The lead singer of Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros manages a new sincerity
Standing backstage at Coachella in April 2010, Alex Ebert couldn’t escape the nerves. He was moments away from kicking off the biggest show of his career, and the pressure kept mounting. Ebert had released his first album with Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros—Up From Below—less than a year earlier, and the wonderful single “Home” became popular enough to give the band a national profile. NBC’s Community used the song in an episode, a little girl and her father made a cover version that garnered tens of millions of YouTube views, and later in 2010, the NFL would run “Home” in a commercial promoting the upcoming season. The song was the engine of their growth, and even those reviewers who came down negatively on Up From Here—and there were plenty—had to admit that “Home,” a duet between Ebert and his bandmate and then-girlfriend Jade Castrinos, was a catchy, indie masterpiece.
The band began to fill larger venues in larger cities as their profile grew in 2009 and 2010, but Coachella was a new animal. Here, they were sharing the stage with legends like Thom Yorke and Jay-Z and Pavement. This was the big leagues, and Ebert, now 35, was struggling to stay calm backstage. Before Edward Sharpe, he’d been the lead singer of an electric rock/punk band called Ima Robot. He had worn gold lamé pants, cut his hair in high, straight lines above the sideburns, and carried himself in a way that was ironically detached, self-destructive, and just normally destructive all at once. When Ebert describes himself in those times, the adjectives don’t stop there; he includes “snarky,” “sarcastic,” “sardonic,” “obnoxious,” and adds, “I only smiled when I bled.”
Eventually, though, his life in the Los Angeles party scene veered off the rails, and when a drug addiction forced him into rehab, he felt the need for a change. He disengaged from every institution he could find; he broke up with his girlfriend, moved out of his house, tossed his cell phone, stopped driving, and even quit Alcoholics Anonymous, despite the implication that anyone who left was a dead man.
From this blank slate, he constructed the alter ego Edward Sharpe. He’s tired of talking about it today, because the name has become meaningless through overuse. He identifies with it less than ever, and isn’t sure it was much more than a name in the first place. But he admits it was the most spiritual time in his life, and along with the advent of Sharpe, his life was changed when he read a book by the Indian mystic Osho called “Courage: The Joy of Living Dangerously.”
Ebert knew his behavior to that point had been motivated by fear, and Osho’s premise—that uncertainty and insecurity are opportunities to react with courage in order to deepen our self-understanding through risk and adventure—came to him at exactly the right time.
“It was all about taking the big steps that were sort of scary and really going for it, and it was an interesting, scary, and exhilarating time,” he says now.
Edward Sharpe was a name to put to his new philosophy, and Ebert knew that if he wanted the world to embrace inclusiveness and sincerity, he had to follow that path first. His on-stage demeanor changed quickly, and instead of “performing” in the usual sense—the word had come to signify artifice, for him—he tried to interact with audiences and be as open as possible. He constantly reminded himself not to worry about his image, but just to stay honest.
At Coachella, it wasn’t so easy. He knew there were two choices available to him in the impending moments, one fearful and one brave, and he knew which one was more fulfilling. But he also knew how hard it would be, and how vulnerable it left him. His anxiety over the sheer magnitude of what he was about to face had begun to feel overwhelming. Finally, the nerves won out. Before he took the stage, he made the unconscious choice to protect himself and revert back to his self-destructive, punk rock persona. It was a moment of weakness, and though he didn’t know it yet, it would change his life. When he and the band finally stepped into the spotlight, to the cheers of the largest crowd they’d ever faced, Ebert picked up his microphone stand and threw it off stage. An act of meaningless defiance, sheltering him from the complex emotions he faced.
The stand bounced off the ground, cartwheeled forward to the front row of the audience, and hit a man right in the head.
The festival cameras left Ebert and sought out the victim. It didn’t take long; there he was, stunned, his forehead sliced open and bleeding into his hands. His image was broadcast on the Jumbotron, and a hush fell over the crowd as Ebert stood dumbfounded on stage. This was the biggest show of his career, and he had yet to play a single note.
The great irony of Ebert’s life as a musician is that the minute he strove for real, honest-to-god authenticity, he was immediately criticized as being inauthentic.
A scathing Pitchfork review of Up From Below, the first Edward Sharpe album, set the tone for the way music writers would attack Ebert. The writer called him a “robe-donning, beard-rocking guru” who had changed his image after failing with the punk aesthetic of Ima Robot in order to opportunistically capitalize on a burgeoning ‘60s feel-good revival. The writer noted that most of the songs sounded worlds apart and were all—save for “Home,” of course—”frothy,” cementing the notion that Ebert was a pseudo-messianic phony. That paved the way for more negative reviews, all essentially making the same points.
