Edward Sharpe's Alex Ebert on His 'Dumbo'-Inspired Big Top Dream

The bandleader talks to THR on the eve of the four-day music and food festival that he and his fellow Magnetic Zeros helped curate.
Kyleen James

“The Ferris wheel is coming!”

Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros frontman Alex Ebert is reassuring himself as much as he’s boasting about the second most visible attraction of the inaugural Big Top festival. Front and center is the actual big top -- a traditional circus tent complete with sawdust and bold primary colors -- under which the 12-member band will perform on a rotating stage.

Outside on the grounds of Los Angeles Historic State Park, food vendors, magicians and performers of all stripes will entertain the hundreds expected to show, bringing to life a dream Ebert has been mulling since founding his band in 2007. Now 35, it turns out Ebert attended an actual circus for the first time only a couple years ago.

“My primary relationship with the circus is through Dumbo,” he explains to The Hollywood Reporter on Big Top eve, acknowledging that, while one of the saddest animated movies of all-time, it was also “the best -- Dumbo had a major impact on me.”

PHOTOS: Mumford & Sons at The Hollywood Bowl

The idea for the four-day fest, which Ebert and Co. curated, falls in line with the classic big top trope. “The idea is to come into a town and simmer a bit,” says Ebert. “To hang out and eat lunch and play piano randomly in a saloon and then meet the families and see the shows. Then say sayonara and get on your camel and ride.”

Indeed, there will be plenty to see and hear at the Big Top -- although no animals -- where more than 25 bands are slated to appear. Among them: such under-the-radar acts as Torque Method, Fool’s Gold and Henry Wolfe. The criteria for bookings, says Ebert, was straightforward: they needed to be local, have previously played on a bill with Sharpe or “have a similar emotional and spiritual availability” to the concept of “the ideal music troupe experience.”

That includes the in-the-round performance Sharpe and crew have devised. On the night THR visited the band’s dress rehearsal (see photo below), they were testing out a stellar cover of Paul Simon’s “Graceland” as the players all faced each other (another cover planned: Nina Simone's "Ain't Got No"). “It may seem a bit exclusionary -- having our backs to the audience -- but for us to be able to face each other and also for the audience to catch every member's face as they turn around. ... It's fun.”

You could say Edward Sharpe, perhaps more than any other current band, has made untraditional venues a staple of its tours. “As much as we could,” Ebert half-apologizes – though there’s no need; the band has staged shows inside a train and in the London tunnels.  Although, if Ebert had his druthers, he adds, “I would play no place -- just parking lots and parks and houses and rooftops and do it very DIY.”

STORY: Live Nation to Offer Locally Grown Foods

On the other hand, Ebert also has grand plans for his Big Top run, including a DVD or film to document the event and, hopefully down the road, creating “an entire town with its own money and commerce, with animals everywhere and people camping. A highly immersive collaborative experience.”

Ambitious much? Or just a big dreamer. If you’re Alex Ebert, likely a little bit of both. "This is supposed to be a traveling thing at some point," he adds. 

But first things first: now that the tent is erected, freak show posters are positioned and vendors are taking their places -- all of which is being filmed for a future DVD release -- it's about appreciating what's directly in front of you.

"I'm blown away that we're doing this," says Ebert, who credits Zeros manager Bryan Ling for seeing the project through. "It's a huge undertaking and [takes] a lot of force of will. Because you don't have to do this. It's not a terribly big money maker, so why do it? The reason is to create a sense of being alive."

Twitter: @shirleyhalperin