“Whatever a rock star tells you, they’re all aware of the cult of personality,” said Alex Ebert, sitting down looking like a tenured professor of musicology in his brown button-down shirt, shaggy beard and horn-rimmed glasses. between wings and organs. “For many of them, that is their main occupation.”
Mr Ebert, 43, would know. In 2009, Los Angeles folk-rock band founder Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros led a 12-piece group of neo-hippie troubadours to rock n’ roll satori with the seismic single “Home.”
You may have heard the lavish chorus, “Home is wherever I am with you!” Or maybe you remember the near-revival chorus hook, “Laugh ’til we think we’ll die, barefoot on a summer night, can never be sweeter than with you,” set to accordions, trumpets, and seven dwarf-esque whistles.
The band went big overnight, tapping the late night talk show circuit and leading huge sing-alongs at festivals, to adoring fans with real flowers in their hair. “Home” was such a runaway hit that it even popped up in commercials, including one for the NFL
The band recorded four studio albums and toured for ten years. But it wasn’t enough for Mr. Ebert.
“A few years ago, I knew I was going to die inside,” he said during a video conference call from his recording studio in New Orleans. “I told the band I had to stop touring. I just had to leave some room to jump.”
He felt like he couldn’t take it anymore. “Verse, chorus, verse, chorus, bridge, chorus, off,” he said. “How often can you do that? How often do I have to force myself to rhyme bed with head?”
And now the pop star has indeed taken a leap. A decade after his breakthrough musical success, he is aiming for an unlikely second act: public intellectual.
“Does avoiding death kill life on Earth?”
Mr. Ebert, who for fun takes private lessons in theoretical astrophysics from a former Massachusetts Institute of Technology instructor, has created a cerebral Substack newsletter, Bad Guru. It explores, well, how to define?
When asked for an “elevator pitch” about the newsletter’s focus, he launched a minute-long exegesis on the “commodification of spiritualism” and “the religion of the self” that Descartes, Norman Vincent Peale, Galileo and Kellyanne called Conway.
In general, Bad Guru is a mix of philosophy and cultural analysis, with a bit of self-help. The newsletter, which reads like a series of manifestos from a highly caffeinated cultural omnivore, focuses on Silicon Valley self-empowerment mantras, profit-driven spins on Eastern religion by wellness gurus, and sugar-heavy promises from politicians who deny reality.
“Does avoiding death kill life on Earth?” he asked in an essay called “A Void Dance” last June. Building on the well-known idea of the human-as-cancer-on-the-planet, he noted how cancer cells avoid programmed cell death – apoptosis – and thereby kill the host, much like humans, who try to deny death by expending trillions. give to plastic surgery, wellness products, and private space rockets, all at a price to Earth. “What a tremendous irony it would be if avoiding our mortality were the greatest threat to our collective survival,” he wrote.
While unwavering in his views, Bad Guru steers clear of the hyper-partisanship and self-righteous vitriol seen on Twitter, offering Mr. Ebert’s view of human folly from a distance, like a scientist peering into a petri dish.
He recognizes that he has his own philosophical contradictions to deal with. “My ideology is more anarcho-communist than anything,” he said of his political leanings. “But I’m also 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 somewhat removed from the capitalist hustle and bustle,” says 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’re forced to have other kinds of meaning in life.”
Unlike some Substack writers who have turned their self-published letters into a source of subscription revenue, Mr. Ebert will not charge Bad Guru because he says he is “almost done” financially with his music. “Otherwise people will say, ‘What, this rich musician is going to charge me $10 a month?'” he said.
Mr. Ebert takes inspiration from other newsletters that combine 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, by the author and podcaster Peter Limberg, a follower of Stoic thought.
His audience includes seekers, armchair philosophers, Big Tech skeptics and New Age types seeking meaning beyond the platitudes of the wellness industry, he said. Others are lured in via Instagram, where he posts intoxicating photo carousels on topics like “the story of capitalism’s spiritualization.” And some, he admitted, are Edward Sharpe fans who “just agree with me for now and wait for more music.”
“We are in a time when what some call ‘sense-making’ has become a fraught, ambiguous undertaking,” said writer Daniel Pinchbeck, an admirer of Bad Guru. “We need more people like Alex who use their voices and intellect to define a level of coherence 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 about 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” was taken from an unfinished novel he was writing when he was in his early twenties (the “magnetic zeros” themselves were an expression from a mathematical theory he wrote). suspicious). The close of 2020 finally gave him a chance to cut distractions from the music industry and focus on the ideas themselves, without cramming them into lyrics and coming up with a groundbreaking stage concept that will work at Colbert.
“I’ve never felt so alive as I do now,” he said. “For years I kept all my intellectual pursuits private. I was afraid to let my ideas speak, without the window dressing of melody or flash and spectacle.”
“Completions themselves are deaths.”
His intellectual tendencies have taken him into difficult places. In 2014 he won a Golden Globe for best original score for the Robert Redford sailing film ‘All Is Lost’. After the ceremony, he found himself chatting with Mr. Redford and Bono when the former declared, “You know who really understands silence? This guy,” referring to Mr. Ebert’s haunting, sparse soundtrack.
“I immediately launch this theory about interstitial space in poetry, the negation between objects and Eisenstein’s theory of montage,” he said. “They just kind of looked at me. I realized I don’t understand silence.”
His obsessions themselves are obsessions, to the point that he recently asked his sister, Gaby Ebert, who is a psychotherapist, if he might have been diagnosed with narcissism or some other condition.
“If there’s anyone on the planet who would take a potshot at 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 by starting over.”
This is not to say that he has left music. mr. Ebert released a solo album, “I vs I”, in 2020 and two more are in the works. And he is proud of his band’s legacy.
“People marry ‘Home’,” he said. “It’s the soundtrack to people’s lives. Every time someone has come up to me on the street, their overt expression is “thank you.” It’s nice to think I’ve contributed to making life more magical for people.”
But Mr. Ebert never intended that moment to last long. Does nothing. Nothing should. “The Magnetic Zeros was really no fun once it was completed because it’s dead,” he said. “Completions themselves are deaths.”
After killing that persona, Mr. Ebert shows little interest in forging a new one.
“If the Bad Guru stuff accidentally ends up with some personality cult,” he said, “I’ll burn that too.”