Marcus Mumford on Backing Dylan, Naked Songwriting and Why Arcade Fire Rule His World

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A week before the Grammys, Mumford & Sons had no idea they’d be sharing a stage with Bob Dylan. “It was surreal,” says the folk-rock quartet’s singer, Marcus Mumford, 24. “I was staying with my friend in California, and every night, we’d stay up until three listening to Dylan. Then I get a call: ‘You’re playing the Grammys with Bob Dylan.’” The British crew — whose breakout debut disc, Sigh No More, just went platinum — ended up stealing the show with a passionate rendition of their tune “The Cave,” driving their album back up to Number Two. Mumford, taking a cigarette break from a writing session for the band’s second album, checks in from London.

Were you excited to back Dylan on “Maggie’s Farm”?

The initial idea was that we’d play the Grammys with the Avett Brothers — one of our favorite bands in the world — and “a legend of music.” When our manager said, “It’s Bob Dylan,” I got out of bed and ran outside and jumped around like a madman! You can imagine the reaction of someone who probably wouldn’t be playing music at all if it wasn’t for Dylan.

I read that your mother got you into Dylan.
She had Slow Train Coming on vinyl. It’s pretty much the first vinyl I ever listened to. That, and a seven-inch of the Animals’ “The House of the Rising Sun.”

The first CD you ever bought was The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill. Why?
Because I was trying to be a badass. I listened to that album religiously when I was, like, 12, 13. It was the first time I went to a store and bought my own CD.

When was the first time people sang along to your words?
It was quite early on [laughs]. At the first shows, it was my ­brother, sister-in-law, all our families — they knew our demos. When you write a song, sitting naked on your bedroom floor, it’s the most private thing you can do. I’m very English, and we don’t talk about emotions publicly. Then you do the most public thing possible: You record it and ask people to play it on the radio. It’s pretty weird when you hear people singing that private moment back at you.

Which song did you write naked on your bedroom floor?
“Feel the Tide,” on our second EP — it’s pretty much the first song I ever wrote.

Are you guys well-behaved on the road?
We’re not big party animals. I like to wake up in the morning in a state where I can walk around and see the sights. The other day I drove down to Salinas, where John Steinbeck was born, and went to his house.

Were you impressed by Arcade Fire’s Grammy performance?
I was pissed off when everyone was walking out, because they’re the best live band in the world. We were like, “Why are you all leaving? Why are you just trying to talk to famous people? This is Arcade Fire!”

What’s your favorite lyric on The Suburbs?
“Kasparov, Deep Blue, 1996.” It makes me feel so many things.

Everybody loves their line in “City With No Children”: “You never trust a millionaire quoting the ­Sermon on the Mount.”

Yes, but people miss out on the line after that: “I used to think I was not like them, but I’m beginning to have my doubts about it.” That’s fucking awesome writing! The vulnerability in that line is just genius. It’s the same zoom out/zoom in that Springsteen does in “Atlantic City”: “Everything dies, baby, that’s a fact, but maybe everything that dies someday comes back.” A huge statement! Then he goes, “Put your makeup on, fix your hair up pretty, and meet me tonight in Atlantic City.” Ahhhhh! That’s the moment. Lyrics are the life.

This article appears in the March 17, 2011 issue of Rolling Stone. The issue is available now on newsstands and will appear in the online archive March 4.
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