When Edward Sharpe & the Magnetic Zeros burst onto the popular music scene back in 2010, they came shrouded in mystery, and at least one serape. With their vibrant live shows, 10-people-deep lineup, and ancient relic of a tour bus, the band seemed of another time and place. The record, 2009’s slow-to-build Up From Below, was awash in huge group harmonies and swelling folky anthems, calling to mind the sounds of the Jesus Movement at some points and Johnny Cash and June Carter at others.
Standing at the front of it all was Alex Ebert, the band’s long-haired, oft barefoot, and undeniably enigmatic frontman, who once upon a time was at the helm of L.A. electro-punk outfit Ima Robot. After ditching the face makeup and spacesuit-inspired wardrobe of his youth, Ebert struggled with a bout of disillusionment before turning inward and reaching an artistic “transcendence” of sorts. As with all good creative “a-ha” moments, the singer quickly returned to his art, enlisting a handful of his more musically inclined friends to fill out the vision.
A homemade record and a handful of epic live shows later, and Ebert and his Los Angeles-based band were hitting the road. And just few months after, they were clutching tight to a hit single. On “Home,” Ebert and vocalist Jade Castrinos hold down a ramblin’ and janglin’ ballad, trading lovey dovey narratives in between big harmony-filled choruses and one uber catchy whistling hook. Suffice to say, the song became one of those ubiquitous summer anthems, and help keep the Magnetic Zeros on the road for nearly two years in its wake. In between all the touring, Ebert managed to cut a solo record, and last year the band re-teamed for a quick cross-country jaunt via an antique train, a tour that Emmett Malloy beautifully captures in his latest documentary, The Big Easy Express.
Most recently, though, the Ed Sharpe collective has been focusing on the future, and preparing for the release of Up From Below’s highly-anticipated follow-up album, Here. Recorded in the band’s newly purchased studio in Ojai, Here promises to stay true to the Magnetic Zeros’ infectious debut. Lead single “That’s What’s Up” is a powerful foot stomper that features Castrinos belting alongside a twangy guitar and a cacophony of harmonies and hand claps, and album opener “Man on Fire” finds Ebert leading a gospel-inspired number that skips along before exploding into an anthemic — and jingle-bell-laden — final burst.
“There wasn’t really a destination in mind necessarily,” explained guitarist Christian Letts recently from his home in L.A.“It’s a little more storytelling [than the last record]. It’s this beautiful purging of all the stuff we had that we wanted to do.”
Of course, before the purging the band had to find a place to hunker down and get the job done, and it didn’t take them long to settle on Ojai’s picturesque and quiet valley as the destination of choice. “We wanted to record outside of L.A. but we wanted to be close enough to come home as well,” explained Letts. “I think it’s important when you’re recording to be away from distractions and dive into something. A bunch of our friends had moved up [to Ojai] and they just loved it, so we decided to record up there.” Treating the studio — lovingly dubbed “The Ed Shed” — like an office space, the band worked Monday through Friday, returning to L.A. on the weekends to spend time with family and friends. With two years worth of ideas swirling around them, the Zeros spent four months in the studio and quickly discovered that they had more material than they knew what to do with.
“I remember we got into the studio and made a list of all the songs we wanted to record and it was like, ‘Holy shit — there are so fucking many,’” laughed Letts. While Here is slated for a May 29 release date, Letts explained that a third album is already completed and will be available for purchase by the end of the year. “They’re both really special, and both are very different too.”
As for Here, Letts lovingly refers to the record as being “like a warm blanket,” calling it a combination of songs that were developed on the road and ideas that sprang to life during the band’s stint in Ojai. “We also messed around with a couple different ways of recording,” he added. “There are songs on the album that we did with one microphone and all of us standing around it, which was fucking awesome.”
Keeping in line with the Zeros’ joyous and lovey reputation, Letts beamed with enthusiasm when discussing both the project and his fellow bandmates, not-so-subtly hinting that life aboard the Edward Sharpe bus is just as communal as the music lets on. “I’ve known Alex since we were three, and we’ve been playing music together since we were babies,” Letts said. “But even the other members, they’re like newfound friends from lifetimes past. The band has been the best experience of my life. It’s no bullshit. It’s a real fuckin’ family.”
Edward Sharpe & the Magnetic Zeros play the Santa Barbara Bowl on Saturday, May 5, at 7 p.m. with openers Las Cafeteras and Aaron Embry. Call (805) 962-7411 or visit sbbowl.com.