MEN IN THE MIRROR Avett Brothers

With the Avetts
wrapping up their summer U.S. tour this week, we dig back into the BLURT
archives for this interview, originally the cover story of issue #8, fall 2009.

 

BY A.D. AMOROSI

 

Braggadocio is the realm of rappers. Hubris is for metal
mavens. No audience or critic would deny these sorts of artists any brand of
excessive pride. Conviction is but a byproduct of audacity.  No one gets out of the basement otherwise.

 

North Carolina’s
Avett Brothers surely got out of their cellar based on the poetic strengths of
their subtly catchy melodies, their richly burnished lyrics and their
occasional bouts of angel-wing laced harmonies. Their dominion, though old
time-y and bluegrass-based from the Avett Brothers’ band name start (we’ll get
to Nemo, their first group, later), has sprung to include a brand of contagious
art pop that’d curl the hair on a Raspberry or a Sparks. It’s an elegant and elegiac sort of
country music (not cosmopolitan country a
la
Buck Owens) that kicks cleanly with the zeal of the very best pop. Their
lyrical view of romance, ruined and giddy, has a sense of delirious abstraction
that doesn’t find itself shying from its connection with listeners.

 

Not since the hitmaking ‘60s of Dylan and Buffalo
Springfield have we witnessed the kind of country-fried combination plate’s
bounty that the Avetts have delivered, first on 2002’s long-playing debut Country Was and next-to-last on 2007’s Emotionalism. Maybe it’s just that Scott
and Seth Avett and Bob Crawford sell the A-Bros sound so well with their
sweet-and-sour vocals to say nothing (yet) of their boyish good looks and thick
locks.

 

Their road-tested new CD I
and Love and You
finds them moving from the comfortable boutique label,
Ramseur Records, to Rick Rubin’s Columbia
(and his knob-twiddling as part of the deal) with but an added layer of
maturity and melody added to the mix. It’s the Avetts’ best, only more so-Emotionalism‘s slightly older, barely
wiser brethren. The doubt-riddling of “The Perfect Space,” the love rhythm of
“Kick Drum Heart,” the troubled desire of “January Wedding”; these are
sumptuous moments of song that could be classics if only you’d let them be.

 

If you were them, you’d like yourself a lot more than you
do.

 

Then again, Scott Avett likes himself enough for several of
us combined.

 

“Growing up,” says the Concord,
NC (30 minutes north of Charlotte), native, “I was always ambitious
to get attention, to get in the limelight, to hit the stage and get somebody to
hear me and see me. When I was a kid, I remember staring into the mirror
thinking everyone was watching me attentively following my every move.”

 

Scott’s younger brother seconds that devotion. “We’ve always
carried ourselves as if we were being watched,” says Seth, with a laugh.

 

Having witnessed the Avetts in concert several times in the
last six years, “watched” is what they get-by slinky women salivating over them
and tousled-mop men singing their songs as if they’d known them their whole
lives.

 

“We get fans one a time and they stick with us forever” says
Dolph Ramseur, their easy going manager and CEO of Concord-based Ramseur
Records.

 

But it’s at an alternative radio conference in Philadelphia where the
boys seem to have their deepest connection. Spying the A-Bros at that private
event in July, I can proudly and weirdly announce that there was nothing like
watching forty-or-so forty-or-older types turned into puddles when the Avetts
passed them by. “They do have that effect,” laughs Ramseur. “And they know it.”

 

This is not to say, in regard to our subjects Scott and Seth
Avett, that theirs is a purely boastful existence where combing their hair and
staring into a mirror is an exercise in conceit. And they do have nice hair.

 

Seth reveals something about what they saw (in themselves)
as a failing of their past before continuing on the golden path that was the
critically acclaimed Emotionalism,
their increasingly-crowded live events, prime opening gigs (like this summer’s
tour slot with the Dave Matthews Band) and the hopefulness surrounding the
impact of I and Love and You. “I
think we overestimated ourselves when we were younger, but, confidence, whether
it was warranted or not, has always been our strong suit.”

 

That strong suit isn’t such a bad fit when you try the Avetts
on for size.

 

***

 

You wouldn’t guess that in 2009 the cell phone connection
from the Mulberry Mountain Harvest Music Festival in the hills of Arkansas would be
lacking like it was last year. Yet it is. “Let me just get to the bathroom,”
says Scott. “The reception’s better there.”

