The year has been a big one for North Carolina's Avett Brothers. They released the follow-up record to their breakthrough I and Love and You. They toured extensively internationally and domestically. They joined Bob Dylan and Mumford and Sons onstage at the Grammy Awards. They also experienced tragedy -- bassist Bob Crawford's young daughter was diagnosed and began treatment for a brain tumor. I spoke with lead singer and brother number one, Scott Avett, about traveling songs, his work as a visual artist and new album The Carpenter's growing pains. They'll perform Sunday at the Lawn.
NUVO: I read in Rolling Stone and you said, “I and Love and You was a freshman attempt at chapter two of our existence as a band. This record is another step.” Can you describe this new chapter?
Avett: I've had a lot of time to listen to myself talk lately about all this stuff. It just makes me analyze it beyond anything that makes a lot of sense, but at this point, for one thing, I would have to say that for me to say that how I did is really just speculation anyway, that it is that. It's funny that I used the word attempt, because maybe it was an attempt at something that didn't happen. It's funny how we'll speculate, how we claim that that's what it is. I'll say, that's what it felt like. It felt like we went through a seven-eight year period where we did everything alone, freely and wildly, alone. On our own dime, on our own clock. We came into I and Love and You considering other people's clock and dime — which are one and the same — so with more people involved, I guess I would have to say that the stakes became higher. It became more necessary for us to clearly divide our time. Before, it was all one — we became businessmen by default because it's what we had to do to be able to do what we wanted to do as artists.
As we entered I and Love and You, we became clearly the artist, and let the business get dealt with by those ... who do it. We were able to work freely artistically. As we go in now to the next part of that chapter, I would say, those sort of definitions will just become clearer, in terms of dividing duties, and what it is that we want to do.
NUVO: How does the different sound of the last two Rubin-produced albums — this different chapter — change the live show you've been touring for years?
Avett: The songs we've worked very hard on to perform very correctly, note-wise and tempo wise — live is where that all gets 1) put to the test and 2) broken down. Some parts of it need to be thrown to the wind. Seth and I have been on a progression since we started making records; we really just wanted to make a better record every time we made one. A lot of that package is — let's don't sing flat notes, and if we do, let's go back and try harder. Don't let that bad note go, let's correct it. Instead of five takes, let's do twenty-five. Instead of 20, let's do 50. That's why that has happen. Live, you don't get five takes of 25 takes. I think that's been our bread and butter, in regards to what we've been able to do and what we shine doing.
NUVO: There's two of my favorite songs that have voicemails in them (“Pretty Girl from Chile” and “If It's the Beaches.” Are those real voicemails? If so, did the ladies in those voicemails approve the use of those?
Avett: (laughs) Yes, they certainly are. I cleared it with both of them before. One of those ladies is my wife, so it was not as difficult to clear; the other is a dear friend that works with me on an artistic level in my studio. I've worked with several models and she was a friend who worked with me and who I got to know very well and cared deeply for. It's a level of exploitation that you certainly feel very nervous about before you ... release them. Both of them I felt pretty nervous about. It's funny you bring that up — we just did “Pretty Girl from Chile” the other night in Baltimore, and instead of using the original voicemail, we used one in German from Pete, our light engineer's mother. There's really an opportunity there to exploit these beautiful, real things that happen (laughs).
NUVO: I've been a fan for forever and have seen you live several times. One thing that really stuck out for me was the pairing between sons, whether lyrically or by title of the song. Some of those are “Ballad of Love and Hate” and “Colorshow”; “November Blue” and “Denouncing November Blue”; “If It's the Beaches” and “I Would Be Sad.” Do you see those second songs as codas?
Avett: Seth and I would describe that as just a continuation of a conversation between us and ourselves and us and our listeners, whoever is listening and whoever does care. Not everybody would, and sometimes even you, me, and anybody close to it would. It is a continuation — it is our voice. Sometimes we say certain things in certain ways and for them not to repeat over time would probably be contrived, because they would be repeated.
"If It's the Beaches"
NUVO: Were those choices intentional?
Avett: It was something that happened, and then the intentional aspect of it would be us asking, “Should we put this out there? Is this retreading?” And then us kind of holding each other to it; saying, “Yeah, yeah, this is keeping honor to each other.”