As you might imagine, Ebert doesn’t have a great affinity for music writers. When I caught him on the phone before a recent show in Manchester, England, he told me he doesn’t read much criticism and has yet to come across a reviewer he trusts.
“The problem with rock and roll is that you can’t read a fucking review without hearing about the musician’s beard,” he said. “Reviewers don’t seem to be able to actually listen to the music, so it’s hard for me to trust reviews of anything that has to do with rock and roll.”
Ebert said his perfect album review would be one that just went through every song, analyzing and comparing and seeking out influences, but more or less ignoring the artist. It’s easy to see why he would espouse a deconstructionist philosophy reminiscent of Barthes and Derrida—his music has been very successful, and his image, at least in critical realms, has not. He went on to tell me a story about a friend chatting online with a reviewer who had just sat down to listen to Alexander, Ebert’s 2011 solo album. The critic admitted that it was good, but when Ebert’s friend asked if that meant he’d write a positive review, he said no. But why? Because he hated Ebert.
At that point in the interview, I looked at my list of questions, almost all of which were about Ebert the person and almost none of which were about actual music, and started to develop a few nerves of my own. But he seemed eager to talk about criticism, and in particular about that nagging question of authenticity. It’s on his mind lately, because Edward Sharpe’s next album, self-titled, is due out on July 23 through Vagrant Records. The creation stage of the process is over, and as the band makes its way through a European tour, the waiting game is on. It’s natural for Ebert’s brain to drift to his past battles, especially when prompted to defend himself against the prevailing charge.
“It’s an amazing question,” he said, “I guess I must be putting something forth that warrants a thorough vetting of my personal authenticity, which is more than I can say for almost any other current musical act. Almost everyone is not pretending to be authentic in any regard and no one ever questions Lady Gaga’s authenticity. It’s irrelevant. It’s clearly dishonest and clearly all for show.”
He laughed at the reality of people questioning him now, in what he considers to be his most sincere and earnest incarnation. If either of his personas, Edward Sharpe or Ima Robot, were up for what he called a “dishonest award,” it would be the latter, and yet nobody was giving him a hard time when he dressed in gold pants and sang in an unnatural voice. Clearly, success makes part of the difference. After “Home” had thoroughly infiltrated American music, the band’s 2012 follow-up album, Here, debuted at no. 5 on the Billboard 200, selling 35,000 copies in its first week. Ebert, though, thinks it goes beyond merely selling records.
“When you have honest lyrics and honest intentions, that’s a large pill for most people to swallow,” he said. “And another thing to the puzzle is that people are afraid of change, and if someone changes, you can’t trust him. But the thing to me is, I need to change within an album and maybe even within a song, because that’s life. I cry, I laugh, I swear, I whisper, and for me as an artist, if I’m not expressing all those things, then I’m a product. I’ve simply homogenized myself in order to appear static and consistent and marketable, as if I have a stamp. And that’s not the kind of artist I would ever want to be….or could ever be.”
Therein lies the anger—or at least annoyance—that Ebert feels toward critiques like Pitchfork’s. They imply that he changed overnight, simply to accommodate a new image that might sell records and make him some money, where he knows that it was a long, painful process involving rehab and soul-searching and the decision to try his best to be a good person when the lesser angels of his nature were fighting hard to keep him on a self-defeating path. He was unhappy, and the change in image reflects an “inward actuality of change,” not a cynical cosmetic makeover.
He considers that choice the most courageous of his life, but he knows that many writers consider all earnestness a form of dim-wittedness. He also accuses them of relying on snark for their livelihoods, and thus having an impure motive to knock him down. But he understands them, too, because he suffered from the same demons, and had to make a tough choice to change his mindset and behavior. He just wishes they could understand him, too.
“The most brave song I’ve probably ever put out is a song called ‘I don’t want to pray,’“ he said, “which starts out, ‘I love my God, my God made love.’ And you know, it’s just because you can’t. You’re really not supposed to be doing that.”
Like many artists, Ebert shies away form organized religion while letting a near-devout spirituality inform his music. When he opened himself up to his instincts, they told him to just be at one with the crowd. He recognized the danger; by disavowing the brash, punk rock ethos of his Ima Robot days, he was depriving himself of a protective shell. A communal mindset means you don’t turn anything away, even if it hurts.
But it was a choice he made, along with Castrinos, and he did his best to make sure the rest of the band understood. Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros are often called a cult, and in terms of an ensemble cast, they fall somewhere just below the Polyphonic Spree. Ebert and Castrinos are usually flanked by at least ten others on stage, and for the first two years of their existence, those numbers made for tension and drama on the road—”gnarley, gnarley times,” per Ebert. The band has gone through a number of pianists, for one, to the point that it’s become an inside joke on the level of Spinal Tap’s drummer problem. But now, with the third album less than a week away, it’s all starting to click.
