Edward Sharpe & The Magnetic Zeros: Being Here Now Never Felt So Good

Emily Zemler on July 31, 2012

Here’s Emily Zemler’s splendid June cover story on Edward Sharpe & The Magentic Zeros

Ojai lies 12 miles inland from Ventura, which rests along the Pacific Coast of California. The small town, best known for its golf courses and scent of oranges that hangs in the air, is nestled in the hills, which roll between green and brown depending on the current rainfall. Like many of the small mountain towns in California, a vintage feel dapples Ojai, an aesthetic aided by an ice cream truck that rattles through its streets and buildings that look like Western movie set pieces. It isn’t very surprising that the members of Edward Sharpe & The Magnetic Zeroes settled easily into the town while making their new album, Here, and its companion album, a yet untitled follow-up disc expected out in the fall.

Alex Ebert, the singer, guitarist and mastermind of Edward Sharpe, leans over the console at an Ojai studio, which is technically unnamed but that the band refers to as the Ed Shed. The band has filled the space with all of their own recording equipment, gear and countless instruments, most of which are battered and seem more likely to be found at a flea market than at a recording studio. A puppy named Moses prances around the room, prepared to mount any moving leg in sight, while the band’s studio engineer Matt “Linny” Linesch works in an adjoining room.

As Ebert, a slight, bearded figure with long tangled hair and soulful eyes, slowly devours a sandwich and salad, picking up each piece of lettuce with his fingers, I sit across from him on a couch, which he says he’s spent many nights sleeping on during this album’s production. Ebert and Linesch have been holed up here for the past few days working on mixes for the tracks that will appear on Here’s follow-up. Besides the instruments, the studio is sparse – a fact that is striking compared to the inside of Ebert’s ramshackle Echo Park house. (He now splits his time between there and Ojai, although is considering a move to New Orleans.)

Initially, after touring extensively behind their 2009 debut, Up From Below with its overwhelmingly popular single “Home,” Edward Sharpe went into a studio in the small town of Bogalusa, Louis., in November 2010, expecting to be able to jump immediately into recording their sophomore effort.

“To me, it was a beautiful and horrendous experience,” says Ebert of the Bogalusa session. “But what I liked most about it was the focus that you get when you’re not in the city that you live in and you’re all living for recording.” He adds, “There was a lot of antsy, built-up turmoil from [three] years of touring and not having all our songs ready to be recorded and going in prematurely. And some stuff that made it difficult.”

While the month that the band spent in Bogalusa yielded several viable songs, it wasn’t until the ten band members – Ebert, guitarist/singer Christian Letts, singer Jade Castrinos, pianist/singer Aaron Arntz, drummer Josh Collazo, accordion player/keyboardist/singer Nora Kirkpatrick, percussionist/singer Orpheo McCord, guitarist/singer Mark Noseworthy, trumpet player/keyboardist/singer Stewart Cole and bassist/singer Seth Ford-Young – found this empty, unassuming studio in Ojai that the music really began to flow. Only two tracks, “Fiya Wata” and folk-ballad closer “All Wash Out,” from the Bogalusa session became part of Here, although more may appear later. The rest of the album’s tracks – plus numerous others – were created in California.

During the time between Bogalusa and coming to Ojai last October, Edward Sharpe continued to gig, most notably joining Mumford and Sons and Old Crow Medicine Show for the Railroad Revival Tour, which saw the bands traveling by train from California to New Orleans last April and pausing at depots along the way to perform shows. (The Emmett Malloy-directed documentary of the tour, Big Easy Express, premiered at Austin, Texas’ South by Southwest music conference this past March.) While the sojourn only lasted for one week, it generated the inspirational shift needed to urge the members of Edward Sharpe toward their next album. “The train tour was a revelation for me,” says Ebert. “And for a lot of people in the band.”

When watching the Big Easy Express, it’s easy to see why: The musicians never stop playing music. Most of the playing, in fact, seems to have been done offstage. “You would walk between cars and you would switch genres between each car,” Kirkpatrick says a few days later before the band’s KRCW taping in Santa Monica. “You never knew. It opened my eyes to a lot of different types of music, a lot of different songs I wasn’t aware of. We’re all into different types of music but hanging with the Old Crow guys – who are from a different era of folk music – was an amazing experience.”

So once last summer rolled around and the band members took time off from touring, they decided to try again. The lineup shifted slightly, with guitarist Nico Aglietti, bassist Aaron Older and pianist Aaron Embry exiting the group (although all three recorded parts on Here ). This time Ebert, who had recorded and produced a solo album called Alexander in early 2011, would handle production duties alone rather than with Aglietti and Older as he had on Up From Below.

