Many musicians, dreaming of making it big, move to the broader New York City region. It makes sense: from The Bronx down to the Jersey Shore, the area has spawned some of the most famous and influential artists in rock, hip-hop, and beyond. Unfortunately, this legendary music scene can also prove to be an overwhelming and cutthroat place for a fledgling band. Such was the case for The Lumineers, who found it difficult to gain a toehold here for their heartfelt folk rock. So, after five years of struggling, they finally moved to Denver in 2010—and promptly began a meteoric career trajectory that, a decade later, finds them headlining stadium shows around the world.
Still, even though the Big Apple didn’t originally welcome The Lumineers, vocalist/guitarist Wesley Schultz wants to make it clear that there are no hard feelings: “I don’t have bitterness toward New York or New Jersey,” he says. “I just thought it was a really, really hard place to pay the bills and still work on music. It seemed like I was being fed this idea that you had to be there [to be a professional musician]. And so when we moved to Denver, everyone thought we were crazy or giving up. But actually, we were just trying to go somewhere where we had more opportunity. But we’ve defended New Jersey everywhere. People like to make these jokes about it, but I grew up in a beautiful town, Ramsey, and I cherish that childhood. I’ve got a lot of love for it.”
And, apparently, that feeling is finally being reciprocated here. “We just played the Sea.Hear.Now Festival last summer in Asbury Park, and we felt the love,” Schultz says. “People remembered we were from New Jersey. That actually meant a lot. I’m honored that people even care. It was really touching that there was a reaction like that.”
Since that festival, The Lumineers have released their third album, simply titled III, which reached the #2 spot on the prestigious Billboard 200 chart. But that was nothing new for this band—their 2012 self-titled debut album, and a 2016 follow up release, Cleopatra, also made the Top 10 in that same chart. Thanks to all that success, they’ve embarked on a globe-spanning headlining tour, including dates at Barclays Center in Brooklyn, NY on February 13 and 14.
Schultz, calling from a tour stop in North Carolina, says that the band is taking a very careful approach to playing these major venues. “It’s a mixture of trying to treat it as any other gig, but also trying to make the room feel small,” he says. “You’re trying to bring the intimacy into the room and get rid of that barrier between you and the person in the last row—the best performers make that disappear.”
The Lumineers learned how to do this from U2, for whom they opened on that band’s massive The Joshua Tree 30th anniversary tour in 2017. “I think every band that goes on tour with U2 is profoundly affected,” says Schultz, still sounding a bit awestruck at the memory. The experience was “a big eye-opener. We got to ride on their plane with them between a couple of shows. I was really struck by how genuinely in love with music they were, even at this part of their career, having done it so long. They were very curious about each show and how it was translating into communicating to the audience. They weren’t that band that just said, ‘Well, if you don’t get it, then F you.’ There’s a lot of care that went into their music and their show. So realizing that, it made me think, ‘Wow, these guys remain humble.’ That’s part of what makes them really good at what they do, is that they never stop striving.
“I remember bringing some of the most jaded people to those shows, friends of mine, and they would come away blown away. I think that taught me a lot about how cynicism has always been kind of fashionable, but it takes something transcendent to break through that wall. And those guys do it. It was fun to watch people with their arms crossed in the beginning of the show, and then by the end they were feeling a lot of things, and sometimes crying. That’s the magic of music.”
Schultz admits that even learning from a master front man like Bono hasn’t exactly made it easy for him to take on that role himself. “I’m the opposite of someone who just loves being onstage. I had to learn how to perform. I’m more of a songwriter.” But, he adds, “I’m starting to enjoy that part of it a lot more.” That’s fortunate, because after this U.S. tour, the band will go on to play throughout South America, Australia, Asia, and South Africa before this year is done.
