Before he emerged as leader of the roughly dozen-member folk-rock band, Edward Sharpe And The Magnetic Zeros, singer-songwriter Alex Ebert was best known as lead singer of the L.A.-based electro-dance band Ima Robot. But the transition from one to the other wasn't exactly musical—he had a meltdown, ended up in Alcoholics Anonymous, and began obsessively studying string theory while writing about a salvific boyhood character named Edward Sharpe. Though he has yet to finish the book, the end result was this summer's well-received Up From Below, a warm collection of loose and jangly songs that marries The Polyphonic Spree's ensemble glee with sing-along hooks. Ahead of the band's appearance at The Black Cat on Monday Nov. 16, Ebert spoke to The A.V. Club about the hollowed-out school bus his band travels in, not selling snake oil, and his "bratty and destructive" time in Ima Robot.
The A.V. Club: The recording process for this album sounds pretty daunting—12 people using a 24-track. How did that come about?
Alex Ebert: We were all experiencing a feeling of stupidity and fragmentation, feeling disjointed in some way and especially fuzzed out by technology and staring at screens. Musically, I was looking for authenticity in my life and I guess that quest spilled over into the actual process of recording it. It made sense to me that we recorded [the album] in a way that was simpatico with the whole concept of the music. Of course, at the time, I was like, "Is it a myth that analog sounds better?" I wasn't sure. But as soon as we did it, it was really clear that it was the right choice.
AVC: You guys have been very squarely labeled as a family band. Is that an apt description to you?
AE: Well, that's what we call ourselves. I don't think that we would stick it out together if it wasn't that. There's just been a lot of forgiveness and talking it out. We really are a family now, after this tour, because we went through so much. Almost everyone tried to quit the band at one point and it got really intense, especially in Europe. Passing through that was like the fire that we got put through—the test of our love. Being together right now is a testament to that, to live through it in a really positive way.
AVC: You are touring in a hollowed-out school bus?
AE: No, well, I had the bus, but the bunk beds weren't built in time for us to go on this tour, so we were sort of forced onto another bus. But [the hollowed-out school bus], I love it, I love it, I love it. I might move into it, actually. I might outfit it for myself just to move around in.
AVC: What does the interior of it look like?
AE: It's basically a greenhouse. I took out the seats except for a few and we put beds in. But before, I actually preferred the open floor plan—everyone just sleeping on sliding mattresses, pillows, and things that are just moving around. That's the vibe, man. Open windows. Hanging plants. It's beautiful.
AVC: What can people who have yet to see the live show expect?
AE: The album is a thing that you can hang out with between shows. I think that it's really nice to give people something they can enjoy in a private situation or walking around, just as the soundtrack of their lives. That's really powerful. But I think that the live show is like the confrontation or the... [pauses]. Goddamn, I don't even know. It's really important. [Laughs.] It's really important for us. There's an interaction and a dialogue and—you know, I just got an image: The music is the glove and the live show is us putting the glove on and moving around. It's the cup being filled.
AVC: How has the response to this album lined up with your expectations?
AE: Actually and honestly, it's everything I dreamed of and imagined. Basically, what it means to me is that my reality is the same reality as everyone else's, which is really refreshing because it's not just built up in a bubble. I'm not faking people out and trying to sell snake oil. It really is what it is. Thank God. So, the reaction makes sense to me because that's my reaction. Me saying, "Oh, I feel so good doing this," and other people saying "We do, too!" means I'm not crazy. [Laughs.]
AVC: Ima Robot had a very different sound and image than Edward Sharpe. How does that experience compare to the Edward Sharpe experience for you?
AE: I feel like I've been really almost cruel [in interviews] to Ima Robot, but I'm not. I'm really just telling the truth. I was where I was at when I was doing Ima Robot and that's legitimate. To be lost is as legitimate a part of your process as being found. So, it's not that I'm disowning any of that. That was me. But I was posturing. I was upset. I was destructive and defining myself against things as opposed to for things. It took me a long time to be alright with smiling onstage. I had a whole bunch of preconceptions and negative affectations that weren't necessarily coming—you know what, I can't say that. They were coming from a real place. I really was upset, so it's not like I was bullshitting. I really was taking everything to a point where I just wanted to whine. I didn't care about singing so much and was being really bratty about everything—[I was] very much into tearing everything down. The difference is moving from a destructive to a positive experience. It's not that I want to necessarily avoid my darker moments, but I don't capitalize them and put a crown on them and tote them around as the answer anymore.