The Avett Brothers: Of Music and Men
Scott and Seth Avett are being cagey while discussing their circumstances in the middle of a sold-out two-night stand in Toronto. It was hard to fault them; expectations have been increasing the closer they’ve come to releasing the follow-up to 2009’s I and Love and You, the album that launched the North Carolina natives onto the world stage. They admitted that, for the first time, they’re conscious of things being a lot different now; that what they have achieved as a band is special and needs to be protected. But then Scott lets down his guard a bit, with a gleam in his eye.
“There’s this game I play with my wife where I say, ‘You’ve got two seconds to take a snapshot of your life right now and send it back to your 14-year-old self,’” he says this past May. “Then, I’ll pull a dumb face or something and say jokingly, ‘Can you imagine this is the way things are going to turn out for you?’ But in a serious way, sometimes I’ll look around at what we’re going through and think that if somebody showed me one second of this when I was 14, I couldn’t have imagined the path it took to get here.”
There was none of that self-questioning in evidence when The Avett Brothers, now a well-honed five-piece, took to the stage that night, with Scott, the elder of the two brothers, dead center for most of the show hammering at his banjo, his compact physique emitting the intensity of a denim-clad middleweight. By contrast, the long and lean Seth commanded the side of the stage with fluid energy, opening his soul on songs like “January Wedding” and coloring Scott’s lead turns with spot-on harmonies and six-string solos.
The Avetts certainly aren’t the only band to find success through blowing up an acoustic-based sound to arena-sized proportions, but what they displayed on I and Love and You was a masterful blending of the American folk song tradition with a contemporary punk sensibility. Opinions on the album were initially divided, but those who helped it land on the Billboard Top 20 have still not let it go three years later, as demonstrated by the rabid Toronto audience, nearly all of whom in attendance were less than 30 and equally split along gender lines.
A lot of the Avetts’ appeal has to do with the messages found in their songs, which are most often pure expressions of love, fear, hope and guilt, delivered with earnest small-town Southern charm and a sense of familial loyalty. It’s what their producer Rick Rubin heard on their prodigious independent output prior to signing The Avett Brothers to his American Recordings label in 2008. He was able to apply his unique sonic gifts to wringing out every last drop of these juxtaposed emotions on I and Love and You, and the album stands alongside Rubin’s work with Johnny Cash as his best within the roots genre.
A big reason why the Avetts are keeping mum about the as-yet-untitled new record is because they really have no idea what its release status is. Rubin’s co-chairmanship at Columbia Records (whose parent company Sony distributes American Recordings) ended this past January amid rumblings that he could no longer work with other executives who were angered by his freedom to produce artists signed to other labels. As of mid-May, Rubin was still deciding on a new home for himself and for American, forcing the Avetts to keep their anticipation in check as best they could. Then again, as Seth explains, the past three years have found the brothers growing out of a lot of their old ways.
“ I and Love and You was sort of a rite of passage for us,” Seth says. “It got us to a place where we could better use the tools at our disposal, and I think you can hear that immediately on the new record, sonically speaking. I haven’t let a lot of people hear the [new] record, though, which is the first time I’ve done that. Maybe that’s just me changing as a person. I was listening to a few things recently with a good friend, and when he heard one of the songs called ‘Live and Die,’ he said it sounded like it was from [2005’s] Four Thieves Gone, but with better production.
“That made me feel good, because even though there isn’t an orchestra or a big horn section on the new record, there are a couple of elements that we wouldn’t be able to do if we were recording in a house like we did for so long. Using those tools is exciting, and we’re a lot more comfortable doing that than on I and Love and You. There was a fair amount of adjustment we went through making that album, like doing 30 takes of something—‘You mean the last 29 weren’t good enough?’ Our pace has always been fast when it comes to our music, but what we understand now is that making a record is an entirely different process than what we thought it was. It’s about translating a song to a listener, and you could say that making a connection to God or the universe is part of that.”
The Avetts agree that being around Rubin has brought out a spiritual side in them, as has been the case with many of the hirsute producer’s clientele. His overall influence on the Avetts has been undeniable, especially considering that they felt they were doing just fine before Rubin came calling. While lounging in the mezzanine of their Toronto hotel, Scott, clad in a jean jacket bearing crests from everywhere from Kansas to Australia, and his long hair and beard accentuating his hard stare, recalls what led to Rubin discovering the band.
“We’d put out four albums and were able to draw about three or four thousand people at home when we started getting some serious label interest,” he says. “It was really rolling, so we were thinking, why do we need anybody to help us? But Rick invited us to his house in Malibu [Calif.] and basically said that he loved what we were doing, and if it ever worked out that we could do something together, we should. As our friendship grew from there, I think we both realized where we stood with each other. We could let these other people handle the business while we talked about art and music, and that’s the way it’s been. We’ve got our little bubble. I don’t like to make people wait, but as you get older you realize that nothing good happens quickly, unless you can catch lightning in a bottle.”
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