I found that a lot of cellists are pretty protective over their instruments. There was one guy that I traded my box of treasures with as collateral to borrow his cello for a show.
RM: I first heard "Ho Hey" on the commercial for the Bing search engine, where a guy uses it for his trip to Hawaii. Do you plan on doing any shows in Hawaii?
NP: We haven't made any plans yet, but our schedule is rapidly filling up, so I wouldn't be surprised if we end up that way sooner rather than later.
RM: Speaking of "Ho Hey," it was the band's first single, and it sold more than 32,000 downloads in one week, making it to the top 40 on the iTunes singles chart. I heard the guys first recorded that song in a bathroom?
NP: The original "Ho Hey" was recorded in Jared's parents' third floor of their house. They have a bathroom up there. The majority of the first two EPs were done in the attic in that bathroom. I think our album is just a shinier version of that. We stayed pretty true to what the original idea was going to be on the EP.
RM: You guys have been working on the second album for a few months now. Do you think you'll be releasing any singles from that album anytime soon?
NP: Not anytime soon. We're working on releasing a second single from that first album and working this album for a little bit, but we don't want to fall into that sophomore slump. We're definitely thinking ahead and trying to write with the little off time that we have.