There are times in every man's life appropriate to the contemplation of death and Beethoven, but five years old is probably not one of them. Alexander Ebert – who performs under the name Edward Sharpe and whose friends call him Alex – was growing up in the Sherman Oaks district of Los Angeles. It was an affluent suburb, part of the San Fernando Valley that would give rise to the stereotype of the Valley Girl. But manicured nails and lawns were not the way of the world in the Eberts' home. To understand why, some family history...
In 1887, a child was born in Germany to a Polish count and an Irish-American singer who had met in Monte Carlo. The affair was illicit, and the child, Carl, was handed over for adoption to a family called Ebert. The boy became an actor, then a theatre director, before sealing his place in opera history by artistically directing the inaugural Glyndebourne festival. When Carl's own son, Michael, was about 13, the family moved to the United States.
Michael Ebert shared his father's love of classical music but also studied gestalt therapy at Esalen, the controversial California-based retreat centre and institute. In the 1960s and 1970s, Esalen was part of the Human Potential Movement, which believed, to oversimplify, that society benefits if the inner self is freely expressed. To this day you can see Michael Ebert, shot on Super 8, freely expressing his inner self at the start of the video to Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros' "Desert Song" on YouTube.
"He was constantly nude when I was growing up and there were so many crazy moments," says Alexander, who is now 32. "My dad would be doing therapy in his office upstairs and I'd hear screaming, because they'd be role-playing and he'd be acting as his patient's father and they'd get upset and hit him and all this stuff. When he wasn't working, I'd go up there to draw and one day the music he was playing, Beethoven I think, delivered to me the idea of life and death. The information was bequeathed to me by the music. It was sonic and emotional. I tapped my dad on the shoulder and asked him if I was going to die and he said, 'Yeah.'"
A few years later, such knowledge would begin to take its toll. A love of hip-hop from the age of seven and a penchant for drugs as he hit his teens would lead to a breakdown in Alex's relationship with his father. Isolated from k parental influence, his heroin addiction would begin in earnest. He was by this time making music in a band called Ima Robot and learning some important lessons about the music industry. "We had a meeting with a manager who told me that if we wanted to compete with the big boys, quote unquote, we needed to take it up 18 notches, whatever the fuck that means."
Ebert went home "pissed off" and determined to prove himself. He started the 12-step programme to get off drugs and then, "Out of spite I wrote two songs. Within a short time those two songs got us signed to a major record label and an appearance on Late Night with David Letterman." Ima Robot's music, which had – before the contract – encompassed everything from "bizarro ironic folk-hop to Bowie to Sinatra meets fucking la-la land", was suddenly expected to be fairly straightforward electro-pop.
"Before I knew it, the band's name had manifested as prophecy," says Ebert. "I felt soulless inside. My instinct had always been loud, but I'd lost it. I'd got used to hearing voices and following them but all that had gone. I started feeling as if all the things I wanted to do were slipping away." Shaking off drugs had been one thing; shaking off his disappointment in the music industry was another entirely. To help, Ebert – at this point living on a blow-up mattress in a one-room apartment with no phone or internet – started writing a book involving a messianic figure called Edward Sharpe, who, in his words, "was sent down to earth to heal and save mankind but kept getting distracted by girls".
As Sharpe's story began to form in Ebert's head, he found himself distracted by Jade Castrinos, a girl he'd met outside a coffee shop. It was 2008 and the pair began to hang out, sing, write songs and fall in love. Surrounding themselves with a motley crew of local musicians – some of whom Ebert had known since childhood – Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros started to take shape. Ebert, determined that his new musical collective should feel nothing like Ima Robot, bought a bus on the internet, painted it and fixed it up so that his band, which now numbered anything from 10 to 15 members, could live on it as they toured the US. He was seeking the communal-living experience he had written poems about as a child. He was trying to get away from the Ima Robot model of downtime spent in anonymous hotels. One early article called the Magnetic Zeros "a crazed mix of Krishnas, von Trapps and musical Merry Pranksters".
If Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros are known at all to mainstream America, it is largely thanks to a six-year-old girl named Alexa Narvaez. When Alexa and her dad Jorge sat on a bed and recorded their version of the band's song "Home", little could they have known that their duet would get nine million hits on YouTube and see the pair invited on to popular daytime chat shows such as Ellen to talk about their cover version.
Ebert has a practised-in-his-head answer to the question of how it feels to be upstaged by a kid. "There are," he says, "many examples of great songs that become more famous when they are covered. If I say Dylan, you're gonna think I'm being conceited, so I'll say: like Dylan, not that I'm comparing myself to him." Lengthy pause. "Because I'm better."
