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.


Preservation Hall Jazz Band: Celebrating the Past and Collaborating in the Present


Joseph Lastie Jr.of PHJB: Boston, January 1, 2013

Founded in 1961 by Allan and Sandra Jaffe in the French Quarter of New Orleans, Preservation Hall began as a live music venue to showcase and create a sanctuary for jazz music in the city where it all began.

Not long after they opened their doors, a house band, known simply as the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, was formed. Several incarnations and 50 years later, Preservation Hall continues to fulfill their mission with Ben Jaffe assuming his father’s responsibilities as well as playing tuba in the band.


Ben Jaffe, Newport Folk Festival 2010

In their half-century existence, the Hall and its band have never strayed from the ideals they were founded upon. The tiny, 100-person capacity venue still hosts music twice a night, 7 days a week as a way to preserve New Orleans’ jazz heritage. And while the band still spends most of their time performing at home, the outfit has also branched out, bringing the sound of their city to you, touring the country and collaborating with musicians and bands from all genres of the musical spectrum.

A few days ago, on New Year’s Eve, the Preservation Hall Jazz Band opened for My Morning Jacket in Boston at the Agganis Arena. They later joined the band midway through their set and continued to perform until the end.


MMJ + PHJB together on New Year’s Eve: Boston, 2012

The following interview was originally conducted this past summer as the PHJB prepared to play both the Newport Folk Festival AND the Newport Jazz Festival… a true testament to the band’s talents, diversity and versatility. I had the pleasure of interviewing Ben Jaffe (tuba player/music director/son of Preservation Hall founders) who graciously donated his time despite being on-call for the birth of his first child. The exclusive photos included in this story were taken from are from Newport 2010 and 2012, as well as this New Year’s Eve show in Boston.

Cheers. Happy New Year.


Agganis Arena, Boston, 12:01am, 1/1/2013

As far as the playing at the Preservation Hall vs. touring, how often do you leave New Orleans and take the band on tour?

Well, we’re in a fortunate and unique kind of situation and the band doesn’t tour like traditional bands that release a record and then tour. We are on the road all the time. And we’re lucky because we have Preservation Hall to play at when we’re home. So, even when we’re not on tour, we’re still playing all the time. We probably do 100 shows a year on the road and maybe do another 150 appearances in New Orleans.

How often do you actually play at the Hall?

When we’re in New Orleans we play there three times a week. You can always get some Preservation Hall Jazz Band.


Clarinetist, Charlie Gabriel takes on vocal duties at Newport Folk Fest 2010

But there’s music there every night whether you’re in town or not?

Yeah, Preservation Hall has about 18 bands and 70 musicians that rotate into Preservation Hall in any given month and we try to present not only the older generation of musicians, but also the younger, up and coming generations of musicians as well. We try to emulate, as best as we can– the way that music has always been passed down from generation to generation in New Orleans. What’s amazing about New Orleans music is that it’s an unbroken bloodline dating all the way back to the earliest days of jazz. There are very few styles of music, particularly in the US, that we can claim to be our own– something that’s purely American and something that we didn’t have to bring back from extinction. New Orleans music is connected to the community because the community is still attached to the music. Our clarinet player is 80 years old and he’s a fourth generation New Orleans musician. SO his great, great grandfather was playing music in the 1850’s in New Orleans… before jazz. To me, that blows my mind. His grandfather is credited for being one of the first jazz bass players. And then you have Charlie, and underneath Charlie there are three or four younger generations playing music in his family.

So it is said that your dad created the Preservation Hall to keep New Orleans music alive. Was there a scare that it was going to lose its identity?

