Despite playing together for more than five years before recording their self-titled debut album, once they got their shit together Denver folk-rock band the Lumineers became a real overnight success story. Their sleeper hit single “Ho Hey” blew up, despite sounding like nothing else on commercial radio (not even Mumford & Sons, to whom they are often, somewhat erroneously compared) — and with two Grammy nominations to boot, they found themselves in sudden need of a full lineup.

So the original trio — songwriters / multi-instrumentalists Wesley Schultz and Jeremiah Fraites, and cellist Neyla Pekarek — brought drummer Stelth Ulvang and bassist Ben Wahamaki on board to fill out the Lumineers' sound. With this roster they’ve become one of the most successful new touring acts in North America.

Before their upcoming concerts in Toronto (both sold out), we spoke with Wahamaki about how he became a Lumineer, and how the band has dealt with their good fortune.

Did you audition for The Lumineers or did you join based on a pre-existing friendship?

Kind of an audition. I knew Stelth from playing with various bands in Colorado. When the band needed a permanent bassist my name was dropped with a few other people. So there were auditions but I think, also, it had a lot to do with the fact that I could commit to touring.

You were auditioning for a band that had already seen success, so there was a need for commitment already in place.

Yeah. It was a funny time to join. The band was still playing 200-capacity rooms, about to go to SXSW. I was committing to a two-month tour, home for one day in the middle, so a real leap of faith. We didn’t know if it would work out or not but luckily it did.

Were you already a fan?

Stelth described the situation but not so much what the band sounded like. I didn’t know the music before (the opportunity came up) but when I listened I got really stoked. I knew it would be something I could get behind.

Aside from the moment of getting hired, was there a point you felt accepted into the group? A point on stage, maybe, where you thought, “Okay, I’m really in this.”

It’s been a gradual process. They’re a very open group of people, really rad dudes. So it’s been fun, the gradual inclusion in everything. There wasn’t necessarily a single moment.

It’s a vulnerable place to be, sort of, being hired as a musician for a tour. We were sleeping five to a hotel room, or on someone’s living room floor, so it could’ve gone bad if the vibe wasn’t there. Luckily, it became a really beautiful situation.

Are you a multi-instrumentalist as well?

Before this band I was playing a lot of upright bass, for a couple years. I didn’t even have an electric bass before joining the band.

Isn’t it usually the other way around? From what I understand upright is the more challenging instrument.

They present their own difficulties. Upright requires more spatial recognition, to remember where the frets and positions are. You have to be able to visualize that, so upright is a unique skill set. But for electric bass — particularly for a more subtle band like the Lumineers — “touch” is very important. There’s a lot of subtle texture to it.

I think one of the reasons “Ho Hey” has become such a hit is its “call-and-response” style vocals. That extends to a lot of Lumineers songs — does your audience loudly sing along at shows?

That’s what we want. Our whole objective is for people to have fun. And we all come from a background of playing small shows, house shows where you have to work to get people to pay attention. So we tried to get people to shout along, clap along — physically get them involved. That’s really important to us.

It’s been interesting touring Europe. People are more reserved. You have to convince them, like, “You’re being very polite! It’s OK to get loud!”

Your upcoming shows in our hometown of Toronto are both sold out. Is that something you prefer to know beforehand?

I like to know. It’s good to have that sense of obligation. If you have an idea how many human beings were invested enough to actually pay money and show up, it’s inspiring.

From your observation, how have Wesley and Jeremiah dealt with the success of the band?

Wesley has a great attitude. I can see the gears turning in his head all the time and I sense something positive happening there. They’re both down-to-earth dudes and I feel like every step along the way has just been more humbling. I’ve seen nothing but pure, almost childlike curiosity — from Neyla, too — about the future of the band.

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