Last weekend Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros held their first ever Big Top Fest, a four-day music festival in Los Angeles where the band performed in a circus tent, along with a host of side-acts like acrobats, marionettes, performance artists and musicians.
Last Wednesday, before the festival kicked off, Samsung threw an intimate dinner for the band and invited select journalists to watch the band rehearse. In between dinner and leading his band through covers from the Velvet Underground and Grateful Dead, as well as several of their own songs, frontman Alex Ebert sat down with Rolling Stone to talk about the festival’s future and who he’d like to bring along for the ride.
This kind of unique performance should be familiar to you. Last time we talked you were opening for the Flaming Lips at sunrise at the Hollywood Forever Cemetery.
I didn’t realize that song [“Do You Realize”] was about death until we were halfway through, ’cause I was so tired. Halfway through I’m going,”This is so amazing, I’m glad we did this.” He kept saying, “Do you realize?” I went, “Oh shit, I do realize right now.” This song had that immediate impact and made me realize while we’re at a graveyard, of course, and he’s saying everyone we know will die.
The fest feels a little Flaming Lips-esque. Were there artists who inspired what you could do with these shows?
No, although the Lips’ shows, the revealing of the sinew of the show via the work, like all the crew being a part of it, is a little turn of brilliance. But no, the inspiration is more sort of like, “What was it like when it was good? What were things like when adventure and experiential aliveness was a part of the troubadour experience?” Not the streamlined club, club, club, but “what was it like when it was adventure?” All you really want is the feeling of being alive anyway, and you don’t get the feeling of being alive in a nice bus going from place to place unless you happen to get it, but it’s not inherently vivacious.
We’re pushing space where there wasn’t any – almost like there’s resistance. “Don’t do a thing at the thing, you’re not gonna make any money. Why are you doing this?” But you push it anyway, and it is a sort of mother of invention thing, I guess. But the idea of adventure and meaning and life and all these things are all wrapped up in the same thing somehow. What I’m trying to say is even though this is a commercial thing and people are paying to get in, it somehow feels like a nod in the direction of something else . . . Something more intuitive. The way things have been streamlined is actually counterintuitive and counter-natural. The idea that you hit all these places – go, go, go, you go to sleep in a fucking van and you get up and go – it’s just not natural. So it’s a push towards something that feels better just on a basic level, commerce be damned. We’ll work that out. What I try and do at all our shows is break the barriers and immerse myself with the audience. So this is an opportunity to immerse four days with everybody, all of us. We have an intimate show, 1,500 people. How do we do that? You have to do it a bunch of times in a row. I’d rather people be camping here – maybe next time invite the organic foods, a farmer’s market.
So you definitely plan on keeping this going?
This is supposed to be a traveling thing, like a circus.
Is that the idea for 2014?
I’d like it to be, yeah. I’d love to rope Wayne [Coyne] in to something. God knows he’s roped me into enough shit. I’d love to rope Ariel Pink into it, Tony Bennett – we gotta get Tony Bennett here. We’re doing a matinee for kids so we could do whatever, do books in the pew. Turn to page 156 and we all start singing whatever song that is.
Did you go to the circus a lot as a kid?
No. Ironically, I went to the Ramos Brothers circus, who are the people that set this up. But that’s the only time I’ve been to the circus other than Cirque Du Soleil. I’m sort of an aristocrat.