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The Lumineers’ Wesley Schultz: ‘When You Make A Song, The World Gets To Attach Their Own Meaning To It’

The American indie/folk band’s frontman talks about his debut solo album ‘Vignettes,’ the first date with India and more

American folk/indie band The Lumineers. Photo: Danny Clinch

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After years of treating music videos as mere advertisements for their songs, The Lumineers’ frontman Wesley Schultz had a change of mind when he came across pop star Beyoncé’s 2016 visual album Lemonade. Schultz likely found in Lemonade a powerful journey of culture and ethnicity told through arresting cinematography and melodies.The singer-songwriter felt the same way when he saw indie/folk powerhouse artist Florence + The Machine’s short film The Odyssey [2016]. “Both of those women really impressed upon me how much the visuals can assist the storytelling and can really tell it even better,” Schultz says over a video call.

The twice Grammy-nominated Colorado-based band exploded to fame in 2013 with the single “Ho Hey” and their subsequent 2016 album Ballad of Cleopatra. Their latest album III (Three) was delivered as three chapters in a short story format, with music videos based on the woes of dysfunctional American families dealing with addiction. “It’s almost like if you’d imagine that there was a movie, and then they turned off all the sound. And then a band just played music over it. And there’s no dialog, it’s just the music,” says Schultz, who also released his debut solo album Vignettes in October. In that record, he mined his love for songwriting legends such as Bruce Springsteen, Tom Waits and Sheryl Crow. 

In this exclusive interview with Rolling Stone India  — his first with India — the singer-songwriter discusses the band’s sonic and visual evolution, performing at the virtual edition of Bacardi NH7 Weekender this month and more. Excerpts:

Is this one of your first interactions with India? 

Yeah, I think it’s one of my first if not the first interview I’ve done with someone from India. So this is exciting. I want to play there one day when I actually play there in person. I’ve talked to people who are doing it. And they rave about. I met some people along my travels that said, ‘When you come, you should visit us.’ So I really want to check it out.

With Vignettes, what’s the promo plan like in terms of videos and other stuff?

I think one of the things we did was we shot a lot of behind the scenes things at the studio, and then afterwards, performing the songs because we’re not sure when we’re gonna get back out on the road, as a band for my solo shows, as well. We’re trying to get some really meaningful and well-shot videos to accompany this album, so people can kind of get an inside look into what it really sounds like. 

I played a lot of coffee shops and bars. So that’s where this album kind of comes from. I saw Bruce Springsteen on Broadway. And it just kind of reminded me of where he came from, and what he is. He could play a big stadium, but he can also play a very intimate space, and it still resonates. And so, for me, it’s nice to go back to that. 

I think I’d like to do a fundraiser for the Save Our Stages [initiative for independent venues] in the U.S.. A lot of our venues are on the brink of closing or have closed. And so I think the idea would be to play a sort of virtual show, where I play the whole album, and a couple of other songs. 

After creating an intimate record like Vignettes, how do you feel it’s going to feed into what you do with The Lumineers?

In a way, it was always the goal of The Lumineers’ songs was to not to be bound by an instrument or instrumentation, it can work on a lot of different levels, because we really just wanted to write good songs. 

Something like “Ophelia” for us; It has a lot of sadness or loneliness in it, but it sounds really happy and upbeat. Or “Ho Hey.” I’ve heard a lot of people in the U.S. get married and their first dance is to “Ho Hey,” and I’m hesitant to say it, but I’ve started telling people because I think it’s kind of funny that it was about a breakup. And they’re dancing for the first time about a breakup, during a breakup song [laughs]. I had heard Bono say the same thing about their song “One,” where he was like, ‘That’s a song about someone breaking up with someone and all these people are getting married dancing to it.’ So there is this thing when you make a song, the world gets to attach their own meaning to it, which I understand. But I think a lot of that is also I think it’s really fascinating to realize some of the lyrics and some of the storytelling within the songs that you might miss some of that.

What can you tell me about the evolution of The Lumineers, both musically and visually as  storytelling music videos? 