NUVO: So many of your songs are about leaving, or being left, or traveling, or going somewhere together. Do you feel like that's a result of the touring lifestyle — or something else?
Avett: Sure. We were brought up with a notion to get up and move, and move a lot. Not necessarily move your home — just movement activity in general. My father has always been a very active person. He didn't tour, although he was a musician, but he was always traveling as a welder. He built bridges. He would take jobs in Georgia, Tennessee, Virginia. He was gone for two weeks at a time. I think we just watched that and it was part of our growing up. This moving was some of it. It can be something very dangerous or something that's very healthy as well.
NUVO: You obviously play a lot of instruments; you guys shift a lot between instruments onstage. What instrument brings you the most joy to play?
Avett: On stage, I would have to say it's way, way less about joy. I can't really stop and enjoy too much because there's a huge level of distraction that happens if I let my guard down. I really do believe that we're on stage to hold up our end of the deal which is to deliver the songs with intensity and purpose. Sometimes the songs conceptually don't need that, and that’s fine. As far as joy, off stage, the banjo has been a really exciting instrument to explore, to this day, i'm deeper in exploration with the banjo than any other instrument. When i'm writing, thinking in terms of concepts and narratives, the piano is much more calming tool, more enjoyable to write with than the banjo. Even the guitar too, but the guitar is good as well.
You know what? You just made me answer the question. I was thinking through all the instruments that I play onstage and the drums are like — you just get up there and you don't have to think at all. You just deliver.
NUVO: This is a question from a reader who is a painter. She wants to know what kind of paint you use. She wants to paint her banjo.
Avett: (laughs) I have to say, I pay no attention to the paint I use. I just kind of go with whatever; I settled on as high quality acrylic as I can. I usually use some kind of wash or glaze using water with it. I cover it with a polyurethane. That's probably a terrible idea. I don't really know what would be the best for it. I think it really really deadens the sound of the banjo. It can really do not goo things (laughs) for the sound, or the tone. If it's just decorative, I would say use whatever you want to use. I would not use oil paint; that would not be a good idea. (laughs)
NUVO: Are you totally sick about talking about your painting?
Avett: No, not at all.
NUVO: All right. I just had the chance to see a huge Caravaggio exhibit. It reminds me so much about the type of work that you do; I've read that you're inspired by him. What is it about Caravaggio that inspires you?
Avett: Well, aesthetically — I guess that would fall into the chiaroscuro category that Rembrandt also fell into — highlight, one light source, very dark, black walls, some sort of blacked out room — it's something that I have explored and am interested in. I love it very much. Overall, conceptually and aesthetically as a package, the direct and very harsh — what we would maybe describe as truth, maybe, maybe it's not — and direct nature of Caravaggio's work as well as a fair amount of Rembrandt's, is something I've always been drawn to. Where compositions can get so complicated — i've been known to talk about how I want to do these large, multiple-figure compositions and I have had some attempts at this in different mediums, I always come back to a very simple subject matter. Being just a portrait or two figures. But the boldness and directness of that seems to always translate. It never fails.
In music there's some of the same things happening, as far as old-time music. There's a band that I saw live maybe 10-12 years ago, Mr. Bungle, which is a very complex and complicated set up, lots of instruments. I could go there and be very very moved by it, but how could I then be moved by just a banjo and a voice, Roscoe Holcomb or Charlie Poole? Just simple and direct delivery and exchange that seems to be something that is in Caravaggio's paintings — simple and straightforward, here it is, this is the hard truth of it. That has never failed to be entertaining to the eye, or shocking at times, as old as it is.
One last thing about that. I am a true believer that, i've had help with articulating this from other writers like John Ruskin, that interpretation of nature is really the answer in art. The answer to what good art may be. I'm not convinced of that surely, but i've got a feeling that if we're making art for art's sake, that's just a decay of this whole thing. And music falls in that same realm. There's got to be some kind of natural foundation or starting point. Things can get very far from what we recognized after that — not in a Caravaggio painting, that's very clearly an interpretation of something very natural and very hard.
NUVO: You've already turned over a lot of personal creations in your music. How did you decide to turn over the artist element in I and Love and You [in the album art, which is portraits of the band painted by Avett]. How did you decide to be okay with turning over that art, and what was it like seeing it in Target, in Starbucks? Was that even something that occurred to you as something you didn't want to do?