As they work their way through these tour dates, Schultz says it helps that he’s sharing the stage every night with drummer/pianist Jeremiah Fraites, whom Schultz calls “my writing partner and musical brother.” After playing in a few bands together in the New York City area, they formed The Lumineers in 2005, and then both made that infamous move to Denver. They have remained the only constant members across the band’s entire history (they currently hire touring members to help them for the live shows). It is this partnership that Schultz specifically credits for the band’s longevity. “There’s been a lot of growth and ups and downs. We’ve had to spend an inordinate amount of time with each other, and that can put a strain on any relationship. But I think we’ve tried our best to keep each other in mind and keep that relationship good because we value the music so much.
“We are always pushing each other in these different directions, and it stays interesting that way. I don’t know if I could do it just on my own in the same way. What I do is more of a singer-songwriter traditional thing. And what [he] does is, he’ll add this very special thing that is different for every song—it’s almost like a magical touch that he has that you can feel on every song. And I think that real collaboration has helped us stay together for so long because both of us know that the grass is greener on this side. It’s not like we want to write with other people full-time. We just find each other’s perspective really interesting.”
By now, Schultz has seen how destructive it can be when bandmates don’t have this bond of friendship and creative spark. “I’ve seen certain bands who do project a certain [bad] energy, and I’m like, ‘So why are you doing this? There are easier ways to make a living.’ It’s weird.” In those cases, he’s not surprised when these bands break up. “The ones that go away, it seems that they just get distracted by things or they weren’t really in it for the right reasons. I think the ones that stick around are the poets and the writers, who are able to stay curious and stay hungry about music.”
For his part, Schultz says he felt that creative pull early on in his life. “At a very young age, I was very into writing poetry. I felt like music was such a beautiful vehicle for that.” He thinks this was a natural outcome of his upbringing. “I remember my dad talking about music—he always listened to Billy Joel and The Cars and Bruce Springsteen and Tom Petty and Talking Heads and Leonard Cohen. I just remember watching him listen to music and seeing him in such awe of it, and it made me in awe of it. To me, music has become such an outlet that it’s hard to imagine my life without it.”
This passion for music has translated into lyrics and melodies that resonate with fans to an intense degree. Schultz is aware of this, and sometimes will even use the band’s social media accounts to post photos of fans’ tattoos of Lumineers lyrics or imagery. Interestingly, Schultz feels that this popularity may be due to the band’s deliberate avoidance of anything trendy. “We’re trying to make it timeless, not ‘of an era,’ so that it has some lasting effect to it and it’s not this fleeting, sugary high and then it’s over.”
Schultz also believes that it helps to be very careful and specific about the types of lyrics he writes, and how they mesh with the music itself. “I think the best kind of songs tell stories,” he says. “That, as human beings, is what we thrive on. So I was always really interested in telling the stories. At the same time, I realized very quickly that my story could be what I thought was great, but if the melody wasn’t strong, no one would care. So it was trying to bring substance to popular music and tell stories, instead of it just being this line that you thought sounded cool.”
After this world tour is finished, the plan is to do a fourth Lumineers album, although the extensive tour dates this year will probably mean it will be a while before any actual recording can be completed. However, Schultz confirms that he and Fraites will start the songwriting process while they’re still on the road, so there will likely be sneak peeks of the new material at upcoming shows. In any case, he says with a laugh, “Hopefully, it won’t be three or four years before the next album!”
Regardless of when that next album appears, Schultz is certain that it, like the first three Lumineers releases, “won’t be all slicked out to the point where there’s no mistakes in there. All my favorite recordings, I remember pointing out to different people, ‘Listen to this, listen to how they mess up here, but they kept it on the record!’ I always loved that. So that’s something that we put in our own music, trying to keep some of the mistakes in there if we felt like it served the song and made the moment more special.”
Ultimately, Schultz just wants his band’s songs to continue to connect with listeners. “For our fans, my hope is that they feel nourished by the music and it’s something they can play on repeat—for us to make a piece of work that lives with people and narrates the soundtrack to their life, I think that’s the ultimate compliment to what we’re doing.”
The Lumineers will play Barclays Center in Brooklyn, NY on February 13 and 14!