Alex Ebert, a neo-hippie pop star, becomes a guru

“No matter what a rock star tells you, they’re all aware of the cult of personality,” said Alex Ebert, looking like a tenured musicology professor with his beige button-down shirt, shaggy beard and rimmed glasses. shell, while he was seated. between grand pianos and organs. “For many of them, this is their main occupation.”

Mr. Ebert, 43, would know. In 2009, founder of Los Angeles folk-rock band Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros led a 12-member troupe of neo-hippie troubadours into rock n’ roll satori with the seismic single “Home.”

Perhaps you’ve heard the exuberant refrain, “Home is wherever I am with you!” Or maybe you remember the choir’s almost revival hook, “Laugh until we think we’re gonna die, barefoot on a summer night, never could be sweeter than with you” , set in tune with accordions, trumpets and a Seven Dwarfs-style whistle.

The band went big overnight, hitting the late-night talk show circuit and leading giant songs at festivals, to adore fans with real flowers in their hair. “Home” was so successful it even appeared in commercials, including one for the NFL

The band cut four studio albums and toured for a decade. But that was not enough for Mr. Ebert.

“A few years ago I knew I was dying inside,” he said in a videoconference from his recording studio in New Orleans. “I told the band that I had to stop spinning. I just had to leave some space to jump.

He felt like he couldn’t take it anymore. “Verse, chorus, verse, chorus, bridge, chorus, ending,” he said. “How many times can you do this? How many times do I have to force myself to rhyme bed with head?

And now the pop star has taken a leap forward. A decade after his resounding musical success, he is aiming for an unlikely second act: the public intellectual.

Mr. Ebert, who takes private lessons in theoretical astrophysics from a former Massachusetts Institute of Technology instructor for fun, has produced a brain substack newsletter, Bad Guru. It explores, well, uh, how to define?

When asked for a whirlwind pitch on the subject of the newsletter, he launched into a few-minute exegesis on the “commodification of spiritualism” and “self-religion” that ticked off Descartes, Norman Vincent Peale , Galileo and Kellyanne Conway.

Broadly speaking, Bad Guru is a mixture of philosophy and cultural analysis, with a handful of self-help. Reading like a series of manifestos from a heavily caffeinated cultural omnivore, the newsletter takes aim at Silicon Valley empowerment mantras, for-profit spins on Eastern religion by wellness gurus and sugary promises from politicians. who deny reality.

“Does avoiding death kill life on earth? he asked in an essay called “A Void Dance” last June. Expanding on the familiar idea of ​​man as cancer on the planet, he noted how cancer cells avoid programmed cell death – apoptosis – and thereby kill the host, much like humans, who attempt to deny death by spending billions of dollars. plastic surgery, wellness products and private space rockets, all at a cost to Earth. “What a tremendous irony it would be if avoiding our mortality posed the gravest threat to our collective survival,” he wrote.

While unwavering in its opinions, Bad Guru eschews the hyper-partisanship and self-righteous vitriol seen on Twitter, and offers Mr. Ebert’s take on human madness from a distance, like a scientist peering into a petri dish.

He recognizes that he has his own philosophical contradictions to manage. “My ideology is more anarcho-communist than anything else,” he said of his political leanings. “But I’m also sitting here eating Whole Foods popcorn.”

Mr. Ebert owns a quaint Victorian home in the Bywater neighborhood of New Orleans. In 2014 he bought Piety Street Recording Studio, a studio in an abandoned post office next door where U2 and Arcade Fire recorded, for $750,000.

“New Orleans feels slightly removed from the capitalist bustle,” said Mr. Ebert, who moved to the city from his native Los Angeles in 2012. “The rungs of the ladder only go so high here, so you are forced to find other kinds of meaning in life.

Unlike some Substack writers who have turned their self-published missives into a source of subscription revenue, Mr. Ebert doesn’t charge Bad Guru, saying he’s “pretty much ready” financially for his music. “Otherwise people are going to be like, ‘What, this rich musician is going to charge me $10 a month?'” he said.

Mr. Ebert draws inspiration from other newsletters blending culture, technology and philosophy such as Astral Codex Ten, by Scott Alexander, the psychiatrist who ran the popular but controversial Silicon Valley blog, Slate Star Codex, and The Stoa, from The Stoa. writer and podcaster Peter Limberg. , follower of Stoic thought.

Its audience includes researchers, parlor philosophers, Big Tech skeptics and New Age types looking for meaning beyond the platitudes of the wellness industry, he said. Others are drawn to Instagram, where he posts heady photo carousels on topics like “the history of the spiritualization of capitalism.” And some, he acknowledged, are Edward Sharpe fans who are “just putting up with me for now and waiting for more music”.

“We are in a time when what some call ‘making sense’ has become a cumbersome and ambiguous business,” said writer Daniel Pinchbeck, an admirer of Bad Guru. “We need more people like Alex to use their voice and their intellect to define a level of coherence that goes beyond the current dichotomies of left and right, spiritual or atheist.”

A year later, Bad Guru’s audience is still small but growing; the most popular essays attract around 5,000 views on Substack.

But again, profit is not the point. Mr Ebert had been writing for years – the name “Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros” is taken from an unfinished novel he wrote in his early twenties (the “magnetic zeros” themselves were a phrase from a theory mathematics he devised). Lockdown 2020 finally gave him the opportunity to cut out the distractions of the music industry and focus on the ideas themselves, not trying to cram them into song lyrics and come up with a stage concept that will turn heads that will work on Colbert.

“I have never felt more alive than I do now,” he said. “For years I kept all my intellectual pursuits private. I was afraid to let my ideas speak, without the showcases of melody or flash and spectacle.

His intellectual tendencies have brought him into delicate situations. In 2014, for example, he won the Golden Globe for Best Original Score for Robert Redford’s sailing film “All Is Lost.” After the ceremony, he found himself chatting with Mr. Redford and Bono when the former said, “You know who really understands silence? That Guy,” in reference to Mr. Ebert’s haunting soundtrack.

“Immediately I jump into this theory of interstitial space in poetry, the negation between objects and Eisenstein’s theory of montage,” he says. “They just sort of looked at me. I realized that I didn’t understand the silence.

His obsessions themselves are obsessions, so much so that he recently asked his sister, Gaby Ebert, who is a psychotherapist, if he could be diagnosed with narcissism or another condition.

“If there’s anyone on the planet who would want to shoot me – in a sisterly way – it’s her,” he said. But to my surprise, she said, ‘No, Alex, you’re just different. You get excited starting over.

That doesn’t mean he’s given up on music. Mr Ebert released a solo album, “I vs I”, in 2020, and has two more in the works. And he’s proud of his band’s heritage.

“People are getting married at ‘Home’,” he said. “It was the soundtrack to people’s lives. Every time someone approached me on the street, their overt expression is “thank you.” It’s nice to think that I’ve helped make life more magical for people.

But Mr. Ebert never wanted this moment to last. Nothing works. Nothing should. “The magnetic zeros were really no fun when they were done, because they died,” he said. “The completions themselves are deaths.”

Having killed off this character, Mr. Ebert has little interest in forging a new one.

“If the Bad Guru thing accidentally ends up in a personality cult,” he said, “I’ll burn it too.”

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