It’s hard to know in the moment what you’ll remember as magical. Like that late Tuesday night in the living room of an old, echoey Colorado Springs house when the show was over, but two little-known bands decided to play just one more song.
While the musicians covered the folk anthem “Skinny Love” and a few dozen people fervently sang and stomped along, it could’ve been just another ending to another buzzy evening of good music with friends.
But everyone who paid $5 for that house concert in 2010 always will remember the lineup. And they’ll remember that The Lumineers were not the stars; that title went to headliner Head and the Heart.
Heather Powell Browne, a local music blogger who set up the concert, left the house show shaking her head at how good The Lumineers sounded.
“We could tell even back then they were pretty dang amazing and destined for much bigger things than a living room show,” she said. She brought them back to town the next year to do a session that is believed to be the first time a little song called “Ho Hey” was recorded. Of lead singer Wesley Schultz, she wrote at the time that he “has a terrifically expressive voice with range and beauty that swoops all over the songs.”
It would take time for the world to hear that. For The Lumineers, each of those small shows was another swing in the fight to be heard during their first years in Colorado.
Schultz moved here for simple reasons that worked out like “dumb luck,” he says now. He couldn’t afford New York City anymore and Denver was cheap. Once he and bandmate Jeremy Fraites arrived in the Mile High City, they made musician friends such as Stelth Ulvang who helped them find practice space, gigs and contacts for venues across the country. They still had to work at restaurants and coffee shops, but it was easier to build something.
“It was an example of the best of Denver,” Schultz said in a recent interview with The Gazette. “You see a lot of businesses have their flagship stores in Denver because I think it’s really friendly toward that idea of dreaming and coming here to make it happen. That’s sort of what we did.”
Back when Schultz and Fraites were deciding on a band name, Ulvang recalls the young musicians being talented, humble and go-getters.
“Wes was very much like, ‘We’ll try anything,’” Ulvang, now a touring member of The Lumineers, said. “One of the biggest things is how eager they were to say yes to things. Because of that, I knew they were going to be fine.”
Colorado has become a second home for them. Schultz met his wife in Denver while working as a busboy and they had their wedding at the Boulder Theater. Even though the founders hail from New Jersey, Colorado fans have adopted The Lumineers as their own, as evidenced by highly anticipated and sold-out concerts at the biggest stages here.
It’s also not a bad place to be famous. When the long-haired Schultz gets recognized around town, the encounters are chill and casual. It helps that he comes off chill, like a guy who loves music, his family and ranch dressing and likes sharing silly selfies, sometimes from the dentist’s office, on Instagram.
And when the coronavirus pandemic took the band off the road, Denver became a place to quarantine. At home with his wife and young son, Schultz observed the struggling local music and restaurant scenes and thought of ways to help. He organized Colorado Gives Back, a virtual concert that raised more than $600,000 for the Colorado Restaurant Association and the Recording Academy’s MusiCares, an organization that once helped the Lumineers buy instruments after they were robbed in broad daylight in Los Angeles.
“I always think about it like, ‘How would I want someone in my position to act? What would I want them to do?’” Schultz said. “We have a name that gives us the ability to call on people and help out.”
The band also has rallied for people to support the Save Our Stages Act, which would supply venues with much-needed grants to stay afloat. Schultz has a stubborn love for Colorado’s smaller-sized venues, perhaps more so than other musicians who have come to sell out arenas such as Madison Square Garden in New York City.
The Lumineers make a point to play secret shows at venues they long ago outgrew, with the only payoff being to delight fans and to feed off the energy of an intimate show. That’s why Schultz calls the thought of losing those venues “dire and scary.”
“These are the places that when I moved to Denver 10 years ago, I fought so hard to play and enjoyed every second of playing there,” he said. “I think we should all be concerned they could be gone.”
This is all still on his mind, as Schultz and his family have escaped to the Catskills for a monthslong vacation. “We’re so used to being on tour, we had to get away,” he said.
If this year had gone as planned, The Lumineers would be properly promoting their latest album, “III,” a three-part concept record about a fictional family’s struggle with addiction and substance abuse.
