Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros spread the good word
If it’s the job of a messiah to convert the unbelievers, then Edward Sharpe—aka Alex Ebert—has some work in front of him. Stumbling upon the former Ima Robot frontman’s band at this past October’s Treasure Island Music Festival, Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros are the kind of act that immediately invited my skeptical inquiry. Not since The Polyphonic Spree had I seen a band with such a definitive “shtick.”
For those who have never seen them live (or their appearance on David Letterman), the group is a dozen-or-so-strong baroque ensemble with a singular and undeniable hippie aesthetic that it will bring to the Rio Theatre on Monday, March 1. Ebert usually dances around shirtless and shoeless, nappy hair tied in a crown, while the rest of the band easily could have taken its wardrobe from the set of Little House on the Prairie. Still, Ebert denies collusion, stating that “it’s just us being who we are. If we coordinated it’d be obvious. We’d be wearing all black, or all white or something.”
The band’s steadfast adherence to its populist image would be notable enough, but to anyone like myself with even modest punk rock purist pretensions, something doesn’t quite jive. For instance, it’s only been about two years since Ebert was active (and wearing eyeliner) with Ima Robot’s indie-glam rock. Moreover, Ebert’s co-lead singer and former girlfriend, Jade Castrinos, used to work for American Apparel, and accordionist Nora Kirkpatrick had a recurring role on the ABC series Greek. Yet both of these women dress onstage more as if they’re preparing to take a raft down the Mississippi than attend a Hollywood function.
But despite my skepticism I’m actually kind of impressed. Whether Edward Sharpe is honest expression or theatricality, the attention to detail is fairly stunning. The aforementioned band-wide fashion sense is, of course, one aspect of this, but lyrically Ebert makes shrewd use of old-timey phrasings—“ma and pa,” “me oh my,” “apple of my eye”—for a subtle yet convincing effect. “Edward Sharpe” is also a character Ebert created—a messiah who falls into all the trappings of Earthly desires. Conversely, Ebert bares more than a passing resemblance to Jesus Christ, and it’s not hard to imagine the band’s music as background for Jim Jones and the Agricultural Project’s broadcast propaganda.
Supposedly this concept came out of the time between Ima Robot and Ebert’s new clan, a period which he describes as “manure, fodder for the next thing … I had to learn how to write music for fun.” So, it seems that, if nothing else, Ebert really believes in what he’s doing, and that whatever happened to him in between bands isn’t as contrived as it might initially appear.
Still, did all dozen members of the band go through a hippie-epiphany, too? “No, we don’t all live together in a commune, I will say that. And I wouldn’t particularly mind that if we all did,” says Ebert. But when I press him a bit more he seems to level with me, explaining, “I’m aware of all angles, I was aware of the aesthetic and the implications of [the hand-painted schoolbus the band completed its first tour in] and hiring a dude named Cornfed to drive us. At the same time it was also a pragmatic, practical purchase.”
Whatever one wants to believe about Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros, the band’s energy together is undeniable. Ebert and Castrinos still seem to have a special chemistry onstage, underscored by their former relationship. While it’s kind of sad to think that the semi-hit “Home” is something of a love ballad from Ebert to Castrinos, he relates, “We started off as best friends, then it became romantic for a little while, and now we’re back to best friends. It’s the same love for her no matter what form it takes.”
Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros perform at 8 p.m. Monday, March 1, at the Rio Theatre, 1205 Soquel Ave., Santa Cruz. Tickets are $18 in advance, $22 at the door. For more information, call 423-8209.