The Incredible Rise Of Mumford & Sons is the latest best-selling music biography from Omnibus Press.
Charting the rapid rise of the band from public school folk players to national success and later worldwide fame, Musicroom.com caught up with author, Chloe Govan, to find out how she managed to encapsulate their meteoric ascent in the newly released book.
Hi Chloe! As your book’s cover rightfully states, it’s been an incredible rise for Mumford & Sons over the past few years. How did you manage to cover it all in 250 or so pages?
With difficulty – from Marcus’s childhood growing up with parents who practised “unquestioning submission” to religion and self-confessed heathen Winston’s phase as a dreadlocked hippie, all the way up to the multi-platinum status of two best-selling albums, it’s been a long road with a lot of cross-town traffic in between. Yet as dramatic as it’s been, the rise may only just have begun.
Your previous books have covered the careers of Katy Perry and Kelly Rowland. How does this book compare with your previous releases? Did the contrast in subject matter require a change of approach?
Undoubtedly. Both Katy Perry and Marcus Mumford hailed from religious backgrounds – although the latter’s parents, unlike Katy’s, didn’t ban secular music – but that’s where the similarities ended. Marcus’s songs captured his battle between embracing the religious path his parents had set out for him or abandoning it and, while Katy had the same dilemma, Marcus’s portrayal of it had more substance.
Inspired by a wide spectrum of influences, analysing his songs meant encounters with Greek philosophers such as Plato, a religious self-help book aimed at bonding with God (which inspired the title of one of Mumford and Sons’ best-known hits), sociopolitical classics such as John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath and Dee Brown’s Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee, a biography of St Francis of Assissi and of course the Bible – to name but a few.
Many people seem to pre-judge Mumford & Sons due to their image, public school background or other features of their backgrounds, but what do you think the band are truly like behind the music and show business?
It’s true that Mumford and Sons have been the scapegoat of a backlash against the private-school domination of the music industry. Due to a recession-fuelled cut in most state schools’ music budgets, 60% of today’s chart acts have been privately educated, compared to a figure of just 1% a couple of decades previously. The resentmment towards privileged acts by lower and middle class listeners became such a perceived threat that some say Lily Allen – who’d attended exclusive Bedales – donned a faux Cockney accent to be accepted.
Mumford and Sons’ music has been dismissed as “tunes for wankers who use semi-colons” – but regardless of this perception, the Mumfords are very different from the image that the stereotypes might project. Archetypal English men, they are almost the antithesis of the showbiz world.
While some listeners might envisage them in pretentious designer suits, the Mumford and Sons style is so casual that, when they appeared at the 2011 Grammys for, among other tracks, a rendition of ‘Maggie’s Farm’ with Bob Dylan, an incredulous and slightly aghast Hollywood reporter would note that they were dressed like “backwoods dirt road gas station attendants”. Perpetually clad in jeans and waistcoats and fiercely traditional, their biggest concession to modern living has been ownership of an iPhone – one which Marcus readily admits to not fully understanding how to use!
Bestowed with the archetypal English reserve, they also shy away from glamorous award ceremonies. Refusing to equate celebrity with success, Marcus has adamantly insisted, “LA is not us. Awards are not us. We are from England. We don’t feel good at the awards dinner table – it’s not where the music happens.” This in itself sums up the ethos of the real Mumford and Sons.
What were the most surprising stories that you uncovered about the band while writing the book?
The most surprising story of all was the exclusive I uncovered – published in a recent feature in the Sun – about Marcus’s parents and their history introducing a holy laughter movement to the UK. Followers of the movement would collectively writhe on the floor, spasm, roar like lions, bark like dogs and break into uncontrollable laughter, claiming to have been taken over by the power of the Holy Spirit.
Although some in the religious community would scorn it as an unholy cult, akin to a trip to Bedlam, Eleanor and John Mumford had stood by it and their church was the first in the UK to implement it. This backdrop to Marcus’s early life provided a valuable context in which to analyse some of his future song-writing, not to mention the faith-related conflicts that he experienced.
