Musical family Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros is all about positivity.
For a term that comes up often in musical discussions, authenticity is a difficult concept to pin down. That wasn’t so much an issue for Alex Ebert when he was fronting the bratty, New Wave-influenced Ima Robot — a bit of attitude and a knack for brash hooks was all he needed to attract attention from major labels. Now that he’s traded that band’s updated ’80s sheen for the Laurel-Canyon-via-Polyphonic-Spree esthetic of Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros, though, the notion has very much come into play.
After all, the Zeros tap into a blissful vibe that couldn’t be further removed from what Ebert calls the “drug-addled inspirations of punk rock” that drove his former band. The shift has earned criticisms from music website allmusic.com (“infuriatingly contrived and retro”) and the indie tastemakers at Pitchfork, who compared Ebert’s appropriation of hippie culture to the Coca-Cola corporation’s ’60s-aping commercials for Fruitopia. Ebert himself has practically invited the criticism by repeatedly describing the move to the Zeros as a move to something more authentic. When asked what makes the Zeros more authentic, though, Ebert is quick to defend his old band.
“Ima Robot was authentic for me,” he explains. “It’s just that by the time the first major label thing was released and written and the whole thing was organized in a major label sense, I had steered away from the plot of making music for the joy of it. Inauthentic was me making music for anything other than the joy of making music.”
For Ebert, personal change came before musical evolution. The excesses of major-label touring and the rock ’n’ roll lifestyle took their toll on the singer, who ended up checking into Alcoholics Anonymous, ditching his phone and Internet connections and spending a year laying the foundations for Sharpe’s emergence. Despite the pseudonym and a semi-messianic backstory, becoming Sharpe wasn’t so much a case of creating a new persona as shedding one that no longer worked.
“I’m certainly not putting on a disguise and walking out onstage, that’s for sure,” Ebert says. “In fact, I’m doing more or less the opposite. I’m exposing myself, for lack of a better word, as much as possible.”
“The anger that I felt and the confusion that I felt on the first [Ima Robot] album was only froth by the time the second album came around,” he explains. “I was growing as a human being, as a person. I was growing beyond the content of those songs, beyond the words and the feelings of those songs, while we were still touring that first album.”
The musical growth on display on Up from Below, the Zeros’ first full-length, should be enough to make any question of authenticity irrelevant. The album, produced by Ebert and fellow Zeros Aaron Older and Nico Aglietti, takes full advantage of the band’s 10-piece roster with arrangements that swell without ever seeming cluttered. The back-and-forth harmonizing of “Home,” which the band played on the Late Show with David Letterman, the soulful stomp of “40 Day Dream” and the soaring “Desert Song” are worth listening to, regardless of what clothes Ebert was wearing five years ago. As it stands, though, Ebert has no qualms about his old band and its influence on his critics.
“I don’t even want to think of it in the business sense — has it helped or hurt the business of Edward Sharpe to me is beside the point,” he says. “It’s helped me as a human being to have gone through all of that, and that’s the most important thing for me.”
“Whoever wrote that Pitchfork review is either not aware that humans evolve, or of evolution in general, or wants to deny that and embrace stasis or some kind of constant because it feels more comfortable to them. But for me, that’s not reality. And thank God.”