EDITOR’S NOTE: An excerpt of this story first posted July 26th 2013. To mark the occasion of Edward Sharpe & The Magnetic Zeros frontman Alex Ebert winning a Golden Globe just a few moments ago, here is the complete story.
Twenty-First Century ambassadors of peace and magic or dopey Christian hippie cult on wheels? MAGNET goes to Bonnaroo to find the answer and bears witness to the third coming of Edward Sharpe & The Magnetic Zeros.
BY JONATHAN VALANIA It’s a few clicks before zero dark thirty backstage at Bonnaroo’s Which Stage where Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeroes are about to perform before a massive afternoon crowd. Nobody here knows it yet but something miraculous is about to happen. A walk on water moment.
As per usual this time of year in Bonnarooville, it’s hotter than Georgia asphalt. Jesus-haired frontman Alex Ebert and his band of merry pranksters are taking refuge from that big ‘Ol Tennessee sun in the cool crisper-like confines of a mobile home on cinderblocks that currently serves as their dressing room. There’s nearly a dozen of them milling around like ants in a box, warming up on their respective instruments, chatting or just chillin’ like Bob Dylan. They are all dressed in beatific smiles and various shades of nouveau hippie chic. Everyone seems a little barefoot in the head, if you know what I mean.
The infinite sadness of the Beatles “Long, Long, Long” — a band favorite — blares from a boom box. Trumpeter Stewart Cole warms up with trills. Drummer Josh Collazo taps out a beat on the wall with a pair of sticks. Jade Castrinos, who plays psychedelic June Carter to Ebert’s hippie Johnny, touches up her mascara in the mirror. She’s dressed in a white, high-necked knee-length prairie dress, the kind the Manson Family chicks wore to court appearances back in the day. Ebert, his long hair swept up in a makeshift updo in deference to the heat, is dressed in white linen pants and a droopy white sleeveless shirt. He has a dirty butt and a faraway look in his eyes. Very faraway.
The tour manager ducks his head in the door and issues the two-minute warning. As per their pre-show ritual, the band files out into the heat and links arms in a perfect circle to form The Huddle. Alex looks over at me watching from a distance and implores me to join The Huddle, which I do without hesitation. With his girlfriend at his side holding his newborn son, Alex commences ‘pass the breath.’ Inhaling deeply and holding it, he looks to his right and nods and the person next him inhales and holds it and then turns to her right and nods and so on until it circles back to Alex, who then exhales and gives the nod and one by one like dominoes everyone exhales. He leans over and kisses his son on the head, smiling down at him and saying to know one in particular “Raised in a cult.” Then he leads The Huddle into a sustained chant of ‘ohhhhmmmm.’ As the chanting continues Alex looks skyward, his eyes rolling up in the back of his head. It’s an unsettling sight for the uninitiated but there is no cause concern. He is, he will explain later, locating his third eye.
The band breaks The Huddle and ascends the stairs to the Which Stage, triggering an ecstatic roar from the assembled multitudes. There must be 20,000 people out there. The band launches into “40 Day Dream,” the celebratory sunburst processional that kicks off Up From Below, the 2009 album that made this unlikely band of refugees from the Island Of Misfit Toys an international sensation. The crowd sings along:
It’s the magical mystery kind, must be a lie
Bye bye to the too good to be true kind of love
Oh no, I could die
Oh, now I can die
By mid-song Ebert can’t be contained, he hops off the stage and with a weird, gnarled leper gait wades into the swooning crowd, handing out hugs and high fives and good vibrations. It’s only the first song and already he has the crowd eating Kumbaya out of his hands. You can almost see the love radiating off the crowd like the distant shimmer of heat rising from a desert highway.
Right here, right now it’s all peace, love and understanding and from the look of things nobody in attendance thinks that’s remotely funny. The medics, always on the lookout for heat stroke victims and drug casualties, wear T-shirts that say YES YOU CAN TELL US NO JUDGEMENTS. Even security, usually a profession populated by paid brutes who got into this business for the money but stayed for the violence, wear shirts that say I AM HERE TO HELP. So, too, is Edward Sharpe & The Magnetic Zeros. You may scoff at all this, I know I did at first, but that is to be expected. It’s well-known by now that the path of the righteous man is beset on all sides by the inequities of the selfish and the tyranny of evil men. Blessed is he who, in the name of charity and good will, shepherds the weak through the valley of darkness, for he is truly his brother’s keeper and the finder of lost children.
