LOS ANGELES – The score to Robert Redford’s quiet, isolated film “All Is Lost” is, as one could expect, quiet and isolated. It’s very patient output from composer and songwriter Alex Ebert, whose regular gig in the roving roots rock and psych-pop band Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros features him resembling more of a tent revival preacher, a charismatic reveler-leader of a pack 12-strong musicians plus their fervent fans.
So “All Is Lost” is a reflection of alternate abilities, or a weirder, more alienated take on Ebert’s knack for headstrong melodies and executions. He’s stretched out, too, before in his old project Ima Robot and as a solo act, having released one album, “Alexander,” as the latter. But it’s this recent film music endeavor that’s earned him a Golden Globe Awards nomination, for Best Original Score.
The singer and songwriter and I met in Los Angeles during this hotly contested awards season to talk about the making of the grave “All Is Lost” soundtrack and the evolution of Edward Sharpe, among plenty of other topics like the history of cool, Heath Ledger’s creative strengths, derivative works, “selling out,” starving art and activism. Below is our abridged Q&A.
Congrats on Golden Globes nomination. Was that expected for you? Did people give you a heads up that it”s coming?
No. In fact my agent and a publicist, they had no idea. They were totally shocked. If anyone should of have had an idea that it was going to happen it should have been them, and they had no idea. Yeah, it was really fun. I just got woken up and then told that you got nominated for a Golden Globe. And I was just like a five-year-old for about the next eight hours.
I didn’t know if you’re a – are you an awards guy at all? Do you keep up on that stuff?
No. I mean I pay attention when the Academy Awards come around. I haven’t I watched them in a while but I used to watch them religiously when I was a kid. It’d be like a family thing. And then I sort of don’t have much TV anymore. But yeah, I mean I keep – especially when there’s something I really love and I know it’s up for an award I tend to like follow that and see if that like really got – like I really was into Joaquin Phoenix’s performance in “The Master” and I like really want him to get best actor. So that kind of thing.
Do you have any hopes for Oscars?
Yeah. In fact the whole thing was “We’re too late for the Golden Globes but we’re going to focus on the Oscars.” So yeah, I definitely have hopes for that. I would love for that to happen. I mean that would be immeasurably beautiful to me and nice. I’ve never won any award for anything. I understand that awards are not always full of integrity. But in the category of composer I can’t see much room for anything but integrity. It’s not a category that’s sort of awash with glitz.
The Grammys, for instance, usually nominate things that have had huge wild success. There are some exceptions once in a while. But on the whole it’s almost always massive commercial success. And I don’t even need to explain why that’s problematic. It means that some stuff that might be really great is being overlooked. And that’s okay but it is what it is.
But for me it was just amazing to be nominated for the Golden Globes. I was really emotional actually in a sort of profound way. This is so cool to be honored.
As far as the films go, what kind of prep work did you do in going into this particular – I mean were there new instruments you wanted to try? Was there an academic approach on your part on how you wanted to prepare your brain for this particular film?
I mean yeah, the philosophical approach was that to incorporate silence. That was my main premise is I wanted to incorporate silence and negative space into the music somehow. And my working premise was not something I felt like I could actually employ but it was of a philosophical notion of having a song that would start off completely particulated so that it would just be a note, two minutes, next note, four minutes, next note. And then eventually this negative space would get closer together, you know, smaller and you’d have a song. You’d be able to tell what the song was but you have a very slowed down version of the song and to s have it start with a lot of negative space. I didn’t end up doing that but that sort of state of mind was present the whole time.
Where you at all trying to fight any of the impulses that you have with Edward Sharpe or your other music projects?
No, in fact I was – no, it was like immediate emancipation or liberation from any routine songwriting stuff that I had been doing. If anything though I was trying to incorporate melody. And to me the Edward Sharpe music is primarily melodic and lyrical, but melody is – I just love it, melody. When I write a song it’s very hard for me not to just go ahead and write the melody first. Because melody is so easily transcendent. And in film, and particularly a film so stark, there were people that were reticent to accept melody into a movie.
Sure, or texture.
And texture. And that’s fine and I love that and I did plenty of that I think. But for a movie that really is the premise of poetry, and by that I mean beauty and death, the recognition of beauty and the understanding that it’s going to pass is the premise of all poetry to me. And in order to speak that I need melody, I can’t do it with tone, I need to melody. So it was really important to me to get melody in there. And I think I did that best with the Excelsior theme, which is the main theme that you hear over and over.