The songs hit home for the band. Fraites recently celebrated five years of sobriety. For Schultz, his wife’s mother has long battled alcoholism.
“We put her in rehab and did a number of things to help, and she didn’t really want to be saved,” he said. “We wanted to build a stage and set around this thing that really happened and do it in a way where she wasn’t feeling exposed, but I still could tell the true story.”
As he and Fraites were writing, they asked questions: “How does this happen?” “Is it generational?” “Is it nature or nurture?” “Is it passed down?”
The album isn’t full of answers but aims to make these conversations not as taboo.
Early on, the two described themselves as “heart on your sleeve” lyricists and “front porch folk.” While that still rings true, The Lumineers have proven they don’t ascribe to any one genre or any one kind of songwriting.
“A lot of people don’t know what to do with us,” Schultz said. “That’s what’s cool about us and our story. It’s not how you’d draw it up.”
Contrary to the stereotypical image of an acoustic duo wearing suspenders and floppy hats, The Lumineers tour as a six-person band and put on a rollicking show. Songs always include what Schultz calls “morsels of truth,” specific details such as smelling booze and peppermint on someone’s breath or asking if your parents pay the rent, that draw a listener into a story while leaving things vague enough to get you thinking about your own story.
Lyrics, as Ulvang points out, escape cliches and never go in the direction you’re expecting, such as rhyming “window” and “stereo.” For him, the band’s secret sauce is the combination of Schultz’s poetic writing and Fraites’ odd thinking. Together, they write dark songs that are catchy enough to get you singing along without always thinking about what you’re singing about.
Case in point: “Ho Hey,” which shot The Lumineers to fame after being featured in a TV show called “Hart of Dixie.” While the sweet chorus of “I belong with you, you belong with me, you’re my sweetheart” has made it a go-to wedding song, Schultz actually wrote the band’s breakout hit about losing love and almost losing his dream. “I don’t know where I belong,” he sings. “I don’t know where I went wrong. Oh, but I can write a song.”
When he turned 30 and was still sleeping on an air mattress on tour, he was ready to call it quits.
“It’s discouraging to feel like what you’re doing matters to you,” he said, “but it’s not being heard in the way you want.”
Even when they got signed, it irked him to hear someone in the biz refer to their sound as “cute.” “I was writing songs that were really personal and vulnerable,” he said. “That’s why you feel like this maybe won’t work out. Maybe it means I’ll get this other job and do music on the side.”
Of course, it worked out.
Schultz could use that reminder sometimes. He still worries people are going to leave halfway through a show.
“I still don’t believe this yurt we’re staying in is something I can afford,” Schultz says of his vacation rental. “Before shows, I can’t look at lines outside venues. I don’t understand why they’re all coming. No one deserves for thousands of people to line up to see you.”
But thousands of people do that, partly because they’ve connected with so many songs beyond “Ho Hey” and “Ophelia.”
Slower songs such as “Stubborn Love” and “Slow it Down” were never on the radio and still boast more than 100 million streams on Spotify.
And, yes, that’s something Schultz looks at.
“I can be competitive,” he says sharply.
He doesn’t think about creating a hit when writing, though. He just wants to create goosebumps.
On tour this year, Ulvang felt goosebumps every time he stood on the side of the stage and watched Schultz sing a song called “Long Way Home.”
“That’s pretty crazy to hear a song hundreds of times and it still brings that much emotion,” Ulvang said.
Other songs by The Lumineers have that effect on fans enough for them to get tattoos of the lyrics. Schultz weekly shares photos from fans with the hashtag #MyLumineersTattoo.
For a guy who fought so hard for people to hear his songs at little house shows and just wanted to make enough money playing music that he didn’t need to bus tables, it’s overwhelming to see his words printed forever on another person’s skin. It’s the kind of thing that reminds Schultz that people are listening. It’s not that his fight is over, but more like he has more people fighting alongside him. “I feel calm,” Schultz said. “I’m more worried about writing good music and something I want to play in 40 years.”