Edward Sharpe & the Magnetic Zeros Take the PV Q&A

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Interview by Tom Lanham

Before you buy their ebullient new sophomore outing Here, there are a couple of things that you’ll need to know about Los Angeles folk-rock combo Edward Sharpe & the Magnetic Zeros. First, there is no actual Edward Sharpe — it’s merely a titular character created several years ago by hippie-cool frontman Alex Ebert, a preacher-ish figure out to save humanity originally intended for a novel. “But I didn’t finish the book, and now I’ve been thinking about maybe doing a comic book or a graphic novel instead,” sighs Ebert, 33, who happily employed Sharpe to add mythic oomph to his band’s moniker. Second, if you attend one of their revival-meeting-joyous concerts – and fall under the spell of their hit “Home” or Here sermons like “Dear Believer,” “Man on Fire,” and “That’s What’s Up” — you’ll be hard pressed to remember just how many Zeros you saw crammed onstage. “For the last four years, there’s been 10 of us, but on this tour there’ll be 12,” says the singer. “But whenever we play a show, it seems like everyone in the audience is a part of the band anyway!” Soon, fans can see him on the silver screen, in Big Easy Express, a documentary about the Zeros’ 2011 vintage-railcar jaunt with Mumford & Sons and the Old Crow Medicine Show.

PureVolume: You’ve seen early screenings of Emmett Malloy’s Big Easy Express. How does it look?
Alex Ebert: It looks beautiful, actually. It was shot really beautifully. Events happened during the trip, and they captured them really well. There was this one cloudburst over Austin that was just outrageous-looking, so it’s a pretty thrilling little ride.
PV: Did you witness any revelations, seeing yourself onscreen?
AE: Yeah. After I heard the monologue that I was doing, this sort of narration, I realized that I sounded like Morgan Freeman, like a Southern Morgan Freeman. So I might have a career in narration! But in some ways, it’s really hard to look at a film like that, because it’s capturing a time that, for me, was so paramount in my canon of experiences. So when I see it represented in a movie, it just can’t quite be the same. I mean, it’s a 2-D representation of a 3-D experience that I had, so it’s hard to know if anybody else is gonna be able to understand how important that experience on the train really was for us. But hopefully, it might inspire other people to do the same thing — to chase childlike dreams like jumping on a train with your friends and playing music.
PV: Where did the Railroad Revival Tour start?
AE: It started in Oakland and made its way all the way to New Orleans — it stopped in six cities in eight days, total. And they were really beautiful cars, with little areas to sleep in and all that. And there was so much music and merriment going on, just a bunch of great players, playing music non-stop. For us it was just a revelation.
PV: Did it take you back to the Iron Horse era?
AE: It did in the sense that secretly, we were all sort of feeling that it would anyway. And it was that childish fantasy coming to life of a time when possibility was a geographical event. When it was all about making your way out West, and the idea that land could represent freedom and traveling could represent hope and possibility and endless adventure. So it brought us back to a feeling of super-romantic traveling, where it’s just you and the country. And it wasn’t like a tour bus, where you’re all jammed into a little area — on this, you were running around from car to car, and you really felt like you could live on this train for much longer. Maybe even do it forever.
PV: Here taps into a bygone era, too – it has the feel of an old Elmer-Gantry-style revival meeting.
AE: That makes me really happy. As we became a band over the last four years — while playing a lot of our first album (2009’s Up From Below), which is sort of bombastic, and then playing these acoustic radio sessions in between — we really wanted to do a more meditative group effort, something a little more tender.
PV: And in “All Wash Out,” you’ve even used a preacher as a protagonist.
AE: Yeah, in a way. And in that song, the preacher is stumbling away from the institution of….of whatever. He’s walking away from whatever you’ve got, whatever institutions there are, and coming away with a single truth — that love is something to believe in, and everything else will wash out in the rain. And we’ll be left with something, something will still be standing, and it’ll be some sort of truth that we can all recognize.
PV: You sing most of Here with an almost gospel fervor, too.
AE: Yeah. That’s my favorite way to sing, sort of my favorite energy, musically. I mean, I like a lot of energies, musically. But gospel? The energy with which gospel is sung and delivered is, to me, the ideal way in which music has its most profound, healing effect.
PV: In your 20s, you partied hard, wound up in rehab. But now you’re 33, the so-called ‘Christ age,’ when spiritual doors suddenly open up.
AE: Yes, and it’s very interesting. I’ve looked back at some of my journal entries when I was 19, just about to embark on a world of drugs and self-destruction in the pursuit of finding myself. Some sort of real living, some suffering that I needed to conjure up. But it’s funny because I could have skipped that, I think. Or maybe not. But I remember actually making the decision to go down the rabbit hole, and I remember also being conscious that I didn’t have to. So I don’t think it’s a necessary step on the creative path.
PV: But the allure of the abyss is pretty primal, right?
AE: I agree. And I think it’s easy to experience the abyss in many ways, but what defines courage to me is knowing that the abyss is there and accessible to your mind, or your more pessimistic side, and continuing on trying to build a bridge over it anyway. That’s when you go from naivety to courage, from childish beliefs in progress, change or hope into an actual courageous challenge for hope and change.
PV: And who knows? Without the creative outlet of songwriting for catharsis, you may not have lived to tell the tale.
AE: Yeah. I tried once or twice to see if this concoction would stop my life. And I’m not sure where that came from. Well, actually, I do know where that came from — from me struggling with my own mortality to begin with and being endlessly obsessed with mortality and not quite accepting it. It’s just the sadness that comes with the predicament of being. But something that’s helped me deal with death is, I’ve had really clear and direct experiences with someone after they’ve died. And I’ve verified them with other people, just some amazing coincidences. So there are various ways to deal with the whole death situation. One of them is to totally accept that you just become dirt. And the other is to accept that you live forever.
PV: So you‘ve come to understand why you’re “Here”?
AE: Yes. You can look back at the personal successes in your life, and the things that sort of feel right, and you can see that those decisions that seemed very precarious were definitely the right choices. I mean, it could have gone a million different ways, and all the choices could have been right. But I truly think that I’m on the right path. Bringing joy with my music is just unquantifiable. It’s just great.

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