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Interview: Alex Ebert (of Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros)

on June 25, 2012, 8:02am

es 21 Interview: Alex Ebert (of Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros)

After an exhaustive two year-plus promotional run for its 2009 debut, Up from Below, Los Angeles collective Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros returned last month with their long-awaited follow up, Here. Chock full of harmonies and sporting a smooth, relaxed vibe, the group’s sophomore effort only adds to their trademark live performances, the likes of which they have many planned ahead, including a European jaunt that kicks off next month. Prior to their departure, however, Consequence of Sound‘s Len Comaratta sat down with mastermind Alex Ebert to discuss the latest LP, the one still to come, synchronicity, and the band’s mythology.

You’ve described the Edward Sharpe persona as a messianic figure who got distracted by girls. Is it almost like Jesus’s missing teenage years – puberty first, salvation later? Though you do avoid any direct connections to any religious figures…

[laughs] No, I don’t avoid them. To me, all heroes are fair game to emulate, or try and be inspired by, if they are heroes to you, or if you can discern some qualities that you find worthy of inspiration. So, no definite avoidance. I don’t support the Christian church or anything, but that doesn’t mean I am not a fan of the idea of Jesus.

While listening to your new album, I got a stronger sense of spirituality than from your previous album, Up From Below. And I don’t mean religion; it was definitely more a spiritual sense. You tend to avoid theological angles aside from talking about a creator, but you leave it very open. Am I misreading things?

No, no. That’s right, man. Religions have a monopoly on a lot of the spiritual sort of words. I didn’t shy away from that language on this album. I actually didn’t shy away from it on the first album, but I think that it speaks louder on this album and is much less enshrouded by anything hip on this album. I’m pretty naked on this album.

You’ve described this album as stripped down, haven’t you?

Yeah. In a way it’s definitely more subtle. I would say there’s just something that’s a bit more confident and allowing for the songs to breathe on their own, as opposed to being really concerned with excitement. Just allowing the songs to sort of be. That said, I should say there’s another album coming out that we made basically at the same time that is quite a bit more rambunctious.

You said that you became a band making the first album, and you made this album as a band. How did the difference contribute to the final result on Here?

Well, apparently it sounds… I get the feedback that it sounds more like a band, a bit more like the live shows. Which is interesting and would make sense on paper. So, if that’s one of the ways it’s affected these recordings, then there it is. Obviously, it wasn’t as piece-meal, even though we did record a lot of stuff at once on the first album. Here we are, four years later, having played together for that long and now playing together and writing and recording together on this album, being a unit and tight. I guess one big difference in some ways was that things happened a lot faster on this album, and they could because we were so tight and so in sync with each other. So, I could present a song, and we could work it out for about an hour and then start recording it. That’s an exhilarating thing to be able to do. It’s really fun.

Do you think that synchronicity came about because you guys were touring so much and you were together all the time?

Not only that, but sustaining ourselves through all that and sort of the triumph of will. To commit yourself entirely to something like this, and like touring all the time, and all this kind of thing, is not always the easiest decision. To quit your job, to do something like that, and then commit yourself entirely to touring, and to doing all this, and then especially when the touring goes on and on, and amidst the touring there’s strife within the band, and that kind of thing… And you start to really, in some ways, question, exactly, “Why am I doing this?” and “What am I doing here?” Do you know what I mean?

There’s a lot of people in the band. And I think withstanding and pushing through all of that, realizing that the reason you are there is the love of… because this is what you’re supposed to be doing. You just kind of trust the process. And then having trusted that process together I think brought us… And then deciding now we’re going to do it again was a really amazing leap of faith and an amazing experience for us together, because it wasn’t the easiest decision. After three and a half years of touring, to be like, “Okay, now we’re going into the studio for six months, and the studio is not in L.A. It’s not where you live; it’s an hour and a half north.” So, it wasn’t the easiest decision, but we did it, and it just turned out to be this… almost some sort of rite of passage. And a beautiful thing to come out the other side together. And I think that does shine in the music. To me, anyway, when I listen to the album, I think of all that.

How did you settle on 11 people, and how do you balance everyone’s roles?

Well, it’s 12 now. The first album sort of set the blueprint to me, the ways the songs were written. I remember writing “Janglin’” and putting the horn line in with my mouth and all these different instruments and knowing that these were songs to be played by a large group of people. And that was part of the fun of it. In order to do this, we were going to have to be a large crew of folks running around playing music together. And that was part of the joy and the vision; a large part of the vision, I think. And the communal aspect of the music. It’s what the songs ask for. A lot of the songs, not all of them.

What parts of the album did you record in Louisiana, and what were you hoping to capture down there that you were unable to do in your own studio, where you finished the album?

To begin with, we didn’t have as many songs as we ended up with down there. We just kind of went in with a few, maybe like 10 songs or something, 13 songs. And we were also recording to tape down there and on a console that doesn’t have automation. Which means, basically, that if you get a mix you like while you’re recording and it’s starting to sound the way that you want it while you are recording, it would be better to just continue mixing that song instead of going on to record another song. Because otherwise you’re going to lose all of your settings, and you’re gonna have to start from scratch. A byproduct of that was that everyone was sitting around; after recording a song, everyone would be sitting around for two days, waiting for us to mix it. Which wasn’t particularly fun for everyone, and I don’t think very conducive to the spirit of the thing. So, we got about seven songs completed there.

