On Record: Edward Sharpe & The Magnetic Zeros
This article appears in our July/August issue. Subscribe here.
Alex Ebert, frontman and chief songwriter for Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros, isn’t exactly a fan of modern music. “I don’t feel like music is very adventuresome these days,” he reflects. The Magnetic Zeros have always been labeled a “throwback” to the late ’60s psychedelic movement—and that’s not an unfair comparison. There’s a free-spirited, flower-power vibe to the whole affair: A ten-piece band writing songs about life and death and adventure, switching instruments on-stage and in the studio, treating the studio like a kaleidoscopic playground. The band’s new self-titled album finds the band journeying through Summer of Love psychedelia, earnest balladry, and groovy soul; in our interview, we spoke with Ebert about the inspiration behind his break-out single “Home,” the chaotic vibe of his new album, and why “music is too important to be left in the hands of professionals.”
You guys obviously have a way bigger profile than you did in the early days. Does that kind of thing affect your mindset at all as a songwriter? Knowing more people are listening, knowing the radio is listening—does that get in your head?
I would think that maybe it would have affected my mindset if we’d actually really been on the radio, which we really haven’t. We’ve been on the kinds of radios where people play whatever they want to. And “Home” was spun a great deal on AAA stations across the country eventually but honestly none that I heard. And I would very rarely hear us on the radio. So the only pressure that has come at all was like, “Hey, why don’t you write another song like ‘Home’?” Those sort of whispers that no one really ever told me. And I didn’t. I still haven’t—I could easily, to be totally honest. But you have to wait for those moments of inspiration to come and feel distinctly organic and “of the moment.”
Speaking of “Home,” what inspired that track?
Gosh, I was just writing songs, and writing particularly “western” songs. And by “western” I sort of mean “adventuring songs.” On the first album, “Janglin’,” “Home,” “Desert Song,” and “Kisses Over Babylon.” All these songs had this sense of wonder and adventure in open land. As a kid, I would go on vacation a lot—my dad would take us through the desert, the Four Corners area with all that red sand and open land and severe mountains—that imagery was very much in my mind, and with regard to “Home,” I had written a lot of the music and was writing and recording it in my room in this little apartment, hanging out with Jade a lot. She was over one day—I don’t believe I had written any lyrics yet. I think I was just starting to fumble around with putting vocals on the song when she jumped up. She literally jumped up, ran over and said, “Give me the mic!” She just started going, “Alabama, Arkansas, I do love my Ma and Pa.” And then I came up with the next line, and on and on.
So that was a real moment of inspiration from her to just get up and shout out those lines. And same with the story in the middle—that was totally on the fly. That spontaneity was there. One of the parts I remember the most about writing the song was the bridge and the timing of this thing. I wrote it on the guitar, and it was interesting. The rhythm and the cadence of each bar—it’s an odd, like a six-bar, four-bar, an odd timing, not just a four-bar loop. And I remember winding my way through this cavern and seeing the cracks in the light. It was just a fun piece to write because I had in mind this horn melody at the same time—or at least I imagine I must have. Otherwise I can’t imagine why I would have played the guitar like that. I had probably played the melody on kazoo. I probably met the horn player who still plays horns with us just a couple nights later, like at three a.m. at some diner. He said, “I play the trumpet,” and I suddenly perked up. I told him to come over the next day. He did, and he laid down the trumpet for that. It was a really fun time making the demos for that.
My favorite thing about this new album is how wild and eclectic and chaotic is is. A lot of these songs are really long and evolve a lot, with lots of outros and instrumental sections. Were you purposely trying to make a more chaotic album?
That was actually my primary intention. My primary vague intention. The words “rambunctious” and “adventuresome” kept coming up when I tried to explain to people what was going down. And that’s basically how we made the album—the way it sounds is how we made it. Very on the fly, very in the moment, very rushed but with a lot of care. It was a very, very meticulous process of impulse and then honing and impulse and honing.
Music is too important to be left in the hands of professionals. I was thinking about my retort to anyone who would say, “Why don’t next time you hook up with someone who can make your sound nice and commercial?” And that would be my retort! The reason why Edward Sharpe even began really was because I was trying to get back to the joy, the initial childlike joy of music that I experienced in elementary school—everyone singing in unison, banging on tambourines, that sort of rambunctious, slightly chaotic joy that comes from the freedom music can bring you. And that’s a very unprofessional quality, or at least that’s what considered unprofessional these days, which is totally fucking backwards.
Could you talk about “Life is Hard?” That track is so epic. It’s like this enormous rainbow.
That track has one of the most fun stories to it. I was mixing the album already at our studio in Ojai, and I’d take breaks and go play on the piano every now and again. It’s heavy lifting, mixing. We have a grand piano in the entry-way. It’s not a giant studio at all—it’s a cool little, funky hidden place in Ojai. It’s got a really nice, dingy quality to it. I went out there and started playing on the piano, and these chords just started happening. And I started wailing on the piano and chunking the chords on the piano in quarter notes. It was ¾, and then I started singing and almost rapping over it! Just kinda shouting over these chords. I remember Lenny, our engineer, shouting from the control room, “That’s cool!”
Here we are in the middle of mixing—theoretically, we’re not supposed to be writing from scratch. We got like three mics and set them up. I was trying to figure out what the song was about, and I didn’t have any lyrics prepared—or at least I didn’t think I did. So I thought, “Is this about a girl?” But that’s not really my style. “Is this a story or a personal thing?” And then it struck me—I had this poem that I found from awhile ago, one I’d lost for quite awhile. I’d written it for two people who had “moved on” or “passed on.” They weren’t in their physical bodies anymore. I’d written not so much a poem as a flurry of words about life being hard. I was writing it with a defiant, celebratory tone—life is hard, but that’s the celebration and the cause for the dance and the smile, and the example of your courage to even live. Because everything is and has been heartbreaking for me ever since I discovered I was going to die, when I was about five years old. I went to the computer and found this poem that I’d just recently found again, and I brought it back to the piano. There were the lyrics. I didn’t change much. Just shouting the lyrics over the piano thing just worked. It was amazing, particularly fort his poem to be brought to life, especially in this quick—and yet really elongated manner—where I’d actually lost the poem for awhile.
There’s nothing necessarily high-minded about it, or anything tricky about the rhyme scheme. But the content—it makes me emotional just talking about it, actually. Every once in awhile, you arrive at these true ideas or feelings in lyrics that you realize you’ve never really even heard that before, even heard someone say that before. “Life is hard” is certainly a workaday phrase, but to join the celebration into that, it makes me want to cry just talking about it. That’s life for me.