My Conversation With Winston Marshall
Talking to the musician about why he walked away from Mumford & Sons.
For 14 years, Winston Marshall was the banjo player and lead guitarist of the massively successful band Mumford & Sons. Last week, he quit, writing in part: “I could remain and continue to self-censor but it will erode my sense of integrity. Gnaw my conscience. I’ve already felt that beginning.”
In this episode, Bari speaks to Winston about why he chose to walk away from the band he loved.
Below is an edited and condensed version of the conversation we had on the podcast.
BW: Winston Marshall, welcome to Honestly.
WM: Thank you, Bari. A great pleasure.
BW: One of the reasons I'm really excited to talk to you is that I think what you've just experienced represents a kind of modern archetype. It goes like this: a person stumbles over a tripwire on the Internet. Then everything explodes around them. And it doesn't just harm the person that stumbled over the tripwire -- you, in this case -- it comes to affect everyone around them.
The person then faces a choice: How do you make this explosion go away? The way that most people move through that moment is by apologizing and then remaining quiet indefinitely, hoping to never stumble over anything again.
What makes you different is that you decided not to capitulate. You decided not to play by the rules, the rules being to remain silent, to nod along, and give in to all of the tiny little lies that are required for you to maintain your prestige or your status, which in your case meant your band, and in my case, meant a newspaper. I'm not sure if that resonates with you, but that's the thing that really leapt out to me about your situation: that you've made a choice that's so different from the choice that so many others have made.
WM: It began when I tweeted about a book that documents far left behavior in the U.S. And I'd been tweeting about books through the pandemic. But this one sort of seemed to take off. And there's a couple of waves to what happens. Firstly it starts to take off and then you have a swarm of snakes who come for every aspect of your life. For example, for me, they started messing about with my Wikipedia page saying calling me a fascist and Nazi and all these ridiculous things. And then there's a sort of second wave where they come for your friends and your associates and their families. And it's and it's very intimidating. It's a very effective mode of intimidation because it's one thing when they come for you. But when they come for those you love, you want to defend them.
BW: So what inspired this attack was a tweet that just said that you had read an important book and you praised a journalist as brave. And the book is called, for those who haven’t heard of it, ‘Unmasked’ and it's a book about the movement Antifa and the violence that Antifa is perpetuating in cities like Portland.
WM: I apologized soon after the tweet. The reason being that I was sincerely open to understanding what I maybe I had missed on the topic or what about my tweet was offensive and I wanted to examine that. But I saw more and more clearly, I felt that I had participated in that lie that either extremism didn't exist or was a force for good. And that began to really bother my conscience. At the beginning, my integrity for the first month or so, my integrity felt okay because I was like, ‘You put your friends first, you fucked up.’ And then there were other people then assuming that if I was critical of the far left, then I must be pro the far right. Obviously I absolutely, unequivocally condemn the far right.
BW: There's this trope out there that like Antifa either doesn't exist or is genuinely a force for fighting fascism rather than its own kind of extremism.
WM: That wordplay stuff is incredibly effective on Twitter. In Britain, we've got ‘Don’t Fund Hate’ which is trying to take down GB News. I’m rereading Vaclav Havel and he talks about the greengrocer putting up the sign saying “Workers of the World Unite.” Who would disagree with “Workers of the World Unite.” And you have the example of North Korea, ‘The People's Democratic Republic,’ or whatever it's called. It’s absolutely absurd.
BW: The way this ideology works is like trapping people in this word game. So all of a sudden, by criticizing Antifa, in the scheme of this word game, you became the fascist.
BW: Had you felt in the past like you had had you stumbled onto land mines before? Or had you been tamping down your views about any number of issues for the sake of the band?
WM: Well, this is where I thought that your resignation letter. One thing that resonated with me is the idea that Twitter had become the editor of The New York Times, and I'm aware that similar in music or I'm sure for all companies dealing with public relations, is that Twitter basically dictates their public relations. Because if you say the wrong thing or support the wrong thing, according to whatever Twitter mob that then dictates the press, then the press damages reputations. So there's a real similarity there, I think. And a previous example certainly for me was meeting Jordan Peterson a few years ago. For me, his work was pretty influential on my contribution to the last record. But the difficult thing is that, according to Twitter, it's a divisive issue. And the music press, on the whole, is probably quite biased. So I never really trusted them to be able to talk about something that I thought was really positive and cool and exciting.
BW: I'd love to hear more about the influence that his work had on your contribution to the album.