Well, I won’t give you too much of a history lesson, but New Orleans music in the 1920’s was when Louis Armstrong was coming into his own. New Orleans jazz was the hip-hop of its day. To me Louis Armstrong and Jelly Roll Morton they were the Jay-Z and Kanye of their day. They were breaking new ground and newspapers were saying that they were corrupting our youth. In the 1920’s, jazz was being played in what you would call the “off-color” kinds of places. It wasn’t being played in concert halls like it is today. It’s amazing that jazz has gone from the brothels to Carnegie Hall. That’s an incredible story unto itself. But like any music, it goes through cycles, and in and out of popularity. When my parents were in college, New Orleans jazz fell off the radar for most people. Though the musicians were still alive, as a country we still hadn’t accepted these musicians for the legends they were. If you look at the 1950’s and 60’s, just what was happening in our country and what was happening politically and socially, the South was still the Jim Crow South. The Civil Rights Amendment hadn’t passed yet, so there wasn’t an appreciation of the American-American culture. There were people who started documenting American culture like Alan Lomax and his father and the Smithsonian and Folkways records. These people started embracing things that were uniquely American– and jazz was one of those things. And it witnessed a revival in the 1950’s… kind of what’s going on with bluegrass now. It’s interesting. There was a revival movement on the east and west coasts and a bunch of New Orleans revival jazz bands that popped up. It’s a fairly easy style of music to get into, but it’s an extremely difficult style of music to master. It’s like a harmonica—it’s an easy instrument to get started on. And that’s what brought my parents to New Orleans. There was their love of New Orleans music and some other intangible thing—something that inspired a couple from Philadelphia to move to New Orleans in the midst of something like the civil rights movement. This was a white, young, Jewish couple, opening a venue that celebrated African-American music. I mean this is something that people were getting run out of town for doing. It still wasn’t legal or socially acceptable for blacks and whites to hang out socially either.


PHJB: Newport Folk Fest 2010

Do you remember your first times at Preservation Hall?

When my parents first moved to New Orleans, they actually lived in the courtyard behind Preservation Hall in the old servants quarters. Preservation Hall was a communal setting for many years. Many artists would come through and set up shop there from time to time. When I was born we actually lived two blocks away, so I actually grew up in the French Quarter. It’s interesting you ask me that question because I reflect on that a lot. It is our 50rh anniversary and I’m asked that question a lot. I never really gave it much thought because it was the only experience I knew. It never seemed extraordinary or out-of-the-ordinary to grow up in the French Quarter. Doesn’t everybody grow up a block off of Bourbon Street and hear music 24 hours a day? Honestly some nights I would come home and the same people that were at Preservation Hall that night would be sitting at the corner bar while I would be walking to school in the morning. And they’d be there when I was coming home at night. I don’t remember my first time at Preservation Hall. I’m probably one of the few people besides my brother that can say that. We don’t remember because we grew up there. It is a part of who we are. I don’t remember a lot of things. I don’t remember the first meal I ever ate. It’s kind of like that. It’s always been there. In reality I spent every day of my life in some way at Preservation Hall.


Was there ever a doubt that you would do anything but be a musician and take up the reigns of the place?

I think it’s interesting because you grow up and you kind of realize you become a product of what you’re exposed to. What I was exposed to was a beautiful world of music. It’s not that I ever thought I was going to become a musician in my life… it’s just that I didn’t know how to become anything else. It really wasn’t until I was in my teens when I started meeting people outside of music and outside of the arts—people I guess that we considered having more traditional family lives where the dad would go to work, come home and sit down to dinner. I mean we didn’t know what our day-to-day lives would be like. My dad was a working musician as well as a manager for the Hall and the band, so he was being pulled in many directions.


PHJB: Newport Folk Fest 2010

I officially joined the band when I got out of college in 1993. But I started playing around town between the ages of 9 and 14, sitting in with bands and jamming and learning music.

Does the Preservation Hall Jazz Band have a core group of musicians that defines the band with an extended group of musicians on the periphery?

Yes, there is a core Preservation Hall Jazz Band. That’s the band that does the recording and is the face of the band. But we have so many musicians that create the greater family. The beautiful thing about the Hall and the group is that it doesn’t need to remain one thing. We can have that flexibility and play in different configurations with different instrumentation. And that’s something that I never knew was actually out of the ordinary. As I get older, you meet more people who are amazed that you can work with so many different people. We can be on a stage, or at a festival, jamming with a rock band, playing in a jazz club or in a parade. It’s amazing how flexible our music is. It’s a beautiful thing. We don’t even need electricity, mind you. How many bands can say that?


Special Guest Andrew Bird with the PHJB: Newport Folk Fest 2010

Oh yeah, we’re talking some about some of the best most accomplished jazz musicians in the entire world. These guys don’t always get enough credit for being the improvisers that they are. Sometimes with the setting that we end up in, we don’t always get to flex our chops, so to speak. And I think that its incredible that we have guys who are some of the greatest jazz musicians in the entire world, and yet we have all made this choice in life to continue to perform in the style that we grew up with.

