Marcus Mumford and his ramshackle rock crew became one of the biggest bands in the world with 2009’s wildly successful Sigh No More and 2012’s even more wildly successful Babel. With kick drums, banjos, and acoustic instruments, they kicked off this century’s folk-rock revival and opened the door for acts like The Lumineers and Of Monsters and Men to break big.
But last year, the quartet announced that for their third LP they were going to plug in — pick up electric guitars, incorporate syncopated drum-machine beats, and dial the volume way up. The move elicited an enormous outcry from listeners who liked Mumford & Sons just as they were. And when Wilder Mind dropped last May, it received mixed reviews from critics. (Fans proved easier to win over; the album reached No. 1 on the overall albums chart.)
Now, they’re tossing out another musical curveball and releasing a collaborative mini-album with Afro-Western dance/hip-hop outfit The Very Best, Senegalese superstar Baaba Maal, and Cape Town pop group Beatenberg. “Self-awareness is something that we actually actively avoid,” bassist Ted Dwane tells EW, laughing, when asked if he’s worried about how people might react to the Mumford & Sons meets South Africa news. “We don’t make music except for the joy of making music, really — and meeting people and sharing ideas.”
(He also promises that their pivots are less intentional than appearances might suggest. “This is not a reaction against what we were,” he says, “but an exploration of new things. We’re a restless bunch, and we have a lot of energy — we’re never going to stand still.”)
The musicians featured on the set, called Johannesburg, were first introduced to each other a number of years ago, during one of the U.K. group’s Gentlemen of the Road stopovers. It took until 2015, but Mumford & Co. finally found a day to get in the studio with Maal. Johan Hugo of The Very Best, by this point a close friend of Dwane’s, handled production, and they hammered out “There Will Be Time.”
The rest of the the tracks were laid down while they were touring South Africa in January and February of this year. “We figured, why not make it even more complicated for ourselves and try to record an EP in two days in Johannesburg?” Dwane says with a laugh. They holed up in a space that the bassist affectionately describes as a “mad, weird place” with “no windows.” It was bomb-proof, but none of the equipment worked. They pressed on.
“We had two rooms going, simultaneously,” he recalls. “Johan was at the helm, producing, and everyone was writing and adding to ideas. It was a true collaboration — there was no real plan, and we just saw what happened.”
What happened, once they’d repaired the equipment to the best of their ability, was four more adventurous world music tunes that take the most loved signifiers of each act — the heart-swollen melodies of Mumford & Sons, the infectious pop sensibilities of Beatenberg, the effervescence of The Very Best, and Maal’s striking delivery — and put them together. The elements join in a fashion less like a perfectly blended brownie batter, and more like a jigsaw puzzle: Each fits neatly next to another, perfectly intact, to enhance the picture as a whole.
Dwane says there will be several chances to see these songs live in 2016 — definitely at Hyde Park, in London, and maybe for a couple of the stateside shows in June. Other plans this year include finding time to get back in the studio (“hopefully very soon,” he says) for Wilder Mind‘s follow-up. He won’t say much about their sonic plan, but anticipates it’ll sound “a little bit more like ‘Mumford & Sons.'”
“There Will Be Time” is streaming below. Johannesburg is due to release June 17. The group is currently on tour. A full list of dates is available on their website.