A 1,500-foot-long vintage streamlined 1948 California Zephyr train. Two weeks. Three bands with their own unique sounds, riding the rails. Jamming, recording, playing a concert here and there.
That was the idea behind the Railroad Revival Tour. Last spring, Los Angeles indie collective Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros, London folk group Mumford & Sons and Nashville bluegrass ensemble Old Crow Medicine Show embarked on a trek from Oakland through the Southwest and Texas, before coming to an end in New Orleans.
As the members of the three bands mingled, their bonding was recorded for a now-critically lauded documentary, Big Easy Express, which was first screened at this year’s South By Southwest music, film and technology festival. The bands were also inspired musically as they began work on new albums. The first of these is Edward Sharpe’s Here, which will be released May 29. Fans of the band will get a preview of the album at Wednesday’s show at the Fox Theater in Oakland.
“Getting to do what you love for 24 hours a day with amazing people – to have that be your job for two weeks – is such an experience,” Edward Sharpe accordionist and backup vocalist Nora Kirkpatrick said in a recent phone conversation from Los Angeles, where the band was in the midst of rehearsing for its tour. “We felt a sense of responsibility and thought, ‘We’d better be writing some music; we’d better be making the most of this so we could show it to people.’ It was probably the best time of my life.”
There is no Edward Sharpe in the Magnetic Zeros. The persona is the creation of vocalist and bandleader Alex Ebert. He formed the band after meeting vocalist Jade Castrinos in 2009 during a transitional phase in his life, after breaking up with a girlfriend. Kirkpatrick joined after meeting Ebert and Castrinos through mutual friends at Burning Man that year.
“I had just graduated from UCLA and figuring out what it was to be on my own in this world,” she said.
The rest of the lineup includes trumpet player Stewart Cole, guitarist Christian Letts, drummer Josh Collazo, percussionist Orpheo McCord, bassist Seth Ford-Young, and the two newest band members: Guitarist Mark Noseworthy and keyboard player Aaron Arntz.
Edward Sharpe released its first album, Up From Below, that same year. Buoyed by surprise hit “Home,” the album climbed to No. 76 on the Billboard 200 chart. The song was covered many times over, including the charming take by a man and his daughter that became a YouTube smash that was later turned into a car commercial.
“The great thing about that song is that everyone who hears it is thinking of their own story,” Kirkpatrick said. “It’s a story about friendship, and it’s a story about love. Be it a father and a daughter, or two best friends, or lovers, it can be so many things. That’s what makes it a great song. Wherever you feel great is where your home is.”
It was Ebert who got the idea of a train tour, although the documentary was a collective idea, according to Letts and Cole. Director Emmett Malloy and a small film crew rode along with the bands.
“They didn’t make their own experience; they filmed us and tried to make a narrative,” said Kirkpatrick, who has plenty of experience in front of the camera. As an actress, she has played roles varied from a regular stint on “Greek,” to an appearance opposite Laurence Fishburne on “CSI: Crime Scene Investigation.”
“A lot of artists have the urge to express themselves in different mediums, so I think it’s great for people to embrace that as opposed to shutting themselves off in one corner,” Kirkpatrick said. “It enriches your life if you are always trying to make something.”
When it came time to record a follow-up album, the folk and roots elements of Mumford & Sons and Old Crow Medicine Show seeped into Edward Sharpe’s musical vocabulary. The band went in to the studio with new instruments such as organs and an Ominichord and recorded 40 songs. Yet only nine songs made it on to Here.
“We were thinking of doing a double album, but we felt we didn’t want to rush and some of them are not done, so we are going to release some of them later in the year,” Kirkpatrick said.
The nine songs on Here are a more somber collection than the debut album. While the album builds, there is not euphoric crescendo like “Home.” The overriding theme is religion, a topic in “Dear Believer,” “Child,” “That’s What’s Up” and “I Don’t Want to Pray.”
“There are a lot of questions posed by us to challenge our own beliefs,” Kirkpatrick said. “We broke the songs out that way on purpose,” she said. “(Here is) a little more mellow, and the second (album will be) more upbeat and raucous.”