An epic Q&A with Alex Ebert on 'All Is Lost,' Golden Globes and Edward Sharpe
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.