This edition of Music Meter Monday — a feature in which we profile bands who are climbing the MTV Music Meter — we’re highlighting yet another band who is successfully making classical instruments cool again: The Lumineers, a folk/country/indie rock hybrid of an act with storytelling capabilities to rival The Decemberists and those godfathers of pop, XTC.
The Lumineers — whose self-titled debut dropped at the beginning of April — comprises childhood friends Wesley Schultz and Jeremiah Fraites, who were raised in New Jersey and grew close after Fraites’ brother Josh passed away. The boys formed a band, but, disillusioned with the music scene in New York City, soon moved to Denver, Colorado, where they brought cellist Neyla Pekarek into the fold.
The O Music Blog spoke with Pekarek before a recent gig about the band’s debut disc, the roots revival and the difference between the Denver and New York music scenes. Read on for the Q&A and make sure to check out the video for the jam “Ho Hey” below.
So I’ve heard a lot about how the rest of the band met, but not that much about your background. I hear you responded to a Craigslist ad and that was how you joined up with the guys?
It was very serendipitous, because I wasn’t looking to be in a band — I had never been in a band before — I actually sang in a barber shop quartet for a long time and that was kind of what I did. I went to school for music [education] and I graduated [in the winter]. They don’t hire a lot of teachers in January or December, so I was just basically looking for any job — something to keep me busy. The boys had placed a Craigslist ad for a cellist. I played cello for a long time. I didn’t play a lot in college. It was just something to keep me busy that ended up being a whole lot of fun. It kind of fit very organically from the get-go.
And you’re originally from Colorado? The rest of the band moved there, right?
I am, yeah. I was born in Denver. It’s been great [having the guys in Colorado]. It’s funny because they’re Jersey boys, but they’re not your sort of stereotypical Jersey boys. They’re both very polite. Their moms raised them very well. They’re good boys.
Do you think there’s a pretty big difference between the Colorado music scene and the East Coast?
Definitely. I think, from what I gather, the East Coast can be more cutthroat and very competitive and hard to break into. Especially in Brooklyn and places like that. And that was one of the reasons why the guys decided to make the move — it was really hard to do anything. It was hard to think about touring when you could barely afford your rent. The Denver scene is very community oriented and everybody helps each other out and people are great about going to shows. The record stores are very supportive of the musicians. I really like the Denver music scene for that reason. I think everybody just wants each other to succeed.
So how do you all write songs? Is everyone involved in the process?
Wes [lead vocals, guitar, piano] and Jeremiah [drums] typically do most of the writing. Wes does the lyrics and they both kind of come up with melodies. It’s almost like a skeleton when they bring it to the rest of the band, so it already kind of takes shape. But sometimes things change a little bit as you start to bounce ideas off of each other. When we were in the studio a lot of things changed on certain songs. But for the most part, they bring a skeleton and I flesh it out with cello lines.
What would you say is the biggest element that you bring to songs?
Having an instrument like a cello in a band takes it into a different direction than just guitar, bass, drums. I think cello adds a touch of class. I add vocal lines, too. Sometimes I’ll sing with Wes. Having everyone singing on stage kind of provides this image of everyone believing it on stage and then hopefully the crowd will believe it, too.
I’m also curious — what genre do you classify as? I hear a lot of people calling you country. Do you agree with that?
I don’t really get that vibe at all. We sort of classify as folk, I guess. I don’t know — we kind of stay away from playing some instruments that would put us in any specific genre. I think it’s cool that we can appeal to the country audience as well. There’s a lot of violin on the record. I think sometimes having that instrumentation puts you a little more in that country category. Having a banjo is more of a bluegrass-y genre. We don’t have an upright bass and banjo for those specific reasons — we don’t want to be really pigeon-holed into one genre.
It seems like there’s a revival among bands when it comes to using classical instruments. What do you think of that? Must be cool for you, since you don’t play a traditional rock instrument.
It’s awesome. It’s great for young musicians that play and study in school. A lot of times the only jobs for those people are either being a music teacher or the slight possibility of a paid symphony musician or something like that. So it’s great that that resurgence has happened. I’ve seen all kinds of crazy instruments in bands — tubas and things like that. It’s really cool. It gives another outlet to use those instruments aside from the world of academia.
I’m also interested to know what you all think your sensibility is — the story that you’re trying to tell. Some of the songs seem like sea shanties, some are kind of bordering on political.
I think Wes is a great storyteller. A lot are personal. We have a song called ‘Charlie Boy’ that’s written about his uncle. ‘Dead Sea’ is written about Wes’s girlfriend. A lot of the songs are actual things people have said to him or things he’s experienced. Sometimes they’re hypothetical stories. It’s a bit of a mixture, but either way [the songs are] communicating a story.
I haven’t had a chance to see you guys live yet, but I hear you’re really interactive during shows.
It was definitely a conscious effort that was made early on. I think that whether people like the music or whether they hate it, we want them to remember it. So we go out in the crowd a lot. We’re starting to play bigger venues and we’re trying to stay true to that, but some venues are hard. We played a show in Seattle and there were somewhere between 650 and 700 people there. We took chairs out in the crowd and played a song. Everybody wants to be part of the show at the end of the day, I think.
Image courtesy of Facebook, The Lumineers