The Avett Brothers: Songs of Life and Death

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Scott Avett doesn’t cry often. When he and his brother Seth were growing up in Concord, N.C., just north of Charlotte, their daddy told them, “Don’t cry too much; you’ll run out of tears.” At funerals of people he dearly cared about, as tears flowed all around, Scott would be surprised by his own dry eyes.

What finally broke him was a song. It’s an untitled track that The Avett Brothers recorded with producer Rick Rubin for The Carpenter, though it didn’t make the final cut this time. Before the mixing and mastering, longtime member and stand-up bassist Bob Crawford learned that his then-one-year-old daughter Hallie had a brain tumor. Scott and Crawford each had daughters around the same time, and the song connected with both fathers.

Listening to the new tracks as he drove around Charlotte with his wife proved too much for Scott. “What fatherhood has meant to me—man those things are just so big, just so heavy,” he says. “I don’t really know what songs can do them justice. When you’re in thick of it, the song is an afterthought. When you’re helping your wife through labor or you’re dealing with a sick child, the romance of song is so unnecessary and out of the picture. Then in the afterthought, that song in particular really, really touched me.”

Though they were recorded before the diagnosis, the songs on The Carpenter, many of which deal directly with death, have taken on new meaning for the band. It’s a familiar experience for any fan of the band—listening to elemental stories about everyday struggles, and imbuing them with their own experiences, their own emotional baggage. The Avett Brothers write about all those things we’re all going through.

“I’m almost 32,” says Seth. “Scott’s 36. Bob’s 40. Pretty much, at that age, if you haven’t lost family members, if you haven’t had family members or close friends that have had cancer, you’re an incredibly lucky and rare person. Without getting too much into the details, we’ve all had other family members—older, of course, than Bob’s daughter—that had battled cancer. Some that died because of it, and close friends that have dealt with that and other sicknesses. You know, just the whole thing—love, breakup, divorces, family and friends. The normal stuff of life that we experience and can’t help but let those things become part of our fiber, and consequently become a part of our songs.”

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Scott and Seth Avett started playing together half a life ago—more than half for Seth, who was just 14 when his 18-year-old brother would drive him to Myrtle Beach and find them a place in a strip mall or in the back of the truck to set up and make music. Scott just wanted to get up on stage and entertain people, but Seth had decided at age seven that he wanted to be a musician. “All throughout childhood, it was always in my mind,” the younger brother says, “especially when I got to be 12 or 13 years old. At some point, I was going to be the guitar player in a band, and Scott was going to be the lead singer. We were just going to take over the world and be rock stars.”

When Scott went off to art school, both brothers found other bands to play in, but even in separate cities, they’d send tapes back and forth to help each other finish songs. “I played with other people throughout my teenage years,” recalls Scott, “but I was very vulnerable because or I was very dependent on someone that played an instrument. All I wanted to do was get on stage and talk and entertain and get attention. I didn’t want to practice; I didn’t want to plan; I just wanted to get up there and move, so I always had someone that could play guitar around me. I probably treated people around me badly because I didn’t have any interest in anything but getting on stage, and if anybody could do that with me, then ‘let’s go.’ Seth came along, and he had a different perspective. We were brothers, and we did love each other regardless, so I couldn’t trample on him and he couldn’t trample on me when he got old enough to do it.”

As soon as he finished high school, Seth joined Scott in a rock band called Nemo, but then a 21-year-old Scott learned how to play banjo. “I picked it up originally because I thought it was ironic to the people I hung out with,” says the singer of one of the least ironic bands that’s ever written a song about Brooklyn. “While I was in art school, it was all punk rock—everybody was playing guitars and drums and screaming and attacking the crowd, and we were all doing that scene. But the banjo was something very different, and I instantly loved it. It was kind of the instrument version of my voice. It was loud, and it was aggressive and also tender when it needed to be. I picked it up out of irony but then I instantly loved it, and I don’t think I will ever be able to get enough of it.”

The five-piece rock band Nemo fell apart and with it went the sheer volume of the electric guitars and double-bass drum kit. They began singing songs by Jack Elliott and Woody Guthrie and Jimmy Rodgers and realize they didn’t have noise—or irony—to hide behind. “We started the band as a way to find our natural voices,” says Seth, “and as a bridge to writing songs that had very transparent themes and very understandable lyrics and very discernible melodies—for everything else to be stripped away and for the whole rock-star thing to be completely taken out of the equation.”

