October 20, 2010
Derk Richardson of the San Francisco Chronicle has described the band’s sound as “the heavy sadness of Townes Van Zandt, the light pop concision of Buddy Holly, the tuneful jangle of the Beatles, [and] the raw energy of the Ramones.” Hailing from Concord, North Carolina, the Avett Brothers have burst onto the music scene with the release of their acclaimed 2009 album, I and Love and You, and there’s no looking back.
I had the fortunate opportunity to speak with Seth Avett of the band to discuss—among other things—this very album, their recent rise in popularity, and whether or not beard envy was involved when working with the man himself: Rick Rubin. Enjoy.
JEFFREY PILLOW: First off, thank you for making some time in your busy schedule to take part in this interview. I know our readers over at The Nervous Breakdown are really going to enjoy this one. So, what’s Cloud 9 like up there? You guys are making serious waves with the new album (I and Love and You, Columbia).
Seth Avett: Thank you for saying so. Everything is going well. I and Love and You has been out for a little over a year now, and we’ve enjoyed sharing the record with a larger audience than we have with any previous records. We’re still proud of the record, though I believe we all have our minds on the next one. Scott and I have been writing and working on the next chapter of songs since well before I & L & Y was released, so it’ll be good for us to get to work on that next album soon. But yeah, no complaints. The year has been one for the books; lots of milestones…
JP: None other than the legendary Rick Rubin produced I and Love and You. What was it like to work with a master such as Rubin, to be in the presence of a man who has helped put the gears in motion of so many varying musical acts to the top of the charts?
SA: There was an immediate and natural rapport between us and Rick from the beginning. He made it clear that he had an appreciation for us and what we are doing as a band right off, so having that mutual respect did a lot for both of us in the beginning. He has become a friend and a partner-in-crime so to speak.
Through the process of making the record, we did learn a lot. We learned some new things about deconstructing a song and putting it back together, and finding a better understanding of its makeup by doing so. We learned about pacing ourselves in a different and potentially healthier way. And we learned to take the time to see a song through, and to experiment with different and sometimes opposing elements of a tune to get it right, emotionally and technically as well. We took a lot from the I and Love and You sessions that I think we’ll take with us into our studio work for the rest of our lives.
JP: And was there beard envy?
SA: No beard envy whatsoever, just respect! Rick’s in another league as far as that goes…
JP: That he is, though I think Joaquin Phoenix is trying to give him a run for his money. Anywho…
Your sound has been described as a fusion of folk, bluegrass, and pop rock. For me, I sense a bit of a punk underbelly, still a little pink and raw, that gets a little scratch here and there, a little cawing with the coo. The first time I heard “Kick Drum Heart” I was en route to work. Early morning daze. Eyes still puffy. Brain still half asleep. A local radio station, WNRN, which plays a refreshing blend of underground, not-so-common songs was spinning it. The song immediately took me aback.
The piano. The drums. The stop and start. I could totally visualize kids slam dancing along. It was my first introduction to the Avett Brothers. I thought Mojo Nixon, step aside. The guy in the car behind me probably thought I was having a seizure. Sometimes you can’t help but to play a little air drums when you hear a good ditty. Know what I mean, Vern?
SA: Absolutely. I have a hard time keeping the air drums contained (whether I’m driving or not) when I listen to Queens of the Stone Age’s album Songs for the Deaf. It’s gotta be the greatest air drum record of the modern era. But yeah, we love some heavy music. We love some punk music. It’s certainly part of our fiber; we see no reason to hide that spirit if it’s calling…
JP: I definitely feel you when you say punk is deeply ingrained in you. I wasn’t surprised to find out in Scott Timberg’s Los Angeles Times interview that you guys were into the skate-punk scene back in the day, big into 80’s punk rock, and the like. I can totally hear the influence.
How would you guys describe your style? How do you feel this hybrid of so many genres resonates with your listeners?
SA: I’m not sure how exactly I would describe our music to someone. My quick answer when a curious person at an airport or restaurant asks (a group of nine guys, band and crew, who look like us have a hard time traveling incognito sometimes), is that we’re somewhere between country and rock. I think this is true, considering how incredibly vague this answer is. In the modern landscape, where the word ‘rock’ can be a partial reference to Jakob Dylan, The Mars Volta, Tomahawk, Lil’ Wayne, or The Deftones, and ‘Country’ can be in a conversation about Ryan Adams, Willie Nelson, Darius Rucker, or Wilco , there’s a lot of room for interpretation with these big general classifications. But to answer the question, I have no idea…
I don’t think I’ve accurately described our music to a non-listener once!
I think the reason we’ve had some luck in relating to our fans is that we all have a lot of similar loves for, and ties to, music. There is so much to draw from now musically, and a lot of the folks out there these days who love older country music may also have a good deal of experience with Nirvana, or Soundgarden, or the Beastie Boys. The eclectic nature of our songwriting I think links up pretty well to our (and a lot of our fans’s) taste for variety in sound and influence.
