By: Steve Inskeep, Victoria Whitley-Berry, NPR Music
The Lumineers have taken their latest album, III, as an opportunity to shine a light on a topic that’s close to many of the members’ lives — addiction. III tells a story of addiction in three acts. As the album runs from one song to the next, it’s a tale of one family facing the same problem. “It’s the family secret and it’s a taboo,” Wes Schultz, the band’s lead vocalist, says.
Drummer Jeremiah Fraites says addiction happens in cycles and should be considered that way.
“With drug addiction or alcoholism it really affects the individual and then it has a sort of fallout effect — similar to the effects of a radiation bomb — over time and over years and years, it continually tends to affect people’s loved ones,” Fraites says.
Fraites and Schultz, both founding members of The Lumineers, know the feeling of this aftermath from experience. Schultz says he had a childhood friend in New Jersey who slowly came apart as a teenager because of drug addiction. Both band members experienced this because Schultz’s friend, Josh Fraites, was the brother of his future bandmate, Jeremiah.
“I remember my mom woke me up. She said, ‘Sweetheart, your brother got arrested last night. He was arrested in a car was around 2:00 in the morning,’ ” Fraites says. “He’d smoke PCP and he was so high on drugs that he went inside this A&P, which was like a local supermarket out in the East Coast, and he drank Drano which is just an unbelievable thing. I don’t know what compelled him to do that. But he was in the ICU for a couple of weeks with second and third-degree burns on his throat.”
Months later, Fraites’ brother died.
“You know they talk about addiction. It’s a progressive disease. It’s not something where you just wake up and you’re homeless and you’re begging for crack or heroin,” Fraites says.
On the latest album, the band tracks how this disease progresses through three generations. The first includes an alcoholic woman named Gloria Sparks. In the song “Gloria,” Schultz imagines how Gloria’s children see her and how she sees herself. “Gloria being that important and also being that dysfunctional is where the album kind of begins,” Schultz explains.
The listener can hear these differing perspectives in the music. Schultz says that “Gloria” is meant to represent a conversation between the addict and her daughter.
“There’s this almost a cartoonish piano that interrupts the guitar,” Schultz says. “Within the reality of being closely involved with an addict, there is a cartoonish nature to life. Like, you’ll get a call and it’s the most absurd thing you’ve ever heard. You can’t even wrap your head around it. And there’s a mania. There’s a manic nature to that is found in that piano.”
Later on the album, Gloria’s son, Jimmy Sparks, grows up and becomes an alcoholic and a father himself. In the song “Jimmy Sparks” he tries to teach his son never to pick up a hitchhiker. “It’s us or them,” Jimmy tells his son. Later in the same song, Jimmy’s son — now grown up — drives by a hitchhiker who happens to be Jimmy and keeps driving by.
“I think it has a couple layers to it where you’re not really sure why he kept driving and if he even recognized [Jimmy],” Schultz says. “If he did, what does that mean? I think for someone who’s not around an addict very closely, it probably sounds very cold, but to anyone who has been, there are a lot of people who understand what that means, unfortunately.”
III tells such a bleak story, which could prove to be a challenge performing live for a concert crowd wanting to have a good time. But Schultz says these heavy songs have touched many of the people who have already seen the band perform live.
“Every show you ever go to, someone’s talking about getting their heartbroken, most likely, and there are people who put their arms around each other,” Schultz says. “Coming together for a concert or hearing someone say something that you only thought you felt; I think that’s why it’s positive even though it’s counterintuitive that heartbreak music would be when people cheer the loudest.”