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Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros Raise The Big Top

Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros have also looked more like a traveling circus troupe than a traditional rock band but since busting onto the live music circuit with their hit “Home” in 2009, they have largely relied on traditional clubs and festival. That will also change later this month when the folk-inspired family band hosts their first Big Top event at Los Angeles’ State Historic Park from October 17-20. Spurred on by their participation in the Festival Express train festival a few years ago, Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros are aiming for a more interactive, multi-media experience, including a mix of musicians, vaudeville comedy, contortionists, acrobats, puppetry and interactive performance art. For their two performances, the band will play in-the-round under a big top circus tent, and they plan to silicate fan requests, shuffle their setlist and play some choice solo cuts. Lead vocalist Alex Ebert recently spoke with about their upcoming circus show, his band’s new self-titled album and why the time is right for a non-traditional festival.

We wanted to talk to you about a few things, but let’s start with your upcoming Big Top Festival coming up. How did you come up with that idea and how did you first decide to throw an event? What made you decide to make it more of a circus-themed multimedia experience rather than a traditional rock fest that you guys have been playing for so many years now?

It was an idea that we’ve had for a while now. From the beginning we wanted to try and play as many non-traditional places and put on as much as possible ourselves.

We just never really got around to it in a way that we would’ve liked to. It was just difficult to continue. The train tour [Railroad Revival Tour] was some of that. But it’s just so much easier to put all of that together than to always play in parks, parking lots, peoples’ houses and whatnot. This was one idea that I had been turned onto a while ago.

The idea of sort of staying in one place for multiple days – like four or five days – and playing a bunch of shows in a row. Sort of like the way that a circus goes and so the circus idea as a touring model—with regards to its timeline and the set up of it—was sort of a template. Then the idea of just going ahead with the circus template and having that lead the way as far as the creative inspiration.

It just feels good. There’s plenty of bands playing so it’s not like it’s thoroughly multimedia. I think in general we’re looking to try to create a sense of adventure for ourselves and for everyone else.

Edward Sharpe are playing both nights but can you talk a little bit about some of the non-musical elements that are making it more of, as you said, kind of this three-ring circus event and not just a traditional concert experience?

We have some interesting acrobatics, dancers and magicians. I think we may still be doing a video tent and interactive components. We have some friends of ours MCing and piano playing, you know, a great jazz piano player playing every gig and I think that the whole thing is meant to feel as interactive as possible.

Of course, on the weekends we have farmer’s markets and then a sort of open-mic stage, and the outside is free so you can just come hang out and bring a picnic for free without even coming into the tent.

I think just the vibe is as free-for-all as possible without being chaotic.

You mentioned the idea of a non-traditional concert event or festival event. Growing up, when you were going to see music, did you go to a lot of these DIY events or these out-of-the-box festivals before this festival boom took place?

Not so much. I didn’t really end up going to too many festivals at all growing up. I just didn’t see too many festivals growing up. My parents certainly never went so I never went. It was more of a collective dream. A sort of zeitgeist, unconscious dream I never realized I had. I realized it when we all went to Martha, Texas for the first time in the bus that I had just bought and we were somewhat stranded there.

It was the first gig we played out of state that way. It must have been summer of 2008. Our gig kind of fell apart and we were stranded there for three or four days. We took up our instruments and just walked around town bangin’ on stuff. All of a sudden I realized the joy of the traveling troubadour sort of thing and essentially the essence of what we would constantly try to evoke, as a band from there on out.

It wasn’t as much an actual physical inspiration of childhood as much as it was a realization of a dream of the imagination.

As you mentioned, when you started out, you didn’t want to be playing traditional venues. But since then you guys have obviously played many traditional venues as well as non-traditional venues. Have you felt that as the band has evolved, your set has morphed to either fit into traditional venues or kind of to bounce off the idea of the traditional venue, like playing a traditional venue in a non-traditional way.?

I was pretty reactive to my days with Ima Robot by really, touring around in venues that were very streamlined and sort of soulless. Very much from the beginning with Edward Sharpe I wanted to curb that as much as possible. Even though we have toured like a motherfucker in clubs, we’ve sort of brought with us a mentality and spirit of transcending that in a celebratory way. Even if the club is all blacked out and rock ‘n’ roll, we try and transcend that.

Primarily, the reaction, for me, happened before Edward Sharpe.

It happened with Ima Robot. I carry that reaction into the ideas of where we would play and what we would play; at least how we would approach what we play. I think the main thing is about a fair degree of adventure, chaos and a sort of celebration in a non-rock-star way. A non-serious way, a sort of childish way. That was just sort of the main focus.

Honestly I would have liked if we played more gigs that were non-traditional. If we played people’s houses and if we took my bus this whole time. That would make me happier. At some point we’re going to be adjusting to do more of that as the rest of the band comes to that same realization that I came to all those years back. As they’ve been touring around in traditional venues and rented busses, you just start to understand that a lot of the joie de vivre is sort of chucked out when you’re involved in the typical process.

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