But even with the new acoustic set-up (Crawford joined on stand-up bass for their 2002 full-length debut Country Was), those punk and rock roots were never far from the surface. They became known for raucous live shows, tearing into their instruments, shouting choruses from strained throats, and getting ever-growing crowds to shout and dance along.

Still, with the lyrics up front, they began noticing something new after shows. “We made a demo with the first six songs before Country Was,” says Seth, “and right from then, we had just a couple people really relate to us—say that it touched them in some way or related in some way. And so I think that we picked up pretty quickly early on that if we write about our own experiences that we have personal connections to or struggles or happiness, just different experiences in our lives that actually occurred, that we’re not so different. I’m not so different than anyone else. If I have tough things going in my life, or good things going in my life, someone might hear that and relate to that, and understand that perfectly.

“Sometimes, when I’m listening to music that I really love,” he continues, “a lot of times it’s because I can relate to what I’m hearing. I can understand what that artist is saying. It’s been very humbling, because we have had folks say ‘this song helped me through when I was starting recovery from alcoholism’ or something like that. As a songwriter, you’re just sitting there going, ‘Really? How in the world were you able to parlay this song—this little melody that turned into a song—how were you able to parlay that into a tool? Like a weapon, to use, in a battle that you needed to use it for?’ It’s weird because, when I was younger, I would have taken that more as a compliment about myself. Like, ‘Wow, I’m the man.’ But really, it’s quite the opposite at this point. I hear it, and it’s like, ‘Man, I don’t really know what to make of it.’ It’s very humbling and it makes me feel a lot of gratitude towards our fans for turning our songs into something usable, and making them something more than just some melody.”

By 2007, the band’s fifth LP, Emotionalism cracked the Billboard 200. Soon after, Rick Rubin and Columbia Records came courting. The result was I and Love and You, a divisive album for fans and critics (Paste named it the Best Album of 2009, while Pitchfork gave it a 5.8). Gone were some of the rough edges and low-fi hill-country novelty, but in their place were gorgeous ballads showcasing the songwriting chops that had been there from the start. The album reached Number 16 on Billboard before Mumford & Sons, The Head and the Heart, Of Monsters and Men or The Lumineers had begun filling the radiowaves with banjo strums.

Once again, they enlisted Rubin to produce, but instead of returning to The Document Room in Malibu, Calif., where most of their major-label debut had been recorded, they headed to Echo Mountain in nearby Asheville, N.C., the studio where they made Emotionalism. “It was nice to be home,” says Scott. “It was nice to be in a familiar setting. Because we’ve traveled so much, the idea of home has broadened drastically. That’s a good thing, but I feel we have to indulge in the fact we do feel very comfortable there and that is to our advantage when we are recording because we don’t get distracted.”

“I think on I and Love and You, the transition was very much a part of the experience,” adds Seth. “The lack of familiarity with the surroundings was part of the experience. With The Carpenter, we have our sea legs, so to speak. We’re more comfortable in our setting, and able to really get to work ahead without the newness of a new producer and making a record in Malibu, and all these different types of components that have the potential to be somewhat distracting. We recorded in the mountains of North Carolina, and that’s a place we’ve been going to since we were children. It’s basically home.”

Coming to the recording process with more songs written than ever, they also found they a good measure of variety, from tear-jerking ballads like “Winter in My Heart” to bouncing piano ditties like “I Never Knew You” and “Geraldine” to “Paul Newman vs. The Demons,” which trades the regular lineup of acoustic instruments for a rock wall of sound. If it’s a return to the bands roots, it goes back farther than the first EP to earlier bands like Nemo.

“With the variety of songs, it’s just the product of us trying to be as genuine, and as honest, and as in contact with our current selves, I guess,” says Seth. “I think that our history has made us more able to feel relatively comfortable with presenting a song like ‘Paul Newman Versus the Demons.’ I think that it doesn’t feel like our past. It feels like a current song, or sort of like a modern version of us in some ways. But our minds are all over the place, and our influences are all over the place. They’re bound to make their way in. I don’t know if that makes our record erratic or not. I just know that we like variety on records, and so for us it makes sense to show a lot of sides.

