The birth of L.A.-based indie rock collective Edward Sharpe & the Magnetic Zeros, whose third album is out today, dates back to 2007. That's the year lead singer Alex Ebert ran into guitarist and singer Jade Castrinos and started chatting about music at Little Pedro's restaurant downtown.
But if you really want to know where it all began, credit Ebert's elementary school music teacher as a very early inspiration for the kind of exuberant, communal music-making that has become the Magnetic Zeros' specialty over the course of its three albums.
"This lady, a South African woman named Ruth, would come in with an acoustic guitar -- with a rainbow strap as I recall -- and sing and teach songs and we would all sing together," Ebert, 35, told me in the spring while putting finishing touches on a couple of the tracks on "Edward Sharpe & the Magnetic Zeros" at a Hollywood recording studio. "The general context was sort of folksy group sing-along stuff. We were usually singing in unison; I don't remember any harmonizing. Mostly it was the participatory aspect, and sometimes just banging on some things."
"Sometimes someone might be playing an instrument -- if you could convince her you could play one," Ebert said. "Christian [Letts], one of our two guitar players, and I went to the same elementary school. I had just learned the saxophone, and I'd had maybe two weeks of saxophone practice.
"We were doing a song for our school culmination, which comes at the end of the year, and the song Ruth had arranged for us was a variation on a blues theme. We had just gone on a camping trip, and she made up words like [singing a bluesy riff]: 'We went to the campground' dah dah-dah da dunt… 'It was a whole lotta fun' — dah dah-dah da dunt — We weren't allowed to eat candy' or whatever it was. It was hilarious.
"I must have been 10, and I said, 'You know what would be great? If the saxophone did the 'dah dah-dah- da dunt' part! And I volunteered myself to play it. I had got to where I could play it decently, and just before the show, I remembered thinking that the main key was I've gotta get his reed wet enough that it'll actually play, otherwise I'll just squeak.
"Anyway, it was getting down to it and we were there doing the performance," Ebert stopped, laughed, and then sighed, "Yeah, it didn't work. I squawked. Christian always likes to point out that I just kept going -- I didn't just stop. And I started laughing, and then all the parents were laughing, like it was a big hilarious thing."
That was an early example of Ebert's just-go-for-it attitude, which also surfaces on the new album, and which Ebert discusses in greater depth in a story that will appear in Calendar before the group's Aug. 4 headlining show at the Hollywood Bowl. Stay tuned. And don't forget to soak that reed.
Follow Randy Lewis on Twitter: @RandyLewis2