"You ain't shit until you play Madison Square Garden."

These words, supposedly spoken by Eddie Vedder but likely echoed by many others, are as close as anyone has come to capturing the power of playing what many consider to be the world's most famous arena. Selling out Madison Square Garden is still widely acknowledged as an indicator of massive success, and even just having the opportunity to play the Garden is an impressive accomplishment. Bob Dylan, on a co-headlining tour with The Band, only got his first shot to play the venue in early 1974, more than a decade after he broke into the music world. He was 32.

So for Wesley Schultz, the 34-year-old front man of The Lumineers, selling out two consecutive nights at the Garden earlier this month was exceptionally special for him and his bandmates -- multi-instrumentalist Jeremiah Fraites and string player Neyla Pekarek. Even just getting to be inside the arena's hallowed halls was moving for the scraggly haired songwriter.

"We've played all these places that meant a lot to other people, different places that make people from that area say, 'I think you've made it now!' " explained Schultz. "But the Garden for us...I grew up going here, so doing this is hard to overstate. Use all the superlatives you want; it'll never do it justice. I haven't been able to sleep that well the last few nights, I've just been so amped for these shows. Even just saying these shows. I thought we'd do one, and maybe it would sell out, but then it sold out in a day. When we added a second one, I didn't want to go and mess up a good thing," Schultz said with a laugh. "But then that sold out. I couldn't feel more grateful to the universe. This is a charmed thing that's happening."

Schultz, who grew up in Ramsey, N.J., just outside of New York City, has fond memories of the shows he saw at the Garden as a kid, as well as the palpable history that came with it.

"Just to make it through these doors at all is insane," he told me in the green room before the band's first show at the venue. "I saw Pearl Jam here one time, and Eddie Vedder called Joey Ramone from the stage and left him a voicemail. He said, 'You never got a chance to play here, but you should have, so we are going to play a Ramones song now.' Then he put the phone down and let the call keep going while they played a Ramones cover."

For The Lumineers, a little less than a year removed from releasing their second studio album, Cleopatra, which debuted at number one on the Billboard 200, the progression to arenas has been a steady one. The band started at open mics, proceeded to small clubs, made it to small theaters following their platinum-certified self-titled debut in 2012, advanced to larger theaters last year, and finally kicked off an arena tour that began in Nebraska on Jan. 17.

According to Schultz, the band, well known for their relatively reserved sound on their recordings, never found it difficult to transition their arrangements to the enormity of an arena, nor have they felt the need to change what got them there in the first place.

"We've always made records that were one way. We felt like our taste was aligned with the sounds we put on those records, so they've come out sparse and minimal," he said. "The arrangements don't really change that much live, other than something like a backbeat thrown behind 'Charlie Boy' or 'Slow It Down.' But there is a lot more energy than it may seem on those albums. I think it grows on people. So we were never afraid to make a quiet recording. Whatever you hear is what we thought was the most interesting version of the song. We've probably played something that was louder or faster, but we opted for something that was less."

Schultz said that sometimes the band identifies changes they could make to a song that could make it "some big radio hit." He specifically mentioned the band's latest UK single 'Angela,' suggesting that if they "threw a backbeat under it and compressed the hell of it" and added some oomph to the first verse, it could have an easier road to becoming a "big song." But crafting generic hits is not something that interests Schultz or his bandmates.

"That's not music I would ever want to play or listen to," he told me. "We are trying to do something else. These songs are like long term indecisions to us. It doesn't have some weird bottom-line to it."

In many ways, 'Angela' is the perfect example of The Lumineers' commitment to working through quality material that they believe in. "We came into the studio with a batch of songs, but 'Angela' was not one of them," said Schultz. "But soon after we arrived, I found myself strumming the chords over and over and trying to work out verse melodies. Eventually, we decided it was a good verse, but it wasn't yet a song because it had no chorus. Simone [Felice], the producer, and Ryan Hewitt, the engineer, began recording me and [Jeremiah] just running the song over and over. It went on so long, the two of them left, without us noticing, and ate dinner and came back.

"By the time they returned we had come up with the chorus and bridge," he continued. "Luckily they had left the tape running, so we could go back and figure out what we had done and loved so much. Unlike the rest of the album, this song was written entirely in the studio. Because of that, you can hear a rawness and danger in it, that tends to go away as you get more familiar with a song. Also, most of the lyrics were written on a motorcycle -- I was riding my Triumph through the Catskills with Simone (on his Suzuki), singing lyrics over the melody."

For The Lumineers' jump to arenas, Schultz was dead set upon retaining the band's artistic integrity and finding a way to provide a compelling show in a huge environment by simply doing what they do best: playing high quality songs.

"I'm proud of that and I'm surprised it has made it this far because I think a lot of people hear it and wonder how it will translate," he said. "It is probably orchestrated a little bit more, but I believe in the power of these songs and we submit to them."

