Faded Lines: A Q&A with The Avett Brothers’ Seth Avett

The younger Avett opens up about the making of the group's new album, True Sadness.

 Paul Defiglia, Mike Marsh, Joe Kwon, Scott Avett, Bob Crawford, Seth Avett and Tania Elizabeth. Photo courtesy of the artist.
Paul Defiglia, Mike Marsh, Joe Kwon, Scott Avett, Bob Crawford, Seth Avett and Tania Elizabeth

As a prelude to the June 24 release of The Avett Brothers’ ninth studio album, True Sadness, Seth Avett penned a letter in which he describes the band’s 16-year evolution from a scribbled-in “afterthought on a Xeroxed restaurant calendar in Hoboken” to a worldwide headliner whose name shines “in lights on the marquee at Madison Square Garden.” Of course, the band’s sound has evolved as well, as evidenced in the adventurousness of their fourth Rick Rubin-produced work — which includes new members Tania Elizabeth (violin), Mike Marsh (drums) and Paul Difiglia (keyboards/bass), as well as vet Joe Kwon (cello) and co-founders Bob Crawford (vocals/bass), Scott Avett (vocals, banjo and kick-drum) and Seth (vocals, guitar, hi-hat).

Somewhere along the way, Seth explains, “The line between music and life faded.” As it erased itself, a veil was lifted as well. No longer are their songs written from the perspective of young men trying to present a favorable version of themselves, he admits; now, they’re more reflective of reality, and of a “harmony between art and living.”

If there’s some irony in the album’s title and in songs like “Divorce Separation Blues,” it’s because, for Seth, at least, that harmony includes fatherhood and marriage; he wed actress Jennifer Carpenter, the mother of his 1-year-old child, Isaac, in a quiet Memorial Day weekend ceremony. They live in North Carolina not far from Scott and his family, which now includes three children.

But whether it’s sorrow, joy or the myriad emotions in-between, they’ve never shied away from sharing the contents of their hearts. It’s that humanity — once again conveyed with beauty and elegance — that keeps their name shining on marquees everywhere.

Seth Avett describes how the album came together, and what’s next.

You all went into the studio to record this one?

We did. We weren’t fully sure of how we would do it, but we knew that we have a great band at this point. When I was walking into the recording situation, my highest hope was that we would just go for it live in a room, which we did, and also, we went a bunch of other routes simultaneously. We all went in together and just settled in and did what was asked of us and what the song called for, but we all went to California together and made the thing together.

When you say other routes simultaneously, what do you mean?

We had talked a little bit about the approach, but we hadn’t settled on anything. We hadn’t settled on exactly how to tackle this. But everybody was familiar with the songs. So me and Scott and Bob sat down with Rick and had a great conversation about approach. Rick [suggested] just to get our heads wrapped around this thing, “Why don’t we just do two days where we pretend it’s 2005 or 2006 and it’s just y’all three. We take two days and work all the songs like that.” So we basically did that.

And we also talked about, there’s this Vampire Weekend song that I was really hung up on at the time —the first song on their last record [“Obvious Bicycle,” from Modern Vampires of the City]. A really great song, great vocal, but clearly sort of constructed, rather than performed. It doesn’t sound like a band in a room playing a song. It sounds like this sample and then this instrument, and then the vocal carries through the whole thing; it felt very much assembled rather than performed. So we listened to that song, and Rick was saying now might be a good time to start to experiment with some of that. Basically, we did two days of just making new demos — just me, Scott and Bob. And then we recorded all the songs as a band. Simultaneously, we got another engineer in the back yard of this house that we’re recording at, sort of re-envisioning, reimagining these songs with more synthetic sounds — samples and keyboard sounds and synths. And then we would hear those and respond. That’s why “Satan Pulls the Strings” sounds like it does, and why “You Are Mine” sounds like it does. Those were the ones that really spoke to us and worked best in that regard. There’s tons of outtakes with different approaches.

You could do remixes of your own stuff.

Actually, yes, for sure.

Are you planning to?

Perhaps. I don’t know. I haven’t really given it much thought.

How does that translate onto the stage for you guys? Is it tougher to pull off?

Ask me in a couple of months. Right now, it feels really good. It’s a new challenge, trying to pull off something that is a little bit alien to us.

What is it that keeps you going back to Rick?

It’s funny; it’s not something that we ever really talk about. Rick is just another member, really, in the studio with us. He just complements us so well. He understands the music to his core; he loves to experiment. He’s a great voice in the studio because we all respect him; he respects us. He understands any time we make something, we always want to make it better than the last one. So we haven’t had any kind of meetings, like, “Should we work with Rick again?” It’s always just like, “Hey, here’s what I’m working on. What do you think?” We’re always just kind of hashing it out, and then records just come out every two years, it seems like.

And then somebody has to do the grunt work, huh?

(Laughs) Yeah, that’s right. It’s like, “Oh, we gotta come up with a cover for this thing.”

In the letter you wrote, you said “The songs have become increasingly reflective in their nature. It could be argued that’s always the case with us.” Agreed. You’ve also been up front with the fact that you’ve gone through some things, like dealing with paparazzi; I assume that’s part of the reason why you love living in North Carolina.

No doubt.

And you’re laying that out there … plus, you’re more famous now; even without that element involved, your life is still different than it was when you were starting out and begging people to pay attention to you. Do you have a different feeling about fans and people and road life in general now?

You know what? So far in my life, the fame factor has come with a lot of meaning. Over the last decade, I’ve come more and more in contact with people who are well known for different reasons. A lot of actors, their struggle with it is that there is this sort of astonishment when people see them in real life, because you’re so used to seeing them in a movie or on television. And there is this bizarre kind of separation and, like, this disbelief when people see them.

That they could be real people.