Before we go on, I should point that I have parachuted into this story with some reluctance and a backpackful of suspicion and skepticism about the whole Edward Sharpe and The Magnetic Zeroes phenomenon. It all strikes me as a little too hippie-dippy precious, a little too Godspell for it’s own good. The band closes with a triumphant “Home,” the whistling psych-folk spaghetti western that’s the raison d’ etre of the band’s burgeoning fame. Today it will provide the soundtrack for Ebert’s walk on the water moment. His second, by my count.
The first was back in 2010 when they played Coachella for the first time. Before the band played a note, a nervous Ebert accidentally knocked his mic stand into the crowd where it cuts a deep gash into the forehead of an audience member. Blood pours down his face. All of this, mind you, was captured by the Jumbotron cameras and writ large for a crowd of 35,000, sending up a collective “Ohhhhhhh!” of alarm and concern. Ebert offers a heartfelt apology, kisses his hand and then presses his hand to the man’s cheek, and then he literally gives the bleeding man the shirt off his back and wraps it around his head as a bandage. Crowd goes ballistic.
The Jesus-looking guy in the white suit just healed the sick!
OK, technically he did make the guy ‘sick’ in the first place, which is a little bit like a hospital selling you cigarettes and then treating you for lung cancer, but in 2013 if you want miracles — and of course we all want miracles — it’s gonna take a little willing suspension of disbelief. You might have to squint a little bit to see it.
The second walk on water moment happened right before my very eyes. It was in the middle of “Home,” during ‘storytime,’ a long-honored tradition at Edward Sharpe concerts where the band quiets down and Alex and Jade wade into the crowd and hand the mic to whoever has a story to share. Usually it’s something along the lines of ‘My best friends Topaz and Saffron and I became best friends when we would lay in the sand at Venice beach and look up at the sun and listen to your songs and that was the best summer ever! So thank you. You made me a happier person.”
Sometimes drunk people just shout semi-coherent variations on ‘DUDE, YOU RULE! NO DUDE, DUDE, DUDE, LET ME FINISH! I JUST WANT TO SAY YOU FUCKING RULE! WOOOOH!!!’ Sometimes they propose marriage — that’s happened at least twice and she said ‘yes’ both times. But today is special. Today, something wonderful is going to happen.
Having waded about a hundred feet into the crowd, Alex hands the mic to a frail figure, a pale boy with a pink mohawk. “About a year ago,” he says. “You guys visited me in my hospital room — remember? And I got a bone marrow transplant that day that saved my life!” Alex literally leaps into the crowd and wraps the boy in the pink mohawk in a bear hug. Crowd goes ballistic. Tears roll down my cheeks.
We must be in heaven, man!
Later that night, after watching Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers close out Bonnaroo 2013 from the VIP section, the Edward Sharpe caravan heads to Chattanooga for a rare night of rest in a hotel. They have the next day off and decide to throw a barbeque in the parking lot of Track 29, the venue they are performing at the following night. Gator, the tour bus driver, a pot-bellied Floridan with a white ZZ Top beard and a cowboy hat bedazzled the teeth of an alligator he killed in the swamps with his bare hands, went to the butcher this morning and bought up 20 pounds of ribs and has been working them over with his secret dry rub and charcoal flame ever since. And despite the fact that many beers are cracked open to stave off the humid swelter of the high noon sun, a family vibe pervades, with girlfriends, wives and newborns along for the ride on this leg of the tour. There is a peaceful easy feeling in the air. It is here that I have a chance for a little one on one time with each of the Zeroes. Let’s meet them:
Jade Castrinos — Co-lead singer
Born in Florida, grew up in California, playing Beatles and Zep covers with her Dad’s one-man-band. Her voice is the boldest color in the band’s rainbow sound. Really did fall out of the second story window of Alex’s apartment, couldn’t walk for a week afterwards, still has the medical bills to prove it. Has been secretly faking ‘pass the breath’ in The Huddle all along. “Or else I might pass out,” she says laughing. “I just never got the hang of it, to be honest.” Recording a solo album at a studio in San Francisco owned by her friends Sean Fanning of Napster fame and Sean Parker of Facebook fame. Heath Ledger turned her onto Nick Drake. Nick Drake changed her life. Obsessed with Twin Peaks and “fucking love”s Rhianna. Often loses cellphones and shoes. When she smiles, the sun shines out of her eyes.
