The Power of Communion: A Chat with Ben Lovett of Mumford & Sons

In the midst of the massive global success of his band Mumford & Sons — which culminated in 2010 with the crossover critical and commercial success of their debut album, Sigh No More — multi-instrumentalist Ben Lovett has been hard at work on another passion of his.

As an artist who spends so much of his time on the road, he noticed that something was awry when it came to the setup of live gigs. Ben notes, “There is so much saturation in London, so many acts and promoters. Yet we very rarely went to an event that was any good. Venues appeared to be at best half-full, bands wouldn’t be getting paid, and promoters were either completely nonchalant or angry that the bands hadn’t brought more people in. There was this big misunderstanding of everyone’s roles.”

Enter Communion, a live promotions company that Ben started along with former bandmate Kevin Jones and producer Ian Grimble, an idea hatched in a London basement bar in 2006. Unlike most other startup initiatives entering the music business which seek their own slice of the pie, Communion seeks to settle for nothing less than redefining the experience of touring for the artist, and most crucially — the fan.

Some of Communion’s noteworthy discoveries …

Matthew Hegarty was a landscape gardener in a small town just outside of Aldershot in the South England, who would come up to London for open mike nights as a soloist. One night, he had the opportunity to open for the Mumford & Sons in a 200 capacity venue. “They seemed to like it and stayed in contact with me” is the way Matthew describes their initial meeting, the first hint of the understated humility with which Matthew approaches his craft. After making regular trips up to London and playing several Communion club nights, Ben Lovett and Communion Records encouraged him to record an album. Matthew had already played with accordionist and pianist Dave Millar and Lindsay West, and met banjo player Harrison Cargill through Winston Marshall of the Mumford & Sons while playing a Communion night in Notting Hill. They were not yet a band, yet had developed a comfort level from playing together informally at these club nights. So with the decision to go into the studio to make an EP, a band was born. “They kind of pushed our career,” notes Matthew. “Doing the first two EPs (Kingdom of Your Own and To the North) with them was a real kind of learning experience for me, doing it professionally in a proper studio with this band that only just got to work together.”

Matthew clearly relishes being part of a band. “It’s us, the Atlases. It’s not me, Matthew and the band. The band is Matthew and the Atlases as a whole. I was used to working the demo stuff at home on my own on a 12-track, laying sort of the bare bones of ideas down, and then the guys would listen to them and work on them in rehearsal. It’s really developed to the point now where the others come up with a lot more parts and it’s really become more of a band effort.” For the band, it’s been a quick transition from coming together in the studio and going out on tour. “We had a little bit of time to rehearse, and then it was sort of a baptism by fire. After we did the first two EPs we took some time to do a bit more touring, and try to work out how to do our jobs better and work out what the live thing kind of is. This tour we have about 12 new songs which we’ll be playing on different nights. When you play new songs, they sort of develop and change when you tour with them.”

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Lauren Shera is a singer-songwriter with a distinctive voice who grew up in a musical background, moving to Northern California at an early age and earning early acclaim for her first album In My Bones, released when she was 18. Lauren has drawn considerable praise for her voice, creating a transcendent experience live. Lauren did something unusual for artists with a bright future. She went back to school, studying at the Old Town School of Folk Music, an experience she treasures as it allowed her to deepen her skills, including developing proficiency on the clawhammer banjo and ukulele. She also credits the school for helping artists hone their ability to perform on stage. To that end, she’s an accomplished live performer, playing at Bonnaroo and South By Southwest, a wide range of local festivals, and even a Bob Dylan tribute concert in New York and has toured with a number of artists including Billy Bragg, Ray Lamontagne, and Phil Lesh. A highlight of hers has been the opportunity to collaborate with some of her heroes, including guest appearances by Abigail Washburn and Kristin Hersh on her album.

She will be delving into her latest album, Once I was a Bird that deals with heartbreak and loss, emotions she was dealing with at the time she wrote it in 2008. The fact that she may not be in the same place emotionally is a reassuring thing, and having to go back in time and tap into the emotions of this period when she wrote those songs does not faze her. You can expect her to get each night rolling with an incredible range of emotional heft. As her set progresses, you’ll start to see a gradual shift in tone, as musicians from the next band, the David Mayfield Parade join her for a few songs until suddenly, the audience finds themselves into the next set. Lauren explains the concept of the Communion tour will be to break down barriers between performers. “There will be no set breaks. Members of the David Mayfield Parade will be joining me for a few songs and then I’ll stay and sing with them. We’re hoping to creating a seamless environment encouraging collaboration by having the artists join each other on stage.” One can expect a significant shift in the energy level as the show melds from emotional to the upbeat blend of roots and bluegrass that are characteristic of David’s shows.

