Feeling the Afterglow
Folk-rock band 'lit the firecracker years ago,’ then popularity of ‘Ho Hey’ created overnight sensation
In 2009, Stelth Ulvang was one of dozens of Denver musicians who got a message from a New Jersey duo that was moving to Colorado and looking for contacts and shows.
"They wrote everybody on MySpace, of all things," Ulvang said. "I was one of the only people who got back to them and the only person who set up a show for them. It was just a little house show, but it's where they met a lot of people here."
"They" were Wes Schultz and Jeremiah Fraites, who called themselves The Lumineers.
Three years after setting up the show for the guys he didn't know, Ulvang is part of the folk-rock band that's become something of an overnight sensation with its top-five hit "Ho Hey.' "
Nominated for best new artist and best Americana album at this year's Grammy Awards, The Lumineers are drawing thousands to shows around the country in just over a year.
"I've been kind of playing on and off with them since they got here," said Ulvang, who joined the group on keyboards in late 2011. "I was in a band, and our bands would play together. The two of them added [cellist and harmony singer] Neyla [Pekarek]. There were a couple random dudes that kept going into and out of the band. It didn't really settle to what it is now until 2012, a couple months before they released the album."
The band's self-titled Dualtone Records debut was released in April 2012. By that time, "Ho Hey" was already beginning its climb up Billboard magazine's Hot 100, peaking at No. 3 in June.
"We first sent it out as a demo, before the album," Ulvang said. "It was the second song on there. I think the first was ‘Submariner,' or else it was ‘Stubborn Love,' those were the three songs on there. A guy on Seattle's KEXP started playing track two. I wonder sometimes if that's all it took to make that song a hit — a guy playing the second track. But you can think what you want about it. It's really up to the people. So no, we didn't see it coming."
Powered by the single, "The Lumineers" made it to No. 11 on Billboard's albums chart and has now sold more than 900,000 copies. The band received the Grammy nominations and has been constantly touring and making TV appearances since summer 2012.
So what's it like getting caught in a pop whirlwind?
"It's been kind of hard to keep our footing," Ulvang said. "It's just the tip of the iceberg, though. We kind of lit the firecracker years ago, and it blew up later. We'd kind of forgot about it. … I think everybody's feeling ‘we got there,' and it hasn't been too bad. It's really pretty nice."
The Lumineers took some time off in the spring. Now the group is back on the road, doing a run of headlining shows.
Playing shows is as much fun for the quintet as it is for its audience, Ulvang said.
"We'll screw around on stage, throw things at each other, climb on stuff," he said. "I hope it doesn't come across as an inside joke to the audience. But musically, we give it our all every night. It's like putting an eight-hour shift into an hour and a half."
Given that The Lumineers have just one album, putting together the 90-minute set is something of a challenge.
"The record is basically a best-of album," Ulvang said. "Wes has been writing songs for seven years, and these are the best of them. It's hard to put stuff up against those songs. But we do bring in a few new ones and a couple covers. The whole album fits really well into a set."
The high point of The Lumineers' set, at least for the audience, is "Ho Hey," which, like all breakthrough hits, will be a permanent staple of the band's shows whether its members want to play it or not.
"I compared it the other day — I was talking to one of my friends — by saying it's kind of like any job," Ulvang said. "Maybe you work at a café that's pretty hip. You've still got to wash the dishes. Sometimes when we're not feeling it, it's kind of like that. But we're proud of it. It's a great song, and it changed everything for us."