(The full story can be found here on The Sun website.)
With their diverse array of musical backgrounds, what keeps the band together as friends?
Their musical backgrounds certainly startred out differently. For example, Winston was part of a “bluegrass sleaze rap band” which saw him play a mixture of guitar, banjo, dobro, harmonica and mandolin, all while sporting incongruent waist-length dreadlocks.
At this time Marcus, on a diet of Latin and Greek poets, was scribbling melancholic leonard Cohen-inspired lyrics on the back of envelopes.
Meanwhile Ted was a jazz and blues bassist who collaborated with friends on barber shop style versions of tracks like Irving Berlin’s ‘The Song Is Ended But The Melody Lingers On’.
Finally Ben, who already had aspirations to set up his own record label, was in a punk group known as Hot Rocket.
However it was the film O Brother Where Art Thou? – and its corresponding soundtrack of the same name – that bonded the group. The film, set in the wheatfields of the Mississippi Delta countryside during the era of the Great Depression, followed a group of escaped convicts trying to form a blues band. In the end, it’s a shared love of ALL music, no matter what its background or origin, that keeps them together as friends – and their vast range of backgrounds musically makes for a very entertaining time in the studio.
One Direction have enjoyed parallel success in the US. Are Mumford & Sons part of that pop world or should they be considered as more serious artists? Where do Mumford & Sons sit in the UK pop music canon?
One Direction are successful on the same scale – both groups have multi-million selling albums – but they lack much of Mumford and Sons’ credibility as a serious act. In the sea of manufactured pop acts featuring invariably attractive, often scantily clad vocalists miming along to a track written and produced by someone else, Mumford and Sons stand out like a sore thumb. Because the heart, soul and brains behind the music come from them, their music has a layer of authenticity. With many pop icons, a hit can have been produced by several different people and its meaning is often diluted so heavily by the time it reaches the artist that it no longer has any.
One example that illustrates the difference in the way Mumford and Sons and One Direction are regarded is when the former opted to play a series of small historic towns across America, gracing inconspicious, off-the-beaten-track bars. Up until then, they’d been performing in 15,000 capacity arenas and they could have sold out the same size venues a second time running, but instead they chose low-key locations where the residents were not celebrity conscious and had barely heard of most British bands.
When the group originally placed their anonymous advert looking for historic towns to host them, Dixon, Illinois had made the cut, but the directors making the final decision were nervous to say the least.
“When we heard it was a British band, we feared the worst and thought it might be One Direction,” an insider told me. “Folk around here are very traditional – they tend to like music that means something – and if it had been them, I don’t think we’d have got the approval we needed to host them.” More on this story can be found in the book.
Meanwhile Mumford and Sons themselves have devised their own method of flitering out the pop puppets from the music-with-meaning category.
“For us,” Marcus has said, “the acid test for any artist would be, ‘Could we give this dude a mandolin and just jam?'” With that, he delivers a powerful blow of annihiliation to the likes of Justin Bieber and, of course, One Direction, without so much as a single slur.
What do you think is next for Mumford & Sons?
World domination, perhaps?! I can see Marcus making a foray into the world of film like his actress wife Carey Mulligan – perhaps leading in a film adaptation of one of his favourite classic novels – but only time will tell. Most of all, I envisage that, no matter how famous they become, they’ll always shun the more vacuous elements of celebrity. For them, it always has been and always will be, about the music.
How has the book been received so far and what other projects can we expect from you in the near-future?
This month has seen the release of Amy Winehouse: the Untold Story, a controversial yet sensitive portrait of a modern legend.
(To find out more about the book, click here.)
Next month, Unbreakable, my story of Christina Aguilera, will sleo be released, detailing her early life with a physically abusive father and how she rose above her early pain to become one of the most renowned artists in the world.