Little more than an hour before last week’s start of the Railroad Revival tour at Oakland, California’s Middle Harbor Shoreline Park, the members of Mumford & Sons, Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros, and Old Crow Medicine Show boarded the train that would take them from Oakland to New Orleans. With other outdoor shows along with way in San Pedro, California; Tempe, Arizona; Marfa and Austin, Texas, their week-long, six-date jaunt is being conducted exclusively on vintage railcars: The bands get off the train, walk a few feet to the venue, do the show, and then get back on the same train to start the process all over again.
SPIN caught up with multi-instrumentalist Winston Marshall of Mumford & Sons and frontman Alex Ebert of Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros just minutes after they first climbed onboard. Relaxing in the train’s caboose in jeans, scraggly beard, and yellow trucker cap, “Country” Marshall resembled an itinerant farm worker in search of the next crop, while Ebert — sporting a floppy hat, floor-length overcoat, and a much fuller beard — might as well have been a Depression-era extras in The Grapes of Wrath. These guys were ready.
SPIN: Has either of you ever been on a train that wasn’t in a subway?
Alex Ebert: I did some European trains. And there was a train I took to San Diego once. [With mock pride] I hopped a train once.
SPIN: You look as though you’re in your railroad-hopping gear.
Ebert: In my heart, I’m always in my rail-hosen.
SPIN: How did this tour come about?
Ebert: When I started [Edward Sharpe], I told my manager that I didn’t want to do normal venues at all. I wanted to do parks and tents, and make it a family sort of experience. Well, I got a bus, but we ended up doing regular venues, which is the easier way. But this guy Dave Conway [the upstart Los Angeles broadcaster behind Little Radio] had the idea to do the Railroad Revival Tour about three years ago. Finally we got to a place where we could generate some motion on that, and right away we asked Mumford.
Marshall: Your first mistake (laughs).
Ebert: That was at Bonnaroo [Tennessee’s annual music festival] last year.
Marshall: It was only a month ago that the tour was confirmed. There’s been so many people working their asses off while we’ve been at the edge of our seats for the last few months wondering, “Are we gonna do it?”
SPIN: You’ve all been successful, but Mumford & Sons’ success since the Grammys has been major. Did that mess with the plans?
Marshall: We don’t live [in the U.S.], so we don’t really see it [our success]. I don’t think this tour would’ve been any different. There is no headliner. There’s just three bands, and everyone’s on equal peggings. Everyone loves each other’s band.
SPIN: How do you present that to the audience? Do you change the bill?
Ebert: No, no. It’s the same billing every night so there’s some uniformity to it. But there’s the same time allotment for each band, and there’s some integration between them.
SPIN: So you’ll be playing in each other’s sets?
Ebert: [Coyly] Possibly…
SPIN: You’re going to be eating, sleeping, and recording here. Have you figured out what you’ll be recording?
Ebert: Apparently there’s a music room and I think there’s some recording gear in it. My fantasy is that we’ll be writing stuff, and that there’ll be something blossoming out of this that we’re unaware of.
SPIN: And there’s a film documentary happening?
Marshall: That’s right. Emmett Malloy. He did The White Stripes Under Great White Lights, which is amazing [as well as videos for Metallica and Blink 182]. He’s shooting the whole thing on film. They’ve got a crew of like eight, nine lads. Apparently he’s got a few things to throw us in the deep end, so I’m quite excited to see what he’s gonna do.
SPIN: The train is such an archetype of American culture —
Marshall: Uh, sorry —
SPIN: Yeah, I know, you Brits invented the steam engine —
Ebert: But there is something about the expanse of the U.S. that created the possibility of an adventure where you don’t know where the fuck you’re gonna end up.
Marshall: Absolutely. And created the whole culture of the hobo — well I don’t know if that’s the right word to use…
Ebert: That’s not been tapped by the politically correct-ers. It’s still OK to say “hobo.”
SPIN: Trains are linked to folk music through a long history of songs about them by Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger and Bob Dylan, but none of you are traditional folk bands, right? What do you consider yourself?
Ebert: I like the word “folk” because it means people. And these days, yeah, we are the folk bands. It’s not just introspective, singer-songwriter music. There’s an awareness of a community of listeners, and I feel that because of the sing-along qualities of all three bands. But traditional folk music? Old Crow Medicine Show isn’t too far away. I don’t think any of us are terribly interested in reanimating a relic of the past. We’re here now.
SPIN: You’re being filmed, you’ll be recording — you’re gonna be “on” nonstop. Is this tour your way of getting in touch with your folk music roots, or is it a kind of performance art?
