EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW: Edward Sharpe & The Magnetic Zeros Songwriter Alex Ebert Talks Scoring J.C. Chandor's 2014 Movie 'A Most Violent Year,' Balancing Music Career With Film Composing, And More!
Alex Ebert is probably most known as the principle songwriter and front man of Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros, but he's already an acclaimed film composer thanks to his first venture into the industry with director J. C. Chandor's 2013 movie, All is Lost. Along with a number of solo and collaborative projects in the works, we can assume Ebert is easily one of the busiest musicians out there. Luckily for us, he had some time to talk about his score and soundtrack for Chandor's 2014 crime drama A Most Violent Year.
In our new exclusive interview with Ebert, we've learned that his new musical path into composing for film is a continuation of his overall expedition of songwriting. Alex explores the extent of his talents, pushing more and more into his avant-garde influences to create a bigger picture for the projects he dives into. In A Most Violent Year, we hear the next step in Ebert's journey with music.
How did you get into film composing? Was this a goal of yours, or did it just kind of happen for you?
No, it wasn't a first goal. I had considered it, but I've always been into movies and I've written screenplays and what not, and some shorts. It was an exciting process. As soon as I got the call I was all about it. Especially that first movie [All is Lost], it was so insanely perfect, just a man out at sea, alone. What could be better?
How would you compare/contrast your approaches to All is Lost and A Most Violent Year?
Sort of the same approach in the sense that you just kind of ask what the movie wants. Obviously, there was a much broader and more empty canvas for All is Lost, but this one had a lot of dialogue. So it's about fitting in and somehow making the movie sort of speak out more and speak emotionally, where it's a lot of topical, plot based dialogue. But there are underlying reasons for the existence of the movie itself and to sort of really bring out the character study element of the movie as opposed to just go along with the plot. Trying to bring out the subtext and the context.
How much creative freedom did you have on A Most Violent Year?
Maybe even too much. I tried everything. I wanted it to be a sort of avant-garde, weird sort of jazz score. I've scored all kinds of avenues before, finally sort of realizing that the most powerful stuff was the stuff that really brought us into the meditation of Abel - Abel Morales [Oscar Isaac], the main character - who's sort of trancelike fixated on growing bigger, as he says.
What kind of balance are you looking for between your film composing and Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros work?
Well, I think in all of my artistic life I just want to do whatever is the most inspiring stuff. There were plenty of times where I've not followed that rule and sort of kicked myself for it. I'm ideally only doing movies that I think are interesting and going to be, at the very least ... the intention would be there, to make it elevated to the poetic realms and I feel the same way about my music with the band and myself. Just, you know you get in ruts and what not. I think the goal is always go and hit those highs. If anything I feel like I'm getting better and better and detecting what of my output is bullshit and what of it is poetry. The better I get at detecting that, the wiser I get, and I think the better I get at making things.
Should fans of your work outside of film composing expect any influence from that world bleeding into your recording career?
No, I don't necessarily feel that, but I do feel personally like the horizon has broadened a little bit in regards of what I feel I can include and not have to feel like it's coming out of leftfield. And as I get older and care less and less about what other people like my peers are doing, and get sort of more and more into just the art itself, I think the more I'm generally allowing myself to do what the song wants, as opposed to manicure it according to a certain set of tastes that I am aware of through osmosis, culturally speaking, what is cool and what is alright. And I think that also comes from a certain degree of success. There's a liberating quality to it actually, as far as I'm finding, as opposed to what you sort of tend to hear, which is if you succeed really well at something, suddenly you feel this pressure to repeat the successes, and that can be very confining and why artists can become redundant. But somehow I'm finding it to be the opposite. Maybe that's because I haven't had great pop commercial success and radio or a weird form of that, but it really does live by a certain code. It's been more a cultural success in a way, not even critical success. So, in the sense, that's given me a lot of liberty.
You also provided the music for the animated short Feast. What was working on an animated short like as opposed to the other films you worked on?
Well first of all, it was Disney, so you sort of realize Disney is an artist. Disney, it's not like MGM where they put out a variety of what they do, but it's like you're always grading Disney. And anyway, so that was sort of fun to be a part of that standard that they strive for. To that end it was different in the sense that they used temp music to edit to, whereas J.C. tends to not do that and let me sort of just invent, they were using very meticulously chosen temp music. So the job then is to somehow create something totally new, but at least relative to that and yet hit the marks and the emotions they were going for in the temp music. It's a very strange, different job. But I actually in the end found it to be very enlightening because I had to work within the guidelines and boundaries of certain parameters. I was given the goal as opposed to being told. So it was almost like being charged with a duty, a very particular duty and it was an achievement to me to be able to land at the right place. And I love that stuff; I love the pieces that ended up in there. They're sort of Mancini-esque to me and that's something I had never really done before, but loved!
In terms of film scoring, what's your favorite instrument to write music for?
Yes. The alto flute. I love the alto flute! It's just my go to ... I find almost any piece of music incomplete without a little bit of alto flute in it. It sounds funny. It was cool because I discovered it on All is Lost. I was considering the oboe, but to me the oboe belongs to something more phony or something, it's very particular and suddenly my score didn't sound like my score, it sounded odd. Actually it was thanks to J.C. because he basically declined piano, period. When anyone plays the piano his mind is dragged to thinking about who is playing the piano and he finds it distracting, which kind of crushed me at the time because I had written all this stuff on the piano for All is Lost. So anyway, I started looking around for other instruments and I fell upon the alto flute and it was just, oh my god, it was perfect! It was cool how that all happened.
Do you have any advice for anyone trying to get into mostly the film scoring side of your life, of that industry?
Become famous as a pop musician and then hope that someone notices you. I'm totally saying that in jest, but not really because that is sort of my experience. I've talked to composers who are strictly composers and apparently it's very, very difficult to get into and in some cases you have to do a lot of understudying, where you work for a working composer and do a lot of their grunt work and come up through the ranks so to speak. I mean it's apparently very tough.
My advice for anyone in the arts, in some ways, is to do it yourself as much as possible. What I mean by that is, if you're an actor, write plays, write monologues, write a script, try and emanate the art and start it and instigate the art as opposed to waiting around for someone else to come and hire you. So if you're a composer, make a music video or a music composition. Display your powers in your own venues and to your own liking as much as possible, as much as you can afford to, or gather the resources to because I think that in all walks of art, it's important in the sense that you're not waiting around for someone else to notice you, but you're taking matters into your own hands and being a creative person.
Do you have any projects that you're working on now or you're going to be working on in the near future?
I got some albums that I'm making. One with the band with Edward Sharpe, another couple with myself and whoever I wrangle. And talking to some people about some movies, but nothing solid yet.
For more information about Alex Ebert and his music, check out his official website right here!