This piece originally appeared in print in So It Goes Issue.2, Autumn 2013.
Alexander Ebert, frontman of Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros, looks every inch the countercultural icon. Flowing locks, open-necked shirt, loose linen trousers and chest dotted with beaded necklaces, he is the epitome of transcendental cool. It could be easy for this to over- shadow his music, with a pseudonym that could leave him open to accusations of pretence, but So It Goes found a man in tune with his goals and left with the feeling that real knowledge had been imparted.
Alex is having some downtime in New Orleans. He describes the pace of life, “If you allow it to, things can get slow in a really beautiful way. You’re walking down the street to market, but you’re taking a step every three seconds. You’re walking slow and it’s just a good feeling.” Perhaps we should all take a leaf out of his book when it comes to settling on our environment. It certainly seems to have paid off in the laidback, sage way he comes across.
His band Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros has struck a chord with audiences around the world for the sincerity and hope that punctuates their music. They hover between psychedelia, country, Americana and many more – he describes the strumming pattern in country music as “essentially the same as reggae if you slow it down a bit” and names ‘You Were Wrong’ as an example on the eponymous new album. Many have found something to love, from original anthem ‘Home’ to the new paean to camaraderie that is ‘Life is Hard’.
The band’s influences may be disparate, a symptom perhaps of being a travelling musical collective, but his relationship to those influences is interesting: multiplicity is an “alibi” that allows him to perform different roles. For some, instead of being emblems of American music culture who channel Grateful Dead licks, Motown duets and Willie Nelson yarns, the eleven Magnetic Zeros spread themselves too thinly. Jacks-of-all but not necessarily masters. This is a concern, he admits because, “Just like any other poor, shivering human being, I long for acceptance, but I try and fight that desire as much as possible. I try not to long for acceptance so I can be a free artist.”
The band comes into its own when performing live and it's tempting to see the music-making process of a collective as fundamentally ‘live’. To create authentic experiences there has to be jeopardy, the imperative of failure, something at stake. “The live experience is sort of untaintable. You can’t really fuck with the experience because it’s right there and, you know, it’s there for you to decide how much bullshit is going to be involved or not. You can make it as real and as adventurous as you want to. In that sense it’s just a very pure experience, no matter how much a business gets involved.”
Not exactly music to record label ears, but a breath of fresh air when you consider the homogenisation and over-production of large swathes of what we hear through hours of Internet streaming. Trying to exist in the moment, making live experiences count and conveying the collective ethos of a many-handed project across a dizzying array of musical styles, Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros are the musical Merry Pranksters of our times. “We’ve got to get back on the old bus,” Alex concludes. Don't we all.