The Lumineers Take a More Spontaneous Approach on Brightside

The Lumineers release Brightside on January 14.
The Lumineers release Brightside on January 14. Danny Clinch
Lumineers frontman Wesley Schultz says that he and the band’s co-founder, Jeremiah Fraites, pored over, planned out and worried about their first three albums. But they approached Brightside, which will be released Friday, January 14, on Dualtone Records, in a much more spontaneous way.

Schultz, who began writing and performing with Fraites in New Jersey in 2005 before they moved to Denver five years later, says they workshopped songs for six to eight weeks for their prior albums. In contrast, they spent only three weeks prepping for the nine-song Brightside.

“I remember saying to [Fraites], 'I think we're good,'" says Schultz. "'We have seven or eight ideas. Let's leave the last one or two to chance, because good things are going to happen. And let's just leave these really raw like this. Let's try that instead, because we've already demoed to the point of obsession, to the point of neuroticism.'”

He and Fraites each released solo albums last year. Schultz’s Vignettes is a ten-song album of covers, some of which he played in bars and coffee shops around the beginning of his music career. He describes Fraites’s Piano Piano as almost classical at times.

While both musicians felt stifled in the early days of the pandemic and it wasn’t the most inspirational time for them, Schultz says that making their solo albums eased them into making another Lumineers album.

“We didn’t rush into it,” he adds. “It was more like, ‘Okay, we've kind of waded into the waters again, and now we're good to do it.’”

He notes that most of the songs were written fresh off the heels of losing normalcy and having part of a tour in support of the 2019 album III canceled because of COVID.

“I think it really brought out a lot of emotion for anyone you talk to,” Schultz says. “I think for us — all I know is our little myopic world — there were ideas flying back and forth all the time. But it took a little while. It was like months and months of silence followed by this watershed moment. Something opened up.”
Brightside was made at Sun Mountain Studios in Boiceville, New York, over two sessions with longtime collaborator and producer Simone Felice. Schultz and Fraites played nearly all the instruments, while co-producer, mixer and engineer David Baron played a variety of keyboards. Felice and Lumineers touring members Byron Isaacs and Lauren Jacobson added background vocals along with singer Cindy Mizelle, who has worked with Bruce Springsteen and the Dave Matthews Band.

“We just entered the studio with a bare-bones collection of voice memos,” Schultz says. “Cool, interesting stuff happens that you're open to if you've already tried to plan the whole album out. And in this case, we didn't really plan much at all.”

Schultz says the song “Brightside,” which was recorded in a day, and the anthemic “A.M. Radio” set the tone for the album. The title track began more as a quiet and subtle acoustic version (much like the contents of the B-side), but Fraites decided to lay down drums in the studio.

“If you listen to the previous three records, there’s not a whole lot of traditional drums and drumbeats on there,” Schultz says. “That's to Jer’s credit — he's so ego-less; he really sheds his ego when it comes to playing music and serving the songs. I think a lot of other drummers would have just been kind of insecure about people not knowing all the things they can do.”

"Brightside” and “Never Really Mine,” which ramps up into a rocker halfway through, are heavy on electric guitar, while “Where We Are,” “Big Shot” and “Rollercoaster” are more piano-driven. “Birthday" takes a few cues from White Album-era Beatles, being heavy on acoustic guitars and fueled by Fraites’s Ringo Starr-esque drum work.”

When making the video for “Brightside,” the Lumineers worked with documentary filmmaker Kyle Thrash, who saw the song as an American love story; it's filled with people of all ages expressing what love means to them.

“Finding some real human moments in there and trying to tap into that was the intention for the video, instead of depicting what the lyrics were talking about: driving in a specific car, psilocybin in a hotel room or something like that,” Schultz explains. “It was more about alluding to what I think the song is getting at — the love that you share with someone who can be this cocoon in the darkest of times.

“You’ll almost be immune to the outside world and what it's throwing at you if you have that," he continues. "So [Thrash] took that and ran with it. He got an amazing amount of trust from a lot of people that really opened up to him, and you can feel that when you watch it.”
Part of the reason for the relaxed approach to Brightside is that Schultz and Fraites were at a point at which they trusted themselves a little more than they might have in the past.

"You can get good at...being your own [self-critical] editor, but if that runs rampant, you don't really leave the room for that magic, that spark and curiosity that happens when you first start out playing music,” Schultz points out.

He expands that notion by citing something that R.E.M. frontman Michael Stipe once said in an interview. Although he can't recall the exact quote, he says it was about a circular concept.

“When you're first starting out, you're at the top of the circle. You're imagining yourself there, and you have all this inspiration, you have all this purity and instinct, but you don't have the skills yet to implement that vision sometimes. It’s more crude," he says. “And then as you move down toward the bottom of the circle, it’s trying to hit a sweet spot where you have the skills, but you also maintain that awe and that wonderment about what you're doing, and you hopefully never move back to the top, where you try to control everything and put to bed that inner child or whatever that is — that spark, you know, that sort of imagination.”

Schultz also approached the lyrics a bit differently this time out than he did on the band’s previous three albums. While there are stories being told in the songs, he didn’t feel the need to tell them in as linear a way as he’d done in the past. He says Brightside is “more of a 'feeling' record,” with more abstract imagery.

“It's intended to make you feel a certain way rather than to understand some sort of story,” he explains.

When he was fifteen years old, Schultz saw Neil Young play a solo show where he hopped between guitar, banjo and piano.

“It was one of those formative experiences where he seemed to be casting some sort of spell over me and the rest of the audience, where we knew exactly how we felt,” Schultz says. “We didn't really always know what he was talking about; we just felt one with that feeling.”

Schultz has used more abstract lines in some Lumineers songs, sometimes without being sure himself what they mean. His brother once asked him the meaning of the line “If it was a bigger fire, I would be on the roof," from the song “Submarines” off the Lumineers' debut.

“I'm like, ‘I have no idea,’” he says. “It just kind of came out and I loved it, and I felt something. That was something a little scary for me to do — not have an answer. This whole album is full of not-answers. It’s full of open-ended, almost like choose-your-own-adventure with these songs.”

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Jon Solomon writes about music and nightlife for Westword, where he's been the Clubs Editor since 2006.
Contact: Jon Solomon