WM: He’s got some lectures linking Milton to mental health. And actually there's a couple of songs where we cite Milton, we have someone reading Milton over a track. I would have wanted to tell the story because I thought it might be of interest, but I can never feel with the music press who were both biased and influenced by whatever mobs that I could never say that or get into it particularly.
BW: When you apologized, was the goal to kill the story publicly or was the goal to apologize to the members of the band? There's a lot of ways that you can read an apology like that. And I'm curious what your goal was.
WM: I was absolutely, totally sincere in being sorry to the band and remain so. What I had done had been unintentional, but it brought a lot of trouble to them. And so I was and am still sorry for that. The apology wasn't for what I did, it was for how it was interpreted. So I think it was true at the time.
BW: It’s a strange moment that we're living in because apologies are such intimate things and forgiveness is something that's granted between people that are connected to each other. Apologies are something that are for everyone on the Internet all of a sudden. It seems so antithetical to the nature of what an apology is meant to be about.
WM: I'm not so critical of people apologizing, because firstly, you don't know what stress they're under, you don't know what pressure they're under. They have people that they're responsible for. It's very difficult. Those can be very difficult moments. I would never assume that those apologies are insincere.
BW: When I left the Times and wrote that resignation letter I was pretty angry. And I feel like one of the things that comes through in your essay so powerfully, and that makes it that much more heartbreaking, is just how much you love this band. And so it really must not have been an easy decision to walk away.
WM: It was the bloody hardest decision I can remember. I've been in the band since I was 19. It was a really difficult thing, but I didn't see another way out of this sort of moral conundrum that I found myself in. And so this felt like the right way forward.
BW: In the months that you were dealing with the moral conundrum, what were you reading and who were you talking to that were leading you or advising you?
WM: Well, I actually was reading a great biography of Churchill by Andrew Roberts .
BW: Oh, it's amazing.
WM: I'm a big admirer of Roberts. And I was reading that's kind of just to emotionally unwind and get away,
BW: A thousand page book about Churchill too emotionally unwind. I love it.
WM: I was talking a lot to my mom and dad with whom I'm very close and I think who love me and understand me better than anyone and could understand the complexity of the situation. I was praying a hell of a lot.
BW: Over the past year I've read ‘Live not by Lies’ dozens of times. For me I'm relating to it historically. But when I saw that you quoted him, given that I know that you are religious and that he was a devout Christian, I wondered if it resonated for you on a deeper level and if that was one of the reasons that you decided to quote that essay in yours.
WM: I quoted the essay because I was reading it in that period between the apology and my Medium post and that particular passage was just hitting me. I think Solzhenitsyn is relevant to this situation. He talks about the line between good and evil cutting through the center of every human heart. And that is lost in discourse today, I think a lot of people say, ‘oh, he's a good guy’ or ‘fuck that guy, he’s a bad guy.” Instead of accepting what I think is a Christian value, the idea that everyone is fallen, it’s back to the binary black and white, good guys, bad guys, goodies, baddies.
Another bit of Solzhenitsyn in the article from the Gulag Archipelago, which is: “Purify your heart, rub your eyes and cherish above all else those who love you and wish you well.” That line made me feel like I was doing the right thing in trying to protect my bandmates, but I'm not too familiar with Solzhenitsyn and his faith.
My faith has played a big part in this period of my life and actually the week before making the final decision, I was pretty much planted in my local Catholic Church around the corner from the house. It's a bloody big moment for me. That's probably why after a while, the apology was bothering me like it did, particularly that I'd felt like I'd been participating in that lie that we already talked about. I couldn't square those things in my conscience.
BW: One of the things that I have noticed is that an inordinate number of people who have been willing to tell the truth and stand up to the new illiberalism, are religious. And I wondered if you could just tell us a little bit more about how your faith guided you through this decision or maybe to put it another way, maybe it's that your faith anchors you in values that are so much bigger and more eternal than the idiot winds that feel like they're sweeping through our politics every day.
WM: Well, if I can quote the great American theologian of all time, Kanye West, he said, fear God and you will fear nothing else. And I love that because for me, I do fear God. And I think it's true. That if you fear God sincerely, then you won't fear worldly issues, worldly problems.
BW If you stayed in the band, what would you have had to sacrifice or how would you have had to maybe shrink yourself?
WM: A good friend of mine asked me this before, when I told him I was going to leave. It's a little bit hard to articulate. I'm sure that whatever time we're promoting the next thing that this stuff will come up and it would just be a distraction. And now that I'm removed, they don't have that anymore.