Avett: We're very specific about all of these decisions. In fact, selling records in Target was something that was thought of heavily. We pined over that. It's been a good thing because it got music to whoever goes to target to buy music. It sold many many records there, and I bet you there will be people within that group that found something they really like. Or maybe something they didn't really like!
I'm pretty specific. I do not give over what I would consider — there's a category in my life for fine art that would not be turned over on a commercial level. It just would not be. In what we do with the Avett Brothers, we just never say never with that. The idea is that [the music] gets out to as many people as possible, and to be prejudiced towards an outlet to get something good in the world is sort of counter-productive. Not sort of, it is counter-productive.
But there's a time and place. If something is a one of a kind, it doesn't need to sell in Target. Target is a really fun place to shop, but there's one of a kind things and they don't want to be there.
"Colorshow" by The Avett Brothers
NUVO: I read a few years back that you were taking commissioned portraits —
NUVO: I can just imagine the fan deluge [of commissions] that would pour in...
Avett: You know, I stopped doing that. That was a bridge between — there was a time when I had my feelers out all over town, thinking, “How can I remain an artist? How can I remain creative?” I did do several really bad commissions. I saw some of them that I did at acquaintance's houses, friend's houses. And I think, “I would really like to take that back and re-work that,” but there's no way I can do that work anymore, for good or for bad.
It's the same thing musically. I've changed quite a bit — but no, I haven't done a commission in quite some time. As soon as I could free that drive and allow what I do visually to be totally in control, I walked away from that.
NUVO: Do you have any songs or versions of songs recorded that you would really like to take back?
Avett: You know, I have to say song-wise, there's nothing. I can sing some things much better than what I did in the past, but something in me is convinced that everything we've done has been exactly as it should be. I'm much more critical visually. In visual, I think, this is right or wrong. In music, I think, i've harnessed this thing that delivers and channels it, and what lands, it lands correctly. I can only look forward; I can't look back from it. I don't know what that's different for me.
NUVO: Let's talk about festivals. You're going to be at Austin City Limits, I believe. What's the perspective of festivals vs. playing your own shows? Bigger party, less intimacy, what is it like?
Avett: All of those things. About a month ago we were realizing that we had maybe 34 or 35 shows left in the fall, looking at the list and only 4 or 5 of them were indoors. The rest were outdoors. We've gotten very comfortable and used to the festival vibe and the festival scene. That being said, they're always different. There's always some vibe or element to the festival show that shakes things up a bit. It's kind of nice to throw things to the wind, and at a festival, you can do that. Let go a little bit. At this point in my life, I'm much more about the letting go approach, and less about trying to control it all. That's such a hopeless endeavor. I do like the wild nature of the festival. I like the camaraderie, the difference in billing. We played the other week in Atlanta with Joan Jett, T.I., The Avett Brothers and the Foo Fighters.
NUVO: I wish I would have gone to that show!
Avett: It was amazing, just amazing. There were so many people there, and they were so enthusiastic. That really does a lot.
NUVO: Along the same lines, let's talk about playing the Grammy Awards [in 2011] with Mumford and Sons and Bob Dylan. Did you ever think you would be in that spot with those people?
Avett: Well, yeah. I always assumed that I would be, Talking about that first chapter, that was the moment of indication for us that, “Hey, you will be where you're supposed to be, but it's not going to be fast or given to you the first three years of your existence.” As a child, I never really doubted that people would know about what I made and what I do. I always thought it was supposed to be heard, supposed to be seen. I thought I was supposed to be famous or something like that. I realized when I started thinking less about that and more about, “Hey, I want to make really great songs, and I really love making work, art,” then I kind of put the assumption that I was supposed be something other than what I was, famous, away. Then, it started building. And after, literally after nine or ten years, we found ourselves on the Grammy's, and mind you, not being nominated for a Grammy. Just there to perform. Even that was a very convoluted way of being there. I always, I don't know, kind of assumed that I would stand near Bob Dylan at some point. I just kind of did. I don't know why
NUVO: Did you always assume you'd be standing next to him with your brother?