When it came time to select a studio, several band members resisted a move up to Ojai, hoping to instead remain close to their LA homes. It came down to the Ed Shed, a locale that Ebert found on Craigslist and a studio in LA. The day before the band had to decide between the two, they got a call that the LA room had been rented out for a film score. Fate, it seemed, had intervened; and in October, the group rented a house in Ojai to begin recording Here for the second time.

“I think there was more excitement about creating,” says Collazo, the band’s amiable, tattooed drummer who is expecting a baby around the same time as the album’s release in late May. “Whereas in Bogalusa it was like, ‘OK, we’re making an album.’ When you go into it like, ‘We have this amount of time,’ it’s a cramp on creativity. With this, there was a deadline – a pretty rough deadline – but it was way off, so we didn’t have the pressure of timing. We just got to go in. We jammed for probably a month before we even started recording anything.”

Confirms Kirkpatrick: “Everyone had been playing with things in little corners and pockets on tour, but we hadn’t had time to sit down and think about actually recording them or watering the seeds that everyone had planted. I think what we really needed was the time to not tour and do it.”

Newfound sobriety and a breakup inspired Ebert to begin writing a book about a messianic figure named Edward Sharpe while playing in the band Ima Robot which he had formed in 1998. Songs soon followed, which emerged simultaneously from Ebert’s burgeoning new solo work as well as music that he’d written while touring and playing with his formative band.

Like a messianic figure himself, Ebert drew in the musicians that he came across in LA, including Castrinos, who he met outside of Little Pedro’s restaurant, and his longtime friend Letts. Some were seemingly accidental instances of fate intervening in the band’s path. McCord, for instance, met Ebert at a mutual friend’s party, but it wasn’t until he was jogging in Elysian Park and Ebert “popped out of a tree” that he joined the lineup. Kirkpatrick, a musical theater major from UCLA, shared an RV with Castrinos at the Burning Man festival in 2007.

This is why, in part, Up From Below, recorded in Laurel Canyon and released in July of 2009, feels so distant to band members now. “This band formed around making that first record,” McCord notes while sitting on a couch behind the soundboard at the KCRW session. “We all came in through Alex having an idea about what he wanted to do with that first Edward Sharpe record. It’s a little bit different with this record because we’d all come together for the first one and been together on the road for a few years.”

Castrinos seconds the notion: “We became a band, really, on the road.”

McCord, a gaunt, blond-haired guy with a quietly compelling voice, continues: “Those songs – from the first record – have changed as we’ve played them. They morphed into something else after playing them live so much. We developed a sound as a band through all those shows and this second record was all of us after having this experience together, bonding and putting the energy together as a whole.”

After the pressure and unpreparedness of the Bogalusa recordings, the band felt that it was important to allow space for the songs to grow and evolve in Ojai, much the same way that the tracks from Up From Below had on the road during the past three years. The process was more open than the sessions in Laurel Canyon had been, if only because this time, ten musicians were planting the aforementioned seeds instead of just one. Complete control over the studio space and a tentative spring deadline for the album helped the situation and allowed the band to spend nearly six months developing Here without having to rush.

Songs for the album began pouring in from all directions. For a while, the musicians toyed with the notion of a double album to encompass the sheer volume of music they were making, but, as it turned out, two divergent tones were emerging simultaneously. At some point, it became clear that the band was making two separate albums, although how they relate to one another remains tenuous.

“I held onto the idea of doing it as a double album almost right up to the very end, even though it just didn’t seem like it was going to end up working out that way,” says Ebert. “I’m interested to see how it feels [as two albums]. To me, they live together as a unified expression of where we’re at now.”

Adds McCord: “There was no intention when we were recording of this being here and that being there. We had to let it out and then make sense of it all later.”

With hindsight, it becomes clear that these albums, Here and its untitled sibling, speak to each other in a way that affixes additional meaning. In other words, the narrative expands inside the space that exists between the two albums. Each band member describes the records differently, but the general consensus is that Here is a healing album, as its songs mend the cracks that began to emerge during the stress of touring on Up From Below. Its successor paints broader, darker strokes, dipping into experimental, psychedelic territory. Although they will be released and sold separately, there is a sense that in order to fully understand one, you will need to listen to the other as well.

“One album will exist in a way and the other album will exist in a way, and the meaning will be applied in separate instances,” says Ebert. “And hopefully, that is something that feels good, too. In some ways, it might end up being more impactful for listeners to digest one thing and sit on that and be brought something else. I don’t know how it will work – it’s an experiment.” He pauses, adding, “I think historically, looking back, I’d like them to be thought of as connected in time and space.”