Ebert: It’s probably all of the above. I think that for me, artistically, you find out what you’re doing after the fact. I’m curious to find out what my spirit gets out of it because we’re all sort of going into it rather blindly.
Marshall: We had a wig-out in the rehearsal studio yesterday while working out a little something special for the show, and a lot of us hadn’t really met each other. See, when you’re playing together, it’s great fun, but you’re always thinking of something you can incorporate into the show. And yesterday, even though there were cameras and we are going to be working together, there was no pressure to produce something. There’s just the freedom to like, yeah, wig-out. The rest of my band will tell you how shit I am at drums, but I got to wig-out with Josh [Collazo, of the Magnetic Zeros] ’cause there were two drum kits. Fucking crazy Americans.
SPIN: We like more of everything.
Ebert: More meaty meat burger.
SPIN: Another thing that ties you all together is success. It’s shocking how little rock there is in the charts. And as much as you are folk, you are rock, right?
Ebert: When I’m talking to someone who doesn’t speak English —
Marshall: Yeah, I say rock band.
SPIN: Have you shared notes on how you’ve managed to sell records at a time when most rock bands…
Marshall: Yes, we have, and I don’t think it’s something we can disclose to the public. [Further ramping up his English humor] It’s far too complicated for your tiny little brains, so don’t even bother trying to work it out.
SPIN: There’s so much music out there that doesn’t find a public and that should appeal to a wide spectrum of people, but only young people will hear it. Yet all three bands on this tour have managed to appeal to different generations.
Ebert: [Now thoroughly sincere] That’s one of the most rewarding things ever. Sometimes a 17-year-old will come to me and say, “My dad turned me on to you guys. He’s over there!” And we’re all hangin’, and there’s babies.
Marshall: It’s amazing to enjoy music with everyone in your family.
Ebert: It’s not just for the hipsters or the this’es or the that’s. It’s for people, and it feels really, really, really good. ‘Cause the music that my dad would show me, that we could enjoy as a family, that was special music.
SPIN: You’re going to be spending a lot of time on top of each other —
Marshall: [Putting his arms about Ebert] Underneath each other!
SPIN: What’s your backup plan if you start getting on each other’s nerves?
Ebert: Fuck! Just walking down the hallway to get to this interview, I was getting claustrophobic, and you can’t get off the train, although it is just going 30 miles an hour. My technique may be: Run to the front car, get off, take a walk, and then hop on the back. [This cracks up everyone in the train car — the musicians, photographers, the publicist.]
SPIN: Is the train hooked up to record even while you’re moving?
Marshall: That’s what we’re told, but every song’s gonna be at the same tempo.
SPIN: I know the train theme is a really great hook for the tour and the media, but what does it really mean for your fans?
Ebert: For me, it’s very childish to tour on a train. And I think that’s a powerful quality, to inspire childishness. We’re trying to give them the sense of a magical possibility. Like, “That is the most outrageous idea. I could go do something outrageous too!” I don’t know if that’s anything that would occur to [the fans], but that’s where I’m coming from.
SPIN: You were previously in Ima Robot, one of the first bands of the last decade to do ’80s synth-dance-rock kinda stuff, but you’ve since taken on this folksy Edward Sharpe alter-ego. Is this tour an extension of that? Have you become Edward Sharpe at this point?
Ebert: Edward Sharpe was never an alter-ego for me. It got misperceived that way because of a bio I wrote that accidentally instilled this idea into every journalist. At the end of the Ima Robot era, I’d forgotten how to write a song without thinking of pleasing other people. I’d forgotten the joy of writing songs, and the first Edward Sharpe album was me getting back to childlike — not business-oriented — songwriting. And in going back to my childhood, what I thought about musically was my elementary school music teacher, who Christian [Letts, Zeros guitarist] and I shared — the recorders, and “If I Had a Hammer,” and poor tambourine playing, and some guitar, and lots of children singing. That was the inspiration for me to do something more pure that’s coming from a “Here I am” kinda place as opposed to a postured, affected sort of place.
SPIN: Lots of philosophies look as life as a journey rather than a means to a goal, and a train is a metaphor for that: You have to be on it a long time to actually get somewhere. How do you anticipate this journey shaping your musical goals for the tour and beyond?
Ebert: I don’t know, man. But I already feel being affected by the other musicians we’re touring with.
Marshall: That’s the exciting thing. It’s so great to play with people. That’s my goal — to play with people I’ve never played with before.
SPIN: Do you ordinarily get that chance?
Marshall: As much as we can, we do, but I’m never again going to be in a circumstance as intense as this where there are instruments everywhere and everyone is living together just to play music all the time.