Alex Ebert of Edward Sharpe & the Magnetic Zeros

Interview: Maranda Pleasant

Maranda Pleasant: I know that you have rehearsals, so if you don’t mind I’m going to jump right in.

Alex Ebert: Okie doke.

MP: As far as your inspiration, where do you draw from? I know that you write a lot of your own material, or most of your own material.

AE: Um… sorry, I’m just trimming my beard right now. [laughs] Well, I guess from themes. Love and its variations. Defiance. The will to adventure. The transformation and transition to — I guess, in political terms — a more egalitarian vibe. That’s a really big topic to tackle because there are a lot of ways to tackle it, and one of the ways is this hefty defiance that I think is really faux. To me, what I define as defiance, in some ways, is knowing the “reality” and having the ability to possess a realist mindstate yet still working towards the fantasy and still being childish. While still having the understanding and capacity that would generally inspire pessimism: some sort of more realist perspective that I think most people classify as adult. Anything like that and anything that’s sort of fun. Yeah. I think fun is one of the best gifts we can give to each other. If everyone was having fun we’d be in good shape.

MP: How do you process your pain? What do you do when pain comes in on any level?

AE: My pain is usually caused by some sort of attack on my ego. So usually, pain is an indication of something that, eventually, I’m going to want to transcend. But sometimes pain is just pain that you sit through. I find it can have a really exhilarating effect. When you’re in pain, you’re genuinely very, very alive, and that’s beautiful. Especially emotional pain. Physical pain is problematic because it’s very difficult to transcend that. Sometimes you’re just in physical pain, and that’s a bummer. Even then, there are beautiful things involved in the healing of that. I’ve experienced some.

The main thing that I’ve learned, artistically, is that if I’m in pain and feeling the budding of anger — if I absolutely feel like I need to write a song about it, I’ll either need to transform that anger into something positive, or I’ll just need to throw the song away. Because eventually, I’m going to want to transcend that pain and that anger. I don’t want an angry song with no silver lining ending up on my album. Then I’d have to play, or feel obliged to play, that song every night in repetition as a mantra of anger. So, I think the most important thing to remember is that pain passes. And artistically, the pain is going to pass. It’s what you want to express out of the pain as opposed to indulging in the agony-and-pain mantra of songwriting that became such a hit in the ‘90s and still, all the way up to now.

MP: I think you kind of just blew my head off. What makes you the most deeply vulnerable as a human being?

AE: [laughs] I like these. They’re not like the other ones. Not your other ones but other ones I get from other people. What makes me deeply vulnerable? Probably the thing I suffer most from and have the most uncontrollable reactions from is still social anxiety. So I would say, other people and their opinions, their judgments. That’s something that I would love to not be attracted by and would love to keep working towards not being attracted by them. I would say [that’s definitely my vulnerability]. I get very heated about anything that is socially unkind.

MP: Yeah. I’m still working on that, too.

AE: I don’t think it’s necessarily a bad thing. When it’s personal, when it’s ego-based, which is still the same thing, it’d be nice not to feel that weird feeling.

MP: Yeah. It’s hard to even read comments on Facebook walls and YouTube. I can imagine what that must be like. I’ve had a lot of artists say they don’t even read it.

AE: Oh, I don’t read it. It’s so rare that I’ll read or even watch an interview. I don’t want to, either. I don’t want to see other people’s comments. I have enough trouble reading comments about articles of people that I am not. Andy Roddick retires from tennis, and there are all these comments. Unfortunately, I have a Yahoo account that eventually I’ll have to change. I have just been face-melted with information of the day, and I end up picking on stuff in the comments. Sometimes there can be something, but lot of times, they make me upset — people’s negative attitudes and willingness to go there.

MP: Right. There seems to be this intention or consciousness behind your performances. Some say it was like a religious experience to watch you play. When you go out there to play, what’s the intention of your music and your art?

AE: The goal is to be free and hopeful in the music. Because that’s really the only intention you need. From there, every natural and powerful intention and feeling will, on its own, slide right out of you — out of your spirit. Otherwise, unless you are in the willingness and ease and ecstasy of some kind of moment, you may end up the editor of your thoughts and of your expressions. I find I’m that way on stage. Sometimes, I have to really monitor myself, but the only monitoring job I really do on myself on stage is, Is this truthful? Is this truthful? Is this truthful? Ideally, I send it in a flow of truth. I’ll suddenly get frightened about something I’m about to say, analyze if I should or shouldn’t say it, and then ask if it’s truthful and continue on. That’s really the intention. An open quality. I think that when you’re open, you’re at your most powerful. I think that’s why people have these really powerful experiences at our shows — because they, us, the whole thing is aiming for a flow of open-hearted power. And from there, whatever develops.