I read an interview where you had mentioned a lot of the inspiration for the score was also the star of the film, of Robert Redford, and him being kind of an archetype of a time.
I mean very overtly I incorporated all of my thoughts about Redford, that era and the human condition of living in the face of death, into the song “Amen,” which ends the movie and has lyrics so I could really just overtly speak on it. You know, “the suns danced for your song” referencing Sundance. “Heroes and silver scenes, real men never scream,” all these sorts of things. And then that era so that era – this is the baby boom generation essentially and they lived through the wildest most hopeful times in America to me. And the amount of things that have changed since the ’50s is mind-boggling. Technologically, psychologically, spiritually, it’s pretty wild…
Yeah, when you’re speaking specifically about somebody like Redford who has been an actor throughout all eras.
All of it. And a director in all of that. And I also was thinking a lot about my dad because he’s of that same generation. It’s the generation that experience the last of the Americana, that Coca-Cola America that we look back on. That idea of the greatest place on earth sort of thing and infinite possibility of a Americanism that felt genuine and wholesome. And then the advent of rock ‘n roll and irreverence and distrust and then all of the movements through the ’60s and then the disintegration of it and the drugs and musically the disintegration of music into disco. And then into complete embracing of irony and self-destruction with punk rock, which I think was again a response, then coming to the lionized generation coming to an end.
Responses to responses to responses. Do you feel like Edward Sharpe’s music is a response to any kind of responses?
I think Edward Sharpe’s music is counter-cultural music in the strangest sense where you have a time now where love, optimism, hope and community are uncool and not part of the mainstream culture. The mainstream culture hinges on the irreverence, irony, sarcasm and individualism. And so ironically Edward Sharpe and the things that we are perceived to stand for and do stand for are part of now a counterculture. So it’s pretty interesting.
What is the comparison work of doing a project like this, versus having your band or other musicians to bounce ideas off of, with that immediacy? Did you feel like you needed isolation or alienation even in composition work on this?
It’s definitely different working in a group. With that said, when I write, even for Edward Sharpe, it’s very much alone time. So writing is a very personalized, solo, you and the universe sort of thing, it can be. Of course, it can also be like jamming in a room together and bouncing off each other and inspiring each other. And actually for Edward Sharpe, we’ve decided we want to do more of the latter so that we’re actually a band in all aspects and areas including songwriting. More of a band then songwriting. And I’m interested in that too because it just feels like a nice thing to do and a good thing to do.
What did you take out of the experience of making a solo album?
A sort of a “this is a rite of passage.” I’ve always been around musicians and always been the songwriter who doesn’t end up playing the music. And therefore when I enter a country and it says “occupation” I’ve always been hesitant to put musician, I put “artist” in, even though I like the word “artist” a little better in some ways because I feel like it’s slightly broader. But I was hesitant also because I didn’t necessarily know if I felt like I was qualified as a musician, I was a songwriter. I’d never become proficient at an instrument.
And there was another reason, which is that demos are beautiful things. All my life I’d been recording and playing stuff on my own, most of that first Edward Sharpe album I have demos of all of those songs that I did mostly myself, not entirely. And then you go and you scrap them all and you rerecord them. And that’s cool and all but there’s something special about demos and the first time you lay something down.
It was fun. I was very strict. I did everything myself except for make the equipment that I played on. So I recorded everything. I played the violin, I played the bass, the guitar, whatever and nothing synthetic. All the drums were real and, you know, so it was a really fun and extremely stressful process.
What are your hopes and aspirations for Edward Sharpe?
I mean my whole regarding that question for Edward Sharpe is that without doing anything other than what we do we’re able to infiltrate that commercial fabric and change it a bit. And there have certainly been, you know, what people perceived to be bands that have been inspired by us. Unfortunately, the things I’ve heard that they’ve taken, they’ve taken and done the typical thing, which is to take it and then make it slicker.
It’s derivative in a…?
