The Avett Brothers' Seth Avett on Rick Rubin, political fans, and the band's legacy
Courtesy of American Recordings
Basilica Block Party 2012 lineup
The Avett Brothers are knuckle-scraping live performers, clever songwriters, and Southern charmers. Their record company wants you to know they'll unveil the highly anticipated The Carpenter, another carefully constructed affair with producer Rick Rubin, this fall.
But did you also know the North Carolina alt-country act are also decent meteorologists, and that merch sales can fluctuate depending on which political party is in the White House? Ahead of the Avetts' show at this weekend's Basilica Block Party, Gimme Noise confirmed these facts and more during a chat with the amiable Seth Avett, the younger bro of the two. He was candid and relaxed while enjoying a rare ten-day gap in the band's non-stop touring.
City Pages: Just thinking about it now, the Avett Brothers really are quite the festival band. You guys always seem prepared for just about anything that inevitably goes wrong at them.
SA: I don't think it's anything we've ever thought about or had a band meeting to figure out what to do when different obstacles come up. We just learn to roll with the punches, really. We try and do that in every situation, but in this outdoor situation, even the most professional, highly attended, highly regarded festivals are still, to some extent, kind of thrown together. Everything is really touch and go. The set up is really quick. The whole deal, we rarely get a sound check. Gear is always falling apart. We just learn that we need to have a good time. Period.
We play our songs and find the spirit and the joy of singing and playing songs for folks. If a guitar stops working, or the sound is terrible, or whatever, you just have to be able to look beyond it. And when you start tapping into the vibe of the people, the great thing about a festival is the vibe is so celebratory. It's not about you putting on the most perfect and refined set of your life. it's about being there and joining in the celebration -- enjoying it and not being stuck inside your own head or in your own annoyances about things not working. I think over the years, I've gotten better and better at immediately letting go of that kind of stuff. Sound is, again, never great but that's not what it's about. [laughs]
CP: When I saw you guys in Orlando, the sun was setting as you were playing "Head Full of Doubt/Road Full of Promise." So like the lyric says, the darkness really was upon us. Do you guys plan that sort of stuff?
SA: It's never a plan, but it's staggering how often things like that do happen. It's a weird thing. We've definitely had a lot of experiences where maybe we mention "rain" in a song and during a song it starts raining. Or in " Love Like the Movies " there's a lyric about being in a moonlit field. We were playing at Wakarusa in Arkansas, and when I was singing that line, this guy told me later that the moon kind of came up from under the clouds. I guess you could make an argument that it's not all coincidental, but it sure is neat. It sure does have a sort of epic effect on the moment.
CP: It's great that those moments aren't lost on you.
SA: It is! And, again, that's part of the greatness of that festival atmosphere. Because within the controlled environment of a venue, you control the lights, you control the cues and when the light is supposed to be more dramatic or when there's supposed to be a spotlight on us. And all that's great. But the spontaneity and the wildness of an outdoor festival is pretty unbeatable.
CP: So on the flipside, playing indoors means a proper sound check and indoor plumbing.
SA: Yeah! Those are great! [laughs] Yeah. We're a big fan of variety. When we're in a stressful situation we love it, when we're in a theatre we love it, or if we're in an arena. You can present, sometimes especially in theatre situations, a much more tender approach, or a more fragile moment. Or gather around a good condenser microphone and get closer to the crowd and sing a song like "The Ballad of Love and Hate" where depending on the personality of the audience, you might really have a great quiet moment where you really connect with people on a very sensitive, tender level. Which is probably not going to happen at a festival.
CP: So you have about ten days off. What does that consist of for you?
SA: That's a constant revision process, man. And it's very comparable to folks that work a more orthodox schedule. For me, the weekend is some of my intense work. I'm gone pretty much all 24 hours of the day. So when I get home, I want to take up responsibility. To make sure to help my wife, you know, get those dishes done or get that trash out to the road, or whatever. It's one of those things that it's good to take part in, but another thing is that I might just get in the way [laughs]. If someone has a weekend, they get into their heads that what they need to do is just sit and watch a good baseball game, or sit on their back porch, or take a nice walk, or whatever. What they're thinking is, "Well this is a big Saturday, but you know what? Today's the day I've got to stain the deck" or "I've got to fix this door knob." I go on this for hours, but basically the idea is, in the time I'm home I try to balance a lot of things and I'm very torn.
One side of me is thinking "I just want to sit in a room with a hot cup of tea and my notebooks and my little recorder and work on songs." Because when I'm on the road, I don't really write. At the same time, it's just more and more music and more and more music. And at the same time that's happening, I'm thinking, "Man, I need to go out to a movie theater and watch a movie and just check out." And I need sit down with family and all this. I know I'm giving you a long answer, but basically what I'm saying is in the next ten days, I have no idea what the hell I'll be doing. Most likely every morning, I'll be getting up early and try to have a good balance of obligations, of creative work and just function.
CP: Switching gears a bit, what do you think is the most essential element that Rick Rubin provides in working with him as a producer for The Carpenter?
SA: Pace is a major element. The pace of not working too fast, not skipping over parts that need more time, need more development, need more attention. Rick is as big on "The record takes as long to make as it's going to take." This record we're making right now is different from any record that's ever been made, we must give it the right amount of time. Previous to that, we basically did everything on our own. We might have ten days to make a record, but by god, whatever we're doing today, that's the record. With I and Love and You, Rick got us to slow down, figure out what's working, figure out what's not working. So yeah, pace is a big one.
