For all their success and acclaim, the North Carolina musicians remain humble homeboys at heart. They are currently on tour in support of their most recent album The Carpenter.
BY LEE ZIMMERMAN
Seth Avett is just about the nicest guy you’d ever want to speak with. A 30 minute phone chat brings an instant bond, a sharing of sincere sentiment, a hearty laugh, and a folksy, unaffected down home demeanor that’s every bit as honest and embracing as the seemingly spontaneous, off-the-cuff and emotionally vulnerable melodies that he and his brother Scott deliver under the moniker of the Avett Brothers. Over the course of the past dozen years, the band’s evolved from their own homegrown devices to major label success and a rabid following that’s made them festival staples and affirmed their populist appeal. Boasting a rustic sound that emphasizes the basics – acoustic guitars, a kick drum, bass, cello and occasional keyboards, the quartet, which also includes longtime bassist Bob Crawford and their newest recruit, Joe Kwon, is, by turns, both effusive and heartbreaking, detailing personal declarations of remorse and reflection.
After years of making their name in their native North Carolina environs and a dozen albums and EPs on the local Ramseur Records label, the Avetts graduated to the big time with the release of 2009’s I and Love and You, which brought them into the America’s top twenty. The follow-up, The Carpenter, was released late last year and climbed even higher, charting at number four on the Billboard album charts. Produced by legendary wunderkind Rick Rubin, the two albums found them graduating from home boy heroes to mainstays of late night TV. The charm of their wistful, no-frills approach is amplified by the irresistible urgency of cascading choruses that seep into the consciousness and linger long after the last notes finally fade away.
Blurt recently had a chance to chat with Seth during a break between tours. Here’s how it went:
BLURT: Has your sudden success taken you by surprise?
SETH AVETT: I can tell you that it gets sort of overwhelming to get on the scale of what it’s gotten to. If I look at it with my 21 year-old eyes, then yes. It’s unbelievable in a way. You do something gradual every day, year in and year out, and you gain perspective for yourself as well as you can, but you lose the perspective you had when you stepped into the room, and as you’re walking through it you lose the perspective that you had when you were walking through the door. I think so much in terms of what’s happening right now. We’ve stayed so busy, I take precious little time to reminisce, precious little time to process, precious little time to bask in anything. I’m talking literally. I’m talking about stepping onstage with Willie Nelson and singing “On the Road Again” in Texas and being in the bus a few hours later and heading to wherever we were heading to next and talking about the set list for the next day and whatever, and not sitting there drinking a beer and thinking, “Man, I just sang with Willie Nelson!” I’ve tried to appreciate that, but you keep moving so you don’t get bogged down. We’ve had more fortunate and exciting experiences than we deserve. (laughs) I’m excited about the lifestyle we’ve led and the opportunities we’ve had, and some of them do surprise me. But then again, we’re just hardworking guys and we don’t take a lot of time to think it through. We’re just on to the next thing and the next thing and the next thing.
In a way, your laid-back, unpretentious sound has kind of paved the way for a new generation of acts with the same no-nonsense style. I’m thinking of Mumford and Sons and the Lumineers in particular.
I agree. That’s something that I like to keep in check. I certainly don’t want to take credit for something that’s not mine and ours to take. Both of those bands are friends and colleagues. Both are on average ten years younger than us and they have been vocal about our influence on them. So I’m trying to be okay with that and being in the position of gratitude and to accept that gratefully. I appreciate very much that those bands have expressed that and have done good things and received attention for that. Commercially speaking, both of those bands are at a higher level than we’ve ever been, but they’re doing it their way. They’re doing their thing and it’s being responded to. It’s exciting in the landscape of music to see the music each of those bands are making and the music we’re making and being rewarded with some kind of popularity and some kind of buzz. Yeah, I think that we were part of the building for them and there are bands that were very much a part of the building for us and never saw a lot of attention. For example, there was a band called the Blue Rags which was a fantastic ragtime/rock ‘n’ roll band that I saw when I was 16 or 17 years old at the Brewery in Raleigh. God knows that if they hit the scene 15 years later, maybe they would have seen a lot of commercial success. Bill Reynolds, who was the bass player in that band, actually plays with Band of Horses now. But bands with banjos were never seen on TV back then. That was not a possibility when we started.
