Edward Sharpe & The Magnetic Zeros
Alex Ebert, the lead troubadour of the sprawling, stage-filling band Edward Sharpe & the Magnetic Zeros, is tall and slim with a mop of brown hair that he keeps tied in a topknot at the crown of his head. He wears white flared trousers, a white tank top and a bright red skinny scarf looped around his neck. An hour before a show in a Unitarian Universalist church basement, he sits, drinking a beer in the soaring chapel where the walls are painted turquoise blue.
In this setting, Ebert could easily be taken as a messiah or a rock star. Either would be equally fitting actually, as anyone who’s seen Ebert and his band perform could testify that an Edward Sharpe show is about as close to a religious experience as a secularist can get.
Edward Sharpe was born about four years ago when Ebert, who had fronted Los Angeles dance-punk band Ima Robot, found himself burning out from years of partying.
“I was feeling really sort of lost, and I started doing some soul-searching – Edward Sharpe, the name, was a way for me to get away from the bits of myself that felt manufactured or false,” he says. "To get away from that and find myself really, I just picked this other name. I’m not sure why that name in particular."
Ima Robot released two albums on Virgin records and achieved moderate recognition, but Ebert was dissatisfied with the music and with himself.
"Those two albums were from when I was going through a really snarky, sarcastic, fed-up bratty phase," he says. "When I was really little, I wanted to do special, great things to help humanity, and what I had become was just a quasi-rockstar guy who was posturing."
The two bands couldn’t be more different, and Ebert himself is practically unrecognisable from his former self, but he’s quick to point out – like when there’s a mistaken reference to Edward Sharpe as his persona – that this is his true incarnation, it’s just taken him a while to get there.
“This isn’t something I’ve concocted,” he says. “It’s just something that I rediscovered in myself and that I’d always loved."
Ebert was raised in Los Angeles, his grandfather an opera director, and his father a lover of everything from Johnny Cash and Waylon Jennings to Vangelis, the Greek composer who composed Chariots of Fire. “Vangelis did a series of thematic albums called Antarctica, Asia, Oceanic … and my dad would play them as we drove through these vast desert expanses,” he explains.
As Ebert started to transform himself, his interest in music changed along with it, and up bubbled sounds and themes that had made an impression in his youth. “It’s funny how it came back,” he says. “I was getting into communal music and so a song like 40 Day Dream, with sort of Vangelis soaring strings and R&B shucking and a country swagger – stuff like that was really a revelation.”
Nearly every song on Edward Sharpe & the Magnetic Zeros debut album, Up From Below, sounds like aural cinema and when they perform on stage, the show devolves from concert – or evolves, rather – into a revival of sweaty, jumping, clapping, happy people that just happens to be led by a band.
"The reaction from the crowds is different,” Ebert says, of how performing with the Magnetic Zeros compares to performing with Ima Robot. “The vibe is different. It’s less ‘Let’s all go to the end of our ropes,’ and more 'Let’s all run out into a field'.” And this feeling is exactly what he’s been looking for all along.
“All I really care about doing on earth is helping and building toward a utopia, even if a utopia is completely impossible,” he says. “And I don’t care if it’s impossible, I really don’t.”