The biography on The Avett Brothers’ website describes the team as “a reality in a world of entertainment built with smoke and mirrors.” “When they play,” it continues, “the common man can break the mirrors and blow the smoke away, so that all that’s left behind is the unwavering beauty of the songs. That’s the commotion, that’s the celebration, and wherever The Avett Brothers are tonight, that’s what you’ll find.”The biography on The Avett Brothers’ website describes the team as “a reality in a world of entertainment built with smoke and mirrors.” “When they play,” it continues, “the common man can break the mirrors and blow the smoke away, so that all that’s left behind is the unwavering beauty of the songs. That’s the commotion, that’s the celebration, and wherever The Avett Brothers are tonight, that’s what you’ll find.”
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We couldn’t have said it better ourselves; the raw, honest truth imbedded in The Avett Brothers’ art strikes a note of beautiful clarity with enthusiasts across the country and abroad. In their eighth year and on the heels of hit album Emotionalism, the North Carolina quartet featuring Scott Avett (vocals, guitar, banjo), Seth Avett (guitar, keyboard, vocals), Bob Crawford (bass) and recent addition Joe Kwon (cello), have hit the road once again with an unfathomable 2008 touring schedule. For the crew that is used to 200+ shows a year, however, this is nothing new, and their fan base continues to grow.
Between shows earlier this month, American Songwriter correspondent Christopher Lawrence got a chance to chat with Seth Avett about the group’s origins, upcoming album and life on the road.
American Songwriter: Thanks for taking the time to talk with me today, Seth.
Seth Avett: You bet. Thanks for taking time yourself, Chris.
I’ve heard you all described in numerous, sometimes conflicting ways-Americana, bluegrass, folk and I’ve even heard terms like punkgrass, rockgrass and folk-romantic. While your songwriting is truly a unique league of poetry, I’m interested to know who your biggest influences have been and how you would describe your own sound.
Well, I can see how that’s an important question, but it’s also the kind of question that can follow you [laughs]. The answer, of course, has many parts. We try not to be very mindful of the names. It’s more of a game for someone who wants to sell records, to come up with a name so they can put it in a certain section. Pretty much any music that you love, you find it difficult to put it in a place. Even if it is very heavily blues and very heavily folk, or whatever, it will have a way of transcending that label. Like, what could you call Simon and Garfunkel? Some people called it folk, but is it folk?
Right, right. Well, I was wondering who your big influences were if, if you had to name a few.
I got you. Well, there are many. In this realm, Ramblin’ Jack Elliot was a big one early on, and Woody Guthrie, of course. But before that, while we were growing up, a lot of Led Zeppelin, a lot of Pink Floyd, a lot of Hendrix. In a time where… we had many revolutions of learning about music and learning that we loved music. But for us, the early ‘90s was a big time, especially with Alice in Chains and Nirvana.
Some of my favorites. Moving on, a long known cliché is hearing a song and feeling that it was written just for you. You all seem to have taken this idea to a whole new level. Especially with your last record, Emotionalism, I bet you hear this all the time. I, for one, can personally relate to a lot of the songs that you sing on that record and others. So I wanted to ask, to what degree are your songs autobiographical, and to what degree, if any, do you aim to illustrate common human experience? Is the art about your own lives, about people in general, or both or neither?
It’s certainly about both. We try not to write about things that we don’t know about. We try not to pretend too much. We try to write about things we either know about or want to know about, or things that we’ve seen. We try to write from real experience. While that may not always be completely autobiographical, thematically the majority of it is autobiographical. We tend to write about things we’ve experienced, and I think the style in which we write is not general, but I do feel that it’s very relatable. People are people, and what we experience, a lot of them do.
Speaking of your previous records, the first Gleam and Emotionalism seem to focus on certain realms of the psyche and experience and of your own experiences, and when I listen to it, new themes seem to emerge in The Second Gleam. After listening to the new record, it seems to me, to a large degree, that the “last bit of sanity” you mention in the first Gleam may have gotten a little easier to hold onto, or at least changed a little bit.
Yeah, I can see that.
Yeah, and a few of the songs on the new EP stand in contrast to “Growing Backwards With Time” from the original Gleam, and from the Second Gleam, “Tear Down the House” and “Murder in the City” are particularly powerful in this way. While it is a thoughtful and quiet recording, like the first, there are definitely some notable differences. What would you say is new or different for you all about this post-Emotionalism release? Do you see yourselves any differently?