You guys defy categorization. You might have a banjo, but your sound can hardly be called bluegrass. You really bend the parameters. That said, being that your last two albums were recorded for major labels, was there any pressure to sew up the loose ends and give it more of a polished sheen?
Not the first iota. It’s a weird thing. I can’t speak for other folks that have worked with major labels, but for us, our story has been told a thousand times. The label knew we did everything completely ourselves for the first eight or nine years of this thing. That really gave us some leverage. So we thought about the scenario of being on a major label, we had a fan base and we weren’t like 18 year old kids who were begging the label to make a career for us. We’re well on our way. We’re going to have a career, and whether we’re going to sell a lot of records or not is completely up in the air and quite arbitrary in our mind. And we wanted to take that step, because it was the right step, and it was with folks that we wanted to work with. Right now, we love working with them, and that pretty much dissolves the negative stigma of the big, bad major label. There have been a lot of horror stories about people working with major labels but really it’s just a group of people who got into music because they love it.
So what was the evolution that came with being on a major label? How did that affect your MO?
The last two albums are more a comment on our development as a band. The reality is, we’re just on our path and we’re changing. A band that’s going to be together for awhile is going to listen to their muse and their inspiration and they’re going to change. And between these two records, you’re looking at maybe three or four hundred show, or maybe 500 or 600 that we’ve played. So we’re not going to sound the same one record to another because we’re getting better. And we’re proud of that. I love the charm of the early records. I was singing with flats and sharps all over the place, but I don’t really want to do that anymore. I want to sing well. I want to sing like Sam Cooke, ya know? (laughs)
What did Rick Rubin bring into the mix?
Well, he helped break things down. He helps us slow down and see what was working and what sort of needed reworking and to examine it. Again, we did everything on our own, and there’s plenty that’s good about that but there’s also some shortcomings. And one of the shortcomings is that me and Scott and Bob don’t really have great rhythm. We have a rhythm that changes a lot within the songs — sometimes that’s okay, sometimes that’s great — and we did that for eight years without a drummer. I was the drummer — I’d play drums on the records, I’d play piano on the records, whatever — and I can play drums to my own inconsistent tempo because I was the one that’s inconsistent. But when we looked at it, we realized that it was really detracting from the song and making it harder to figure out what we were singing about because we were so distracted by the sway, being slow and fast, slow and fast and so forth. That’s just a technical detail, but Rick helped bring calm to the studio, helped bring real spirit of experimentation and a real spirit of exploration. Instead of saying, hey, that sounds like a real bad idea, let’s not do it, Rick would say, ‘I got an idea and maybe it’s horrible,” and that’s how he is. He doesn’t think that everything he does is golden. Not by a long shot. He thinks that if somebody has an idea, let’s find out if it’s good or not. Let’s not just assume we know without hearing it.
So many of your songs are really plaintive and sobering, heartbreaking in fact. Where does that emotion come from? It sounds like your hearts are broken? Are you venting your own feelings through these songs?
Well, the truthful and sad answer to that is… yes. The fact is that it is real because we are genuinely sensitive men. (laughs) I have a debilitating sensitivity. I am a man that can think myself into absolute heartbreak. I take myself there daily. It’s not something that I necessarily need treatment for, but I really grab onto things. And I’m not just talking about heartbreak. I mean joy, and I can be on top of the mountain. And when I am, you’ll probably hear it in a song and probably present it in the most terrifying, exciting fashion. This is love, this is compassion, unadulterated, unfiltered… and then you’re going to get the same thing when I feel hopeless or I feel scared or whatever. I think that’s a pretty common trait for a songwriter. If you look Elliot Smith, he is someone you cannot separate his status from him as an artist. And that’s because that man had an unusual sensitivity for sadness and for beating himself up in a way. We like music that shows vulnerability, music that’s honest for good or bad. So we like to present songs that are honest for good or for bad. Scott and I are both aware of each other as people, folks that lock onto emotion and we champion it, and sometimes that’s good for our lives, and sometimes it’s really, really bad for our lives. Generally speaking, it’s always good for art, but not always so good for day to day life.
The way you express that emotion is so brilliant to begin with. When you’re up there on stage, whooping and hollering and carrying on, is that genuine feeling we’re seeing you express?
