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.

Jeff Bridges Abides: The Unedited Interview

ww-1-2With the recent release of his new movie, “Seventh Son” and his strange series of zany zen-like internet ads advertising his “Sleeping Tapes,” it seems to be the perfect time to share this unedited interview with the one and only, Jeff Bridges.

Most of us already knew Jeff Bridges as the coolest, most humble mofo in the movie industry, but then he went and added to that image by proving he’s a great musician and songwriter as well. After playing the tragic country music hero and winning an Oscar as Bad Blake in “Crazy Heart,” he soon after presented the world with a stellar self-titled country/folk album. A positive collection of well-constructed songs, Bridges teamed up with producer T. Bone Burnett and proved that he had even more to offer his fans. Hot on the heels of the recent movie, “The Giver,” Bridges somehow found the time to take his band of Abiders on the road this past fall. The show was immensely entertaining and if you were already curious about just how damn cool Bridges is, lets just say that in addition to performing his own songs, he covered Townes Van Zandt’s “To Live is To Fly,” “Looking Out My Back Door,” by Creedence, and sat down at the keyboard for an emotional rendition of a rare Tom Waits song from the “One From the Heart” Soundtrack. Not even Tom plays that one anymore. I was blessed to talk to Mr. Bridges over the phone just a few months ago to ask him about the music and more. Included are exclusive photos I took at his recent performance at the Wilbur Theater in Boston. Ladies and gentleman… Mr. Jeff Bridges….

ww-1JB: Hello. Jeff Bridges here. Hey Nolan. Is this Nolan? Hey Nolan, how are you doing?

NG: I’m doing all right. How about yourself?

I’m doing alright.

Gearing up for the new movie I assume?

That’s right. We’re doing a lot of press for that. And we’re prepping for the next tour which is coming up.

When did you start making music? Was it something you did before movies and did you ever have to choose between movies and music? Or was it something that came after?

I’ve been playing since I was 13 or 14, and as far as a time when I wondered if I wanted to go into that, I seriously questioned and asked myself whether acting was going to be my path. And as I grew older it became the path of least resistance. I took that path with the most energy, but the music has always been part of my life. I have a little studio and I like writing music and playing with my friends.

Tell me about the timeline of your self-titled album and your role in “Crazy Heart”. Which came first and did one inspire the other?

“Crazy Heart” came first and it certainly inspired my record. T-Bone Burnett and I have been friends for a very long time and I met him, oh about 30 years ago on “Heaven’s Gate,” and we played a lot of music on that. And that in a way gave birth to “Crazy Heart”. And after “Crazy Heart” was over, I became deep into the music and kinda restarted my musical thinking there and I thought if there was ever a time to live my teenage music dream, that would be the time. So I called up my buddy T-Bone and gave him a bunch of songs that I thought would be good and he liked them and that was that.

 What kind of advice has T-Bone given you over the years that has helped you along the way musically?

He gave me some great advice during “Crazy Heart” that stuck with me through the album as well. T-Bone really likes to make a universe that comes from an alternate universe. When we did the music from “Crazy Heart” he didn’t want to copy anyone’s style, he wanted to make music that was fresh, familiar, but different. He didn’t want it to sound like anyone else. He made me a list of all of the guys that my character Bad Blake would have listened to while growing up in Fort Worth. He knew what he was talking about because that’s where he grew up. He said “you’d be listening to Merle Haggard, Hank Williams and those guys, but you’d also be listening to Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, the Beatles.” I asked if I’d be listening to Captain Beefheart? And he said “Oh yeah! You’d be listening to Ornette Coleman too.” That was also for the idea for the Jeff Bridges album too. It didn’t have to be a pure country album or a pure anything.

You were also on “Heaven’s Gate” with Kris Kristofferson, and he was someone who went the opposite way—from music to film. Did you learn anything from him? Did he have an impact on you? Was he someone you looked up to that merged the two careers?

He’s a big inspiration as a songwriter. He’s just phenomenal. Getting to act with him is just wonderful and he’s just great in that movie. We saw each other not too long ago at the Austin City Limits 40th anniversary and we had a great time together.

I read somewhere that when you envisioned the Bad Blake character you envisioned him. Is that true?

That’s not true. He’s certainly one of the guys. I didn’t model it after Kris or anything. Our director Scott Cooper said that Bad Blake was the fifth Highwayman. You know, Willie, Johnny Cash, Kris. Merle Haggard? No, not Merle.

Waylon?

Yeah Waylon! Waylon was it. He was a great, great one.

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Bad Blake plays a character who has a rough, rough life and that’s where his songs come from. And I feel a lot of great country musicians get their inspiration from that as well. I don’t want to assume, but I feel like you have a pretty great, relaxing, exciting life. Where do you get your inspiration from? Do you feel the blues? Where do you get your songs from?

Well, I think everybody suffers man. You know, that’s just a part of life. I just kind of pull things from my own life. And things don’t always have to be about struggle. They can be about happy things. I also like working with my friend John Goodwin (misheard as John Goodman for obvious reasons). And we bounce stuff off each other. And things don’t always have to be about struggle. They can be about happy things.

So John Goodman helped you with your songs?

Well no. It’s not John Good MAN, It’s John Good WIN. Yeah those are two different cats.

So how long were these songs in the making? Were they written all at the same time? Were they culled from all over your life?