How much of a set is improvised? When you go into a particular setting, do you know what you’re going to play?

We don’t really know until we get to the venue what our repertoire is going to be for that show. There is something unique about every time we go out on stage. For me it is very important to go on stage and see what the venue is like, what the crowd is like and get an overall feel for the situation. Sometimes we show up and decide we’re not going to use any microphones, or we’re outdoors and we’re playing for 12,000 people and we want it to be a bigger, dancier type of show. Tonight we’re in a recital hall and there won’t be any microphones and it’s going to be more of a concert. It’s beautiful to have that sort of flexibility and to have hundreds of songs in your repertoire to pull from at any given moment. That’s something I grew up with. As far as the improvisation that happens, we never play the same song in the same way twice. You play songs and you hear them and you work up arrangements. But the only way we work on arrangements is so when we get on stage we can throw that all out the window. We’re never really sure where a song is going to go. That’s the beauty of jazz—navigating that very fine line.


Jim James guest appearance with the PHJB: Newport Folk Festival, 2010

I’m about to have my first child. The person who is taking my place was actually a former student of mine. When I came back to New Orleans in 1993, I taught at my alma mater, the Old New Orleans Center for the Creative Arts. So one of my students, Ronnelle Johnson, is taking my place. He’s not that much younger than me. I think that’s amazing. Can you think of any other band that has an age range from their 30’s to their 80’s? That’s incredible.

Are you just taking a little time off to have the child?

Yeah, we’re literally expecting any day now. I just played a show in San Francisco and flew home immediately after the show. I’m home with my wife now. Literally it’s hour to hour. We’re going to remain nomadic as a band and I’m introducing this new member to the band, which is a beautiful thing to be able to do… giving another New Orleans jazz musician an opportunity to be involved.

How does the band work as far as recruiting new members and wanting new members? Does it happen naturally? Is it a closed circle?

Yeah, there’s a process. But the process began 100 years ago. I can say that every member of the Preservation Hall Jazz Band has always come from New Orleans and has always been from a musical family. I wouldn’t say that’s the criteria, but it is important that the members of the band are members of the community. There’s something in our DNA and in our soul. I think that that’s why it’s important to know that we’re trying to perpetuate this tradition. We’re not a repertory band. We’re not trying to sound like a band that existed 100 years ago. What we play today is what people listen to in New Orleans. You can go out and listen to this music any night in New Orleans. There is another generation coming up that are playing this music in their teens. People pass the torch down and we have the obligation to make this music available to younger people. And you know what, there is something different about New Orleans. There is something special about this city. There’s something you can’t ever learn or study. There’s something intangible you know from living here. The red beans and rice, the church on Sundays, the parades, Mardi Gras. Wherever you grow up, you’re a product of that environment. Preservation Hall is just a reflection of our community.


PHJB together with the MMJ rhythm section: January 1, 2013

Yes, all of those things. We have a real challenge because it’s easy for New Orleans to be portrayed as a circus. We can fall into this Las Vegas and Disneyland category. That is something that has always been a challenge for me personally. It’s a challenge for people to see beyond that first level of Mardi Gras beads and Bourbon Street and see how deep our traditions are here. What the hurricane did here was reveal to the world exactly what New Orleans is. We’re not just Spring Break and cheap Chinese Mardi Gras beads–although that is a part of New Orleans…always has been, always will be–  but that’s not all we are. That’s not the New Orleans I’m a part of. The New Orleans I know is marching in parades and going to musicians’ houses and knowing their families and learning to cook by those musicians. What the hurricane did was give us a stage to tell our story in a modern age. We’ve had awful hurricanes before, but we never had access to the international stage through the internet and national media. If it happened 30 years ago, people wouldn’t have known for weeks. Now you can wake up in London and watch it on CNN. It’s minute by minute. And that was an incredible feeling, and still is.  Without that support we wouldn’t have come back as a city. Katrina brought us to our knees and it’s amazing that we were able to come back and rebuild.


