Indie folk phenomenon Alex Ebert has transitioned to a fresh and eccentric sound in his latest album I vs. I. The uniquely masterful release touches on profound subjects ranging from love and sex to passage of time and eternal youth. His new vibrant electro vibes pulse through the record creating an immense range of musical atmospheres. His new single “Stronger” explores infectious jazzy soundscapes while tracks like “Hands Up,” take a more experimental electro approach.
Los Angeles native, but New Orleans based, Alex Ebert is most recognized for founding the bands Edward Sharpe and The Magnetic Zeros and Ima Robot. His fanciful folk and quirky persona have won him much musical praise. mxdwn spoke with Alex Ebert discussing his new album, video inspirations and more.
mxdwn: Your latest album I vs. I crafts a profound story of “personal futurism” through the creation of an anti-hero in an unknown world, can you explain this concept in more detail?
Alex Ebert: Sonically I was vibing on a sound that fluidly integrated everything I’ve ever listened to. From the band Jealous and stuff my father played me when I was a kid to weird synth new age to hip-hop and this kind of pop, but it was not pop. It was striking me as something else and it was throwing me into this place where I felt like I was projecting myself into some future. With Edward Sharpe, I’m creating this person and stepping out of myself and into myself. Whereas this was throwing myself forward. As an artist you can feel like the time you’re living in is bogged down by certain mundane repetitious expectations. You can feel locked into a certain grid of success, expectations and what is hot right now. So imagining the future and imagining myself in the future, allowed me to slough off those preconceived notions of what might be expected right now and swim in a larger pool. I was able to take more artistic liberties.
mxdwn: I vs. I touches on themes of heartbreak, anger and also exploration, which song off the release would you say is your favorite and why?
AE: It changes from day to day. The one that keeps popping in my head right now is “I Smoke.” I don’t think it’s my favorite in the long run, but it’s the one I’ve been thinking about most recently. I think that in a lot of ways what I appreciate about that song is how much I’m wearing my personal life and my emotions on my sleeve which is something I had really avoided for over a decade. I hadn’t done anything like that since I was 19. To talk about my personal failures, depression, missing someone, those were things that I had proceeded as beneath me and weak. Over the last ten years I preferred to speak about communal emotionality such as we’re all in this together campfire type stuff. These last few years I stopped touring with the band and started spending a lot more time with myself. I went through a lot of stuff like breaking up with my baby mamma, which resulted in the dissolution of the family unit. The song, is full blown saying, I don’t give a fuck. It’s almost embarrassingly emo, but it’s stuff we all feel and all go through. I felt like I had outgrown my own emotions but then realized we never outgrow our feelings. I appreciate that I went ahead and really dove into my personal emotions.
Alex Ebert performing with Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros. Photo Credit: Nicole Omsted
mxdwn: Your song “Stronger” examines the ups and downs of a relationship, what was the creative process in creating the track?
AE: That song was originally inspired by my relationship with Jade and Edward Sharpe. It’s about just trying to see the positive side of the ups and downs. The downs are making you just as strong as the ups. The years went on and I never recorded that song, but I’d think about it in the context of all my relationships even my daughter and thought, ‘I got to record this song.’
mxdwn: Your video for “Stronger” features a man with a pregnant woman dancing through the urban streets and a planetary orb floating across the sky, what’s the inspiration behind the video?
AE: Noah is often my collaborator and he was in Berlin. He found those dancers and he actually had made that video for a different song. We never ended up using that song. He ended up putting it to a bunch of songs including “Stronger” and then I ended up cutting something to his footage using “Stronger.” He thought it was amazing. He made a few tweaks then we put it out. There are these really cool dancers and the story is she’s pregnant. There’s this orb and it’s related somehow to the pregnancy. Sometimes with creativity you don’t second guess it and then you find out later what it actually meant.
mxdwn: You’ve also released your visuals for your single “Fluid.” The video showcases microorganisms, creating a uniquely psychedelic aesthetic; can you explain the imagery and how it relates to gender fluidity?
