Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeroes is one of those happy accidents that happen in music. A loose association of like-minded individuals that tops out at 13 onstage musicians, the band features multiple percussionists and a trumpet player and boasts at least one serape-wearing member. Combine these elements with a balky vintage tour bus, and it would seem that the band could go from organic to precious in mere milliseconds. On Up From Below, its debut disc, the band deftly sidesteps these pitfalls. Add this to a building reputation for epic live shows, and Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeroes could have a future as bright as its members’ outlook. Guitarist Christian Letts recently separated himself from the pack to talk about large group dynamics, bus travel, and the band’s frat-guy/hippie reunification project.
Who are Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeroes?
I think we’re a family first, and that makes the difference in the band. The relationships came first and the band followed. I’ve known Alex [Ebert, frontman and former head of Ima Robot] forever, and I respect him as both a person and a musician. Not to sound cliché, but we’re about love and being true and honest.
How did the band come together?
Alex called me up. He was living in this hole of a studio and asked if I wanted to lay down the tracks that would eventually become “40 Day Dream.” I rolled on over to his spot and that very day Alex ran into Stewart [Cole, trumpet] at Sliver Lake. We needed a trumpet, and he signed up on the spot. We got together and jammed a little bit and booked a show the next week. We met Aaron [Older, bass] and Nico [Aglietti, guitar] through friends and things started happening really quickly. We were recording and then booked a show at the Troubadour. Things have evolved from there, but every time we play it’s a really organic experience. The band recreates itself on a nightly basis.
What is the most challenging aspect of being in such a large band?
It’s a relationship with 10 different people, and that can sometimes lead to the downside of being in that family atmosphere. I never really feel like it’s challenging, though. I’m more wowed that I get to be a part of such a unique collection of musicians.
Would you consider expansion?
We’re constantly expanding. Sometimes there are as many as 13 musicians on stage at once. Anna Bulbrook from the Airborne Toxic Event plays with us sometimes when she’s available. Our friend Rick brings in the slide, which changes the whole complexion of the band. We have friends that have commitments or kids and can’t be out on the road anymore, but I like to play with people who are fluid enough to accept new sounds in the mix.
Given the band’s size, is it harder to record or play live?
The live show feels natural, and it’s different in a new way every night. We’re very comfortable with each other, so it’s easy to get out on stage and focus on some part of a song or instrument with almost no pressure. Recording was a little bit more of a challenge, because we recorded analog straight to tape. It was great, because that is most legit way to record music, but there were some hard times too. Some times we’d get through the whole take and then blow the last note, and other times what seems like a whisper becomes a roar in no time at all. The feeling of being done and having a finished product is just unbeatable, though.
How does the band write songs?
The songwriting process is very spontaneous. It’s an ongoing process that never ends. The other day Alex and I were sitting on the bus playing with this guitar we found that sounds like shit, using a Sharpie as a slide. We played for about a half-hour and ended up with a great start on a new song. The important thing is to always, always have an instrument on hand so you’re able to catch that lightning in a bottle.
Tell me a little bit about your debut album.
It’s a shot of light, and that’s what I love about it. It’s about happy times, but it doesn’t neglect the darker tones. We’re in a weird time right now, and there needs to someone out there finding a silver lining. We hope Up From Below can be one of those found items, that people can relate to it.
Do you consider your band to be retro?
Everybody’s got influences. The difference in our band is that we have 10 different people and 10 different backgrounds. There are some artists we listen to from the past and some from the present. We do get the retro thing a lot though, but it’s not conscious.
How do you respond to people who would dismiss you as hippies?
That doesn’t bum me out. It’s funny: We’ll be playing a show and there will be a group of people eyeing us, wanting so much not to like what their hearing and just mean mugging. By the end of the show, they’ve disappeared into the crowd. Recently I had a friend, a total frat dude, come to a show just to have look. I was actually worried about how he would react, so for the first couple of songs I’m keeping my eye on him. Then I turn away and he’s totally gone. I thought he left, but then three songs later I see him out in the middle of a circle, hugging these “smelly hippies.” He was having such a good time that it didn’t matter what label someone else would put on the music.
Do you feel pressure to recreate that environment on a nightly basis?
The most important thing is that we’re never nervous. We want to give it all that we have every night, but it doesn’t have to be perfect. We’re not a rock band. We don’t have a set list, and the songs are fluid from night to night. We just play and let it be. The moments will take care of themselves.
Has there ever been a time that it just didn’t work?
I can honestly say that we’ve had a great reception wherever we’ve gone on tour. I don’t want to use the word luck, because we work hard every night to deliver an honest product. People in the audience recognize that and are drawn to it.
Do you actually travel by bus, or is it just a clever gimmick?
We do, actually. That bus is like family. The first time the band went on tour we had something like 20 people in it. It’s been to Arizona and even Texas a couple of times. We have to be careful with it, though; the initial reason we bought it was that it was old and cheap. It’s not getting any younger.