[FOLK POP] Leaving New York is never easy, or so latter-day R.E.M. would have us believe. Ask Jeremiah Fraites of the Lumineers, though, and he'll tell you it's really not that difficult. He and songwriting partner Wesley Schultz grew up in the New Jersey suburbs, so when it came time to pursue music as a potentially legitimate career, they hit the Big Apple hard. After a few years of making little progress, and struggling to pay rent, the pair decided to pull up stakes and head for the greener pastures and higher altitudes of Denver. Going from the center of the universe to a city not exactly known as a musical hotbed seems like a step backward, but the relocation served the duo well.
"When we were playing in New York City and we were from that area, we were just another band," says Fraites by phone from a tour stop in San Diego. "When we returned to New York City, we were looked at as this band coming from Denver. It's kind of funny that we had to move away to be more accepted."
Moving to Denver did more than increase the Lumineers' novelty factor: It's where the band found its identity. In their New York-based incarnation, Fraites admits he and Schultz lacked focus. Stripping away the excess, the two were left with the elements they valued most: heart-on-sleeve lyricism and old-timey instrumentation. Recruiting cellist Neyla Pekarek, the newly minted trio sharpened its sound into the kind of emotionally resonant folk associated with the likes of the Avett Brothers and Mumford & Sons. Only, on the group's upcoming self-titled full-length debut, the band forgoes the stadium sheen that makes those other acts sound like Coldplay with banjos, keeping its feet planted in the beery Denver open-mic scene it grew from—especially when its joyous, celebratory live shows are concerned.
It's uplifting music from a band whose core members are bonded by tragedy. In 2001, Joshua Fraites, Jeremiah's older brother and Schultz's childhood friend, died of a drug overdose at age 19; in 2007, Schultz's dad succumbed to cancer. "We've been through some rough stuff in our lives," Fraites says. Still, the Lumineers' MO is chanting down pain rather than wallowing in it. First single "Ho Hey," with its "Chain Gang"-like vocal push and pull, is a brokenhearted love song catchy enough to become this year's "Home," the inescapable 2009 indie hit from fellow new-folk revelers Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeroes.
Such comparisons are bound to dog the Lumineers, given the sudden explosion of groups making swollen-hearted pop with rootsy accents. But Fraites insists the group isn't just riding the bandwagon, nor is it about to get off now that everyone else has caught on.
"Genre doesn't necessarily concern us," he says. "It's kind of coincidental that we're seemingly cashing in on this thing. For us, we just simply had to write music for how we thought these songs should breathe. If it happens to be popular now, then so be it. We're not going to rebel against that."
SEE IT: The Lumineers play Mississippi Studios, 3939 N Mississippi Ave., on Friday, March 30, with Sean Spellman and Matt Bishop. 9 pm. $10 advance, $12 day of show. 21+.