Avett: Yeah, I think I did. I probably assumed it would be with my entire family or something. We grew up together; we're very tight-knit. We just kind of incorporated each other in everything we did.
NUVO: Can you see yourself having a large musical exploration without Seth?
Avett: Seth and I have very, very different ideas on a lot of things, including music. We have very different aesthetic; but we love a lot of the same things too. There's probably music that needs to be made that probably Seth wouldn't want to make. I would assume some of the things I would want to make would be a little harder to listen to for a lot of people. But I think that could be something necessary. Both Bob and Seth have released two or three, maybe more, of their own things. I've been reluctant to do that, but it may be something I have to do eventually, if I get cornered.
NUVO: I love it. Why all the live?
Avett: (laughs) Well, that album, we wanted to do something like The Band or Neil Young's Tonight's the Night. But we didn't really study what it takes to make something like that. We just assumed, we'll take recording equipment, rent a house deep somewhere that's remote and be left alone to our work. Kind of The Shining kind of vibe — we'll be all locked up and it will be great. From there, Four Thieves Gone. We had to fix up some things, record things here and there in the studio.
The reason would be [for all the live material] is that through all the years, we didn't have access to really terrific studios, or producers. We were producing everything ourselves. What we understood was performing with the band and singing the song you wrote. We didn't really know how to engineer a record professionally. So we went about it the way we knew, using the resources we could gather and that were available to us. And for the most part, that was a relatively live approach.
You make a good point about Four Thieves Gone, which is probably the record that I gravitate towards the most as far as what we've made, as far as character and color. I think that record has a lot, I really do. I think it has a lot to offer — maybe too much to offer. It's long.
We've just been developing in front of people. If Rick Rubin had found us years earlier and said, I want to make a record with you, you would have seen us in a studio of that caliber much earlier and in a lot of ways, all ways, i'm very grateful that we weren't.
NUVO: How do you respond to The Carpenter — obviously there's a lot of meditations on life and death. I know there have been a lot of questions about Bob's daughter, and how that informs your last year of recording and writing. How accurate do you see a lot of interpretations of this album?
Avett: The main point about Bob's daughter, about Hallie, is that everything happened with her, and we had already finished the album. We were done recording it. There was maybe one voice that I changed and a few guitar parts that Seth added. That's a key things.
You know, we really recorded two albums of music and they covered a lot of ground. As far as all the interpretations, and we've gotten more interpretations than we've ever had, i'm just so thankful for all the commentary. I'm so grateful for all of the brilliance and all of the negativity and positivity. It's terrific to have people out there to remind me of the good and the mistakes that I make. (laughs)
NUVO: Would you ever consider releasing that second batch of songs?
Avett: We have all intentions to. The b-side to the single, there's a song called “The Clearness is Gone,” and that's one of them. There's still probably eight that are sitting. Conceptually, they make sense somehow. Now, we're sitting back and thinking, you know, it probably took us so long because we finished all of those songs. We probably would have been finished much earlier if we hadn't had so much quantity. Now it's kind of thinking about whether we put them out as a whole, or put them out one by one. It would be nice for the fans to do that. It would be interesting to me.
As far as all the commentary, there's some stuff that people just miss entirely what our intention was. But the idea sometimes, maybe they get it and I don't. I try and put the divider up and let it roll, and realize it has nothing to do with the big picture at all.
NUVO: When's your next big break? Will you have the winter off?
Avett: We'll get off the road at the beginning of November. Hopefully in the November and December months there were be some contemplation and some quiet. There will be a second wave of going out and representing this album after we rehearse through some of the early winter. When we go out next year, it will be a different ballgame. We'll do international markets, i'm sure. We'll hit places where the album has had a chance to sit for a while with people. People react different to an album after it's lived with people a while. They become closer to it; it becomes closer to them. It's an interesting thing. But there will be some quiet time this winter.
But i'm very happy working right now. I'm happy performing. The songs are growing in a developmental way.
Let me say this. I have this dog that is a year old. I really love dogs. I find them very fascinating. I find there's this four month to eight month window that's really crucial in developmental part of a dog's life. It kind of dictates their later life, from what I'm seeing. And, I could be off — it's just my perspective. It's kind of funny how this album, as we start playing these songs live, that there are some critical and fragile moments happening right now. It's similar in life to that. I'm sure you could say that people too, not just dogs —
NUVO: I'd prefer to talk about dogs.