Crash — Celestial Backing Vocals
Blonde, drifty and handsome in a surfer-dude kind of way. If they made a movie about Edward Sharpe & The Magnetic Zeroes, Owen Wilson would play the part of Crash. A New Orleans native/Katrina evacuee exiled to Los Angeles where he lived for a time in a cave behind Frank Zappa’s house in Laurel Canyon.
Stewart Cole — Trumpet, keyboards
Talented trumpeter-for-hire Cali born and bread. Back in 2007, Beck called him in to play mariachi trumpet on a White Stripes track he was recording in his living room called “Conquest.” He is the snarkiest, and possibly the smartest, member of the band. Jesee Eisenberg will play him in the movie.
JOSH — Drums
Monster drummer, world champion swing dancer. Somewhere in between John Bonham and Gene Krupa. Recently made a father, he is easily the most heavily — and impressively — tattooed band member. He seems lit from within. He could turn the world on with his smile.
SETH FORD-YOUNG — Bass
Used to play with Tom Waits. His first show, he got no rehearsal, no soundcheck, played songs he never heard before. And he nailed it. Left to his own devices he plays gypsy jazz. Cut his teeth with hardcore thrashers-in-the-rhye Initial Reaction who released one album, Saintly Virtues, back in 1987 with song titles like “Cop Killer” and “Unite And Fight.”
NORA KIRKPATRICK — Accordion
Actress, perhaps best-known for a recurring role on the ninth season of The Office as Esther Bruegger, a neighboring farmer’s daughter who becomes Dwight’s girlfriend. Met Alex and Jade at Burning Man where Alex tried, unsuccessfully, to sneak in without a ticket.
ORPHEO MCCORD — Percussionist
Named after the Marcel Camus’ Black Orpheus which won the Palme d’Or at the 1959 Cannes Film Festival. First met Alex in a teepee set up in the back of the Zappa house in Laurel Canyon, where Alex was living at the time. Dad was a professional mime named Merlin who was often backed up by the Grateful Dead back in the day. He was also one of Ken Kesey’s original Merry Prankster (SEE Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test).
CHRISTIAN LETTS — Guitar
Brawny, mustachioed, born in England, grew up in LA with Alex, and for a time was part of his crew, tagging walls around the city, but drifted apart eventually. The pair worked together on numerous (literally) odd jobs. One summer they worked at Suntans And Coffee To Go. He was the barista and Alex’s job was to mop up the gigantic pools of sweat in the tanning beds. Years later, “Alex called and said “Yo, I have this idea. Do you want to come to my studio apartment and help me lay down some things?’” he says. “So I went there and that was it. Writing a happy song that isn’t cheesy is fucking hard, but Alex was pulling that off and that was really inspiring to me. I came home from that recording session and I said to my then girlfriend at the time, ‘I know what I’m doing with the rest of my life.”
Mitchell Yoshida — Piano
Half-Japanese Brookynite. His first gig was touring pianist for teen hearthrob Jesse McCartney who was the opening act for the Backstreet Boys. After that, he resolved to never again take a job playing music he didn’t respect. The newest member of the band, joined in September. Got the gig when the last piano player — a friend from college — jumped ship to become Grizzly Bear’s touring pianist. “Alex called me three weeks before the tour was starting and I learned all the tunes and went to rehearsals kind of without having met anyone in the band before,” he says. “Instantly everybody was really welcoming and warm, friendly, and loving. It kind of took me aback at first at how many positive vibes were around. I had never really been around that much positivity before. It’s nice to be somewhere where everyone is trying to be as positive as possible. Even before I joined, that’s something that I’d been trying to attain for a long time.”
Nico Aglietti — Guitar
His father was Joe Cocker’s tour manager and his godfather was an engineer at L.A.’s legendary Village Recorders. Would curl up on the sofa behind the board and nap while Steely Dan recorded Aja and Dylan recorded Planet Waves and Clapton wailed God-like. “I just remember the sounds and the aroma of the studio,” he says. “So it’s very nostalgic whenever I’m in there.”
