At Your Service
by Joe Doherty
The Avett Brothers, the humblest headliners on the circuit, play Artpark this Friday
Seth Avett likes to use the word “journey” often and in earnest. An artist’s journey, he implies, does not have a clean beginning, middle, and end. It is a series of creative impulses that extends over a lifetime. Whether Avett is talking about himself or his musical acquaintance, Bob Dylan, the subtext is always clear: Avett believes he has not arrived because he never will.
It’s funny, really. Most people in Avett’s position—who co-founded the widely praised neo-folk band, the Avett Brothers, with his older sibling Scott—might be tempted to assume the journey was over. To wit: The brothers’ music has appeared in a Judd Apatow movie; their latest album of finely crafted folk-pop, The Carpenter, was their second produced by Rick Rubin; two years ago, the band played the Grammys alongside Dylan; its summer tour, which stops at Artpark Friday night, is made up entirely of amphitheater and festival-headliner dates.
In spite of this, Avett remains the kind of guy who, as he does at the beginning of our interview, will affectionately call a complete stranger “brother.”
Avett’s humble interpretation of the journey metaphor cuts to the heart of his band’s story. More than a decade of relentless touring and what Avett describes as “campaigning for yourself” can instill humility in a person. “We played in coffee shops and Mexican restaurants and in bars and on street corners for years,” he tells me over the phone. “The progression has been very unique to our journey. It’s allowed us to process things very slowly. It’s all relative but, for us, it’s been a perfect kind of pace to understand each little step and to appreciate it in smaller increments.”
How Can I Serve?
A few years ago, the Avett Brothers were having a problem.
The band was in the studio recording their would-be commercial hit, “I and Love and You.” Seth and Scott, along with their standup bassist Bob Crawford, stood puzzled in the control room. Something was wrong with a key part of a song. None of them, including the quiet man hunched over a galaxy of knobs and dials, Rick Rubin, could put their finger on it. Then Rubin blurted, “Okay, I’ve got an idea, and it might be terrible.”
Avett laughs at this memory. The “terrible idea” story, he says, “describes Rick perfectly.” A-list producers don’t admit to terrible ideas. Rubin’s Zen-like calm and egoless approach meshes with the Avett way. During production of The Carpenter, Rubin—who has worked alongside legends like Johnny Cash and Mick Jagger—taught the Avetts to be patient when exploring new territory. In the case of the “terrible idea,” he did so by example. This helps explain, at least partly, the variety of sounds that carry the album: tender harmonies, lonesome folk ballads, rockabilly, pop-rock bounce. The other part could easily be chalked up to Avett’s range of influences: Louie Armstrong, Sam Cooke, Mos Def, Nirvana, Queens of the Stone Age. A list, Avett says, that “could keep on rollin’.”
Outside the studio, Seth and Scott Avett approach songwriting the Lennon-McCartney way. Some songs are Seth with a touch of Scott (“Paul Newman vs. The Demons”). Some the other way around (“A Father’s First Spring”). Some the brothers write together from top to bottom (“Life”). On writing with his brother, Seth says, “I try to have the Martin Luther King Jr. attitude: ‘How can I serve?’” They have been writing like this since they were teenagers in North Carolina. Only now “we have to work pretty hard to get together, physically, to sit down in the kitchen and look at a song. That’s what our goal is. It’s truly collaborative, and we both prefer that.”
It is hard not to speculate that their intimate songwriting approach has led to commercial success. “Yeah, we’re brothers, and yeah, our voices work well together because we’re kin, but we really do trust each other,” Avett says. “We both know what’s happening in the other one’s life, so when we’re writing about these very emotional, personal things the other one has something to contribute because they’re an insider.”
On an early-winter evening in 2009, Seth and Scott Avett walked into the Time Warner Cable Arena in Charlotte. This time, though, the brothers were members of the audience—not the main act.
That night Bruce Springsteen leapt into a sea of people from a small platform in the center of the arena. He crowd-surfed his way back to the main stage. “It was like studying,” Avett says. “It was like, ‘This is how it’s done—this is how you connect with 30,000-plus.’” It was the beginning of their transition into large-scale rock stars. Avett spent the bulk of his time that night admiring the nuances of Springsteen’s performance: big-screen camera angles, his use of light and sound.
Even during a period when the Avett Brothers consistently played to large crowds, Avett knew he did not have all the answers. Fortunately for the group, they have eased into their arena-rock role. Referring to the band’s landmark Bonnaroo set, Seth jokes, “If you would have plucked us out of 2004 and put us in front of 50,000 people, we would have just crumpled.”
The band is used to the magnitude of their success, but the essence of performing music is the same as it was in the beginning. “The vibe is a little different because it is more of a grand kind of scale,” Seth says, “but it’s no less potent.”
To date, the band has played well over 2,000 concerts. Those are Grateful Dead numbers. Hippie jokes aside, it took the Avetts 12 years to do what the Dead did in 30, and they are showing no signs of slowing.
“At this point, the great value of touring is meeting people and writing for people. I mean, I can’t stop—as far as writing songs and playing ’em for people. Yeah, it’s a career for me, it’s a living, but it’s all about connecting with people. That joy. Looking out and seeing people having joy and being able to provide it for them. At this point, it’s not about people seeing me and thinking I’m cool; that all seems kind of gross to me now.”
Scott Avett once told an interviewer, “As a songwriter, you always have to be one step ahead.” In short, the Avett Brothers are always thinking about their next project. Currently the band is mulling over what to do with the dozen or so fully polished “leftover” songs from The Carpenter sessions. The songs are not, Seth says, “something to put in the archives.”
The group may also debut brand new material—songs that are “starting to rear their ugly heads”—on the road this summer. Avett, however, sounds hesitant to make that leap. “Things used to be a lot easier,” he says in regard to our instant-upload culture, “before the Internet started sabotaging everything.” In other words, songs cannot mature and evolve on tour like they used to. As Ezra Koenig of Vampire Weekend made clear in a recent Rolling Stone interview, many bands now find themselves in this position. However, Avett admits that “for our own sanity we need to play new things.” In this case, live debuts must be as YouTube-ready as possible. This challenge, Avett says, is “what keeps us excited.”
As my conversation with Seth winds down, I tell him how much I personally enjoy The Carpenter. “So much so,” I add, “that my three-year-old son has already memorized a lot of the words.”
Avett pauses. “Thank you, brother,” he says. “That means the world to me.”blog comments powered by Disqus
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