Squint your eyes at an Edward Sharpe & the Magnetic Zeros show and you might wonder what year you're in. Led by scraggly frontman Alex Ebert, the joyous hippy troupe was one of the biggest left-field success of the last few years, as its heavily '60s influenced debut, 2009's Up From Below, and the accompanying hit single "Home," helped turned the band into festival favorites. Ebert and Co. will attempt to further spread their vaguely religious, intensely catchy, very Aquarian Age sound on the follow-up, Here, out May 29. We spoke with Ebert shortly before he and the Zeros took the stage for a recent show in New York City.
When I saw the band on tour in support of the first album, what struck me most was the connection you had with the crowd. Have you had to rekindle that connection with the new music?
Not really, the connection is still there. The bigger issue has been the size of the venues we’re playing now. In a place like the Greek Theater in L.A., to try and create a close connection with the audience seems almost antithetical to the architecture of the building. I have problems with the juxtaposition of our natural chaos in those circumstances. But the revelation for me has been that it's even more important in those instances to break down expectations about how a band is supposed to act. We don’t want to have a really tight show with lighting cues that we have to hit. Everyone else does that. Instead we want to have acceptance of the moment. That’s one of our greatest strengths. So when we played the Greek, it was pretty wild. We were taking it very casually and hanging out and running into the audience as if we were in a small club. It was almost sacrilegious, but in a really good way.
The whole band sounds much more relaxed on Here. Is that just a result of having played together for a few years now?
Relaxed is a good word. With regard to the songwriting I would also throw in "confident." I think we've learned how to allow the songs to breathe. On the first album, production-wise, every moment felt like an event. We didn't feel pressure to do that again. We eased off, and let the events that do happen [on the record] become more memorable and important as a result. But it's funny to know that there is another album we recorded at the same time as Here that's wilder and more psychedelic. Hopefully that will come out later this year.
The moments are smaller on the new record, but I think more effective. There are all these little sounds that creep out of the mix: laughter, bits of percussion. It's like you recorded it over a celebratory church service. What feeling were you trying to capture?
I try to give the music more of a campfire feel as opposed to a library atmosphere. I like when you can hear people hanging out in the songs and doing a little shuffling. It creates a feeling of participation. I never really went to church growing up, but I would see wild church services in movies and be really taken with it. The celebratory aspect of that is a big part of what we're doing.
The lyrics on the new record are even more spiritually inclined than before. Is there a particular message you're trying to convey?
I'm trying to open up a nice conversation about what I mean. I'm definitely aware of using that language and aware of the ease with which I could be misunderstood and misinterpreted, but that's always a boon anyway because then you get to redefine and re-appropriate words and broaden their meaning. In the context of a song like [Here's] "I Don't Want To Pray," using the word "God" is going to conjure up some sort of strong reaction. In some ways that’s a very dangerous thing to do as an artist because you expose yourself to a lot of misunderstanding. People tend to have textbook definitions of what those things mean.
But when you make things so broad, don't they get watered down? On "Dear Believer" you say "Call me wise / call me fool." Wouldn't you rather be one than the other?
"Dear Believer" is about something else, though. It's about the fact that it's irrelevant whether or not I can create heaven on earth or utopia or anything like that. It's irrelevant to me that you might say it's impossible. It's irrelevant to me if it is impossible. I'm going to do it anyway. It's not that I think I'm going to succeed necessarily. And it's not that I claim I'm going to succeed. I'm just going to do it anyway. Because I don't really know what else I'm doing here. That seems to be the only thing that makes sense as far as being on earth.
The language that you use, and the way that the band looks and sounds — it's all drawing heavily from '60s. Do you think there's an extent to which the crowds coming to your shows are trying to experience something they missed the first time around? Is it like they're going on the '60s ride at Disneyland?
We're not the '60s ride at Disneyland. I think there's widespread romantic notion of that era and, yet, when I'm onstage, that era rarely occurs to me. Sometimes I see an older person in the audience and I think that maybe we're reminding them of that, whatever that is. I have several times spoken to older people and the sentiment I've heard is that they're really happy that all the work they did is not dead and that hope is still glimmering. But with kids and people my own age I would say that I feel a very present moment — a sense of possibility. It feels like something with history behind it and that is building off of history, but it doesn't feel nostalgic.
So it's more like Tomorrowland?
It's today. It's here and now.