JP: After “Kick Drum Heart” finishes, the DJ comes on, and I couldn’t quite make out who he said you all were. I’m thinking she said, Averett Brothers; but I did manage to memorize a couple of words so I figure by the time I get to work, log in, and access Google, I’ll be able to pinpoint who this kick ass band is. Boom. There it is. Google comes through again: Avett Brothers, “Kick Drum Heart.”
I e-mail my wife. “Avett Brothers,” I write her. “You have to listen to this song I just heard.”
She writes back, “I just did. Wasn’t that an awesome song?”
Now, we’re hooked on the Avett Brothers like a crack-cocaine junkie.
SA: I love to hear a good story about discovering music (whether it’s our music or not!).But thank you for making the effort to track it down. That’s just proof the radio can still bring some excitement to a person’s day, which is a beautiful thing…
JP: You all have been around for ten years. I felt like I’d been living under a rock for a decade when I learned that. Now you guys have just exploded onto the music scene. If you don’t know the Avett Brothers by now, it has been reported, you actually are living under a rock. How is this experience for you, the eruption in popularity? Is it something you have to take in stride or what?
SA: I think that we have taken it as well as anyone could be expected to take it. The history we have, working very hard with our band for the past ten years, has definitely made the experience sweeter and more appreciated. In the process, we have gradually learned to process each step along the way in a healthy manner. If we somehow could have achieved the level of popularity we are at now, when we first started, I believe it would have been very detrimental to each of us personally and as a band. We’re much better prepared at this point just to genuinely say thank you if we are fortunate enough to receive a compliment, and to keep our efforts focused primarily on the important parts of this journey: writing and performing at the best of our ability, bringing some artistic integrity to the table, and trying to do some good along the way.
JP: This sort of goes along with a previous question. I wouldn’t say I and Love and You is a departure from Emotionalism (2007), but more a natural progression and evolution in your sound. On one hand, you have songs which carry a similar torch (“Salina”) as with the new album: the singles “I and Love and You” and “January Wedding,” for example. On the other hand, there is just a new dynamic that is brought in. “Slight Figure of Speech” which, though it somewhat beckons back to “I Killed Sally’s Lover,” walks a different line.
The songwriting, not just instrumentally but lyrically, is phenomenal. By not allowing yourselves to be strapped down by one single genre, do you feel this really opens up the capabilities of being more creative? I guess this goes without saying but the reality is some bands simply do not have this freedom you guys do because they’ve really boxed themselves in by aligning their sound and outward persona with a very specific genre of music. Their sound, in other words, can be defined. I don’t what the hell to classify the Avett Brothers as, and don’t get me wrong, that’s a good thing, a very good thing.
SA: I definitely see this unclassifiable-type mentality as a good thing. What we want is to be open to whatever song that is needing to emerge and be written, without trying to constrict it and shove it into some predestined aesthetic box. We feel that the song should dictate what it’s instrumentation is, and what rhythm it should be played at. These factors are malleable, and can and do change, because a song sort of has a life of its own. But yeah, we feel it’s a good thing to let the song do the deciding, and to just be open to that and honor it if you can.
JP: As a huge Bruce Springsteen fan, I mean huge, I have to ask: “Hanging Out on E-Street.” You were asked to be a little part of this video series, and in turn, did a cover of “Glory Days.” When the Springsteen camp approached you, what went through your head? That’s saying a lot, for The Boss to not only be familiar with the Avett Brothers but to dig you guys that hard to ask for you to be part of this honor. Sure, Rolling Stone bestowed upon you “the Artist to Watch of 2009,” but The Boss., The Boss is, that is a completely new level.
SA: The Boss is called ‘the boss’ for a reason. He delivers one of the most passionate and exciting live rock and roll shows in the world and has been for decades. We have an immeasurable amount of respect for the man, and to have him nod in our direction is a compliment we will never forget…
JP: You’ve been touring extensively over the past few years. Dave Matthews. Bonnaroo. SXSW, and you guys have a show here in Charlottesville on October 17 with Grace Potter and the Nocturnals. What is a typical day and night like in the lives of the Avett Brothers? Do you ever just get worn down and want to say, I need the night off? What is it that keeps you coming back to the stage and hitting the road for the next town?
SA: We do get tired, sure. We get ragged and worn, as anyone who works for a living does. Our days and nights are I guess somewhat bizarre, relatively speaking. We generally drive through the night. We look for quality meals, we do interviews, sometimes we meet with fans and say hello to folks, we have pretty extensive soundchecks, during which we try to rehearse as much as possible and maybe even have some fun doing so. We then get ready and eventually get on that stage and, with the people that join us on any given night, find a joy and a celebration together. The fans are why we are able to do what we do. They give us power even when we are exhausted. They lift us up and for that we are forever grateful, ‘cause we surely need it sometimes.
JP: I want to thank you again for this opportunity to interview you. I appreciate it. I know our readers are going to be digging this like some potatoes. Best of luck with the remainder of the tour.
SA: Thanks for your time and effort, Jeffrey. Sorry we weren’t able to knock this one out pre-show, but hopefully we will see you down the road.
For more information on the Avett Brothers, including where to purchase their music and what town they’ll be in next, visit www.theavettbrothers.com.