The Lumineers’ Wesley Schultz on his Jersey roots, new tunes and the love of songwriting

The Lumineers will be playing at PNC Bank Arts Center in Holmdel on May 28, and in Camden at the Freedom Mortgage Pavilion on June 4.

The Lumineers’ Wesley Schultz still remembers hearing the whistle that shattered his dreams of one day playing for his beloved New Jersey Nets, or being the next Michael Jordan. 

“My dreams of becoming an NBA player were thrown out,” says Schultz. “I really wanted it desperately, and I got good at shooting, but that was about it and I wasn’t really athletic enough. Between middle school and high school I tried out for a traveling team, and I remember getting a drink of water and heard that whistle blowing, and someone pulled me out of the game. I left in the second round of tryouts, and I knew I wasn’t going to make the team…

“…I had to think to myself, ‘What’s next?'”

What was next turned out far better than Schultz’ hoop dreams. The Bergen County native immersed himself in music, finding it all around him.

“We would go to Yankees games once or twice a year, and when the Yankees win, ‘New York, New York’ by Sinatra gets played. I would sing along to it and my dad would get a kick out of that,” he says. “My sister had this Dirty Dancing soundtrack, and I would spend a lot of time listening to it. Come to think of it, it was a decent soundtrack. I would also listen to Naughty By Nature, and it’s funny to think how they have ‘Hip Hip Hooray,’ which goes ‘Hey Oh, Hey Oh,’ and we have, ‘Ho Hey.’ My dad also had a select collection of CDs in his car, which included The Cars, Billy Joel and the Talking Heads.”

As a student at Ramsey High School, Schultz spent a lot of time writing lyrics in his notebook: “I really loved words and poetry, and I was always writing,” he says. Ramsey, as it turned out, was the perfect place to foster Schultz’ early music career.

“It was a really positive experience,” says Schultz. “You could feel special in such a small community, if that makes sense. Sometimes I feel like if you grow up in a city you have a feeling about being a tiny drop in a large ocean. Like I remember playing an open mic at our high school and thinking, ‘I was alright.’ It gave me confidence. The small town thing can work when you are starting out because there are only so many of us and we’re supporting each other.” 

Now some of the isolation of small-town living is mitigated by being next to a city, as is the case with Ramsey and New York City—“Once it became time to play gigs I knew I could play New York and cut my teeth,” explains Schultz. “It was an amazing opportunity, and some of the first shows I saw were in New York. I got to see where all the artists want to play and have their best shows at.”

The Lumineers will be coming home this summer with shows in Holmdel and Camden, touring in support of their fourth album BRIGHTSIDE. The making of BRIGHTSIDE was different from what the band, now based in Boulder, Colorado, was used to doing in the past. 

“We made this album differently than albums we have made before,” explains Schultz. “We only had voice memos to go off of instead of full on demos. We got a much more authentic and raw recording of the songs because we didn’t really know them by heart because these songs were brand new to us.’’

Schultz believes the approach that the Lumineers took with BRIGHTSIDE paid off; that it allowed the group to create a unique, spotanoues, energetic sound on the album.

Imagine someone rehearsing something a thousand times and then going into the studio, and knowing every part and executing it,” says Schultz. “That’s what we did in the past, and BRIGHTSIDE was more spontaneous. I believe that energy made it onto the record in a really positive way. I wish we would have done that with every album, but in order to do that you have to have a lot of trust in your ability, and I don’t think we had that in the past to be frank. It’s cool to do something new and have it go well. For us it’s our favorite record we have made.” 

Schultz and his bandmates have become more confident in their musicianship, which has allowed them to feel comfortable throughout the songwriting and recording process.

“It’s almost like you were backpacking and you got lost a number of times, and now you know how to get yourself back safely to home,” says Schultz. “It’s almost like that with music in the beginning you think you’re safe and then you get lost and think you’re gonna die. Whereas, now there is no panic, and we stay calm and keep trying things and you have this faith that it’s gonna work out.”

That faith was tested during the recording of “BIG SHOT,” a song on BRIGHTSIDE that Schultz calls “one of the hardest songs’’ to record. 

“I pictured this song as a song that was a little bit faster,” explains Schultz. “We recorded it a number of times at this way faster pace. The song was unrecognizable from what it ended up being. As we are trying this stuff out to make it go faster and make it go faster, it felt like it was cheapening the song. “

In ultimately slowing things down on “BIG SHOT,” Schultz was inspired by classic ballads from artists across the time spectrum of pop music.

“I remember all these ballads that I heard growing up that I really loved,” says Schultz. “Even today from modern artists like Adele with ‘Someone Like You’ or back in the day ‘Desperado’ by the Eagles. There’s a lot of examples of songs that are sort of unexpected with how long they stay with you. We are maybe trained to believe that songs have to be fast and loud, and that’s not really the case at all. A lot of these songs are slow and powerful because they lean into that. ‘BIG SHOT’ took an unexpected turn halfway through, and when we slowed things down it came together like a photograph in a darkroom.’’

The song ‘AM RADIO’ is about falling in love with the craft of writing songs, and making music. Fittingly, the music video for ‘AM RADIO’ was shot in Schultz’s alma mater Ramsey High School, where his passion for songwriting began.

“For me when I was writing this song, it was about with falling in love with what you are doing as a craft,” says Schultz. “Like with writing music and all the riddles in there, all the ways it challenges and all the ways you can feel lost and then feel found with the right idea. Chasing that down is a beautiful pursuit and it was a love letter to that. Artists sometimes stick with things longer than the loved ones around them think they should because they get so much out of it, and there is something beautiful about the pursuit.”

People can hear ‘AM RADIO ‘along with more songs by the Lumineers when they come to the Garden State on May 28 at the PNC Bank Arts Center in Holmdel, and on June 4 at the Freedom Mortgage Pavilion in Camden. Even though Schultz feels like he’s from two places—New Jersey and Denver—he still cherishes New Jersey and knows that he’s from here.

“We came back here and played the Sea. Hear. Now. festival in Asbury Park, and it was very clear that we were from there,” says Schultz. “You know in the hearts of the people, there was a reaction that was so much stronger than normal.”

In particular, Schultz always enjoys playing the PNC Bank Arts Center, and playing there serves as a measuring point for him. 

“I grew up going to the PNC Bank Arts Center, and it’s where I saw Tom Petty and Coldplay,” explains Schultz. “One time I bought a fake Tom Petty shirt outside of the venue because it was all I could afford, and I thought to myself, ‘If someone is ever printing fake shirts for our show I know I made it,’ and then one day it happened. I remember one time it happened when we were playing in Italy and I bought a fake T-shirt of ours outside the venue.”

The Lumineers will be playing at PNC Bank Arts Center in Holmdel on May 28, and in Camden at the Freedom Mortgage Pavilion on June 4. Ticket information can be found here.