Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros aren't a cult. They just kind of look like one.
They're a sprawling 10-piece band that balloons in number depending on the live show, featuring a frontman, Alex Ebert, who shares more than a passing resemblance to Jesus, and, who, infamously, took the band's name from a "messianic figure" who's a character in a book he wrote. They also have an inordinate number of songs that sound like sing-along affirmations. And so what if their newest release explores spirituality from more angles than a religious studies major? The band had questions and they turned them into an array of songs at times catchy, puzzling, spine-tingling, and lushly lazy. Truth be told, there's nothing to see here but a band that played up the cult angle of their communal lifestyle to help generate press with its first album, 2009's Up From Below. Since then, Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros has moved on — sort of.
"I wouldn't say we're your average band, in either aesthetics or musicianship," accordionist Nora Kirkpatrick says over the phone from her car. "I think it's part of the excitement of it for people to create a story around the band, whether it's valid or not. I think that's part of the excitement of getting acquainted with a new group. You want to know what goes beyond music. And because we aren't your typical rock band of sorts, there are many more colors for the brain to play with, story-wise, than your typical punk rock band."
But perhaps they cultivated that cult-like mythology at one point?
"I don't know that we think about that at all," she says, bristling slightly. "I would say we're very eccentric, exciting people, and perhaps that feeds into that. We don't sit around at all thinking about what we're trying to say in any way beyond the music. If all that stuff happens, cool, but I wouldn't say we're trying —well — certainly not the cult leader mythology. We're not trying to perpetuate anything like that."
But the band's latest, Here, certainly perpetuates some aspects of that narrative thread. The group recorded the album in the studio they built in the communal house they shared, and many tracks sound like they were captured drenched in sunlight in the backyard. The rest of the songs could have been recorded at a campfire in the desert under the stars or a run-down, deconsecrated church in the middle of an open field. There's atmosphere with every beat and spiritual themes permeate.
"I don't think we're claiming to know any answers, but rather exploring the questions that we ask ourselves all the time," Kirkpatrick says. "There's dichotomies on the album about being very spiritual and then there's the song 'I Don't Wanna Pray.' There's a bit of both, because it's not really clear-cut in life. It's bringing up the questions that we ask ourselves and then hoping and thinking that other people probably ask themselves the same questions. It's taking a nice look at everything as opposed to judging it or putting it in a certain area — just, 'Oh, that's interesting. What if I looked at it this way?'"
Since Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros landed on the scene in 2009, they've built a dynamic and devout following of earnest fans who love that the band is just as likely to set deeply personal explorations and spiritual reckonings against an indie folk backdrop as one-offs about daily minutiae. Conversely, the band is subject to plenty of parody, mocking, and arch commentary from snobby elites who eschew Edward Sharpe as freak folk for nu-hippies. But even the haters, if they'd just shut up and listen, can find something undeniably peaceful, happy, and sincere with Here. It's not about drinking the Kool-Aid. It's just a good record. And Kirkpatrick says Here is just a hint of what's to come. They wrote almost 40 songs, but culled the selection to nine for this record, meaning the three-year waiting period between future releases is over.
"We were going to do a double album, and then two albums together," Kirkpatrick says. "We were going to do all these things, but we decided we're gonna just wait on the second one a little bit and have a little bit more time to work with it. We were way more prolific than we thought we'd be. It was cool."
For Kirkpatrick, who is also an actress (she was a regular on the ABC Family series Greek), this is the first time she's been in a band and toured with them and lived and breathed the same space all the time in that creative, chaotic environment. They've grown closer, she says, and that's changed the way they perform.
"We've definitely become such a close family that there's a new level of trust during shows," Kirkpatrick says. "We can just jam on a song for six minutes, which we've never really done before, but it's okay because we all trust we're up there working for the same thing and it's going to be all right. As you become a band for longer and longer, you just feel closer and closer on stage."
That closeness has made a difference in her personal life as well.
"I understand what it is now to have a surrogate family outside my real family," Kirkpatrick says. "Just to love and forgive and re-love people in your life through anything and no matter what is such a beautiful experience. Unconditional love is a really special thing, and you can say it a lot, but until you act on it, you don't feel the power of it. Musically, being a part of something I really believe in. I feel like the music has such a positive effect on both us and hopefully the people who listen to it. It feels like a really important, exciting group to be a part of. That changes you."
It just doesn't change you into a cult member.