The Lumineers’ Wesley Schultz is staring at a high chair. The singer is in the green room at the Bridgestone Arena in Nashville trying to spend some time with his son, Leonard, before he has to jump on stage for soundcheck. Both he and the band’s other main member, multi-instrumentalist Jeremiah Fraites, became first-time dads in 2018 and have been trying to navigate life on the road with a family ever since.
“The experience has been amazing, and it’s created a sense of urgency that just wasn’t there before,” said Schultz. “I think when you’re a musician you think that time is standing still for you, and having my son around is a reminder that it’s all moving so fast.” Instead of trying to slow down, that sense of time slipping away has pushed the Denver duo to work harder than ever and record the most challenging album to date.
Released last year, III tells the story of the fictional Sparks family as they deal with alcoholism and mental illness and their effects on themselves and their family members. The first third of the album follows Gloria, the matriarch of the family and the namesake of the album’s lead single. The second follows Junior, her grandson, while the final chapter centers on her son, Jimmy.
In terms of storytelling scope, it’s their most ambitious project to date — just don’t call it a concept record. “That makes it sound like homework,” said Schultz flatly. “It’s a buzzword, and I don’t like the way that it sounds. I just like to think of it as one big story, and it’s an incredibly personal one at that.”
Though the family is fictional, the characters are based on Schultz and Fraites’ real-life experiences. “There’s been someone that my wife and I have (been) trying to take care of, and no matter what we try — putting her in rehab, buying her a house, getting her a dog — nothing has worked, and that’s just hard to see.” The band itself was brought together by an event involving addiction. Growing up in Ramsey, New Jersey, Schultz was initially better friends with Fraites’ older brother, Joshua. When Joshua died of an overdose in 2002, Schultz and Fraites found solace in writing songs and performing in New York’s club scene. The two talked in-depth about Joshua’s death while recording III.
“There was some stuff that I don’t think Jeremiah had processed, and that led to some dormant feelings coming out,” said Schultz. “It was a really painful process for him, for both of us really, but I appreciated him sharing those things with me, and I think it led him to a new place in terms of expressing his feelings and talking about the event.”
“We didn’t necessarily want to put out a record with this subject matter because we thought to ourselves ‘we’ve seen this type of stuff, but we don’t know how many people in our audience have,’” Schultz continued. “What I realized is that there’s a ton of people out there that are dealing with this type of stuff but are trying so hard to keep it a secret. Putting out this record and hearing from all of them has given me a feeling of being less alone, and I think it gives the audience that sense as well.”
To accompany the album, the group knew they wanted a strong collection of visuals. Inspired by Beyonce’s visual album for Lemonade and the short film The Odyssey from Florence and the Machine, Schultz and Fraites started writing a rough sketch of what they wanted to show. The pair created a storyboard that was roughly 20 slides and included general ideas of the types of images they wanted to see before handing them off to director Kevin Phillips and his group of writers. They then turned it into 120 pages and eventually the 10 music videos that accompany each of the album’s main songs.
Shot over two-and-a-half weeks in Portland, the videos follow the album’s three protagonists in a literal interpretation of the album’s lyrics. The camera hauntingly follows Gloria as she prowls the late-night bars in search of extramarital affairs. Junior spends time smoking weed in a field with his girlfriend, looking for any excuse to escape his abusive father, Jimmy, who eventually ends up as a bloody drunken mess by the series conclusion. It’s a dark departure for a band that produced “Ho Hey.” Pushing themselves in a new direction was the point, according to Schultz.
“It’s exciting for me to be able to give the fans something visual and engrossing like this,” said Schultz, going on to say that the fans deserve the best possible experience, even if it comes at an expense to the band. “The accountants hate us,” he laughed. “But think about David Byrne with American Uptopia [his acclaimed theatrical concert happening on Broadway in New York City], Springsteen on Broadway, or U2’s Joshua Tree tour [on which the Lumineers opened]. Those guys didn’t do it because it was easy or cost-efficient, they did it because it made for the best possible product. That’s why our stage production is so ambitious. We think it helps us to deliver that type of product.”
Schultz said he hopes this commitment to quality is something he can pass down to Leonard. “Maybe one day my son will ask me about this, and I’ll be able to tell him we did it because we thought it was important, artistic risk, not because we thought we could make a buck,” he said. “I’ll tell him that you can’t do something because the result is guaranteed. He should know, because he’s inspired me to take those types of risks more than anyone else.”