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David Mayfield‘s comfort level playing live is honed from experience performing in a wide range of settings as a member of Cadillac Sky and as an accomplished banjo, mandolin and guitar player who at an early age worked as a sideman for Andy Griggs. He started playing in the family band at the age of 12, and would regularly sing with his dad when they worked together at the factory. He’s also gone out on tour with his sister Jessica Lea, one of the breakout alt-country roots-based artists in the last year. He’s collaborated with a who’s who of the leading roots oriented musicians, notably Dan Auerbach and the Avett Brothers. He’s sat in the producer’s chair, earning a Grammy nomination in the Southern gospel category. With all of his accomplishments as a master of many instruments and collaborator, it’s somewhat of a revelation to see the strength of David’s personality shine as frontman in his live performances. Fans of the David Mayfield Parade rave about the bring-the-house-down theatrics. His live set which can include plenty of deadpan references, such as a recent Buffalo gig where he introduced his bandmates as his daughters and thanking a non-existent opening act. David is comfortable in his Nashville digs, a place he discovered early on when his family moved there when he was little and where at the age of 16, he worked the graveyard shift as a tool and die machine shot with his dad. Unlike other aspiring musicians who set out for Nashville and may be overwhelmed by the experience, David seems nonplussed. “I didn’t really experience the Nashville scene much when I first moved there with my family, and then I moved back to Ohio. And now Jack White seems to be shaking things up.”

David also hails from a musical tradition and got started at an early age, quite literally, as part of a musical family that had him picking at the age of 12. There is a loose connection between the three artists, the branches that connect British folk to Americana, bluegrass, and roots music to the multi-generational singer-songwriter tradition. Matthew cites many of the standard influences of English folk music — John Martin and Nick Drake — as well as contemporary artists such as Johnny Flynn and Fionn Regan, but also cites contemporary Americana and alternative influences such as Iron and Wine, M Ward, the Fleet Foxes and the National. For someone who hasn’t had a long experience as a touring musician, the opportunity to meet and observe other musicians has been invaluable. “I really like the Low Anthem. We were lucky enough to spend a little time with them, as they were the main support for Mumford & Sons. It was a real good learning experience for us to watch a little bit of how they do it live and what they were about. It’s nice where we get to support bands that we really kind of aspire to be like.”

“We would go out and find our favorite artists, some that we knew, some that had been recommended to us by friends, others that we just saw just from going out and about in London. We would see them playing for four people — often their aunts and uncles and best friends and we’d go and approach them and ask if they wanted to be a part of a lineup that would be part of a multi-band lineup on a Sunday night. At first we chose a Sunday as we wanted to test the gig-goer, the punter as it were, as much as we wanted to test everything else, to see who would commit to going to a show on a Sunday night, instead of a Friday or Saturday where people are often just out to socialise anyway.”

Communion did something different from most other promoters from the outset. “Every band was paid upfront before the doors opened based on just the fact that we loved what they do not on their crowd pull. As we went on to sell out shows in a 250 capacity room in Notting Hill, we noticed all of a sudden that there was a genuine bond building among fans who paid a very small fee to see the artists — almost like a thanks between the people who paid their five pounds at the door, and then got to get in and see a whole bunch of fantastic new artists. And the fans would keep going back and following these artists, as the artists went on to even better things. One example is Ben Howard, who hails from a small town in South-West England. In November 2010 he came up to play early doors at the London Club night and in a few months from now will be playing two shows at the 2000-capacity Shepherd’s Bush Empire in London. But what is missing is the people to facilitate the emergence of these artists, beyond the hype machines, beyond the manufactured emergence that we see so often, where it’s like this new artist came out of nowhere.” Ben points to an organic growth in the artist’s careers, forged by fan loyalty, not unlike the way Mumford & Sons and other artists that Communion has worked with have done it, including Laura Marling, Noah and the Whale, Marcus Foster, and Anna Calvi.