“All Wash Out” is one of them. We recorded, and I added stuff. I added the drums and the bass here in Ojai, but the rest was sort of in one take, me, and Nico, and I think the piano, in one take. The piano might have been later. And then “Fiya Wata” was also done there, and the only thing I added to that in Ojai was Jade’s dad makes an appearance on guitar, and Jade’s mom makes a guest appearance on vocals, doing background. And then I added a few background vocals myself; actually, a bunch of us did. But what we didn’t achieve, really, was a whole album, and also it wasn’t quite the album we wanted to put out. It wasn’t the right thing to put out at the time. It just was what it was. We didn’t walk away with an album.

Will some of the songs appear on the second album?

There’s one more song that may. Actually, I should say there’s two. One is a total re-record [that] we re-recorded here in Ojai. It’ll have been the third time, actually, that it’s been recorded. That’s called “High on Love”. It’s one of my favorites at the moment. And another one that may make it is a song called “It’s For You”, and that might be the recording from that, but the vibe of that song may not jive with this album, so I’m not sure.

es 20 Interview: Alex Ebert (of Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros)When you re-emerged, as it were, many took issue with your new image, decrying it by referencing who you were when you left Ima Robot. However, if anyone bothered to look at your biography, they would see that you are far more rooted in the Laurel Canyon sound that you have been associated with as Edward Sharpe than the rock of Ima Robot. Wouldn’t you agree?

Yeah. You know, it’s funny, man. The Ima Robot sound, me going nasal and whiny and obnoxious, was a very sudden turn for me at about the age of 22. Even early Ima Robot demos don’t sound anything like the two studio albums that we put out. Ima Robot was, like, a major turn for me as a sort of trying on my own feeling of annoyance with the world, and with everything. So, that was really what that was in a lot of ways. And I don’t mean Ima Robot as a whole; I mean those two albums. I remember when I wrote a lot of the Ima Robot stuff, and it started me, embarked me on a really terrible journey of songwriting. I started writing the first album for Ima Robot when a manager, a new manager came, and she was a big shot, so to speak, and [gave the] “You guys have to take it up a bunch of notches if you want to compete with the big boys” sort of speech. I was so infuriated with this speech that I went home, and, out of spite basically, wrote quote-unquote hit songs. And we got signed to a major label weeks later based on those songs. So, it’s a really bizarre start to a career on a major label: writing songs out of spite intentionally to show someone that you’re a hit writer.

And that started me on a whole thing of not really writing for myself and writing with radio in mind or writing with A&R in mind or to please X, Y, and Z. And that went on for a few years. So, that was really a huge part of me losing myself. The idea that the me now is a fake version of me… What’s hilarious about that is that person in Ima Robot couldn’t have possibly been the real version of me. It was beyond Ziggy Stardust; if you look at any of those photos, it was like rage-filled annoyance and obnoxiousness, which is not really who any of us actually are.

You were already doing Edward Sharpe when Ima Robot dropped their third album in 2010. You were quoted as saying that the songs had been recorded between two and four years earlier. So, was that just one of those posthumous releases that labels do?

That was something that we put out, or Timmy [Anderson, Ima Robot guitarist], I should say, put out. We just had a bunch of stuff, and I’m such good friends with Timmy and Filip [Nikolic, Ima Robot bassist], and they really wanted to put something out, and I did too, man. I still want to work with them, and do some stuff in the future. We had all these songs that we were working on, and Timmy had put it out on his own label, actually, this Werewolf Heart thing. And I like a lot of those songs; I think there’s some interesting stuff there.

I thought it was pretty cool, too. I was confused, though, when I first saw it, because these dates don’t seem to add up. But then it made sense that you weren’t really going back into the studio and doing a whole new album.

No, no, no, not really. I mean, we definitely went into the studio and messed with it, messed with a couple songs, but a lot of it was done previously.

When you and Jade first started writing, you became part of an arts collective called The Masses. Does that still exist, and are you still involved with it?

Yeah, they still exist and are doing their thing. There was a lot of bizarre politics stuff going on, I felt, after Heath Ledger passed away. I love those dudes; I love everyone that’s involved with that, but I haven’t been working with them in that sense. Years and years of collaboration, and unfortunately, at the moment, it’s a little strained, but not on a personal level, just on a working level.

Your music, be it with Ima Robot, Edward Sharpe, or solo, has appeared in commercials, games, films, TV shows… Is it weird for you to be sitting around just chilling and suddenly hear your music?

It’s kind of awesome, man. I love it. The only times that are weird or are difficult for me are when I’m listening to a recording, and I’m like, “Fuck, I wish I did that differently” [laughs]. But that’s happening less and less as I get more and more comfortable with making music, and with myself. You tend to do less and less things that you’ll wince at later, which is a really great quality of getting comfortable in your own skin.

What was it like when you were doing the vintage railcar tour with Mumford & Sons and Old Crow Medicine Show?

Man, that was like heaven wherever we were; that was awesome.

It was only six shows. Do you wish it could have been more?

Oh, yeah. To think that that was only eight days… It felt like a lifetime. I mean, it could have been a lifetime; we could have kept going. It was borderline tragic when it ended.

Why was it so short?

Because that was the tour, ya know. It was also probably pretty expensive. But it was just from Oakland to Louisiana to New Orleans. I guess it didn’t make sense to go much further. You can only go so far on the train. It was, and is, one of the greatest experiences of our lives.

Photography by Brad Bretz.

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