Avett: Me too. We can talk bad about them without them giving us a hard time.
NUVO: Is your live show incorporating a majority of The Carpenter right now?
Avett: Yes, we're playing most of it right now.
NUVO: How do you decide how to incorporate what parts of the old material to incorporate into the set list?
Avett: We try not to add the new material just because it's new. We try to still sequence the shows in a way that either tells a story — I love thinking of things like that, chronologically. Writing a story for one night, or colors, or up and down or day and night. We try not to get into too much of anything, as well as try not to be too erratic on stage. New or old songs, it's kind of beside the point. The new ones we play because we want to get to know better, but the old songs are always finding their way in. it's a bigger picture, not just how many old songs, how many new songs. It's how does the set feel tonight, how does the moment feel?
NUVO: Do you feel a lot of fan pressure to play maybe “I and Love and You” or “Head Full of Doubt/Road Full of Promise?”
Avett: We don't feel any pressure because we've never really had big radio singles. Internationally, though; one night in Oslo, I got accosted by a fan because we didn't play “I and Love and You” and we had just released it. We just weren't thinking in those terms; but in Norway, it was kind of opposite. They really knew that was our identity to them. They didn't know the backstory of us. It was a very small club, a rocking' show. He came to me and really just put his finger into my chest. A very big, Scandinavian man. I thought, “Oh my gosh.”
"Head Full of Doubt/Road Full of Promise" by The Avett Brothers
NUVO: That's not the best way to get someone to play a song you want to hear.
Avett: We went backstage and they were cheering for a second encore, and I said, we've got to go back out, we've got to go back out —
NUVO: Oh, it worked?
Avett: Well, he wasn't mean. He was just like, “What are you doing? You have to?” But it was also paired with a blunt, large hand on my chest, with him looking down on me. I thought, why are these people so handsome and big here?
NUVO: Speaking of good-looking people, can you tell me about the “Pretty Girl” series?
Avett: The first was a cute little story. The song was called, “A Song for ______” The name, not to exploit the name of the person, because of the nature of the relationship, Seth said, “Well, why don't we do 'Pretty Girl' from somewhere?” And this is very similar to how we write songs, he said this, and I said, “Well, we could do Pretty Girl from all over, and it would be like the Yodels that Jimmie Rodgers did.” At the time, we were really studying Jimmie and doing a lot of his songs. We thought, we could do this and it could carry on a long time and be viewed as one of those Blue Yodels.
We of course talked about how one day we could do a collected albums of Pretty Girl songs, collected and a couple of new ones, and it could be this nice thing. I was told when I was in art school that a valid approach to painting is to have three or four paintings while you're working in your studio. While one is drying, work on the next; have them all out. And that opened the door that is left open that we could revisit and revisit.
NUVO: And in your paintings, I believe I've read often you'll do a portrait and then you'll incorporate that character into a scene.
Avett: That's something i'm interested in. I have this romantic idea that kind of like Art Crumb does with comics, with oil paintings over the span of a life they'll be these narrative paintings that i'll keep revisiting as they get older, and I get older, and my life gets older and my world gets older. People could follow that. Maybe that will happen.
NUVO: If you can pull that off, that's quite the feat.
Avett: If one of my thousand ideas happen — I'm lucky if one of them happens.
NUVO: All right, last question. This is something as a writer that I love to ask. What are you so sick of reading about your band?
Avett: Hmmmm...(pauses). I guess you assume, and you're probably right, that anyone in a band that has things written about them, can't help but indulge in looking at them. I don't know..I guess the bluegrass thing is kind of overdone.
NUVO: Calling you bluegrass? Using the term?
Avett: Just involving it in the conversation. It seems unfair to bluegrass, really. It opens off to a whole new list of insults that are probably warranted in that regard. I love really great bluegrass music, but if we were attempting to be bluegrass musicians, we'd be straight up butchers. That's really all there is to it.
I can't control or spend more than a little bit of time thinking about what people write. If it feeds me and inspires me, sometimes even if it's negative, it can really be positive. Not everything needs to be positive, and not everybody writes things that are true or good. But it's all fine.
"Ballad of Love and Hate" by The Avett Brothers