“I’ve never seen so many hipsters completely lose their shit,” Marcus Mumford tells me. He’s recalling his first encounter with Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros, at an American festival a couple of years back. “There was a real sense of abandon that attracted me, and not just the people on stage. Everyone was jumping up and down, not caring what they looked like, lost in this music. It has that effect .”
In one of the more unlikely settings for an interview, I am cruising with the Mumfords and the Magnetic Zeros on a Thames Clipper to Mumford’s giant show at the Olympic Park. Surrounded by tourists and flustered boat staff, not to mention several cameramen, their initial attempts to get a joint jam session going are stymied. “There’s too many of you out the front — I can’t see nothing!” barks the driver over the Tannoy.
Eventually sunny good vibes take over and the Zeros’ horn section lead both bands in nautical renditions of Down by the Riverside, Proud Mary and (Sittin’ on) the Dock of the Bay. Another of the Americans rings his bell in time while the man I have come to talk to, Zeros frontman Alex Ebert joins in on the vocals.
People are drawn to Ebert, not least Mumford & Sons, who have brought his band along on their latest tour and are about to release his third album on their own Gentleman of the Road label. The 35-year-old LA native has got that charismatic cult leader thing going on — with his scraggy brown beard, carelessly tied-back hair and ragged trousers he looks like Jesus in a backwards baseball cap.
“We’re just trying to expand life while we’re living it, you know?” Ebert he tells me, when we sit down together and I try not to look him directly in the eye in case he makes me abandon my family and join his magic bus.
His 11-strong band’s zealous blend of folk, soul and gospel is as joyous as it gets, as London will discover when they play the standout show of this month’s series of concerts at Somerset House.
Ebert formed the Magnetic Zeros with singer Jade Castrinos in Los Angeles in 2007, and the band quickly grew. “We usually peak at 13 members if we have a fiddler, 11 if we’re slimming it down to the bare bones,” he says. When they tour the US, various young families join them on their travels, including Ebert’s girlfriend and their baby, almost one. “It reinforces the family dynamic that we’re going for, and the deprofessionalisation [sic] and childlikeness of the thing.”
A debut album, Up from Below, in 2009, contained the whistling love duet Home, an early fan favourite. The follow-up, Here, was one of my favourites of 2012, from the jubilant hoedown of That’s What’s Up to the soulful groove of One Love to Another.
Many of Ebert’s songs — he writes most of the band’s material — tackle big themes or religion, but he insists he isn’t straightforwardly happy-clappy. “I love my god, god made love,” he sings on the folky stomp I Don’t Wanna Pray, then qualifies the statement with: “I don’t wanna pray to my maker/I just wanna be what I see/Not just who I am, but the pink in golden land/And that wide wild sky over me.”
So we’re looking at more of a vaguer love for the universe, the miscellaneous spirituality of a former rehab inmate. Ebert spent time there getting clean from hard drugs after the end of an earlier, fairly successful band, Ima Robot, that made glam rock. The change in his outlook, as well as the Sharpe pseudonym he uses for his band today, is what makes many think he is acting this part, peeling off his beard at hometime. “I can see why you might think it’s role play. What can I say? I’ve gone through phases.”
Now he’s clean-living, practising yoga and meditation and wearing a giant crystal around his neck. He’s into muscle testing, a way of looking for “energy blockages” after eating certain foods, so the things he consumes vary regularly. He eats meat, but when he orders his lunch off the boat he requests “no beans or bread” and ends up with a quiche.
The self-titled third, new album, out at the end of August, continues the self-improvement. “Life is hard, come celebrate,” he invites on the showstopping Life Is Hard.
“I’ve manufactured plenty of hardship for myself in my days, but I have to give myself a reality check,” he says. “This is an optimistic record but for me it’s very rooted in pain. It’s got its tiptoes in pain and its fingers up towards the sun.”
It’s also a noisier affair which expands the rootsy sound further. “I’m glad that on this album the whole stew made an appearance. There’s a little bit of hip hop on Better Days. There’s soul and psychedelia in there.”
It’s the additional backing of one of the hottest bands in the world that should make real crossover success happen this time around. Marcus Mumford says: “They’re very American and we’re very British, but we all love seeing people engage through our music. Our band has made a connection in the States and we want to see that same connection happen for them here.”
“They live for the same sort of open heart experience that we do,” says Ebert, though in terms of bands designed to lift people up, I’d put the Zeros higher. This should be the year that Ebert’s cult grows beyond expectations.