While The Lumineers were touring their platinum-selling sophomore album, singer-guitarist Wes Schultz dug into John Steinbeck’s seminal 1952 novel “East of Eden.” The book tells the story of two families over multiple generations in the Salinas Valley. The families are farmers. Neither Schultz nor band co-leader Jeremiah Fraites are from rural Monterey Bay, but watching the country-set, sundrenched video to “Gloria,” from the Colorado folk rock band’s forthcoming album, III, rural America pops off the screen.
Like “East of Eden,” III, tells a multigenerational story—in three acts. Each of the three is centered on a character: The aforementioned matriarch Gloria Sparks, an alcoholic; her son Jimmy, and her grandson, Junior. It’s a difficult story to take in because each character faces off against the demons of addiction and mental illness, and one made more difficult through the compelling videos paired with each of the songs on the record. The Lumineers broke up the story telling by splitting III into three parts, the final of which will be released on Sept. 13, along with the album as a whole for the first time. It was a momentous undertaking, but not one that Schultz and Fraites necessarily intended to attempt with this album.
“I really love Steinbeck’s writing. I really mostly love his characters—his development of these characters,” Schultz said shortly before the Lumineers headlined the second largest stage at Outside Lands. “So maybe some of that rubbed off—some magic fairy dust onto the writing of this.”
Making a three-part concept album took more than ambition. If that was the case, the Lumineers would have done it at the outset. As the story goes, Schultz kept an “ambition journal” that included musical wish lists. There were lyrics, as well as the idea to write a three-part album about hardship.
They just weren’t ready to make such an album. The journal was packed away and rediscovered by Schultz after a move.
“This [III] was almost like us making up for some lost time on trying to do that,” he said. “The album felt right. If we’d tried to do something similar on an album like Cleopatra; it didn’t have the tunes for it. It didn’t have the subject matter.”
Still, the album didn’t start as a big concept. The songs, which Shultz wrote, came first. He described finding the connection between them to developing film in a darkroom, with the images slowly coming into focus. That’s where the “aha” moment happened; when Gloria, Jimmy and Junior first appeared and when the decision to split the album up into three parts materialized.
The characters weren’t related at first; that idea took some time to develop. Eventually Jimmy became Gloria’s son, and Junior her grandson.
“It was almost, like, retrofitted as opposed to [conceived] from the beginning,” said Schultz, sitting across from Fraites, who nodded in agreement. “I don’t think we’re that bright or that gifted. That would be so much planning, and I think we just naturally wrote this record and got creative with the songs we had and found this cool kind of family emerge out of it.
“We’d be totally lying if we sat there and said, ‘Gloria’s the grandma. Go! Let’s write this. And Jimmy’s her son and Junior is—.”
Besides separating the story artistically, it gave The Lumineers the ability to release the album as three EPs, so that fans could spend time with each grouping of songs while waiting for the next episode to drop.
The Sparks are a fictional family, but Gloria, Jimmy and Junior each embody the traits of several people close to Schultz and Fraites. The band has said the characters served the purpose of providing a layer of privacy for the people whose stories are told. One of those people is Fraites’ brother, who passed away from a heroin overdose in 2001. The drummer has himself battled addiction, and is now several years’ sober.
Schultz, meanwhile has a close family member with mental health and drug addiction issues, and was homeless for more than a year as of this interview. His family has tried many times over to help the relative—whom Schultz spoke about to concertgoers at Outside Lands—quit, find housing and get into a rehab program. The inability to help yet find a way to love her anyway is one of the heavy themes on III.
For him, the album is a meditation on her and another person as a way to find peace with what has happened.
“It is a combination of a couple of people that, I guess, educated me a lot more on my understanding of addiction, and my understanding of how families try to deal with it and how hard it is,” he said. “How hard it is to even let that person go. They talk about ‘loving detachment,’ and that’s kind of impossible. When you really love someone it’s really hard to just say, ‘Well, go do your thing and I hope you live to see another day.’ It’s a really impossible thing for a family. Everyone goes through it together.”
The Lumineers knew the stakes when they chose the name of their matriarch—and lead single. Van Morrison and U2 have already written hits named “Gloria.” Years later, Patti Smith turned the Van Morrison song into a hit for the second time. The duo grew up listening to those songs. Schultz pointed out that it wasn’t the duo’s first time in a similar situation.
“We like The Band, and they have a song called ‘Ophelia.’ So it gave us a little pause, but I think there’s a reason why people use that name,” he said. [“Gloria”] is almost a holy name. In a family, the mother is this special, holy person in your life—an eternal force. My mom’s still alive, but years and years from now, when she’s gone, she’ll still be with me. There’s always a child inside you that loves your mother. I felt like there wasn’t another name after we started singing it and demoing it.”
These songs may provide direction for people going through similar situations and have no prior training or understanding of having an addict in their life. The experiences are brought to vivid life in the videos. Gloria Sparks and her husband, played beautifully bruised by Anna Cordell and Josh Close, fight and deal with both internal struggles and face literal life-threatening stakes.
Kevin Phillips, best known for Netflix’s “Super Dark Times,” directed all of the videos. The band plans on releasing all of them as a standalone short film and has been in discussions to show it at several film festivals. Schultz said the band has good news in that regard but can’t share it yet.
Both Schultz and Fraites became first-time fathers in 2018; just a couple of months apart. They are now seven years past their breakthrough hit, “Ho Hey.” Last year, longtime cellist Neyla Pekarek left the band, after which time the remaining duo began to write again. Eventually, touring violinist Lauren Jacobson officially joined the group, which also includes touring pianist Stelth Ulvang, bassist Byron Isaacs and multi-instrumentalist Brandon Miller.
The band recorded the album in the Catskills of Upstate New York (both Schultz and Fraites are originally from New Jersey) with Simone Felice of folk rock band The Felice Brothers producing. Schultz realized how special the record was to him when he would play it for close friends to “get their temperature.” Before, he couldn’t sit in the same room to watch their reactions. This time he felt like he was listening to someone else’s music and rooting it on.
“I just would sit there with them and get excited right there with them,” he said. “I felt something different about this record, and that led to ambition about these music videos and the storytelling, and it kind of led to all this.”
Next year stands to be a big one for The Lumineers. While the band got its first taste of headlining shows with its last album, the tour that kicks off in February is primarily arenas. But rather than thinking they’ve “finally made it big,” Schultz and Fraites are holding tight to who they were a decade ago when they were playing bars.
The drummer, who’s mostly been listening up to this point, animatedly recounts a conversation he had with their tour manager on a flight from Japan to Canada, with the entire crew exhausted.
“Sometimes the last thing you think about is the music, when you’re on tour and you’re traveling so much,” Fraites said. “Sadly, sometimes the last thing you’re thinking about is that innocent, just creative, playing shows [and] writing songs.
“Ten, 14 years ago, even, with Wes; that time represents this really innocent, pure thing; this ecosystem we strive to preserve. It’s like this beautiful little candle that you want to hold and make sure nobody blows out.”
Fraites remembers waking up early to write songs, powered by caffeine and a push to be better. The two would treat all their songs “that nobody was gonna listen to” like masterpieces. They took everything seriously, right down to the amp settings for the individual songs. Fraites’ mother would occasionally come downstairs into the basement to yell, “Sounds great!’”
“We treated it like The White Album. I think there’s just something about that,” Fraites said. “If you ever do lose that, through success, through fame, through the bullshit that can get in the way of that; that’s like the saddest thing that can happen. We’ve been able to keep that 14 years later.”