Thursday, November 14, 2013

Mumford & Sons' Ben Lovett Talks Communion in Nashville

Posted By on Thu, Nov 14, 2013 at 1:10 PM

Mumford & Sons Ben Lovett
  • Mumford & Sons' Ben Lovett
On paper, Communion is an artist-community co-op of sorts, founded and curated by Mumford & Sons multi-instrumentalist Ben Lovett, that hosts chapters in cities worldwide, from Nashville to Australia. Though Communion fuses facets of publishing, concert promotion and label services, the real objective is to build a global community of songwriters and performers who gain exposure on one another’s coattails. Notable Communion success stories include Gotye, rising neo-soul star Michael Kiwanuka, California scuzz-punk duo Deap Vally and Irish alt-folkie Foy Vance. A recurring fixture in Nashville, tonight’s communion installment — which takes over both Mercy Lounge and The High Watt — is part of a national tour featuring dreamy indie-poppers Tennis, the eclectic pop stylings of VITEK, New York self-proclaimed “fantasy pop” duo Savoir Adore, Twin Cities trad-rockers The4onthefloor and a rave-up courtesy of R&B revivalists Nathaniel Rateliff and the Night Sweats, and more.

Check out the Scene’s chat with Lovett below, in which the son of a Mumford sounds off on the philosophy behind Communion, balancing his full-time job with his rock-star responsibilities in his now-on-hiatus band and what it’s like to grow up loving Neil Young, No Doubt and Slipknot, plus some musings on selling Communion to the always-discerning crowd of musicians and music industry folk in Nashville.

What makes the shows in Nashville, and the Nashville Chapter of Communion, kind of different the collective’s events in other cities?

I think on a personal level, Nashville means a lot. I have a lot of good friends there, and I think it’s very rich in contemporary music, a lot more than people give it credit for. I think it’s a really important city in the world for emerging artists, and that’s kind of what Communion is all about. [Nashville is] pretty much the most important place to do it, and to get it right, it’s just taking a bit of time to educate people into the whole habit of the monthly concept. You know, we’re getting there [laughs].

Since Nashville is such a town of professional musicians and industry types and what not, have you noticed a different audience vibe at the shows here? Is there any more pressure or friendly competition?

That’s the whole thing, man. It’s not about competition with Communion. There isn’t a sense of someone can write a better song than someone else; there isn’t, like, the ultimate success story. I would perceive the success of Gotye to be as successful as Michael Kiwanuka and as successful as Daughter. They’ve had very different journeys, but they’ve all done very well within their own parameters.

So I think that’s not so much an issue. I really noticed that the October [Communion show in Nashville] in particular, that 50 percent of the room was musicians and music industry, which I think is awesome, and it’s part of the whole thing. We put on seven or eight acts, and it’s an opportunity for those acts to play in front of [those people] and an opportunity to open some doors for those musicians. I know, for example, that in October, that The Lumineers guys fell in love with the Rubblebucket gig and were kind of shouting about it on their social networks afterwards — a very unlikely story.

Oh, that band’s great.

They’re a great band! I think Rubblebucket is an awesomely cool band from Brooklyn, but [they were] kind of a little bit caught by surprise that The Lumineers, and a bunch of other people in that were room, were like, “This is amazing.” It’s really encouraging — that’s kind of the whole thing. We’re there to help create opportunities for artists to get that next step. It's all good playing the same rooms and the same crowd and the same scene, but we're trying to come in with something that will actually start a little bit more of a fire going and create enthusiasm and encouragement for the bands and hopefully some opportunity.

Just kind of in general, for people who don’t know, what exactly is Communion, in your words? As far as how it works as a monthly live series, as a label, as a publishing entity and all that.

The monthly concept lies at the heart of it. That’s where it all started, eight years ago, and we’ve really believed in the notion that that’s the hardest break. That’s one of the reasons we moved it to the Mercy Lounge and The High Watt [from The Basement], is it felt like if we can get to the point where we’ve got that room full, regardless of who the musician is, if we can get to the point where we can engage Nashville to come and support music and believe in our curation, and do that on a monthly basis, then we’re actually creating something that will help musicians get out of kind of a Groundhog Day situation, where it’s really hard to get noticed and really hard to get appreciated.

That’s the core of what [Communion] is all about, and over the eight years, yeah, we’ve expanded that idea into having a record label, and we have the same ethos as an [indie] label, where we try to give artists opportunities to put records out that maybe major labels wouldn’t naturally jump on. And as a publishing company, we really focus on song development — and myself and Kev Jones and Ian Grimble, the other two founders — we’ll dive in with the songwriting process of the musicians and offer up our opinions and, for what it’s worth, try and help building on that instead just being a bank or an administration service. I like to believe we’re as proactive as possible. I’ve been doing this every day for eight years. Right now, I’m doing it, like, 12 hours a day, just trying to make sure we’re delivering on these promises to make a difference.

Can you think of examples where some artist or fan in a place like Australia is getting exposed to an artist somewhere as far away as Nashville, or vice versa, via Communion?

