When U2 celebrated the 30th anniversary of their ascension to rock royalty by playing “The Joshua Tree” in full onstage in 2017, the Lumineers were tapped as openers for part of the tour, including the Gillette Stadium stop. Two albums in, they were still a relatively young group compared with the band they were supporting, so something the headliners told them backstage at the Rose Bowl stuck with them.
“Bono said to us, ‘It’s like we’re gladiators. It’s appropriate that we’re in this sort of coliseum because the crowd decides whether you live or die,’” says Lumineers frontman Wesley Schultz with a laugh. “And he’s like, ‘Last night in Seattle, we died.’ That was a very important thing to hear from one of my heroes, the idea that if U2 is trying to do their best job up there and connect and communicate and entertain and make you feel something, and they feel like sometimes they get it wrong or it’s an off night, it’s kind of a motivator to say, ‘If he’s trying hard and he’s working at this craft and messing with the setlist and doing all these things . . . we have to try hard.’”
The Lumineers have tried to take that to heart as they become a larger and larger draw — “The fonts got bigger, gradually, on the poster,” Schultz says — represented by Saturday’s closing performance at Boston Calling. (They’ll be flanked by fellow headliners Foo Fighters on Friday and Paramore on Sunday.) But the singer and guitarist takes pains to point out that even a prime festival slot comes with challenges, albeit ones that his band has come to embrace.
“Part of your job is to figure out a way to communicate to people who might have no interest in the set,” he says. “It’s like you’re opening again for another band, because you essentially are playing amongst a lot of bands that day. So it’s a lot of fans of the band and then casual people who walk by, just stop for a minute and might stay for the set and might leave pretty soon after. There’s a different energy to it. I like it a lot. I think it keeps you sharp.”
The Lumineers know something about standing out from the crowd of other acts and grabbing people’s attention. Their modest little melancholy acoustic hoot-and-stomp “Ho Hey” reached No. 3 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart in 2012, held from the top spot only by Bruno Mars’s “Locked Out of Heaven” and Rihanna’s “Diamonds,” and with Ke$ha, Maroon 5, and Flo Rida nipping at the band’s heels. In such incongruous company, the Lumineers managed to make themselves heard.
“We were like Cinderella at the ball, like we didn’t belong there. I remember we went to the BMI Awards and we won [Pop] Song of the Year. And every other song, there’s like 10 people going up to collect an award for one song,” says Schultz. “Then when ‘Ho Hey’ came up, it was just me and [bandmate Jeremiah Fraites who] walked up, two idiots, and collected the award. And everybody was like, ‘What the hell?’ ”
He continues, “I remember being at the Grammys and being like, I don’t really feel comfortable here.”
Helping to ground the Lumineers was the mini-wave of bands that all seemed to respond to the increasing overprocessing and creation-by-committee of pop music at the time by retrenching to instruments made of wood and strings. Back then, Schultz bristled at comparisons to the likes of Mumford & Sons. But with the perspective of a career well into its second decade and on its fourth album (last year’s “Brightside”), he’s come to understand how those groups helped redraw a pop-music map that allowed the Lumineers to flourish.
“It’s frustrating to be pitted up against anybody else when you feel like you’ve worked really hard for years and no one’s really listened to you, and then they’re like, ‘Well, you’re like this [band],’ and you’re like, ‘[Expletive] off,’” he says, chuckling. “I just saw the Avett Brothers a week or two ago, and I remember I had this little clock radio, and ‘I and Love and You’ came on, and I was like, ‘That can be on the radio? Then maybe we can.’ It was the first time I heard something that was like something that I would make. I was like, ‘Wow, OK, maybe there is room for us.’”
Major mainstream success right out of the gate can prove fatal to a band, but the Lumineers have worked to neither chase the success of their huge hit nor let it define them, to the point of not even saving it as the final song of their performances. (Says Schultz, “We play ‘Ho Hey’ third in our set often. So, spoiler alert, if anybody wants to come and hear just ‘Ho Hey,’ we play it in the first handful of songs, so you could just leave right after.”) And if he never gains the recognition, name or otherwise, of Bruno Mars or Bono, that’s fine, too. He views the band itself as the draw for fans.
“When they think of us, they actually think of music. I doubt they see our faces in their minds. They think about a lyric. They think about a song. They think about a memory attached to a song,” Schultz says. “We put the music first. So if we keep writing music and doing well at that, they’ll keep coming. If [not], they’re not going to keep coming. It’s just part of the deal.”
Marc Hirsh can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @spacecitymarc.