They’re traveling troubadours of the inner workings of the heart and head, these men in their stage suits wielding banjos with the force of weapons.
They communicate all the gray areas and intricacies thereof through simple sonic textures; bluegrass strings join keys, kick drums, sweet crooning and guttural screams. Multi-instrumentalists Seth and Scott Avett, bassist Bob Crawford and cellist Joe Kwon traverse the country, ministering to ever-growing audiences from their book of unabashed balladry, hollerin’ all the way. They are rough around the edges of a center so baldly honest that even their ample facial hair begins to seem unlikely.
If theirs is a formula not many have used before, The Avett Brothers are testing it well now, gradually accumulating legions of loyal fans and releasing five full-length studio records in as many years. As the band prepared to depart Ann Arbor, Mich. for Grand Rapids in May, Paste caught up with Scott to talk about creative consistency, time spent on the road and achieving the unexpected. They’re in the midst of yet another of their incessant tours, hopping from venue to venue, from one frantic crowd to the next.
This particular journey leads the group to a discographical destination as well as a physical one. On July 22, the Avetts will release The Second Gleam via longtime label Ramseur Records. It’s the aptly-named sequel to their only previous EP, 2006’s The Gleam, and it’s a pit stop on the road to their next full-length record, which they’ve slated to record later this year with a release in 2009.
The Second Gleam comes out in July. Can you tell me a little bit about the writing and recording process of it and what your listeners can expect?
Scott Avett: Well, the basis of the thing is in the beginning. The first Gleam that we made kind of sprung from the recording of “Famous Flower of Manhattan” from Four Thieves [Gone], where we were going to make the recording and we knew it had to be a one-take sort of thing. We knew it had to be Seth and I just sitting down, two chairs, two guitars, two microphones, and it had to be done all at once. We would just go in and every day we would just try it once or twice, or at least until we got warm, which might take two or three times. And if it didn’t happen, you’d say “Okay, let’s just try again tomorrow. It’s just got to be right.” And we did that for six or seven days until we got it, and we really enjoyed the process of the quiet and calm feeling of it. So we said, you pick three songs, I’ll pick three that I’ve been writing on my own, and let’s just make a record and we’ll base it on this theme of this song that was called “Sanguine.” It was speaking of “the gleam,” meaning the outer skirts of light of what we do as a primary operation. Not the leftovers, but the outer skirts of the light of it. So it had a good theme to it and it felt good to record. So we did the first one. And on the second one, we started recording it last April and sat on it, and thought it over and added songs, and then after we just completed a number of demos, into the 30 realm, we added two or three more songs to it, edited down some and added newer songs. It sticks somewhat to the theme and to the order of quietness and calmness and just Seth and I basically partnering in the recording and the writing. The songs aren’t quite as individually written as the first one was. There’s input from each other more so on this one than there was on the first.
Paste: Does that contrast with your process when you’re recording full-lengths? Is it more collaborative then?
Avett: Yeah, in a full-length, for instance, a song like “Die Die Die” in Emotionalism or “Will You Return?,” those songs we bounce parts off each other and react to each others’ initial part or initial idea. The Gleam still, it’s not into that realm. The songs, there pretty much are three a piece, and the kind of primary writer is one or the other, but there is input on each one from each other, so it’s a little bit different.
Paste: As far as the subject matter you explore on this one, is it the sequel to the first Gleam, or is it the process of the recording that makes it the sequel?
Avett: The themes for us, they start with some sort of reality, and some sort of truth emotionally or experience-wise, and then they kind of turn into something else. I think they’re pretty similar as far as the amount of abstract usage of words and whatnot. The varying between Seth and I has become more apparent as we write anyway, and I think it’s somewhat on the first one. I think that a simple answer would be yeah, the themes are similar, but I also think the listeners kind of decide that, and make up what the themes really are. Sometimes they come up way different than I thought they would come off or intended for them to come off.
Paste: Do you mean that the song itself ends up differently than how you conceived of it in the beginning or that listeners interpret differently than you intend?
Avett: The first thing you said is not what I meant, but that does happen as well, and the second is what I’m saying. A lot of times the metaphor that you’re trying to put across might be missed and might be read more literal. That tends to happen with everything, with books that any of us read, or even visually, when you look at a photograph or a picture or a painting, you read it so much more for matter-of-fact. We all want to do that. They always come off a little differently than physically recorded, than you intend for them to.
Paste: How much of the year would you say you guys are touring at this point?
Avett: Last year it was around 190 shows, and around 220-230 days on the road, so that’s about two thirds, I’d say. This year’s intended to be less because we’ve got another record we’ve got to record this year for next year, so that’s going to put us on the road in other ways. We’ll be traveling back and forth to studios. So it’s a busy year. It was not intended to be as busy as last year, but it’s turning out that way. I’m very excited about the girl that we’ve been touring with for the past two months. The opening acts we have on this tour have been amazing. I’m just super excited about Jessica Lea Mayfield, and her songs and her life. I just completed the artwork for her album, and it should be coming out I think in August or September.
Paste: Yeah, with being away so much, do you get a chance to explore the visual part of your creativity as well? Do you have enough time for it?
Avett: I keep reading and studying painting as much as I can. So if we’re on the road for two months, sometimes it’s good to stay away from the studio for two months and take in information. If you want to read Leonardo da Vinci’s book on painting, it gives you time to do that, where you’re not going to do that if you’re home. When you have the studio access, you just want to be painting. And sometimes that’s just kind of like spinning the wheels, it’s this sort of dumb practice. This gives me time to kind of wind it up tight, and then when it’s time to release and paint or draw or whatever it needs to be, I can focus on that with more tools and more ammunition as far as information and knowledge. So you try not to do anything on the road that you could be doing at home. And you try not to do anything at home that could be done during idle time on the road. You just utilize your time. There’s no time for partying, you know?