The Preservation Hall Jazz Band behind a Jim James guitar solo, New Year’s Eve, Boston, 2012

for more information on the PHJB:

and for more information on the history of the Hall and current venue listings:

New Multitudes: Woody Guthrie’s memory lives on through a supergroup quartet

In honor of this month’s PBS premiere of Ken Burns’ amazing new documentary series, “The Dust Bowl”, featuring the music of Woody Guthrie, I give you this year in the life of New Multitudes.

A supergroup of sorts, yet leaving any ego behind, New Multitudes is a quartet formed to honor and record unreleased songs of Woody Guthrie on this, the centennial year of his birth.

Woody Guthrie wasn’t just the voice of a generation– he was the voice of several generations, and his legacy is destined to live on forever. Known reverently as America’s premier folk singer, Guthrie was the voice of the people, the voice of protest and a voice of peace. He sang for children, for the workers, for the underdog, and always against injustice. One of the most important storytellers of all time, he is not only known for his original songs, but also for keeping traditional tunes alive and relevant in our nation’s historical repertoire.

It is within this history of retelling the tales of others that the recent New Multitudes record came to be. Paying homage to Woody, and released as a tribute to the centennial anniversary of his birth, four of America’s most earnest troubadours have united to honor Guthrie by recording an album of his previously unreleased songs and taking those tunes on the road for a brief American tour.

First conceived by Jay Farrar (Uncle Tupelo, Son Volt, Gob Iron) back in 1995 as a potential collaboration between him and Billy Bragg, the idea fell through and eventually his old bandmate, Jeff Tweedy, would pursue the project with Bragg instead. Farrar would eventually return to the project, enlisting Anders Parker (his band mate in Gob Iron) and later Jim James (of My Morning Jacket) and Will Johnson (of Centromatic and South San Gabriel). Invited by Woody’s granddaughter, Nora Guthrie, Farrar and company were invited to the Woody Guthrie archives in New York City and rummaged through an overwhelming and well-organized file of unreleased Woody Guthrie songs.

Recording the songs over an extensive time frame, the four participants released New Multitudes on February 28 of this year on Rounder Records. Each member assumes the position of lead vocalist for three tracks each, alternating in sequence, and with each of the members joining in at the harmonies and backing instrumentation. In spring 2012, the band did a small big city tour to showcase the record with each member adding some of their own material to the each show’s set list.

The following interviews with Will Johnson and Jay Farrar were conducted separately, over the phone, and just a few days into the tour. Accompanying the interview are exclusive photos and videos from the band’s shows in Boston and at the Newport Folk Festival. Enjoy….

An interview with Will Johnson:

Nolan: Hey Will, how are you?

Will: Hey Nolan. I’m doing okay. I appreciate your patience in doing this and keeping the volley going. This might be a record. This might be one for the books in trying to organize an interview.

I know you’re busy and I’m just glad we get to talk. Where are you guys now?

We’re in Portland right now. We got in about midnight last night.

How have the shows gone so far?

It’s just been a ton of fun. We only have 2 under our belt and it’s been fun trying to assemble it and its been quick. We’ve had to do soundchecks basically as full-set run-thru rehearsal to make sure we have all our ducks in order. But I’m around some really great folks and just as I said when I was doing the Monsters of Folk tour, I have the best seat in the house [as the drummer]. This is a pretty good band and I feel very lucky to be part of it.

Is it just the four of you on stage?

Yes, it is.

Let’s start with the beginnings of this project. Who approached who and who joined on in time?

I guess going back to 1995-1996, Jay [Farrar] was in contact with Nora Guthrie [Woody’s granddaughter] and the idea was to work with Billy Bragg on some Woody Guthrie recordings. I guess the timing didn’t work out. I don’t exactly know the details, but it didn’t happen. But Jay attained to eventually get around to that on his terms. Toss that forward to 2005 and 2006, I guess he and Anders had Gob Iron and they went to the archives and started tracking with Nora’s blessing to put music to these lost and unrecorded Woody lyrics. That gained a little steam. Then in 2008-2009, Jim went by the archives and heard some of those recordings just to say he liked the songs that he heard. Then Jay extended the invitation to Jim and soon after they discussed it, they extended it to me. Then it started to snowball. Jim and I went to New York and cut our songs and got together for a followup session about a year later in March of 2010. So this record came from various corners of the universe in a way—recording sessions and different locations. But the cool thing is that we’ve all known each other for years and years and years through touring and recording and mutual admiration. I guess I go back to 1998 with Jay and Anders and Jim and I have known each other for years of course. It takes awhile to tell that story because it took that long to make the record.