“From the club night stage in London, we expanded to around ten night clubs around the UK. When say the third on the bill in Oxford or Brighton has a great connection with the crowd, and we get really good feedback, we can bring them to London or now send them over to New York to play a show.” Communion’s unique setup means that as promoters, they can experience the buzz from audiences as it’s happening, and build on it as it’s taking place. A great example of this is the band that will be headlining the upcoming Communion tour, Matthew and the Atlas.

“This is a pretty magical story. In 2009, Mumford & Sons was on tour and we were passing through this small town, Reading. Our local support was this guy, Matt Hegarty. We missed his soundcheck, but just as he started the first song, he just completely blew me away. I’ve never heard a voice as haunting as Matt’s, it just deeply affected me. After a good chat with him we asked him to play at the Communion Club Night in London, and when he arrived, we introduced him to a lot of the musicians who make up the community that Communion has become. The demographic of people who come to Communion nights is half real music fans, half musicians. There’s a really strong following from people who appreciate us as musicians, who catch up with us once a month — a lot of session players who share acts, and people who just jump on stage. So Matt gets to talking with Dave and Lindsay, who had been playing accordion and piano in their own outfit, and they get along real well, with a mutual respect for each other’s music. And Matt meets Harry Cargill who is a banjo player who is an old friend of my Mumford and Son bandmate Winston. And in that space, Matthew went from being a brilliant solo artist to being a part of an even more brilliant band, Matthew and the Atlas.. They started selling out rooms bigger than we were putting together, and their career has taken off in the UK, going from strength to strength. They are the perfect example of an act that could go from singer songwriter in a regional town in the UK, to co-headlining the Communion tour around the whole of America. I’m so proud of them, and the response they had, they supported the Mumford & Sons on our last tour. Its great to be part of a story like that.”

Ben recognizes the potential for Communion to build a reputation through inspired curation of artists, in turn creating a favored brand as a discovery point for new artists, and using the brand to curry favor with fans unfamiliar with lesser-known artists. “The acts that we work with are not acts you’d watch and be non plussed or not affected. It’s the stuff that’ll give you shivers. It’s the music that everyone can agree is special, and it’s not genre specific. It’s just quality songs, enough of a reason for fans to come back and see them again.”

The problem he saw in the UK back in 2006 with bookings when he launched in Communion is also, in his view, a rampant issue in the US. “It was a mentality, perhaps a laziness, where promoters would demand that acts bring a number of people before they get paid, its completely crazy. The curation is a huge problem, even bigger in America for unsigned artists, where no care or attention is gone on to thinking how the artists will stand up next to each other in terms of the genre or the style. You might see a three-piece metal outfit, followed by a folk electronica outfit. To someone has paid a ticket to go to the event, you’re not encouraging people to stay and appreciate the other bands. When you’re booking the act, you’re putting pressure on the metal act from out of town to bring as many people as they can. They are stressed before the show, and the people they hassled to come to the show aren’t going to stay and see the other acts. It’s so weird; I remember a show at Mercury Lounge, where even within one of their shows, there is such a huge fluctuation with the crowds. With Communion we like to sell the people into buying into what we are offering trusting our curation, our vibe with the DJs, our visuals, the drinks set up behind the bars, and an eclectic set of artists that will marry well. We hope people will arrive at 6 or 7pm, and stay until the doors close and maybe hear stuff they didn’t know.”

The tour seeks to build on the strengths of each of the bands on tour, and encourage cross-collaboration and cross-pollination of fans. The Communion Tour features Matthew and the Atlas, as well as veteran folk and bluegrass artist David Mayfield and his band the David Mayfield Parade, along with singer-songwriter Lauren Shera. “On the West coast, Lauren Shera might attract more people than people who have heard of Matthew or David.” Communion has built a reputation through some of its early shows in New York and through word of mouth that fans should attempt the appreciate the entire evening. “So far people who bought tickets understand that they’re not there to see the band and then go outside and have a cigarette and chat about other stuff.”