In the hands of a less-gifted songwriter, such comments might sound like the worst kind of rock-star posturing. But Ebert is slowly and surely building a catalogue of material to back his quiet confidence. There's "Home", with its universally reverberating chorus of "Home is wherever I'm with you"; but there's also the unsettling "Desert Song"; the euphoric "40 Day Dream"; and, perhaps best of all, "Come in Please", a song whose opening verse contains the line "Children in the schoolyard singing 'Everybody dies'" and ends with Ebert whooping like vintage Mick Jagger to a singalong gospel chorus of "Sometimes, said it's sun time/Let it sunshine, on my mind."
Michael Ebert is a huge fan. "No matter how dark or serious a few of his lyrics, his and his band's music, singing and performances celebrate life and love," he says. "But 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. [Then] he had serious drug problems. Three years ago he began to open up to me, and this past year we've become as close as when he was a little boy."
If revenge fuelled Alex Ebert's early career in music, ideas around rebirth and redemption fire his current work. Which brings us to the reason we are sitting here in his bedroom, in a slightly insalubrious shack in Echo Park, a district of Los Angeles with connections to the artistic underground from Jackson Pollock to Elliott Smith. It was here, surrounded by instruments as days ran into nights outside, that Ebert wrote and recorded his first solo record.
Alexander shares many of the hallmarks of his Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros material. Homogeny is dispensed with in service to musical whims – meaning stone-cold masterpieces sit alongside songs that feel as if they fell out of Paul Simon's back-pocket. But if one track other than "Home" will seal Ebert's future place in the Hall of Fame, it is "Truth", which "expresses a whole lifetime of input. All my years of listening to hip-hop and watching Westerns. And the idea in the chorus of approaching the darkness, embracing it and letting it shine goes all the way back to that Beethoven moment."
Where do you go after writing a song like that? "Well," he says, tapping on the Native American drum he used throughout his solo album, "next up are the five Edward Sharpe shows at the Old Vic Tunnels Kevin Spacey invited us to do. Those are going to be a clusterfuck of grandness."
A few weeks later and with the release of his solo album imminent, Ebert – in Edward Sharpe mode – is on stage in London assuring the audience he is not on drugs. "I have taken drugs," he tells us, "but despite what a lot of you seem to think, I have not taken drugs tonight." Our assumption might have something to do with our surroundings. We were greeted at the hole-in-the-wall entrance to the Old Vic Tunnels – a labyrinthine "performance space" underneath Waterloo Station – by men dressed as banditos handing out squidgy bits of black. (Licorice, as things turn out.)
Inside, we have been treated to burlesque performers, trapeze artists, mind-readers, performance pieces, art installations and Jodorowsky's cult cinema classic El Topo with live musical accompaniment. In the corner of the bar area, Geoff Travis – the man who founded Rough Trade – is playing Motown soul classics. Anyone who had attended a 1960s "happening" would feel perfectly at home here.
By the time the band comes on stage, the atmosphere is charged and expectant. Ebert and his musical crew – banjos, trumpets, accordions, handclaps, pretty girls with no clear duties singing along from stageside – do not disappoint. On the first night, half the audience ends up on stage. The second night finds the group encoring acoustically outside the venue into the early hours. Hit or miss – and Edward Sharpe ventures are usually a mix of both – at all times, Ebert is in his element. His "clusterfuck of grandness" has been brought to unpredictable, magical, chaotic life. If these evenings feel unique in the context of 21st-century pop, then Edward Sharpe's next venture promises to be even more extraordinary: towards the end of this month, the Magnetic Zeros set off on the "Railroad Revival Tour" with Mumford & Sons and the Old Crow Medicine Show. The bands will eat, sleep, party and record on 15 vintage railcars pulled by two locomotives. From California to New Orleans, music lovers will be treated to an on-the-road extravaganza the like of which has not been seen since the Grateful Dead, Janis Joplin and The Band's "Festival Express" tour of 1970.
It is an idea that could only have come from the mind of Ebert, whose thought patterns can be traced directly to something he said in his bedroom-studio in LA. "I grew up with more shit than most people and with a lack of a certain kind of suffering that, in some people, signifies true living and experience. So I became self-destructive. But that attitude isn't sustainable, so I found my way back to brightness and more constructive ways to live. Both are reactions to the same thing: death. It's like we're confronted with a fucked-up world and the refusal to lose hope is the only way to prevail over the pessimism and sarcasm. And from the refusal to lose hope comes the desire to build something else and the ability to accept that that something else may not be created in your lifetime. But that's irrelevant. The thrust," he concludes, "is the intention."
Which, loosely translated, means this is a man determined to live each musical moment as if it could be his last; the old-fashioned notion of rock'n'roll as a matter of life and death. Or to put it another way, Alexander Ebert has finally worked out his own way of turning things up by 18 notches.
'Alexander' is out on Rough Trade Records on 11 April