Edward Sharpe & The Magnetic Zeros
Gloriously Misunderstood: The Full Interview
Aug 30, 2012
Alex Ebert is not a hippie. The Edward Sharpe & The Magnetic Zeros frontman peppers his statements with joyful affirmations, and certainly dresses the part, but he assures that he isn’t interested in making music exclusively for the free spirit set. “If we were all in suits with short haircuts, I really don’t think anyone would see the music as hippie!” he says with an easy going laugh. “The music itself, you listen to it on its own, and it’s more R&B country.”
The band’s May-released album Here—the first of two Edward Sharpe & The Magnetic Zeros albums scheduled to be released within a year (another album is due in early 2013)—attests to that fact. An expansion on the gentle folk of 2009 debut Up From Below, Here includes both heavily strummed guitars, and, yes, more than a bit of R&B swagger.
Under the Radar’s Laura Studarus joined Ebert at the band’s Los Angeles practice space. The two weathered an unseasonably warm spring day to discuss the art of naming albums, linguistic re-appropriation, and the potential emotional downsides to social activism.
[An article based on this interview appeared in our recent June/July 2012 issue, but this is the full Q&A of the interview, which was conducted in April.]
Laura Studarus (Under the Radar): You talked to Under the Radar last year right before you started making the album. You said you were going up to Ojai, California to record. How long were you up there for?
Alex Ebert: I was up there since October. October until a couple of weeks ago. Three weeks ago.
Was it necessary to leave Los Angeles and pursue creativity somewhere else?
Yeah! I love L.A., actually, I do. I love L.A., but I guess I’ve been here a really long time. It was really nice to be away, and to be living in a place with cleaner air and nature. It was very rejuvenating, considering that so much of the process is so much indoors and sitting down. For every time I go outside, it was a beautiful experience. So that really helped. If I would just walk out of a studio into murky air, I think I would have felt a lot more depleted than I did.
Are all the band members that were involved in the first album still around?
Seven of us are still—really eight of us are still around. Yeah, it’s kind of amazing. Some people, it’s good that they left, because they left for reasons. For the most part, the people who want to be there, it’s awesome. It feels so good. Most of us were up there the whole time. When I started mixing it started getting fewer and fewer. People would kind of just come up when they had the time. But for the most part everyone was there, a lot of the time, which was really cool. Really fun.
At what point in the process did you realize you were making two separate albums?
I realized that there was a double album worth of material pretty early on. With other people contributing to the writing as much as they were, there was an overflow of songs. I guess the point I realized we were making two albums as opposed to a single double album; I guess it was a hazy slow build as well. It was becoming clear slowly, because I kind of wanted it to be a double album because there were two distinct things going on. I thought it would be really great if those two distinct things were together as one so that a varied portrait could be painted all in one sort of thing. At the same time, I sort of got talked into it in a way, and it made sense just to split it up and allow them to exist separately, and then for people to put them together for themselves. In some ways it’s really fun because, instead of putting it all at once, you put out a bunch here, and then just a few months later put out another one. That was a really fun thing to think about as well, putting out albums so close to each other.
How would you describe the character of each album?
Musically, one is a bit more adventuresome; the first album [Here] is a bit more subdued. Well, not subdued. How would I say it? A bit more meditative. The second one is a bit wilder.
On your first album Up From Below there were a lot of narrative threads, such as Jade, who was a reoccurring character. Is there anything similar to that on Here?
In some ways I see it as this person—being me I suppose—and being all of us I guess. Whoever relates to it. I think there’s a very strong theme of defiance. There was in the first album too. But this is more explicit. Especially lyrically. It’s funny; I haven’t talked about this very much, so I don’t have it down to any rhetoric.
Well thank goodness for that.
Yeah. But I guess there is a theme. In the sense of total committal to action towards a better world, despite the evidence that it’s impossible. The defiance isn’t the committal; it’s in the face of all the evidence that’s impossible. And acknowledging that it could very well be impossible. The defiance comes in trying anyway. And all that.
Do you personally believe that it’s possible to make a difference?
I know that everyone makes a difference in everything that they do. I definitely think that’s a fact. Whether or not that can equate to progress, and what is progress and all that, I think that becomes a little greyer. To me in some ways, the remarkable thing about faith is doing it anyway. The remarkable thing about humans is trying anyway. Even if it is grey.
It seems like Edward Sharpe & The Magnetic Zeros have gotten involved in some really cool projects on that level like the Voice Project and Charity Water.
