When they played Belly Up in June 2010, Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros were just breaking out and touring on their debut album, “Up From Below.”
Two albums, many tour miles, and one rock doc later, the indie folk collective returns to the valley for a Sunday afternoon set at the Jazz Aspen Snowmass Labor Day Festival.
The 12-person band, led by the charismatic shaman-singer Alex Ebert, has grown from a hip underground outfit into an enormous draw at festivals worldwide. They co-headlined the Railroad Revival Tour in April 2011 with Mumford & Sons and Old Crow Medicine Show, riding a train from California to New Orleans and playing six gigs along the route. That spectacle was the subject of last year’s documentary, “Big Easy Express,” and led to the Magnetic Zeros joining Mumford on tours in Europe and signing to the band’s label overseas.
Their shows offer an ecstatic, controlled chaos and communal experience that’s earned them a reputation as leaders of a new folk revival in pop music. Their new self-titled album was released last month.
The band’s percussionist, Orpheo McCord, spoke with Time Out from a tour break in California.
Andrew Travers: People still talk about that show you played here at Belly Up in the summer of 2010 when “Up From Below” was first blowing up. You guys have made two more good albums and played some huge tours since then. How do you keep that momentum going?
OM: We’ve been on the road most of that time. But to sit back and watch how it’s grown is awe-inspiring for all of us. There also has been something natural about that process. And I think we’ve really gotten our sound dialed in on stage, which is a huge advantage for us, because having so many of us on stage — it’s a lot of sound. And watching the fan-base grow, and to see how much positivity and love we get as these crowds grow, it’s been a beautiful experience.
AT: Your live shows have a whimsical, joyful spirit. Touring so much, are you ever just tired and grumpy and faking it up there?
OM: There’s definitely no faking it in this band. There’s times when we’re tired, but nobody tries to pretend like they’re not tired. When you focus your energy a little bit, you can be in that present moment. Usually there is so much enthusiasm and love coming from the people at our shows that if you can take a moment, and tap into that, it will feed you the energy you need. We also have a lot of support from each other on stage and that helps. But there’s no faking going on in this band. Everything you see is for real.
AT: The two most popular strains of music right now are electronic dance music and the folky, acoustic style we hear from you guys and Mumford & Sons. What do you make of that?
OM: I think there’s something as far as organic music goes that resonates with our experience in our bodies on a cellular level — the natural sound of strings and the natural palpitation of a drum and a bunch of voices singing together. It doesn’t matter what kind of music you gravitate toward, I think, if you can resonate with it on a human level in some way. Luckily there’s a platform to do that and a momentum building for that now that maybe people who weren’t as open to that experience are being more open to it now, and it’s catching like wildfire. And electronic music, what makes it so popular is it’s about dancing. It’s about the groove, that deep groove. Bands like Mumford, it’s also dance music, it’s a lot of heavy four-on-the-floor, and in our music we’ve got a lot of those dance-y elements, so that’s what ties the two together. People like to dance and have a good time and it’s just two different avenues.
AT: People have responded really personally to your songs, like “Home” and “I Don’t Wanna Pray.” When you were recording those, did you know you had something special on your hands?
OM: It’s interesting to see what resonates with people. We did that [”I Don’t Wanna Pray”] with all of us in a room, one mic, pretty simple — and we love that song and the positive message behind it. But then it got real popular and we never would have thought that while we were recording it. Even with “Home,” nobody knew how popular that song was going to become. It’s the magic of the process, really. We just focus on having in integrity in what we do and having the intention of something that we believe in on this journey. And hopefully it gets reflected in the purest way possible in the medium we express it through.
AT: When you played Belly Up, Alex came out in the crowd and had everyone sit on the floor and sing “Brother” together. Do you plan that kind of stuff or your approach depending the size of the crowd?
OM: No, we just go for it and see what happens. We won’t even know what our first song is going to be until we’re on stage. As we go we’ll gage the feeling. There are a few songs we’ll typically use as our first song, depending on whether we want to come in slamming or ease in. We want to figure it out in the moment. For the most part we can feel that energy and agree how we should start it off.
AT: At the Labor Day festival you guys go on right before Journey —
OM: Which is awesome!
AT: Yeah, you guys are Journey fans?
OM: There’s definitely fans in the band that listen to Journey and we respect where they fit into the history and evolution of music. So it’s pretty fun to play right before they go on.