“And you know, the absolute key to any of our success,” Ebert said, “especially with the live shows, is that we decided to let everyone in. We incessantly remind ourselves not to be rock stars. That vibe somehow has been transmitted and understood and communicated so that when we show up at a gig, they’re already there, completely open and expecting me to be as well. Which is cool, it’s a good expectation to have on myself.”
By eschewing the separatist idea of the “rock idol,” the band has built an incredible following. I attended a show in Norfolk, VA in late June, and by the time I reached the venue, as the opening band was finishing, the place was jam-packed upstairs and downstairs. I had a backstage pass, but backstage turned out to be a sort of dugout off stage right that afforded a view of a couple amplifiers, the top half of a bass player, and not much else. Bodies crushed against each other on the floor, and upstairs the fans clung two-and-three deep to the balcony railing.
Ebert wore a ratty, long-sleeved t-shirt, his long hair and yes, beard, unkempt in ways that seemed almost calculated. He sort of shuffled around the stage, like a patient in a psych ward lining up for his pills, alternately staring off into the distance, mumbling his thanks between songs, and descending into the audience to sing among them. To his left, Jade was the indie rock version of the All-American cheerleader, energetic and adorable in denim overall shorts, abiding Ebert’s eccentricities with a tolerant smile, and generally seeming well-adjusted and fun. (Ebert and Castrinos are just friends now, and they skip the whole “how I fell in love with you” spoken word part of “Home.”)
The audience surprised me. There were hipsters—both the unfriendly, urban variety, and the “we have a backyard farm” sect—but that was just a small percentage. There were awkward teenagers, rich guys with their well-manicured dates, frat boys, young married couples, old people, and everyone in between. You just couldn’t put your finger on it, and that’s not an experience I’ve had at many shows. It hit me as I was watching that Ebert had hit on something intensely marketable—they had something for everybody, but it wasn’t so broad or tepid that it turned them off. The people there were fully on board, dancing and drinking and engaging—that felt like the important word—as though this was the 2013 version of something that was bound to get big; like we were watching the Dave Matthews Band in Charlottesville 20 years earlier.
Confession: I came into the Norfolk show, and even the phone call with Ebert, prepared to dislike him. I bought into the idea that he wasn’t the genuine article, and aside from “Home,” I thought the music was vaguely pleasant without being great. In other words, inoffensive. Re-listening to the Edward Sharpe albums, it also struck me how different he sounded on each track. And while Ebert would say it’s because life is about change and a homogenized sound makes you into an artificial brand, I couldn’t help but thinking about a quote from Vladimir Nabokov: “Derivative writers seem versatile because they imitate many others, past and present. Artistic originality has only its own self to copy.” It would be ridiculous to assert that a musician with a distinctive sound is somehow compromising himself; it’s too extreme, and it’s historically wrong. It’s more accurate, I think, to say that a musician with a muddled assortment of sounds is someone who probably lacks a true artistic identity.
On a similar note, it’s hard to take Ebert seriously when he asks writers to ignore his persona. If you dress and behave like a quasi-religious shaman and sing songs about God and love and even give yourself a messianic identity…I’m sorry, but you open yourself to scrutiny. At certain points in our conversation, Ebert even sounded like a cliched nouveau-American monk, speaking in zen slogans: “I think that the second coming is when we’re all walking on water.” And though he wouldn’t admit it, Ebert is an intelligent entrepreneur who knows exactly what he’s doing when he writes a song and when he takes the stage; there is less innocence to the process than he lets on.
Still, this negative take misses all that’s good about Ebert. After watching him perform and asking a few very probing questions, I’m convinced that the process by which he “became” Edward Sharpe is legitimate. There was a struggle, there was a transformation, and there was something very noble in the choice he made. Today, his songs show real merit, even if it’s just in his ability to capture a melody and a tone. And the openness isn’t a put-on; this is a person who has assembled a band with a communal outlook and a charismatic energy that fans find very, very attractive. Put bluntly, you can’t bullshit your way to that level of success. There’s a magnetic quality to his stage presence, and people—myself included—feel safe to have fun at his shows.
The narrative of Alex Ebert as opportunistic poseur ignores all that. It assumes his ascendancy is a smoke-and-mirrors plot, instead of a process that began from a place of real human suffering. It gives him too much credit as a cynical strategist, and not enough as a man who made a courageous choice.
When he looked up at the Coachella Jumbotron and saw the man bleeding, Ebert knew he’d fucked up. He had let the nerves eat him up, and turn him into something he’d worked very hard to escape. In his mind, he revisited the two paths—fear and courage. The choice was clearer than ever. He stepped off the stage, wrapped the man’s bloody head in his own shirt, and never looked back.