The older Avett has a voice a wee deeper than his sibling, the
ganglier of the two, and the one whose gentle North Carolinian drawl is just
slightly more pronounced. While Scott calls himself the more coldhearted of the
Avett boys-the one who dressed the “genuinely sweetheart-ed, sensitive” Seth up
in pillow cases and used him as a punching bag-Seth views the early years of
brotherhood differently.

 

“While I can definitely see where Scott thinks that of our
personalities, I do believe we trade places in the sweet ‘n’ sour department,”
says Seth.

 

So Seth Avett is a bigger asshole than his big brother led
me to believe?

“No question,” Seth says, with a big laugh.

 

“And yes, when we got older we beat up on Bob [Crawford,
stand up bassist] and everyone else who joined the band,” jokes Scott.

 

The jokes come easy. There’s nothing wary or guarded about
these guys, what with just being handed a few skeleton keys to the castle that
is the major label system. They’re not stultified by label jazz. The majors, in
their estimation, are slower to move than the lean mean mobile intelligent unit
of Ramseur, their home for five albums and two EPs. Ramseur’s like concrete-slow
to dry, yet heavy and powerful.

 

The majors merely mean greater access and more confidence in
what they do.

 

Confidence; they were raised to have it in spades by a
guitar-slinging pop that put his music career on hold to raise his family and
kept everything from Three Dog Night and Oak Ridge Boys to Tom T. Hall and Willie
Nelson on the 8-track just in case the kids were listening.

 

They were.

 

“Which led to Lionel Richie and Hall & Oates,” notes
Scott, the guitarist who turned, in part, to the banjo, for a sense of
individuality in musicianship.

 

“And I fell in love with Jimmy Page and then Kurt Cobain,”
says Seth, the guitarist. “There’s a lot of heart in Cobain’s playing.”

The rock and roll boot camp that was Led Zeppelin and the Who, to say nothing
of the crusty grunge of Soundgarden and Nirvana-these sounds were about
breaking free from what were the conventions of their background, the Jimmie
Rogers, Charlie Poole and country plucking blues and bluegrass of their
regional upbringing. The rebellion of their youth kicked in.

 

“I was quote/unquote ‘too
cool’
for country; too stubborn and ignorant to get it,” says Scott Avett
with emphasis.

 

The brothers eschewed that past for the immediacy of
grunge-pop (“it was just… there”) with a hard psychedelic kick for their five
man morass, Nemo.

 

To understand where the Avetts are at present, to truly get
the snap and crackle of I and Love and
You
, is to know what Nemo was in 1997 and ‘98. Rambunctious hollered-aloud
grunge-pop without a hint of the hillbilly about it, the brothers and their bud
John Twomey thought they were onto something potent with Nemo. They toured
their native North Carolina with a sugar rush
and got somewhere, if only in North
Carolina.

 

“We all wanted to be that band-you know-but we just didn’t understand what it took to be famous,” says
Scott Avett. They wanted to get far but just never drove far. “Nemo stayed in North Carolina and
played shows that came to us.”

 

There was hurt and shame, then, that Nemo didn’t tread
water. Yet, there’s plenty more where that came from. In Scott Avett’s
estimation a song on the new album such as “Perfect Space” could’ve been a Nemo
track if the Avetts switched out its now-down pianos for Nemo’s two
guitar-attack. “More than on our last two records, I and Love and You absolutely has Nemo in its sound,” notes Scott. The
dynamic of taking a hard left turn in the middle of a song like the Avetts do
through their new material? “Very Nemo,” he confirms.

 

Still, the disappointment felt from Nemo’s dashed dreams
sent the brothers to stripping down their sound, but for the moment, in what
would be called the Back Door sessions. Yet before we head to the back door,
there’s another previous Avetts-band in the mix too on IALAY: their Crazy Horse-like outfit Oh What a Nightmare, who made
a few demos throughout the North
Carolina area.

 

“As Nemo ended and the push toward the acoustic thing became
a priority we still wanted to express ourselves with electric instruments,”
says Scott, of a band whose raggedy rocking impulses can still be heard
throughout the Avetts’ new catalog. Scott points out how a Nightmare moment
such as “Sweet Green Eyes” was and is clearly a predecessor of “A Slight Figure
of Speech” and the new album’s swing toward fiftiesish rock ‘n’ roll. “We
haven’t seen the last of Oh What a Nightmare,” laughs Scott. “We’re pretty
predictable in our recycling.”