Well, yes, but it has less to do with discography, and more to do with age and getting old. You know, the 16-year-old and 20-year-old aren’t the same, and a 20-year-old and 25-year-old aren’t the same. Ideally, in your younger days, you have more questions and more instability, and hopefully, the older you get, the more you get a hold on the things that were more out of control in your earlier days. While I can’t say that that’s exactly the case with us, I feel that there may be a little less uncertainty with our lives, and therefore, it’ll come through in our writing. Whoever we are and how we are in our lives tends to come through pretty strong. And there can always be more uncertainty to come; you never know what kind of curveball life will throw you. But at the moment, the next chapter of The Gleam, I think, is a little less question-oriented and maybe has a little more stability.
Again about the Second Gleam–the last Gleamfeatured only you and Scott, and since then, Bob Crawford and Joe Kwon have become a big part of the show. So, I see the Second Gleam following the first, in that you and your brother continue to deliver reflective excellence by yourselves. But I’m wondering if you all missed Bob or Joe on this album, and what went into your decision for this to be another duo effort.
Well, first, it came out of the experience we had recording “Famous Flower of Manhattan,” which is a song from Four Thieves Gone. Scott and I, we feel very natural, very calm and very natural in a setting that is very simple. He and I sit down, you know, basically facing each other, two microphones, two vocals, two guitars, or a guitar and a banjo, whatever. That’s a very natural setting for us. Aesthetically, it may not be the most exciting for a full-length record, but there are a lot of songs, and there are a lot more coming. We enjoy recording like that, and there are some songs that call primarily just for that. They don’t ask for a full on band, they don’t ask for a drum kit, they don’t ask for anything, they just ask for simplicity. Now that can change with a live show-there are plenty of songs that started like that and that we include on the stage, and that’ll happen with some of these songs as well. But there’s a simplicity and a very natural feeling that goes with some of these songs that start in this place and stay in this place for a record. And beyond that, we saw an opportunity to have the second chapter of the gleam to be released and be shared with folks that may want to hear it, and in between periods, between Emotionalism and as we get to work on the next full length, it just kind of made sense for it to be like that.
Speaking of Bob and Joe, they’ve been great on your tour. Is Joe Kwon a permanent member of the crew? Because I know that he’s not always with you in the capacity, say, that Bob is.
Well, Bob’s been with us since the very beginning. We started this thing with Bob, and he’s been with us since the beginning. We’re going into our eighth year now, and Joe’s been with us for a little less than a year. We started work with him during Emotionalism, and Joe is certainly a part of the team now. And that means musically in many respects, and in a lot of other respects as well. We all do many jobs, and our team certainly includes Joe at this point. We’re all on full, so it’s a definite.
Sounds good. Being from Nashville, I’ve seen you all many of the recent times that you’ve come around. I saw you at City Hall, and the Ryman for the Americana Awards, congratulations by the way…
Well thank you very much.
…and The Station Inn, Vanderbilt’s Rites of Spring, and a few other times.
Well, you’ve been with us for a few years then, for sure.
And if I’ve learned one thing from those few years, it’s that you all put on a good live show, and you often talk to the audience and there’s never a lack of surprises. So I wanted to ask, what do you like most about being on stage?
Well, the thing I love about performing is that… you know, with records, we make records, and we plan on them being there long after we’re gone. We’re hoping that’s the case, to make something that stays after we’re gone. With the live show, there’s a spontaneity and a very fluid motion that feels in the moment. And it feels good to be in the moment, it feels good to know that this night will never happen again. We may play this song a thousand more times, ten more times, we may never play it again. That gives it a bit of excitement that makes it possible for us to do it so often, night after night-that keeps it exciting, to know that things are always changing. And functionally, the most fun is to play brand new ones, which we’re always doing. There are a quite a few new ones we’re working on for a new record and playing live here and there, and that’s always fun, always.
For sure, and speaking of that, I’ve seen a drum kit accompany some of your stage set-ups, and I’ve seen you personally play some newer stuff on the keyboard, so basically, its clear you are always writing and creating new music. Are there plans for another LP, perhaps The Second Emotionalism, in the near future?
[Laughs] Well, I think that Emotionalism was a starting point, in terms of establishing not a genre, but kind of a vantage point, a place where we will come from. While I don’t see the title coming up again, I think Emotionalism has done the most for us so far, as far as letting people know what we’re about, what were planning on doing, and how we plan to present the art that we want to make. I believe and hope that the next full length will be just taking that to the next step.