Was everyone in the studio at once or did you guys do it in pairs?

Jay and Anders had the bulk of their tracks done before Jim and I came along. And they had various musicians record with them. The session that took place in ’09 shortly after I was invited involved all four of us. We were at the studio in Brooklyn for a week and we cut Jim’s three songs and we cut my three songs and we all played all over theirs. The session that took place in 2010 was mainly to get mine and Jim’s background vocals on Jay and Anders songs so that there’s a continuous run of fingerprints—everyone’s fingerprints are on all the recordings.

Did you get to go to the archives?

I still have not got to go. The way I received my choices and selections and song choices was from Jay, who had been to the archive several times. He sent me photocopies of 16 to 18 pages of Woody’s writings and scribbles and metered song lyrics… things like that. I went through those on my own time, but I still have to get to the archives.

Where is the Guthrie archive?

It’s in Manhattan as far as I know.

Is it open to the public or do you have to be specially invited?

I guess I’ll find out. I think people have to be in touch with Nora.

What has her roll been in this project?

I hope she goes to the New York show.

So you recorded for a week and just started practicing for the shows this past week?

That’s right. We went down to St. Louis and had three practice days at Jay’s studio doing the best we could to work out a set.

Does the song each person sings on the record reflect the song that they individually decided on to do, or was it a united effort?

I would say so. Speaking from my own experience, I got that mailer from Jay sand spread those pages out on the couch and just decided to find the things that came most naturally. It sounds a little cryptic but I started cutting demos within twenty minutes of opening the mailer. As far as the set we’re going to go straight through and then a mini second set where we do a solo song a piece and a solo song with the full band backing. It’s a full night of music for sure, but I think going in we wanted to perform every bit of the record for sure.

What did Woody Guthrie mean to you and did that view change in anyway with you participating in this project and recording his unrecorded songs?

It’s one of the most humbling feelings I’ve ever experienced. I feel I’m repeating myself with this, but I feel that it is truly one of the most highest honors that I could have ever experienced, either artistically, or in life. Woody Guthrie was always important to me as a kid, thanks to my folks and my grandparents and adults around me. By 1997, I really started exploring deeper into how complex and encompassing he was on all life levels. Just the breadth of his pallet became apparent to me. That Joe Klein biography sticks out to me as an important stage in me learning more about Woody and just how many people he affected. Once I read that book I started to look for more recordings. I guess it didn’t hurt that I was living with a semi-Woody obsessed roommate. So it was always around the house. We actually had a record player in the bathroom and whenever you flipped on the light switch it activated the record player. So, if we were taking a shower, the record player would go and there were a couple of Woody records that were on that record player for the better part of a year, which is great. Use the rest room, brush your teeth and you’d always hear Woody. That was such an important part of my life where I chose to dive in and wanted to learn more about this person.

I know that you and Jim are roadwarriors. Do you see an affinity with Woody Guthrie and that aspect of bringing his music on the road while rambling around the country?

Yeah, Jim and I met just from that sort of setting. It was the Jacket’s first U.S. tour and a good friend of mine was promoting the show in Austin. My friend had some really keen insight and is really responsible for forging the friendship and our friendship’s to flourish. He kind of insisted that South San Gabriel play that show with My Morning Jacket. And we played that show and friendships were forged immediately. Jim and I would send recordings to each other and we did tours in Europe and the US. That friendship flourished into the Monsters of Folk tour and this project as well.

When you approached Woody’s unreleased songs, to what degree did you try to consider how Woody would sing the song versus giving the song your own treatment?

That’s a really good question. On one song [“No Fear”], I took into account how Woody would have sang it and I could hear his voice so clearly when I read those words. Such simple lyrics and if you see the page, it’s scrawled out, it’s later in his life and his faculties were…um… his handwriting was a little shakey, and that makes reading those lyrics all the more intense. There’s still this fire, despite the condition he was in, but he was struggling with his handwriting. That song I did in fact hear his voice and I always kind of thought that Woody was one of the original punk rockers and when those lyrics–to my eyes, and eventually my ears– were very punk rock. Looking death straight in the eye and not being afraid of it. With the other two songs, I tried not to bring in too many outside influences and tried to let the lyrics guide me and let it unfold in a way that felt most natural. I thought it would be incredibly daunting, but I found the songs came very naturally and quick and I think that’s a testament to his voice and his songwriting.

