Before going any further, let's clear up any confusion surrounding Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros. First of all, Edward Sharpe is not the band's frontman. That'd be Alex Ebert, of Ima Robot fame — but the name isn't his alter ego either. As for Ebert's long-haired, bearded, Jesus-in-neohippie-garb look, that's just his personal style. To top it off, the Los Angeles-based troupe doesn't even consider itself a band — it's more like a family.
"That's just kind of how it worked out," says guitarist Christian Letts. "It wasn't a goal but a byproduct of just hanging out together and getting really close. But I think of it as a family first, and I just get to play music with some of my favorite people in the world."
Letts and Ebert have been friends since age 3, and the other members found their way into the group by similar associations. Each grew up in and around Los Angeles. Drummer Josh Collazo has been friends with Letts for some 17 years, and they played together previously in a band called Written House.
"Alex met [percussionist Orpheo McCord] one night at a party," recalls Letts. "He was playing a drum, and we needed a percussionist. Alex was just running around Runyon Canyon and took a turn we thought we needed to take, ran into Orpheo, and he was like: 'Hey we're going to [Marfa, Texas]. You wanna come with us?' And Orpheo was down."
If it sounds a bit free-spirited and idyllic, that's the nature of the beast — a modern-day rendition of Kesey's Merry Pranksters having no fewer than ten people onstage at a time. And it's the common thread that runs through the Magnetic Zeros' brief but intriguing history. That first road gig in Marfa was booked before the band was solidified, while they were just recording demos.
"We ended up taking 20-something people in the bus, just going to hang out and play," Letts recalls with a noticeable tinge of nostalgia in his voice. "The bus was a wonderland. I think it belonged to a choir group. We picked it up off Craigslist and gutted it. We spent the night before leaving taking all the seats out of it, bolting a couple of coffee tables to the floor, and laying futons and blankets everywhere. It's one of my fondest memories of the early days, taking that first trip."
That the bus came from a choir group is fitting. Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros are by all accounts equal parts rock show, hippie commune on wheels, and tent revival, with Ebert leading the charge onstage, probably a bit more shaman than minister.
"There's always people dancing and having a good time," says Letts of the band's already famous live shows, in which crowds become immersed in the experience. It's what first started generating buzz around the act, from that very first show in Marfa.
The band's early organic growth evolved into its critically acclaimed debut album, Up From Below, recorded over two years in guitarist and coproducer Nico Aglietti's Laurel Canyon home. There, Letts recalls a picture-perfect bohemian scene with people jamming in the living room while others cooked dinner in the kitchen.
"I remember just walking in and there's an idea being kicked around," says Letts. "And we just sat in the living room with two guitars, someone's like 'There's an upright piano upstairs, and we should include that.' And 20 minutes later, we went down and recorded the song, which was 'Up From Below.' And we did it on the first take. We did three takes, and the first was magic."
And music by way of providence seems to be yet another commonality in the group.
"A lot of people ask about the process," says Letts, "how we write songs and whatever. The songs just kind of come out of thin air. It'd just come to you all of a sudden or it'd come to Alex or whoever the song was from. We couldn't really plan for it.
"I find that if I try to write a song, it ends up being something I don't really like very much," he goes on to say.
Letts also notes it was the first time he had toiled through analog recording to tape using an old 24-track.
"It was cool," says Letts. "There'd be like five of us playing at once, and you get it down to the last note because you can't just punch in. You have to do the whole take over. But there's something about tape. It's got this really warm feel, and I don't ever see us shying away from it."
Warmth emanates from Up From Below. From the Motown-flavored opening "40 Day Dream" to the catchy Let's Get Happy-meets-Sgt. Peppers' "Janglin," featured in a Ford Fiesta commercial, to the anthemic "Home," which was featured in a Palm commercial — and may, in fact, be the best road-trip tune ever — the album paints vibrant vistas musically as well as lyrically. "I woke up to the shadow of a man standing over me/Here in the land of frozen hands/I came out here to kill your father like a Sergio Leone picture/Gee I hope you understand," from "Desert Song," is one example of how the storytelling plays like a film while referencing other works — much like a Quentin Tarantino flick.
"I think of it more as a score," says Letts. "It's very cinematic to me."
The guitarist still isn't prepared to classify Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros' one-of-a-kind sound quite so easily, though. It sweeps from folk to jangly alternative to country to '50s doo-wop with surprising agility and ease, never losing its air of grandeur as it deftly shifts shape.
"There have been some funny descriptions," says Letts. "Somebody called us spaghetti hippies. Somebody else was saying it's desperado Motown. I actually have a hard time describing it as well, honestly. That's the first question people ask: 'Well, what kind of music is it?' And you know, I'm always like, 'You know, it's kind of everything.'
"I don't know how to describe it. It's very tricky, because there are so many people in the band, and recording, it's even more people, different friends playing instruments on it. And it's us in the core group, and there's ten people with very different musical inspirations. I have a better time describing it by what it makes me think of."
However you choose to describe it, the music in question is something special. And onstage, it's downright magical. Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros has quickly earned a reputation for wowing fans with spectacular live shows while trekking tirelessly across the country, hitting up spots like Coachella, and even heading abroad to Australia, where Letts says he was blown away by fans singing along to every word.
"Every show is different," he says. "We always have fun. There's no two shows that are the same, and we never play a song the same way twice live. There might a guitar line we play different, or the drum quiets down somewhere you weren't expecting it. It's almost like a live score for the evening. We're going to have fun, so hopefully [the crowd] has fun too."