As a part of her Phone a Friend series, Jill Riley hopped on the phone recently to chat with Ben Lovett, who handles vocals, keys, piano, and accordion in Mumford & Sons. The two chatted about how the band are staying connected during this period of social distancing, Lovett’s venture into owning music venues, and how to cope throughout this extended quarantine.
Jill Riley: Ben, how are you doing?
Ben Lovett: I’m doing very well, thank you. I like the idea of being called a friend. It’s very heartwarming in these times. I feel similarly. The friendship is mutual.
Between The Current and Mumford & Sons, we’ve kind of developed this musical friendship, over the years. I think it’s been nice to get people on the phone and connect with someone, and hear someone’s voice, or maybe a new voice, since we’ve all been in isolation. When I heard I was going to talk with you, I had it in my head that maybe you’d be calling in from London, but you’re in New York?
Most recently, we played a festival down in Florida in the beginning of March, and have been up here since then. I’ve been kind of based out in New York since 2010. I think I’m kind of American by soul, British by birth, and I think the rest of the band feels similarly. Although, actually Marcus [Mumford] was born in California, so he’s both American by soul and birth. I think it was a practical decision, when we started touring more and more. In 2010, we were touring the U.S. a lot, and I just realized it was easier to head back to New York at the end of a U.S. run than it was to go all the way across the Atlantic every time. I love it here.
Ben, what have you been doing with your time?
What has anyone been doing with there time? It’s a bizarre time. It’s become a very strange friend. I’ve been trying to get my day structured, so I set an alarm. I spend a lot of the day talking to folks in the UK about what’s going on with music and doing kind of the normal working hours. I own a couple music venues, a concert promotion business, a record label, and stuff, so I’m trying to figure out what the wider implications are for that stuff. The one thing I knew when everything kicked off in early March, was that I wanted to make sure that whatever I did, looking back on this in a year or two from now, that it’d be things I was proud of doing. I didn’t want to just throw everything out the window and say, “Screw it, I’m just going to tread water.” I want to be proactively engaged and helpful during this time doing whatever small bit I can.
There’s a wonderful woman who you all know, a Minnesota native, Dayna Frank. Dayna’s been leading an independent venues association lobbying effort to make sure that there are actually music venues to come back to after all of this. Without venues, obviously, there’s nowhere for bands and fans to hang out together. They’re like our social clubs. [She’s] making sure that our little world of the music industry is not completely left behind. There are so many big issues that need to be tackled right now, number one being public health, and number two being people’s livelihoods and jobs. At some point, we need to remember that music is a powerful thing and we need places to spend time together, when we’re allowed to.
It wasn’t until recently that I found out that you had gotten into the music venue game.
Yeah, there’s a couple of projects in London, and I’m also working on something really exciting down in Huntsville, Alabama. It’s been a personal project that I’ve taken on with my brother and my dad as a family business, outside of the band, and it’s just been a labor of love. In 2015, I got into figuring out how to actually go about building a venue, and started with a small 300-cap venue called Omeara, which has been really fun, if not, incredibly challenging. I had no idea about how you actually order beer. I didn’t know how to drink beer, I didn’t know how to order beer. I loved it. I loved providing a stage and a platform for artists, and had so many amazing moments.
One of my favorite moments, there’s this British singer called Frances. She invited one of her fans onstage halfway through the set. This guy invited his boyfriend up, and then dropped down to one knee and proposed on that stage. I just had this wave of realization about the moments that could be created in venues, people forming friendships, falling in love, having their first ever gigs. They’re great things. I’ve kind of fallen in love with that side of things, and I’m continuing to work on that outside of trying to write better and better songs. One of the things I’m sure other songwriters have said is, “You never really feel like you’ve completed that task. The biggest challenge is trying to write the best song you can.”
It’s got to be such a stressful time when you’ve got a new venue, with the shutdown and the pause of the music industry.
I think we do have a duty to stay positive. I’m grateful, in a sense, that those who are close to me are alive and well. We adapt. We move on. We change things. I think it’s just important that people don’t lose hope. I think existential threat, right now, is perhaps even more terrifying than the real threat. A very good friend of mine is a poet out of LA, and her advice to me was that what you need to do is mourn your plans for the year now, and then make new ones. It’s okay. We shouldn’t just be saying, “Oh, what would I be doing this summer?” or “What would this have been like?” That’s not helping. We should just put that behind us and move on.
How has the band been staying in touch during this time?
There’s been a great crew quiz that covers us, and also our touring family. The quiz host has been moving around. That’s been a Zoom activity. We’ve been getting on the phone a bit. We’ve been texting a lot. Winston [Marshall], the other day, sent a new song idea, which I was really excited by. We’re trying to figure out how we can potentially develop song ideas remotely. It’s mostly about voice memos on phones, and GarageBand recordings on laptops. That’s still better than people had 50 years ago. We’re trying to stay in touch, first in foremost, remembering that we’re old friends, and checking in with each other and our families, but we love what we do as a band. We’re hoping to get some new music out, so that’s exciting, in whatever shape or form that comes out, we’re just figuring that out.
As you’re thinking ahead, and thinking of creative ways to either release some new music or just write new music with your bandmates, is there a song in the Mumford & Sons catalog that you can think of that takes on a new meaning right now?
The one that just instinctively jumped to mind was “Ghosts that We Knew,” an old song of ours, that Marcus originally wrote. It’s one of my favorite songs that he’s ever written. It has this couplet in it which is, “But the ghosts that we knew will flicker from you, and we’ll live a long life.” It’s kind of a reminder of some of the stuff we were talking about before. We do need to remain hopeful, despite all the fear and negativity that surrounds us right now.