For the latest edition of Tell Me About That Album, we chatted with Alex Ebert, founder of the L.A.-based collective Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros, whose debut album, 2009's Up from Below, seemed tailor-made for music licensing, with songs appearing in car commercials, movie trailers and a seemingly endless supply of TV shows. The band's follow-up, Here, was released in May, and debuted at number 5 on the Billboard album chart, a testament to the band's growing appeal, grueling tour schedule and buzzed-about live shows. Ebert told us about the process of making the record, what inspired it and the fully-formed vision that delivered the album's cover. Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros play Marymoor Park in Redmond on September 15th.
Are you afraid you'll end up like Darius Rucker with people yelling, "Hootie" at you for the rest of your life? No, most people seem to figure it out after a little while.
Here debuted at number 5 on the Billboard charts. Was that at all surprising? It was a little bit, yeah. That was a fun day. It was just amazing to read the little Billboard thing. It was a milestone in a way.
Can you talk about the differences between making Here and making your debut, which included producing it yourselves? This time it was a band making a record instead of some guys coming together to record an album.
We'd come off a lot of touring, probably a little too much in some ways. A couple people had left the band, but we all took a leap of faith and got a house [in Ojai, California]. Most everyone stayed up at the house and we got a studio, and we have that studio still. That's a really special thing too, to be able to just roll in and start working and know that there's not really a deadline unless you put one on yourself, which is the way I like to work. This one was more collaborative and we wrote some songs together in the same room, which on the first album, didn't really happen. I think it was a good step in the evolution of us.
Did you always know the process would be different this time around? That was part of the dream, to have it be more collaborative, and also the way that it's going to be more fulfilling for everyone. I think it will just become more and more like that. Even on the first album, we split so much of the publishing and the writing and money and whatnot, so it was sort of like premature community sharing. And with this album, it's not as much based on a philosophy as it is based on reality.
How was the whole process different for your previous band Ima Robot, which wasn't a collective and which was on a major label? It's pretty much different in every way. Once upon a time Ima Robot was not on a major label. There was about five years there when Ima Robot was a similar process, except that we were sort of kids and I was just starting to understand the ideas of songwriting. As far as major labels, I wouldn't recommend that to anyone. You're on a clock, and in our case, and in most people's cases, you have a producer that you meet in like a fast-dating circuit. And then you jump into the studio and you have a certain amount of time and you start banging it out and sometimes something great comes, but for me, the experience itself is not the most rewarding.
Here has a lot of ambience with all the hoots and hollers. Did you pay extra attention to trying to capture that? I don't know if it's just sort of that we know that that ragamuffin approach delivers some cool sounds, or if it's that we're used to being able to do that, but I definitely encourage the band to shout and make noise. I think it's still a little bit of an embarrassing thing for people to use their voice, especially if we're recording, but I think it's important and it adds to, what I describe as the porousness, the pores of a song. If a rock is completely tumbled and completely shiny, the water has no way to penetrate the rock. It's become this impervious, gleaming, polished, produced piece. But if you allow it to be porous, you can enter into it and really experience the song. I'm into some stuff that is completely polished, but I think there are so many ways to completely polish something that can be really detrimental to a song that there's a lot of great songs out there that I don't resonate with because of all that polishing.
Did the Railroad Festival Tour with Old Crow Medicine Show and Mumford & Sons, in which you traveled across the Southwest in vintage trains, inform the record at all? That train tour changed our lives in many ways and inspired us musically in many ways, particularly in the grand sense of just playing music all the time, because that's all that was going on that train. We ate and slept and shit but probably more than anything else there was music. I'm not sure if I can detect where on the album you can see the inspiration, maybe "I Don't Want to Pray." We got on that tour together because we were kind of kindred spirits but to say that we were inspired by Old Crow and Mumford would definitely be a fact and I'm sure that its influenced us and crept its way into our bloodwork.
Do you have a favorite song on the album? I really love them too much to do that, but I mentioned "I Don't Want to Pray," and there's something really special to me about the lyric, "I don't want to be the prayer but the prayer." To me that really helps me and I really dig that. It's one of those lines that I just feel so happy that I came up with somehow. That the universe opened up to give me that little drop.
Can you tell me about the cover art and concept for Here and how it came about? It hit me like a thunderbolt, it was interesting. I was walking around our house in Ojai and suddenly I got hit with almost that exact image, although it wasn't a sea and sky, it was a diagonal. I saw this line across my vision and that line was disappeared by a circle. I guess I was just thinking about the idea of duality and what it meant to me. In the circle, which is the center, which is also a zero, exists everything -- all the dualities, the tri-alities, the singularities, the colors -- and that from there, in that twist of color, you have the disappearance of duality and the existence of everything. The idea was that that's where creativity exists, but more importantly, with regards to the name of the album, that that's where I want to exist. And so that space, that colored rainbow, is here. If I would have been very literal I would have put a little arrow pointing to the rainbow and then the word here.
Did you already have the title when the cover came to you? No, it was the reverse. It was the album cover and then shortly afterwards, the name.
Is it rare for you to get some kind of fully-formed vision like that? Totally rare. It was a pretty major happening and yet we discovered there's another album out there with a very similar image that had just come out. I think he thought I'd ripped him off or something. It's some kind of dance or trance album but it's pretty similar. What I think what might have happened anyways is that I might have tapped into some zeitgeist kind of thing because it did hit me all at once like a thunderbolt.