Yeah, right. But with us, and because of the lyrics and how they are, we don’t really have a lot of connection to people because of our faces and the glossiness of a glamour-based construct. So it has more to do with content, luckily for us, than the look of celebrity. Whereas there are some challenges with people knowing who we are, or knowing who I am, instead of that coming with this weird, surreal situation where people just want to get selfies, a lot of times, for me, it comes with, like, a story about how our music was present when someone struggled with their parent’s cancer, or sickness or loss, or a heartbreak… all these different things that are connected to real-life situations. So I’m very fortunate that the fame, or popularity of the material, lends itself to some genuine experiences, so I don’t feel like I’m an animal in a zoo. I always feel like I’m a person, they’re a person, and we get to have a good, human connection. Generally, it’s good for the soul — for me.

“True Sadness,” the title song, sounds like it’s about the objectification, of the other side of that coin that you’re talking about.

I’m definitely speaking toward the objectification of women in the bridge. But the song as a whole, it doesn’t have so much to do with my own personal struggles as much as it does just the over-arcing theme of living a life, and coming to terms with the reality that we experience a lot of joy and tragedy. If you’re fortunate enough to live a long life, you’re going to be met with things that are really challenging and you’re gonna have to come to terms with that balance, and the resolve of being sad and letting that be OK, and sort of riding the wave. That’s really the theme of True Sadness, and I feel like that gets touched on quite a bit throughout the record.

Some of the influences you mention in the letter, from Queen to Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Jimmie Rodgers, Tom Petty — and Walt Disney, even [he laughs] — is that any different than your previous list of influences might have been?

Well I think so, yeah, from some of the things that happened with the experimentation process. Some would not have made their way into the stew, as it were, otherwise. Like, sure, I had a moment with Nine Inch Nails when I was 15. And some of those influences are more current. Some of them go to another time, but I respect all the work that all those artists have done. But if you listen to “Satan Pulls the Strings,” anyone can hear the Nine Inch Nails influence there. Anyone. Whereas before, it might have been more of an obscure reference; it’d be like, “Oh yeah, I was inspired by Nine Inch Nails.” Like “How in the world — where do you get that? I’m not hearing that at all.” But through the experimentation process, I feel like some of those influences [became] more obvious in the aesthetic of those songs.

So this is the first album you’ve done as a band this big. Did it feel different?

Yeah, for sure. I mean, for one, our capability with this band is through the roof. I think we’re just starting to understand what might be possible with this amount of talent. And then also, trying to govern the bodies, trying to govern having this many personalities and this much skill to work with, probably there’s more challenge in knowing when to hold back or how many resources to use at once, because on the stage, we have more space for it to just be full on all the time if we want. But to make a record and really have a song shine as well as it can, sometimes that means not playing. Just like in life, sometimes it’s better to just keep your mouth shut. It’s a real thing. So that’s definitely a new thing, having seven people who can offer very valuable contributions of sound to a song, knowing when to use that and when to lay back on it. But there’s also a lot of positive that comes out of that, because everyone’s there to kind of cheer each other on. Even if you’re not playing, you might be in the control room just diggin’ it, you know, just being a positive energy in there. And we all draw off that quite a bit.

The organization itself has gotten bigger; you’ve been on a major label for a while; you’ve been touring at a larger level, which means more buses, more crew … how do you maintain the camaraderie? Does it feel more like a business? I know it’s a family, too, but it’s a big family now.

Yes. It is. It’s always been both. We were very realistic in the early days about, you know, let’s get incorporated, let’s get our taxes straight, let’s log minutes and have meetings. Even when it was me and Scott and Bob, we did all that. So the business side of it is old hat. It’s not something that’s like, a big surprise that we have to keep it legit and keep everything in the books and whatever, evaluate employees and all that rigmarole. It’s a lot of responsibility, but as of yet, it hasn’t gotten in the way of the good camaraderie we have. We do have challenges with it, but any business has to figure out that balance of cuttin’ people checks but also lettin’ em know you care about ‘em. Any good company, anyway. I don’t suppose you get that feeling when you’re one of a hundred thousand employees or something, but our organization is small enough to where everyone still knows what’s going on with each other’s lives, and everyone feels like they have space to communicate when they need to. It’s definitely a balance, but it’s something we’ve had. We’ve had a good, gradual sort of growth with it.

Would you characterize yourself as still close with your brother and Joe?

Oh yeah, no doubt. Scott has a baby seven weeks older than mine, so yesterday he came over, and it was just me and Scott and our little boys just hangin’ out in the living room and trying to get my son to take his first steps.

Awww. So how’s Bob’s baby? [Crawford’s daughter, Hallie, was 2 when she was diagnosed with a brain tumor in 2011.]

She’s doing great. It’s a lifelong journey. There’s ups and downs, but there’s a lot to be thankful for. She is just an incredible little girl. She’s got a lot of love in her and a lot of strength in her as well.

Are you planning any more babies?

No comment. OK. Comment, but basically, I have no idea. I could tell you this. Right now, one is plenty. My little boy, he’s all I can handle. And I’m really happy to have all I can handle with him.

You’ve played some of the largest stages in the world. Are there mountains left; places you’d still love to go that you haven’t yet?

I don’t know. Probably. We don’t tend to think about it in those terms. We normally just try to take it as it comes. Theoretically speaking, we’ll be excited when we get to go, maybe, to Japan. We’ll be excited to finally play in Hawaii; that’s the last state we haven’t played in. But really, I feel like it kind of undermines the importance of the night at hand to be desiring some bigger thing. Every night is just so special. We’ve got this incredible situation going where every night feels like a celebration. So I can’t really take my mind past [the next show]. It’s a real honor. That’s not like a politician’s stock answer. It really is an honor.