This string of arena dates, to be followed by coveted slots opening for U2 as well as Tom Petty, are the latest stepping stones for The Lumineers, who have found remarkable staying power after bursting onto the scene with their breakout hit, 'Ho Hey.' When the band took four years between their self-titled debut and Cleopatra, many wondered aloud how they might recapture the moment. Although the band has reclaimed that territory with a chart-topping album and a hit single in the form of 'Ophelia,' Schultz said he did not share the concerns others had expressed about the band's ability to return to form during that four-year period.

"When you are a part of the Zeitgeist, a lot of people assume that was by design and that you want to be back there," he said, scratching his scruffy blonde beard. "Who wouldn't want to be back there? But the Zeitgeist has its benefits and it has its downsides, and we've seen both."

How The Lumineers even became one of the biggest bands in the world still seems to puzzle Schultz, who told me that he still sees "no reason" for the group's debut to have been as popular as it was. "It sounds like demos to me," he said.

"By the same token, we aren't at MSG by design," Schultz continued. "We are just pouring our hearts into something. We signed a one-record deal on our first album and we did that again [for Cleopatra]. There is nobody making us put out stuff we don't believe in. We also are not hiring out for our songs. It is me and [Jeremiah] every day, writing songs together. It is like a mom-and-pop shop. It takes awhile. Dylan put out three albums in a year-and-a-half, but that's why he's Bob Dylan. We aren't Bob Dylan. No one is."

This commitment to crafting a strong batch of homegrown tracks is what Schultz largely identifies as the reason for the band's enormous popularity. The band believes that this strategy will pay dividends, for themselves and the fans.

"For us, it may take longer than we like sometimes, but people respond to the quality of it rather than the familiarity."

But while the band's quality earned them two consecutive sellouts at the Garden, The Lumineers have recognized the challenges of translating their material to the arena stage. Well known early on in their career for taking their set into the audience, the band realized that forging a tangible connection with their audience would be an endeavor worth the effort for the arena tour.

"When we first started out this tour, there was a hesitation to go out in the crowd," Schultz explained. "We thought maybe we should do something else or just not do that. But about five shows into this tour, I decided that we could figure out how to do that and break through the barrier of that idea that rock stars are untouchables or whatever."

Schultz cited the example of Bruce Springsteen and Arcade Fire, two performers he greatly admires for their dedication to song craft and to putting on genuine, artful shows.

"I remember going to an Arcade Fire show and being so amazed at how much effort they put into making the show a real show," he told me. "Their songs are good enough; they don't really have to 'try.' It is already there, and you see why they are where they are. But it was very inspiring because we have one-fifth the amount of songs and are a tiny band in comparison. But there they were, leaving it out on the stage and doing all these things to make the show memorable. They came out with the big heads, Win went out in the audience, they had guys drumming, they had this amazing stage setup with mirrors and shit."

This experience resonated with Schultz, who realized that The Lumineers' ability to connect with an audience was not wholly unique, but was essential to what the band wants to achieve on a nightly basis.

"Connecting with people in the crowd is not limited to us. All the greats I have gone to see have found a way to do it," said Schultz.

For the arena shows, the band had a satellite stage designed that could be compressed to nearly nothing. But, at a show's halfway point, the stage would raise up eight feet and the band would play a handful of songs in the middle of the crowd.

"All the people who felt they had 'back seats' now have us right on top of them," Schultz said with a smile. "We used to do that with no microphones, but that's just not possible anymore."

Sure to his word, when I saw The Lumineers perform in front of nearly 20,000 fans at the Garden, you would be hard pressed to believe this was an arena show based on the intimacy their set exuded. The stage in the center of the crowd was certainly a highlight, but Schultz's dash up the arena stairs and through the crowd was a healthy reminder that The Lumineers thrive on forming a tangible relationship with their audience.

This connection with a crowd seems to be more important than ever for Schultz, as he sees the band's story-driven songs as a ripe opportunity to share not only quality music, but important messages as well.

"I have a friend in politics who told me that he realized that if you bring stats or legitimate arguments forward, it doesn't convince anyone of anything," explained Schultz. "It just further entrenches you into your own beliefs. My friend said the best way to break through is through your own stories.

"There are things that I am going to say at these shows that are more story-laden rather than 'This is how I think you should think,' but it's a good way of bringing this stuff up," he continued. "For example, 'Cleopatra' is from the point-of-view of a strong woman who is being oppressed. And my wife and my mom were in the Women's March, and I was really proud of them. So I've been saying that at these shows and you can't argue with the fact that they were there and that I'm proud of them. They went and they are strong women. So I think that method is good. Maybe some people at the show won't agree with me, but I think this can help them realize a lot of people feel differently. When you are in an isolated community, stuff can be easier to miss. But when you are gathering and connecting, you realize it's not just one idiot who believes that, some liberal snowflake. There are a lot of people who feel that way and they are in the room."

