"We're starting to mature in a weird way, a bit late in the game, but it's a good feeling"
It's an unusual sight: A pair of new tap shoes sitting next to a floor tom on a throw rug in Hollywood's Ocean Way studio's largest room. Alex Ebert, founder of Southern California band Edward Sharpe & the Magnetic Zeros, was looking for a unique percussion sound on a new song, "Life Is Hard," hence the tap shoes, which were intended to replace the looped sound of a basketball being dribbled, which had replaced the sound of water dripping into a bowl.
"I can really hear tap dancing on this song, but it's not right-it's too ridiculous," Ebert says. "I felt embarrassed that I went and tried that. Most of the last-minute stuff -- this was a pretty far-out idea -- does end up sticking."
The band's third album is at the point of a lot of last-minute additions, with expected completion early this month. Ebert had pulled an all-nighter the day before Billboard visited, adding new vocals to the tracks "Please" and "This Life" that represent a fuller, though more cloistered, sound than on the first two Edward Sharpe albums. There's a fascination with late-period Beatles-a guitar riff from "Oh! Darling," a layering of chorus and percussion that suggests the languid sides of George Harrison's All Things Must Pass-and a broader instrumental palette that includes brass, organ and electric guitar.
Ebert, who spent 10 years fronting Ima Robot, founded Edward Sharpe & the Magnetic Zeros with singer Jade Castrinos, expanding the group to as many as 10 members as he drew on elementary-school choruses and their ubiquitous tambourines as inspiration. He sought out instrumentalists to fit the needs of his songs; trumpeter Stewart Cole, for example, was in the studio the day after a late-night encounter with Ebert in a Los Feliz restaurant.
A self-contained collective that hands over its recordings to Vagrant for distribution in North America, Edward Sharpe & the Magnetic Zeros hit the national radar through a couple of well-placed synchs-"Janglin'" for Ford Fiesta and "Home" with the NFL. "Home," which featured one of those last-minute, 4 a.m. rerecordings, was never a radio hit, an indication of how licensing opportunities can help establish a young band.
Allowing the group's music to be used in ads, Ebert says, "is an interesting conversation because it's no longer a tangential conversation. It's very primary to musicians. Companies are the Medici of this era. It's how you make your money; it's a big part of how you break a band."
All signs pointed to a breakthrough year in 2012, when the band started a tour by selling out Los Angeles' 5,700-seat Greek Theatre a month before releasing its second album, Here. That album has sold 119,000, according to Nielsen SoundScan, less than a third of predecessor Up From Below's 363,000. But the band did increase its profile as a touring act, taking it to the theater level. The group recently announced a 25-city summer tour that includes the Bonnaroo and Firefly festivals and a headlining gig at the ÂHollywood Bowl.
Ebert says the new material, as a whole, will be more "rambunctious" than previous work. "I see the lyrics, in general, as the bond-they're the glue for the philosophical direction of the songs. Musically, it will all have a coherent rambunctiousness of some sort."
The band's fourth album, which may well be a two-LP set, is already on Ebert's mind. "I Just Want to Pray," a track from Here that Ebert says is "the ballsiest song I have ever written," is a key inspiration, as are two recent covers the group did-a Nashville bar-band version of "I Saw Her Standing There," for the Community Music compilation Beatles Re-imagined, and "Wooden Indian," its contribution to ATO's John Denver tribute, Music Is You.
"Two mics in a room, spacing ourselves out," Ebert says, outlining the recording plan. "I'm up close because I have to sing the vocals, drums are in the back. It's so much fun getting in a room and doing things like that. It would be liberating-a healthy thing to do. Also, it lets everyone participate at once."
He adds, "We're starting to mature in a weird way, a bit late in the game, but it's a good feeling."