“It’s a weird thing also,” he adds, “because on songs like that, we try our hardest to be relatively unaware and undaunted by an audiences’ remarks. But there’s no denying that a song that, will split people right down the middle. There’ll be people that like it, hopefully, and people that just hate it. But part of changing and part of letting the art drive the bus is just getting behind it. We just try to serve the songs. We try to wash ourselves of any kind of preconceived notions about, ‘Oh, well we’re an Americana band that can’t play a song that has distorted guitars in it.’ We just try to let the songs come naturally and then serve them as well as we can.”

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Hallie just celebrated her second birthday, but she’s by no means out of the woods yet. Seth describes her condition at her age as “the Wild West” of the medical frontier, but also says, “She’s a very strong, very surprising little girl.” So it’s rare that Crawford is able to join the rest of the band on tour for more than a date or two at a time. Langhorne Slim’s Paul DeFiglia has filled in on stand-up bass on the road. But the specter of her struggle is never far from the brothers.

“Logistically speaking, what’s happened with Bob’s daughter has changed the way we view life,” says Seth. “It’s changed everything. For Bob it’s been an absolute earthquake. Emotionally, physically, it’s just been a game-changer—which would be an understatement. We’ve all learned from it. It’ll make its way into our understanding of life, which will make its way into our music. It’s our songwriting; it’s our art-making process. We try to do the big picture just as well as we can and to integrate that as is necessary and as is appropriate. Following Bob’s lead, we do understand that it’s not a cause to stop, to give up. If anything, it’s a reason to continue on and to use it however we can.”

The new songs were already some of the most personal songs written by either Seth or Scott, but they now carry additional weight for the band. “Because we associate so much of what happened around the recording time,” says Scott, “listening to it to us will be very different than anybody else because we were recording those sounds [right before] a time that flipped our lives upside down and changed our perspective forever. Then we added things and changed some verses and lyrics here and there. ‘Winter In My Heart’ is basically about first-hand living through the effects depression and anxiety and real mental challenges that we all have that are so confusing. I don’t think we realized what we had done as far as revealing—we just didn’t hold back any lyrically and conceptually.”

For both Scott and Seth, though, the vulnerability is in the writing. Once it’s time to get on stage, they both now see their job as getting out of the way of the songs and delivering them to an audience that will bring their own experiences to the encounter. It’s a process that hasn’t ceased to cause Seth wonder.

“Melodies are very disposable,” he says. “It doesn’t matter so much until someone takes it and uses it and translates it into their life. For folks to do that with our songs is just an incredible experience. I can’t really put it into words. I know that I’m really thankful for it. I know that it gives me fuel to make more art. We never could have imagined that that would be a part of our experience as far as making songs and singing them to people. It has turned into one of the more important parts of the whole experience.”

A couple weeks back, The Avett Brothers played the Alaska State Fair. It was the band’s first trip to Alaska, and there was palpable energy between band and audience. For the encore, they played “Living of Love,” a tender ballad about finding hope in love in desperate times, before switching gears to the rowdier “Talk on Indolence.”

During “Living of Love,” Scott noticed a woman in the audience start crying, and he could tell that it wasn’t just because of the song, but because of something it triggered in her life she was dealing with. “It was very disarming to me to watch this,” he says. “It felt very heavy. So I watched, and she stayed buried in her friend’s arms the entire time, and she came back up, and you could tell that it was something rough in her life. And then, of course, we kick into this other thing, and everyone around her is kind of going crazy, and it’s almost like nobody around her even noticed what I was noticing there. And then she started bouncing out of it and breaking out of it and dancing. And all the crying turned into this sort of battle cry and this awesome joyful thing that was happening. I and her and Seth—everybody was just kind of part of that, taking part in it. It was so much more about what is between [all of] us than her or me or him and me. That moment, that connection is great proof to me whenever I get a bit lost, wondering what in the world I’m doing or who I’m playing to.”

That connection between stage and audience is where The Avett Brothers excel. You can feel it in their shows or on any of their live albums. There’s a moment on Live Vol. 3, when Seth responds to the cheering crowd in their home state, “I don’t know why we ever leave.” And now, The Avett Brothers have been on the receiving end of having these songs trigger life’s joys and sorrows. More than ever, they understand what a song can mean. And they know they’re not going to run out of tears.

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