The Lumineers’ Neyla Pekarek wanted to be a choir teacher, but in 2010, the cello player was just making a living as a substitute teacher and working in a restaurant. Although she had friends in Denver’s indie rock scene, she never imagined she’d ever join a band. Then in 2010 she got a wild hair and answered a Craigslist ad placed by singer/guitarist Wesley Schultz and drummer Jeremiah Fraites seeking a cellist.
“It is out of character and it’s not something I would recommend to others,” Pekarek says about answering the ad. However, in her case, it all worked out. These days the Lumineers’ “Ho Hey” dominates the airwaves.
Initially, the trio started playing house shows around Denver, and the experience taught them the value of intimacy and how to connect with an audience. “We could feel what it did to people to be that close up,” she recalls. “We would go and play ‘Ho Hey’ out in the crowd. It was a way to get people’s attention whether they liked it or not. Shouting ‘Ho Hey’ in people’s faces, at least they’ll remember you, even if they don’t like it.”
The Lumineers hit the ground running and they haven’t stopped since, playing 200 dates each of the last three years. Even when they don’t have a show lined up, they call friends and try to arrange one in whatever town is up next.
In April 2012, the Lumineers released their self-titled debut, and the album’s brand of foot-stomping, hook-lined folk-rock has won over both AAA and Top 40 listeners. But the band’s success is the result of a lot of trial and error. “‘Ho Hey’ is a brand new song to the world, but it was probably written five to six years ago and had many, many different versions recorded before we finally got the right one for the album,” Pekarek says.
Pekarek and company were on a co-headlining tour with the Kopecky Family Band last spring when The Lumineers unexpectedly took off. Aided by the success of “Ho Hey” and a strong collection of songs, the Lumineers were last summer’s biggest sensation. So far, “Ho Hey” has sold more than two million copies. In January they played Saturday Night Live followed by the Grammys, both hot on the heels of a big European tour.
“Those three were definitely highlights. Sometimes it’s hard to process,” Pekarek says. “One of those things in a lifetime would be incredible, and we did three of them in a three-week period.” Her highlight was meeting Jack White at the Grammys. (They were nominated for Best Album and Best New Band but lost.)
She adds, “It’s a very big change in a short amount of time. It feels that way for us too. We’ve been at it for a while, but the level it’s taken in the last year isn’t really a normal trajectory.”
It’s certainly not over yet. The band only signed a one-album deal with their label, Nashville independent Dualtone Records, and that will allow them to dictate terms to whoever wins the bidding war for their next album — and it will be war. The writing process for a follow-up has already begun.
“We have a couple new songs that have sort of made their way into the set. The little time we have, which is basically soundcheck, is when we try new stuff out, but essentially we will need an extended break to do anything,” says Pekarek. “But we did just get a home recording studio that we’re traveling with so if we do have some ideas we can get them down.”
Since 2012, the Lumineers have crisscrossed the U.S. and hit Europe four times. Pekarek is happy the band had that bit of struggle on the front end to make their success that much sweeter.
“We had some time to stumble, and we remember the days when nobody thought what we were doing was good,” says Pekarek. “It’s a matter of staying grounded and remembering what is important in your life. This might not last forever. We’re all still friends with the same people as before this happened, and nobody’s gone out and purchased anything crazy.”
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