With their sophomore album, Here, released a month ago, I had the fine opportunity to sit down and chat with guitarist/vocalist Christian Letts of beloved folk group Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros. Everything from bartering action figures for hip-hop records, fans reaching out to their music and secret wishes to collaborate with Jay-Z is covered here.
How did you get started making music? Was there are a particular artist and/or album that inspired you and made you decide this was what you wanted to do with your life?
Alex [Ebert] and I have known each since we were three, we’ve been creating stuff together since we were kids really. After working on some demos, we slowly realized we mainly wanted to record and play shows. It wasn’t really a goal in mind to sound like anything. We’re all inspired by so many things, the twelve of us. It just came to be what it was, but not without any other thoughts other than just being very honest, that was it.
It’s been 3 years since your debut Up From Below came out, are you guys finally excited to add more material to your setlists?
We’d been playing some new songs on sound check for awhile, being three years on the road got us writing and experimenting a lot. It’s been great to play some new stuff. The album we just did, it was pretty important because we had recorded forty songs. It was something we really got into when we’d get home, was just to record.
From your recorded sound even, you guys always sound like a band intended to play live.
Yeah. I mean, the songs are always different every night too, which is so fucking great from a performing side. We never really know how the song’s going to play out either and the people who come to our shows are really open to that and we’re open to experiment with that too which adds to this beautiful atmosphere while we’re playing.
A more lighthearted question: You guys have your most celebrated song from the first album “Home”. Do you guys grow sick of playing that song or is it still a piece of work you can embrace and play it like it was the first time?
[Laughs] I still love playing that song. I absolutely love it. When we started doing the demos, we did “Home” and “40 Day Dream”. Within the first week, I came home and said ‘I know exactly what I’m doing with my life’. This felt so right to me, something I wanted to dedicate my soul to. I had another band at the time too, which was great, but this felt like the right path though. This was the best, or one of the best blessings I’ve had in my life.
It’s funny, one time I was in the middle of nowhere on a college campus in Nebraska at night and from a distance I hear a large group of people, like a moonlit drum circle basically, playing your songs. Your songs began feeling really ubiquitous and sentimental to me.
[Laughs] It’s so great. Me and my girlfriend will be walking down the street sometimes and we’ll hear people whistling, humming our songs. Like, fuck man, that’s so amazing. And it’ll happen so many times around the world now, it just makes me thrilled. It’s really important to do for you, but then having it effect other people is the bigger gift.
So what were the main artistic transitions from the past album to your latest album, Here?
We spent so much time together, number one; living in a bus together really, for three years. Everybody brought something to the table musically as well, it was a huge community effort. The first album too, but Alex had written most of the album before and we came in and brought it to life. This album was more of a collective experience, in a different way. Of course there was the pressure of having your second album, but I personally didn’t feel that. It was more of us working more on arrangements together and in the studio. Even in the beginning of the day, somebody would come up with, like a bass line or something, then we’d all jump in and help find where it should go from there.
We had a question from a Facebook fan actually. Neil Stanforth asks: Compared to the first album, Here has a more spiritual or religious feel. God and prayer comes up in a few songs. Is religion or god something that is important to any band members or purely a subject on which all people tend to have a medium or belief on in some way?
I think everybody has their own idea of what god is. Of course, there’s the classic definition. But it’s more of a question of your own spirituality, it’s not leaning towards one religion or another. [Laughs] That’s all I can say really, a lot of people ask us if we’re a Christian band and we’re not.
What do you see as the biggest challenge facing the music industry at the moment and if you were able to, how would you fix it?
That’s a good question. Well industry-wise, we’ve been really lucky. We’ve worked with so many great people that I haven’t had a sour taste in my mouth about anything. This is my first real rodeo with the whole thing, so I got really lucky. Everyone we’ve worked with has been so positive with a family sort-of attitude, which is how we always wanted it. I do hear horror stories as well, but I haven’t had to experience much of that. I do like, on the creative end, that there’s a lot of posturing happening. Like I remember a while ago, nobody smiled, nobody fucking interacted with the audience. But I feel like that wall’s being broken down more and more.
Which is also great for fans too, on the other side. Well, obviously we’re fans of you guys on the site, but are music sites and blogs important to you personally or as a band, as a means of getting your music out there? Do you read articles about yourself, or reviews of your music?
I personally don’t. [Laughs] I read one once, it was outrageous really, it said something about someone should shoot the gas tank of our tour bus. [Laughs] Which isn’t the best thing to read. I figure it’s better to have an effect on somebody, in either direction, instead of being lukewarm. You can hate or love it, but if you think it’s okay, that’s never really a good thing. But I might have seen some reviews here and there about the album, but I personally don’t read the reviews.
Does anyone else in the band read them or take them to heart?
There have been a couple reviews we’ve discussed, but honestly, it doesn’t really come up often.
So it’s never really been a concern of the band.
Not really. What I do like about the connections through websites and blogs is when fans start reaching out. We get people sending in videos of listening parties and music videos to our stuff, which is so humbling.