Last but hardly least is Alexander Michael Tahquitz Ebert. To get away from the noise and distraction of the BBQ, we head over to the railroad tracks ringing the parking lot. We sit side by side on the rails and talk for literally three hours non-stop. Here’s what I learned:
He was born May 12th, 1978 to Michael Ebert, an ex-hippie and currently practicing psychotherapist, and Lisa Richards, an actress. Trippy footage of his father chanting in the desert while holding his sister was used as the opening scene of the video for “Desert Song.” Since she got her start in the late ‘60s, Alex’s mother has clocked in more than 40 movie and TV appearances, including Fantasy Island, Chips, Family and Quincy M.E. But perhaps her most memorable role was Dark Shadows’ Sabrina, whose hair turned white with fright when she accidentally witnessed her closet werewolf husband going lupine under a full moon. When Alex was a teenager, his mother took him to classes at the Actor’s Studio where he studied under acting guru Charles Laughton, aka Al Pacino’s mentor.
While listening to Beethoven with his father when he was five, Alex had an awful epiphany: Sooner or later, he was going to die. “I remember drawing a picture of Sitting Bull and this feeling coming over me brought on by the music,” he says. “I remember suddenly feeling this gigantic sort of sadness. I walked up to my dad and asked him if it was true and he said ‘yeah.’ I’ll never forget it. After that, sunsets took on this added dimension of beauty because like me they were going to go away. And I started to savor the fleeting tragic beauty of life. I think that’s what so much of my life has been centered around and attempting to solve the problem of death or what some people call the predicament of life, which is death really.”
At this point a Mexican family of four — a husband and wife and boy and girl — approaches us on foot. The daughter is wearing an Edward Sharpe t-shirt, but it becomes clear immediately that all four are fans. Apparently they walked all the way here from God knows where on the off chance Alex would be hanging out in the parking lot the day before the show. They tell Alex that they saw the show two nights ago in Atlanta and they want to come tomorrow night but their daughter is not old enough. Alex tells them they will try to get her in somehow as he poses for a photo with her. Judging by her expression this is a Make A Wish Foundation-caliber moment. “You are humble,” he says to Alex with the gravitas of a spirit guide, before saying their thank yous and walking off.
We pick up where we left off. Obsessed with the film Boyz In The Hood, he started rapping when he was nine. By the time he was 14 he was fronting a gangsta rap outfit heavily influenced by NWA. It didn’t last long. The first time he heard a recording of himself rapping, he was appalled at how bad he sounded and almost gave up music altogether. Inspired by a report he did for school on Marlon Brandon, Ebert traded rap for film. After high school he tried to get into NYU film school but was turned down, so he went to Emerson in Boston instead. There he majored in partying and, not surprisingly, only last one year. “It got pretty bad, there was a lot of fucking drugs going around in that dorm,” he said. “There was the obvious stuff like cocaine, there was a lot of these quaaludes called ‘lemons’ and tons of mushrooms, which were definitely the highlight in some ways of the experience and then the worst stuff was ecstacy.” The drug-taking was a direct result of his obsession with Jack Kerouac’s On The Road and the pursuit of bohemian authenticity and street cred. All great artists suffer, he thought, and his life was too safe and painless. So he went looking for trouble and sure enough he found it. “Growing up in a upper middle class situation, the only way to experience hardship was to manufacture it,” he says. “And one way to manufacture hardship is to go do a lot of drugs. By the time I was 19 or 20, I started taking it much further and started to source out heroin. I was snorting and smoking it, took me about two years to get hooked. I was a very heavy user. You can only go so far and I started shooting. The first time i did it, its the typical story, sitting in the parking lot of a Vons grocery store, I was like ‘Holy shit!’ and of course someones playing the Velvet Underground.”
Back in L.A., Ebert formed Ima Robot, a glam punk outfit with songs so tight and catchy and clever that Beck’s Mutations-era rhythm section — bassist Justin Meldal-Johnsen and drummer Joey Waronker — jumped ship and joined. For a time, Ima Robot enjoyed Next Big Thing status on the L.A. scene. All the best clubs wanted to book them, all the best bands wanted to open for them. Roman Coppola (son of Francis Ford, sister of Sophia) wanted to direct their videos. Virgin records wanted to sign them.
