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

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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?

Yes.

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.

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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.

Newport Folk Festival 2012: Photos and Video from the Historic Rhode Island Music Festival

Saturday’s festival began with the anxious lull of miles and hours of traffic and ended with chaotic torrential downpour, flash flooding and a lightning storm that would cut My Morning Jacket’s headlining set a few songs short. This however, made the experience all the more memorable.

With four stages of music overlapping in simultaneous performances, it would be impossible to witness everything, but nevertheless, one could try. The previously mentioned traffic made just about every commuter late, we had sadly just missed the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, but we strolled in just in time to catch bits of Deer Tick and more importantly, the Alabama Shakes. Heavy-hearted and soulful, the band delivered a spirited set for a massive audience posted up on the lawn of the main stage. Luckily this wouldn’t be last we’d see of the Shakes.

Seeking a bit of space, we headed over to the Quad to see Sharon Van Etten. Unfortunately, while her sultry croon was spot on, the experience as a whole became a little off-put with her awkward banter. Consistently asking why she was even performing at a folk fest, the comments seemed more disrespectful and snide than appreciative and flattered.

Iron and Wine followed Van Etten, and did so with a bit more poise. Despite a full-band that included an eclectic array of instruments including a clarinet and a pump-harmonium, Sam Beam and company’s set remained at a pleasant hush. Hitting on elements from their whole catalogue, the band even went into a unique rendition of the often covered “Long Black Veil”, first recorded by Lefty Frizzell.

The crowd on the usually spacious Quad had tripled in size for I&W, and it seemed that this year’s Sold Out festival brought a much bigger audience than previous years. Even the amount of vendors in the area had multiplied. Packing up our blanket, we headed to the Harbor Stage to catch the remaining minutes of First Aid Kit. The Swedish sisters who broke through the US market with the help of Conor Oberst, the band seemed to be right at home purveying their foreign folkish selections that, if you were wondering, were in English.

About this time, we had a quick bite and took our place in a lengthening queue to watch My Morning Jacket from the side of the stage. Finding a place in line with the lovely Laura Jean, who had spent the previous night making the band intricate boutonnieres with medallions and ribbon, we were overjoyed to see the band take stage wearing the beautiful arrangements. Patrick Hallahan even drummed the entire set in his specially made floral lei.

The Jacket’s set was, as we had assumed, a true highlight of the festival, and the reason we had come in the first place. Despite the fact that they are known primarily as one of the greatest and intense live rock bands of modern day, Jim’s roots could easily be deemed folkish– and he explored the softer side of his catalogue early in the set to prove it. Beginning with their newest number, “Welcome Home”, from their 2011 Christmas record, the band dove into the “Golden”, “The Way That He Sings”, “It Beats for You” and “Wonderful” which featured Ben Soille on cello and Laura Veirs singing backup. It would be the first of many songs in a set filled with special guest appearances.

Will Johnson of Centro-matic, New Multitudes and Monsters of Folk joined the band for their next selection, a devestating rendition of the always beautiful “Bermuda Highway”.

From there things became a bit more whimsical, and how do you say it… FUN. With Jim rocking a cape, the band broke into “Victory Dance”, the opening track from their latest full-length, Circuital. Imagine Dylan being persecuted for playing electric guitar at this same festival in the 1960’s and think about how strange it is that Jim James is now wearing a cape and sampler around his neck. My how times have changed. A once traditional and hard-nosed genre of music has come been blurred a bit in definition, but has grown exponentially with its tolerrance to change.

 

From fun to serious, the band segued into “Dondante”, a heavy-hearted and spacious tale about a fallen friend. Following the extended saxophone solo that ended the song, the band paid tribute to another fallen friend, Levon Helm, who was no stranger to headlining the Newport Folk Festival himself. Playing an emotional cover of The Band’s “It Makes No Difference”, the Jacket was joined by Brittany Howard of the Alabama Shakes on backup vocals and Clint Maegden of the Preservation Hall Jazz Band on saxophone.