Paste: Yeah, I bet.
Avett: Zero. There’s just not time.
Paste: I believe you. I was at your show when you recently came to Atlanta, and you said that you had debuted at the Grand Ole Opry the previous night. Can you tell me about that experience for you?
Avett: I’m a little different than the guys, I think. I go into things and it doesn’t ever really hit me until we’re doing it. I think the more you do it, you get used to people telling you something’s going to happen and then it doesn’t happen, and it’s not a let down, and I don’t feel like I’m jaded or anything, I’m just getting where I’m like, “I’ll believe it when I’m on the stage. I’ll believe it when we’re standing in front of them. That’s when I’ll see fit to celebrate.” And you know, getting there, and getting set up for it, you realize how important and how special it is, as far as you’re The Avett Brothers as they debut at the Grand Ole Opry. There’s a singer by the name of John Conlee that we grew up hearing our father listen to, and he’s got an amazing voice, just a huge voice. And he announced us, and that’s something that when I was six-years-old and hearing that in the background looking at album covers with him on it, that wasn’t anything I thought would happen, and I didn’t think it would happen until I was on the Grand Ole Opry stage, and I went “Wow.” That’s pretty exciting. It was pretty delightful to kind of just fall into that and let yourself fall into it instead of building it up and celebrating before the fact. Pretty awesome.
Paste: You were talking a little bit about your experience with artists that you were a fan of when you were little. Your fans, I think, have this very sort of personal relationship with you guys. I’m not sure how much perspective you have on it, but it seems deliberate that you guys are always very sure to thank your fans, very close to them in that kind of way. How does that relate to what your experience has been as a fan of music? Do you think there’s any connection there?
Avett: I can’t really recall receiving any of that kind of exchange with any of the bands or musicians that I loved. Some of the country musicians, for sure. Tom T. Hall was one that I saw in a very small place when I was younger than impacted me quite a bit as a guy that was very, very grateful and content after all of his career.
We don’t operate necessarily like a band. When it came to business, we didn’t really call anybody in Nashville or Los Angeles or New York City and ask them, “Can we get help with this business?” We just started the business like a construction company and operated it like that. It’s gotten more difficult to be able to handle the numbers, because you can’t speak to everybody. The best decision is to kind of float in the back, give them everything you’ve got. You go to give the show, and then you just disappear and let them have that and let them enjoy that. I’d rather keep everybody at that happiness level than disappoint someone, because we can’t handle it all. No human can. But we wouldn’t be anywhere without people coming to see us; that’s what we’ve based our whole career on. It’s just been gradual. It’s been healthy and appropriate, and I’m very, very grateful. We just wouldn’t exist without it.
Paste: Is that some of your impetus for how often you guys play live? Even you have to admit that’s a lot of shows in one year.
Avett: It is. And it’s too many probably. [laughs] If you decide that you want to do this long term and you think, “Hey, I want to be doing this for the next 20 years,” it’s like, “Well you better pace yourself, because…” A basketball player doesn’t play that many games in a year, I don’t think, so it’s like you’ve got to think if you’re going to maintain this. Our show is very demanding, and we don’t attempt to stop being demanding. What we want to do is be smart about it and be fair about it and be balanced. It seems like every answer to all these questions is just moderation and balance and thought. We put thought into it. We’ll adjust those things appropriately.
Paste: One of the things that fascinates me most about your music is that you talk about being honest, loyal and true, about that sort of very un-ironic take on life. You were talking about these things being not necessarily as autobiographical as they sound. Your songs have what seem like very literal situations in them, like a relationship with a certain person. What happens when the truths that you talk about in one song or in one album are different from the truths that you’re talking about in a different situation?
Avett: It all changes, and the definition of truth can alter so much. It really is kind of an aspiring thought to make such a big statement as saying, “I’m searching for truth.” That can come off pretty ridiculous, you know? I think the point is, truth is very different for everyone, because everyone’s experiences are so different. What’s painful and what’s joyful and what’s difficult and what’s easy for every person is different. We have to figure that out. All that being said, everything changes every day. Loyalty comes in so many forms, and the change, kind of, is a journey, and a reason to write the songs.
In the end, we relate to art and music because we’re all humans and we all think a lot of the same things. Lives line up in a lot of ways. I personally try not to get too specific to my life, because if I get too specific then it doesn’t go to anybody else but me. It doesn’t make sense to anybody else but me.
This is a huge topic and I’ve got a lot to say about it. I’m just like grasping right now at all these things, because I’ve recently thought you don’t want to go out and make claims like, “This is what my life’s about. This is how it is, and how it should be.” That’s just not the case. You could just wake up tomorrow and say, “Forget it. I’m out. None of this is true, forget about it.” And that’s scary and that’s crazy, but success can be defined so many different ways. Forget “success.” Beauty. Make “success” the word “beauty.” Beauty can be defined by each of us, and you decide what beauty is, and the people that can be courageous enough to believe themselves beautiful will convince the world, and they are. That courage and that confidence and that positive nature will do that, and that sort of touches on this truth thing, and this honesty and loyalty, and just positive-thinking thing. You just don’t start to realize until you’ve already dealt with the things that are so self-destructive in your life. Man, I know this is way all over the place right now, but the success and beauty thing, the definition of truth—what I’m getting at is we each define it in our own way. And I think that’s got to be remembered. The surface truth and beauty and success stuff just doesn’t really follow that thought. It’s got to be deep and it’s got to be defined by each person. But man, I wish we could just take an hour and do an outline on this so we could make some sense of it.