In a sort of commercial sense. You take an aspect and then insert it into a poppy song or a slicker song. The whole thing that I want to convey and to change and what I would like to see become popular, and actually what I’d would like to see people ripping us off using is our, I guess you could call it unprofessionalism or unprofessional sound. The porousness of it; the jangliness of it. I would like to see that become popularized and that become commercial. Because I think that we have gotten to a place where process is outweighing content, and that’s problematic. That’s why demos are cool. There’s more song in a demo then there is process in a demo. By the time you get to the end of that demo process and the end of the recording and it’s on the album, there maybe more process than there is song. I don’t know if that’s a good thing.
Do you blame technology at all for that?
No. I blame laziness and commerce. I blame “Oh it worked to do this process on that song so now we’ll just take this person and put that process on them.” What about the song? “Oh right, the song. Yeah, well, we’ll need the song too.”
When you think about what kind of engineering or production value you want from album to album, and how much does it matter who the heads of the labels that you talk to are? Personnel?
It matters. It all matters. I mean it all matters because it just does. I mean my experience on a major label was okay at first and then a nightmare. Like, literally almost nightmarish. I could not believe what was happening. And that’s nobody’s fault but my own for going along with this shit. I did not have to.
What would you like to see happen with Edward Sharpe and what”s the word on more film work?
I don’t have any plans right now with regards to Edward Sharpe. I’m writing a lot of music. Like I said, we kind of decided that we want to write together, so I don’t know exactly what I’m going to do with all this music I”m writing.
It’s all about availability when there’s so many people.
Right. And they all need to take time off. We don’t all work the same and I work a lot and right now everyone chilling for the most part, some of them are writing some albums actually. But we’ve been together for a long time and been touring a lot and so we’re taking time off to do other things. That said I’d like to see us come together to record another album. I’ll almost certainly do another solo album. I think that’s basically kind of what I’m working on and also writing with other people in mind. I live in New Orleans now so I’m just, you know, writing songs and I have an overflow so I’m thinking about collaborating and whatnot.
And then it looks like I’m going to be doing – I’m talking to some directors about doing some other scoring.
Have you signed on officially to do anything?
I haven’t signed on officially but I’ve actually begun. We had a conversation and it’s a very interesting script. Very dark but I think I can handle it. I have to meditate on that.
It’s more overtly dark. It’s basically “the environment strikes back” sort of thing but in a “Shining” way. It’s pretty interesting.
You”re also doing a musical?
Yes. And I’m writing a musical. Well, that’s the other thing I’m writing a musical and I’m writing a book, a couple books. I’m writing a book on the cool actually. It’s a nonfiction on cool. It’s called “Kingdom Cool.”
Is it contemporary cool or are we talking a history of cool?
It’s a history of cool leading up to now.
Do you consider yourself an expert in cool?
My relationship to cool is being now a counter cultural person. And cool, once a counter cultural force, is now the cultural force and the language of commerce and I think it’s a really interesting subject. The book goes all the way back to primordial ooze and then brings us forth.
And then through Robert Redford and…
Social anxiety. Cool is the archway to relieve from social anxiety. So it’s a very biological biologically oriented book. But I think it’s just fascinating stuff.
And yeah, there’s two novels. One is a great story about a guy who goes down to Guatemala to open a Dairy Queen. And another is just about these people that exist in this hotel and a sad, sad story about men who think that their women are holding them back and what they would be if they didn’t, if they weren’t bound to these women. It’s very genderized but it’s a farce of some kind. It’s a comedy, that book.
Is that a subject that’s close to you?
In the sense that I’ve gone through years and years of thinking that relationships are detrimental to the full-blown exploration of your abilities of yourself. And, of course, I’m completely in love now and I have a kid and all of that. But certainly for a time that was a severe preoccupation of mine because I was constantly falling in love and constantly also trying to sort of rip myself away from it.
What’s the musical about?
The musical, it’s been cooking for a long time. It’s about string theory really and also synesthesia. And so music is incorporated through the ability to observe things as strings and then the ability to be able to play those things. And there’s a bad guy and a good guy in all that kind of stuff. And it’s also based on – the other half of it is a story that Heath Ledger and I were concockting because he wanted to direct a musical and him and I were going to play brothers. And so we sort of put together this story really quickly in one night and yeah, he had everything lined up in his mind in a way that who was going to be the cinematographer, where are we going to shoot. So that’s the other half of the story.
And who do you envision working with on that one now?