What songs? From the Jeff Bridges album? Yeah, I don’t remember all the songs on there, but a lot of the songs are older songs that I wrote in the past and I think I did some John Goodwin songs. There’s a song I wrote with T-Bone on the album. I was trying to write a song for Bad Blake, but it didn’t quite work for Bad Blake or that album. It was called “Slow Boat”. I did the lyrics and T-Bone did the lyrics for that.

ww-1-5Were you upset in any way that they didn’t use any of your original songs as the theme to “Crazy Heart”

No, not really. They use a lot of really great songs.

Your first record was very different then your most recent self-titled record? What changed in your songwriting and how do you see the overall change in style?

Well, there are some songs that I wrote on the Jeff Bridges album that are from the same period as the “Be Here Soon” album. With that album a lot of the difference was in the casting of the album. I produced the album with my dear friend and current musical director of the Abiders, Chris Pelonis and Michael McDonald. And both of those people influenced the record quite a bit. And with T-Bone, the band that he uses often became the sound of the Jeff Bridges album. For the “Be Here Soon” record, it was an eclectic mix, it wasn’t any of the people in the Abiders except for Chris. But there are some similarities, but overall the tone is much different on those albums.

Do you remember your first show and what year was it? How old were you?

My first show? The first thing that pops in my head is probably a hootenanny at the Troubadour in Los Angeles. It was with my buddy David Greenwald.

Were you in anyway nervous? Was there a feeling different than being onstage acting?

I find most often that I’m most nervous right before I get on stage and while I’m on stage I’m kind of relaxed. I’m kind of in character.

You’ll always have this place in people’s heart as the “Dude” and I was wondering if that gets old or if you relish it. Then I saw that your band is called the Abiders and realized you must find joy in that.

Hahaha (laughs). Yeah I’m very proud to be part of that film. It’s a wonderful movie. It would be one of my very favorites even if I wasn’t in that film. The Cohen brothers… they’re nasty.

ww-1-3Speaking of the Abiders, do you always tour with the same band or does it change over time and become about who is available?

It’s pretty much the same. Occasionally I tour with T-Bone, with the “Speaking Clock” tour, I toured with Elton John, Leon Russell and Elvis Costello among others. We toured a bit. But I love playing with the Abiders. They’re my homeboys. They’re the cream of the crop.

How many are in the band?

Five all together.

Do you have a favorite person you’ve felt blessed to shared the stage with?

Ah, yeah. A couple come to mind. John Fogerty invited me onstage at Sturgis– you know the big motorcycle festival. That was great. And then I did a movie with Bob Dylan and got to do stuff with him, which was fun.

How do you compare film and music performance? With film its almost like you put it in the oven and see what develops, while with music you get an immediate response. What do you like about each? Do you prefer one over the other?

In a way I look at performing sort of like doing an improvisation with the audience… like we’re working on something together. If the audience enjoys the music it makes me enjoy it more. And vice versa, We feed off each other like that. And that’s like working on a scene with somebody. Because that’s my realm, the acting realm, I think of it in those terms. But it is great to get that immediate feedback.

You’re obviously not Bad Blake in real life. Who do you think most resembles you in a role you have played?

Well, gee I think physically, between movies I let my hair grow and my beard grow because I can always cut it off—so physically it would probably be the Dude. Inside, gee you know I think about the ethics and myself parallel to the character I’m playing. There’s an element of myself in every character. If there are things that are unshared in between me and my character, I kind of kick those to the curb.

You’re playing the Ryman and pretty amazing places like that. Do you feel like you’ve been accepted by the country and folk communities, or do you not even care about that?

I have in my mind been accepted. People I admire dig my stuff. I’m not sure about the whole community. I try not to think too much about that. I try to enjoy myself and have fun.

Is there anyone you’d like to sing alongside that you haven’t been able to yet?

I don’t really don’t think in those terms really. There are so many wonderful artists that I like and respect. I kind of take it as it comes. I’ve been talking to Judy Collins. She’s invited me to sing on an album of duets that she;s putting out.

You’ve been in Boston a bunch for movies. Are there things you like to do while you’re in town?

Boston, oh wow. Boston’s a wonderful place. Unfortunately on tour we don’t have much time to hang out, but there’s that wonderful little park. I’ve made a few movies there. They have swans. It’s not too big a park. I dig Boston a lot. Even when I was making movies I didn’t get to tour around as much as I would have liked to.

So, I read the William Hjortsberg biography of Richard Brautigan…

You read that whole thing. Wow! [Note it’s 864 pages].

So you are mentioned in that book a few times as being part of the Montana Gang when Brautigan was hanging out with the Fondas, Jimmy Buffet, Harry Dean Stanton, Warren Oates and a lot of notable people in Montana. Since I may never get to talk to anyone else who has met Richard Brautigan, I wanted to ask you what he was like.

He was such a great talent. Man those were some times. I met my wife during that period.

What’s your favorite of his books?

I really love the Tokyo-Montana Express. I feel like he fits so much into just a few words and simple sentence structure.

Oh yeah, that book is like poetry. He was just such a great talent. I always thought me and my brother would make a movie out of “Hawkline Monster,” but we might be getting too old at this point.

Ok, last question. I have to ask… What are your true feeling about the band the Eagles. Do you really hate the f**king Eagles?

That’s not me. That’s the dude, man. I ran into those guys at a party and those guys gave me a lot of shit. I said don’t take it personally man. It’s a movie man. The Eagles are fine. I dig Creedence too.