An Interview with Jay Farrar

JF: Thanks for being flexible and thanks for your patience.

NG: No Problem. So are the shows going well so far?

JF: Yeah, really well. Even the first show. There’s always a first show aura I guess and it felt like we’d already been doing it for a while, so it’s going well.

Do you wanna give a brief history as to the beginnings of this project. I know you spearheaded it because you did stuff awhile back.

Yeah the idea of working with Woody Guthrie goes back to 1995-1996 when a request came through the record company. Son Volt was on Warner Brothers then and the idea was to work with unreleased Woody Guthrie lyrics and to work with Billy Bragg. That didn’t happen, but the idea started then. Then in 2006, I approached Nora Guthrie and she said sure. At that point we started going into the Woody Guthrie archives.

So as far as the Billy Bragg thing, did Jeff Tweedy [former bandmate in Uncle Tupelo] just take and run with that?

I don’t know, but frankly I don’t really care which is important. This project finally came to fruition and it’s a great experience working with Will, Jim and Anders.

So you did some songs before this band got together?

That’s right. That’s reflected in the bonus deluxe version of the New Multitudes record, which has a lot of extra songs. Those were songs that Anders Parker and I got a head start on. We started recording, sometimes together and sometimes individually in 2006 and we started the process. Since the beginning this has been a side project and we just did what we could. Probably for the best, there was never any record company involved. The best example of that is that I once traded a guitar to make a recording situation happen. It’s always been an ad hoc situation to make this happen.

How did you come about meeting Nora Guthrie?

We met her while visiting the archives. She’s been supportive all along.

Tell me a little bit about the archives. Do you have to be invited there or can anyone go?

That’s a good question. I was invited because I approached Nora about doing a project with Woody Guthrie lyrics and I’m not sure what she thinks about anyone stopping by, but…. At the time in was located in upper Manhattan and it just occupied just a few relatively small rooms, but there was a vast amount of Woody Guthrie stuff there. It was essentially a repository of all things Woody and lyrics that had never been put to music. Originally I started with the letter “A” with the intention of making it all the way to the letter “Z”, but after about two days, I realized I was only on the letter “C” and wasn’t going to make it and started picking letters arbitrarily that I thought might be good like the letter “S”.

So everything is that well organized?

It is. It’s organized by pre-existing lyrics and then there are journals, which Woody often engaged in more of a free-form style of writing. Sometimes it was a stream of consciousness style, like in the song “Hoping Machine” which reflects Woody’s charms.

What was the craziest thing you found in the archive?

There are too many to mention, but when we found the song “Hoping Machine”, it was just in the middle of his journals where he would be writing routine stuff like “I woke up and drank coffee” and right after that he would launch into something philosophical, along the lines of  “Hoping Machine” which struck me to be a song where he’s talking about music as a language… where the mind which travels back to the laws of time and space.

Were all of these songs from a similar time period, or do you even know?

I started out concentrating Woody’s work in the 1940’s. That particularly interested me because it was a period where his guitar said “This Machine Kills Fascists”. And it was also a period where Woody went in and out of St. Louis, which is where I’m from. I think that “Hoping Machine” comes from the period. But, as Nora pointed out, most of the work that we chose was from a later period, maybe in the 1950’s when he was in California.

What did Woody mean to you before and has that perspective changed now that you’ve recorded his songs and even discovered his unreleased works?

I think going into the project I always thought that Woody was the first guy who though music could change the world. He was essentially the archetype. You can draw a flowchart with people that Woody Guthrie influenced along the way. But I think just visiting the archives it was amazing how prolific he was at creating. I think his first profession was a sign painter.

When you went into these songs, what part of you was conscious of giving the songs your own treatment versus the was Woody would have played them?

We didn’t really go into the writing or recording project with any game plan. We just wanted it to evolve and would reflect each of the various backgrounds that each of us bring to the background.

Would you say you wanted the songs to sound like how Woody imagined them, or did you try and do your own take on things?

There was never any conscious thought about how Woody would have sang it. But I think there are instances where we’re gelling enough to sound like Woody would have done it.