1. Music

How the Lumineers rode 'Ho Hey' to stardom

By Jay Cridlin

Times Staff Writer

Hate to disappoint you, but the Lumineers and Mumford and Sons have never engaged in a bare-knuckle, back-alley brawl.

"Bands aren't like sports teams," said Lumineers singer and bandleader Wesley Schultz, calling from a tour stop in Kentucky. "There's not a winner and a loser here. People don't have a finite amount of fan in them for two bands like that."

That hasn't stopped people from bugging Schultz about the Mumfords at nearly every point along their two-year rise to stardom. The two bands, along with the Avett Brothers, comprise a holy triumvirate of clog-stomping, suspender-wearing folk-rock revivalists; over the past two years, they've picked and strummed and hooted and hollered their way into the hearts of legions of fans around the globe.

But while the Mumfords may be kings of the festival circuit, and the Avetts' hipster cred reigns from Brooklyn to Macon, it's the Lumineers who have the biggest hit of the bunch — and the margin isn't close.

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"We began our journey just playing really simple, stripped-down music, and then it got bigger and bigger," Schultz said. Ho Hey led to a pair of Grammy nominations, an appearance on Saturday Night Live, prime slots at festivals like Bonnaroo and Glastonbury and now an arena tour, which hits Tampa's USF Sun Dome on Saturday.

But having a hit breeds backlash, especially when you find yourself constantly compared to one of the biggest bands in the world. Even for the laid-back Schultz, it has been a challenge figuring out how to navigate the waters of immense fame and intense critical scrutiny.

"When you're coming up, there's nothing to knock down," Schultz said, "so most articles written are pretty encouraging in promoting a band. And at some point it turns a corner and becomes a lot more critical.

"I guess that means you're doing something good enough that someone feels it's worth knocking down."

• • •

They were just a little band out of Denver, and, truth be told, "little" might be an understatement.

The Lumineers moved to Colorado in 2008 because they couldn't hack it in Brooklyn, and played apartment shows to build a following. Ho Hey was the song that got them noticed and eventually signed by Nashville's tiny Dualtone Records, which released the group's self-titled 2012 debut, a quaint, strummy collection of acoustic folk music.

Over time, the single helped The Lumineers sell more than 1.3 million copies, and soundtracked countless movie trailers, TV shows and festival sing-alongs. That it reached the Top 5 of Billboard's Hot 100 was a shock not just to the world at large, but to the Lumineers themselves.

"We wanted you to be able to listen to the album over and over," Schultz said. "It wasn't about the single, which is kind of crazy that we had a single take off, because it was more about the listenability of the whole record."

For the band, the song has become, if not an albatross, then certainly something other than it was originally intended. Earlier this year, keyboardist Stelth Ulvang estimated in the New York Times that the band had played Ho Hey some 2,000 times. In concert, the band has tried any number of tactics — switching instruments, meandering into the crowd, allowing fans to sing the lyrics — to keep the song sounding and feeling fresh.

"Someone made the point — and I really understood what the person was saying — that their own song starts to feel like a cover song, because they've played it so much," Schultz said. "And I think that's sort of what's happened to us. It's not really our property anymore. You feel like you're covering a tune someone else wrote."

And then there are the people who actually have covered Ho Hey. Taylor Swift put her spin on it; a kiddie version from ABC's Nashville became a minor hit on its own. One enterprising YouTuber mashed up the official video with clips of Will Ferrell, as Harry Caray, shouting "Hey!" In another parody, Jimmy Fallon, Blake Shelton and Nick Offerman dressed in chicken suits to cluck out the song as the "Chickeneers."

"I find that to be pretty neat in some ways," Schultz said. "I never thought I would. I took music so utterly seriously to get to a point, and then it's interesting, when it gets parodied, you have a sense of humor about it."