Toronto is in the grip of film festival fever, and while The Lumineers may be one of the most successful bands in the world – their 2012 breakthrough track “Ho Hey” has been streamed almost 500 million times on Spotify alone – that doesn’t make them immune to the excitement.

In the lobby of the Hotel InterContinental, frontman Wesley Schultz has spotted Wagner Moura on an escalator. “That’s the guy from Narcos, dude!” he nods to drummer Jeremiah Fraites. “We love your show!” shouts Fraites. Moura gives the pair a cautious thumbs-up.

The bandmates could almost pass for film stars themselves. The long-haired Schultz looks not unlike a young Kurt Russell, while Fraites, in his pork pie hat, is a dead ringer for Woody Harrelson.

In fact, they’re in town for the premiere of III – either a short film or a long music video, depending which way you look at it, which dramatises their third album, a concept record of the same name which is released today.

The Lumineers (Stelth Ulvang, Wesley Schultz, Byron Isaacs, Jeremiah Fraites and Lauren Jacobson) (Photo via Rebecca Homer)
The Lumineers (Stelth Ulvang, Wesley Schultz, Byron Isaacs, Jeremiah Fraites and Lauren Jacobson) 

III tells the story of three generations of the Sparks family: matriarch Gloria, her son Jimmy, and grandson Junior. It plays out a little like a musical version of Philip Larkin’s “This Be The Verse”: “They f**k you up, your mum and dad…” While the characters are fictional, their tale of alcoholism, drug addiction and a cross-generational struggle to overcome both is rooted in the band’s own life experiences growing up in Ramsey, New Jersey.

Schultz explains that Gloria is “a composite” of members of his extended family, while the band itself grew out of tragedy. When Fraites was just 14, his older brother, Josh, died of a heroin overdose. “I pray that it’s the worst thing that ever happens to me,” says Fraites.

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Schultz was a childhood friend of Josh, and lost his own father to cancer around the same time. Playing music together was initially part of their shared grieving process. “When we first started writing songs, I remember writing a lot about Josh,” says Schultz.

‘I pray that losing my brother is the worst thing that ever happens to me’

As they have grown and matured as a band – the pair moved to Denver, Colorado, together before finding their eloquent folk-rock sound, and eventually an audience – they say they have become better able to elucidate the overwhelming emotions that first drew them to make music.

“We’ve been writing together for 14 years and this third album is in some ways, maybe a lot of ways, most reflective of how we started out,” says Fraites. “It feels more genuine.”

The band’s self-titled 2012 debut album – which featured “Ho Hey” – went platinum several times over around the world, while 2016 follow-up Cleopatra debuted at number one in the UK and spawned two more huge hits in “Ophelia” and “Sleep on the Floor”. They haven’t always enjoyed the easiest critical ride, however, and Schultz says that the ambitious idea to create a film around III was at least in part inspired by the desire to push their narrative storytelling to the fore.

The Lumineers perform in Inglewood, California (Photo: Kevin Winter/Getty Images for KROQ)
The Lumineers perform in Inglewood, California (Photo: Kevin Winter/Getty Images for KROQ)

“It can be frustrating,” he says. “They always tell you never to read reviews, but I probably had one too many one night and went on a site to read a review of Cleopatra. This guy described ‘Long Way From Home’ as ‘the worst problem this guy has is that his hospital gown doesn’t fit well’. That song is about my dad dying! I was just like: ‘that’s cold, man!’

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“I felt like with these videos for III, part of the joy of it is that even though it’s dark or it’s sad or it’s a tough subject matter, at least you have more of a say visually so that people see it for what it really is.”

The film version of III was directed by Kevin Phillips, whom Schultz and Fraites first met when he was working as a director of photography on their music videos. He became the obvious choice to translate the album for the screen. “I remember chatting with him on ‘Ophelia’ and he had just filmed [2017 psychological thriller] Super Dark Times,” recalls Schultz.

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“The thing that surprised me most was Kevin’s instincts. With a song like ‘Jimmy Sparks’, I thought he would just tell the story in a literal way, but he made it more metaphorical. I was like: ‘He’s wearing boots but he’s walking barefoot in the song, what are you doing?’ It’s interesting when someone takes something and does it in a way you wouldn’t have done it yourself, yet you end up liking it more.”

The Lumineers (L-R: Byron Isaacs, Wesley Schultz, Jeremiah Fraites, Lauren Jacobson and Stelth Ulvang) (Photo via Rebecca Homer)
The Lumineers (L-R: Byron Isaacs, Wesley Schultz, Jeremiah Fraites, Lauren Jacobson and Stelth Ulvang)

In November, the band will tour the album around the UK, playing Glasgow, Manchester, Dublin and London – where they will play their biggest-ever British show at The O2. No matter the temptations of touring life, Schultz and Fraites – who have both become fathers since their last record – say they have learnt to keep their own excesses under control.

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“It’s hard to pick up a habit or drop a habit on the road,” says Schultz. “It’s a very easy place to have vices, but I think being a singer keeps me out of trouble, because I pay for it with my voice. People don’t care if I had a good night last night, they want a good show today.”

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Fraites has been sober for four years. “It wasn’t because of anything like getting in a car accident,” he says. “Nothing crazy happened, but it just stopped working for me. I’d met other people who said: ‘When you stop using drugs or alcohol, you’re going to be so much more creative!’ I thought: ‘Man, what a crock! You guys are just lost and buying into this bullshit of having to do everything sober.’ Then it turned out to be totally true. This album, creatively with Wes, was just the best.”

Having seen his own brother become a statistic in America’s opioid crisis, Fraites sees III as his and Schultz’s way of humanising the issue once again. “We’re not trying to say, ‘Don’t drink or do any of this other stuff!’, but it is taking a hard look at it and opening the dialogue through storytelling,” he says.

“There are so many shades of grey between addiction, abusing a drug, moderation, what’s safe and what’s not. It’s really such a complex issue, and that’s what I love about this album. It’s not just about one thing.”

‘III’ is released today



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