Yeah. We built one well. Now we’re getting all this money and we can make sure one gets built, or a few wells get built. This guy Tim DeChristopher [founder of Peaceful Uprising] who got sentenced for trying to stop an illegal auction of public land in Utah. He’s in prison now for a bunch of years. We support that. Just various things. Whatever feels good.
Has that always been important to you? Making art, but then using it to help others?
Yeah. I think that it’s important to do things that feel good and to not be afraid of that. Just singing about it is great and all. But when you actually start doing stuff it’s sort of depressing because you realize how incrementally it functions on Earth. So in some ways it’s nicer to sing about it and believe—maybe rightly so—that all it takes is a change of thought. And everyone can change, and the change can be very dramatic.
So there’s that, which I believe is true too, because really all it does take is a change of perception and mind. Functioning on the esoteric, thoughtful level. Then there’s going down to a courthouse and trying to get someone out of jail, which functions on a more three-dimensional level. The change comes a bit more incrementally. It’s also very real, and here you are on Earth anyway. You’re not in angel form, necessarily. You're here in a body. So why not go down and participate?
Sounds like you’ve found a way to combine the two.
Starting to, I think. Still understanding it.
Is there a level of spirituality to making music and making art? I’m thinking in particular of Here track “I Don’t Wanna Pray.”
That’s the most dangerous song I’ve put out so far. There’s another song called “American Democrat” which is far more incendiary. To me, one of the most rebellious things you can do in some ways is to be very open and very unironic. And yet, there’s definitely some irony in that song. I think that the contradictory aspect of that song represents relatively clearly how I feel about religion. “I don’t want to be prayer but the prayer.” I love that line so much. It’s because of that line that I wanted it to be on the album. I would start saying that to myself in lieu of meditating or praying or anything like that. Don’t worry about meditating, be the meditation. Don’t worry about sitting down and doing it. It really would help me throughout the day. “Oh I’m just going to be the prayer!” There’s definitely a very high degree—regarding my past—of spirituality.
It’s interesting how that line became so specific to you.
Yeah! I was really glad about that. And yet I’m also using this [sings] “I love my God” line. I don’t even know, that’s going to be interpreted poorly by a lot of people. That’s a scary feeling, to put something out there that can instantly be misinterpreted. I think it’s kind of fun to use terms that people are already very familiar with and use in a very dogmatic fashion and try to begin a process of redefining what that term means by explaining what it means to you.
Do you ever worry that the narrative you’ve created around the band may cause you to be misinterpreted, or discourage new listeners?
Yeah. If we were all in suits with short haircuts, I really don’t think anyone would see the music as hippie! [Laughs] I really don’t. The music itself, you listen to it on its own, and it’s more R&B country than “hippie.” Some of the songs are “psychedelic.” That’s cool too. But even Pink Floyd don’t get called hippies. The aesthetic is what people see.
I’m constantly being told that I’m on drugs. “The drugged-out Arcade Fire.” Or whatever really outrageously lame categorization that goes down. In some ways I like being misunderstood. If you’re being misinterpreted you’re either not communicating properly, or you’re expressing something that’s slightly ahead of the curve. In my case it’s probably both. I’m usually aware of it and getting something out of being misunderstood. For instance, the word “high,” like “I’m very high right now.” I like reappointing that to mean something other than being on drugs. The other night, we were on stage and I said something like, “At this stage of the show, I’m so high that I don’t know what to do next.” I was totally sober and I wasn’t on drugs. But I was elated from the experience of the song we just played that I felt spacey, and didn’t care what song we did next. I was just expressing that. So we get this email from this lady that was like, “He was high and he even said it! This is unacceptable! You could tell he was high!” So for that lady it didn’t work. I was thinking of maybe writing her a thing and explaining what I meant.
But if you cut your hair and beard just to serve the music, would it still be you? It feels a bit disingenuous.
It would probably be not as fun. I do get a kick out it. I have cleaner clothes! I have jackets without rips in them! I can easily trim my beard. The ridged aspect of social engagement is so suppressive. There’s nothing more fun than going to a black tie party wearing like, a bathing suit and snorkels. I went to this benefit the other day. Clearly the way I was dressed made people uncomfortable. I was in shorts, and I might have even been wearing a bathrobe. A guy even commented, “And Alex came here, quite a dresser!” They were nervous. It made them uncomfortable! I think that’s so beneficial for all involved in the long run. And it’s fun.
