[14 October 2013]
PopMatters Interviews Editor
“Here’s a story for the kids!”
For many people, that opening line from Ima Robot’s very first single, “Dynomite”, proved to be the introduction in the gloriously dynamic world of Alex Ebert. The man straddled new-wave pop-rock with that band for some time, but following the commercially underperforming 2006 album Monument to the Masses (which featured what is easily the greatest song that outfit ever did), Ebert knew it was time for reinvention.
When Edward Sharpe & the Magnetic Zeros dropped their debut album in 2009, no one was quite sure what to make of this burned-out, home-grown, quasi-spiritual set of songs that seemed to emerge from this hippie collective. However, a much buzzed-about song (the remarkable pop nugget “Home”), a burgeoning reputation as a must-see live act, and a train-based tour with long-standing friend Mumford & Sons soon lead to the outfit’s collective breakthrough. Another Ima Robot album followed (2010’s Another Man’s Treasure), as did a solo album (2011’s Alexander) and yet another Edward Sharpe release (2012’s Here). Alex Ebert is nothing if not a busy man.
These days, though, he’s conquering the world in different ways. Although the Magnetic Zeros did just put out their eponymous third disc, the group is also staging their own Big Top festival, which features a mix of hand-picked performers, a public farmer’s market, and the band playing every single day of the event, although not at predetermined times, because as Sharpe tells us, he’s not too big on the idea of there being “opening acts.”
In truth, Ebert is very forthcoming about the mixture of art and commerce that dominates today’s current musical landscape—and how he’s not a big fan of how it mixes together. “The only thing blocking me from putting [all my music] out under the same name is the whole commercial sort of setup of the music industry and of the artistic industry,” he tells us. “You have to brand, to some degree, but otherwise I’d put every band’s thing out under one name. I’m really excited to do a jazz album and I’m going to do that under the name Alexander which is really the only name I clearly identify myself personally with, not even particularly the rest of my name.
“But the name Alexander I really love and always have. And so a jazz album, an orchestral album—there’s one more reason other than commerce to keep an album somewhat akin to itself and somewhat continuously homogenized is to create an atmosphere for a period of 40 minutes or however long an album is. To create and really immerse people in an atmosphere so that you can really create an experience. That’s really important, and that’s why albums are still the [commercial] standard and artistically still the standard. It’s just like movies: it’s nice to be in a movie theater for an hour and a half ‘cos it seems to be the right amount of time to really tell a story in the dark. I think albums have a similar thing with that standard amount of time: 40-50 minutes.”
So does this mean that the digital age is outright killing all our previously-held definitions of what n album really is? “It’s not so much that [the album] is commercially viable as it’s artistically potent. It’s still the standard for artistic potency in regards to presentation in a world of music. I think a single song is great. I think that singles are back, but I think singles are going to come back even stronger than they are now, but artists ma not even put out albums, but instead put out singles, like in the ‘50s and ‘60s [where] the singles were your record. The thing that’s still important about albums is that for a band (for a touring band), there’s a familiarity for the listener so that they come to the show and know more than one song. So that’s the argument on the business side of things, but I think, more importantly, it’s the most artistically potent format to present a group of songs and who you are as an artist. The ‘rule’ is that you do the same thing with a twist each time, and that’s of course, intensely stifling.”
Ebert isn’t kidding when he’s talking about that rule. One of the more fascinating aspects of him as a songwriter has been watching him go from catchy raveups like Ima Robot’s “Cool, Cool Universe” to the whistling catharsis of “Truth”, which some eagle-eared listeners may remember from Season Four of Breaking Bad. With the new album, the band has stretched themselves out even further, but each one of Ebert’s projects has quietly been informing the other.
We ask him how he decides which songs are best designated as Ima Robot tracks and which ones best fit Edward Sharpe or the Alexander moniker, but Ebert’s answer is, as usual, remarkably candid: A lot of the time, [if] I know the song is about a specific love interest or my girlfriend or just about ‘Oh I had a fucked up thing happen today’ or some sort of thing like that I sort of generally feel [that] unless the context is somehow ‘bigger’—then it’s not an Edward Sharpe song. So I just try and sort of wing it, but a song like ‘Better Days’, which starts off this album, actually was going to be on my solo album, Alexander, but I never really got it to the right place, and so we just left it and revisited it later.”
Yet do any of these songs have a difficult time transiting from a simple outline to a full-blown group context? “I mean I definitely keep in mind the live shows and the idea of being a live group and all that,” he tells us, “but serving the song comes first of course, and there’s sections where everyone’s just gotta chill out and not play. So I think everyone sort of understands that the art of songwriting tends to be sort of self-describing or—I guess what I’m trying to say is that you arrive at the truth of the song in a sort of—how do I say this?—in a sort of ‘obvious’ way. The songs seems to desire what it desires but it tends not to be a very debatable thing. ‘Oh no, it should have this also,’ and then you try and that thing and then you realize ‘No, actually it doesn’t,’ or ‘Yes, actually it does want that.’ It’s not usually like ‘Oh we can have it or not have it’—it’s usually pretty damn obvious when something works better than something else. The song sort of leads the way is what I’m saying.”
Of course, with the evolution that the band has taken over the course of just three albums, some people are wondering what’s going to happen next: will they keep going on the desert-worn anthems of hope and collective joy or will there be a left-turn that completely shocks people of out their systems?
“The next one I wanna do is all of us more just in a room and with a lot less instruments (maybe just two or three) and a lot of group call-and-response and clapping and banging on things. And that will be another sound in some ways. I think for me, the idea of repetition or a distinct sound is just too much in the realm of commerce for me to sort of cope—it’s too much about branding. In fact, that’s all of it is really about: branding. There are those artists [who] do one thing and that’s all they ever do and that’s all they’ve ever done—I’m certainly not one of those people. The song that is the most intensely good on this new album is ‘This Life’. To me, ‘This Life’ is as close to a flawless recording and performance as I think I’ve ever done. I’m glad to be able to say that about a song that I recorded. I definitely can’t say that about most of the songs I’ve recorded.”
Is that why you made it t he last song on the album? “Yeah. Absolutely. It also has that ending which is such a good goodbye.”
Although he says goodbye to us now, those who see him at either his Big Top festival or just out on the road in general know full well that Edwards Sharpe & the Magnetic Zeros are never really a band you say goodbye to: they leave a bit of themselves inside of you each and every time.