But things went south fast. By 2006, Waronker and Meldal-Johnsen were gone and Ima Robot’s major label debut stiffed. After a year in the soul-crushing limbo of major label purgatory all underperforming new bands are consigned to, Ebert started to re-think things. Oddly enough, it was Ebert finally getting sober, after two rehab stays and repeated DIY attempts to kick, that fucked things up. “I started fucking with the formula, until then we were making really soulful stuff and once I got sober I started getting a lot more cerebral and obnoxious,” he says. “I wasn’t really into the whole obnoxious thing until I got sober and I was really sort of pissed off. I started singing with a really nasal accent and to me that fucked with our formula and our music suffered.”
Something had to give. “By the end I had become very disillusioned, not just with Ima Robot, but with myself,” he says. “I realized I was no longer following my instincts, just leaning on these institutions — AA, Virgin. To the point where I didn’t even know if I had any instincts anymore. At that point there were three options: I could kill myself, which I seriously considered, or I could just fall in line which really wasn’t an option because I didn’t think I was capable of that. And then theres a third option which was to try and somehow break out of it. I didn’t know what that would be other than that it would involve starting over in almost every area of my life: I had a girlfriend that I was with for about four years and we had a house together and I was in AA and all these things. I was in a life of institutions. So I broke up with my girlfriend, I moved out of the house, threw away my cellphone, I quit AA, which was the scariest of all the decisions because the entire culture of AA is based on the idea that if you stop going you will become a fucking mess instantly. And guess what? It didn’t happen.”
Inspired by all the disruptive change he forced upon himself, he started working on a new project, a major change in direction from Ima Robot. “I was living in this tiny apartment where i wrote most of the first Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeroes album,” he says. “I got around on my bicycle, I had no phone, just had a notepad outside. People would come by and write me notes, when they wanted to get in touch with me. That lasted about nine months it was fucking awesome.”
The transformation was nothing short of astonishing. To get a clear picture of the amazing before and after, google Roman Coppola’s video for Ima Robot’s “Dynomite.” He looks like a refugee from Planet MTV circa 1983 — jagged sideways haircut, New Wave tunic, snarly voice, robotic dance moves.
Then watch the video for “Home”, where he looks like one of the original cast members of Jesus Christ Superstar. Note how effectively and effortlessly-to-the-point-of-invisibility every element in the presentation of both personas is executed — the look, the song, the sound, the videos, the choreography. And while it should be noted that this a man with formal training as an actor, there’s a nagging suspicion that the latter persona is closer to the real Alex Ebert.
“[After Ima Robot] I was really getting into positivity and smiling,” he says. “With Ima Robot, I didn’t smile on stage for a long time because that wasn’t punk rock. But eventually I came to realize that being joyful, as unhip as it was at the time, was actually far more ballsy and courageous than being a sullen rock star.” If that joyfulness was mistaken for a messianc complex, and it often was, so be it. “I wouldn’t shy from those accusations personally,” he says. “When I was a kid, I wanted to be a super hero. And there were different super heroes that i was aware of while I was growing up. I wanted to be Spiderman starting at the age of five. But the greatest superhero I’d ever heard of was Christ. As I got older I found myself admiring the stories of and the powers of and the philosophy of Christ. So for me that makes sense.”
Edward Sharpe is the hero of a novel Ebert was working on about a messiah who is sent to Earth to help people, but he keeps getting distracted by and falling in love with pretty girls. One day, while on his way to save the world, Ebert met and soon fell in love with a pretty girl named Jade Castrinos. “She was a such a free spirit,” he says. “We got to talking and she had been sort of dealing with being sober since she was much younger. It was this really fantastic exhilarating time for me, here was this girl who was completely wild. She left me read her journal which was titled IF YOU ARE READING THIS I HAVE DRIVEN OFF A CLIFF, OR HAVE I? We hung out every day after that. She didn’t have a cellphone either so we communicated by payphone. Meanwhile I didn’t even know what a fuckin singer she was.”
He would find out soon enough.
