Tuesday, April 22, 2014

LEAVING HOME BEHIND: An interview with Alex Ebert of Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeroes

Alex Ebert, aka Edward Sharpe. Photo by Will Schube.
No longer just a singer in a “drugged out naïve hippy band”, ALEX EBERT of Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros is now a Golden Globe-winning composer who's writing a screenplay he began working on with Heath Ledger.

A new resident of New Orleans, Alex Ebert has spent the last two months neck deep in the glitzy side of his previous home, Los Angeles. The move satisfies his love for community. A love that has seen him take on the persona of Edward Sharpe, the bearded, wild-haired singer for ragtag collective the Magnetic Zeros. Ebert explains “LA has no community so, growing up, I imagined it. A while back, my mom showed me a story I wrote when I was six and it began: ‘Once there was a boy who had a crew’. That touched me, because I hadn’t seen that in what…25 years, and it was fun to know I always had my eye on that,” he says, laughing quietly.

“I’m actually doing a lot of writing about the concept of childhood and cool, a friend and I are working on a book called Kingdom Cool. All of those qualities – communities, optimism earnestness – they’re the counterculture now, they’re the un-cool thing.”

Increasingly, Ebert is no longer being seen as part of the culture with which he has been so closely associated. Still writing instantly catchy and hummable songs like Home and 40 Day Dream, attention has been coming his way for his more ambitious projects. Winning a Golden Globe for Best Original Score for the Robert Redford-starring film All Is Lost, he believes he’s no longer considered a singer in, as he puts it “a drugged out naïve hippy band".

"Leading right up to the announcement I was jittery, jittery, jittery,” he says happily reliving the moment. “But I was able to watch myself be jittery, so I started thinking ‘maybe I’m jittery for a reason, maybe I’m going to have to deliver some kind of speech’. It was a very surreal thing. Awards shows are very glitzy and nothing more than a popularity contest on some level. To be recognised for something you worked really hard at – and I really loved working on that score, and I love the film – to be recognised for something you put all your heart and soul into, was amazing.”

Despite the accolade, Ebert still feels the outsider, at least on a personal level. “There was a fun moment at the Golden Globes where [Robert] Redford was talking to Bono and I was standing behind them and I heard them talking about me and Redford said: 'now he really understands silence’. I thought that was so amazing that I just had to say something, so I excitedly blurted out this long-winded monologue and basically proved I didn’t understand silence at all,” he chuckles.

Ostensibly in Australia to promote last year’s eponymous album, his band’s third, Ebert has no qualms about the fact his mind is far from organising music into releasable packages. “The album is dead for me. It always has been, but I love writing songs so I’m writing a lot of songs. I’m scoring a Pixar short film, which I’m really excited about,” he says happily. “It’s a beautiful, beautiful story, so I’m having fun doing stuff.”

Stuff, it turns out, includes writing a screenplay he developed with sadly departed good friend Heath Ledger. “It’s a musical I’ve been developing that with a director who uh…I shouldn’t give away his name, but he’s a very respected director. I pitched him the idea and he loves it. It’s a bizarre, out-there musical that I can’t talk too much about, but it’s certainly great to be carrying on anything I talked about with Heath.”

While winning the Golden Globe has, he admits, opened up new doors and lead to working on several scores with “well-respected directors” he can’t name, Ebert is still most glad for the chance to simply be heard, and to move on from his past experiences with drugs and poverty.

“Composing orchestral music is seen as being a bit…heavy, and it’s not actually. I’d gone so far down in some people’s estimation it’s nice to know that people might consider that we have something else to say now, and my opinions will be heard by different people.”

What Ebert plans to say to this new audience is however, unclear. As with most people in Hollywood, he’s working on a lot of projects and, with luck, one might find funding. An avid and productive, if unpublished, screenwriter, Ebert is most excited about the conversion of one of his scripts into a film.

"I’d written a screenplay two nights before the awards, now I’m on the third draft and I’m very excited about it. The source is quite strange,’ he says struggling to explain it. “It’s kind of a Native American version of The 400 Blows. It’s a very important story to me, I have a lot of people helping me get the script together.”

For a man who makes singing folk pop and driving an old bus full of new friends into a desert for a party seem like the best idea ever, what excites Ebert most now is revolutionising taxation, and no, that’s not a euphemism.

“I’m working on a few socio-political web-based problem solving techniques - basically big new ideas, at least to me,” he explains keenly, sounding like an excited social science teacher. “Taking the idea of acting ‘as if’ – virtual reality ideas, basically – and applying them to problem solving strategies to bypass the red tape of politics and social change.”

Before confusion sets in, Ebert clarifies. “I bought the domain thenewirs.com, because I’m making a new IRS – the Inland Revenue Service, our national taxation system here. With The New IRS, you’re able to choose where you’d like your tax dollars to go. It’s designed to allocate percentages of your income taxes into categories so you can fund what you’d like to.”

The website, now live, means that, along with his other projects, an Edward Sharpe tour may be increasingly rare; his name becoming more common in film credits, and his Pied Piper charisma and yearning for community finding new outlets.

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