Alex Ebert on his new “PersonA”: An Interview with Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros


After witnessing Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Field perform live, you get an almost cultish vibe from the cast of characters… but founder Alex Ebert prefers the word “communal.” Earlier this year, this community of musicians released their fourth studio album– the first without Jade Castrinos, and their first in Ebert’s recently acquired Piety Street studios in New Orleans.

From record-to-record and song-to-song, the Magnetic Zeros’ sound varies immensely. Their recent release, “PersonA” is no different. From sunny 60’s psych-pop to somber, sensitive serenades, their music continues to run the course of emotions.

I caught up with Alex Ebert over the phone just before the album’s release. Below is the unedited interview, portions of which appeared in the Boston Herald. Enjoy.

Where you at right now?

In New Orleans.

That’s where you have your studio, right?


Is this the first record at your new studio?

I mean not the first record ever, but the first record we’ve ever made there.

How did you decide on New Orleans?

I just wanted to move here. I didn’t know we were going to record here necessarily. I was having a kid and we wanted to move away from LA and I had wanted to move to New Orleans for a while. So about four years ago we just up and left and moved to New Orleans.

What’s the history of the studio?

Yeah, it’s called Piety. It’s where I am right now and where I live right now. It’s amazing. It was the Post Office for the Bywater Area, then it was the “Center for Retarded Citizens” for a long time. Then in 1994, I think, the Piety Street Studio started. Since then it’s been a mainstay and institution. Every day I am in it I’m just in awe. I was going to buy a house right down the street and found out this was for sale and got this instead. It was half-selfish because it’s a studio and I’m a musician but also because this neighborhood’s experiencing that typical gentrification, you know, and this particular building would be a lynch pin. Like if American Apparel bought it I feel like it would all crumble. That was the other reason. I allowed a lot of the graffiti to stay up and I guess I get in trouble for it. It’s a giant old building.

I’ve been reading that the approach was totally different on this new record.

Yeah, yeah. More or less we really tried to. We had always talked about being a communal entity that shares its money and all that, but I had always put in and written 80 percent or more of most of the albums and carried most of the weight when it came to the recordings and the writing and all that. Yet we had become a band that was capable and ready to take that step and making music all together. So everyone came with that in mind. Writing songs with ten people in the room can be difficult because it’s not like everyone can write all at the same time. Some people have to just sit there for quite awhile. It takes a lot of patience when someone is hacking away at chords incessantly. But that’s what we did and it was really great man. It brought us together and it really felt good. I think some amazing songs came from it. About half of the songs on the album we wrote all together.

So it was more spontaneous instead of everybody bringing something with them?

Yes, the songs that we all wrote together were all spontaneous. No one had brought any ideas in and we would just start playing and I would start arranging—everyone was arranging—but that was my main role. People would start playing something. Then someone else would start playing something and we’d say ‘okay,’ and started working through it. I mean we really have gotten so close together that there was no glass on the floor. There was very little ego in the room and rare that any ego popped up at all. We all sort of knew that the whole premise was the songs themselves and try and chase down little leads. And it was really fun man.


The record title has an obvious double entendre there. Do you want to talk about that a little?

Yeah sure, I guess its sort of begging to be asked. It’s several things. It’s a transitional period in our band and from ourselves, and the death of one thing being the rebirth of something else. But probably more importantly for me is confronting this notion in an artistic way that a performance is a postured thing and everyday experience is the real thing. I, in fact, think it’s the opposite. Every time you’ve ever seen a show that you subjectively considered a great performance I would bet that that performer was probably relaxed and far more so than they are in real life. Allowing whatever it is to flow through them. When you go to an acting class, the main technique or methodology of method acting is relaxation. I remember the first time my mother took me to an acting class—she was a stage actress—and it was like being in a loony bin. I was 15 and I was totally shocked. Everyone was on the floor grunting and groaning and pretending to be a different animal and that’s all about losing your inhibitions. If you did that in the street, you’d get arrested. There’s a certain irony there that I experience in particular that this guy Alex Ebert is untrustworthy because of this idea that I’m wearing a mask onstage and the messiah thing– this persona. I just wanted to address that regardless of the name and that the band is not called Alex Ebert and the Magnetic Zeros. Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros was just a joke name. I didn’t mean anything by it. I in fact tried to change the name early on to something far more memorable and easy to remember, but the rest of the band loved it. It all came from a story I had written and more or less it ended up this presupposition that I was putting on a character when I was on stage. It’s not that that bothers me that the entire thing is postured thing. You can’t trust someone who went from IMA Robot to Edward Sharpe because those are just too different. I’m not Tom Waits and the band isn’t Tom Waits. We’re not a band and I’m not an artist that’s remotely interested in each song sounding the same, let alone an entire career where everything is relatively identical. I appreciate those artists and I love them dearly, but I don’t find it artistically fulfilling, not even on a single album, let alone a career. So yeah there’s all that.

