Full interview: Alex Ebert of Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros

In 2006, Alex Ebert was the frontman of L.A. brat-punks Ima Robot., with a record deal from Virgin and a knack for pop hooks and instantly hateable hairstyles. Four years later, he’s the mastermind behind Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros, a 10-piece art-rock “family” that combines the folk-influenced songwriting of the ’60s with the grandeur and bombast of acts like Arcade Fire and the Polyphonic Spree. It’s a change for the better, but also one that has inspired a fair share of criticism from those who doubt Ebert’s sincerity. The singer recently caught up with The Consumption to talk about growing as a musician, baring himself on stage and the question of “authenticity.”

You’ve said in past interviews that the move from Ima Robot. to Edward Sharpe was a move from something less authentic to something more authentic. What was inauthentic back then, and how has it changed?

Ima Robot. was authentic for me — very, very authentic for me. It was a span of almost eight years, Ima Robot. It’s just that by the time the first major label thing was released and written, and the whole thing was organized in a major label sense, I had sort of steered away from the plot of making music for the joy of it. Inauthentic was me making music for anything other than the joy of making music. Once in a while it’s fun to try to write a pop song, but when you completely lose the roots of the reasons for making music to begin with, it’s a bad state.
The authenticness is…. The anger that I felt and the confusion that I felt on the first album was sort of only froth by the time the second album came around. I was growing as a human being, as a person. I was growing beyond the content of those songs, beyond the words and the feelings of those songs while we were still touring that first album. So it was just that I had grown, you know what I mean?

For Edward Sharpe, how did you find a style that matched that growth?
It was super simple. I just got back to when I was a kid, like five: road trips, and the grand inspirations, not the sort of drug-addled inspirations of punk rock or self-destruction or smaller-minded inspirations — or, I should say, doomed inspirations — but really wide-open, hopeful inspirations.

I get the feeling you’re talking less about musical inspiration and more about worldly inspiration.
Sure, yeah. What was inspiring to me when I was a kid was the wide-open, anything is possible, magical inspiration. And then as I got older and into my teens and early 20s, it became very much about more apocalyptic sort of dead-end street inspirations, and then eventually that is a dead-end street, and then there you are. And then what? So I had to sort of reach back to reach forward.

For a lot of bands, the biggest hurdle is getting noticed in the first place, but with Edward Sharpe, it seems like your previous fame has attracted a fair bit of criticism — Pitchfork and Allmusic.com both bring it up. Do you think Ima Robot. has helped or hurt the Magnetic Zeros?

I don’t even want to think of it in the business sense — has it helped or hurt the business of Edward Sharpe to me is beside the point. It’s helped me as a human being to have gone through all of that, and that’s the most important thing for me, is that I wouldn’t have come to this…. Everyone’s on the path that they’re on, and things happen the way they happen.
Whoever wrote that Pitchfork review is either not aware that humans evolve, or of evolution in general, or wants to deny that and embrace stasis, or some kind of constant, because it feels more comfortable to them. But for me, that’s not reality — and thank God. It’s a varied life, and it’s one that you are constantly adapting to. It’s a give and take — it’s adapting to you and you’re adapting to it, and all of that. But for me, the bottom line is that it’s a positive experience, because everything is a learning experience, and therefore positive.

Do you think that your old fans have been able to grow along with you? Do you ever see them at your shows?
I don’t think necessarily it’s that deep for them. I do think that it’s still me, and that that was me and this is me, and there are definitely plenty of Ima Robot fans at these shows. And that’s cool. I dig that. And I find it a little bit curious, actually, myself, but it’s something really home-y about that, and nice that these people that were fans of this music that I did back then are appreciating this music that I’m doing now. It feels good. I guess I don’t try to question to much why or how, or did they make some sort of shift, or are they dressing as hippies now (laughs). Anything like that. I think it’s just a lot more simple than anything like that.

You’re just focusing on making the music?
Yeah, that’s the key, man.

