When Mumford & Sons were awarded the top Album of the Year Grammy for their album Babel this past week, the British foursome crossed over from popular folk-rock barnstormers to Certifiably Huge Megastars.
Of course there’s always the obscurity before the fame and like many a band before them, Mumford & Sons’ ascension to superstardom was built on dodgy tour vans and in hole-in-the-wall clubs. But rather than losing the details of their rising popularity to the unreliable haze of memory, the band has a well-articulated archive of their growth thanks to a longtime collaboration with directing team FRED&NICK.
Music documentarians with Pulse Films (the production company behind the LCD Soundsystem flick Shut Up and Play the Hits) FRED&NICK began touring with the band in 2009, following them from tiny clubs and local festivals to tours in Europe, India, and their eclectic 2012 America tour. Over the years the duo has created music videos, the six-part web series Gentlemen of the Road, and the feature-length rock-doc The Road to Red Rocks, which is largely centered around their show at Denver’s Red Rocks Amphitheatre and was released in the U.S. just days before the Grammys. The collected efforts amount to a video memoir of Mumford & Sons’ journey from humble beginnings to biggest-band-in-the-world-right-now.
In hindsight, the Mumford narrative is pretty clear: Four dudes start a band, tour like crazy, write music on the road, unwittingly tip off a folk-rock revival, become super famous but remain totally down to earth. Except none of that was planned from the beginning. When FRED&NICK were first brought on to document the band, the duo says they were given free rein to do whatever they wanted. "There was no pressure to hit any narrative targets," says Fred. Their approach was to simply observe the band from a distance and see what unfolded.
An early creative decision was to serialize the footage being collected to help people get to know the band, which became the Gentlemen of the Road series. "We were on the journey with them, on the tour bus and the crap planes," says Nick, making reference to one particular plane in India that he calls a "shed with wings." "It wasn’t like we sat down and interviewed them every day. We just kind of went along with whatever they did. It didn’t matter where they were going, we used the landscape of the journey."
The series feels like a welcoming invitation to the band’s day-to-day life, from early the days when the band was carrying its own kit to their album launch to their North American tour. And it includes special moments that might have otherwise been lost to history. "We remember the time where we were like, ‘fuck me, they’re getting big,’" says Nick. "We remember being in India and they played in a curry house where there were more of us than people eating curry. Then, all of a sudden, we’d be in Australia and there were tons of people following them around."
Now, with the band becoming a household name, FRED&NICK hope their anthology of videos helps provide a glimpse of what kind of guys Mumford and his sons are. "This journey has allowed us to chart a very interesting story with a strong group of people who haven’t gone the way many bands do when they go on such a trajectory. It might seem contrived but it’s really not," says Nick. "There’s no curtain between them and their live show. We’re just presented what we hope is the closest to reality that you can see. In a romantic way of course, otherwise it’d be piss boring."
Gentlemen of the Road
When Mumford & Sons first approached FRED&NICK to follow them, it was with the intention of making a film. The directors convinced them otherwise. "They just wanted to film and we suggested making it a series. We set up the idea to do these recurring documentaries that picked up with them at points along their journey. And we wanted it to have this long Western title. That’s how it started."
"Little Lion Man"
When it came to the band’s music videos FRED&NICK say that again, they were largely given free rein to interpret the music as they saw fit. Since much of the band’s magnetism comes from their raucous live performances, their first video, "Little Lion Man," simply focused the band’s foot-stomping, banjo-strumming stage presence. "Our collective strength pointed to us doing performance-related videos," says Fred.
"The Cave" on the other hand was a more collaborative effort with the band. Shot on location while on tour in India, the narrative hangs on the spirit of adventure: The band trade their instruments (and singing duties) with a quartet of locals in return for scooters and head off on a rambling journey.
"I Will Wait"
When conceiving the video for "I Will Wait," the lead single off Mumford & Sons’ Grammy-winning album Babel, FRED&NICK returned the band to the stage, this time focusing on their epic Red Rocks performance. For fans of Mumford & Sons, this video (and The Road to Red Rocks film) is as viscerally exciting as Shut Up and Play the Hits was to LCD Soundsystem fans.
By the time Babel was released, it was pretty clear that Mumford was a big deal. To hype the first single—and video—FRED&NICK released trailers online every week with the taunting words "I Will Wait." "They were ethereal bits of footage from the road," says Nick. "We’d drop them online to build up to the music video."
The Road to Red Rocks
FRED&NICK say that when it came to shooting a film about Mumford & Sons’ American tour it quickly became evident that the narrative should hinge on the show at Red Rocks Amphitheatre. "It was the best show because it wasn’t in a cold, hard arena," says Nick. Quite the contrary. Red Rocks provided a grand, surreal, and stunning backdrop against which to showcase the band. In fact, the location’s steep, odd angles (and oppressive heat) made filming difficult. "We had to cater a lot to the theater. It was hard to get cameras everywhere without annoying the crowd." It forced FRED&NICK to set their key shot behind the stage, which turned out to be a winning move. So much of the film’s energy comes from the vast shots of the heaving crowd. Adds Nick, "I laugh my ass off thinking of my 13-year-old me thinking about making a film in Red Rocks."