A few weeks ago, the Lumineers were in the midst of the South by Southwest shuffle. The Denver band was playing a quick gig at a makeshift concert venue during the annual music conference: a downtown church in Austin, Texas. Amps and microphones were in place near the altar, but the Denver band abandoned them to stand on pews and wander the aisles. The group thrashed away on their instruments and invited the audience to sing with them, setting up a rousing call-and-response that made the lack of amplification irrelevant.
Among 2,000 bands playing at 92 clubs over five days and nights, the Lumineers took all of 20 minutes to make an indelible impression. With just voices, guitars, stomping heels and street-busker bravado, the group connected in a way that few other bands could playing routine sets amid the bustle of fraying attention spans.
“There’s nothing worse than when you see an artist who thinks the audience is somehow lower than him,” says Lumineers drummer Jeremiah Fraites, who cofounded the band on the East Coast a few years ago with singer-guitarist Wesley Schultz. “Our first tour in 2009, we did a whole national tour in 30 days. There were 16- to 18-hour stretches between gigs. We were just four people showing up in Cody, Wyoming, or Missoula, Montana, and we knew the audience didn’t know who we were, and probably wouldn’t remember us when we left. So we thought about how can we fix that without turning into gimmick? We went into the crowd and turned the shows into something a little more participatory. You tread that fine line between gimmicky and sincere. It was terrifying at first. It’s easy to feel powerful when you have a band behind you and microphones, but to go into a crowd to instruct people to sing quietly in certain parts and sing along in others, it terrified me at first. Now it’s something we really enjoy.”
The band’s songs took shape in similar fashion, a slow evolution from gimmickry and imitation to a more organic style that can be heard on their self-titled debut album, released this month.
“I was in seven or eight bands before working with Wes,” Fraites says. “I thought all of them would ‘make it,’ whatever that means. They all fell apart. When Wes and I got together, our first band name was Free Beer. It wasn’t serious at first. We were a crappy band doing (terrible) covers. But we slowly started getting away from covers and writing originals. We were doing everything: vanilla singer-songwriter stuff, hard rock, electronic music. There was no focus; it was a mad, random mess.”
The inevitable weeding-out process led the band toward a simpler, more direct, folk-oriented sound. “Wes was living in Brooklyn and I was still in New Jersey living with my parents while going to school when he sent me a demo of the song ‘Flowers in Your Hair,’ and I got excited,” Fraites says. “It was really simple, three or four chords.”
For Fraites, the simplicity was a refreshing shift from the way he had thought about music most of his life. “At one time I was really into progressive rock. I was such a music nerd, a really busy drummer who loved dissonant chords, crazy time signatures. But after a while, I didn’t want to think so hard about music. I didn’t want it to feel like a homework assignment. I just wanted to be moved. And when Wes wrote ‘Flowers in Your Hair,’ the mantra became ‘Whatever works for the song.’ So if that means playing less, or playing nothing at all, that’s what you do.”
Feel-good, instant sing-alongs (“Hey Ho,” “Stubborn Love”) and cathartic slow-building anthems (“Dead Sea”) laid the foundation for what would become a galvanizing live show. But first Schultz and Fraites had to head west.
“We were spending more time working jobs to pay the rent than working on music,” Fraites says. The duo moved to Denver, plugged into the open-mike scene to work on their music in an informal, live setting, and then posted an ad for a cello player.
A cello player?
Fraites laughs. “We were running away from the electric bass, basically. We had recorded a lot of our songs in my parent’s attic in New Jersey, playing all the instruments ourselves. But we both sucked at electric bass. It would make the songs sound (terrible), so we thought, ‘What about cello?’ ”
Neyla Peckarek responded to the ad, and quickly boosted the fledgling band with her virtuosity and harmony singing.
“She’s a terrific singer, able to hit all these crazy harmonies, so we needed her to dumb it down,” the drummer says with a laugh. “Our songs are about people on a ship singing arm-in-arm, all singing the same note. With Neyla in the band, we were able to build up this wall of sound.”
The approach is shared by a number of young bands who turn concerts into hootenannies with acoustic instruments and harmony vocals: Mumford and Sons, the Avett Brothers, the Head and the Heart.
“We do feel an affinity with those bands, but for me it’s less about a genre like folk-rock,” Fraites says. “I just think people are enamored of going into a room and watching people play their own instruments and sing, rather than using Auto-Tune and a lot of digital equipment to get their sound across. There is so much digital-ness all around us. People are almost taken aback when you do the opposite of that. It’s inspiring.”
Lumineers: 9 p.m. Friday at Space, 1245 Chicago Av., Evanston, Ill.; $10 and $18 (sold out); evanstonspace.com.