 

Seth is pragmatic about their 2000-era end to their rock-outs.
Nemo didn’t work out. Nightmare was an experiment.  They were hurt. But both brothers were glad
that there was an actual ending. “It was like breaking up with your high school
sweetheart,” he says.  It meant they
could (or should) move forward. Or backward.

 

The rebellion of growing up in the country and with the
country kept them from their homespun roots at first. But they found their way
into bluegrass and country pretty quick. They did scads of classic covers while
simplifying their own material to include deeper more personalized lyrics. They
added new textures-like Scott taking up the banjo.

 

“It was meant as ironic at first, the banjo,” says Scott.
“But then I loved it. It was loud. It was pointed. It was rambunctious. It felt
natural.”

Seth quickly adds that it opened him up as an acoustic guitarist as well as
flung their songwriting into directions as adventurous as Nemo had. “We’d been
banging our heads together to make an impact on two guitars that you could
continue to keep stripped down,” says Seth. “We found it in 2000.” Bringing in
standup bassist Bob Crawford and hooking up with ex-tennis pro-turned-label guy
Dolph Ramseur helped too.

 

Their mix of the two forms-the classic and the original-came
when they started writing songs for what became their “Pretty Girl From…”
series.  Scott teases about how 2002’s
“Pretty Girl From Matthews” started of as a song for a specific love interest
that he was too discrete and gentlemanly to discuss by name. “We were also
interested in how Jimmie Rogers and the Blue Yodels or Hank Williams-each who
used the series song form in old time country stuff-got away with it.”

Away they went.

 

The Back Door sessions that started out of frustration (“Our
songwriting wasn’t going anywhere save for the practice space so we brought the
audience to us,” notes Seth) grew in terms of attendance and attention from all
audiences in the Concord-Charlotte area. But they needed a kick in the bottom
end of their immense (at first) quietude of sound as well as the business end
that Crawford and Ramseur brought, musically and financially. Crawford met them
in a parking lot, commenced a quickie rehearsal that featured “Pretty Girl from
Matthews” and the next thing they knew they were getting booked around the
country. (Eventually cello player Joe Kwon was brought into the fold as well;
though not a full-fledged Avetts Brother, he’s regularly featured on their
recordings and in concert.)

 

“I remember my mom saw an ad for the Avett guys in the paper
and told me I should go see them,” says Ramseur softly. “But I never really
went for bluegrass. A little goes a long way if you know what I mean.” Yet,
sprinkled amongst their mostly country-covers set (“60 % or thereabouts”) was
plenty of brisk, brusque original cuts. “The bluegrass stuff is something
audiences really loved,” Ramseur continues. “But the 40% original material is
what audiences connected to right off the bat-their songs and their charisma.”

 

This brings us back to the mirror and the idea that all good
things Avett would come to them.

 

Before Crawford and Ramseur the Avetts were gathering
songwriting chops and stripped-down arranging skills but never had the drive in
which to move forward. “Seth and I-everything had come to us,” claims Scott.
“We were spoiled, to a point-confident and comfortable. We really thought that
if we stood on our corner somebody would hear us. Eventually they may have, or
maybe not.”

 

Scott’s narcissistic reveal about the looking glass and the
idea of audiences coming to him and gawking while he and his brother did the
most mundane things (“I used to imagine a thousand people watching while I
brushed my teeth,” he laughed) isn’t just a form of self-love that comes with
the entertainer’s smirk and smile.

 

“I carried myself like this when no one was watching,” Scott
chuckles. “This ride doesn’t last very long, you know. I’m not ever going to
believe I’ve arrived until I’m done. The mirror? That’s a self-validating thing.
Do people care now? Maybe. But I bet for seventy percent of my life people
didn’t.”

 

In accordance with Ramseur’s “one fan at a time” theory,
people soon did care; for the tragically literary endearingly epic Mignonette, for the craggy sophisticated
Carolina Jubilee, for the fast and
furious The Gleam EPs (two and
counting, as a third is in the planning stages) and the frantic, joyously
head-turning and rustically husky Emotionalism.

 

At least Rick Rubin’s head was turned.

 

The CEO of American Recordings, the boss at Columbia Records
and the producer behind classics for The Beastie Boys, Johnny Cash, Danzig and the Red Hot Chili Peppers heard Emotionalism, heard great things about
their enthusiastic live show and wanted to meet them.

