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The Lumineers on death, fame and being on President Obama's personal playlist

Jon Dekel

For a band so closely associated with a simple, life-affirming melody of a love song, the spectre of death seems to disproportionately haunt the Lumineers. Growing up in the New York City suburb of Ramsey, N.J., singer-songwriter Wesley Schultz formed the group in the wake of his best friend’s overdose, bonding with drummer Jeremiah Fraites, the deceased’s younger brother.

Over a decade later, Schultz once again found himself considering mortality and catharsis as musical inspiration. While formulating the songs that would eventually make up Cleopatra, the follow-up to the now Denver-based group’s 2012 triple platinum, self-titled debut album, the 33-year-old began contemplating the passing of his father, often batting back tears to finish a verse.

“Even though I was in tears I felt so thankful that this is what I get to do,” Schultz recently recalled. “That my calling is to delve into myself and that that connects me with other people.”

In an interview with CBC Music, Schultz and Fraites discuss that very calling, dealing with the instant fame of their debut, the four-year gap between albums and how it feels to be on President Obama’s personal playlist.

Following the success of your debut, especially the ubiquity of single “Ho Hey,” it seems almost counterintuitive to take a four-year break between albums.

Fraites: Well, we were on tour until December 2014. It was about three-and-a-half years where it was just really hard to say no. They were saying, you could end the tour now or you could go to Australia, and then Japan or South Africa. These opportunities were just too hard to say no to. And we were really blessed to do that on the debut album. So we finished in December 2014 and started writing the album in January 2015. We rented a house in Denver and set up shop, got right to work. Then you record it, you mix, you master it and now here we are, finally releasing the album.

In 2012, there was a while where it appeared like you were the neo-folk American counterpart to Mumford and Sons. Like the Beach Boys to their Beatles, if you know what I mean. Were you worried at all about missing your “moment” when the popularity of the genre died down?

Schultz: It wasn't like we were capitalizing [on the scene] for the first [album]. We were just making music we thought was interesting. That sort of popularity of a genre fluctuates but our tastes evolve and change. This album sonically is different than the first one. Not necessarily intentionally, it just happened that our tastes changed over time. We don't want to eat the same sandwich every day.

Fraites: We were mindful of that. Certain instruments like the mandolin [appear] a lot less on this album. No banjo. I think John Lennon once said "give me a tuba and I'll make something cool out of it;"' Wes and I feel the same.

Your new single, “Ophelia,” touches on your experience with overnight fame. Did you struggle with that?

Schultz: Fame is a loaded word. It’s more about falling in love with temporary things. Things that people are valuing you for that will never last. It's like if you marry someone for their looks, those will change. It's got to be about something deeper. I wanted to avoid falling into the trap of the allure [of fame] — people kissing your ass who would never acknowledge your presence in a room a couple years later if your album's not hot. But also just being disturbed by how we were anonymous and now all of a sudden people are telling us we're the greatest thing since sliced bread and we know the truth is somewhere in the middle of those two polar opposites. Just trying to figure that out was a struggle.

How did that manifest itself?

Schultz: For me, I had a bit of survivor's guilt. I'm around all these musicians, at the time we’d been doing it for like eight years and you feel like you've seen all these bands that have quit or they haven't gotten a break and you have this guilt like, "Why me?" Even though it's a good thing, you wonder "Why now? Why me?" You drive yourself crazy instead of being grateful this happened at all. [This time] I'm grateful that there are people waiting for this record. If you get that chance even a couple of times in a lifetime you're really lucky. For us, we were really happy we could put out a record that we knew would be listened to.

The album is filled with songs told from the perspective of interesting, if conflicted, characters, including your own father. What attracts you to a person enough to write about them?

Schultz: I remember I was almost going to turn “Sleep on the Floor” into something about Robert Durst. I was so captivated by his story. I'm just interested in [people who] lead these compartmentalized lives and keep secrets from those around them. Contradictions are the most believable things in people. It's more believable to see a guy act two different ways in two different days than it is somebody who acts the same every day. I think I'm always looking for that. I have a hard time just making up stories. I want to hear someone's story and I can build off of it.

On our first album there's stories about family members — “Submarines” is about my great grandfather, for example — but on this one there's a story about the first female taxi driver in the Republic of Georgia whose story is tragic but beautiful, that's "Cleopatra." And my father's in this album a fair amount, just reconciling or processing some of the things about his passing and how I reacted to it. Things I wasn't necessarily proud of. But that can be cathartic for both me and an audience to say, in an almost confessional way, these are the things that I did. I'm not necessarily proud of it but this is how I reacted.

Now you have to play those songs live. Is that difficult to relive?

Schultz: Yeah. Certainly, [the songs] are very fresh. A lot of the material was developed right up until we recorded so there's a lot of emotion behind the performances. When I was writing some of these songs is the first time I can remember writing and then literally crying or sobbing and then keeping on writing because something was happening. Oddly, on a song like "Long Way from Home," even though I was in tears I felt so thankful that this is what I get to do; that my calling is to delve into myself and that that connects me with other people.

Including President Barack Obama.

Schultz: So Spotify tells us. I want to get a call from the president and the caller ID says POTUS. We'd even take a text. We did a tour of the White House and he wasn't around that day. I would have loved to have met him. Maybe one day [after the election] when he can be relaxed it'd be nice to shake his hand.

The Lumineers’ Cleopatra is available now.