The Avett Brothers: Headed North

By: Ryan Dembinsky

The Avett Brothers
The Avett Brothers put their best foot forward on I and Love and You (released September 29 on American/Columbia). More specifically, they put their best song first (or one of them at least). With the title track, inspired in part by an epiphany-inducing performance at the Galapagos Art Space in Brooklyn, the Avetts tighten an attention vice-grip, setting the pace for the album. From there, they never let go.

"It was a night where everything kind of came together; everything just felt so right," Seth Avett (acoustic guitar, piano, drums) says during a morning phone conversation. "The main thing about the song with reference to Brooklyn is - for us or anyone coming from rural North Carolina, or a small town, or Minnesota, or Ohio - New York City and Brooklyn represent something mysterious, very romantic, and very different from where we're from. Whether Brooklyn - whatever Brooklyn may be - is real or an invention of our own expectations, we looked at it as so mysterious and almost unreachable for us."

At this point in their career, the thought of little old Brooklyn feeling unreachable for The Avett Brothers is almost laughable. The band just released an album with one of the biggest producer in the world (Rick Rubin), performed on both the David Letterman and Craig Ferguson shows, they constantly play to bigger crowds and seemingly have the world by a string.

Growing into some of the finest songwriters of the day, I and Love and You, the band's tenth studio album, shows the same attention to the craft they've always displayed, but is clearly a new direction. Here the piano and drums are given equal attention as the signature driving banjo vamps and quasi-cinematic string instrumentations that have defined the Avetts. Working with genre-bending super-producer Rick Rubin appears to have given birth to songs like the emotive ballad "Ill With Want" and the radio-ready "Kick Drum Heart."

Rick Rubin
"It was more our doing," says Seth. "We essentially always work from the piano out."

Both Scott (banjo, piano, drums) and Seth Avett got their start on piano and it's only natural that their songs revert back to these early roots for structure. It wasn't Rubin pushing them in any direction, that's not how he works. He may be a major label hit-maker, but he's very Zen Master in his approach.

"Rick has a very calm and a very warm and a very caring approach," says Seth. "He does not have a heavy hand for control in any way. He was very involved, but he was very respectful."

In discussing Rubin's influence, Seth laid out three key points that made working with him such a profound experience, offering succinct insight about how Rubin excels at bringing out the best in musicians: "Pacing, care, and respect for the artist."

In fact, working with Rubin proved almost completely contrary to how one might expect the story to unfold with a grassroots band like the Avetts hitting the studio with a big name producer for a major label debut. Not only did Rubin stay away from prefabricated or preconceived directions, he encouraged the band to spread their wings and try new things in the studio.

"He is big on taking the time for experimenting. That is something we haven't really done much of in the past," says Seth. "The thing about Rick is he is good about and wants to spread this mythology of 'Let's take our time. Let's experience this.' He'll always start out, 'I got an idea and it may be terrible,' and that was very comforting in that realm. It is probably not a good idea for an artist to be told what to do."

Seth Avett by Crackerfarm
For good examples of this experimentation, check out "Ten Thousand Words," which sounds like two friends casually sitting down on the couch with their acoustics to have a jam, or the studio window dressing on "Slight Figure of Speech," where the song breaks down into a machine gun lyrical segment layered with a sharp marching cadence.

"We met with [Rick] many times before we started working on the record. So, there was a mutual respect," Seth says. "He invited us out to his home, so we were able to build a nice rapport. Rick cares a lot about the music. When he's listening to music, he's in it. I mean he loves it. He loves music."

Several minutes into another standout track on the new album, "Perfect Space," The Avett Brothers pose the question, "Will you forget when we have paid our debts, who did we borrow from?" After this open-ended lyric, the song bursts into one of the harder driving rock segments on the record, which feels almost like a nod to the band's rock 'n' roll influences and their prior life as a rock band called Nemo. People often classify The Avett Brothers as this nouveau bluegrass band, but their roots really come from rock and old time American folk music.

Continue reading for more on The Avett Brothers...

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