BW: I imagine you were nervous to hit publish on this essay?
WM: Bloody terrified. Yeah, particularly the last half an hour before I was very nervous, but I feel like it's gone. I feel like I got my integrity back and I feel like I got my soul back. I feel good now.
BW: You said earlier that even if no one read it, that you would feel like you had gotten your soul back. But I also imagine that you wanted this to be read. And I'd love to know what you hoped people would take away from this?
WM: People have taken quite a few messages from it, it's been read now, I think over six hundred and sixty thousand times, which I think is quite a lot.
BW: Was that well beyond what you expected?
WM: Yeah, I never imagined that at all. And look, people have taken different things from it. My primary goal was to restore my integrity and to let it be known how great those three lads are.
BW: Had you ever worked harder on a piece of writing than you did on that essay?
WM: It was very, very important for me because if it was done badly, it could really screw up a lot. So I've never certainly never worked on an essay harder than that.
BW: Yeah. I can't help but think about, not just life before the Internet, but life before it feels like maybe the past five years where it would be really hard to imagine a situation like this. The idea that politics has swallowed everything and that everything needs to be put to a political litmus test like that, that's relatively new. And I'm wondering, when did you start to feel that shift as someone who's been in this band since you were 19 years old?
WM: It's a little bit pithy to say this, and not totally accurate, but you could say, when we were promoting stuff before 2016, they didn't ask about politics. And then after 2016, they basically didn't ask about music. That's not entirely true, obviously. But there was definitely a change in 2016 where everything became political and there's nothing political about the music we made. And that sort of charged everyone.
I remember thinking at the beginning of the pandemic: Oh, I hope that finally this will be the thing that brings everyone together, for all the trouble and all the hell that this might bring us together. And there were signs of that at the beginning, like we had these cheers for the NHS once a week in England. And it felt like unity. The only other time we really get it is when there's an England football tournament on, which we have at the moment. And it's going quite well! But I think that the pandemic just exacerbated all the divisions we already had.
WM: It just spun out.
BW: Well, the message was: we're all in this together. But no, we're not, because we're just all living online, getting deeper and deeper into our new political tribes. And in lieu of actually meeting people face to face -- it's really hard to say horrible things to someone in the flesh -- it's super easy to do it when you're writing from behind an avatar, you know?
WM: Yeah, absolutely. And Bari, I don't know how it ends.
BW: How do you think it ends?
WM: Oh, I hope it ends. I have no idea how. Do you have an idea?
BW: I don't have an answer and I don't think anyone does
BW: Aliens could definitely help. Let's get swallowed up by a common enemy or like, you know, they come in peace hoping to transform our civilization, I don't know. Listen, I don't think anyone has a smart or satisfying answer. Lots of people have lots of different ideas about how we can resist the tsunami of change that's being caused by the Internet, like it's remaking our brains, it's remaking our society, it's remaking what it means to be human. So I don't have an answer for the algorithm problem. What I do know is that, in our individual lives, rooting down into the things that matter -- for me, that is my Judaism, it's my family, it's my relationship, it's living a life that my future children would be proud of and also like absolutely refusing to participate in mobs. If enough people did that, it actually seems to me like it would make a difference.
WM: Absolutely. Yeah, recognizing that our fellow man. We're all fallen and recognizing that we make mistakes and bring back a bit of grace and good faith.
BW: I think a lot of people would see you leave the band and assume: he would never walk away from something so good unless he had some secret plan in his back pocket. In my case, that just wasn't true at all. Any idea about what's going to come next for you?
WM: Well, I'm certainly going to carry on with my Hong Kong integration work. I co-founded a nonprofit organization in January with an asylum seeker from Hong Kong in London. And we connect Brits with Hong Kong citizens. It's called Hong Kong Link Up. It’s been very fulfilling and I’m going to definitely carry on with that in the meantime. And I hope to carry on making music. And the response to the Medium article has been so positive that I feel quite encouraged to continue my writing.
BW: I know of this girl with a newsletter that might be really interested in publishing you.
WM: Oh, you’ve got a newsletter? Well, let's talk.
BW: I want to thank you so much for taking the time. When I read your essay, I thought: this is the kind of thing that makes a difference. This is the kind of thing that makes a dent in pushing our merciless culture towards something more human and humane and gracious. Thank you for talking to me and thank you for standing up for the truth. I'm really excited to see what you do next, and hopefully we can find a way to do something together.
WM: That means a tremendous amount for me, so thank you. And thank you for your wonderful questions.