The story of Edward Sharpe – and, specifically – of Ebert as a songwriter and artist, feels linked with something nebulous and almost indescribable. There is a sense that Ebert and the other band members are tapped into something intangible, a sort of divine presence that guides their creative process.

Meditation, it turns out, plays a key role in the band’s process, both in the studio and on the stage, and the discussions about songwriting all eventually lead to words like “empath” and “channeled.”

“It’s a very expansive experience to me,” Ebert says of songwriting. “You’re communicating with everything at once.” This sentiment, conveyed by Ebert alone in a room, is reflected later by McCord, who says, “It seems like everything organically flowers. It just comes out, almost like we’re an empath for something to come through. We have to stand back later and say, ‘OK, what just happened?’”

If this feels familiar to you as an Edward Sharpe fan, then that’s probably because it’s something that the band brings into the live setting as well, aided by the energy generated by their audience members, which Ebert describes as “high vibrational beings.”

“One thing I know that certainly does a lot [to connect with the fans] – because I’m not in a living room with someone or in their headphones with them when they’re listening to our album – is the live show,” says Ebert. “I can experience the nearing transcendence of the physical realm [and] this dimension [when I’m onstage]. Sometimes it feels like the whole place is going to blast off, and all our worries are forgotten. It feels very euphoric and really good. I think that inspires me.”

The idea of meditation, which Kirkpatrick – a pretty blonde who, initially, appears more clean-cut than her bandmates – describes as whatever each member employs as their own “creative incubation space,” is essential to generating the necessary energy onstage, at least for Ebert, who says he actually meditates while performing. The band, as a whole, engages in a collective “om” chant before each show and then disperse onstage to find their own means of urging a communal flow between themselves and the audience.

If Ebert’s methods sound extreme, then their results are unmistakable, particularly at the band’s KRCW performance, which takes place in a small studio room. Ebert sits on the floor with the crowd, encouraging the voices of the audience to join with those of the musicians. For a few moments, everyone, even those who might resist it, is a part of something greater than its apparent parts.

This experience clarifies Ebert’s earlier sentiments. “The goal, in a lot of ways, of meditation, is to be God,” he says. “To be it – to have no fear. There’s a huge power in that. The sensation is really wide. Honestly, that’s the best place to be in when you walk onto a stage. If you’re in a place of fear, the show is going to be torturous. Just on that level, it’s beneficial to try and expand it. I’d say it’s had a huge impact on the music, on everything, even the words, the willingness to express certain things.” Ebert says this in a way that lacks pretension or ego, and his words are at odds with the humble way he carries himself.

So what, exactly, does “divine” mean to the members of Edward Sharpe and their music? If you listen to the lyrics on Here, then you may get some initially conflicting answers. On one side of the spectrum, album stomper “I Don’t Wanna” juxtaposes lines like, “I love my God/ God made love” with “I don’t wanna pray to my maker/ I just wanna be what I see.” On the other side, dulcet folk-rocker “Dear Believer” explores the idea of heaven, seemingly searching for what the lyrics refer to as “paradise.” But, ultimately, all of the songs, even the less explicit tracks, are asking the question: “What does God mean to you?”

“I don’t think anybody talks about God anymore,” says Castrinos, who sits curled-up on the couch, arms wrapped around her legs, peeking out from behind a green knit cap that covers her pixie haircut. “Do you ever hear people talk about it? It almost feels awkward to bring it up sometimes…I think it’s a generational thing. Unless you were raised in an organized religion sort of way with a concept of God, I think maybe we are all feeling the same thing in our own way at the same time.”

So when the word God appears, at least in the songs on Here, it is not based on a specific idea of God – and it’s certainly not rooted in religion, which Ebert sees as an institution that hurts more than it helps. ( “What I want to see is myself living in a way that doesn’t belong to any institution because I’m not afraid to dance through the fire,” he notes). Instead, God appears as a means of instigating discussion, or, perhaps, of finding your own personal concept of the divine.

In other words, what is it that channels through you when you create? “I’m working within the framework of understood symbols to try and reveal other angles of those things to then perhaps completely change the meaning of those things,” says Ebert of the lyrics.

This concept is further illuminated on Here’s companion album, which features a track called “I Believe in Nothing,” a sentiment that Ebert via a meditation by the spiritual author Eckhart Tolle that urges the practitioner to stare at negative space. Initially, the song appears to be nihilistic in tone, eschewing belief in anything. But if you consider what the title really means, then it becomes clear that to pronounce credence in nothing actually confirms a belief in something. Juxtaposed with a number like “Dear Believer,” it’s apparent that the band is not so much preaching as they are engaging the listener in an active exploration of spirituality and culture.

