In September 2019, The Lumineers released their third album, III, with it’s accompanying video series that follows the harrowing effects of addiction throughout generations. Songwriter Wesley Schultz gets deep about the making of the album, taking a look back, and their North American tour that stops in Ottawa on March 7th.
What made you decide to begin your third album, and to release it as a three-part video album?
Well, I was moving and I stumbled upon some journals from 07’ or 08’ and I started reading them, because I was wondering what my thoughts were back then… if anything had changed, or if things seemed to stay the same. I found this whole idea I had of trying to make an LP into three EP’s, to divide up an album into parts and I really liked that idea. We really hadn’t been able to pull that off to that point. So it was a good reminder of an idea that I had kind of lost track of. It came in handy for this album, because there were these three characters that emerged out of writing, that we could base each chapter and each part around. It was kind of a happy accident all together; the fifinding of it, and then that we had to write songs that were kind of the DNA for an album to make it work.
Every new album or creation is a risk, but this album had some well-defined risks to it. First, the format. You chose to release it as a video album, but you’ve talked about how this wasn’t advised? What drove the decision for you to do it anyway?
I don’t think that people who are in the industry are anymore savvy in some ways than an artist. I think that nothing is working, and therefore everything is working. If they knew there was a formula that they could just plug you in to and make it work, they would try to do that. But if you look at our fifirst album and its success, you realistically wouldn’t record an album that sounded like that if you wanted it to be as successful as it turned out to be. We just followed our heart. With the second album, labels were super concerned because of how long it had been between albums. They wanted to rush out an album and we didn’t want to do that. It’s not that you don’t trust them, sometimes they have good ideas just like anyone else, but I think that when you realize the artist employs labels instead of the labels employing the artist, you understand more of what is happening. I think that bringing the power back to the artist and the creative folks who make the album and trying to keep it protected is a really big thing. The label is certainly not your enemy, but it’s like hiring an advertising agency. You might know how to communicate what you’re trying to do better than them. Their job is to help you see that through. For us, we just try to be really independent, and have our own mind made up. That is probably a function of me not succeeding until I was about 30. We started to make up our own minds because no one was helping us.
The album and it’s three chapters look at the effects of addiction from start to end. Why was it important for you to keep the messaging so focused?
I don’t know if I felt like it was important, I just felt compelled. I felt stuck on it, so I just kept writing about it. Kind of wishing that I would fifind some closure and then write something else on the next album but it kept coming up. It’s almost like an issue that you’re stuck on. For me it felt more honest or better to write about something that I had feelings about, than to write about something that I maybe didn’t feel strongly about. But it was a new subject. It was what was coming out at the time. I thought, maybe there’s a reason for that, and let’s just embrace that instead of writing something that is more bland because you think that it sounds cool. That can prove to be just a really bad starting place for a song. Sometimes the most peculiar lines of songs are the things that you remember the most and that’s usually because it is based on somebody’s experience; something strange that has been experienced in real life.
When you released this album, did you realize or understand just how many people would connect with your experiences with addiction? Were you surprised by the reception of the message you put forth?
We were really surprised. Before, our perspective was different. Jay had grown up in a house where his brother overdosed and passed away tragically at age 19. Jay was about 15 so he was touched by it at an early age. My wife and I had been trying to take care of a family member of ours that has struggled with alcoholism over the last 10 years. So in each of our own ways we’ve been touched by addiction. I think we thought that it was a small club. But after releasing this album, we see now that it’s actually a really expansive, vast amount of people that have been touched by or know somebody who has been touched by that world of addiction, or is supporting a loved one or is trying to deal with that. I think in a strange way, it’s sort of hopeful… and in another way it’s devastating. But when we play songs at our shows, it’s not like half the audience is engaged and half are wishing we’d get on our other stuff. We kind of stumbled onto this universal thing. Maybe we realized it in the beginning. I think we thought we would alienate a lot of people, because we felt so isolated by going through it in our own ways, you know?
Is there a song on the album that challenged you? One that you like to play live?
