He's not the Messiah . . . .
He may look a bit like Jesus and talk like a hippie, but Alex Ebert – of Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros – is really a rapper at heart, he tells LAUREN MURPHY
HE’S NOT the Messiah – or a very naughty boy, for that matter – but he has been hailed as the former in the past. In fact, you could hardly blame Alex Ebert if he had a superiority complex on an epic scale, when fans of his band Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros post (not entirely facetious) comments online such as: “Seriously, how can you not like a band that has Jesus Christ for a frontman?”
“Ummm . . . y’know, it’s . . . ummm . . . ” Ebert hesitates before breaking into knots of laughter. “Well, I think that a lot of people’s judgments are based topically, but I do think – for me – that there is something to the Jesus thing. I mean, if we’re all at least trying to be what we think Jesus was, then we’re doing good. We’re not becoming Christians; we’re becoming loving, and kind, and all that good shit. I mean, if I didn’t have a beard and long hair, would I still get those references? Would we be called a hippie band? I really believe that if I didn’t have a beard, we would be called an r’n’b band, or maybe a country band. But I don’t think we would get as much of the ‘psychedelic’ or ‘hippie’ labelling.”
But it’s not just the hair and beard that lead many devotees of the 10-strong Californian band’s music to proclaim Ebert as their God. Ebert has flirted with spiritualism and religion in his lyrics, especially since Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros released their debut album, Up from Below, in 2009. Their new album, Here, further toys with the notion of a higher power, not least on the genial folky thump of I Don’t Wanna Pray, with its refrain of “I love my God, God made love”. But don’t make the mistake of pigeonholing them as “Christian rockers”, or anything of the sort.
“I don’t see any reason why religion should have a monopoly on spiritual language,” the erudite singer says. “In some ways, I think I Don’t Wanna Pray is the most dangerous song that I’ve ever put out, because it does seem, in some ways, straight-up-and-down religious. And yet it’s also sort of alienating to every side that feels strongly about religion. I think that it’s kind of important to bleed the lines, and to reclaim language for your own, and be able to have that sort of conversation.”
Despite his protestations, Ebert’s musings do emit a distinctly hippy-ish vibe; it wouldn’t be that surprising to hear that his formative years were spent on some sort of commune (they weren’t). But though he admits that an experience in elementary school where “this lady would come in with her acoustic guitar and we’d all sing along” has inspired many Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros songs, his first love was rap music.
“My mom showed me a story that I wrote when I was six, and it started with the line ‘Once there was a boy who had a crew . . .’, and I thought that that was so amazing that at six years old, I was so interested and fascinated in surrounding myself with a group – and also that I used the word ‘crew’,” he chuckles. “I started a short-lived rap group when was about seven or eight, but later, when I was 13 or 14, I started a rap crew that lasted for about four years. If you listen to Dear Believer on the new album, youll still hear that hip-hop influence there.”
Ebert’s music career has been nothing if not eclectic. He first found fame as a vocalist with (the still-in-existence) electronic rockers Ima Robot, but these days, most of his time is spent on the band that came to fruition via a book that he was writing based on a fictitious character called Edward Sharpe.
He adapted the name for the band, which was less about going in search of bombastic studio sounds and more about getting back to songwriting and making gigs “an inclusive experience” for attendees, Ebert admits that his confidence as a songwriter and producer has grown exponentially over the past few years. That feeling was reinforced with the success of Home, a track from Up from Below which was featured on numerous TV shows, adverts and movie soundtracks, as well as by writing, recording, playing and producing his solo debut, Alexander, which was released last year. Those cumulative events have led to an album that is undoubtedly more even in tone than its predecessor.
“Well, that happened mainly because we originally made Here a double album, the second part of which I’m currently trying to finish,” he explains. “So I think that instead of [Here] being an ‘eclectic mix’ – the sort of thing that most albums are supposed to be, by most peoples’ standards – I realised that we had the opportunity to make an album that really had a feeling to the whole thing, and that felt like a statement as a whole,” he explains. “When you look at those songs lyrically, there’s a really intense through-line to them.”
Still, but despite Here’s focus and consistency, Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros remain something of an odd prospect. They’re not quite Americana or folk-oriented enough to appeal to fans of bands such as The Low Anthem, nor are they poppy enough to get major radio airplay (yet). Where does Ebert think his bands place in the world is?
“I don’t know,” he says, with a resigned sigh. “To me, Edward Sharpe is a feeling first, and music second. It’s an idea first.” There he goes, making with the “hippie” quotes again, I point out.
“Okay,” he laughs, trying another tack. “To me, it’s very atemporal. We’re not a throwback or anything, just more of a timeless sort of thing. When I hear a song of ours and it sounds timeless, then I know that song is ready to go.
“A lot of the contemporary music I hear, I just get this funny sensation that it’s all gonna disappear. Not all of it, but a lot of it is just gonna evaporate. Unless something feels timeless and it’s got a beautiful melody and meaningful words and a sense of real soul to it, I don’t see how it’s gonna survive. In some ways, sometimes when we’re writing songs I don’t necessarily think about today’s audience – more tomorrow’s. I think we’ve captured that sense with Here. I don’t exactly know where we belong. But I think we’re doing alright.”
Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros play the Olympia Theatre on July 17th. Here is out on Rough Trade now