TELLURIDE – Alex Ebert is that rare breed – a thoughtful rock star.
It doesn’t hurt that his father is musicologist/Rico resident Michael Ebert, longtime advocate for the performing arts in the American West, but more about that later.
Now, with basic introductions out of the way, here’s why everybody who can get a ticket should head over to the Sheridan Opera House on Wednesday, Dec. 2, for the Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros concert.
In concert, Alex Ebert is Edward Sharpe – who is, onstage, a sort of idealized Alex Ebert, where he’s half Energizer Bunny, half white-boy soul-singer, with a dollop of Eastern mysticism (most evident on the haunting chant, “Om Nashi Me,” which began as a hum in his head but eventually turned into a song because the combination of the words represented “just sort of what I was feeling,” he says) and in a range of songs expressing a disarmingly childlike joy from “Home” to “Jangle.”
But let’s consider “Om Nashi Me” for a minute, which, on the You-Tube music video, features participants singing and dancing in a kind of Hare Krishna airport circle-dance.
But now is not the time to make cracks about the Hare Krishnas, of whom Sharpe/Ebert is characteristically respectful.
“I’ve seen them dance, but I haven’t spent any real time with them,” he allows.
And “real time” is what Sharpe/Ebert is all about.
Asked about musical influences – yes, Brian Eno; yes, John Lennon; yes to “most of the mid-60s R and B and Motown – Sam Cooke and Otis Redding.” No response to a passing reference to Arcade Fire, and there isn’t time to discuss Donovan, David Bowie, Raffi, and Iggy Pop.
Instead, the dreds-coiffed, chest-baring veteran of the power-pop band Ima Robot delves deep and comes back with a surprising answer.
“Elementary school,” he says.
“I like the broad concept of communal music. Largely, my memories of playing music in elementary school, with my elementary school friends – we had a music class and a music teacher and we’d all be playing the triangle and the recorder and singing in unison all the time.”
Of that music teacher in Sharpe/Ebert’s native Southern California, he says: “Her name was Ruth; I don’t remember her last name,” he says. “She was a South African woman – I don’t know where she is today.”
Sharpe/Ebert has mastered the art of speaking of just about everyone with respect, and I’m guessing it was handed down from his father, Michael, best-known locally as a lifelong ambassador for classical music and opera.
“He was always playing classical music,” says the impeccably hip Sharpe/Ebert, whose favorite singer growing up was Pavarotti, a preference which “had a huge impact on me, as well as in a more psychic sense” growing up in a sea of pop culture. But with that, it’s time to mention Michael Ebert’s half-brother Peter and father Carl, both opera stage directors who fled Nazi Germany for England and Switzerland in 1933, when Hitler came to power.
It took Michael Ebert, a kind of equal-opportunity music lover, to carry the family musical baton to California and set it twirling in the explosion of popular music generated by the 1960s-70s counterculture.
“My dad would play me all this stuff on big road trips,” says Sharpe/Ebert. “Willie Nelson, Patsy Cline.
“Patsy Cline really had an impact on me when I was little – her sound is so dramatic – it’s very cinematic.
Talk turns to a song that’s essentially a three-word tone poem, “Om Nashi Me,” and Sharpe/Ebert turns from scholarly to messianic.
“Someone told me,” he says slowly, “that in Sanskrit, it means ‘infinite nakedness.’
“What it means to me is saying yes to my destruction, which is really interesting. Actually, the feeling of chanting ‘Om Nashi Me’ is one of casting off, one of, like, sort of, throwing asunder, like some sort of outer shell, some sort of giving away. Yes, I give myself away to the universe, to love, to whatever it is.””
Catching the mood, I throw out a long-held private observation – that rock ‘n’ roll restored a kind of Dionysian revelry to a Western world that had lost it.
I’m stuck in the thicket of trying to explain the Greek god of wine, the forest and vegetation, and stumble into describing vaguely agrarian Dionysian rituals, with their finale of tearing apart the god, and later his scarecrow-like representative, strewing about seeds for the spring resurrection, as a kind of foreshadowing the fate of Christ, arguably the next stage of the evolutionary ladder of the collective Western unconscious, going from a tearing apart by ecstatic women to a more militaristic-seeming crucifixion.
Sharpe/Ebert isn’t buying it.
“The concept of women tearing apart a rock star,” he begins. “It may very well be an appropriate metaphor, just in the sense of giving yourself up for the sustenance of the universe, though it’s not necessary.
And then he starts that thing where he’s thinking, out-loud: “Last night, I did feel like I was giving myself away to the audience, to the people who were watching; I guess that’s true. I turn myself over to them and allow everything to happen, and it’s a really, really healthy experience.”
Deserts loom large in Sharpe/Ebert’s toolset. On one of those seminal car trips, his mother shot a film sequence of his father, dressed in biblical garb, cradling Sharpe/Ebert’s baby sister, Gabi, while chanting, slightly glassy-eyed, in Monument Valley.
The footage provides the opening to the music video “Desert Song,” from the band’s debut album, Up From Below.
Michael Ebert sends me the lyrics, and sure enough, it’s biblical, what with “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 you father like a Sergio Leoni picture/“Gee I hope you understand/“And as the red soaked the sand – shhh/“Run to the desert/“You will see all that you need to see/“Run to the desert /“You will be all that you need to be.”
After a trip to the web, Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros sound downright apocryphal.
“Several years ago, Alex Ebert – the hard-partying lead singer of major-label power-pop group Ima Robot – broke up with his girlfriend, moved out of his house and joined Alcoholics Anonymous,” writes music critic Richard Parks, on the C’mon Get Happy website.
