Posted September 15, 2015 by Jeff in Tunes

Avett Brothers: Finding the best way

Avett Brothers
Avett Brothers

Folk rockers the Avett Brothers formed just over a decade ago in North Carolina. Early on, the group combined bluegrass, country, punk, pop, folk and rock to produce a distinctive sound. Over time, the guys have refined their sound, putting an emphasis on vocal harmonies and diverse instrumentation. Currently on a summer tour, the band has been at work on the follow-up to its most recent studio album, 2013’s Magpie and the Dandelion. Singer and multi-instrumentalist Seth Avett recently phoned from a Pittsburgh tour stop to talk about the band’s history.

I think I read that you and your brother were in two different bands before you started playing together?
That was the logistics of being four years apart. When I was a freshman in high school, Scott was a freshman in college. We were kept apart by our age but we started working on songs when I was around 14 and he was around 18. We mailed each other cassette tapes. We played in different bands but the first chance we got, we decided to be in the same band together. I was about 19 or 20.

Did you grow up listening to lots of country and bluegrass music?
Not at all. The only music I actively listened to as a kid was Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd. I was vaguely aware of the country music of the time. I knew Randy Travis and George Strait but I wasn’t an active listener. Nirvana came along and that was damn near a religion for me. I then discovered the rich history of Americana and roots music that came from North Carolina. We didn’t really realize that was there until I was about 15 or so.  You want to listen to something that is different from what you’re from.

In 2008, you signed to Rick Rubin’s label and he would produce I and Love and You. Talk about how you met him and what it was like to work with him for the first time.
An A&R person for Columbia passed our Emotionalism album onto Rick. The short version of the story: He did some YouTube research and got familiar with us through the online resources. He invited us to his house. We went to his house in Malibu. We sat out on the back porch. He mainly just listened. He asked about ourselves and what we saw in the future. He let us know that he would want to make a record with us if we would want to make one with him. He wanted to feel us out as people. It was very informal and very relaxed. We became fast friends after that.

What about the studio experience?
For me, it was a great experience. It was like going through adolescence in a short time period. We had developed a thing and we had dialed it in to how we did without anyone else helping. It was an attempt to go from being a good band to a great band. With I and Love and You, the recording process was very challenging. It pushed us to take the time to try to find the answers not only technically but spiritually. He wanted us to find the heart of a song and to be open to change needed to get there. He is big on experimenting and saying, “Let’s not assume we know the best way before we find the best way.” That was a big before and after moment for me.

Was he hands-on in the studio?
I can’t speak on how Rick works with other people. We’re really good friends at this point. He’s in the studio every day for eight or nine hours. He’s very involved. That’s not to say he’s heavy-handed because he’s not in any way.

You also worked with him on the follow-up album, The Carpenter. What was that experience like? And what about Magpie and the Dandelion? Did things change?
They did change. It was mind-blowing. Since those first sessions were so challenging, they characterized what I thought it would be like to work with Rick. We grew a lot in that time and in the two years following that. By the time we got in the studio to work on Carpenter and Magpie we were more in the groove. Some of the pain of growing in terms of knowing what the process should and could be like was behind us. That made it more enjoyable.

We were more confident that we could get to where we wanted to go.

“Morning Song” features an ensemble of backing singers. What was it like to record that tune?
I’m pretty sure that was Rick’s idea. It started as us sitting in his living room and talking about that line, “I have to sing that melody alone.” There’s this wonderful irony that there’s so much to do by ourselves. We all have that in common. He loved the idea of getting a bunch of people to sing with us. We did it over the next six months. My Uncle Tom and Aunt Alice sing on it. Alice has since passed. All these relationships that have changed. It’s a very sweet and special choir. It’s amazing to listen to because that record now would be impossible to make.

How is the new album coming?
The new record is not done. It’s coming along famously. We are 90 percent there. There are exciting things happening. I don’t want to speak on them yet. I can definitely say we’re making some sounds we haven’t made before. That’s always exciting. Whether or not they’re great, I don’t know.

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Jeff started writing about rock ’n’ roll some 20 years ago when he stood in the pouring rain to hitch hike his way to see R.E.M. on their Life’s Rich Pageant tour. Since that time, he's written for various daily newspapers, alt-weeklies, magazines and websites. Feel free to comment on his posts or suggest music, film and art to him at [email protected].