I don’t know. I f*cking wish Heath was still around. I don’t know.
What would he of brought to the project, you feel like his biggest strength was in?
His, I wouldn’t say biggest strength because I don’t feel like I knew him well enough to say something like that. But one of his super powers was compressing the time between thought and action. And that is the torch of his that I, when he died I was like I’m carrying this on. I’m carrying that. I’m remembering that about myself because he would remind me of that about myself when he was alive. And when he died I thought I’m not going to forget that about myself. And that was at the beginning of Edward Sharpe. It was almost like right after that, we went online, I bought a bus and we started our journey.
What role does financial stability play in all your journeys?
I think that distance from survival is a prerequisite to being able to concentrate on the arts. You can’t be hunting and gathering and making music, you know, you can’t be dedicating you life to music if you need to eat. So on a very real level yes, of course, it’s necessary. But once you get a little bit of distance from that and you know where your meal the next day is going to come from, you can make art.
Starving artists can’t make great art?
Well, I think that if you’re literally starving you probably can’t make great art. So people that are financially struggling and relying entirely on their art for their sustenance, yeah it’s a difficult predicament. You can busk, you can write songs intentionally to have commercial success. You can choose your sort of thing, but I think there is still room for integrity in all of those expressions, even when you’re a “starving artist”.
Do you have any mixed emotions about publishing and licensing? Are any particular deals that made you feel at all squeamish about your art?
Oh yeah, of course. I mean, you know, we got a Ford commercial and I did my research on Ford and they supplied Pinochet with warehouse to dissidents in the ’70s in Chile. And it’s just like – or Coca-Cola, you know, just like 30 union members just suddenly get killed in Columbia for protesting at the Coca-Cola plant. Or India’s water supplies being drowned up and guess who has plenty of water to make Coca-Cola in India? There’s problems and I researched them and I think it’s okay to expose them and talk about them. At the same time there’s questions around the survival of the band. Twelve people in the band, we split almost all the money 12 freaking ways. So what seems like a lot of money ends up not being a lot of money. So you have to sort of be cognizant of these things. So we took the Ford commercial. The commercial itself was an exuberant sort of celebration and we really didn’t have much money and it really helped.
Another commercial came up — I won’t say who it was — but it was a sh*tty commercial and it was a very big company and not a very gracious company, not a very positive company in my eyes. And it was a lot of money and we turned it down. And that happens plenty as well. And I’m usually the guy that’s saying no, or I’ll say yes too but I very heavily consider things.I think it’s important to assess each and every proposition.
Rock ‘n roll had this amazing period during from about ’70 to ’85 or ’90 or ’95 where musicians were making sh*t-piles of money. And suddenly this idea of selling out became into being. It was like “You’re a sellout for doing X, Y and Z.” What about Leonardo da Vinci? He only was f*cking commissioned. He was only selling out. And it was a great era of art. Now with musicians, we can sequester ourselves just to folk art and street busking, but in lieu of that, for a lot of musicians you rely a little bit on the beneficence of some sort of company. And you just hope that you try and the vet ’em and make sure they’re not that bad.
Do you envision something political or spiritually minded or current event-centered playing a central role in your own or in Edward Sharpe”s music this year?
You”re talking about lyrics maybe? I almost have a very sort of communist view just regarding myself on lyrics. I don’t like writing personal lyrics. I used to but I just find it irrelevant. And I find it irrelevant in part because of the copious amounts of that stuff that’s already out there — everything is “I love you like this,” personal love stories.
What there’s not a whole hell of a lot of is socially conscious lyrics and lyrics about life and death. And sort of broad scope philosophical stuff. So that’s the stuff I get more excited about and find more interesting and that’s why John Lennon is my favorite lyricist. Regarding politics, of on-the-ground tactile change, yes, I actually am working on some stuff, they’re just not musical.
Activism through the arts?
More activism, through the arts, they’re also sort of secret. Not secret, deliciously vague but they will be known. One is a great website thing and the other is sort of a gathering that me and some people are putting together. I think what this world needs — particularly this empire needs — is ideas. We just need f*cking ideas. Like activism is great and protesting is great and all that, we need ideas. And I think that that’s something that sort of lacking is great analysts of why sh*t is wrong, but there’s not a whole hell of a lot of new ideas like how to fix it, you know what I mean?