The Lumineers seemed to come out of nowhere last year with "Ho Hey," a massive hit singalong that propelled the folk-rock band to Grammy-nominated glory. But the Lumineers have actually been working hard since 2005, and their success story is hardly an overnight one.
Speaking backstage with Yahoo! Music before the band's fantastic Yahoo! On the Road concert in Boise on May 28, Lumineers founder and drummer/multi-instrumentalist Jeremiah Fraites reflected on his hard-won success…and shared an interesting barometer for how he initially measured it. How did first he realize that the Lumineers had finally hit the big time? The answer might surprise you!
YAHOO! OTR: You guys have had so much success in the past year or so. Do you recall one moment when you realized that you'd finally "made it"?
JEREMIAH: It wasn't playing "Saturday Night Live" or the Grammys or, like, every major late-night talk show. It was something much stupider and smaller. Growing up in New Jersey, Burton County, there's a library system. I used to go there all the time and get stacks of CDs of bands I like, whether it was an Eminem album or the Rolling Stones or Coldplay or whoever. And I went in there probably a year ago and all the librarians were like, "Your album has been checked out for ages. There's like 75 copies in all of Burton County, and they've all been checked out. They're all reserved for 14 more people!" And I was like, "Holy s***, we're a real band now. We're in the public library system!" Which was such a stupid thing, but for me that was the moment where I knew this was the start of something. Now, all the superficial stuff aside, all the success and the bus and everything, all the luxuries, I still just want to be in a room and be able to write music with [Lumineers frontman] Wes [Schultz]. I think that was always the goal.
YAHOO! OTR: A lot of people actually think the Lumineers are an overnight success story, but you guys have been doing this since 2005…
JEREMIAH: Yeah, it's very misrepresented in a way. Wes and I were the songwriters, and we grew up together. We've been in the band together for about eight years; we've probably written close to easily 75 to 100 songs before the 11 songs that made it to this album. And we changed all different genres; we weren't necessarily always Americana/folk. I think we failed a lot. We made a lot of weird, bad music, I think, before this.
YAHOO! OTR: Like what? Jokey rap-rock or something?
JEREMIAH: No, not that crazy; more in the vein of like alt-rock, maybe something more akin to Stone Temple Pilots, or U2-ish. I think we used to have a lot more, like, darker songs too, a lot more minor-key songs. We used to have electric guitar with delay…I think I've played every instrument in this band at one point. Full-time on drums, piano, bass, guitar — you name it, I think I've played it at one point in this band. And then we just got really into this simplistic thing. When Wes wrote the song "Flowers in Your Hair" and then we started working on the song "Submarines," I think it sort of sparked this minimalistic thing, something simple that we really started to gravitate towards.
YAHOO! OTR: It seems like what you're doing is really in sync with current music now, as opposed to a few years ago.
JEREMIAH: Yeah, I guess so. I think if this album came out in 1990 it wouldn't have done as well, at all. [laughs] I don't think it would have been heard. I think we're lucky; I think that people were ready and primed for it, for whatever reason.
YAHOO! OTR: Don't you find it interesting that bands like you and Mumford & Sons can be on the charts at the same time as Rihanna and Ke$ha?
JEREMIAH: Maybe it's the effect from our iPods and our A.D.D., in a way that you can have everything. You can have your cake and eat it too; in this day and age, you can listen to Taylor Swift or Bassnectar, or an Eminem song with Rihanna, and then you could listen to a Mumford & Sons song. I think maybe there's that duality, that doubleness, that people are attracted to.
YAHOO! OTR: It's encouraging, though, that people are getting into rock and folk bands again.
JEREMIAH: Yeah, I think that's neat that people get a kick out of going to a show and seeing musicians actually playing their instruments. But I have nothing against the people who just do the DJ thing; I think that requires a tremendous amount of skill as well.
YAHOO! OTR: But I do think the popularity of bands like you is sort of part of a larger backlash against stuff like Auto-Tune…
JEREMIAH: Well, I think if you use Auto-Tune, maybe you're in the wrong business! Maybe that's just your aesthetic, but I think it sounds pretty bad. I feel like we're more akin with just hard-working nerds. We work so hard to try to write and play our instruments well and rehearsing. So much went into the last eight years that led up to quote/unquote "overnight success" that people don't see. People are very attracted to success and the finish line, but no one is really asking the questions about how does one get from point A to point B.
YAHOO! OTR: But did you ever, deep down, feel that success was in your future, eventually?
JEREMIAH: I think writing music and art is a selfish endeavor. I think we got high on our music in a way where we thought, "Ah, this is cool." To be honest, "Ho Hey" never stood out to us, like, "Wow, this is going to pay our bills!" It was just a cool song. I thought we would sell maybe like 30,000 records. And I thought that that would've been a lot. And it still would have been a lot! We just really wanted to write an album. I think growing up, especially Wes, his dad listened to the Talking Heads and the Cars and Bruce Springsteen, and we really admire those guys because it's hard to write an album. People come up with a single and they just want to release that to get their payday and a quick fix. But we wanted to make an album, something cohesive. With the Rolling Stones, there's some great albums, like Exile on Main Street, where you can just listen to the whole thing, and that's what we wanted to do.
YAHOO! OTR: Is there any concern about becoming known as just the "Ho Hey" band, then? How do you avoid being known for just one big single?
JEREMIAH: I think the ball's in our court now. I think you just have to be consistent. I don't think you can get away in this business with just making one good song. I really do think we made a good album. I go to sleep at night and that's how I feel about it: I'm really proud of it. I think, though, we really need to make at least two more really good albums, really have a catalog of music. We got a lot of success and spotlight from "Ho Hey," but now the ball's in our court to say, "We're not just a one-hit wonder, not just the happy-go-lucky 'Ho Hey' band."
YAHOO! OTR: Was it a blessing that your success took time to come around, rather than being immediate?
JEREMIAH: Yes, I think that we're lucky because Wes is 30 and I'm 27. I think if we were 21 we would be f***ed, for lack of a better word. Like, all the success would just sort of ruin us. I think it would destroy us all. We did fail a lot before this, and I think we just had a lot of time to work on music. No one was ever really listening, no one was ever giving a s***, and there were no eyes or spotlight on us, thankfully. So we just had the time to kind of tinker constantly. Someone asked us a question one time: Is it "genius or perseverance" with us? And we said definitely perseverance. We worked so hard and so many hours, as if it was our career. But we also all had to work a menial side job that was soul-crushing that didn't pay anything or barely paid our bills, and then we had to work the other nine hours of the day doing music. And music definitely doesn't pay anything. We just wanted it so bad, and we were just very obsessive about what we do and our craft.
YAHOO! OTR: Did you ever have any near-brushes with success before this?
JEREMIAH: There were so many points along the way in the first five years, that we would sign up for an MTV contest to "get your big break," all these little things that we thought were gonna be our big break. And then after a while we said, "Maybe there is no big break; maybe there is no moment like in the movies where it's like, 'We got signed!'" All that started to go out the window and we said, "You know what? Let's just move to Denver." And that was sort of a dart on the dartboard. There wasn't much of a grand master plan. We just started to realize that we were getting older and this might be how it is for the rest of our lives, but we're satiating our passions, so that's good enough. And then it was almost like God said, "Well, now these guys are humble enough."
For Yahoo! On the Road interviews, blogs, photos, videos, and more, click here.