Do you feel like the message you’re trying to get across with Edward Sharpe & The Magnetic Zeros could be said in a genre other than “R&B country?”
I’m not interested in intentionally tripping people up, or doing something that would throw people off. I don’t feel like I’ve been cornered, or cornered myself to the degree that I have to change the dynamic. But the second album of these two albums is definitely going to trip some people up. There’s some stuff that you definitely did not hear at all on the first album or second album. In some ways it’s nerve-wracking, but that’s also a very exhilarating feeling.
So does the next album have a name yet?
I can’t figure out if it should be related to Here and be called There [laughs], or if it should have its own title. I’m not totally sure.
I don’t know. If you have children one day, and you have twins, are you going to be the kind of father who dresses them alike?
I’m having a daughter in August.
Thank you! If we had twins—my girlfriend’s mother is a twin, so her probability of having twins is very high—no, I would not.
Well there you go.
[Laughs] Although it would be interesting to see if they just wanted to dress the same. It seems like that’s the way it rolls. They want to do that.
The question I guess then is: Are your albums twins?
I’m not sure. But it is important to me that people understand the full spectrum. For instance in the second there’s a song called “I Believe in Nothing,” which is an important companion to me to “I Don’t Wanna Pray” and “Dear Believer.” Ideally it’s the full picture.
You seem really good at making events of your concerts, like with the train tour, or even just the way you come down and hang out with your audience. Do you have anything planned for the next tour?
No I don’t have anything planned. But that’s really important. In other venues that we have been playing, I can jump down in the audience and can do whatever. But at the Greek or places like that, I don’t know how we will do that. At Lollapalooza there was 10,000 people, and I jumped down and we all sat down and sang “Brother.” So we can do it, it’s doable. I don’t really want to just have a wireless microphone and be dancing through the isles. I’d prefer to do something special.
You better start working out.
I’m very fit somehow because without a guitar in my hands I just run around all the time. It’s like David Lee Roth. I see those videos sometimes and he’s doing the splits and jump kicks.
Being from L.A.—which is kind of a very industry based, tough city—how do you preserve that freshness towards art and life?
Honestly, the best part of L.A. to me is the griminess. It’s got some qualities of Mexico City. The grimy, hot, un-air-conditioned L.A. is inspirational because that sort of browbeaten thing, especially if you’re downtown and you’re eating 99-cent tacos, and you’re going back and you’re painting, and writing, and recording—that’s a very thick culture that you can provide for yourself. I’ve had so much of that, that at this point I want a bit of a change. I may be moving to New Orleans and/or Mexico City.
Probably the most inspirational place that I’ve lived so far was probably on Pico and Fairfax in the middle of Little Ethiopia. There was a Vons, and that’s it. But I had a place where I just allowed myself to go crazy and paint all the time. I think the inspiration is found within yourself and creating an inertia. Sometimes you have to force yourself. But once you get in the mode and you set up a space for yourself where anything goes—to me that’s the most creative kind of space. I find it harder to be very creative in houses or places where throwing a can of paint on the wall would be a problem.
Do you plan on finishing your Edward Sharpe novel one day?
The book, yes. The videos? Maybe in some form. Cartoon or something. I was thinking comic book actually would be perfect. I am going to try and finish it. I may have to start sort of from scratch. The novel sprawled way out of control. It was my first time attempting such a thing. I started writing without even knowing what I was writing. My main character died, so I invented a new version of him that came down to Earth. It’s a pretty wild book. I’m not sure if I could work from what I have, or if I’d have to redo it. The concepts though are really great.
It seems fitting, Edward Sharpe the band doesn’t really have constraints, so why should the book?
Yeah, it’s probably all right. I’ve been writing other stuff, but I want to do that. I think a comic book would be perfect actually.
It kinda goes back to the earlier question, if you feel like you can take the stuff you’re doing with Edward Sharpe and put it into a different format.
Whatever the message is, it’s easy and translatable to me. I think a lot of the message live, anyway—and even lyrically on this album—is transcendence of the dynamics that you think are eternally suppressive. The other day we played a show in Denver and I fucking swear that the whole room was about to lift off the ground. The building! It felt like we were in a spaceship all of a sudden. As crazy as that sounds, that’s the feeling of transcendence—eminent possibility. Eminent, infinite possibility. If there was anything I’d ever want to imbue to anyone, it would be that feeling.