Did you guys see that popular YouTube video of the father and daughter duo singing “Home”?
Yeah! Holy shit, that was so awesome. It completely warmed me up. I had got a call, a couple of days after we were on the road, asking if I’d seen this thing and it was right in the morning so I’d check it out later. I checked my e-mail and all of my friends sent this video, telling me to watch it. And the views on that thing went crazy. We’d even seen them on America’s Got Talent and got to connect with them afterwards even. Stuff like that I love because it uses technology in such a cool way to spread things out in a positive way.
Going in the opposite way with technology: Do you guys ever buy vinyl? Is the medium important to you, as artists?
Oh yeah, that’s my favorite way of listening to music. It feels like the way music is supposed to be, something about that crackle and warmth to it. And the whole ritual of putting the record on and being careful with it so you don’t fuck it up and scratch it. In my house, that’s basically how we listen to music.
Do you have a favorite record store that you go to a lot?
There’s this guy called The Record Collector in West Hollywood that I really enjoy to go visit, who has this insane collection even of ’30s and ’40s Django Reinhardt records. It’s also cool to go on the road and visit so many record stores through the country, even in places you wouldn’t expect to be prime spots. But the trick is bringing the records all back home.
Do you remember the first vinyl you bought? And, do you still have it?
The first vinyl I bought, I actually didn’t buy it. When I was a kid, this lady who’d take care of me, her grandson used to come over all the time. And my parents always bought me toys, but I really wanted records, and his brother always got him records. So we would barter. I was, I think, five. And at first, I was first into hip-hop so I’d get stuff like Big Daddy Kane, N.W.A. and Eazy-E. So I remember I traded a He-Man for a Grandmaster Flash album. That was my first vinyl. [Laughs] And I’d put it on my Playskool record player.
Oh, I remember those.
Yeah, it was like that tan one with the orange bottom. I’d trade in all my toys for those records and my mom would be like “Where did all your toys go?” [Laughs] It was just an insane vinyl collection of old school hip-hop for a five year old.
Did you ever have a record most prized to you or most expensive beyond others?
I’ve never spent a crazy amount of money, but I have this ’39 record of “Hot Cup of France” by Django Reinhardt that I’m very precious about. Because that version is what got me into guitar when I was 15.
That’s awesome. Well, Record Store Day happened not too long ago and I landed a vinyl copy of The Flaming Lips and Heady Fwends, which is my most expensive/most prized piece of music considering how much it went for on eBay.
Yeah, how much did that go for?
On the first day when people lined up at 6am and got multiple copies of it, it was around $80-200.
What?! No way.
Yeah, and it was funny because after a few weeks, it got re-issued. Like two days ago, I found it at a record store for like $40 and I felt like an idiot considering I’d spent like $80 on mine.
[Laughs] Oh my god, that’s amazing.
There’s another Facebook question about your song on that album: Facebook fan Kaelin Bougneit asks: I’m kind of wondering what it’s like chilling with The Flaming Lips and how that whole collaboration went in general. I’m also wondering how you manage to stay so positive and channel that energy into your music. Is there an alternative outlet for your negative feelings; something creative, destructive, or otherwise?
We got to know them on the road and at festivals, it’s been a couple of years running into them now. They’re all super nice, which is nice when big bands are still cool like that. So we just sent stuff back and forth with them for the song. As far as negative energy, you can choose to make something destructive or beautiful out of it. I’m a painter as well and I remember I got into this argument with one of my friends and I was really bothered by it and got really angry then I said, “I’m gonna make something beautiful out of this.” So I went and painted for the next ten hours straight and make this beautiful piece which I gave to our productionist for Christmas. And I was glad that happened because I channeled my energy instead of being destructive.
Which artist from another genre do you think is that genre’s version of you?
I think artists out there who are doing a lot of positive shit out there, like the Mumfords, those guys are fucking amazing. Pretty random though, but I think Jay-Z is a fucking badass too. To me, he’s a pretty positive dude too.
If Edward Sharpe were a rapper, would it be the equivalent to Jay-Z then?
[Laughs] I don’t know about that, I just think he’s a fucking genius in a lot of ways. I would love to do a song with him one day, that’d be a dream come true.
That’d be an interesting collaboration.
Well, going back to your new album. Was Here something you guys made for yourselves, your fans or the critics?
It was really important for us. We spent so much time on the road and it felt really important for us to get back in the studio and start creating together considering we each had something to say. The perks in that was we’d play for people who’d really appreciate that, which was such a gift too. I was excited to get back in the studio to make some new stuff and getting it out; make room for new stuff. But making new stuff never really stops for us.
A good final question for you, as you mentioned you’re a painter. If you had to paint the style of Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros on a single painting, what would that painting look like?
There’s this painter, my favorite painter, John Singer Sargent, who had a whole collection he did in Venice and for some reason whenever I see those, I think of my band. I’d look at those as much as possible, the 1880-1920 pieces. They sort of look like us too.
Well thank you so much for your time, it was great talking to you.
Thanks a lot, I really appreciate it. Cheers.