The Avett Brothers
There is no harmony like brotherly harmony. Something indelible in the weave of voices and play of sensibilities is stamped into the fraternal DNA and also stems from a lifetime of shared experiences. You can hear it in classic brother acts across the musical spectrum, from the Louvin Brothers to the Everly Brothers and on down the decades through the Wilson brothers (Beach Boys), the Davies brothers (Kinks), the Allman Brothers and even the Brothers Gibb (a.k.a., the Bee Gees). You can clearly hear fraternal magic at work in the songs of Scott and Seth Avett, better known as the Avett Brothers, as well.
That magic is abundantly evident on I and Love and You, the Avett BrothersÍ big-label debut. Its 13 songs are delivered in a style that defies pigeonholing but might be described as a rootsy amalgam of folk, country, bluegrass, rock and pop _ even a jab of punk-style dynamics here and there. Drawn by the naked honesty of their songs and the rousing intensity of their live shows, legendary producer and talent scout Rick Rubin signed the Avett Brothers _ consisting of siblings Scott and Seth, plus bassist Bob Crawford – to his American Recordings label in 2008.
ñAs soon as I heard the depth in their singing and songwriting, I was in for the ride,î says Rubin, who has worked with some of the most talented mavericks in the business, including Johnny Cash, Tom Petty and The Dixie Chicks. ñThe AvettsÍ songs have such a sincere emotional resonance. The purity of the messages stops you in your tracks. ItÍs unusual to hear such open-hearted personal sentiment from young artists today.î
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By the time Rubin found them, the Avett Brothers had compiled their own impressive track record. TheyÍd already issued five full length albums and two EPs, on their managerÍs Ramseur Records label. They debuted in 2001 with a self-titled six-song EP and then issued a full-fledged album, Country Was, a year later. The heart of their catalog is the albums that followed: Mignonette (2004), Four Thieves Gone (2006) and Emotionalism (2007), which offered a generous 49 songs among them. The Avett BrothersÍ latest release, an EP called The Gleam II, reached #82 on BillboardÍs Top Albums chart in 2008 _ quite a showing for an independent CD with minimal marketing and publicity.
Over the years, the Avett Brothers built up a sizable following based on their rowdy, infectious stage shows. In concert, the high-flying ensemble tears through tunes with unbridled energy, popping banjo and guitar strings right and left while inciting stomping singalongs among audiences that appear to know every word. At times they would seemingly create their own subgenre onstage – ñpunkgrass,î for lack of a better word. This much is for certain: the Avett Brothers are a grassroots phenomenon, built from the ground up. I and Love and You marks the point at which theyÍre poised, with perfect timing, to break through to a broader audience.
I and Love and You was rehearsed and recorded at the Document Room, located high on a hillside in Malibu, California. After cutting discs at various spots around their native North Carolina for eight years, the Avett Brothers were ready to take on the challenge of making an album at a top-of-the-line studio on the far side of the continent. The brothers were hardly unfamiliar with the Golden State, as theyÍd been visiting family in the Sacramento area since childhood and had gigged around California in recent years. But working with Rick Rubin in Malibu represented a giant step forward.
ñA benefit of making the record in California is that it switched everything up,î says Seth. ñIt helped put us in the mind set that weÍre starting a new chapter. WeÍre looking to make a record in a different way than we have in the past, and we want to be open to these new methods. ThereÍs no better way to try something new than to work in a place youÍve never been.î
The results speak for themselves. From the 17 songs they cut with Rubin, 13 made the final cut. Rubin sequenced I and Love and You _ the only time the Avetts have delegated that task to someone else. ñThis is the first time we have not been critical of the song sequence,î Scott noted approvingly.
