Edward Sharpe And The Magnetic Zeros: ‘It’s All A Riff On Being Stoned’

The ‘so laid back he’s horizontal’ Alex Ebert gets real on his new self-titled album.

It shouldn’t come as much of a surprise that Alex Ebert, founder of Edward Sharpe And The Magnetic Zeros, is an interesting character. After all, this is the guy who went into rehab and came out with the idea of a messianic figure who kept getting distracted by girls when trying to save mankind – the titular Edward Sharpe.

Today, however, he’s a bit tired, having gotten stuck in traffic earlier and only just reaching the hotel where the band are staying in London. He wakes up during the chat, and his answers steadily get weirder. But, to begin with, he doesn’t have much in the way of plans for the day, he says: “I’m just gonna hang out, gonna work on this score I’m doing.” The score is for J. C. Chandor’s upcoming film ‘All Is Lost’, starring Robert Redford as a man lost at sea. In Alex’s own words, it’s “a really cool movie with almost no dialogue.”

It turns out, he’s actually already finished the score, but is now putting it together as an album. It isn’t that he’s a perfectionist, as such, it’s more that it’s his first time doing it. Alex explains: “The director wanted to use someone who was not a normal, professional scoring dude, and sort of picked me, it almost seemed out of a hat.”

Yeah, he’s definitely not a perfectionist. When asked about the band’s recent support slot at Mumford and Sons’ Olympic Park gig, Alex is positive but honest about their set. “It was fun. It was a very hot gig, very wild. But it was very fun. We were just… ramshackle through it, we didn’t have all our shit together, so we just bumbled through our set. But it was fun.”

When people are described as ‘so laid back they’re horizontal’, you normally don’t believe it. But with Alex, that really does seem to be the case. Edward Sharpe And The Magnetic Zeros’ newest album is being released through Mumford and Sons’ own label, Gentlemen Of The Road, and it seems Alex has no complaints about being their first signing. “I’ve loved everyone that we’ve met so far in their business team,” he says, “and it’s been really cool.”

He doesn’t seem to be feeling too stressed out about being their first non-Mumford release; quite the opposite, in fact. “It feels like a real privilege, a genuine privilege.” Alex talks about enjoying feeling part of a community – a fact you can’t deny given the large and often fluctuating numbers who comprise Edward Sharpe And The Magnetic Zeros - and admits: “It’s so nice to be amongst friends, you have to endeavour to remember they’re our label. It’s really fun.”

With the new album, It wouldn’t have been right if they weren’t on a label who liked the band enough to let them do as they please. When we talk about the new album’s sound, which is a bit rawer than their first two, Alex notes that “all that comes from experimentation with the production.” Like the previous albums, this one is again self-produced, as it’s something Alex claims he loves doing – although he admits it’s “pretty exhausting, especially mixing.”

“A lot of producers are just a little too good at producing, and the album will come out sounding like everything else, and I happen to think most of what comes out doesn’t sound too good.” He says. “And by good, I mean I think it sounds too good.” You’d never accuse Edward Sharpe And The Magnetic Zeros of sounding like everything else, that’s for sure.

Alex doesn’t seem to dwell on the hows and whys of much; things just are, for him. The writing process for ‘Edward Sharpe And The Magnetic Zeros’, he says, was “similar in some ways, different in the sense that it was more collaborative.” He adds: “I didn’t demo any songs and then we recorded it, so it was more of a singular process.”

The result is a mixing pot of tracks, a record that has “its toes dipped in pain, and its fingertips grasping for a horizon.” Alex says, “I think all the songs are relatively similarly themed, with the exception of maybe ‘In The Summer’, which is sort of about my childhood. So I guess that themes are a bit galvanising, in some ways, with songs like ‘Please’, and high on love, like ‘Let’s Get High’. It’s a bit more confrontational of an album, defiant.”

It might be hard to hear the confrontation on the first listen, but it’s definitely there, behind the drug metaphors and everything else. Touching on the themes of ‘Let’s Get High’, there’s definitely more to the lyrics (“Ain’t we all just Japanese / When we’re high on love”) than the title would suggest. “I was riffing on racism, it’s all a riff on being stoned,” Alex says.

“The song is, incidentally, not about being stoned, but it’s sort of a wink at it. It’s riffing on racism, and dabbling in being racist for the sake of doing away with racism, and all that. And loving the racists in the north, who would be the anti-southerners, anti-bigots, and the racists in the south which would be perceived by the northerners as bigots. I’m just trying to unite the whole damn thing with love, you know?”

Elsewhere on the record are references to “man’s repressed libido,” in ‘Please’. “I like that line, I thought it would be fun - it’s not a very typical lyric - but it was really fun to sing.” Alex says. “It harks back to an amazing piece of literature called ‘Civilization and Its Discontent’, a short book by Freud. But I wanted to take a bit of a shot at all the warmongers and reference their repressed libido as the cause of their machismo.”

‘Better Days’, the first single to be released as well as the opening track, is “a simple song”, by comparison. No Freud, no racism. On picking it to be the first taste of the new album, you can practically hear Alex shrug: “It just felt like a fun song to do, it’s a simple song and it felt right.” With the track closing on the line “Guess who’s back in town,” it’s hard to disagree that it was the right choice. Edward Sharpe And The Magnetic Zeros are back, and it feels right.

Edward Sharpe And The Magnetic Zeros’ self-titled new album is out now via Gentlemen Of The Road.

Read the full interview in the new edition of DIY Weekly, available from iTunes now.