Yeah, I would say Jimmy Sparks was probably the hardest song in a lot of ways to record. It had tons more verses and it’s already a long song, so you can imagine it was like this epic, epically long song that started to kind of lose potency. For a while there it wasn’t going to make the album. I think my favourite song to play live was probably Leader Of The Landslide. It just drags out this emotion. With some songs, you tap into your memory and some songs the feelings are right under the surface and you don’t have to go too far to engage those. I feel lucky to do what I get to do and play these songs live because people would think that was painful but, it’s actually a pretty cathartic experience to get out there and feel something each night. I think a lot of us go through parts of our lives where we’re a little bit numb or distracted and life just feels kind of muted. I think that’s why people go to church, and I think that’s why people go to live shows. I think that’s why people end up feeling alive after they cry at a funeral. It’s a strange phenomenon, but I think it’s mostly that we’re just not feeling a whole lot for a lot of days. So I feel really lucky that when I perform Leader Of The Landslide it brings me that emotion. I’ve had a lot of people say that it must be hard. It is hard, but for people who have to fake that, you know? Do it every night. Do those Broadway shows 100-200 times in a year and play pretend.
Is that one of the reasons why you said that you listen to sad music before your shows as kind of a pre-show ritual? It helps you to feel alive and capture that energy?
Yeah I used to do that, I used to do that alot, especially on the Cleopatra tour. I don’t fifind myself doing it anymore because I think this album did something different to me playing it live. And I think that’s kind of what I touched on a second ago, I think that it’s not a bad thing. It might sound like one, but it’s actually a good thing to have those raw emotions under the surface and I guess confront them or be with them each night. I think that that’s the part of addiction – the taboo nature of it is that we all just kind of keep the secret and it bottles up a lot of emotion. So to let some of that out. Like there’s a moment in Leader of the Landslide that says “f**k you for that, f**k all your pride and f**k all your prayers” …we don’t have a lot of swear words in our music generally. I see so many people in the crowd raising their middle finger and saying“f***”back, it’s this feeling people have, they love someone so much but there’s also a lot of pain and anger and hurt. I think that’s really vital to a lot of kinds of music that I grew up listening to. Again, writing it, and not really having that type of writing I would say, there was a moment where I thought like, wow are people even going to understand this? You know, get this? But if I was going to look back I would say the good part was just trying to follow the compass of what feels honest, you know? It may not appeal to everyone but you’re never going to, and that’s kind of the worst place to be is trying to do that.
Looking back an entire decade ago to 2010, what is the first thought that comes into your mind about who The Lumineers were then and who they are now?
We had just named ourselves Lumineers at the end of 2009 and moved to Denver. So 2010 and that decade was like a new beginning. Jay and I had been writing together for 5 years at that point, 5 or 6 years. I feel like the last 10 years have been so densely packed with so many life events. My wife gave me a calendar as a gift at the end of 2013 and it was all of the things that had happened that year. All these milestones on a big poster calendar that she helped design and gave to me as a birthday present. And I kind of got nauseous looking at it. You feel like you’re a passenger on a speeding train trying to just keep up. So now I feel more present, but the 2010’a were a blur.
With every ticket purchase on the North American Tour, you’re donating a portion to REVERB, a nonprofit organization that is taking action on climate change, addiction, and homelessness. Why is this cause so special to you?
I mean as a tour by nature you’re a traveling circus and you’re kind of wasteful. You have all these big busses and take on these venues and you might drink bottled water… so we go to them to try and help us cut down on our waste and try to be a more conscientious band in that sense. I feel like a kid with a thermos sometimes, that’s my water bottle now. But it’s better than what I was doing before which was a heavy set of plastic. You know plastic bottles of water in my hand at all times. So I think just trying to take small steps felt good overall. Trying to keep our carbon footprint low because we do love what we do but you kind of lose sight on how much energy and waste goes into it.
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received in your career?
That’s a good question. Someone once told me that song writing is like story telling. There’s a tension and release, there’s a dissonance followed by an assonance. I feel like when you see a good movie or you hear a good song or story, there’s always this moment when you don’t know what’s going to happen and it creates that dissonance. And then there’s this resolution, there’s this harmony that happens. I think the advice was you have to create a void and then fifill it. You have to create tension and then fifill it with harmony. And I think with my favourite music there’s such a beautiful mixture of the two; of tension and then beauty and then darkness. I used to spend my time just trying to do one or the other and I think that was a little misguided. I remember seeing this thing online, it was talking about a paragraph and the art of writing. They showed you two categories that were basically the same information, but how they divided up the sentences was so much more entertaining and beautiful in one way and then the other way was like an accountant was writing it. I just love that about what we could do as any sort of artist. It’s like trying to fifind that magic. There’s not a formula, but you’re sort of searching in the dark for that outcome that makes it all work.