With the whole hollering and screaming and dancing and shimmering, getting sown and having fun… the reason we’re like that onstage is that it’s genuine. Because of the people in the audience, it’s something we’ve developed over the years, over this decade plus, almost a dozen years of creating this relationship with an audience that is highly genuine and highly infectious. It’s a beautiful thing to be a part of, but we are not creators of it. There’s a beautiful interaction that happens between us and an audience that makes it feel much less like us and them, but more like just us. These shows have become like celebrations and people expect that, so they make it happen. So we just jump in there with them and we came all the way out here to Arizona, or Tennessee or California or Japan or wherever not to sit around and brood, but to celebrate. So let’s celebrate in a healthy way and let’s make it happen and we really are aware that there are so many times in our lives that we’re going to get to do this. It’s not going to last forever. It sounds pretty fatalistic, but it’s just the truth, so let’s celebrate that. I am more on the page now of just connecting with folks than I am with showing off. When I was younger, I was like, I want to show them my talent, I want to prove that I can do something and I can do it well, which is ironic because at the time, I really couldn’t do it very well. So I’m more aware now that the great value in these shows is the celebratory factor and is the opportunity to connect with folks that use our music with a tool. I’ll be talking to someone and they’ll say, “Oh man, I listened to your music all doing my chemo treatments.” That’s where it’s at. That reminds me how much of a waste of time it is to show off. When you’re lucky enough to have that interaction like that with somebody, it tells you that you are being put to use, and what an honor that is. So that’s why the shows are like they are. I’m speaking for all of us when I say that, band and crew. We all feel very honored to be a part of it.
When you sit down to write a song, given that naked emotion that comes through, do you have to search it out and grab it, or are you channeling it from somewhere inside.
They do come out of nowhere. It’s a very mysterious thing sometimes, but it is something that can be studied and can be nurtured. For the most part I do make myself available for the songs just by sitting down with a guitar and my recorder and my notebook and my sketchbook, and if the melody comes, I try to see what words fall down in it and what may seem appropriate or imperative at the moment. It’s not something I can force necessarily, but I can make myself available by having some discipline.
You guys play lots festivals these days. How do you bring the intimacy of your music to these larger stages and still achieve that personal connection with your audience?
I think that we try to put our attention on the fact that this show is the only one that matters. This one right here. If we play as well as we can, not only get inside the songs, but also get inside the physical environment, that will translate. And that can translate for a hundred people, it can translate for a thousand people or ten thousand people. And that comes from being in a genuine place and being very much in the moment. When most quality things happen, you have to be present for it. Some of that is just practice, like learning where to be and how to be, how to find something that works. It’s just like studying how to be performer. There are certain things that work in a club that don’t work when the person in the last row is a football field or two football fields away from you. That doesn’t necessarily mean more flailing around or becoming more animated, but it does mean you have to consider that person even though they’re so far away. They paid their money to be here and they may be the biggest fan in the place, so you want to pay attention to them. Also, we went and saw Bruce Springsteen. So we know how to do it because we saw him. (laughs) He’s sort of a major template for us, so we looked at him and thought, okay, here’s a guy that knows how to do three hours. He knows how to engage a large audience, he knows how to do it for the long run, and he knows how to make dynamic records that span decades. So he’s the guy we’ve got to look at. We have to look at the Dead. We have to look at Pearl Jam. We have to look at those bands in terms of the way we want to do things.
You clearly learned your lessons well.
Thank you. Thank you.
You’ve created such a high bar yourselves however. Is it intimidating knowing you have to meet your own high standard each and every time?
It’s not intimidating in terms of us thinking we made something great. After we made I and Love and You, Rick said, “Listen, I don’t care what the next record is, but it’s got to be better than I and Love and You. It wasn’t like he was downplaying that album. He thought we had done well and made a record we should be really proud of, but it was all about prospective. I and Love and You might be a great record to one person, or a terrible record for another person. It’s all in your own prospective, but for us, we knew that whatever ended up to be the record was after I and Love and You, it needed to make us excited in a way that I and Love and You did not. And that’s what artistry is all about. That’s what looking forward as an artist is all about. So we’re saying, be proud of what you did, but look at how you might do things differently now and see what happens. Just because you did something five years ago, it doesn’t mean that it has to dominate what you do now. We want to learn from the things we’ve done well and the things we’ve not done well.
The Avett Brothers’ “Carpenter” tour resumes June 20 in Roanoke. Full itinerary at their official website: http://www.theavettbrothers.com/tour/