“After that, he spent a year sleeping on a blow-up mattress in a tiny L.A. apartment with no phone and no Internet, sketching out a story about a messianic figure named Edward Sharpe. ‘He was sent down to Earth to kinda heal and save mankind,’ the longhaired, bearded and often-shirtless Ebert says. ‘But he kept getting distracted by girls and falling in love.’
“Life imitated art shortly thereafter when Ebert met singer Jade Castrinos outside Little Pedro’s, near the train tracks downtown. ‘We hit it off and made a run for freedom,’ Ebert says. ‘And of course we started writing music together.’ By the summer of 2009, Ebert and Castrinos were touring the country in a big white bus with a group of fellow music makers known as Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros. Like a crazed mix of Krishnas, von Trapps and musical merry pranksters, the dozen or so bandmates sing in a co-ed chorus about 40-day-long dreams, desert visions, the man from Galilee and their desire to heal you and set your spirit free.
“At the center is Ebert, laughing and dancing and shaking like he has that same covenant with God.”
FUSION, AND DAD
Sharpe/Ebert’s musical memories spin back to early childhood; as far back as age 5, he says, he can remember “listening to a piece by Beethoven and I realized my mortality. I went up to my dad, and asked him if it was true”– an incident that makes its way into lyrics of the song “Up From Below.”
“Music informed me about mortality, in general,” he says now.
So it’s no wonder that the band’s almost-impossible-to-pin-down brand of music – over the course of their 42-day tour (with a stint on Letterman and a glowing spread in Rolling Stone) that wraps up mid-December at the Mayan Theatre, in Los Angeles, music critics have tried to categorize this traveling caravan of truth-seekers, throwing out adjectives that range from “gospel” to “psychedelic hippie rock” to “Southern rock” to “evangelical.”
It’s not that they don’t invite it, starting with the name “Magnetic Zeros,” which science geeks will recognize as the phrase pertaining to the state of superconductivity between two materials cooled down to minus 460 degrees Fahrenheit (absolute zero) that allows currents to flow unimpeded, like light or music, through empty space.
In truth, the band’s constantly evolving music is probably best described as fusion music; it’s certainly eclectic, which is probably inevitable, given Sharpe/Ebert’s early immersion in everything from opera to country/crossover/rock ‘n’ roll.
“It was very cinematic,” he says of those cross-country car trips, remembering the Chariots of Fire score as particularly “angelic.”
“Talk about epic music,” he remembers. “I’d stare out the window as a little kid when we were crossing the West – it was very amazing.”
Italian composer Ennio Morricone, creator of the soundtracks to the iconic Sergio Leone “spaghetti Westerns” that made Clint Eastwood an international star, was another huge influence, as was the American West, which looms large in Sharpe/Ebert’s ambitious 12-part feature-length movie-musical.
Of growing into the Sharpe persona, Sharpe/Ebert says, at first “it was sort of a joke; I guess. Looking back, 20-20, I was sort of lost as Alex Ebert, and I was trying to find myself again, and my name came to be connected with a lot of actions that I didn’t feel were me.”
The new name fits – like a glove, considering that these days Michael Ebert refers to his son (and the rest of the band) as “the Sharpies,” in most of the more than 20 emails he has sent to The Watch about the upcoming concert.
Sharpies, Zeros – either way, it’s beyond deep, and perhaps best summed up by a proud and loving father.
“I love his writing,” says Michael Ebert, of his polymath son. “His honesty and sweep,” showcased in the duet “Home,” between Sharpe/Ebert and Castrinos, which even though it’s been at the top of the indie-rock charts for two months remains ever-startling, with its surprising whistled jump-start and sometimes nonsensical lyrics (‘Alabama Arkansas/‘I do love my ma and pa/‘But not as much as I do love you’).
“No matter how dark or serious a few of his lyrics, his and the band’s music, singing, and performances celebrate life and love, so joyfully expressed in ‘Home!’” writes his father, whose articulation of the metaphysical mysteries of Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros resonates as writes about how much he loves “Alex's music, lyrics, the entire 10-person band (piano, trumpet, accordion, drums, percussion, three guitarists, Alex, his off-and-on girlfriend Jade; his dynamic, charismatic performances.
“We've seen them three times,” he writes. “At the Planet Bluegrass September 12 Wildflower concert; the next day at Red Rock's Monolith and near Joshua Tree, Calif., on October 3, each performance different in the order and length of the songs, and the connection with audience and band members always vibrant, alive.
“So much joy, so much celebration!
“The deepest reward for me is that I have my son back: we had a terrible time in his teenage years; he was rebellious, hard-edged, always ready for a fight, and I did a poor job coping. He had serious drug problems in his early 20s; we kept our distance after he thankfully kicked the habit with the help of two rehabs. Three years ago he began to open up to me, and this past year we've become as close as we were when he was a little boy.
“An incredible gift for me, all due to his hard, profound work on himself, reflected in his lyrics, his music, his outlook on life. A short verse in ‘Black Water’ (No. 8 on the CD) sums it up: ‘Guns and steel/‘And the germs of love/ ‘Toe to toe, for my aching heart.” And too the title song, ‘Up from Below,’ resolving his conflict between steel and love: ‘Cuz I've already suffered/‘I want you to know, God/‘I'm ridin' on Hell's hot flames/‘Comin’ up from below.’”
Writes Ebert Sr.: “It brings tears to my eyes as I write this.
“Thanks for listening.”
Tickets are available at www.sheridanoperahouse.com.