Seth Avett offers the impression he might be the nicest guy you'd ever want to know. Even in the span of a 30-minute phone chat, there's the sense that an instant bond's been established. He shares sincere sentiment, a hearty laugh, and a folksy, unaffected down-home demeanor that's every bit as honest and embracing as the off-the-cuff and emotionally vulnerable melodies that he and his brother Scott deliver with their band, the Avett Brothers.
Over the course of the past dozen years or so, they've garnered a rabid following that's made them festival favorites and purveyors of populist appeal. They boast a rustic sound that emphasizes the basics -- acoustic guitars, kick drums, stringed instruments of all description, and the occasional keyboard. The quartet (which also includes bassist Bob Crawford and cello player Joe Kwon) makes music that is effusive and heartbreaking, detailing personal circumstance with humor, remorse, and reflection.
The irrepressible bond they create with their audiences is affirmed in Seth's thoughtful responses and sincere expressions of appreciation for all their fans have helped them to achieve. And in our conversation, that was all too evident.
Dang, I love this guy (in the most brotherly way of course)!
New Times: Has your sudden success taken you by surprise?
Seth Avett: I can tell you that it gets sort of overwhelming to get on the scale of what it's gotten to. If I look at it with my 21 year-old eyes, then yes, it's unbelievable in a way. You do something gradual every day, year in and year out, and you gain perspective for yourself as best as you can. But you also lose the perspective you had when you stepped into the room, and as you're walking through it, you lose the perspective that you had when you were walking through the door.
I think so much in terms of what's happening right now. We've stayed so busy, that I take precious little time to reminisce, precious little time to process, precious little time to bask in anything. I'm talking literally. I'm talking about stepping onstage with Willie Nelson and singing "On the Road Again" in Texas and being in the bus a few hours later and heading to wherever we were heading to next, and talking about the set list for the next day and whatever. Not sitting there drinking a beer and thinking, "Man, I just sang with Willie Nelson!" I've tried to appreciate that, but you keep moving so you don't get bogged down.
We've had more fortunate and exciting experiences than we deserve. (laughs) I'm excited about the lifestyle we've led and the opportunities we've had, and some of them do surprise me. But then again, we're just hardworking guys, and we don't take a lot of time to think it through. We're just on to the next thing and the next thing and the next thing.
In a way, your laidback, unpretentious sound has kind of paved the way for a new generation of acts with a similar no-nonsense style. I'm thinking of Mumford and Sons and the Lumineers in particular.
I agree. But that's something that I like to keep in check. I certainly don't want to take credit for something that's not mine and ours to take. Both of those bands are friends and colleagues. Both are, on average, ten years younger than us, and they have been vocal about our influence on them. So I'm trying to be okay with that and to accept that gratefully.
I appreciate very much that those bands have expressed that and have done good things and received attention for that. Commercially speaking, both of those bands are at a higher level than we've ever been, but they're doing it their way. They're doing their thing and it's being responded to. It's exciting in the landscape of music to see the music each of those bands are making, and the music we're making, and being rewarded with some kind of popularity and some kind of buzz.
You guys, yourselves, defy categorization. You might have a banjo and string instruments and guitars, but your sound can hardly be called bluegrass or folk or country. You really bend the parameters. That said, being that your last two albums were recorded with major labels, was there any pressure to sew up the loose ends and give it more of a polished sheen?
Not the first iota. It's a weird thing. The label knew we had done everything completely ourselves for the first eight or nine years of this thing. That really gave us some leverage. So we thought about the scenario of being on a major label, the fact that we had a fan base, and we weren't like 18-year old kids who were begging the label to make a career for us. We were already well on our way. We're going to have a career, and whether we're going to sell a lot of records or not is completely up in the air and quite arbitrary in our minds.
We wanted to take that step, because it was the right step, and it was with folks that we wanted to work with. Right now, we love working with them, and that pretty much dissolves the negative stigma of the big, bad major label.
The last two albums are more a comment on our development as a band. The reality is, we're just on our path and we're changing. A band that's going to be together for awhile is going to listen to their muse and their inspiration, and they're going to change. And between these records, you're looking at maybe three or four hundred shows, or maybe 500 or 600 that we've played. So we're not going to sound the same one record to another, because we're getting better. And we're proud of that.
So many of your songs sound so plaintive and sobering, extremely heartbreaking in fact. Where does that emotion come from? Are you venting your own feelings through these songs?
