When inspiration springs from difficult circumstances, Wesley Schultz of the Lumineers isn’t afraid to venture into the depths. The Platinum-selling folk-rock band’s new album, III (Dualtone), unravels the intertwined stories of family members lost to addiction and the ways it affects those around them. Loosely based on diary entries that Schultz made while dealing with troubles in his own clan, the song cycle confronts the subject matter in stark, up-front arrangements against the band’s major-key melodies and shout-along choruses.
“So many of my favorite songs have that collision of a catchy or upbeat song with strangely dark or personal stories behind it,” says Schultz, the Lumineers’ lead vocalist and guitarist. “That juxtaposition seems really interesting to me.”
The songs composed for III also resonated personally with multi-instrumentalist Jeremiah Fraites, Schultz’s bandmate and co-writer, who lost his brother to a drug overdose when they were teenagers. Fraites’ simple, elegant piano lines provide much of the songs’ melodic unpinning. “I remember apologizing to Jer halfway through making the record for bringing these topics into the lyrics,” Schultz says. “I think it raises a whole other set of memories for him.”
The band members worked through the material in Denver before convening with producer Simone Felice in upstate New York, where they took a sharp turn away from their established recording methods. Their sonic forays brought out the character in the old upright piano they used - as well as the ambient noise of the piano dampers - and emphasized the natural guitar distortion from Schultz’s aggressive playing style as he commandeered a fleet of Guild X-50 semi-hollow electrics and Martin 00-18 acoustics. As Schultz explains, capturing a mix of direct and ambient signals helped the Lumineers create a percussive texture that brought III’s poignant songs to life.
Did telling such a personal story open up new musical paths in the studio?
I guess you could say it was almost a renaissance. We started demoing the song “Gloria” first. We originally started with a basic guitar-and-piano track, and then we changed it to a synth. It didn’t really resemble anything we had done before, and it left us wondering how much we could dress up the song in these different outfits and still have it make sense and keep its potency.
Then something kind of gave. We had this Guild X-50. It’s a thin-body semi-hollow electric guitar, and it has a dark quality to it. We miked it close so you could hear the attack on the strings, and we placed a mic in the corner of the room. The room had a lot of exposed wood, so it had all these reflections and natural reverb, and they gave the guitar this percussive element that really started to define the song. I think in the past our attitude about production was straightforward and really more along the lines of, “Hey, here’s an acoustic guitar.” But this was more about capturing the sound of the guitar so the listeners could hear it as if they were in the room with us.
You said this happened while demoing. Where did you do the demos?
In a house in Denver, just trying to crack the code on how to record “Gloria.” It sounded bad every time we would try to record it, until we tried the Guild X-50. We tried it super clean at first. Then we turned the amp off and just started miking the room and miking the guitar up close. The Guild had a kind of natural distortion when I really laid into it.
How would you describe the sound you tried to achieve with the guitars?
It’s like percussion with added colors and flavors, and it helps move the song along. We’ve never been a heavily guitar-driven band in the sense of having riffs and licks. Our guitars have been more about serving the song and setting the stage for the lyrics. I think there’s been a lot more expression of the sound of the guitar on this album compared to our previous ones. Our guitar sounds were always stock tones, like what I heard on any other album I liked.
How does your choice of a guitar factor into your songwriting?
I write a lot better on guitars that I feel connected to or that I feel have a story. I have a lot more success writing on an old beat-up guitar that sounds really beautiful. For some reason, they just feel a lot more open and full. I also enjoy writing on guitars that aren’t super loud. Those thin-body Guilds unplugged don’t make a ton of noise. I ended up falling in love with them.
But I swear, after every two- or three-year tour, it’s time for a new guitar. They’re just destroyed from how hard I play, especially the acoustics. I have to play them a lot harder. I think the electrics hold up better because I don’t have to lay into them to get the same growl and the same ferocity - that percussive stuff that I’m really interested in. With the electrics, I don’t lose fingernails as much or bleed every night like I do when I play the acoustics.
How did you develop such an aggressive style of playing?
When I first started playing guitar, there were two artists who were really important to me. The first was Tom Petty during his Wildflowers phase [late 1994]. He just exploded with that album, and the younger generation came around to him after he’d already appealed to so many others before us.
The other group was the Dave Matthews Band. I remember trying to learn Dave Matthews songs, because I figured if I could play and sing stuff that complicated, then I could probably play most things and sing. I started trying to write and emulate him in that way. Ultimately, though, I settled into a way that was true to what I would do naturally, which was more like Tom Petty. Just more of a true rhythm guitar player.
The Lumineers spent some time this past summer previewing the new record live. How did you recreate those sounds onstage?
It was hard to recapture them at first when we were doing rehearsals. We were using the Guild X-50s, and every one of them was totally different from the last. They’re technically the same guitar, but they sound different from one another. We had to put another pickup - these [H.M. McIntyre GF-30] feather pickups - on the outside of the guitar near the bridge saddle.
It captured a lot of the strumming and the resonance of the guitar. When I play live with them, I get a feed from the amp, but I also get this crusty, almost acoustic kind of sound from the feather pickup. It’s a true hybrid of an electric and acoustic. We’re really happy with how that came out because it’s true to the sound we created when we recorded the guitars for the album. It just came full circle.