Denver-based rock band The Lumineers. From left to right: songwriters Jeremiah Fraites (drums, piano) and Wesley Schultz (lead vocals, guitar), Neyla Pekarek (cello, backing vocals). (Photo courtesy Big Hassle)
Five years ago, a buddy showed me an iPhone video of a band she’d come across at South by Southwest. The video was of “Ho Hey,” the anthem that crept into everyone’s psyche about seven months after that huge trade show of sorts in Austin. What wasn’t apparent at the time was that the performance was Wesley Schultz, Neyla Pekarek and Jeremiah Caleb Fraites' twelfth show in a three-day period, and their most public one of the bunch as they attempted to find their way into the music scene. Now, after four years of nonstop touring through multiple countries with multiple hits, The Lumineers are slowing down a little – but not in the way you’d think. Schultz spent some time telling me (while preparing for his show in Charlottesville ahead of the band’s performance at Richmond International Raceway on Friday) how it all came about, how much he loves Richmond music and what this second album means to him.
Richmond magazine: You all are in Virginia for the week. What do you have planned?
Wesley Schultz: I don’t look too far ahead. This is the kind of heavy part of the schedule; we are on the road for a couple months at a time. I stay sane by taking it day by day. What I’d like to do is go down to Carytown some while I am in Richmond. My wife used to live there, and I spent some time there in college. I’d like to spend some there and get [out] on the town a little bit.
RM: As a band, you came together under some sad circumstances?
Schultz: Yeah, I mean, it is never an easy thing to talk about. Jer and I got together. I was friends with Jer’s older brother growing up, Josh. Josh overdosed when he was 19. A couple of years later, we started making music – I always knew Jer because my younger brother was friends with him – but back in the day, three years was a lifetime. We have been writing together for 11 years now, and I think it was … because we were familiar with each other [and] based on all of that. I think it is one of those things; Jer and I both try to use music to channel something positive or use that emotion, whether it is loss, anger or hurt. Music has been a cathartic part of our lives. So whether it was trying to write songs about the loss of his brother or the loss of my father, music has been a source of joy. So as not to go down [into] some sort of dark, negative past.
RM: What does the writing process look like?
Schultz: I write the lyrics to the songs. Jer and myself, we write the music together; I’ll put “together” in quotes. Most of it is coming up with these ideas, whether they’re chord progression or melodies, coming up with those alone and bringing them to each other and often recording them on our iPhones in the voice memo section. We have tons of voice memos with strange titles so we can find them again. Sending batches of these back and forth in our downtime and when we feel like there is enough there to get started, we get together and start to write new parts, or marry different ideas together – piecemeal-ing or Frankenstein-ing. Fifty percent of it is done that way, and then 50 percent is us sitting together recording and re-recording the ideas over and over in all these different ways till we get the essence of something. You take away as much as you can until enough of it remains that it is still there but there is no clutter.
RM: What do you think happened in 2012 that just clicked?
Schultz: I think a lot of it was moving to Denver. Getting out of the New York City vibe of working all these jobs and not having any extra money, not being able to leave to go on tour continuously – the biggest X factor was touring – that’s what got us the opportunity to record an album in a real studio with management and signed. We had been doing … the DIY approach long before [the studio and management] were a part of our lives. You can’t really do that in New York City unless you have a trust fund or something. I have friends who are moving to places like Richmond because the overhead is low and your money goes a lot farther in certain areas. I have artist friends like the Sleepwalkers and J. Roddy Walston & The Business. We have toured with both those bands, and I have had conversation with those guys. The great thing about a city like Richmond is you have a hotbed of music and art because there is an opportunity to create without all the pressures of a New York City and an L.A. I think that is where the best stuff happens. I think we were searching for that and accidentally found it in Denver. It was almost a coincidence we ended up there, more than it was an intention. We just drifted there, and it felt right. A lot of artists will ask, “What is it you should do to give yourself a chance?” I think the No. 1 thing is find a town or a city that has a bunch of artists that are trying to do what you’re doing, and you can band together and you can have a community there. There’s places like Richmond; in 10 years, it might be different, but right now [it's] perfect for that type of mentality.
RM: What went into the second album, “Cleopatra,” that makes it so different from the first?
Schultz: We are signed with the same small label for both records called Dualtone in Nashville. And this is something I really believe in trying to spread the word about: They did a fantastic job with both of them, but [for] each record we signed a one-record deal. We didn’t get into some long, five-album or three-album deal with [a] major [label]. And I think the idea that’s important – I wish bands knew – is how do we keep this all sustainable so that you can put out a record and it doesn’t have to sell a million copies for you guys to work together again and it to be considered a success for both sides … Everything got so bloated; there started to be enormous signing bonuses and long record deals. What people don’t realize is when you are in a three-record deal that by the time that record deal is done, they might have changed presidents of the company three to four different times. So the person who was advocating for you and was helping you to promote the record in the way you saw fit has been fired. I think a lot of bands don’t realize it is possible to do really special things in a system like [ours] – each time you put out a record you are betting on yourself. We just made a record and presented it to the label each time.
The first time around we had 10 days to record and four days to mix. This time we had 44 days to record and two weeks to mix. So we really got a ton of time to do a take the right way, that was a lot less manic and rushed. I think you can hear it on the record. The first one has an innocence to it. The second one feels more of a proper record, and I say that with love for the first one. I am surprised at what it did, considering how raw it sounds. And this one sounds more like an album, I guess, if there is a way to say that.
RM: The Lumineers have had multiple movie songs lately, including “Nobody Knows” (from the 2016 Disney film “Pete’s Dragon,” one of my favorites) and “Holding Out” (from “Storks,” in theaters Sept. 23). How did that come about?
Schultz: That is just people approaching us. We did “The Hunger Games.” I think that led to … when there [is] something needed, a studio will often reach out. In the case of “Storks,” Nick Stoller, he directed “Forgetting Sarah Marshall” – both Jer and I really love that movie – and he was finally going to do this kids’ movie. … [Stoller] had this moment in the movie that he really wanted us to write a song for, so we got to watch the whole movie … in its rough version. He really wanted us to know why that moment matters. So we got to talk with him, got to go see this movie unfinished – it was really gratifying. We like doing movie work; it uses a different part of our brains. You want to always keep evolving, [and it] forces us out of our comfort zone sometimes, and that’s a good thing.
RM: What are you listening to now?
Schultz: I listen to the Sleepwalkers a lot, actually, and J. Roddy while I am at it. I can’t wait for their new albums. Those are bands you can put on at a campfire, hanging out with friends, and, inevitably, a bunch of people come up to you during the night and ask about them. It is hard to really understand why more people don’t know about these bands. The songwriting is so, so good, and that’s what I really love about it. I listen to a lot of them. It takes a lot to get through my filter. I don’t really go out and seek new bands. I have a lot that I listen to over and over, and those guys are some of them.
The Lumineers play the Classic Amphitheater at Richmond International Raceway Friday, Sept. 16, at 6 p.m. Tickets are $34.50; more details here.