Well, the truthful and sad answer to that is, yes. The fact is that it is real because we are genuinely sensitive men. (laughs) I have a debilitating sensitivity. I am a man who can think myself into absolute heartbreak. I take myself there daily. It's not something that I necessarily need treatment for, but I really grab onto things, and I'm not just talking about heartbreak.
I also mean joy, when I'm on top of the mountain. When I am, you'll probably hear it in a song and I'll probably present it in the most terrifying, exciting fashion. This is love, this is compassion, unadulterated, unfiltered... And then you're going to get the same thing when I feel hopeless or I feel scared or whatever. I think that's a pretty common trait for a songwriter.
We like music that shows vulnerability, music that's honest for good or for bad. So we like to present songs that are honest for good or for bad. Scott and I are both aware of each other as people, folks that lock onto emotion and we champion it, and sometimes that's good for our lives, and sometimes it's really, really bad for our lives. Generally speaking, it's always good for art, but not always so good for day to day life.
The way you express that emotion is so brilliant to begin with. When you're up there on stage, whooping and hollering and carrying on, is that genuine emotion we're seeing you express?
With the whole hollering and screaming and dancing and shimmering, getting down and having fun... The reason we're like that onstage is that it's genuine. Because of the people in the audience, it's something we've developed over the years, over this decade plus, almost a dozen years of creating this relationship with an audience that is highly infectious. It's a beautiful thing to be a part of, but we are not creators of it. There's a beautiful interaction that happens between us and an audience that makes it feel much less like us and them, but more like just us.
These shows have become like celebrations and people expect that, so they make it happen. So we just jump in there with them and celebrate in a healthy way and make it happen. We really are aware that there are so many times in our lives when we're going to get to do this. It's not going to last forever. It sounds pretty fatalistic, but it's just the truth, so let's celebrate that.
I am more on the page now of just connecting with folks than I am with showing off. When I was younger, I was like, I want to show them my talent, I want to prove that I can do something and I can do it well, which is ironic because at the time, I really couldn't do it very well. So I'm more aware now that the great value in these shows is the celebratory factor and the opportunity to connect with folks that use our music as a tool.
I'll be talking to someone and they'll say, "Oh man, I listened to your music all doing my chemo treatments." That's where it's at. When you're lucky enough to have interaction like that with somebody, it tells you that you are being put to use, and what an honor that is.
You guys play lots of festivals these days. How do you bring the intimacy of your music to these larger stages, and still achieve that personal connection with your audience?
I think that we try to put our attention on the fact that this show is the only one that matters. If we play as well as we can, not only get inside the songs, but also get inside the physical environment, that will translate. And that can translate for a hundred people, or for a thousand people or for ten thousand people. And that comes from being in a genuine place and being very much in the moment.
When most quality things happen, you have to be present for it. Some of that is just practice, like learning where to be and how to be, how to find something that works. It's studying how to be a performer. There are certain things that work in a club that don't work when the person in the last row is a football field, or two football fields, away from you. That doesn't necessarily mean more flailing around or becoming more animated, but it does mean you have to consider that person, even though they're so far away. They paid their money to be here and they may be the biggest fan in the place, so you want to pay attention to them.
Also, we went and saw Bruce Springsteen, so we know how to do it because we saw him. (laughs) He's sort of a major template for us. So we looked at him and thought, okay, here's a guy that knows how to do three hours. He knows how to engage a large audience, he knows how to do it for the long run, and he knows how to make dynamic records that span decades. So he's the guy we've got to look at. We have to look at the Dead. We have to look at Pearl Jam. We have to look at those bands in terms of the way we want to do things.
You clearly learned your lessons well.
Thank you. Thank you.
When you sit down to write a song, given that naked emotion that comes through, do you have to search it out and grab it, or are you channeling it from somewhere inside.
It comes out of nowhere. It's a very mysterious thing sometimes, but it is something that can be studied and can be nurtured. For the most part, I do make myself available for the songs just by sitting down with a guitar and my recorder and my notebook and my sketchbook, and if the melody comes, I try to see what words fall down in it and what may seem appropriate or imperative at the moment. It's not something I can force necessarily, but I can make myself available by having some discipline.
You've created such a high bar yourselves. Is it intimidating knowing you have to meet your own high standard each and every time?
It's not intimidating in terms of us thinking we made something great. Just because you did something five years ago, it doesn't mean that it has to dominate what you do now. We want to learn from the things we've done well, and the things we've not done well. We try not to get too caught up with a "legacy." What we want to focus on is what we're doing right now.
Avett Brothers with Eric Church, Kenny Chesney, and others.Tortuga Music Festival on April 13 and 14. Tickets cost $129 to $1,299. Visit tortugamusicfestival.com.
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