Interview with Wesley Schultz of the Lumineers
In advance of the Lumineers show headlining Denver’s Coors Field on July 22, our evening show host Ron Bostwick had a conversation with the band’s cofounder Wesley Schultz. During their chat, Shultz shared his thoughts on what it’s like playing larger venues (such as Coors Field), advice he got from Bono, recent lineup changes (Schultz and Jeremiah Fraites still lead the band, while cellist Neyla Pekarek is now pursuing a solo career), the legacy of Denver club the Meadowlark, and the band’s new album Brightside.
Below are highlights from the interview.
Ron Bostwick: Last September, I was at the Boulder Theater when you guys did a listening party for Brightside. What was it like playing the album publicly for the first time?
Wesley Schultz: We realized that music is not like comedy in the sense that you want to hear it more than once to connect with it. So the idea was to play the album, play it out loud for people in the venue on nice speakers, and then come back on stage and play that album live along with some older songs. So that’s what we did.
I think people were at first, like you said, kind of confused. And then they started feeling like, oh, I’m a part of something in the sense that no one else gets to hear this first but me. And that’s what we wanted those fans to feel like. That they’re getting the first listen. Similar to our friends and family every once in a while, we’ll take them on a drive in our car if we haven’t put out the record yet and play it for them. So it was of wanting to share something really personal with the audience.
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Ron: As you guys get back on the road, do you reflect back on who you were when you started, and how it led to this world?
Wes: For me, that [first] album represented a lot because we were doing home recording for about seven years, and then we finally got to a quote unquote real studio. That was just such an exciting time. I heard the story about Damien Rice and his album O and how he had scrapped everything and started over. And that’s what happened to us, where we recorded everything and then the mixes just weren’t what we wanted, so we had to start all over with the raw materials.
It was a very strange experience where you’re like, this is my one chance at a first impression, because even though we had been doing it for a little while, we also realized that no one on a larger scale had ever heard of us. So we wanted to have the music the way we heard it, which was flaws and all, the way we actually play the music and not cleaned up. So I think if you look at that 10 years ago and then you look at today, Brightside‘s even more of those elements. We really took that north star of ‘we want it to sound like we really sound.’
So with Brightside, we didn’t do much at all before we went in the studio other than walking in with voice memos, and we left with an album. We did a lot of writing and a lot of decisionmaking and performances that were really fresh and not overly rehearsed. So I think looking back and saying 10 years has passed, it seems like 20. It also seems like one. And it’s a strange feeling when time moves like that. So many things have happened, but again, it’s hard to wrap our heads around a lot of this stuff.
Ron: Neyla Pekarek left the band several years ago. Can you talk about the transition and the adjustments that you had to make?
Wes: Around 2018, Neyla wanted to pursue her solo career. And so for her, that made sense to leave. The concern was how do we make sure that the live performance feels right. We ended up turning to the person who was on every record anyway as a string player, Lauren Jacobson. So it kind of was a win-win, because Neyla got to pursue her thing, and I think she really wanted to have her own project. And for us, we got to include people who have been a part of it all along.
Brandon Miller, who’s a multi-instrumentalist, started out as part of our crew loading in and out. And at one point we realized we didn’t have enough people to play all these parts on stage. And so we were holding auditions and Brandon was helping to work the instruments and get everything set up and we heard him playing and we’re like, he’s pretty good. So we had an audition with somebody else and then we’re like, ‘Brandon, can you play some of these songs with us?’ And he goes ‘yeah, I could try.’ And the rest is history.
A lot of that has [happened] over the years. We were making Cleopatra and found Byron Isaacs, who has played with a lot of heavyweights – Joan Baez, Levon Helm. I think things just tend to morph and grow over time just because it is a bit of a marathon to be in a touring band that also records. For some people that’s a dream life and for other people, it can be a little bit exhausting.
Ron: You and I sat down together in Pasadena in 2017, when you opened for U2, and you said Bono told you how people on stage are like gladiators, they have to win over the crowd to win their freedom. And you talked about the balance of entertainment and sincerity. Now that you guys are getting ready to play Coors Field as a headliner, can you talk about that gladiator feeling?
Wes: The funniest part for me is that every step of the way, if we are going up in size in a venue, all the closest people around me don’t even realize it’s our show. I told my nanny we were playing Coors, and she’s like, ‘Cool, so is there a baseball game before?’ I think it makes you realize how inconceivable that is, not only to us but to most people.
When you play a big venue, watching U2 operate, watching Tom Petty operate up close and personal, Arcade Fire…I started to realize that a lot of the best musicians that do that well have this ability to communicate to the back row. A lot of your desire is to make the giant venues feel small and the small venues feel giant.
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I remember I saw Bruce Springsteen like 20-plus years ago at Giant’s Stadium. I was in the second to last row at a football stadium, and I felt like I was in his living room. I don’t know how he did that. It’s like a magic trick. But I think he spent years honing that ability to talk to you all the way back there. It’s inspiring. I think part of it is things like having staging, having video screens that people can see from far away, putting a set together that communicates well. It’s all just learning from these masters and seeing them and the little tricks they do to make you feel like they want you to feel. To make you feel connected.
Ron: In 2017 you guys played three nights at Fiddler’s Green in Denver, and Andrew Bird was opening for you. You talked about how when you were the cleanup guy at Starbucks, sweeping the floors, you would listen to Andrew’s music, and now here he was opening for you guys. Have you had that type of experience where artists say, ‘oh man, I used to listen to you guys, you inspire me, and now I’m on the bill’?
Wes: It’s finally starting to happen in a way that [for] a whole generation, you’re a part of that tapestry. I think even down to helping people make records and write their songs. I don’t think anybody would’ve wanted my opinion on anything if they hadn’t heard the records they grew up on.
It felt like a real trip to be on the other side of that, because usually I’m the one telling an artist, ‘your music meant this much to me, thank you.’ It felt like an honor, and also very surreal. For so many years where all you wanted was a couple people to show up at your show, and now a fellow artist is expressing respect and admiration, and it means a lot.
Ron: Do you and Jeremiah talk about going back and playing the Meadowlark, the Denver club where you spent a lot of time early in your career?
Wes: We actually went and filmed some stuff there on our third album. We haven’t gone back and played, but every once in a while, we’ll just drop in to that open mic to just hear what’s going on. And one of the times I did that again, like we just spoke about somebody was covering Sawmill Joe’s Ain’t Nobody’s Problem, which we had covered. And then somebody said, oh, somebody just covered your music and this girl came up and she said, I just moved here from the east coast and I’m a musician and I moved because I listened to your music and I heard your story.
We did that a little bit overseas just earlier in the year, where we played at a club bar as a duo, me and Jeremiah. And it was really enjoyable. There’s a much different feeling. It’s just a totally different scenario than when you play a theater or an arena or something with a lot more people. It feels a lot more intimate, like a living room of a person’s house. So yeah, I think we’ll do it, but it’ll have to be a surprise.
Ron: Here’s a suggestion for Coors Field – tell the crowd you’re going to make it feel like the Meadowlark.
Wes: Yeah, I will, mark my words. I will, I have so much affinity and love for that place. Not only for us as musicians, but the friends we made. One of them, Tyler Dupree, he’s a huge musician in the Denver area and he was a part of our band for a brief moment. He ran the open mic at the Meadowlark, and he passed away 2017. We covered one of his songs on Brightside as a bonus track, “A Little Sound.” He has such a beautiful catalog of songs. He brought everybody together.
The Lumineers play Coors Field in Denver on Friday, July 22. Gregory Alan Isakov and Daniel Rodriguez open the show.
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