In fact, the Avett Brothers are rightfully proud of I and Love and You in every aspect. It is, they feel, an album theyÍve been building toward. ñYears ago, Seth had told me that he someday wanted to make a record where everything was as crisp and clear and well-produced as it could possibly be,î recalls bassist Crawford. ñAnd with the help of Rick Rubin and [engineer] Ryan Hewitt, weÍve done that.î
ñItÍs how IÍve always wanted our band to sound,î affirms Seth. ñWhat I like is an absolute presentation of clarity. ItÍs not that I want to be glossy, and I donÍt know that we ever could be glossy in the way that some pop artists are. But I love music you can grasp hold of because thereÍs no mistaking what the person is saying and presenting, and I feel like weÍve come the closest to that on I and Love and You.î
Themes that recur on the album have to do with commitment, maturity, and moving forward through life with a positive outlook. I and Love and You has little to do with the ephemeral world of latter-day pop, even if several songs (notably ñKick Drum Heartî and ñSlight Figure of Speechî) are tuneful and catchy enough to merit radio play. The Avett Brothers mean to create music of substance for the long haul. Seth Avett is just under thirty years of age while Scott is slightly over. A lot of what theyÍve been writing about lately has to do with transitioning from youth to adulthood. You can hear this clearly on such songs as ñThe Perfect Spaceî and ñHead Full of Doubt, Road Full of Promise,î thoughtful disquisitions that serve as the albumÍs thematic centerpieces.
ñItÍs hard to tell where some of these songs are coming from and they can have many meanings,î Seth allows, ñbut I think on the whole the album makes some comment on the fact that we are young men, but that youth is fleeting and it goes by very quickly. When youÍre moving out of your twenties and into this time when youÍre hoping to build something, itÍs a beautiful thing and a scary thing. It still feels like things are up in the air like they were in your twenties when everything was up in the air and you didnÍt know what the hell was going to happen and who you were going to be. But during that time you start gaining the tools youÍre going to use in the rest of your life.î
The Avett Brothers have spent much of the past decade nurturing their skill as songwriters, along with their proficiency as vocalists and musicians. Although Seth and Scott are principally identified with acoustic guitar and banjo, respectively, from their live shows, both brothers also play piano, drums and most anything else with strings. (The brothers possess formidable artistic skills, too, and their sketches and paintings adorn their albums.) Clearly, however, songs are the center of the Avett BrothersÍ universe. The brothers turn out songs in profusion. They write them individually, and they write them together. Each might write an entire song, or credit might be split down the middle or any conceivably fractional way. There is no set method to their songwriting. The point is, Seth and Scott generate songs constantly, because thatÍs what they feel that they were born to do.
ñThereÍs not an option,î explains Seth. ñIt feels like a living thing, and if we want to keep it alive, we have to nourish it. There are so many things we have to consider now – the stage show, business issues, our relationship to different people and our fans – but at the heart of it is the songwriting and the connection we have with ourselves and others through that writing. ItÍs an essential and imperative element to our existence.î
ñOn top of all that, itÍs just exciting,î Seth continues. ñScott and I and Bob get these new songs going, and that is our lifeblood. ItÍs obvious weÍve got to keep rolling with it. Whether the records come out or donÍt come out, and whether thereÍs a market or not a market, the important thing is that weÍre writing songs. TheyÍre not just for a release date; theyÍre for posterity.î
The Avett Brothers formed in 2001 in Charlotte, North Carolina when banjoist Scott Avett and guitarist Seth Avett joined forces with standup bass player Bob Crawford. At the time, the brothers fronted a neo-punk band called Nemo. They enjoyed blowing it out on electric instruments but eventually began feeling the tug of the acoustic music theyÍd heard growing up. They were raised in the textile town of Concord, about a half-hour north of Charlotte. Their dad, Jim Avett, had a box of eight-track tapes that Scott and Seth picked through, listened to and digested. It included albums by Bob Dylan, Neil Young, Crosby, Stills & Nash, and JimÍs own folksy duo, Common Decency. Other roots musicians from the folk and country realms filtered into their subconscious, too. Thus, in 2001, the brothers launched an acoustic side band, called Nemo Back Porch Project, for which they added upright bassist Crawford. He recalls the initial meeting with Scott and Seth:
ñThey were wanting to do some of the music they were raised on via their dad, which was old songs by Rambling Jack Elliott, Kris Kristofferson, Hank Williams and Tom T. Hall. I met up with them on a Sunday night in an empty parking lot. I got out my bass, and these two guys showed up in a gold Ford Taurus station wagon wearing flannel shirts and cutoff pants. They were total grunge kids. We sat in the parking lot, just the three of us, and played ïGoing Down the Road FeelinÍ BadÍ and ïMore Pretty Girls Than One.Í Then they showed me an original song called ïKind of in Love,Í and it was very interesting. It wasnÍt like any of those traditional songs. Different chord structure, with all these minor substitution chords. I was like, ïThis is really unique.Íî
From there, NemoÍs acoustic sideshow blossomed into the main attraction, and the Avett Brothers were born out of it. Still and all, while they built up a loyal following around their home state in places like Charlotte, Greenville and Chapel Hill, they werenÍt exactly setting the woods on fire beyond those pockets of regional fandom, and Scott and Bob forged ahead with plans to attend graduate school in the fall of 2002. However, there was one unfinished piece of business in CrawfordÍs mind.
