In 2007, when he founded Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros with fellow singer Jade Castrinos, Alex Ebert had no desire to tour in a traditional manner with his new band. "I wanted to do . . .some sort of more magical troubadour-ism," the singer explains to Rolling Stone. He pauses, and then adds with a chuckle, "Of course, we failed at achieving that and toured our asses off in traditional venues instead."
But now the free-spirited singer says he has a golden opportunity to rebel against the traditional "repulsive" and "commerce-driven" touring cycle: from October 17th to the 20th at Los Angeles State Historic Park, Ebert and the nine members of his hippie-folk collective play host to the Big Top festival. The one-off gathering, in addition to featuring daily performances from the Zeros on a rotating stage under a big tent, will include film and art installations, a farmer's market, a beer garden and other musical performances.
It's not a perfect scenario, but Ebert will take it. "I wish there weren't going to be any seats," he admits. "I wish we could do just all pillows. But there's fire codes and all these things."
Big Top was modeled after the traveling circuses that first mesmerized Ebert as a child when he watched his favorite movie, Dumbo. The happy-go-lucky singer says the four-day affair "is the kind of experience that makes the world feel a little more magical and more sort of connected and richer." It's a concept he'd hoped to put into action several years ago; the band had actually planned to set the festival in motion this past spring during Coachella weekend, but as Ebert says, "it just didn't quite feel right." The band also wanted to wait until they felt they were a big-enough draw to lure a proper-sized crowd.
"It was always that question, 'If you build it, will they come? Are we in a place to be able to do something like this?'" he explains.
Ebert has stayed out of the logistical process of setting up the fest; he's left that up to the Zeros' manager, Bryan Ling. But he says he's most excited by the opportunities the fest provides to engage in an intimate and personal way with the band's fans. "It's literally the most important thing to me," he says. For the singer, a burning desire for connection with his audience is a direct response to the isolationist attitude he had when fronting electro-rock crew Ima Robot in the late Nineties.
"It's not got anything to do other than my experience not [interacting with fans], and how miserable it was to my own spirit to try and keep the guard up and sort of pedestal-ize myself and all that which I had done for a few years," he says. "I learned so much."
With the Zeros steadily increasing in popularity since their 2009 debut album, Up From Below – and the size of the venues they play growing every year – Ebert admits it has become increasingly more challenging to interact directly with fans.
That's not to say it's not possible. "So much of it rests on us, and particularly me, and the sort of degree of relaxation and openness with which I allow myself to be," he says. Even at 17,000-plus capacity venues like the Hollywood Bowl, where the band recently played, Ebert says he believes with an open-armed attitude and the right mentality it's entirely possible for every last fan to feel a part of the show.
"I'd like to think we can be intimate on a really gigantically grand scale somehow, if everyone's in the right mindset for it," he says.
Big Top will cap off what's already been a momentous year for the band: Ebert and company have been burning up the road this summer, playing amphitheaters across the country behind their recently released third album. The singer says the LP's rowdy and rambunctious material is tailor-made for the live setting.
"It's fun to start building up this depth of songs so each show is a thing unto itself," Ebert says. "It's just really powerful and beautiful."