The first time I saw you was at the Newport Folk Festival and there was definitely a cultish vibe about the band. You used the word communal. Then I read about the book and it seemed to add to the mystique.

It’s almost by happenstance, but the book and the cultishness of the band, as much as anything can be, is coincidental. Obviously my mind was on that kind of thing. Growing up in LA, which was an intentionally uncommunal city where they made it a sprawl and you don’t have pockets of community at all. You have to drive to a coffee shop. There are no neighborhoods. I mean there are some. You had Echo Park. You could call Silverlake a community. Venice is a community. But where I grew up in the valley there was very little in the way of that. My mother showed me this thing that I wrote when I was six that said, “Once there was a boy who had a crew” and the second line was “and he also knew Kung Fu”. It’s funny that she showed me that because I guess all I ever wanted was a crew because I didn’t have one. I didn’t have a community. That’s all Edward Sharpe is for me is. I wrote these songs with all of these parts because I had this idea of a crew, like a traveling band of troubadours and friends. That’s all it is. Not a cult, but a crew. I think it goes all the way back to that story I wrote when I was six, maybe even before that.

How does it feel to have a song like “Home” that has such staying power? Did you ever dream something like that would come to be?

I knew as soon Jade and I were making a demo of that– or singing over the demo I should say– I knew there was something. As an artist you look for these holes that you might be able to fill in culture. I instantly felt “wow, there is a giant hole that this is going to fill that hasn’t been filled for a really long time—for deacdes.” The un-ironic, un-darkened, un-tinted love song that isn’t overtly sexual and has a very naturalistic approach to a love song– and a back and forth at that. And that being said, it took years for that song to catch on. I don’t think I’ve ever heard that song on the radio. It wasn’t a radio hit… it was a cultural hit. And in fact, by the time it was a cultural hit big enough we tried to go to radio, but radio wouldn’t play it. Triple A would play it, but the big stations wouldn’t touch it. It didn’t sound like anything else, it had a lo-fi sound, and also back then no one else was doing it. By the time it was to go to radio and we did a campaign with a radio company that wanted to help the album had been out for four years and they were like, “we would but the albums been out for four years.” So it was an ironic thing. It was more than just a cultural hit. I mean I love it. I absolutely love it. I’m absolutely honored by it. Just the other day we were at dinner and someone came up to me and said, “My sister-in-law killed herself and we would sing “Home” together and it was one of the only things we could do where we would feel great.” There’s a lot of stories like that. People got married to that song or had their first dance. To be a part of people’s lives in some sort of integral way like that is pretty magical.

When you play it now, without Jade, what do you do? Obviously the audience wants to here that song.

I just sing it back and fourth with the audience. In fact we do it almost entirely a-cappella. I count on the audience to sing the whole thing and I’ll join in on the chorus. It’s sort of like a sing-along in elementary school. I sing the first line just to remind them and we all sing it together. The reality is, and always has been, that this is a universal song and it’s meant to be shared and it’s about the big YOU. It’s not about her and I. Her and I wrote it as friends. We weren’t together when we wrote that song. And yet we loved each other. To me that song is even more potent and much more pure now that it’s not actually a duet between me and1 person. It’s a duet between me and all of us together as one. It’s pretty special.

On the new record you seem to mention “Home” a lot too. Or am I imagining that.

Home does rhyme with a lot. It was started happening and when it started happening, I just let it happen instead of avoiding it. I don’t have a clear answer for you except I didn’t want to run away from what was coming out of my mouth.

You have been on the road nonstop, not to mention scoring movies? Now that you’ve had a kid, do you think you’ve finally found a place to be?

It’s interesting. In a way, yes. I have to modulate the intensity with which I create so I can spend time with my family and myself and not constantly be on the move. So, in that sense, yes. But I’m just getting my feet wet in that realm. I don’t even think I know what that’s like to let go enough to just be there and not have a creative impulse that distracts me from just hanging out. So I’m working on that. I’m working on trying to suppress that.

Do you sing to your daughter a lot?

