As the only 10-piece evangelical rock tribe in the history of the universe to publicly arouse the curiosity of Jay-Z, Beyoncé Knowles and the assorted occupants of the couple's four-Escalade entourage, Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeroes have some questions to answer.
For starters: Who, or what, is Edward Sharpe?
According to Alex Ebert — the flesh-and-blood front man who created him — Sharpe is just another messianic porn star whose mission to save mankind is disrupted by a series of romantic entanglements with beautiful women. Sort of a male Barbarella.
Not that Ebert has over-thought the thing.
"In a larger sense, I think the character of Edward Sharpe is for anyone to take on," the 32-year-old musician offers during a break in touring before the band's early-summer appearance at the Bonnaroo Music Festival. "He's the hero ideal that everyone has of themselves and their secret capacity."
Mystified yet? Understandable if you are, but that's the thing — besides the band's exalting, Nashville-meets-LSD songcraft — that makes Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeroes so uniquely cool: A newness, an embryonic energy that seems to reshape itself faster than Ebert himself can define it.
Other rock entities evolve; Edward Sharpe gestates.
Even Ebert's appearance is intriguingly discordant. Listening to the band's hit indie sing-along "Home" — with its Spaghetti Western whoops and Hee Haw banter — one immediately envisions Ebert in a cowboy hat and bolo tie. Hilariously not the case.
Cosmetically speaking, Ebert is hirsute, unkempt, and altogether Koreshian, more hippie cult leader than Nashville troubadour.
More discordant still, Ebert is modest, coherent, and candid in a one-on-one conversation, not the blissed-out Venice Beach fakir his appearance might portend. He says that the country influences on the band's debut disc Up from Below (2009) spring from his father's bygone collection of Patsy Cline, Johnny Cash, and Waylon Jennings albums; songs the elder Ebert would play on family road trips in the American Southwest.
"That was probably the thing I remembered most about my childhood," Ebert recalls, with easy nostalgia. "The sunshiny, expansive stuff. Being filthy and running through the dirt. Fishing. So writing these desert songs was just sort of me getting back what it's all about: the unhinged spirit of being a kid."
Unhinging himself helped Ebert bring Edward Sharpe to life. A huge hip-hop fan growing up in Southern California, Ebert became disenchanted with the genre's early '90s thematic gravitation toward bling and braggadocio; as a fan and musician, he turned toward the likes of the Buzzcocks and other art-punk outfits, fronting the experimental band Ima Robot after trying his hand at film studies.
He also picked up a "wide-ranging" drug and alcohol addiction, which led him to Alcoholics Anonymous and salvation in 12 steps.
Although Ebert's four years of strict sobriety were "really positive and amazing," they also led to "a miniature culture of fear" that drove him into a creatively suffocating live-in relationship: "My instincts screamed against it. I stopped enjoying the moment in favor of the rules of conduct I'd learned."
In 2007, Ebert chucked the relationship and the AA pin into a figurative bonfire and created Edward Sharpe, a MySpace alter ego vested with a "childlike attitude of adventure" and a philosophical distrust of "proprietary relationships." Soon after, Ebert teamed up with co-vocalist Jade Castrinos and turned his MySpace cipher into an actual band, hitting the road for the first time last year in an old school bus. (Ebert and Castrinos dated briefly; the affair inspired "Home.")
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Not 12 months later, Ebert found himself playing the main stage at Coachella in front of Jay-Z and Beyoncé, so awed by the positive attention that he claims to have experienced a near-panic attack: "Like an immense rush up and down my body."
Clearly, this rock-star business is new and perplexing to Ebert — as is Edward Sharpe himself. Ebert still isn't sure whether Sharpe is a one-off musical "project," à la Ziggy Stardust, or a permanent transition from the "old" Alex Ebert.
"He's really just a more open, caring, understanding version of myself," Ebert says, trying to clarify. "But when [I created him], I didn't feel capable of being the full person."
Hence, maybe the question isn't, "When will Alex Ebert stop being Edward Sharpe?" – maybe it's "When will Edward Sharpe stop being Alex Ebert?"