A behind-the-scenes look at the band’s live concert
Held together with suspenders and a range of feel-good folk songs, The Lumineers are the Denver-based band everyone just knows—but where did they come from? And what makes them great?
At their show in Ottawa earlier this year, Wesley Schultz, the band’s frontman, recounted a time when they went unrecognized in the parking lot of one of their sold-out shows. That night, the band had gone outside to greet people who couldn’t get tickets. As the band approached the parked cars, drivers abruptly closed their windows and ignored them. Schultz expressed gratitude that the people were in it for the music.
The Lumineers’s first single, “Ho Hey,” unexpectedly thrust them into the spotlight in 2012. The song is a blend of catchy melody, hearty shouts and lyrics that make you reflect on the withering flames of old friends and past lovers—evoking both sadness and serenity at once. It’s gut-wrenching and enthralling. Perhaps that’s the draw.
“So, show me family / All the blood that I would bleed / I don’t know where I belong / I don’t know where I went wrong / But I can write a song / I belong with you / You belong with me / You’re my sweetheart.”
The first components of what would eventually become The Lumineers came together in the mid-2000s. After meeting to collaborate and write songs, Schultz and Jeremiah Fraites played gigs in New Jersey as a duo until 2010. Schultz operated as the lead singer and guitarist. He also wrote all the lyrics. Fraites wrote the music and plays piano and drums.
After 2010, the duo decided to take on another member, inviting Neyla Pekarek to join them as a cello player and backup vocalist. Pekarek joined the band after responding to a Craiglist ad posted by Schultz and Fraites. On tour, the group also brings additional musicians who specialize in a broad range of instruments to complete their signature folksy sound.
Stelth Ulvang, for example, doubles as a solo-artist and the full-time barefoot member of The Lumineers. Yes, that’s right—Ulvang can easily be recognized on stage as the one without shoes. He has been adding to the group’s sound and keeping audiences thoroughly entertained since 2011 with backup vocals, guitar, piano and bare feet.
When asked about the unusual habit, Ulvang said it’s for comfort.
“I used to [do it] in my old band, Dovekins, and I developed a habit I love,” he said. “I really like playing piano barefoot—at least with an un-shoed pedal foot. I will usually kick my right shoe off sitting at a grand piano even in the fanciest places.”
The band has released two albums so far, the first being their self-titled debut that thrust them into the mainstream music scene and their second called Cleopatra. The album’s standout track, “Ophelia,” earned the band their first number-one hit. The song is about a taxi driver from the Republic of Georgia who was inadvertently hardened by time and circumstance. This song is one of five tracks on Cleopatra branded by a woman’s first name—each detailing a narrative that leaves you feeling inspired, defeated, in love or betrayed.
“While the church discouraged / Any lust that burned within me / Yes my flesh / It was my currency / But I held true / So I drive a taxi / And the traffic distracts me / From the strangers in my backseat / They remind me of you.”
While many of their songs explore the topic of love, the ones that don’t are equally blissful and honest in nature. With two albums full of raw emotion, it might be difficult for someone on the inside to choose a favourite song. Ulvang, however, didn’t hesitate to identify his.
“I love playing The Lumineers’s tune ‘Angela’ for the sincerity and surprising intensity it holds,” he said. “Angela” follows the tale of a woman who has been running away from her demons her entire life and concludes with her arriving in a place where she feels at home.
In a world where music has become very repetitive, The Lumineers find the true substance of the stories that become their songs. The resulting product is compelling, raw and, above all, it’s honest. Just ask former President Barack Obama, who included The Lumineers’s song “Stubborn Love” on one of his Spotify playlists and invited the band to perform at the White House twice in 2016.
“We were all pretty stoked to meet the president,” Ulvang said. “[We] dropped everything when we had a second chance to play at the White House—it’ll be at least four years until we do that again,” he added with a wink.
The Lumineers spent the past year juggling their tour and opening for Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. When asked about the weirdest thing he witnessed on tour, Ulvang described a time when a crowd got a little handsy in Norway.
“I had never experienced that, as a man,” Ulvang said. “This old sailor who was helping put on the festival sees the discomfort in all of us and just starts linking everyone’s hands in the crowd […] Then we just had a ring of people around us holding hands.”
Max Lenox, who worked as the sound engineer for The Lumineers’s opening band, Kaleo, during their year-long tour, spoke highly of the group.
“The Lumineers’s production design was one of the most fluid and well-executed shows I have ever experienced,” he said.
Though they haven’t been around long, The Lumineers have managed to establish a fan base amongst a considerably wide audience. Their success so far indicates they are likely to continue on this path for years to come, and rightly so. In their own words, “I don’t gamble / But if I did / I would bet on us.”
The Cleopatra World Tour ended on Dec. 13 back where the band is rooted, in Denver, Colo.