Levon must have been impressed, because as soon as the song ended, the heavens opened and the rain began. Plastic wrap was quickly draped over equipment and guitar pedals as the stage crew scrambled behind the scenes to keep the show going. Conor Oberst of Bright Eyes joined the band for “Smoking From Shooting”, standing on a chair, yelling spirited backups and headbanging to the beat.

Just two more songs and the set would be cut short. The brass section from Preservation Hall was set to take the stage to join in what the set list referred to as “Carnival Time”, but do to the lightning, the players were escorted to safety, and we in the crowd were soon to follow.

Those of us with press and all-access passes were lucky enough to take cover in the fort while thousands of others began heading to the crowded parking lots drenched and up to their ankles in flash flooding. After waiting for even the smallest sign of letting up, we rolled up our pants, took off our shoes and made a break for it. During a disheartening wait in heavy parking lot congestion, we got word of an impromptu set back at the tent in the Quad and hurried back through the gates. Originally set up to be an after-hours electric set, the generator had failed and all hopes of amplification had gone out the window with the rain. Nevertheless, a handful of people took the stage with guitars, banjo and cello. Sarah Lee Guthrie took charge, eventually joined by a number of others, passing around the guitar and playing traditionals and sing-a-longs for the 50 or so lucky and patient people who stuck around waiting to see something special. THIS was folk. THIS is the spirit that inspired the movement, and here IT was happening, in a secret, unscripted and joyous manner and a pickup setting just like the early days of the genre.

While the rain continued, a quiet Jim James was recognized in the shadows and invited on stage. Always sincere, witty and unpredictable, James followed up the traditional hootenanny with a cover of INXS’ “Never Tear Us Apart”. Stripping down the song and removing any sort of irony, the selection was a far cry from the standards that the others were playing, but with Jim singing it, at that particular moment, the song could be seen at its core for what it was originally intended to be… a really beautiful and simple love song.

Here it is. See for yourself.

Newport Folk Fest: Sunday

After returning to Boston to avoid hotel inflation, I arrived back in Newport only to get stuck traffic of the same stress level. An hour drive became 3 hours by the time I parked. Luckily I was just in time for New Multitudes. A Woody Guthrie tribute band consisting of Jim James, Jay Farrar (Son Volt, Uncle Tupelo), Anders Parker (Varnaline, Gob Iron) and Will Johnson (Centro-matic, Monsters of Folk, South San Gabriel), the foursome took unreleased Woody Guthrie songs from his archive and released them earlier this year in honor of Guthrie’s 100th birthday.

Just like the record, the set was beautifully planned with each member alternating lead vocals and the others singing backup. Ending with the powerful “New Multitudes”, the band seemed to provide the same hope and change through music that Woody Guthrie insisted upon through his life’s work.

Woody Guthrie was and is American Folk Music. He gave purpose to the song, a message to the melody, and without him, there probably wouldn’t even be a Newport Folk Festival.

From here it was onto see Charles Bradley. A tragic life story of survival and persistence, Bradley, despite his love of music, didn’t release any music until the age of 51. Inspired by James Brown, Otis Redding and sounding like 60’s soul without being a revivalist, I caught the last moments of Bradley’s set and a striking renditon of Neil Young’s “Heart of Gold”.

The next time slot may have been the toughest of the festival. People would have to choose between Tune-Yards. Conor Oberst, or Carl Broemel. For me the choice was simple. As My Morning Jacket’s guitarist, Carl Broemel’s solo shows are rare. Mostly because he has no time. But with a great solo record released last year, I wanted to see how the performance carried out live.

Performing and recording primarily as a one-man band, Broemel loops lyrics, guitars and pedal steel culminating in meticulous vocal harmonies and instrumental layers. After a handful of songs, Bo Koster of MMJ joined him on keys and Ben Sollee on cello. Still when Broemel was alone, he filled the room as if he were backed by a full band. Ending whimsically with a  cheeky-yet-respectful version of “Lollipop”, the rains came again. It seemed like a good time for me to leave. Instead of watching Jackson Browne, I chose to write this until 8am.