Backstage in his trailer at Coachella on the first Sunday of the festival immediately after his band Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zero’s set, frontman Alex Ebert is sipping from a bottle of artisanal vodka, chewing on kale chips, and fielding phone calls from VIPs — and not the kind that pack the side-stage area at the fest. “Hi dad,” he says, excusing himself mid-interview when his phone rings, “let me know how [the webcast] sounds.”
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Ebert’s a Coachella vet — his pre-Edward Sharpe dance-punk project IMA Robot played a tent in 2003, and the Magnetic Zero’s breakout performance was at the fest in 2010. Six years later, the band scored a coveted Outdoor Theater sundown slot (the result of some poster-placement-vs-set-time juggling) — and demonstrated a much-more-confident Ebert, balancing on the guardrail at the front of the stage at the beginning of the set, his man-of-the-people persona confirmed, literally.
It’s been a long road for Ebert to get there. “I have this memory of IMA Robot at Coachella, and it was fucking hot — [we played] like at 3pm. I don’t even know if we had a trailer.” And by the time Edward Sharpe was ready to go public, Coachella’s status as the premiere fest was cemented — both nationally, and for Ebert personally; he attended the fest as a fan in the off years. “We played a little prematurely the first time. Our album had been out for a year — it was a slow burn, and suddenly we were playing Coachella, easily the largest amount of people I’d played to on any level. And then six years go by. It felt today, strangely, like a down-home festival.”
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The first time also marked a near-disaster for the band — one Ebert will likely never repeat. “The first Coachella [we played] I threw a mic stand into the pit, and it bounced and sliced this dude in the front row’s forehead. All this blood was going everywhere, and we hadn’t hit a note. Suddenly I was like, look at what my posturing has wrought — before we hit a note at the biggest festival we’ve ever done,” he said. “I went down, took off my shirt, wrapped it around his head — and that was the last time I ever fronted like that.”
In the six years since that show, the band’s gone through lineup changes and refined their sound: PersonA, their new album, is confidently sophisticated and often skews quiet — a semi-departure for fans only familiar with their huge hit “Home” and fan favorites like “40 Day Dream” (the band had to forego some of the new songs on the fly at Coachella in favor of those more upbeat numbers, thanks to some heavy bleed from Major Lazer on the mainstage.) It’s also the first time they’ve really written as a band — hence the “Edward Sharpe and” being crossed out on the cover art. It’s all an effort to separate Ebert the man from Sharpe — a supposed persona that, well, isn’t. “This notion that I was putting on something with Edward Sharpe always bothered me because the opposite is the truth,” Ebert says.
“I’m the most myself on stage.”