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It all adds up for Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros

By Mark Morgenstein, CNN
updated 12:18 PM EDT, Tue August 21, 2012
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • The Zeros' second album "Here," hit No.5 on the Billboard 200 chart
  • The band's name does not mean what some fans believe
  • The frontman says the music creates itself

(CNN) -- "Hippie," says Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros frontman Alex Ebert. "It's largely a pejorative sort of term."

That may sound odd coming from the hirsute leader of a 12-piece collective that has a history of traveling in a renovated school bus. But while Ebert and accordionist-vocalist Nora Kirkpatrick seem slightly perturbed by the choice of words, Ebert's response indicates he doesn't feel too slighted.

"When one says 'hippie,' and then they reference things like 'communal' and all of those sort of bands from a very hopeful era, actually, where everything felt like it was on the precipice of something sort of infinite, and possible, I think that, in that sense, the word 'hippie' would apply." Ebert says.

These are hopeful days where anything is possible for the band.

The Zeros' second album "Here," hit No.5 on the Billboard 200 chart, and peaked atop Billboard's Independent and Folk album charts. Besides one gig in August, the band is taking a break from touring until September 6. But people who want to see what it's like on the road with the Zeros can check out the new DVD "Big Easy Express," which documents their April 2011 tour from Oakland, California, to New Orleans by vintage train, along with Old Crow Medicine Show and Mumford & Sons.

Ebert says that from the band's beginning, he told its manager he'd like to perform at unconventional venues.

"Where I was at, at the time, was just a feeling of having really done the sort of cookie cutter sort of thing, and wanting to just completely abandon that for parking lots and parks and communal areas, and make the experience sort of loose, and sort of a free-for-all of joy," Ebert says. "I think when you do things that are just slightly out of the norm, it not only affects your experience of what just happened -- of the event -- but affects the way you view the possibilities of your own actions going forward in your life."

"Like, to me, the railroad tour that we did with Old Crow and with Mumford and Sons was a culmination of all of the sort of childhood sort of ideals of being with a crew -- with a band of sort of brothers and sisters, and all playing music together, on a train going who knows where."

That freewheeling feeling permeates the band's music, and its mythology. Ebert and Kirkpatrick expressed that while telling stories about how the band formed.

"I met Alex and Jade at Burning Man, which is a really exciting festival up in the desert," Kirkpatrick says, with Ebert adding, "It sounds scripted. It sounds so exactly what people would expect"

"I know. I know," Kirkpatrick says. "Which is kind of ridiculous at this point. But, I was good friends with Jade's cousin and kind of introduced through friends and I don't know, then music ensued. And that was like five years ago, I guess."

"Literally, it sounds like an indie movie," Ebert adds.

According to the pair, the band's name evolved in a somewhat random way. While some writers have described "Edward Sharpe" as Ebert's alter ego, the singer says that's a false belief.

"It was just a story I was writing where the character was Edward Sharpe," he says. "And around the same time, I came up with a form of mathematics that has no known application, called Magnetic Zeros. And then I started a MySpace page called Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros."

"It sort of got lost in translation. There's sort of no character that I'm playing or an alter ego really, but more something that I think that I'm reaching towards within myself maybe, or that we all are."

With a dozen band members, it could be difficult find a role for everyone. But Kirkpatrick says that diversity strengthens the band.

"Some people are trained jazz musicians, and some people went to -- trained in Africa, you know, for drumming and rhythm, and some of us kind of taught ourselves what we know, or picked up pieces here along the way," she says. "So, I think when we all come together, it offers not just one school of thought, or one approach to playing or learning music, but everyone kind of throws in a different color into the pot."

Ebert, who says he's spiritual, while "not so fond of" religious order and dogma, says ultimately, the music creates itself.

"The song tends to tell you exactly what it wants. You know what I mean? And you just kind of have to listen to that," he says. "So, if it wants a single voice in a section, it seems to be pretty obvious. If it wants a bunch of voices, then it seems to be pretty obvious. It's a fun, sort of delicate process of listening for what the song wants."

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