Interview with Edward Sharpe & The Magnetic Zeros: Up From The Desert, Into The Waves

I find myself quite often guilty of nostalgia for times which I myself never experienced, especially the 1960s. Love beads and rainbows and the days when rock and roll was young and fresh-faced—certainly, I’m romanticizing, but that’s the beauty of trying to remember things that never actually happened to you—you can remember them however you’d like.

Edward Sharpe & The Magnetic Zeros, a 10-13-piece band (the lineup is constantly expanding or shrinking) whose debut album, Up From Below, reeks of analogue-tracked mysticism and hippie-drippy love vibes, showers listeners in their own brand of choral pop, which as retro and sunshine driven as it may sound still has a refreshing, forward leaning bent to it; a sign of maturity and devotion from a group of musicians who enjoy looking to the future just as much as utilizing imagery and symbols of the past.

“It was never really a goal to do a throwback thing,” says guitarist Christian Letts, who bleeds Django-infused guitar lines between the cracks of chanting choruses and trumpet wails. Although the goal of the album was not to reinvigorate the sound of the ‘60s, the album’s writing, recording, and production, which were all done at guitarist Aaron Older’s house on a 24-track analogue tape machine, certainly invokes ideals of a bygone era with the band members frequently “having dinner and drinking some wine, coming up with a jam and hitting the studio,” in true family band fashion, according to Letts.

Although such methodology is hardly groundbreaking, it does create a unique atmosphere of fun and friendship absent in much of the music we hear today in a hyper-connected (and oft times seriously disconnected) world, where producers, musicians, songwriters, and engineers hardly need to come into contact with each other to produce entire albums. Edward Sharpe’s “family band” style, while quaint and homey, could be construed as a 10-man revolution against the staid, structured stance of modern music production.

“We were in a really comfortable environment,” continues Letts. “We really got to know each other through the recording process. I had so much fun doing it; it never really felt like work.”

The foundations for Edward Sharpe & The Magnetic Zeros were laid nearly half a decade ago, when frontman and songwriter Alex Ebert, formerly of Imarobot, began writing the foundations of a novel about a messianic figure by the name of Edward Sharpe who had been “sent down to Earth to save mankind—but he kept getting distracted by girls and falling in love.” Ebert began crafting music based around Edward Sharpe and the stories he was steadily endowing him. Slowly, he assembled a band from a pool of close friends. As the band grew, so did the project’s scope, and the sound expanded from one man’s messianic vision to a full-fledged choir singing the gospel of brotherhood and devotion.

“Alex called me up about three or four years ago and said, ‘Hey, I got this idea. Want to come over?’” says Letts. “I went to his house and we recorded ‘40 Day Dream’ and I remember walking out of the house being like, ‘This is what I want to do, man.’ I knew I wanted to dedicate my life to this.”

In time the group grew to encompass more than the average guitar, bass, and drums lineup so familiar to rock music, and came to include more diverse instrumentation such as accordion, ukulele, banjo and trumpet. While one could expect that a band with over 10 members with such varied instrumentation could easily devolve into a tie-dyed mess of bombast and pompousness, the band, in studio and onstage, manages to find equilibrium, even as they jump, shout, and cheer like middle-schoolers running through the halls on the last day of school.

“We’re really fortunate that a lot of our friends are really talented musicians,” according to Letts. “We always try to keep it family, keep the family vibe. We always try our best for each other.”

The band members’ ties to each other reach far back, as well. Letts and Ebert have been friends since pre-school. Likewise, Letts and the band’s drummer, Josh Collazo, have been friends for the past 15 years.

The band members’ close ties to one another lead to not only a fun, joyful atmosphere, but also towards dedication to an honest, open heart performance that many acts, regardless of genre, would find difficult to rival. In addition to their 10 to 13 members, Edward Sharpe & The Magnetic Zeros travel with an upright piano, a feat that even smaller groups with a bigger transportation budget rarely attempt. While setting up may be a hassle for the group, performing doesn’t seem so horrible at all for them. In fact, it’s quite a joy to watch. Even via YouTube, smiles and positive energy seeps through the screen, lighting up the eyes of even some of the most cynical music critics I count amongst my friends.

“We’re having a blast doing it,” Letts says about performing live. “I’ve been in a lot of bands where there is a lot of posturing and I’ve definitely been guilty of that, but in this band there is none of that. I never really feel like there is much of a separation between the band and the audience. I guess it’s contagious.”

“And it’s different every night,” Letts continues, elaborating on the spontaneous nature of many of the band’s performances. “We never play a song the same way twice—we can just connect between people; it happens instantaneously and we all get on the same page. It’s like meditation. It calms you a little and helps you to figure out some of the questions that you may have.”

Unsurprisingly, the music of Edward Sharpe poses a lot of questions, even to the casual listener. Common Judeo-Christian motifs such as the 40 days, the desert, and Babylon are featured in three separate song titles. “Janglin” feature “jesters in your kingdom by the sea” and “the truth of the man from Galilee.” And album closer “Om Nashi Me,” a six-minute meditation of majestic trumpets weaving in and out of repeated chants of the song title, draws the listener into a deep state of contemplation through the repetition of a simple melody, embellished with a few simple ideas: “I love you/I love you forever/I’m loving you now.

The collective lives by a very simple philosophy. According to Letts they all have different views regarding religion and spirituality, but generally, they all agree on several basic tenets such as “being truthful, being honest, loving, forgiving.” But more often than not, love seems to be the greatest tenet of Edward Sharpe. Love for the music, love for life, and love for one another.

“I’m making something I love,” says Letts. “I love this experience—and it’s awesome because it keeps growing and growing!”

Edward Sharpe & The Magnetic Zeros will be performing on July 18 at Wiggins Park in Camden, NJ, July 21 at Governors Island, NYC, and then back-to-back dates at Webster Hall, NYC, on July 22 and July 23.