Edward Sharpe & The Magnetic Zeros' Christian Letts on Antiquing and Marcus Mumford
Courtesy of BB Gun Press
The word "hippie" has been used to describe the sound and style of the indie music phenomenon Edward Sharpe & the Magnetic Zeros so often in reviews and profiles that it's now a suggested search term on Google.
Of course, it's too narrow a description for the freewheeling folk rock group. Their shows are a sound wave of unplanned set lists that move to the mood of the crowd and each other, and they are always on the hunt for weird and interesting places to play, such as the Old Vic Tunnels in London. This October, they'll host a traveling circus-themed art and music festival called Big Top that will be held in an actual circus tent. Meanwhile, the group is in town tonight for a show at the South Side Ballroom.
Singer, songwriter and guitarist Christian Letts took some time out of his antique shopping addiction during a stop in Austin to talk to DC9 at Night about the group's new album, their love of playing in unconventional settings and how a band with nine members organizes a live show on the spot without a predetermined set list.
So I don't mean this to sound weird but after reading through other interviews and reviews, I noticed the term "hippie" gets thrown around a lot. Are y'all cool with that?
It's fine. I don't associate myself to be that and I don't understand this need to box us in general, like this is this and that is that. I don't think it allows for growth, but I usually associate it to being a pretty nice person, a happy person and a positive person. [Front man] Alex said it the best, "Optimistic people seem to be called hippies." So, it's all good, whatever. I wouldn't necessarily call myself that but you know, we're singing about things like love, patience and forgiveness. So I guess that's the only place they can really put us.
I didn't mean that to sound like a blanket term. That's not what everyone is saying. I just thought it was an odd categorization that kept coming up.
Yeah, it's all good man. It's definitely what we've fallen into but there was no intention of that. From the beginning, we just wanted to do something as honest as we could and that's where it ended up. It wasn't like, "Well, let's just be this hippie band." Everything was just out there because we needed a lot of people to pull this off because we want a real sound. We don't want to rely on synthesized shit and programming. We wanted to be as loud as possible and with a big group, then the hippie cult thing came up as well [laughs] because there's bloody loads of us. So it's just the way the cards fell.
So in addition to the tour, you're also about to play Big Top, some kind of circus concert show in October. With your group, it seems you go out of your way to find more interesting venues to play.
For sure. I think it's really important of us.
Why is that?
You get used to playing venues over and over again. We wanted to break through and ask "What else can we do with this?" There's more that can be done. There's this tunnel we did in London, the Old Vic Tunnels. It was such a cool experience and it was so different from anything else we've done. I think it really affected all of us a lot. We did five nights in a row but we were never bored. So it was like this is fucking great. What else can we do? Then we did the train tour with Mumford and Sons and the Old Crow Medicine Show. That was something nobody's done in a long time and it was like a dream of ours. Our manager brought it up and we said we'd love to do it but we didn't think we'd ever be able to actually do it though. So I think it made us hungry to keep pushing the envelope and keep trying to find new ways to express things.
Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros' Christian Letts
Courtesy of BB Gun Press
How does the venue have an affect on the music and your performances?
It just depends on the night. It's kind of hard to say that this does this or that does that. We don't even have a fucking set list. We prefer to be by the seat of our pants, which is what I like about it. So we don't even know what we're going to play until the show's over and we're like, that's cool. Fuck, we didn't even get to play this today or we played this later on than normal. So it's very freestyle in that way.
So literally, someone will just start playing one of your songs and everybody follows them?
Alex calls it out like, "How do y'all feel about doing this?" and we're like, "Fuck, let's get into it." Every once in a while, someone is really keen on doing a song and you can see it and we're like, "Fuck, we better do that song because he's doing it." That's kind of how it goes.
And I would imagine there would have to be more organization in a band your size.
You've got to be aware. All of us are trying to be as conscious as we can and play the best show we can. You've just got to be on your toes because you never know what's going to happen. It makes it so its not boring. I think it would be difficult for us to have a set list. Every night the song sounds different too. It's never the same as we played it the last night.
What are you working on personally right now?
Oh, I started doing a solo album with Marcus Mumford [of Mumford & Sons]. We'll be finishing that up. It's going great. We're hoping we'll be able to finish it sooner than later once our schedule's align.
Is it close to the sound you have now or are you trying something completely different?
It's just what I write. I don't think you can help being influenced by what we've been doing for a long time, so I'm sure there's probably hints of everything but I'm not planning that either honestly.
Do you have any favorites from the band new's album?
Yeah, I like "If I Were Free." That's my favorite. It's my favorite to play live, for sure. It's just a great moment to explode and bug out. It's got this bombastic quality and live, when Nosey [singer and guitarist Mark Noseworthy] gets to take that solo in the middle of it, I just get really excited. It's fun to see how it spreads through the crowd.
So you're in an antique store. Is that something that happens a lot on tour? Do you end up with a lot of stuff?
Yeah, it drives my wife crazy with all this random shit. She's going to be so annoyed that I just bought another bust of somebody. We're running out of room.
How much stuff do you come home with after a tour?
I try to limit it to a few things, a few pieces I really love. It's a bit of a wonderland. [Laughs]
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