And then also really, a motivation or a temperament for experimenting or for fleshing out an idea before you shoot it down. And that's been really valuable. The thing is, with limited time, we got very much in the habit of maybe some guy would say "Hey maybe trumpet would sound good on this song," but then maybe if Scott [Avett] said "Nah, that wouldn't sound good" we would just be like "Aw, forget it" and just move on. But with Rick, it's like "Here's an idea, maybe we'll try trumpet on it" and then we find out if it works and not assume we know, without actually hearing it.
CP: How much do you talk about other projects he's worked on while working on your own?
SA: We were very familiar with some of his work. So we know what to write for, and I'm sure we referenced it some. I know that maybe the simplicity of some of the Cash recordings was brought up, for reference on a song to pursue. We're close with Rick, like I consider him a friend. First time I ever met him, he invited us to his house. We go over to review tracks, listen to demos, and talk about music. Anything is game to talk about. We'll be sitting there listening to something, and I'll say "Well you know, this reminded me of a Fleetwoods song with the vocal work from the '50s." And he says, "Oh, let's pull it up and let me hear what you're talking about."
CP: What do you think about the prospects of putting out The Carpenter during an election year?
SA: A good friend of mine once told me that the only difference he knew between a Republican and Democrat president to a band touring around was that whenever there was a Democrat in office, they sold more merchandise and when there was a Republican they didn't. [laughs] I don't really know how people view us in relation to politics or anything like that. Generally, it's something that we don't speak about at all.
CP: I've got friends on both political sides that enjoy your music.
SA: When we were playing in much smaller places, we learned that these two fans became great friends through us -- through whatever avenues of the internet. Maybe a year or two into their friendship, after meeting together and hanging out and meeting each other's families, they found out that they were extremely opposed in politics. Like one of them, spent his life in the military, and this other person is extremely involved on the left side. And it's mind-boggling how much people can get along and really care about each other and then realize that they're supposed to sort of be at odds with each other.
I think that's also telling about the cliché of music bringing people together. It's very true, it really does happen. An election year always seems like a more electric time, and a more active time. A lot of people [are] expressing their opinions in a lot of different places and a lot of bumper stickers. People will start fights. [laughs]. I don't really know how it will affect our sales, or how it will affect our art.
CP: How often does your cellist, Joe Kwon, need to re-hair his bow? It seems like that thing gets wrecked by midway through a performance.
SA: [laughs]. The more the years pass, the more bows seem to be lying around on the bus. I assume that's just because he's always getting them re-haired. I know that anytime I look over there, and he's sawing away at it, that there's bow hairs flying everywhere. I can only assume that he's restringing them very often. I know that he's got a lot of backups around that get in my way when I'm trying to sit down and have breakfast. [laughs] We're all really hard on our instruments.
CP: What does being a family band -- in the tradition of the Allman Brothers, Oasis, whoever -- make you consider when you think about your legacy?
SA: I can say that I can scarcely remember a time when it wasn't on my mind that Scott and I would be in a band together somehow. I know that at some point, [I] started developing in my mind that I would be moving to Raleigh or somewhere, in my mind, that we could get something going. Pretty much as soon as he and I became friends -- up until the time I was like 12-13 and Scott was like 16-17 we were doing just a very normal older brother/younger brother dynamic. Me being the younger brother that always wanted to hang around with his older brother, and the older brother who would so a "Get away from me, kid" sort of thing. [He] was always real protective of me, I always looked up to him a great deal, but when I became 13-14 year old, we started becoming buddies, like friends.
We wanted to start maybe trying to write songs together. By the way, we wrote a lot of songs that were absolutely horrific. Terrible songs. Not that I'm saying our songs are great now, but as far as developing songwriting, we wrote some god-awful ones. Just wanted to put that out there. So I've always seen us playing together, performing together. I never thought about a "legacy" if you really start gathering some popularity and some momentum as a band that can play big shows and pull a lot of people. We've been at it for almost 11 years now, but the idea of a legacy is... that hasn't really entered my mind ever. And it's not going to now.
We really try to do our day-by-day and to do as well as we can with whatever adventure we're involved in at the moment. I can say that the thing about us being family adds a major component of solidity to what we do. I'm not going to stand on a pedestal or at the podium and proclaim that we're going to be a band for the next 30 years, but I can tell you that Scott and I work together really well in basically every way. We always want to do well for each other and always want to look out for one another. And that translates into our business, the Avett Brothers as a business. On the whole, as far as it being a family, that's sort of a side product of our relationship.
The closeness we have as far as being siblings, luckily for us, within our team, band and crew that has kind of spread outward. Everyone looks out for each other. As far as the tradition of family bands, I don't know. But one thing is for sure, the one thing I'm very confident about is that we will not be in the legacy of brothers that quarreled nonstop and had bouts between them and years where they didn't speak. That I feel like is not going to be the case with Scott and I ever. Hopefully that will translate into a lot more music, but who knows. We just try to do the best we can at the moment.
CP: Well I should probably let you go and get back to thinking about what you're doing with your 10 days off.
SA: [laughs] Oh please no! Don't make me have to go back to sit here all day having to clean. Anything but that, let's just keep sitting here talking!
Basilica Block Party 2012 lineup
The Avett Brothers play on Saturday, July 7 at the Basilica Block Party in Minneapolis, the full lineup is here; 800.745.3000
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