Just a few days before Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros descend on the Boulder Theater, the band will be making an appearance at Austin’s South By Southwest festival to promote Big Easy Express, a new film directed by Emmett Malloy covering the troupe’s tour-by-rail excursion last May with Mumford & Sons and Old Crow Medicine Show.
Stitched together between rolling panoramas of barren, Southwest vistas are live performances of the bands working rapturous nighttime audiences and elbowing their way through impromptu throw-down jam sessions in the train cars themselves.
The whole event was called the Railroad Revival Tour. Rail travel as such isn’t likely to get revived by pop bands anytime soon, unfortunately. But even if revivalism of one sort or another is at least a subtext for the Mag Zeros and their buoyant, post-hippy reveries, the rail experience was something of a revelation for Nora Kirkpatrick, the band’s Iowa-bred accordionist/vocalist.
“Most bands, us included, for years have been doing the normal touring thing, where you’re on the bus and driving around and doing shows in theaters,” she explains. “We kind of wanted to try something else.
“So the three bands got together and rented out this train with 15 vintage cars for a week and a half. We started out in Oakland, Calif., and ended up in New Orleans, and we played six or seven shows along the way. We’d pull up to a station and the people who went before us built a giant stage. It was quite the caravan. We had a car set up for jamming and after the shows we’d just go back and keep playing. It was probably the most fun I’ve ever had as a musician.
“We mostly played major cities along the way … but in between, we were always late,” she laughs. “Because the train was so slow.
“But we had the windows down in the jamming car and we saw the countryside like we’ve never seen it before. I think it’s because the train tracks are so far removed from urban life.”
Kirkpatrick says the effect on the band’s performance was liberating.
“The bus is just such an uncohesive environment for creativity, because you’re so squished together, you can’t move. You just feel like you’re in a rolling prison, in a way. But the train was just so expansive — it took 40 minutes to walk from one end to the other. Plus you really get to feel the land as you’re rolling along, in a much different way than you do on a freeway.”
A UCLA graduate, Kirkpatrick moved to Los Angeles about 10 years ago and, in addition to her role in the band, is also known for a number of TV and film appearances (CSI, John From Cincinnati, Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen) as an actress. Deftly sidestepping the question of whether she was an actor moonlighting as a squeezebox goddess, or the other way around, she pointed out that the Magnetic Zeros, formed in L.A. a few years ago by musician/songwriter Alex Ebert and comprising anywhere from 10 to 12 players at any given time, is as much a collective as it is a band, drawn from players who almost all have their hands in something else.
“Most of us have other interests that we love,” she says. “Christian [Letts], our guitar player, is an amazing painter. Josh [Collazo] does jazz drumming. And I think that’s one of the great things about this band. … Everyone’s supportive of having multiple media interests, and expressing themselves through different mediums.”
The band’s sophomore full length CD is due out in May of this year, following up on the improbable success of their infectious and shamelessly retro-evocative 2009 debut Up From Below. Kirkpatrick says it should be worth the wait.
“We recorded 40 songs [for the CD], so I think we’ll have another CD out soon with songs that didn’t make it on this. … There are a lot of different genres and lots of different ideas, but they all have kind of an over-arching sound. It’s very eclectic. There are some that are just bangers, that make you want to dance all night long, and some are almost like classical music. … So there’s a lot going on there. It’s really beautiful.”