Stranger things have happened in American rockdom. But not many.
Who, in fact, could have predicted the unlikely ascent of a traditional little English-folk quartet from London with the homey moniker of Mumford & Sons? Or the platinum-selling, multiple-Grammy-nominated, ARIA-and-Brit-Award-winning success of their acoustic-strummed debut, Sigh No More? Gently whimsical singles like "The Cave" and "Little Lion Man" seem like the last thing Stateside audiences would go for in this shallow American Idol era.
But here stands bandleader Marcus Mumford, fresh from a whistle-stop locomotive tour across the U.S. with Edward Sharpe & the Magnetic Zeros, a real-life Horatio Alger made good. His band recently backed Bob Dylan, just filmed an Unplugged segment for VH1, and even recorded with the Kinks' legendary Ray Davies for his recent See My Friends duets set.
Mumford himself is swimming in even glitzier celebrity circles: He and Laura Marling, his longtime girlfriend from Britain's neo-folk scene, have split up, and he's now reportedly seeing actress Carey Mulligan instead.
There's an added irony to all this. Mumford is actually, technically, a Yankee. "I was born in California, in Anaheim," notes the vocalist/guitarist/drummer, who also plucks a mean mandolin. "I was only there for six months when I was born — my parents were English, but only stayed for a couple of years. But we went back every summer to see our friends. And then I lived in Denver for a while, then back in California again."
Mumford practically requires a PowerPoint presentation to chart his outfit's genesis. Banjo/dobro player "Country" Winston Marshall was a huge AC/DC fan initially, power-chording through a band called Gobbler's Knob. Bassist Ted Dwane started out as a blues guitarist, and keyboardist Ben Lovett played his first jazz-combo gig with Mumford — then on percussion — when they were both only 12.
At 15, Mumford discovered vintage Dylan, then alt-country artists like Gillian Welch, Alison Krauss and Old Crow Medicine Show (whom they just invited onto their train tour). In 2007, via a C&W club night in London, the Mumford/Lovett team met the other members, and soon discovered that they all dug the same retro-rustic sounds. "Then we just decided to start playing, writing and arranging songs together," Mumford recalls. "And then suddenly we realized we were a band."
It didn't take them long to settle on the name Mumford & Sons. "I think we liked the idea of setting it up as a family business," says Mumford. "And at the start, it was my songs that we were putting together, although now it's much more collaborative in the way our songs are written. So some people find it confusing that it's my last name in the title of the band, but we just felt comfortable with it representing a company, something earned and shared between the four of us, rather than just one guy with a name on the door."
The group first found steady work as Marling's backup band. Now they've fairly eclipsed her in unexpected overnight popularity. And Mumford has his theories about why they've broken through. There's an innate darkness to folk and country, he says.
"And just like the traditional Johnny Cash song 'Long Black Veil,' I think it's more interesting, exploring the darker side lyrically, when the music is much lighter. And it's also just an infectious type of music — you can't help but move to it!"