ñI said, Listen guys, IÍve always wanted to go on the road with a band,Íî Crawford recalls. ñÍIf I book a tour, will you guys go? Can we just go on the road for a couple weeks this summer?Í And they were like, ïPeople have said things like this to us before, but if you do it, weÍll do it.Íî And so Crawford got on the Internet and booked a month-long 21-city tour. They camped out or slept in the truck when they couldnÍt find a floor to sleep on, subsisted on peanut butter and banana sandwiches, and returned home with $4,000 and a flock of new fans in 21 cities. The Avett Brothers were off and running, and grad school got shelved.
Live shows remain the Avett BrothersÍ calling card. In the spring of this year, they opened selected dates for the Dave Matthews Band. On their own, theyÍve filled a 7,000-seat venue in Cary, North Carolina, and sold out two nights at the Crystal Ballroom in Portland, Oregon _ one of their strongholds. In June 2009, they performed back-to-back sellouts at New YorkÍs Fillmore East.
With I and Love and You, theyÍve also taken a giant step forward on the recording front. Whereas theyÍd previously opted for a first-take freshness, now they wanted to proceed at a more deliberate pace, taking advantage of the options that RubinÍs wisdom, a bigger budget, a better studio and more time allowed them. In short, while theyÍd always tried to bottle their live magic in the studio, this time they set about making a more nuanced and well-crafted record.
ñWe were totally up for spending more time on it,î says Scott. ñAs time goes on, you become more critical about your work. And the more critical you become, the more willing you are to explore the options. We did a lot of revising and reworking in the studio. For instance, it was like ïLetÍs try drums in this part.Í ïNo, that wonÍt sound good.Í ïWell, how do you know, we havenÍt tried it?Í ïOkay, youÍre right, letÍs try it.Í There was a lot more of that going on.Íî
In harnessing the tools available to them in the service of the strongest set of songs theyÍve written so far, the Avett Brothers have surpassed themselves on I and Love and You. ThereÍs really no great secret or magic formula for what theyÍve achieved here. It comes down to honoring inspiration with an awful lot of hard work. ñThe brothers have an incredibly strong work ethic,î affirms Rick Rubin, ñand they continually worked at honing their craft. Hearing brothers who have sung their whole lives together _ singing the truth _ was a revelation each new day.î
ñWe know what weÍre worth, and weÍve been campaigning for a long time to be heard,î notes Scott without false modesty. ñRick is helping that by sitting up and saying, ïLet me work with you.Í We can tip our hats and pat ourselves on the back momentarily and say, ïGood job guys, we have been heard by somebody whoÍs been heard by a lot of people, and heÍs let us in his camp.Í I really look at it as a positive thing and a good milestone. And when it comes time for the next step, weÍll do our best again and keep moving.î
ñWeÍll just keep writing our songs and making our records, and how it goes is how it goes,î concludes Seth. ñWeÍre trying our hardest and having some fun doing it, and thatÍs all it needs to be.î