The very first Edward Sharpe & The Magnetic Zeros concert that I attended started off exactly as I had anticipated. There were throngs of people, it smelled like sautéed onions (and I think people were dressed in burlap and linen, although I can't be entirely sure) and everyone was giddy with anticipation for a lively and spirited show. I mean, after all, there are a dozen band members – all of whom participate – and it makes for a very communal vibe. And did I mention there were more than a handful of new age hippies there? Well, that's kind of what you'd expect from an Edward Sharpe show.
When frontman Alex Ebert took the stage, the ball got rolling and it didn't really stop for over an hour. It was sweaty, dance-y and a totally great time. The music is infectious – it literally feels like you're with a bunch of good friends, sitting around the campfire, singing and having the time of your life. Somehow, this collective of musicians has managed to bottle the contagiousness of alt-rock neo-soul folksy funk and make it available for the masses.
Since the release of their debut album, Up from Below, the band saw the single "Home" explode in a commercially successful kind of way that probably shocked a bunch of people. But one of those folks who totally saw it coming the whole time was Ebert himself. "I'm really not shocked it became the hit that it did – I always was convinced that people would feel as strongly about it as I did," he says. "As soon as we did the demo of it, I realized it was emitting a feeling that had been missing, to me, in popular music for 20 years. It's a very un-Generation X love song between a boy and a girl. It's been a long time since honesty like that was not made fun of."
Along with countless commercials and soundtracks, the song blew up additionally thanks to some random, adorable and silly YouTube viral video of a little girl and her dad singing it (which then eventually ended up becoming a commercial itself, imagine that). But somehow even that felt natural. It's a very wholesome song, and that is a good reflection of the band itself. They started off as a collective of musicians who would tour together – in one bus – and play their hearts out across the country. Well, some of that certainly hasn't changed. "There's 12 bunks on a typical bus, and there's 12 of us," explains Ebert. "And now there's a second bus for the crew. But now I will be touring with my new baby and my baby mama."
Aside from a growing family (yes, he did indeed say "baby mama"), Ebert and company have had things change on them slightly over the past few years. Departures of bandmates – including two of the three members who produced their debut album, Up from Below – and both critical and commercial success have aided in the evolution of the band. But that's not to say that the concept of what they started has changed entirely. "It was all founded on the antiquated concept of ramblin' around together as a family," says Ebert. "It hasn't lost its romance for us. The illusion of that fantasy is better than the fantasy itself."
In addition to building the new album, Here, with the band, Ebert spent the past couple years working on his solo album (the self-titled release came out in March 2011). It was this process that he feels has helped him pull it together to be able to put out another proper release, despite the fact that he is the only remaining producer from the first album. "It was a moment where we were all really exhausted," Ebert says. "We had also gone through some pretty big upheavals. I just sort of felt like 'Let's do this' and I sort of had the gumption to do it."
But if it wasn't for that solo album – as some artists need that outside creative outlet to pull a collective back together – Here might not have been as strong. "If I hadn't done the solo album, I don't think I would've approached our album with the same gusto. It didn't seem as intimidating," he says.
In terms of full albums, Here comes across as more of a cohesive release. The tracks work seamlessly together – even moreso than Up from Below. Sure, there aren't as many "hits" or radio-friendly tracks, but the album as a whole is a stronger release. "The first album was a collection of songs," says Ebert. "This album we wrote and recorded about 36 songs. We then picked the songs from them that were sympathetic to one another."
That tends to be one of the things that happens after your freshman release – you grow as a band. And with so many members, spending time together (on a bus!) while touring, you're bound to either completely implode as a unit – or become more of a tight-knit group. The latter was the case with the Magnetic Zeros, and the result is truly obvious on this release. "The second album felt very different," says Ebert. "The first one was very loose and exciting – it was made in a year and a half over dinner and drinks and hanging out," explains Ebert. "The second was more like 'Let's make an album'." | RDW
Edward Sharpe & The Magnetic Zeros with Clap Your Hands Say Yeah • 9/25, 7:30 p.m. • Royal Oak Music Theatre • 318 W. Fourth St., Royal Oak • 248.399.2980 • romtlive.com • $30 GA; $35 DOS