Yes, and I love singing to her. And sometimes she’ll tell me to shut up, but whatever. It’s one of my favorite things. I started singing to her early on and there were some times, I wouldn’t say times were rough, but there were some great moments where she needed to be sung to and I’d have her in my songs and just sing to her. It’s nice, just making up songs and singing to her. It’s fun. She calls the band “the guys” and asks “where’s the guys?” It’s really sweet and the band has a bunch of babies in it too, which is great.

Did she participate on the record?

Not directly as I would have liked to. But certainly “Lullaby” is about her and every time I’d sing “Somewhere” she’d come in and start twirling around. We recorded the song for two months and then mixed and then I wrote lyrics for the next nine months with Nico We live in the studio so she was constantly coming in when I was singing that song… constantly coming in to bother me. It was great.


Califone: Rustic, Ramshackle, Avant-Americana

califone-28In his most recent press photos, Califone’s Tim Rutili appears alone. His former core of backing musicians have moved on, but Califone’s rustic and ramshackle sound remains very much unchanged.

doc080mockup30.11183Stitches is Califone’s seventh studio recording and one of the best releases of 2013, Released on Dead Oceans, the record brings Rutili back to a more solitary state of songwriting. Leaving the familiar confines of his Chicago studio for the first time, Califone’s founder wrote and recorded his new collection of songs on the road and fleshed them out with various friends and co-conspirators along the way in California, Arizona and Texas.

Gathering source material on his phone, Rutili turned to his field recordings to create a patchwork of sound collages and musical mosaics to help fill the void left by his veteran collaborators.

Even with Rutili’s new cast of musicians and recording locations, Califone retain their signature sound of avant-Americana. Gentle and haunting, their abstract balladry and genre deconstruction merge swampy blues with muddy country and dusty folk with the unmistakable pluck, slide and sustained hum of guitars join together with layers of obscure percussion and atmospheric electronics leading sparse arrangements to culminate in crescendos of controlled chaos while rusty, disjointed lyrics come to life as a cinematic montage.

We were lucky to catch up with Califone creator Tim Rutili late last year to talk about what has changed and what had remained the same in Califone’s unique sound and prolonged greatness.


NG: I noticed you appear alone in your promo photos for the new album. Is there a reason for that? Is the band still together?

TR: No, we haven’t played together in a long time. I made this record with other people. Benny still played on it, but he’s not going to be in the touring band anymore. Jim and Joe aren’t playing with us anymore. Jim might do some recording on the next record, but Joe and I aren’t together anymore.

Was it after the Funeral Singer shows? Did the extensive touring get to be too much?

Yeah, those guys joined Iron and Wine. They joined that band so they could start making some money. But it’s not that weird. I made my first records up until Roomsound by myself, so it’s nothing that crazy of a change.

But there are lots of other people on the record. Who are they? I read that this record was made more on the road than in your traditional studio. Is that true?

This wasn’t made on tour, but it was made in different places.

Did you get people in each place to play on the record?

Yeah, pretty much. There were a lot of people that I’ve played with before in some way or another and there were people that I wanted to play with in one way or another. So it was mostly playing with friends or people that were hanging out or near us anyway.

Who is in the touring band this time around?

The last tour was me and Will Hendricks and this next one… you’re in Boston… it will be me and Will and Rachel Blumberg and Joe Westerland.

BG-43Since you said the album was written while traveling, did the traveling aspect have an unmistakable effect on the music? Did the imagery come from these places, or did it just provide a new way of doing things.

I think it was just a new way of doing things, but the imagery of the places– what places look and feel like– you can’t help but have that leak into the music.

Can you talk about the theme of “stitches”? Is it even a theme?

I don’t know. I just knew this record was called Stitches right when it started. It just felt like making a big quilt to me. Every piece was very different to me and very different than the last. It felt like making a collage from different places and different times. It felt like “stitches”.

As far as stitching goes, you have been known to put sentences together that seem odd from an outsider’s perspective. Do you want to talk about your method of juxtaposing and word choice in songs?

Yeah, I think I know what you’re talking about. I think the same thing happens with the way sound is used as well. [Silence]

So you don’t want to talk about it?

Well what’s your question?

When you approach a song lyrically how do you go about choosing how to put these abstract images together? Does it mean something to you when you read through it?

Yeah, it means everything to me, but it means less on a page than it does coming out of my mouth. A lot of songwriting is about articulating things that maybe don’t make total logical sense. And treating lyrics that way and treating music that way can make an intangable feeling or a feeling that you can articulate, relatable. You know what I mean? So I guess that’s what I have always been shooting for with words. Also when I have tried to make too much sense or write a song that is specifically, specifically about something, I didn’t like it. I like it when things are open and there’s room to come in. And room to transpose yourself and your listener into it, and live in it for a little while.