Yeah, I met this guy named Matt Corby when I was in Australia — he played the Communion show there a few years ago. He then came over to the U.K. and we said if he’d like, we could work with them on his songs and he was with us in the Communion studio in London for six months. We developed, built and worked on his songs and his sound and everything, and he’s now doing shows in the U.K. [drawing] a thousand-plus people all over the country. He’s back in Australia right now, doing a tour off the back of the Communion release of an EP. He’s now touring his second EP and playing for about 4,000 people a night in Sydney. It’s been growing. I think it’s coming out on Atlantic [Records] in the U.S. There’s lots of Communion stories [like that].

So the name of the game with Communion is really exposure — it’s a discovery platform for artists and audiences?

Yeah, and it’s like a filtration process, right? Because there are thousands of ways people can discover music now. There’s so many blogs; there’s so many [platforms] — with Spotify and even iTunes isn’t even really filtered — anyone can put a song on iTunes. Someone was telling me the other day — this is, like, a crazy fact — that, like, 70 percent of the singles released on iTunes have sold one copy or less.

Wow!

So the amount of stuff out there, without any trusted voice saying, “This is good”, or “We think this is worth a listen,’ it’s really hard for someone who works a normal job to know what to listen to anymore.

Yeah, it's paralyzing.

It is paralyzing. Things were simpler back in the days when you had a few trusted sources. There were a few music magazines and there were a few radio stations …

And you maybe bought four or five records a month and that’s what you listened to.

Exactly. So we’re like a curator or promoter of things that we like and it just so happens that our taste have aligned with a lot of other people’s tastes. The thing we’re trying to get to now in America is letting people know that we’re doing what we’re doing. I don’t think it’s so much that people don’t dig the music that we’re putting out, I’m pretty sure we’re putting out some great records recently, like Deap Vally and Tennis, one of the latest signings and who’ll be headlining the show in November. It’s great music, I just don’t know if people haven’t quite learned that there are other ways. You know, the Nashville Scene isn’t much different than that. There’s a filter on that and there’s filter on trusted publications, trusted record labels, trusted promoters. People just need to decide if that’s in line with what they feel and they want to support.

Well the bands you just mentioned are definitely bands that have pretty rapidly growing profiles, and they’re bands that are fairly diverse. How do exactly do you go about choosing artists to work with.

It’s quite hard to sum up. It’s really based on whether we feel anything from the music. It really doesn’t matter what the genre was. I was born in ’86, so I grew up very much in the digital age of playlists and basically having really eclectic music taste — I think that is something that comes with anyone who is under the age of 30.

I grew up loving, like, Miles Davis as much as I loved No Doubt, as much as I loved Neil Young, as much I liked Slipknot, it was literally anything that would make me react, and I think that’s the same deal with Communion.

Naturally, it’s a reflection my taste, it’s a reflection of Kevin’s taste. It’s just the stuff that makes us feeling something. Sometimes that might be something deeply personal. We’ve definitely put out some records that have done commercially awful and sold, like, 500 records and I might think it’s the best thing since sliced bread. ... But then sometimes it’s a feeling that everyone relates to. Standing in the room, for example, watching Rubblebucket and watching a room full of Nashville musicians jumping up and down was pretty incredible because that was exactly how I felt when I first saw them, and I didn’t know the music and no one in that room at the Mercy Lounge knew the music, but it was like, “This is good — it makes me feel like I want to dance.”

Is that eclecticism something that you find that surprises audiences? Do you think given that you’re a member of Mumford & Sons that there are fans who come to the shows expecting something like that?

I think that’s still the case a little bit, certainly in its embryonic stage in America. We’ve definitely gotten over that in the U.K. It’s impossible to avoid, even though Communion’s been going on longer than the band has existed. For intents and purposes, I’m Ben Lovett from Mumford & Sons, not just Ben Lovett, so people do just associate the sound of that band with everything that I do now.

Is that both a blessing and a curse? Obviously it comes with the exposure, but it causes a predisposed expectation.

Yeah, I mean, I’m very proud of the band, but I wouldn’t say it’s a negative thing. I’d just say it’s important that people learn that they are separate entities and I think that people do that pretty quickly, as soon as they dig into the roster a bit. … It’s a lot like a radio station who played one band and maybe became famous for breaking a band, you don’t think that’s the only style of music they’re going to play on the radio, it can get pretty eclectic. I don’t think about it that much.

You were talking about it before, about how much time you’re investing in this as a day-to-day endeavor. With Mumford & Sons going on hiatus, so to speak, has that given you more time to invest in Communion?

Yeah, I think so. I was doing quite a lot from the road, it kind of complimented the lifestyle because, you know, musicians don’t do that much during the day. During the day I could be on my laptop and be listening to downloads and planning tours, but it hasn’t completely changed. It just means that I’ve got a bit more spare time and to kind of be a bit more human and hangout with my friends and stuff, which is nice and it helps give me that perspective.

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