May 29, 2012


Fuse Q&A: Edward Sharpe & the Magnetic Zeros' Alex Ebert On Jesus and Advertising

James Devaney
James Devaney

If all you know about Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros is "Janglin'"—that charming, horn-driven indie pop tune from those ubiquitous 2011 Ford Fiesta commercials—you're missing out on one of today's most fascinating music collectives.

Fronted by singer/songwriter Alex Ebert—also of oddball rock outfit Ima Robot—Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros delivered the excellent debut Up From Below in 2009. Over the next few years, those songs popped up in everything from NFL ads to movie trailers to the TV series Gossip Girl.Ebert describes Here, the band's recently released second album, as "more meditative and subtle"—although for Ebert's joyful brand of indie pop, "meditative" might as well be just a notch below "exuberant."

I spoke with Ebert about the strange relationship between indie music and advertising agencies, why he thinks it's less likely these new songs will be picked up for commercials and the effect of Jesus/superheroes on his Edward Sharpe project.

I've heard that this project, or at least the name Edward Sharpe, comes from an idea of some sort of messianic figure. Is that right?

I got the name [Edward Sharpe] from a story I was writing about a savior sort of guy, a little boy actually, but I just got the name from it. Other than that, I started the MySpace page Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros and that’s about as much as it has to do with it, as far as I know. Maybe more will be revealed in the future. But I always wanted to be a superhero, still do, and I guess there’s that relationship there.

Is there a specific superhero you want to be, like a Spider-Man or Thor?

[Laughs] No, not particularly, I guess I’m trying to develop into all I can be, the best that I can be: Which I still feel like I’m quite a ways off from. When I was a kid, I was trying to climb walls and I thought I would eventually be able to have the powers of Spider-Man and that sort of thing. But also I think Jesus was a superhero, too, at least the way I saw it. Because I didn’t go to church all the time or anything but I was exposed to that sort of through coloring books and stuff.

That's interesting you have a connection between Jesus and superheroes, because "Janglin'" mentions "the man from Galilee." Did you set out to address religion in the Edward Sharpe songs or did it happen organically?

I didn’t set out to do it but I’ve always... I would definitely be lying if I said the figure… The sort of story and effect that Jesus had on me as a kid definitely kept going and inspired me a lot. It’s an amazing story, maybe the greatest story ever. They do call it The Greatest Story Ever Told or whatever. It definitely had an effect on me just by being around it. The idea of it working its way into songs I think is pretty natural in some ways to me and just the idea of bringing up Jesus, not Christianity, but Jesus is powerful because of all the things that is said that he said and stood for, and all these things that are antithetical to Christianity from what I can tell. It’s an interesting conversation to be had. And I think it’s also a powerful, in some ways, trick to use, to have that conversation started and be able to say what you actually mean by it.

Does your new album continue the themes of the project's debut?

The only thing I’d say is that the first album felt like it was reaching toward somewhere, and [Here] feels like it’s speaking from somewhere. So it’s a little less giddy and a little less desperate and reaching and a bit more meditative and reflective. But otherwise I’d say it’s a continuation of the path we’ve been on in a quite linear way. At least for me, because I’ve been in it. For others it might be a little jarring.

"Janglin'" got picked up for the Ford Fiesta commercial and some of the other songs on Up From Below found their way into other ads. What was that like?

We’ve been fortunate enough to be able to lend the song to some things that are decent marriages and other things that are a little less decent. We’ve definitely turned down unholy marriages [laughs] with various mega-companies where the pitch is just too... just taking the song and really turning the entire meaning on its head. It’s funny that it can happen so quickly. It’s been an interesting thing to experience, too, and one that we’ll continue to deal with.

Can you see any of these new songs being picked up in commercials?

I don’t really know. I think maybe it’s a little less likely for this particular album, but you never know. Sometimes commercials want to use things that are a bit, well, who knows… the interesting thing about commercials and companies is that they’re filled with people who actually really care about music as far as they’re concerned. They feel that they’re real fans and they’re really into the music that they pick and they take it very seriously and in a lot of instances they have a lot of love for the music that they’re picking. It seems almost, on its face, ironic but it’s just the way that it is. The way I describe it is that the companies are the new Medici. They’re sponsoring the arts by way of trying to sell their product. I’m sure it’s unfortunate, I’m not sure it’s fortunate, it’s just sort of the way it is these days.

And there is another Edward Sharpe & the Magnetic Zeros album coming out in 2012, right?

Yeah. We were making a double album and then we realized it sounded like two albums, so we split it up. Where Here is more meditative and subtle, the second album (our third, but the second half), is more rambunctious and maybe adventuresome. [As for the title,] I’m working on it. I got a couple kicking around but I wouldn’t want to give you one we haven’t settled on yet.

Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros' second album Here is out now. And highly recommended!