Still, Schultz said he has been sure to walk a very thin line when he shares these politically-charged stories. "I have been to shows where I've been preached at and, even if I agree with it, it kind of turns me off," he said.

He mentioned Bob Dylan's classic track 'With God On Our Side' as a model, highlighting Dylan's ability to tell a story that has an appeal to anyone who listens, making sure to avoid self-righteous proclamations and to prioritize emotion. Again, Schultz acknowledged that the line between someone like Dylan and everyone else is treacherous. "If you do protest music wrong, it is really bad," he laughed.

But Schultz was keen to point out that he is not making points from the stage to earn points with a certain demographic. "I'm not going to do something someone might think I'm a better person for," he said. "I'm going to talk about things I feel actual things about it. I'll live with the results."

One such example would be the subject matter covered on Cleopatra's opening track, 'Sleep On The Floor.'

"That song is about me leaving New York and giving my finger on the way out. I had been bartending during the day, working three jobs, and these kids would come in and say they are in six bands and just drink," Schultz told me. "So there's a line in the song, 'How do you pay the rent? Is it your parents?' The trust fund culture is so rampant in major cities and really frustrated me because I don't know many kids who have trust funds who are doing amazing things with their time or creativity. For some reason, it takes a grind and some grit to make you want to do something different. So it may seem like an odd thing to be upset about but, to me, it was a real frustration."

So for Schultz, his songwriting can take on "frustrations on that stupid micro-level," or topics much larger like the Vietnam War in 'Charlie Boy' or the medical industry on 'Long Way From Home.'

"We really ask our medical community to keep people alive longer than I think is fair to the people," Schultz said. "It is partly because of money but also because we selfishly want them around. My dad got a 14 or 15 hour surgery, then spent the next three years in a lot of pain. Those same doctors wouldn't want their own procedures done on them."

According to Schultz, all these sorts of concerns are present in the band's songs to be poured over or they can just as easily be ignored if one chooses. "There is stuff there to explore if you want, but there isn't an in-your face 'fuck pharmaceutical companies' or anything like that either," he said with a big laugh.

Schultz has also remained relatively indifferent toward attempts to slap a label on The Lumineers' sound, which has been described as everything from Americana to indie pop.

"I feel like the Zeitgeist has moved on, so there isn't as much of a need to categorize," he said. "The first years, from 2012 to 2015, nearly every interview was like, 'You guys are in a big band. Please explain.' What are you even supposed to say? It is a lose-lose question."

In Schultz's eyes, attempts to pigeonhole the group's place in music is a fool's errand given how diverse the sound on Cleopatra turned out.

"If you take our most recent album and hear 'Long Way From Home,' that's kind of singer-songwriter. Then if you hear 'Cleopatra,' that's straight ahead rock. If you hear 'Patience,' that's basically classical music. Then 'In The Light' is almost like a weird Beatles track. So the album has a freedom to go different directions."

The Americana label is one that Schultz finds especially interesting, if for no other reason than he does not know exactly what "Americana" is.

"I just don't really know what people mean by Americana," he said. "We just did the Americana Awards in Nashville and we were asked to define it by six reporters in a row. But what does rock mean? What does alternative mean? These are such huge, nebulous terms. If it's a way to promote music that hasn't always been well promoted, or is flawed and human, then cool. So I'm not dogging Americana. I just don't always know what someone means when they say that."

Ultimately, the desire to peg the band as one thing or another frustrates Schultz. "I just believe that we write good songs," he said. "At the end of the day, we have always believed in the open mic concept. We want to make songs that if you played them at an open mic, somebody would be like, 'Damn, I wish I wrote that. Fuck, that's a good song.' That's the biggest compliment I could give someone when I hear their song."

Schultz and The Lumineers work tirelessly to pursue new ideas, push their boundaries and do their own thing. So far, the formula has worked.

"Purposefully working outside of my comfort zone has rewarded me," Schultz admitted. "So I'd like to find things that are frightening or not totally comfortable, and then keep going that way. You can't measure things by a No. 1, you can't measure things by the Zeitgeist. If you do, you aren't really in touch with reality. You have to keep your own score."

As preparations for the show were about to begin, with the moving pieces required to stage a show worthy of the Garden switching into full gear outside the room, I asked Schultz a question that likely dogs many of the band's fans: After a chart-topping album, massive radio hits and two sold out shows at Madison Square Garden, where do The Lumineers go from here?

Schultz pulled off his cap, adjusted his hair and flashed his pensive, yet optimistic smile.

"That's what's so great about this. You just don't know."

The Lumineers' second album, Cleopatra, and their latest UK single, 'Angela', are out now via Decca Records. The band will play Hyde Park on July 9.