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...

I don't see us going back to rock full on, just as I don't see us going back to just a banjo and a stand-up bass. We are kind of gathering our abilities and we're gathering different ways and finding new ways and avenues for the songs to come to fruition. Who knows what the next songs will ask for.

-Seth Avett


Photo by: Melissa Madison Fuller

"Bluegrass is actually something we have never truly delved deeply into. Our American roots influences would be more in the old time country and old traditional. Even bluegrass is a little more modern thing," Seth observes. "We are less from the bluegrass tradition and more from the American roots, more Jimmy Rogers, more Woody Guthrie; a little Doc Watson, but more Blind Boy Fuller and Charlie Poole."

The Avett Brothers by Crackerfarm
While some Avett Brothers fans may feel as though I and Love and You represents a change of pace, they get back to their roots more than leaving any bluegrass tendencies behind. After all, their first self-titled recording relied heavily on the piano. The fact is The Avett Brothers never really played bluegrass music as much as they play instruments associated with bluegrass.

"I don't see us going back to rock full on, just as I don't see us going back to just a banjo and a stand-up bass," Seth says. "We are kind of gathering our abilities and we're gathering different ways and finding new ways and avenues for the songs to come to fruition. Who knows what the next songs will ask for."

As with all bands, different phases of life often come across in the music. Now, with Scott, Seth, and bassist Bob Crawford all happily married, Scott with a daughter, and Bob with one on the way, the idiosyncrasies inevitably flow through into the songs.

"Being personal is almost impossible for us to detach. We know some songwriters are very talented at telling a story, writing something fictional, or being super obscure. Maybe we will do something like that in the future, but absolutely, for the most part, our writing is personal and relates to our lives," offer Seth. "It's not like 'January Wedding' is very obscure as to what the song's about [laughs]. It's pretty much right there in the song. We like it when people get something personal from the shows or the songs."

The Avett Brothers by Melissa Madison Fuller
As expected, juggling domestic life while managing a burgeoning career has become another hurdle to overcome. The details regarding the lengths of the tours, the geographic regions of tours, and the timelines for writing and recording albums; all take more coordination with growing families in the picture.

"It's a weird thing, because we kind of separate it into two types of existence. We are missing [home] more now though for sure. It is on the forefront of our minds," says Seth. "We're in a constant revision for ourselves of learning the balance. We've been doing this for many years and there's always a new challenge."

So, the question remains, does that mean the end of the "Pretty Girls" songs?

"Not yet, since the 'Pretty Girls' songs run a very wide range of meanings and they're not by any means about romantic love or even current love," responds Seth.

Another new obstacle comes in the form of the deal with Columbia. In one fell swoop, the size of The Avett Brothers team grew exponentially along with increased publicity requirements and promotional events.

The Avett Brothers
"It's been good so far and no complaints with it. There is, however, a learning curve involved for sure," says Seth. "Before Columbia, there were less people to get on board. Scott or I had an idea and we would just start knockin' it out. It is still like that in terms of artistic control. The final decision for everything comes down to us, but there are more people to get on board."

Having played a supporting role this past year for both Widespread Panic and Dave Matthews Band, the Avetts got their first taste of some really big rooms. While they are not quite yet at that level on their own, should it happen down the road, they are certainly up for it, but only as long as they still get to play smaller rooms, too.

"I loved it [the amphitheatres]. I liked it very much. I think that variety is the key. I don't think it would be healthy for us to do big amphitheatres or sheds every night, just like it wouldn't be perfect to do only bars, only theaters, or only festivals [laughs]. Festivals, now those have a very different energy," remarks Seth. "Different places have different energies and different benefits, and they all have benefits. And we have different things to offer different venues. For example, last week in Baton Rouge the crowd was very attentive. It was a very sweet kind of night. It was absolutely still. It was the kind of night where you can hear somebody order a drink or walking in and out of the rows. On a night like that maybe those new songs do translate a little more gently or a little more fragile."

Regardless of what the future holds, The Avett Brothers will continue to evolve. But no matter how they change, one gets the sense their honest, unique songs will remain in tact. Inside these dusty tales is the marrow of life, the sting of loss, the jolt of love and the bite of uncertainty. The Avetts are a rare talent, timeless yet current, and capable of singing straight to a single soul while broadcasting to the ever-increasing masses.

"You might write a song which to you is something very specific," says Seth, "but you find that someone else got something completely different out of it, and that, is a very awesome thing."

The Avett Brothers are on tour now; dates available here.

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