Published Oct 25, 2009North Carolina-based trio the Avett Brothers are poised to make a big splash with their new album, I and Love and You. Their fifth record, it's their major label debut, out on American Recordings/Sony. American main man Rick Rubin produced the album, guaranteeing serious media attention. A day after the record's release, Exclaim! sat down with the three members, singer/songwriter brothers Seth and Sean Avett and bassist Bob Crawford, at the Horseshoe Tavern in Toronto, just prior to a sold-out gig there.
Thanks for taking time for this. They're working you hard, I gather?
Scott Avett: Yes, they are. Monday night we did Letterman. Tuesday, yesterday, we did AOL, and last night we did a CD release party at an art gallery in New York City, where we had the original paintings of the art from the record on display. A meet and greet after, then we flew here.
Relieved the album is finally out? I know you've been on the road for several months ahead of this.
Scott: Yes, been on the road quite some time. There is a sense of relief, for us, in the sense that we're excited about what comes next, as far as demoing and the next songs for us. As writers, you always need to be a step ahead. Or maybe it's built in. But we're excited to release it, and support it.
Initial reaction seems really positive.
Scott: It seems great, real exciting. You get both sides, the criticism too, but the excitement seems really genuine and big. We are very thankful.
Seth Avett: Last night, the meet and greet at the gallery was the first experience of a real face to face reaction with people saying how they felt about the record. It was very positive and very humbling. An incredible experience.
There is sometimes a backlash against a band like yourselves that has built a grassroots following themselves, then jumped to a major label.
Seth: There may be some people with that attitude, but doesn't seem to be an overwhelming sense of that.
Bob Crawford: One other thing from last night that occurred to me was that this is the first time we've ever had anything other than a CD. We've got the vinyl album, and a box set, and even a seven-inch single for "Slight Figure Of Speech." It was cool for people to talk about the different formats and what they loved about them, like the favourite prints from the box set they wanted signed.
Scott: It's real important to have that kind of connection, where you're not merely reading comments online, but having a true interaction.
Some artists I interview say they refuse to look at online comments.
Seth: I'm rather one of those people.
Scott: It's a funny thing. I've had a hard time letting go of it, as when we started, I was the one that managed all the correspondence. I would email people, saying "see you at the show" etc., and it was hard to let go of that, but you go through a period where the weight of those comments, good or bad, you start to realize everybody sees it from a different angle. The good is just as deceiving as the bad. You need to be careful to keep your mind on what you do.
In terms of budget, time and scope, the new record was obviously a bigger project than your earlier record. Enjoy the luxury of more time and money?
Scott: The time was the biggest thing. Being able to focus on the recording time we were afforded. Before, it was like "we've got this week. We're back on the road next week, we need to move quick. Three songs a day." We still work pretty fast and aggressively, but there was more time and space with it.
Was the California recording locale a good one for a new beginning? Take you out of your comfort zone?
Brad: It wasn't really out of a comfort zone. The place we recorded and the place we stayed was very self-contained. We still worked our 12-hour days, the way we always have, whether in Robinsonville at the Mountain House or in Nashville at Echo Mountain, we've always worked a long day and been very focused on recording.
Seth: It was like a new landscape to frame the work.
No time to hang out on Malibu Beach, I gather?
Scott: I never set foot on it! Kind of sad!
Obviously Rick Rubin's involvement attracts media attention or maybe has new people checking you out. How did he come across you?
Scott: The thing we heard is that he did modern-day research, on YouTube, where you can watch a band.
Seth: He's pretty savvy. I think he keeps his ear to the street and knows who's out there. If they're making enough noise, he'll listen to it and judge it for what it is.
Was there major excitement when he first contacted you, or did you think it was a prank?
Seth: Somewhat, you know. There are enough people in this business that tell you they can do this or that for you. It had all the makings of a practical joke, but we knew it was real when we were driving through the gates of his home.
Scott: It wasn't real to me until we went into his house. Everything leading up to that, I was "maybe or maybe not."
Back when you had a more punk-oriented band, if someone had said "you're going to make a record with Rick Rubin," would you have freaked out?
Seth: I wouldn't have believed it.
Scott: If somebody had said "it'll take you eight years to do it," I'd have gone "really? I don't know if I'm up for that."
Did Rick Rubin have a lot of input into the arrangement and instrumentation of songs, or he more involved on the technical side?
Scott: It was less technical, and more arrangement and mood and tempo of the songs, rather than the instrumentation. He let us go and do what we do, but he watched and listened. He managed through letting us lead, in a way. He rather delegated the front of the line to us, then he'd come in behind and go, "let's try this or this." If we had serious reservations about something, he wouldn't push it. He didn't want anything to do with that. He just wanted to encourage us to try things before we said no to them. That was brilliant for us, because we may not have been quite as good at that in the past. We might have gone "this take is true, it has the feeling, we won't do it again." This record, we did it and did it and did it. Sometimes we found the peak and the valley, then a new peak, something we'd never found before.
There's a real diversity of material here. Some songs are sparse and others have a really full production. Do the songs suggest the setting?
Scott: Rick was key on a song like "Ten Thousand Words." I remember him saying "it needs to be hypnotic, it needs to be repetitive in a great way, so you can be in a trance by the end of the song." I don't know if Seth, Bob and I would have allowed that song to stay in that sort of repetitive mode. We'd likely have gone "where's the dynamic?" We are guilty of making thinking every song has to have those dips and turns. He did a really good of showing us that was not always needed. He was 100 percent instrumental in the sequencing of the songs. We were happy to put that in his hands. We love doing that, like in crafting set lists. A record is like a more permanent set list. Rick nailed it. We felt good in allowing that to be out of our hands.
Stylistically, fair to say this is less rootsy than earlier albums? Was that a conscious mandate?