AE: I was thinking of fluidity in terms of gender fluidity, but also in terms of where we are headed technologically. Where we are headed as a species. I was also thinking of myself and my refusal to accept any categorization artistically, so it represents artistic fluidity as well. I’ve always hated categorization. This idea of, I’m this or I’m that always feels so static. I was thinking what could really represent the fluidity of life. By looking at the underlying structure of what supports life and the micro of life. We are constantly living and dying, birthing and transforming. It was a really great opportunity to use footage of our biology.
mxdwn: So you founded Edward Sharpe and The Magnetic Zeros and Ima Robot. You’re musician, filmmaker, activist and also father, how do you manage to successfully balance all those roles?
AE: It can be hard. My cup is almost always flowing over. Sometimes I have to take a breather. Right now I have an amazing arrangement with my kid. Baby mamma takes her for a month then I take her for a month. It’s beautiful because I get to really hang out with her for a month and focus on our relationship and have it really develop. Then I get to focus on myself for a month. At the moment it’s a lot, but it’s good.
mxdwn: Your record I vs. I has a distinct jazzy electro-psych sound, which is a huge departure from the folk style of Edward Sharpe and The Magnetic Zeros, what inspired such a strong sonic evolution?
AE: So the stuff that I was making when I was 19, 20, 21 when I first dropped out of college and didn’t even know I was going to be a musician. I had just started. I’m singing differently, but it’s almost identical to this stuff. It’s the kind of stuff I do when I’m totally by myself and not thinking about my audience. It’s what I grew up with. It was this weird sort of version of new age music and hip-hop. Also he was always blasting country, which is where the Edward Sharpe stuff came from. I really wanted to allow myself to be creative in the studio. Music is all about exploration. Which is why I think it ended up sounding the way it did.
Photo Credit: Nicole Omsted
mxdwn: On the topic of experimenting with genres, what prompted you to incorporate rap into the album with tracks such as “Automatic Youth?”
AE: Rap was how I first fell in love with music. When I was seven, I got a Run-D.M.C. leather jacket. I started a rap group when I was eight or nine called Kabang. It was a gangster rap group. It’s something about the lyrics that felt so creative to me. I would just sit there in the back of my dad’s van. I would stop, play, rewind. When all those albums came out it was all I did. I remember on a 5th grade camping trip I got in trouble for singing Eazy-Duz-It all night long, the Eazy-E album. It was the only thing I was interested in as a kid other than sports.
mxdwn: Who are some artists you look up to that have shaped your musical journey?
AE: Well David Bowie introduced me to singing as something really creative. He showed that it can be art. I didn’t understand that before David Bowie. I didn’t understand that you could create different kinds of stories with production. Of course The Beatles set such a high bar, there’s an infinite gamut. I want to give a shout out to the Pharcyde and also a shout out to Ariel Pink and Nina Simone.
mxdwn: You just performed on the Colbert Show. Can you tell me what that experience was like?
AE: Playing on those shows is always scary as hell. You have the cameras there and you don’t want to mess it up, but I was really excited. When I got the call I was in the middle of making the “Fluid” video and we were doing green screen. I realized as long as we did a bunch of pre-production, we could green screen in real time. I could wear a green suit. I had never seen that. We would create this hilarious and weird disruptive imagery if we could convince them to allow us to green screen in real time. At first they weren’t sure. They thought the idea was crazy, but eventually they said okay lets do it. So I was able to put together footage with my editing partner Emile and it was so fun. That kind of stuff is so beautiful. To me that stuff is museum level beauty. It’s in some ways also the future. Between that and this show I did at the Grammy Museum, it inspired me to put together a touring show. The show is part participatory conversation with the audience, part show and part PowerPoint. It’s a really odd mix. I’m really excited by what it’s inspired.
mxdwn: What’s next for Alex Ebert?
AE: I have a part two to I vs. I. that will be dropping at some point and there’s an EP I made of songs that I wrote with Avicii that I’ll be finishing up and releasing in April. Also I’m putting together that show I was just mentioning and then finally, making another Edward Sharpe album in the next couple months. In regards to Alex Ebert, I’m putting together this experimental show with the future suit, stories and participation. I’m really excited.