The Avett Brothers are a band whose passionate energy, earnest talent and off-the-hook performances inspire great dedication among their fans. Few who have experienced the pretty mea culpa “Shame,” heard their plea to “kill the doubt that strangles my self-worth” on “Sanguine,” or been swept up in their raucous live “hoedown” spirit come away unconverted.
It doesn’t hurt that the titular brothers, Seth and Scott, and their bassist buddy, Bob Crawford, are tremendously talented players who in their nine years together have developed musical telepathy.
“We’re like one entity,” explains Seth from his North Carolina home. He’s fresh back from Europe, a little week-long hop across the pond that precedes a several-week U.S. tour, then it’s back for a few more weeks in Europe at the end of the summer.
Things haven’t let up for the North Carolina trio the last several years. Not only have they grown in number — from a three- to a five-piece — but they’ve jumped to the big leagues. Rick Rubin signed them to his label, American Recordings, and produced their 2009 major label debut, I and Love and You. Working with Rubin was a trial of sorts because they’d been a string band for so long.
“In some ways it was like a tempo boot camp,” Seth says. “We’d always been just a fullscale boogie. We have seldom stopped to consider anything about rhythm.”
Seth and Scott had been playing since the late ’90s in the rock band Nemo, with whom they released three albums before forming the Avett Brothers. It
was initially a non-electric kitchen hootenanny occurring after Nemo shows where they’d hang out with each other and friends strumming the banjo and acoustic guitars. It evolved into a side project, and they released a selftitled EP in 2000. Then it moved to the foreground when Nemo broke up. But it was the addition of Bob Crawford — who auditioned for them in a Best Buy parking lot in 2002 — that helped solidify the band.
The growth was organic, starting with nothing. They were scraping by as late as 2004, struggling through that period where you’re touring enough that you can’t hold a job, but not making enough money to live. They received three big breaks. They secured a bunch of well-paying college campus gigs through a NACA (National Association for Campus Activities) convention, got a slot on Merlefest where they killed, and met Dolph Ramseur, who became their manager.
“There were about two years where things were really hard financially,” Crawford says. “Those were the three things at the time that we needed to keep going.”
Things progressed considerably over the next three years from their second and third full-lengths, 2004’s Mignonette and 2006’s Four Thieves Gone: The Robbinsville Sessions, to 2007’s Emotionalism. Their harmonies tightened, and they gained a firmer reign on the moody ebb-and-flow rhythms. Perhaps most of all, Seth and Scott’s songwriting matured from their initial meditations on pretty girls to witty self-indicting confessionals like “Paranoia in B Major” or meditations on “The Weight of Lies.” Yet even as much of a leap forward as Emotionalism was in terms of its rich melodic warmth and crisp, fetching songs, 2009’s I and Love and You felt like an equal advance.
Seth gives a lot of credit to Rubin. “Rick’s big on breaking a song down and building it back up from scratch —finding out what’s working and what’s not working and why it doesn’t work yet, then figuring out a way to get it to where it’s working. Sometimes that will involve how you’re playing it — if you’re being too complex with your playing, if you’re being too busy with it, or if the playing is technically good, but there’s no soul to it. It was a great learning experience, and there will always sort of be ‘before’ and ‘after.’” I and Love and You broke the Billboard Top 20, and its more polished sound engendered a little backlash from overprotective fans, who maybe wish they’d return to the loose, raw, tossed-off brilliance of their earlier, more bluegrass-inflected albums. Seth understands the sentiment, “but you can never regain that era. And that’s a beautiful thing. It’s what makes those eras special.”
“Bands that start out and have a raw element, part of that raw element is that they aren’t yet where they want to be, and as they get to where they want to be musically, they run this risk of being sellouts,” he says. “We can no more think in terms of people’s reactions than we can what kind of money we’ll make off of something. It can’t be in our minds, because if it is the artistry is going to be affected.”
Instead, Seth’s thinking about their next album. They’ve already cut 23 tracks in four different recording sessions during the past six months. They’re 90 percent finished with tracking, and he’s very excited about the results. While he doesn’t want to disparage I and Love and You in any way, he feels they’re in an even better place this time, particularly since they’ve had a year to get comfortable with new drummer Jacob Edwards.
“I feel we were learning a lot at the time, but I feel like any downfall of that album comes from the transition of attempting to go from being a good band to being a great band,” he says. “It feels very much to me like the beginning of a second era. Emotionalism is sort of the pinnacle of the first eight years, and I and Love and You was a little bit of a transitional record to where we may be headed. We’re more assured in that kind of recording process, and it allows us to be more ourselves and to bring more of the genuine personality to the record.”
They’re working with Rubin again, though the process is a lot different.
“It’s been almost more of an administrative kind of deal. We had a session, and then we hung out listened to the music together, talked, and he made suggestions. We’d have these powwows periodically, and we’d go to his house [in Los Angeles] or email back and forth,” Seth says. “That would not have been possible on I and Love and You, where he was in the studio every day for seven or eight hours.
But he had to sort of hold our hands on some of the things we wanted to do. He had to be there, but a lot of those things are behind us now and made it possible for us to be like this.”
But just because they’re on their way to rock stardom doesn’t mean they’ve forgotten their fans. Indeed, it pains them they don’t have the chance to talk personally to everyone after the shows like they did for so many years (the absence of which has further inflamed the “sellout” contingent).
“There’s nothing but the most sincere gratitude. It’s tough to make it sound sincere when all you can just say is thank you. We’re very aware that the fans are what make it possible for us to present our art and to have the time and the venue to do that. That’s part of why we’re doing the show in Boulder before Red Rocks,” Seth says. “It’s not just a warm-up for us. It will serve as that, but Boulder’s been great to us, the Boulder Theater has been great to us, and it’s a perfect opportunity for us to try to say thank you.”