Scott: We had 25 to 30 demos, and they were mostly written on piano and drums and guitar, very little banjo. That is just where Seth and I were when we went in to carve out some of these song sketches. We brought that in. The banjo was in more songs but it was coming off abrasive at times, so we removed it from the recording.
Seth: But there was never a point where we went "this album needs to be less like bluegrass or roots." It was what it was.
Seth: That is still a big part of who we are. We're excited to try new things. A really fun dynamic is to do things in the studio, then go "how are we going to do this live?" That can be real scary.
Scott: Embracing the recording situation is different from the live. We've had a hard time with that in the past, but this record served a strong lesson for us there.
How does the songwriting dynamic between the two of you work? Has it changed over the years?
Scott: It changes song to song. Bob might be the best person to comment on that.
Bob: I don't think it has changed at all, I just think the songs are getting better. They learned how to write better songs more efficiently, without as much turmoil. I think you guys are more collaborative now, in terms of parts. Where one of you will start something and the other will contribute anther section. Back in the earlier days, even up to Mignonette, it was more you guys individually writing songs, or bringing in ideas that were more formed to the table. I do think there is more of a system in place now.
Scott: We gather more fragments of songs on the road as we travel so much. It's hard to complete anything on the road, but when you come to the table with a lot of what you feel are quality fragments, if there's another guy that you are bouncing off with other great quality fragments, then it's like "are there any of these fragments that work together?" Then theme-wise or melody-wise or placements within a song-wise, then it can work.
People talk about empathy or intuition between brothers. Are you conscious of that?
Seth: I don't think we think about it too much. Songwriting partnerships are pretty rare anyway these days. We never really analyze it. The songwriting is a very small part of our relationship with each other. In our day-to-day interaction and how our family lives are working is so much more in the forefront of our thoughts that how we work as songwriters. That seems to take care of itself.
Did you grow up singing in harmony around the family dinner table? I know your father was in a band.
Scott: I think we did. Our grandmother was a pianist in the church too, so it was there. Hard to remember specifically, but it was there.
Seth: I'll tell you how our singing together works in my mind. Scott is more of a natural lead singer. I can come off as a lead singer, but I have a certain way where doing backups is very natural. You can often tell what I'm going to do with a harmony in advance, whereas Scott is not a natural backup singer, and his harmonies are so bizarre sometimes, and that's exciting. That's an interesting dynamic.
The songs are very introspective and philosophical, whereas a lot of your peers tend to invent characters and stories. Does that come naturally to you?
Scott: It is more about tearing open the book and showing the pages of our lives. I'm not sure if it is lack of imagination or lack of interest. We definitely read more non-fiction than fiction. That is what we are interested in. I think entertainment boils down to drama, or tragedy. When tragedy is first-hand, no matter how major or minor it is, I think that is easy to relate to. It translates well to many, many people. We can be very specific about something that happens to us in our lives, but I think we find out we're not really that special in terms of things happening to us. They happen to everybody.
Seth: Plus whatever songs we write, we have to play them over and over and over again. For us, it'd be hard when you are really down to get up there and be like "I'm going to tell this story I made up in my head again" with as much heart and desire. Sometimes when we are ragged beyond belief, the only thing we can hang onto is that we still believe in the songs we are playing.
Scott: You can still close your eyes and go back to a song you wrote ten years ago and get a kick out of it yourself, then you are kind of foolproof. I'm just telling you what happened in my best words. Good or not, they're true. If we don't like the songs, we're putting ourselves in a real bad situation, as we're the ones who'll hear them the most.
Bob: We're able to keep the old songs fresh because over the last few years we've been reinventing them. We are better musicians now than we were back when they were originally written. We can have fun with them.
I get the sense your songs resonate deeply with your audience.
Scott: I think we have caused a care for us, in how they see us. We are not ones to mess with that. It's a positive thing. You don't step on that. A lot of that is luck.
Seth: You see people with smiles on their faces and that's a good thing. Families too.
In terms of your career arc, people are predicting success on a very large scale for you. Does that cause anxiety, or are you saying "bring it on"?
Scott: Personally, I thought I was being heard by the entire world when I was eight years old! Pathetically, that's kind of true. I had a big imagination as a kid, and I always wanted attention. I had some stupid things to say and I still do. I would get on the pedestal to say them, and now there is a place to channel that. If people are willing to listen, we're grateful for it. If we take it one day at a time. if we start to fail in other people's eyes, that's fine, as long as our eyes are clear, and we are still defining our own success.
Seth: We feel really good about the record and the songs that are on the record. We feel good about our team and what we're doing. That's all it needs to be for us.
Do you have role models in terms of people who have handled success well?
Scott: Very much so, in different ways. Sometimes they are not necessarily musicians whose music we love, but the way they carried themselves. This is not one of those cases, but R.E.M. is a band that has managed to come and go as they've pleased. Michael Stipe still has a house in Athens. They've earned great respect. I look up to their business plan. They were self-made.
Seth: Another one for me, someone who had gargantuan success, is Paul Newman. He did some great things, without being a potent activist. He was still Paul Newman, the actor, not the politician. He'd speak what he felt, but he was always very approachable. Such a handsome fellow with all this incredible success. He's an example of someone who did the right things with his success and fame. Springsteen is another great example, and he's from Bob's home state.
Bob: Yes, I'm not a Southerner by birth. Probably by death! I married a Southern woman and we're going to have a Southern daughter. Of course Springsteen inspired me from a very early age.
Scott: These are guys who never got the wrong idea about what it means to be a man. They seem to be humble and wise to the fact that they were born just like the rest of us. It's crazy to think otherwise, just because your occupation and your love has to do with creating art. The popularity is just part of the job, if you do a good job at it. Same thing as a carpenter who does good work. He gets well known in his circles.