Any specific plans in that regard for the next year?
Yea, well the Second Gleam comes out July 22, and between now and the end of the year, there are a lot of shows coming up, and in between those we’re going to get working on the next full length. We’ve got quite a lot of songs, and we’ve gotta record a bunch of them, and we’ve made demos for many songs, and we’ll have to start weeding them out. We’re going to start working on the next record soon and hopefully have it out early in 2009. Meanwhile, we’re also working on a gospel record that’s finished and we’re planning on releasing. It’s actually Scott and our sister and I, kind of backing up our dad, so it’s sort of an old-time kind of gospel record. We’re working on it.
Sounds great. A lot of your songs seem to detail some pretty intense stuff about yourselves. Is it always comfortable to reveal them to a live audience? What’s that like-is it a tough thing to do?
Well, it depends. We’re at peace with doing it, and you know, it hurts more if it’s in a place where nobody listens and nobody cares [laughs]. But the question of revealing something about yourself-a lot of music that we love kind of shows a vulnerability. If you listen to Will Oldham, you’re going to hear that vulnerability, and it makes listening to the music an experience, to where you can take something more from it than some hook, or some beat. We’re hoping we can get across to a listener in that same kind of way. And, you know, it can be uncomfortable, and there are lines you can cross and some that you don’t want to, but we’ve always felt that getting close to that line and putting out there what we really think and what we’re really feeling is a good way to do it.
Onto the touring. You’ve got Wakarusa this weekend, Bonnaroo next weekend, Three Rivers Arts in Pittsburgh the weekend after that, followed by festival appearances almost every weekend for the rest of the summer, including the famous Newport Folk Festival in August. Not to mention, you all have played 200 shows a year for the past few years.
I’m just wondering what you do in your precious spare time, and what you like and don’t like about life on the road?
Well, being on the road performing, it’s a necessity, it’s something that needs to be done, and there’s a lot of ground to cover. It’s a big part of what we do and a big part of who we are, and if there were ever a time to do it during our lives, the time is now, because we’re still relatively young, and we still, relatively speaking, have the energy to make it happen. Also, it’s a joy to connect with fans, to connect with folks in that moment with you, and that can’t be understated. As far as time away from it, we like to spend time with our wives-Scott and I and Bob are all married, and we like to spend time with family as much as possible, and just enjoy sleeping in our beds, enjoy stopping the motions, because we kind of get in the groove of it, and we’re always moving, 24 hours a day. While it’s sometimes hard to change gears, the beautiful thing about home is slowing down and not being in motion. But it’s important to do both-being away makes home a lot better, and if you’re at home for a while, it makes going out and performing better. It’s just a balance that you have to find.
What’s your favorite show or venue you’ve played recently, and why? Any that stand out?
I have precious few complaints about any shows, but I can say that, recently, fresh on my mind, we were just in the Midwest and on the West Coast for a while for about two months, and there were just a lot of great ones, too many to mention. Portland stood out pretty big [laughs]. We had a sell-out crowd at the Crystal Ballroom, which is about 1,600 people, and that was a surprise for us. What a night, just some amazing people. We ended up doing a couple encores, and you just couldn’t ask for anything better. Jessica Lea Mayfield was opening for us for a few weeks, and having her along has been a joy, and we’re looking forward to a lot of music from her; we’re excited about her future. She’s got a new record coming out soon, and having her open was a lot of fun. She’s a heck of a young talent. In fact, we put a video of “We Return” on YouTube, and that’s us in the back of the bus on that tour, and she’s singing, and her brother’s playing some percussion with us. That was a lot of fun.
Nothing like a small venue with a dedicated crowd, especially from the shows I’ve seen.
Yeah, and the Ryman was incredible, and not long after that we got to play at the Opry, just a few weeks ago. That was something special. John Connolly introduced us, and we’re big fans. There have been some big moments recently, and it’s just been a great time.
You seem to write a lot of songs about “pretty girls”-have you encountered any “pretty girl”-worthy ladies on the tour so far this summer?
Oh, well, yes, thousands and millions. And we understand that “pretty” is a term that can apply to many things, and we feel that they all have a prettiness in one way or another. We meet a lot of wonderful people, and that’s been no different in these last few shows by any means.
Well I’ve got some tickets to the show in Dewey Beach, Del. at the Bottle and Cork sometime in July, and I can tell you that there are a lot of girls in that town who’d like to be the next “pretty” one.
[Laughs] I don’t doubt it Chris, I don’t doubt it.