Were these songs generally written around the same time?

Some of the bits and pieces were written earlier, but most of the things were put together pretty much a year ago, between last summer and March.

With the last record you had the accompanying movie. Do you traditionally think cinematically when you’re choosing your words and sounds, or was that just a separate entity that time.

No they’re all part of the same thing. With Funeral Singers, both the songs and the script for the movie were built around the same time and written around the same time. With this, I think all of it is visual. The way the words are, they are all pictures, you know?

BG-15Do you want to talk about your placement of religious imagery in your artwork and song lyrics? What is the significance in the way that you use it?

Well, I’m just sort of fascinated by those characters. I’m especially fascinated by how they are still part of our consciousness. We still read those books and they’re really fucking weird characters and really weird stories, you know. And people kill for those things. Trying to read about those things and trying to understand it for myself, I don’t really have religion. I don’t know if I really believe in God. I don’t know. I don’t know. But I think about it sometimes. I think about it and it comes through in the music. It was fun to think about these characters as timeless travelers with ordinary problems. I mean the story of Moses on the record… Moses going through 40 years of whatever it is, insanity, and then getting to where he’s taking these people and having God saying they can go in but you have to stay here and I’m going to kill you now. [Laughs] Everybody fucking thinks they are that. Everybody has this character where you go through this big fucking ordeal and you can’t enjoy it. You know, that is very relatable to me and it was interesting to explore the intentions of that within a song.

I know you make music videos for other people and your new video is very interesting and original. Were you part of the making of the video for your single?

Well I was talking to the director about it, but it was all him. We were throwing ideas around, but that’s the one that seemed the most powerful.

califone1Looking back was it too big of an undertaking doing the Funeral Singers shows with the live movie soundtrack? Did it get tedious with the repetition night after night? Did it wear on you?

I enjoyed it a lot. It was fun and I think it was a great way to present the music and to present the movie. It was a lot. You’re in Boston?

I saw one in Boston and one in Portland as well.

Those were two really great shows. I thought it was a cool thing to do and I’d like to do something like that again some day.

Was it really strange to play along to the movie night after night? Assumedly you were playing the same thing every night.

Yeah, it seemed to evolve over time. We had beginning cues and ending cues and there were sections that were open to improvisation which I think made it interesting. But I know those other guys were TOTALLY sick of it.

Are you in the process of doing anything else cinematically?


Anything you wanna talk about?

Nah. There are things I’m writing and preparing to do. There are music video things that I’m doing now. I just did a video for David Yao, the Jesus Lizard singer. That should be out there next week. I have a few feature film ideas that have to do with music that I wrote, and I’m just trying to find ways to do them.

It seems like every record you have some strange new instruments that you use. Was there anything especially peculiar this time around?

Not so much. There were strange sounds though. There were some sounds that we recorded outside. We used a hurdy gurdy, that was pretty strange. There’s one song with the sound of rain on a roof. There were collage elements, but I think not being in Chicago—we had our own studio for years—not having that place with all that stuff in it did effect the way this record sounds. I think it effected it for the better. We needed to take a different approach to some of these songs. We had our bag of tricks, but this time we had a new bag of tricks.

BG-38So was this source material gathered with you and a taperecorder?

Yeah, not even a tape recorder, but a phone. An iPhone. Doing vocals in the car while driving.

How does that work when you go into the studio and your putiting that onto tape. Is it hi-def enough to work its way in?

It’s not hi def at all, but it works. A lot of time it’s instinctual. Can you hear dogs barking?

I haven’t heard them yet, but I’ve been trying to go back with headphones and get the background sounds a little more.

There’s the sound of my neighbor’s dogs. There’s one part where I was walking around Chinatown and I just shot video with my phone. There was this weird Chinese opera practice. It’s instinctual. There are always things that catch our eye and our ear and our phone is always with us. When you’re making the thing in the studio it’s like lets see what this sounds like here. Or lets try this there. There is a lot of trial and error. Not a lot of logic or planning in respect to the songwriting, but when you go into the studio you use what you have.

When you go into a song do you think of what you’re going to use or is it something you just build layer by layer?

I just build it as it’s happening. Sometimes I just really wanna make sure a sound gets in there or I wrote it on this guitar and I need this song. This record was more about songwriting and singing and the right words. The way the record was approached was more about how to bring out the songs and how to bring out the words.