MP: I am really loving you as a human being. What causes on the planet right now are you the most passionate about?

AE: To be honest, I’m the most passionate about pushing the realization that there’s the joy of love and kindness and sharing, all of these basic qualities, on people who are suffering from adulthood. By these people, I mean, I really feel bad. [laughs] I think that in their sadness, they’re destroying the world. The way that they’re destroying the world manifests itself in all these various causes that you have banding together all over the place.

MP: What is your morning practice? Do you have a meditation practice, a yoga practice, or jumping jacks? [laughs] Whatever it is. Do you have a daily practice or a weekly practice to keep yourself centered?

AE: No. I wish that I did. I’m pretty freelance. A freelance meditator. [laughs] I float from one thing to the other. I’m really into the basic idea of Kriya Yoga. The breathing that goes on in Kriya. Other than that, it’s just communicating with the universe and getting the inspiration for different kinds of breath. Basically, I’m into the movement of breath and the shapes of breath. The different kinds of sequences of breath. I like doing that a lot. I sit at a desk so much and sit in that position so much that I am dwindling into an old man. I need to get a little bit more physical. Recording music is not really the healthiest thing for the body.

I suffer from some intense forms of OCD. That’ll happen with my meditations. I find one that works, and then my mind just starts repeating it. It all becomes like a f*cking horror movie. [laughs] It has taken me years just to get acrobatic enough to be able to combat this negative mind. I’ll give you an example. Lately, the thought, the battles that go on in the way I think of the whole concept of the breath. Yes, it’s just breath, but that would be total bullsh*t because there’s so much mental activity going on. One is the idea of having a voice that is hell-bent on destroying me and hell-bent on negativity. It’s a really old psychotherapy concept, but that’s not really where I get it from.

Where I get it from is that all my life, it’s been attacking me. Very strongly telling me, “Oh, that’s sh*t.” We all have that. Well, I don’t know if we all do, but I do have that negative voice. I will particularly have it when I meditate. When I was younger, it was a disaster because I’d meditate, and it would become very, very powerful. I would take the power of the meditation as an indicator that I was extremely special, that I needed to save the world. This voice would put a lot of pressure on my shoulders. Then my ego would tell me that I was basically blowing it here, left, right, and center. That was part of the OCD stuff, too. “If you don’t get out of the house in fifteen seconds, you’re going to miss this thing you’re supposed to do.” It was all this big dilemma in my mind.

I know I’m completely confusing you, but I’ll give you a basic example. I’ll have a great meditation going, but I’ll hear a voice that says, “Okay, yeah, but not that breath. Not that breath.” [laughs] And then, I tell this voice, “Nothing negative. Nothing negative.” And then if that doesn’t work I’ll say, “Nothing is negative. Nothing is negative. Nothing IS negative.” Until it shuts up. And then once it has shut up, I’ll fill myself with positivity. As soon as I fill myself with positivity, then that voice or that feeling will come back. “You’re so full of shit talking yourself into positivity.” [laughs] I’ll literally tell myself that. “Talking myself into getting smarter, talking myself into positivity is not a legitimate form of positivity.” And I’ll tell it, “Nothing negative. Nothing negative is allowed. Nothing negative is allowed.” And it’ll be like, “Okay.” And it shuts up. And I start getting really positive, and I’m feeling positive. Then I’ll make a move to the left, and that’ll be the right move. That’ll be right. So, I’m feeling good. I make a move to the left with my hand, and I’m thinking, Okay, I’m going to go up. And then my voice says, “That’s your ego. Your ego says to look up to the sky because you’ve been taught, educationally, that God is in the sky. You’re blowing it right now.” I’ll be like, “Nothing negative! Nothing negative.” [laughing]

MP: [laughing] I’m going to have to practice my own breathing after that.

AE: [laughing] Yeah! I have to constantly tell myself, “Nothing negative.” There’s a lot of little things. Anyway, those are various things that I deal with while doing the breath.

MP: “Nothing negative.” Great. So, what gets you mad?

AE: What gets me pretty pissed off is the whole Monsanto engineered foods issue.

MP: I knew you were going to say Monsanto. I knew you were gonna say it!

AE: Yeah, it’s horrible, man. That would get me really fired up — to go up against them. I don’t know what can be done at the moment except for enlightening people. Getting them to actually care is a whole other thing. There are plenty of people that know and don’t care about so much. It’s a difficult question because when you’re comfortable, you’re not necessarily inclined to care about things that are contributing to your comfort. It’s difficult. Anyway, food-wise, we bring a juicer on the road with us.

Black and white image of Alex Ebert Courtesy of Adarsha Benjamin