The idea of an indie collective feels banal anymore. With acts like Broken Social Scene, the Polyphonic Spree, I'm From Barcelona and Godspeed You! Black Emperor breaking the double-digit-membership mark, there's no novelty left in sheer numbers.
Therefore, when Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros emerged in 2009 with its warm and inviting debut, Up From Below, the discussions about the band's swollen roster felt stagnant.
Instead, what is perhaps most intriguing about this Los Angeles collective is its organic and restrained approach to mass-constructed music. Rather than feeling obliged to constantly merge their voices into communal sing-alongs—although there is some of that—the group uses its numbers to create occasionally tempered and always shaggy folk tunes. The album comfortably shifts from carefree, breezy Rolling Stones-esque rockers ("Come in Please") to spaghetti-Western barnburners ("Kisses Over Babylon") with admirable chutzpah.
Speaking by phone, guitarist Christian Letts discussed his involvement in longtime friend Alex Ebert's project.
"Alex and I have been friends since we were 3," Letts said. "He called me up a few years ago—four years ago now—and asked if I wanted to lay some guitar down on some stuff he'd been working on. So I went to his house, and it was '40 Day Dream.' It was with (singer) Jade (Castrinos), and we just did a couple of songs that night. I was stoked with it."
For anyone who has heard that soulful track (on TV shows like Chuck or Hung), it's not hard to understand Letts' enthusiasm.
For Letts, whose band at the time was in the process of dissolving, the timing was perfect, and his induction became procedural.
"The band is really a collection of all different groups of friends," Letts said. "We've all sort of known each other for some time—L.A.'s pretty small, really—so we just all started working together."
Ebert, Castrinos, Letts and multi-instrumentalist Stewart Cole formed the "main group from the beginning," Letts noted. Yet, it was at the Laurel Canyon home studio of guitarist Nico Aglietti that the group began recording; Aglietti, Ebert and bassist Aaron Older handled the production. Despite the group's joint approach to the music, the seeds of Edward Sharpe (from the name on down) belonged to Ebert.
"Alex had been working on the album for a while before he invited anybody to contribute," Letts said. "He had a lot of stuff he'd already been doing, and we kind of helped bring the album to life, but he wrote the majority of the album."
Wanting to dissociate himself from his old act, Ima Robot, Ebert created Edward Sharpe and a mathematic dilemma.
"Alex has been working on this novel a long time, and the main character in the novel was named Edward Sharpe," Letts said. "Everybody is Edward Sharpe, is the main idea. There's no Edward Sharpe in the band necessarily. (Ebert) also came up with this mathematics that Alex is better at explaining than I am, but it was called Magnetic Zeros in his novel, and that was what Edward Sharpe was trying to figure out."
The fruits of Edward Sharpe's numeral frustrations—as well as Ebert's personal demons—find voice in Ebert's lyrics and delivery on the album's darker tracks. From his haunting bellow on the simmering, atmospheric ballad "Black Water" to his cathartic yelps on the beautifully jangly and downcast title-track ("To all those friends I've hurt / I treated them like dirt"), one hears the torment that initially bred this otherwise ebullient album.
Ultimately, the recording process did not lend itself to a raw, instant outpouring of the emotions. The album took a couple of years to record, and Letts notes that the writing of the album was collective. Musically significant ideas spawned on tour; furthermore, the rigors and indulgences of the home studio also contributed heavily to the recorded output.
"We recorded to tape, everything analog, and so that took away the infinite amount of tracks you can use on Pro Tools," Letts said. "When you only have 24 tracks to record on, you have to be really smart with how you do it. A lot of stuff was done live with five of us in the room together, so if one person blows a note, you gotta start the whole song over. ... Since we were at a house recording, it felt really good not to have structure and also to feel comfortable somewhere. When you're having dinner together all the time, and drinking wine together, sometimes there'd be an idea—like a jam would start in the living room, and we'd go over to the studio and record it. It was great fun."
Many of the tracks palpably ooze the fun that went into the recording. Letts also believes the album's sound is directly connected to the group's work ethic.
"I feel like you can hear the passion that went into it, and also the patience," Letts said. "Everybody in the band has the same feeling that if something's not quite right, we'll keep going at it instead of saying, 'It's good enough.' There's a lot of respect and passion on the album, and we took the time to make it happen the way we wanted to see it finish."
It probably hasn't hurt the group's outlook that Up From Below has found substantial success—landing the band a gig on Letterman and international acclaim (including high chart numbers in Australia). The group is set to tour through October and, according to Letts, ideally begin recording again in November.
Personally, Letts is enjoying the ride.
"I feel like if you're passionate enough, and if you're very honest and true about (the music), then people will be able to connect with it, so I'm thrilled that it's been received so well," Letts said. "It feels really good to go places one summer and have 300 people there, and then go back to the same place the next summer and have 3,000 people there. ... I feel really blessed."