In the UK, Communion has built up a reputation independent of the artists playing a particular show. “We started an inner city Festival across four venues in London this year. We announced we were doing the festival, and people jumped on board, buying tickets before we’d even announced the lineup. People trusted that we going to be providing a good experience.” Ben also warms to the idea of fostering collaboration among artists. “It encourages people not to switch off. Maybe they did come for one act, but it would be good to see how the acts interplay, collaboration on stage is like leading by example.” Often, the seed for collaboration occurs much earlier. “When we book, we sometimes directly ask the bands. Do you have anyone who you are fans with that you’d like to share the bill with you? We get loads of great recommendations; it’s booked to connections. We might love a band, and the bands they love might be bands we’ve never heard of. Nothing is stronger than recommendations from people that you already admire. This is what Communion is ultimately all about. All we’re doing ultimately is just recommending and facilitating.”

The current Communion tour is being setup to encourage collaboration, with no breaks between sets. Musicians who are up next will join the previous artist in the midst of their set for a few songs, before the show shifts over to the new artist. “We were going to set the stage so people can just plug in and play. Instead of making scene changes, and swapping out drum kits unnecessarily, everyone shares gear. I find it hilarious sometimes when you go to a small listening room, and one keyboard is replaced by exactly the same model of keyboard owned by the next act, and you watch pretty much identical drum kit get packed down, and put back up by the next band, in my humble opinion it’s really just about the songs at this stage.”

Part of the challenge with Communion lies in picking the right venues. “We know the UK really well when it comes to the venues, we can probably pick out the best few venues in every major city in the UK, but in America its very difficult to have that knowledge. We were fortunate enough to meet, Jonathan Levine, who is the touring mind behind the Grateful Dead. He had flown into the UK for one of the Communion shows with Ben Howard and Matthew and the Atlas and saw we were doing something special thing in a 350 capacity church. I’m really fascinated to work with Jonathan — he has seen it all. The Grateful Dead were one of the best examples of being innovative when it came to shows. The details of which spaces to play in, he was really the man. We got somewhat ambitious with capacity, time will tell, but I think we got it all right.”

Communion has plans that extend beyond its current role as curator and promoter. “We are consciously trying to avoid getting too far ahead, but we are putting plans in motion to set up a sister record label in America, the success of which will depend upon how the live stuff pans out. The best way of trusting our releases is to trust the experience of communion nights. Labels used to have devout fans of their releases, fans who would buy everything that came out on Factory Records. I know how few people have heard of artists on this Communion tour, we’re just really asking people to trust us, if they’re not doing anything else that night I can promise it’ll be a whole lot better than watching TV! Also, if you have a great time, just go and say thanks to the bands, they’ll really appreciate that.”

Ben chuckles when asked about potential resistance from the established infrastructure of labels, promoters, and clubs.

“I got a guy standing outside my house with a baseball bat right now. Of course we’re getting people who’ve got their back up a bit. I’ve never been much of a demonstrator type. I’m a bit too passive to be revolutionary, but to be honest, with this, I’m happy to shake things up a bit- put some things into question. On the record label side, people are almost thankful, as even the idea of A&R scouts have died. We get a lot of calls and emails from record labels saying thanks to you, we’re finding out all this music that scouts couldn’t read about in NME.

“Some promoters are angry because we’re calling all of this into question, and making them think about doing some real work — real booking, curation and promotion again. But it’s all good. We’re happy to do that. Really we’re just bringing good vibes, we’re not here to start a fight, but of course they’ll be a little annoyed that we’re trying to write the rules.”

With respect to his other passion, the Mumford & Sons? “We’ve been working on a new record. Once it’s finished, and we’re not near finishing it yet, we’ll start touring again. We love touring — we’re a big touring band. The making of this record really gives us more reason to get out on the road again.”

While Ben acknowledges that Communion follows in the steps of other examples of artists giving back to their profession, he shows a lot of humility, when asked about this. “Its not as philanthropic is it might seem. I feel like I need to hear this music to get inspired as a musician. It’s almost like, I selfishly want to encourage new musicians to make great music because that’s the music I listen to that will inspire songs that I write. I know the other boys in Mumford & Sons feel the same. There’s no sense of charity with Communion. It’s more like a support network and we will very kindly help aspiring musicians the way were getting on to early support tours. When we were supporting Laura Marling and Johnny Flynn in 2008 around the states, that was the first time we had gone abroad, and it was the first time a lot of people in America people had heard of us. If they hadn’t done that, we wouldn’t necessarily have had the chance to come back and back and back and back. It’s just about keeping the circle going.”