 

The preacher/revival-ish concerts betray their religious
background, the one Seth cops to after some prodding where their grandfather
was a Methodist church minister and the brothers’ own devoutness was clear if
not loud. “We will not step up on soapboxes and preach undying devotion to
Christianity or turn our shows into bible thumpers, but [we] are religious,”
notes Seth. Rubin saw that in the humble quiet of their shows.

 

“At the shows I’ve seen, the audience has been louder than
the band,” says Rubin.  “It’s different.
The shows have a spiritual fervor about them. It’s interesting how loud,
active, energetic and rambunctious the audience gets for a relatively quiet
acoustic performance. They have a unique bond with their audience who really
are willing to place themselves in the brothers’ hands and get taken away.”

 

Yet, it wasn’t so much what the Avetts represented as live
performers, songwriters or lyricists that got him, even though in his
estimation brothers from the Everlys to the Bee Gees are capable of unusually magical
harmonies.

 

“As soon as I met them, I knew they were special,” says
Rubin. “Meeting them as much as anything promoted our working together.”

 

As the Avetts write tightly structured songs-ideas/poems
first, music second-Rubin’s goal was find the finest frame for each ripple of
tumult and each roar of joy the brothers hit upon. “We look at how to make the
poems function best as songs and then experiment until we find the best musical
presentation for the story,” he explains. “It was fun seeing the brothers’
versatility, trying a song with Scott on piano and Seth on guitar, and then the
same song with Seth on piano and Scott on banjo, or maybe moving over to drums.
Interesting seeing them decode the sound for each song. Inspiring, really.”

 

Ramseur sees Columbia’s
signing of the Avetts as but a necessary step from boy to manhood. Doesn’t
matter that his label’s released their records since 2002; Ramseur, who also
serves as their manager, can’t see holding the brothers back.

 

“We’re an old Volkswagen Beetle bug; around town we’re
really good but on the open highway it’s a different story,” says Ramseur,
whose label is used to the more compact and eclectic than Columbia has on board. The balloon ride and
not the rocket ship is what won them fans for life and his hope for the Avetts
and Columbia is
a meeting of the minds somewhere in mid-air. He’s not concerned of failing or
being a small fish in a small pond either. “These guys cause commotion on a
street corner-and Bob too-just by standing there,” he adds. “I asked Rick to
help us make a classic and to allow us to continue to make the great state of North Carolina proud of
the Avetts.” Ramseur says this with his own unmistakable note of pride in his
voice.

 

The production of I
and Love and You
with Rubin at the helm allowed the Avetts to forge ahead
with what they see as a grown-up esthetic. While Seth calls the new album Emotionalism‘s older brother, Scott
finds it to be more confident in its themes and nuances.

 

“It was what our game was meant to be,” notes Scott. “We all
did our jobs, brought the craft and let the art lead the way.”

 

There’s a more tender-hearted approach to how Rubin captured
the clap of “Laundry Room” and the gentle yearning authority of the title
track. Though placid, weary and hungering for acceptance, the title tune’s
lyrics speak to a wry sense of humor in my estimation. When I joke about its
mentions of Brooklyn and entering its doors at a time when every one is leaving
the New York
borough, Seth quizzes me: “Now who’s
the asshole?”

 

The Avetts allowed themselves to be gently moved into the
very present sound of I and Love and You,
like another brother wrapping his hands around Seth and Scott’s shoulder. Scott
agrees I’m onto something here, that Rubin’s presence provided an audience he
never got that he held dear. “Even though he was very unobtrusive, I suddenly
felt like I was performing for Rick and Bob and a whole group of guys; hell,
even Seth,” says Scott of the gentleman’s agreement that was this bigger,
bountiful sound. “Rick helped us to simplify thing we’d previously made
complicated and frantic. But if we thought something should be there, we pushed
for it.”

And while it’s fair in all estimations that I
and Love and You
is better than something than if either had come up with
it on their own-that second verse of “January Wedding” where the bass gallops
in and comes across like a Willie Nelson stomper, the chorus of “Ten Thousand
Words” so primal yet silken-Scott smiles when I note that this is there’s and
theirs alone.

 

“Thanks, because we are self made men,” says Scott Avett.
“Our most important objective was to learn from Rick. Hopefully we’d make a
record with him better than one we’d make on our own. But that was icing on the
cake: learning from him, moving on, and figuring out how to make more records
like it or better.”

Beyond the bullshit and trouble of being brothers, the Avetts got love and I and Love and You and wanted to make
each other and it-phew-look and sound good.

 

“We have each others’ backs,” says Scott. “It’ll always be
that way, no matter what.”

 

 

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