If The Avett Brothers have proven anything over their career, it’s their ability to adapt. Early albums from the band’s catalog established brothers Scott and Seth Avett’s raw, punk-infused bluegrass sound (if you became a fan around the time that Gap commercial ran, you’ve got some homework to do), while recent albums produced by Rick Rubin offer both songwriting and instrumentation that’s a bit more refined. Recently, that adaptability was further exemplified with news that Seth Avett has recorded an album of songs by Elliott Smith with singer-songwriter Jessica Lea Mayfield.
From the vault – our September 2011 interview with Seth Avett.
For many years, Scott and Seth Avett performed under the radar in smoky bars throughout North Carolina. But when the brothers Avett – along with bassist Bob Crawford and cellist Joe Kwon – released Emotionalism in 2007, The Avett Brothers gained quick recognition in a public forum as innovative pioneers of folk music.
Their sound is a rambunctious blend of bluegrass, country and punk, marked especially by their ability to deliver deep, honest lyrics via harmonies that only DNA-sharing siblings can muster. Throw in the frenetic twang of the banjo, some slick acoustic guitar picking and a raucous stage show, and what you have is a rootsy spectacle unlike any other.
Since forming a decade ago, the Concord, North Carolina, natives have produced two EPs, seven albums and three live recordings, each marked with the same undeniable blood-and-guts sincerity. Their most recent effort – I and Love and You – came to life under the direction of legendary producer Rick Rubin; it’s a sharp mass-appeal turn from the grassroots underpinnings of the band’s earlier offerings. Even so, the raw intensity for which the Avetts have been regarded is intact.
This month, The Avett Brothers return to the region for two performances. In anticipation, we spoke with guitarist/vocalist/younger brother Seth Avett about how the band has matured over the last 10 years, what it was like performing at the 2010 Grammys with Bob Dylan and what the future holds for these country boys.
Mike McMonagle: On the first track of your first album eight years ago, Scott sings about being a “country boy with the city blues.” How does this sentiment resonate now?
Seth Avett: I think at the time that line was written, there was more fear than there is now. Those “city blues” came from a fear of the city, a fear of the unknown, a fear of future experiences. We were just two young guys in a pickup truck on tour. We had a shotgun wrapped up in the truck bed. We were literally just kids that grew up very much not in a city environment. A lot of that fear has dissipated, thankfully. We’ve found a lot of love in the city, and if we have city blues now, it’s not for fear, it’s just because we miss home.
MM: Your music seems autobiographical – how much of yours and your brother’s lives have been recorded in your songs?
SA: It is not our strength to write from a place of fiction with our songwriting. So early on, we were just trying to find a way to write honestly and to present the art in a truthful manner. And there was no audience, so we were just writing songs for ourselves, and it was therapeutic. At this point, however, we can’t ignore the fact that when we put a record out, people will hear it. So now there is a little bit of a switch where it’s like – oh God, is this too personal? And generally, when we question that, it’s even more of a reason to release it. It’s about writing real songs and truthful lyrics that tell a story. I’m glad to know that folks feel it, and that there’s a closeness that’s being forged through their relationship with the songs.
“It’s like – oh God, is this too personal? And generally, when we question that, it’s even more of a reason to release it. It’s about writing real songs and truthful lyrics that tell a story.” – Seth Avett
MM: Tell me about your punk rock roots. How did two country boys with a gospel singer dad get into punk music? Why did you leave it?
SA: I think it’s normal for boys to shun anything that’s of their upbringing, especially in a small town. Growing up, we were looking at Transworld Skateboarding and Thrasher Magazine. There was that yearning for something more exciting. Early on, Led Zeppelin struck a chord with both of us. As did early Van Halen. So there was just a natural progression with our love for heavy music. There’s sometimes an unsettled feeling of a young man that he doesn’t know how to explain, and when you’re in that, it makes your ears react more to people screaming in music. (laughs) And I still love that. I’m a huge Deftones fan. I love Bad Brains, and I still love Nirvana. I love music with a bite to it. But a change came when I was around 12 years old when I had a random opportunity to meet Doc Watson and hang out with him at his house. So I go to meet this person who’s a total legend, but I didn’t really understand it. I knew going into it who he was – kind of – but basically after that, it was undeniable once I was in his living room with him playing guitar and singing. You just can never come back from that. It took us years to understand it, but once Scott and I started playing Bob Dylan and Woody Guthrie songs on a couple of acoustic guitars, we just realized that this is what’s natural.
MM: You mention Dylan there. What was that Grammy experience with Dylan like for you?
SA: It was just as surreal as you might imagine. At one point, I had a question about whether Dylan wanted me to hit a certain chord at the end, and I had to work my courage up. I was like, “Hey, Bob, what do you think about this?” He came over really close and started talking it out. And there I was just coordinating with Bob Dylan about how to play a song. (laughs)
MM: You’re recording again. Do you have a preference to tracking songs out piece by piece, or the more raw, rambunctious recording style of your earlier albums?
SA: It depends on the song. I prefer what is appropriate for the song. We’re working with Rick [Rubin] again, deconstructing songs and building them again to find out what’s working. The revision process really never ends. You put the record out, and two years later, when we play I and Love and You, there’s all these things we do now that we didn’t do on the record. So the songs never really stop changing and growing. So I like them both. What matters to me is that a song can be as good as it can be in a recorded sense. Spiritually – first and foremost – and then technically.
MM: Is there a story behind the series of “Pretty Girl” songs on your albums?
SA: Initially, it was done out of the desire to not call a girl out by her name. (laughs) The first one was actually called “A Song For …” and then her name. So we were like, “Let’s just call it ‘Pretty Girl From Matthews’ instead.” And then we started realizing that half of our songs were about relationships and girls. At the time we were listening to a lot of Jimmie Rodgers and he’s got a bunch of songs like “Blue Yodel #9” or “Blue Yodel #12.” So we saw the opportunity to have a series as well. And it will never end. For the upcoming album, we just recorded “Pretty Girl From Michigan.”)
MM: Are your wives OK with that?
SA: It depends on the day.