The pianist and drummer could pick up a refurbished Bösendorfer or a brand-new, hand-built Steinway & Sons grand, or hire a craftsman to build something tailored just for him. Instead, he writes the Lumineers’ music on the beat-up old upright his mom brought home from the nursery school where she worked when he was a kid growing up in New Jersey in the early ’90s.
While other children would pound their fists on the keyboard, Fraites approached the instrument in a state of awe, gingerly pressing each key. Now in his early thirties, he’s still in awe of that piano, defending it against professional tuners who beg him to replace the strings or just chuck the clunker and buy something state-of-the-art.
He refuses. He and the Denver-based Lumineers don’t make glossy music, and he doesn’t want a glossy piano.
To soften the jangly instrument, he and his dad took a trip to a craft store and bought a couple of yards of acrylic felt. Fraites placed the fabric in between the strings and created the haunting sound that sets the tone for the band’s upcoming album, III, an epic collection of folk-rock songs.
Slated to drop September 13 on Dualtone/Decca, the record chronicles three generations of the fictional Sparks family and the way that addiction can be passed down. The lyrics are as much the stuff of William Faulkner or Eudora Welty as they are of radio-friendly folk rock. And that piano, in all its glorious ragtaggery, is the perfect instrument to give texture to the story of this imperfect family.
When it came time to record the album, which was produced by kindred spirit Simone Felice of New York band the Felice Brothers, Fraites had the piano shipped to Felice’s studio in the Catskills. Felice grumbled about the instrument, which proved difficult to record evenly. But the piano created the sound the band was going for — particularly on III’s opening track, “Donna,” a depressing slow burner that begins with a dusty scale, soft but unnerving.
It’s a risky song that big studios wouldn’t allow lesser-known acts to use at the start of a record. But Fraites and Lumineers singer, lyricist and co-founder Wesley Schultz don’t care much for what studio brass think. They do things their own way, as they did on their first, self-titled EP, for the song “Ho Hey,” which sounds like it was recorded in a garage but somehow made its way up the Billboard charts; on their second album, Cleopatra; and now on III.
The new album comprises three acts of three songs each, and the band began releasing some of them in April, each track tied to a music video directed by Kevin Phillips. The first single, “Gloria,” has spent weeks at the top of Billboard’s Alternative chart, and while it has yet to achieve the sky-high success of “Ho Hey,” radio stations have been playing it and amateur pickers have been studying the chords.
When the Lumineers have performed songs from the album live, at the Boulder Theater on April 11 and, more recently, in Australia, Japan and Canada, crowds have sung along to the songs that had already been released. The same can be expected when the band returns home to headline the August 7 grand opening of Denver’s newest venue, the Mission Ballroom.
But when people sing along, Schultz wonders if they’re really paying attention to what the songs are about. Despite the joy on fans’ faces, the lyrics are often bleak. Foot-stomping barn-burner “Ho Hey” addresses loneliness, love and desperation, with lines about bleeding out, and Cleopatra, much of which was written after Schultz’s father died of cancer, covers grief, depression and failed ambition.
Schultz has long written songs as though he were scribbling in a diary, with hyper-specific details from life standing in for big themes. But the specifics are veiled enough that fans can find what they want to glom on to in any given line. He’s not a wizardly lyricist in the tradition of Leonard Cohen or Bob Dylan, creating songs with poetic acrobatics that dazzle. He’s more akin to Bruce Springsteen — mining the substance and subtlety of ordinary life for something folky and raw.
Schultz and Fraites are almost academic in their analysis of fellow artists, against whom they often measure themselves: How does Springsteen dominate a crowd, and how can they? How does Neil Young play a simple line on his guitar that is entirely his own, and how can they? How does Warren Zevon write about a serial killer in a jovial way in “Excitable Boy,” and how can they cover disturbing territory while making pleasing music?
“We don’t know how many great albums we have left,” says Schultz. And so he and Fraites push themselves harder and try not to worry about commercial success, instead making music that they’re passionate about.
III dives even deeper into the muck of humanity than past Lumineers efforts, and because of that, Schultz thinks it might alienate some fans. But while the lyrics tell troubling stories, they’re as sing-along-inducing as ever.
Take “Gloria,” with its up-tempo, heavy-strummed instrumentation and lyrics rich with despair. Schultz sings, taking the voice of two characters having a conversation. One, Gloria Sparks, is a drunken woman covering up her boozy breath with peppermints and looking back on her happier past, pledging she’ll get back on her feet. The other, a family member, sees Gloria climbing up on her cross and dying. Bound to her, the family suffers because of her addiction.
The lyrics are based on both singers’ experiences with addicts: Fraites’s brother died of an overdose when the musician was young, and he saw firsthand how that sort of tragedy could wreck a family, and Schultz has been flailing for years to help an alcoholic in his own family who served as the most immediate inspiration for III.
Through his experiences trying to save that family member, Schultz has learned that addiction is an illness, not a choice. “I used to think of it as willpower — if you put your head down and work hard...” he says. “A lot of people are like: ‘Pull yourself up by the bootstraps.’ [Addiction] isn’t that.’”
Despite his empathy for addicts, he also doesn’t hide the rage, confusion and grief so often felt by their loved ones. “There are easier ways to die,” Schultz sings, suggesting that Gloria just kill herself already and stop dragging it out at the expense of everybody else. That sentiment has bubbled up inside Schultz and his family at their lowest points, he says.
Some of the melodies and lyrics on the album date back a decade, when the bandmates were just getting their start in New York City, and shortly after, when they moved to Denver, where they quickly climbed the ranks from open-mic warriors at the Meadowlark to globe-trotters. Others are recent creations that Schultz and Fraites have made through iPhone recordings. Songwriting on the road has become easier, they say, as they no longer crash on people’s couches but instead are in hotel rooms where they can make as much noise as they please.
Along the way, they’ve played stadium shows and are guaranteed to pack a house. They have opened for U2 and played Coachella, Glastonbury and other major music festivals. At home, Schultz has been appointed the musician-ambassador of music education for nonprofit Take Note Colorado, a job he’s inheriting from Isaac Slade of The Fray.
Amid their success, Fraites and Schultz have also struggled since the release of Cleopatra and as they made III. Fraites, who drank his way through writing his first two albums, kicked booze a couple of years ago, realizing it wasn’t doing him any good. He wants to devote his full attention to the music and didn’t see how partying was helping.
Then, around a year ago, reports broke about eleven women who had accused former Lumineers manager David Meinert of sexual assault, something that rattled the bandmates and left Schultz, who loathes talking about Meinert, wondering how he could have misjudged someone he spent so much time around.
And later in 2018, longtime cellist Neyla Pekarek left the band to pursue her own Broadway-inspired solo project, and while Schultz and Fraites have always described the band as their project, she had become a defining part of its image. Her loss has been seismic to fans, though her replacement, violinist Lauren Jacobson, who played on the Lumineers’ studio albums, has been a welcome addition to the live shows.
Perhaps the biggest change for Schultz and Fraites occurred around a year and a half ago, when each had a child, adding new kinds of stress and joy to the rigors of writing, recording and global touring.
“It was a lot of whirlwind chaos going into album three, making it,” says Schultz. “Maybe we found calm in doing the work, in throwing ourselves a little more headlong into it.
“It should have been our worst album,” he adds. “I feel like it was our best.”
The Lumineers, Wednesday, August 7, Mission Ballroom, 4242 Wynkoop Street.