You created Edward Sharpe as a fictional character with a lot of back story, but most of your songs are at least partly autobiographical, and you’ve said you’re not ‘in character’ when you’re on stage. So where does Edward Sharpe fit in to Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros?
Where does Edward Sharpe fit in? My gosh, I guess I could answer that in any way. I guess Edward Sharpe fits into the band in the sense that — I think Edward Sharpe is damn lucky to have the Magnetic Zeros. To have a family surrounding you in any way is a blessing, you know what I mean? I just think that it’s more of an honor that there’s an “and” in the name at all.

But what about the difference between you and Edward Sharpe? How does that character fit into the band?
It’s a fictional character, but it’s not. That was an interesting time writing that album, but I really just experience different facets of myself, I guess, and different variations. I think that we’re all so connected, and everyone is so connected that it’s hard to really say that someone else is a completely different person. For me, the whole Edward Sharpe thing, the furthest from me that Edward Sharpe is that the name is different from the name my parents gave me, which is Alex Ebert. Other than that, it’s just sort of an expression of me.
I’m certainly not putting on a disguise and walking out on stage, that’s for sure. In fact, I’m doing more or less the opposite. I’m exposing myself, for lack of a better word, as much as possible. And the music itself creates a voice, or wants a certain voice from me, and so there’s a relationship there. There’s a dialogue between the music and me. Whereas, if I was up there doing some Britney Spears music, I’d probably be treating it a little differently; but then again, I probably wouldn’t be up there doing it in the first place, so I guess what I’m saying is there’s not much of a difference for me between the me that’s on stage….
I’m probably a lot less comfortable off stage than on stage in some ways. When you get on stage, you get in front of people, for me it’s basically show time for honesty and openness and for all of the power that you are connected with to rush through you. If I could only live my life as honestly all the time on the streets, I’ll be a really happy little camper.

What about somewhere like Coachella, where you’re in front of thousands of people who aren’t necessarily there to see you. You’re still comfortable baring yourself to that kind of crowd?
It’s not that I feel comfortable doing it, it’s that I have to. For me, getting up on stage and being dishonest or full of shit or scared, getting up on stage and not embracing the moment and what’s happening and the reality of what I’m feeling, and not attempting to transcend all of my fucking baggage and bullshit, is similar to what I imagine a version of hell might be like.

It must bother you when you see comments like that Pitchfork review, then.
I didn’t read the thing, and I don’t actually — I’ve learned and have faith in myself now, whereas maybe a long time ago I didn’t. Although, I feel like I must have always…
Something like the Pitchfork thing actually just made me laugh, and I thought it was actually a good thing that they said that, because someone’s gotta think that. And all that does is provides an opportunity for me to prove them wrong.

Is that what the live show is for?
I would assume that whoever wrote that hadn’t been to a show, or anything remotely close to the show, or hadn’t even really listened to the album.

On another note, you’re working on a 12-part video cycle based on the album. How did that come about?
I guess the music is really cinematic to all of us, and the idea for it to tell a story, a cinematic sort of story, came naturally. When thinking about what kind of story, the concept of the drought came to my mind and was solidified when I was listening to the album and, of course, the last song on the album opens with rain. It rained that day, and we microphoned the rain, and I realized that that was the last song, and that would be the end of the movie.
It was always something that I definitely wanted to do. I went to school… I studied film for a while, and that’s what I wanted to do for a few years, to make movies. So it seemed like a great way to tell a story and do it musically.
We just wrapped up the “40 Day Dream” shoot, which is the third installment.

How big of a project is the shoot? Judging from the results, it looks more complicated than just a few friends getting together to make a backyard movie.
It’s all friends. The first one was me and my friends Ben and Corey, and loosely produced by The Masses — and now basically completely produced by The Masses — who are an art collective in LA that I’ve been a part of for a long time.

[At this point, the connection gets lost, but we’re reconnected in time for one more question.]

One last thing. You’ve said that the biggest difference between when you were in Ima Robot. and now is that you used to be against things, and now you’re for things. So what are you for?
What am I for? Well, I’m for really basic, broad concepts like friendship, love, peace, community, helping. All those root words you hear in elementary school.

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