“‘Home’” was written after Alex and I had gone on an all day walk through Elysian Park and I lost my shoes and he carried me on his back and we were laughing our asses off, just having a really great day,” says Jade. “And when we got back to his apartment, I was like, ‘Let’s write a song,’ and he was like, ‘Okay, let’s do it.’ He had already had parts of “Home”, but no lyrics and no melody, but he just set up his little Pro Tools computer and we were sharing the microphone. I was like, ‘Okay, you sing when I sing while I sing when you sing and we’ll sing together in the chorus.’ We just did it. We wrote it on the spot.”
Meanwhile, the paradigm of the L.A. music scene was shifting. Irony and snark was out. The new sincerity was in. The cheeky wags at Flaunt magazine declared this post-hipster zeitgeist to be the Age of the Hippiester. “There was something bubbling up, man, in Echo park and Silver Lake, when [Up From Below] was nearly completed and we were starting to play shows and it was something we were a part of,” he says. “Suddenly everyone started wearing Mexican blankets and ponchos and everyone’s hair was long and everyone had a beard and everyone was barefoot and yes there were psychedelics and a lot of weed smoking but it was so far beyond being just that. It wasn’t drug-based, it was love-based. Suddenly, the hip thing was to be nice to people. It wasn’t about partying it was about breaking bread with each other. It was this golden time that has slightly passed — Urban Outfitters kind of co-opted the look — but it really helped birth us.”
Around this time Ebert and Costrinos fell in with collective of artists, filmmakers and musicians that called itself The Masses. It was through this association that Costrinos and especially Ebert met and established a deep bond with the actor Heath Ledger who had begun underwriting The Masses activities with his movie star money. “They would have these big dinner parties in Laurel Canyon with a lot of wine and a lot of creative people making music and hanging out and it was at one of those dinner parties that I met Heath,” says Ebert. “I remember we took a trip to Mexico and Heath drove the whole way. We camped on the beach and surfed for like 10 days. We would talk a lot. He really liked the band and he flew us out to New York to perform at this concert to promote I’m Not There with all these performers doing Dylan covers and The Roots were the house band. We made this video that hasn’t come out yet with this girl named Grace covering Bowie’s ‘Quicksand.’ We also had plans to do a musical that he wanted to direct. It would be him and me as brothers. And you know we just had great plans.”
Ledger had laid plans to establish film production and record company arms of The Masses. Office space secured, along with filmmaking gear. The first album to be released by The Masses record company was Up From Below, the debut album by Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros, who had become the art collective’s de facto house band. And then in 2008 tragedy struck. “I talked to him the night before, we talked about a movie we were going to make, so yeah, I think his death was purely accidental,” says Ebert. “I was in a juice shop with Jade and the way I heard the news was not cool, lets just put it that way,” says Ebert. “I was so flabbergasted, it was about 10 a.m. and I must have said ‘WHAT?!?’ about 45 times. And then I fell on the floor. It rained that day, and it never rains in L.A.. and we recorded [the final track on Up From Above] “Om Nashi Me” that day. And we recorded the rain. You can hear it at the beginning and the end of the song. And then a year later it rained again on the anniversary of his death.”
Ledger’s family declined to continue funding The Masses, which left Edward Sharpe and the Magnet Zeroes in the lurch. At this point I should mention something pretty major, something that, well, I will leave it up to the reader to decide how it colors everything I’ve told you so far: When Alex Ebert 18 years old he inherited a million dollars from his maternal grandfather. By the time Ebert turned 27, he has spent all but $80,000 of it — on drugs, group trips to Europe and Mexico and four star hotels — and had pretty much nothing to show for it. Eventually, the executors of his grandfather’s will cut him off.
“They said ‘You know what? That’s it, you’re done.’ You know, they should have done it waaay fucking earlier,” says Ebert. “They said ‘We cant allow you to take any more money from this account.’ But I needed that money to finish [Up From Below], and so i sent a letter to the chief executor or whatever, the trustee or whatever, and I said ‘Listen, I understand fully the implications of being out of money, and I’ll have to get a job et cetera et cetera, I understand the implications of not having money, and what that means in this world. Given that you now know that I understand that, please give me the money, because i believe in this project, and I believe in this band and this music, and if it doesnt work, I’m ok with the consequences.’ And they said ‘Fuck it, here you go.’ And they gave it to me…”
And the rest is, well, you know it ends: He buys some magic beans and plants them in the ground and grows a beanstalk to heaven. And they all lived happily ever after. Amen.
[From the August issue of MAGNET MAGAZINE]