“I don’t know if this is going to work or not, or if it will have a good effect or negative effect,” says Ebert, who will soon become a father. “I think it’s nice to try. I like the idea of using the terms that we already have, and reshaping them because that does happen throughout history – words get reshaped and adapt new meanings [like] for God not to be a concept that is monopolized by religions, but that anyone can feel free to use without feeling like subscribing to one thing or another, for it to all become a little bit more poetic and less dogmatic.”

My connection with Alex Ebert and his music originates nearly ten years ago, back when Ima Robot released their self-titled debut in September 2003 on Virgin Records. The following summer, the little-known band played 30-minute slots on the Vans Warped Tour, quickly becoming one of the most talked about acts on the festival’s lineup, due in part to Ebert’s feral stage presence.

Now, as we sit in the Ed Shed in early April, I tell Ebert that I saw him perform that summer in the parking lot of Denver’s Mile High Stadium, where he threw himself onstage, shirtless and emaciated, like a 1970s Iggy Pop, and began cutting bloody lines into his chest. He nods and says, “Thank God I got to a place now with Edward Sharpe where I can express that same thrust of mad, brilliant…” He pauses, seemingly at a loss for the word.

“The feeling I’m explaining is this brilliant rush for the outer reaches of my skin, you know what I mean? And pushing through and basically transcending the physical form. With Ima Robot, the way I’d get there – and I made sure I’d get there every time I played – was very self-destructive [and] very defiant. And the defiance, in those days, and through a lot of my life, was defiance at death, so hence drugs…that’s a brilliant way to go about transcendence,” he says seriously.

Ebert – who at one point pauses to note that he’s feeling a high sense of déjà vu during this interview, which, at least on this dimensional plane, has never happened before – seems at peace with these pronouncements. And in many ways, his acceptance as a person often at odds with convention explains why Ima Robot’s bizarre alt-rock is so deeply compelling. The band, which Virgin dropped after the release of their second album, Monument to the Masses, in 2006, still exists and plans to record further material, perhaps in 2013. It’s possible to love and appreciate Edward Sharpe without an awareness of Ima Robot, however, it explains a lot about the band to realize that Ebert is still searching for that same brilliant rush onstage.

“It’s the same force and it’s toward the same place, but it’s just a little different,” he says of the live performance experience. “It’s about the ecstasy of transcendence and the joyride to that, as well as the snarling descent into self-destruction. Honestly, it’s all sort of self-destructive, even the positive way. There’s the destruction of a certain part of the self or certain layer of the self; then, a revealing or breaking through into a bigger self.”

This is what Ebert – and his band members, all of whom are compelled by him for similar reasons – does onstage every night and attempts to capture in the recording studio. Here originates from a communal place, driven by the wants and talents and inspirations of a group, but Ebert’s desire for self-revelation is threaded throughout. All of the talk about spiritual awakenings and transcendence – as well as Ebert’s long hair and penchant for wearing long white nightgowns – may conjure up the word “hippie.” But if you ask the band, that may not be such a negative term.

“I don’t know if ‘hippie’ is a derogatory word,” Kirkpatrick says later before the KCRW taping in April. “If you go back to a hippie in the ‘60s, it meant freedom, exploration and living life to the fullest – not living life by the rules set by the people who weren’t living life to the fullest. I don’t think it has to have those bad connotations that sometimes come along with it. If you take it for the beautiful thing that it is – meaning freedom and exploration of life – then sure, I’ll be a hippie.”

In the KCRW studio, as the members of Edward Sharpe and The Magnetic Zeros crowd onto a small stage to perform many of their new tracks for the first time, Ebert seems more interested in the vantage point of the audience than of the band. During soundcheck, he stands with his microphone in the space where the audience will be, testing the acoustics and later spends much of the performance climbing through the crowd or sitting cross-legged with his fans on the floor. There’s a reason, even in this diminutive show that Mumford and Sons frontman Marcus Mumford declares of Edward Sharpe in Big Easy Express, “I think on this tour, they’ve become my favorite live band to watch.”

The transcendence that Ebert and his band search for during their live shows is not something that you can decide whether or not to participate in. It’s a feeling that encompasses you, which may explain the massive – and continued – reaction to “Home,” a song that both speaks to that idea and achieves it. Edward Sharpe’s music grapples with grand concepts and searches for a deeper meaning, using songs as a way to convey – or channel – ideas about how to best exists within our world. They may not have the answers quite yet, but the musicians occasionally stumble across something that offers a hint.

As the performance draws to a close, Ebert mentions the notion of dichotomy, of two forces in the world struggling to consume the other. Both engage him, he says; but in the end, he doesn’t actually have to make a choice. “Light doesn’t need shadow to exist,” Ebert tells the crowd, “but shadow does need light.”