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The Lumineers Trace The Cycle Of Addiction: 'It's A Progressive Disease'

Sep 13, 2019
Originally published on September 26, 2019 5:49 am

The Lumineers have taken their latest album, III, as an opportunity to shine a light on a topic that's close to many of the members' lives — addiction. III tells a story of addiction in three acts. As the album runs from one song to the next, it's a tale of one family facing the same problem. "It's the family secret and it's a taboo," Wes Schultz, the band's lead vocalist, says.

Drummer Jeremiah Fraites says addiction happens in cycles and should be considered that way.

"With drug addiction or alcoholism it really affects the individual and then it has a sort of fallout effect — similar to the effects of a radiation bomb — over time and over years and years, it continually tends to affect people's loved ones," Fraites says.

Fraites and Schultz, both founding members of The Lumineers, know the feeling of this aftermath from experience. Schultz says he had a childhood friend in New Jersey who slowly came apart as a teenager because of drug addiction. Both band members experienced this because Schultz's friend, Josh Fraites, was the brother of his future bandmate, Jeremiah.

"I remember my mom woke me up. She said, 'Sweetheart, your brother got arrested last night. He was arrested in a car was around 2:00 in the morning,' " Fraites says. "He'd smoke PCP and he was so high on drugs that he went inside this A&P, which was like a local supermarket out in the East Coast, and he drank Drano which is just an unbelievable thing. I don't know what compelled him to do that. But he was in the ICU for a couple of weeks with second and third degree burns on his throat."

Months later, Fraites' brother died.

"You know they talk about addiction. It's a progressive disease. It's not something where you just wake up and you're homeless and you're begging for crack or heroin," Fraites says.

On the latest album, the band tracks how this disease progresses through three generations. The first includes an alcoholic woman named Gloria Sparks. In the song "Gloria," Schultz imagines how Gloria's children see her and how she sees herself. "Gloria being that important and also being that dysfunctional is where the album kind of begins," Schultz explains.

The listener can hear these differing perspectives in the music. Schultz says that "Gloria" is meant to represent a conversation between the addict and her daughter.

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"There's this almost a cartoonish piano that interrupts the guitar," Schultz says. "Within the reality of being closely involved with an addict, there is a cartoonish nature to life. Like, you'll get a call and it's the most absurd thing you've ever heard. You can't even wrap your head around it. And there's a mania. There's a manic nature to that is found in that piano."

Later on the album, Gloria's son, Jimmy Sparks, grows up and becomes an alcoholic and a father himself. In the song "Jimmy Sparks" he tries to teach his son never to pick up a hitchhiker. "It's us or them," Jimmy tells his son. Later in the same song, Jimmy's son — now grown up — drives by a hitchhiker who happens to be Jimmy and keeps driving by.

"I think it has a couple layers to it where you're not really sure why he kept driving and if he even recognized [Jimmy]," Schultz says. "If he did, what does that mean? I think for someone who's not around an addict very closely, it probably sounds very cold, but to anyone who has been, there are a lot of people who understand what that means, unfortunately."

III tells such a bleak story, which could prove to be a challenge performing live for a concert crowd wanting to have a good time. But Schultz says these heavy songs have touched many of the people who have already seen the band perform live.

"Every show you ever go to, someone's talking about getting their heart broken, most likely, and there are people who put their arms around each other," Schultz says. "Coming together for a concert or hearing someone say something that you only thought you felt; I think that's why it's positive even though it's counterintuitive that heartbreak music would be when people cheer the loudest."

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(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HO HEY")

THE LUMINEERS: Hey.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

The makers of this song...

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HO HEY")

THE LUMINEERS: (Singing) I belong with you. You belong with me, my sweetheart.

INSKEEP: ...A huge 2012, hit are back. The Lumineers try to shine light on a dark corner of American life. It's a project close to the lives of the musicians - addiction.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SALT AND THE SEA")

THE LUMINEERS: (Singing) And they wrote all these prescriptions. They wrote me off like a heel.

INSKEEP: The album is called "III," and in it, lyricist Wes Schultz examines a problem that is much in the news but hard to discuss.

WES SCHULTZ: It's a secret. It's the family secret, and it's a taboo.

INSKEEP: Schultz wrote an album that tells a story in three acts. It runs from one song to the next, the tale of a family - not one person but a family - facing the same problem. That's the way drummer Jeremiah Fraites says we should think about it.

JEREMIAH FRAITES: With drug addiction or alcoholism, it really affects the individual, and then it has a sort of, like, you know, fallout effect. And much similar to the effects of, you know, a radiation bomb, over time and over years and years, it continually tends to affect people, loved ones.

INSKEEP: Both founding members of The Lumineers know this from experience. Schultz says he has a relative addicted now.

SCHULTZ: She's been in and out of rehab, jail and now has been homeless for about a year.

INSKEEP: And then there was Schultz's childhood friend in New Jersey.

SCHULTZ: We were both very interested in drawing at the time, so we would sit in a room together, and we took art class together. We both liked these solitary activities, but we'd do them together.

INSKEEP: As a teenager, that childhood friend slowly came apart. Both band members experienced this because Wes' friend, Josh Fraites, was the brother of Wes' future bandmate, Jeremiah Fraites.

