With Cleopatra, the Lumineers avoid the dreaded sophomore slump
“We had seven years to write the songs on our debut,” says Jeremiah Fraites, drummer, piano player and one of the songwriters in the Lumineers. “It was a greatest-hits collection, the songs that got the best crowd reaction, things we’d played for years and perfected. We didn’t have any money or time to record them the way we wanted to, so we were surprised to sell millions of records and get the Grammy nominations (best new artist, best Americana album).”
The band supported its eponymous first LP with three years of endless touring. Its songs appeared in high-profile TV shows, commercials and films, including The Hunger Games: Mockingjay—Part 1. When Fraites and his partners—singer/guitarist Wesley Schultz and singer/cello player Neyla Pekarek—started writing songs for their second album, they knew they had to produce something special.
“The pressure on me and Wes was cranked up to the max,” says Fraites. “We had to decompress from three years of touring and put aside our preconceptions of what an album should sound like. It was hard to get back to writing music, but the fear of a sophomore slump made us step up to the task. We wrote in a little rented house, and since we didn’t want anyone recording them on a phone and putting ’em up online, we didn’t play them live. Without the visceral experience of playing for an audience and seeing how people react, we had to dig into ourselves and put as much emotion into them as we could.”
The result is Cleopatra, a dark, solemn effort centered around Schultz’s vocals, with backing tracks dominated by sparse guitar and piano. Fraites’ drumming and Pekarek’s cello add ambient touches to deepen the emotional lyrics. “On the first album, everything had to be heavy and intense and start on a minor chord,” says Fraites. “We relied on a big drum set and lots of effects pedals. After years of touring, we know keeping it simple isn’t so easy. This time, there’s lots of electric bass and cello, for a subliminal low end that supports the music without overwhelming it.”
The songs often revolve around themes of loss, longing for home and memories of the past that are more poignant than nostalgic. “Touring brings up those feelings,” says Fraites. “Wes likes to write about the charades we perform when we’re running away from or running towards things. Some of the songs are autobiographical, some are based on people we know, but fictional or not, you can attach yourself to the ideas they represent.”
Fraites said they made a conscious decision to keep banjo and mandolin out of the arrangements, to move away from the Americana label for a more universal sound. “We want the music to speak for itself, with a lot of lyrical and musical ambiguity,” he says. “We don’t want people to know where we’re from, or what year the music is from. The first album was slightly folky, this is more chamber pop.”