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When we started, I hated music videos. I thought they were like silly advertisements for bands, I didn’t find them to be meaningful. There were a few that I did, but it felt like the business as a whole was often churning out these videos where there was a fan blowing on you. And you looked really serious. And it was just such a strange world. 

I felt Pearl Jam made some really cool music videos. And there were a few examples of bands that sort of tried to tell some stories with how they did it. But then I saw Lemonade from Beyoncé, and then I saw Florence and the Machine, who did a six or seven-part video series. And both of those women really impressed upon me how much the visuals can assist the storytelling and can really tell it even better.

With our first album, the videos felt sort of like an obligation. And then, Cleopatra, we worked with this great director, Isaac Ravishankara, who was actually a scientist. He went to Harvard and then started making music videos. He’s done that for a long time now, so he really helped with putting together those string of videos on the album Cleopatra, which I think came out beautiful. 

And then our last record was called III and that was where we said that was really enjoyable, and and sort of gratifying to be able to tell a story visually, let’s not just do four songs, let’s do all 10 songs the whole album. It was a huge undertaking, it was like shooting a movie 15 days of shooting and casting and everything.

But it was really gratifying. And I think the biggest part is, like I alluded to earlier, you can write an album on a breakup. But if you don’t sometimes show people that it’s about a breakup, they won’t always piece that together. 

III was about a family dealing with addiction. It was about my wife’s family, her mother and some of my experiences with it and her experiences. And it was something that in America, at least, is very widespread. There’s a lot of addiction. And there also happens to be a taboo around it. I don’t know if it’s the intent of the record, but I think it was, in my heart, I just wanted to get it out there that this was happening, because I think a lot of people hide it. And if one person shares, it might cause someone else to open up. And it’s a, maybe it’s less of a heavy burden, if at least we can talk about it, and address it. 

As far as you’d ask about the sound, I think the sounds evolved just based on the instruments that end up in our hands. I bought an electric guitar on the first tour that I started playing all the songs on. There was a skillet that  I might have it around. Yeah, it’s right here. 

But we mostly loved the sound of a really shoddy sounding, upright piano. There’s just a lot of humanity in that. And then we like the sound of that electric guitar, with a semi-hollow body that we’ll mic that and not plug it in. It has a raw kind of vulnerable sound. And that’s what we’ve been stuck on for a little while now. 

Who knows what’s next. But for now, it’s gone from acoustic guitars, because we were busking. So we were playing sidewalks and a lot of house shows where you couldn’t plug in anywhere the neighbors would complain. Yeah,now we can plug in. So there’s more options as you go. Just it’s almost based on the rooms you’re playing.

I wanted to get your take on how you respond to your fans and interact with them? Specifically with The Lumineers tattoos that fans have, how do you feel about it? Does it blow your mind that people have your words,on their skin, permanently? 

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Yeah, it’s pretty weird. I would say it feels like the ultimate allegiance to a band and a compliment. It’s flattering that someone felt strong enough, strongly enough about something you wrote or sung, that they got it on their body permanently.

It was interesting to see the lines that people gravitate towards. And I see a lot of people persevering and they tend to gravitate towards lyrics that are about hope and perseverance, which gives me hope. I’m a sort of an optimist, even if the lyrics don’t always show that. I really believe in the good of people. 

The Lumineers have a virtual show at NH7 Weekender. Even though you’re performing virtually, can you tell me a bit about the set that you’re crafting for the festival? Is a trip to India on the cards when it’s feasible?

Of course. I think one of the reasons why we wanted to do this is because India has been a place we’ve wanted to not only visit, as tourists and lovers of new places and travel, but we wanted to see if we could ever play cities there and tour there. From the people who I know who have visited, it’s such a big place. So visited certain parts, that it’s just been a life changing experience. So I think for that reason, I’ve always wanted to do it. 

So with regards to the set, I took the approach of just trying to come up with how if I had never heard us,, what songs would you play for them? So it would be for the person at a festival walking by. You want to try to stop them and get them to stay for a little longer. So it’s a lot of the songs that I think we’ve realized feel more immediate. And then if people come and check us out, hopefully more, more music and you can go deeper into the albums, but this is our first date. 

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