FRAITES: I remember my mom woke me up. She said, sweetheart, your brother got arrested last night. He was arrested in a car. It was around 2 in the morning. He had smoked PCP, and he was so high on drugs that he went inside this A&P, which was, like, a local supermarket out in the East Coast. And he drank Drano, which is just an unbelievable thing. I don't know what compelled him to do that, but he was in the ICU for a couple weeks with second and third-degree burns on his throat.

INSKEEP: Months later, Jeremiah Fraites' brother died after a heroin overdose.

FRAITES: You know, they talk about addiction. It's a progressive disease. It's not something where you just wake up and you're homeless and you're begging for crack or heroin or whatever the drug of choice is. It truly is a progressive disease.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LEADER OF THE LANDSLIDE")

THE LUMINEERS: (Singing) You drove me wild, drove me insane, drank the whole bottle and forgot my name.

INSKEEP: In writing about this disease, The Lumineers track how it progresses through generations - three of them. The first includes an alcoholic woman named Gloria.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GLORIA")

THE LUMINEERS: (Singing) Gloria, I smell it on your breath, Gloria, booze and peppermint.

INSKEEP: In the lyrics, Wes Schultz imagines how Gloria's children see her and how she sees herself. You hear the differing perspectives in the music.

SCHULTZ: There's this almost cartoonish piano that interrupts the guitar and - or it's almost like the guitar hands it off to the piano. And I think within the reality of being closely involved with an addict, there is a cartoonish nature to life. Like, you'll get a call, and it's the most absurd thing you've ever heard. You can't even wrap your head around it. And there's a mania. There's, like, a manic nature to it that is found in that piano that I really love. And so in the song, every time a guitar is the main focus, it's a daughter talking to her mother.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GLORIA")

THE LUMINEERS: (Singing) Gloria, you crawled up on your cross. Gloria, you made us sit and watch. Gloria, no one said enough is enough.

SCHULTZ: And then every time a piano is the main focus, it's the mother giving her side of the story back to the daughter. So it's sort of this conversation.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GLORIA")

THE LUMINEERS: (Singing) Heaven help me now. Heaven, show the way. Get me on my own two feet. I would lie awake and pray you don't lie awake for me.

SCHULTZ: In a family, the mother occupies this really unique space. Gloria being that important and also being that dysfunctional is where the album kind of begins.

INSKEEP: This Lumineers album is also a set of videos, which show Gloria tipping a bottle to get the last drop, blacking out, leaving a baby perilously alone. In a later song, we meet her son, who's now grown up.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "JIMMY SPARKS")

THE LUMINEERS: (Singing) Jimmy Sparks went into bars and opened up his mouth, said some things to wounded men that they could not allow.

INSKEEP: Grown up Jimmy becomes a father with his own addictions. He teaches his son a lesson when they drive past a person on the side of the road.

SCHULTZ: And his son asks, does that man need help? And he says, you never give a hitcher a ride.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "JIMMY SPARKS")

THE LUMINEERS: (Singing) Out on the road, they caught a stranger in the lights, his thumb was up and the son asked if the man was all right. Jim said, you never give a hitcher a ride 'cause it's us or them.

SCHULTZ: And then at the end of the song, Jimmy, the same character, is much older and so is his son. And his son is driving home from a graveyard shift he'd been working. And Jimmy's walking the opposite way, and he had been beat up by, you know, sort of the mob that he owes money, and he desperately needs help. It's cold at night, and it's snowing. And his son drives right by him, remembering his dad's advice and not really recognizing his father.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "JIMMY SPARKS")

THE LUMINEERS: (Singing) 'Cause it's us or them.

INSKEEP: There's one level of that song in which the son has been taught the wrong lesson. He's been taught to only look out for himself. But listening to you talk just now, it sounds like you also thought about it from the son's perspective, that maybe he has to only look out for himself.

SCHULTZ: I agree. I think it has a couple layers to it where you're not really sure why he kept driving and if he'd even recognized him. If he did, what does that mean? I think for someone who's not around an addict very closely, it probably sounds very cold, but to anyone who has been, there are a lot of people who understand what that means, unfortunately.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LIFE IN THE CITY")

THE LUMINEERS: (Singing) And if the city skyscrapers rise over this island.

INSKEEP: The album "III" tells such a bleak story that The Lumineers face a dilemma as they play it for concert crowds.

Maybe they'll have a beer. Maybe they will have had five beers. Who knows what they might have had out there in the audience. And they want to cheer and have fun, and you say, let me give you some songs about the horrors of addiction.

SCHULTZ: Well, I think you might be right, but you have to think about it another way. I mean, every show you ever go to, someone's talking about getting their heart broken, most likely. And there are people putting their arms around each other.

INSKEEP: Yeah.

SCHULTZ: Coming together for a concert or hearing someone say something that you only thought you felt, I think that's why it's positive, even though it's counterintuitive, that heartbreak music would be when people cheer the loudest.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LIFE IN THE CITY")

THE LUMINEERS: (Singing) Whoa, whoa, we can plan if we make it, whoa, whoa...

INSKEEP: Wes Schultz and Jeremiah Fraites of The Lumineers. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.