This Saturday, SOhO welcomes L.A. neo-hippies Edward Sharpe & the Magnetic Zeros as part of this weekend’s New Noise music conference. Fronted by Ima Robot’s Alex Ebert and newfound girlfriend Jade Castrinos, the outfit claims to be more musical family than a typical touring band – and we kind of believe them. The 10-piece, sporting plenty of scraggly beards and ’70s-inspired garb, likes to sing songs about free love and travel around in a big white school bus for God’s sake.
But all quirky aesthetics aside, you simply can’t argue with Ed Sharpe’s infectious tunes and high energy performance strategy. Boasting soaring melodies, charming clap alongs, and some of the greatest jangly arrangements ever put to record, the band’s debut, Up From Below, is among the best releases of 2009. In anticipation of their upcoming Santa Barbara stop, I recently spoke to lead guitarist Christian Letts about the band, the record, and how Middle America is responding to it all.
You guys recently made your radio debut on KCRW’s Morning Becomes Eclectic. What was that like? How did you all fit in there? Actually, we’ve played in places way smaller than that, so that kind of felt spacious. We’ve played spaces where it’s an actual miracle that we all even fit on the stage. But it was amazing. It was a very big moment in my life to play that show. Everybody’s played that show! It was really, really fun and everyone was super nice there. And they do it right. You forget that you’re actually being taped because all their gear is super spy-like – you don’t even know it’s there. [Laughs.] It was amazing. It was really amazing.
So how exactly did all of you first get together? Well Alex and I have known each other since we were three – we went to preschool together – and even as kids we were always drawing or creating together. So he called me up one day and asked if I wanted to come lay some guitar down on this track, so I went to his house and I listened to it for the first time and I was like, ‘Holy shit, man. This is amazing!’ I think “40 Days” was the first song we really sat down and went off on. From there, Alex and I met [horn player] Stuart [Cole] randomly at some diner one night. Later we needed a trumpet, so we called him up. Through our manager and some friends we met [bassist] Aaron [Older] and [guitarist] Nico [Aglietti], then went and started recording. Then we booked a show at the Troubadour and we didn’t have a whole band. It was such a big sound – we couldn’t have pulled it off with just four people. So basically all of us just reached out to our friends: and now it’s pretty much the same lineup as it was for that first show. In short, we booked a show with no bandmembers, then through reaching out we realized that we all knew the right people for this project at the right time. The stars were on our side that night. [Laughs.]
I’ve read that the whole record was recorded on a 24-track. Is that correct? Yeah. We didn’t do it digital, which is just interesting because you kind of have to plan it out. You don’t have the infinite amount of tracks. We were recording four people at a time – no click tracks or anything – and you could get to the last note of the song and then just blow it and have to start all over again. Some songs took a long time to record, and on other ones there was a lot of that first take magic, where we’d finish and say, ‘That’s the one.’ It was a great way for us to get to know each other as musicians though, and it translates into the live show as well. A whisper becomes a roar really fast because we know each other so well musically and personally. And the sound – you can’t beat the sound. Analog is just beautiful.
It’s interesting to compare this record to Alex’s gig in Ima Robot, which was all electronic. Yeah. This is like finding salvation or something, for me at least. The motivation is so pure. It’s solely about making great music. That’s it. Let’s just make some really great music and focus on that. I kind of realized through doing this that when your focus is the most pure everything else kind of lines up. It’s been a real eye opener for me and a really nice change of pace. I’ve been in other bands too, and sometimes I feel like the motives aren’t quite as pure. This is just pure honesty. It’s refreshing.
You guys are getting compared to everyone from Johnny and June to the Polyphonic Spree. What was the musical vision when you all started writing together? Umm. There was no direct vision. We were talking on the bus the other day, like, ‘What do we all agree on musically?’ People ask us all the time what are inspirations are, and the one thing we can all agree on is hip-hop. All of us are hip-hop junkies. The band’s tastes are so crazy. Like, my favorite music of all time is ’30s gypsy jazz, like hot jazz, like Django Reinhardt. I’ve got tattoos of his stuff on me. I’m obsessed with it. But everyone is so spread out musically, and for some reason hip-hop is where we see eye to eye. It’s pretty funny.
But as far as the record, there never was a set plan. We were free to write whatever we felt like writing. Mostly, Alex would come up with an idea and we’d all just kind of start feeding it. Then there were times when we’d be sitting around jamming, then we were in the studio ten minutes later recording a new song. There’s no rules, which I really, really like. There’s no way to box it in to this certain category. It is just what it is, you know?
You guys are also touring around on this big converted school bus. How has that been? Well, we did tour around on that one, but it broke down so we didn’t get to take it on the last tour. But when we are on it, it’s been a blast. It has made for some interesting stories. It’s a pretty crazy looking bus with an awesome bus driver:. Touring is great. I love being on the bus. Some people warned me, ‘Touring is tough. It’ll take a lot outta ya.’ I love it. It’s kind of like realizing this gypsy dream of mine, like being a nomad. I actually quite like that.
Anything in particular you’re looking forward to on this upcoming tour? I’m really looking forward to playing the Mayan in downtown Los Angeles when we get back in December. And I’ve never seen the southern part of the States, so I’m excited to go through there and see it. That’s one of my favorite things about being on the road; going to all these places that you probably wouldn’t plan a vacation to go to, but you end up there and there’s some really cool shit happening. [Laughs.] I was really blown away by Athens, Ohio. It was just a really cool vibe and everyone was so nice.
How did Middle America treat you guys? I imagine you got some interesting reactions from people. Yeah, we definitely got some looks, especially when everyone steps off the bus because we’re just the most random looking collection of people. We were in Colby, Kansas and we went to this bowling alley and this lady walks up and goes, ‘Where the hell are y’all from, ‘cuz it sure as hell ain’t Colby, Kansas.’ [Laughs.] They were so nice though, and a bunch of them had seen us on Letterman. It was a blast. I think I had forgotten how much fun bowling was. And as we were leaving they gave us this bowling pin that said, ‘Edward Sharpe & the Magnetic Zeros, Best of Luck, Colby, Kansas.’ It was great.
Edward Sharpe & the Magnetic Zeros play a 21+ show at SOhO this Saturday, October 10 at 8:30 p.m. The Martyrs, Emile Millar, and The Growlers will open the show. Call 962-7776 or visit newnoisesb.com for tickets and details.