The Avett Brothers answer the varied calls of the wild
When it comes to North Carolina’s thunderous country rockers the Avett Brothers, younger brother Seth Avett confirms that what you see onstage is what you get in private: “Since Scott [Avett] was a little boy, he’s had the highest level of energy that you could imagine, it’s unbelievable,” the
27-year-old says of his rambunctious, banjo-toting sidekick (age 32), known to writhe on the floor during a set. He then laughs at the suggestion of himself appearing to be reserved. “Compared to him, I’m a calmer individual. That’s definitely our dynamic between us, and our senses of humor follow that guideline as well. His sense of humor has more to do with crazy karate kicks and physical humor, whereas I’m more likely to just make some kind of snide remark.” As the co-frontman responsible for the riled-up guitar riffs and piano forays in the Avett Brothers, Seth Avett knows that his band is full of contrasts, and it’s that dichotomy in their sound and image that is garnering them notice now reaching a pivotal, fever pitch.
After eight years at it, the Avetts are fast becoming the poster boys of the country-roots, punk-adrenaline brand of acoustic rock that is propagating at an exponential rate these days. With standup bassist Bob Crawford and cellist Joe Kwon now both full-time members completing the quartet, the younger Avett acknowledges the cusp they’re encountering that has people buzzing about “those brothers about to break it big.” Their impending major label debut is only the second time they’ve worked with a producer, and with the producer this round being industry god, magician-in-the-studio Rick Rubin, they’re accruing attention faster than a Jesse James draw.
“There was something about recording this record that felt like we walked through a doorway,” Avett says of I and Love and You, set for release this summer. While 2007’s breakout Emotionalism took 11 days to record, mix and master, I and Love and You took one month. And in the interim between the two, the band released the second EP of the poignant, minimalist Gleam series, played 300 shows and landed on the path to the mainstream. Emotionalism, Avett interprets, was “a flag in the sand, trying to proclaim what we want to present, who we are and how we want to present ourselves. We want to present a real thing, a real emotion, a real feeling, and not be too caught up with the destructive cool-factor. We wanted it to be apart from the rock ‘n’ roll mentality of bragging about what you have and how cool you are. We tend to be away from that as much as possible.”
Busting out brazen punk antics alongside doe-eyed ballads—with all of it being countrified—the band wins over audiences by being self-assured rockers and your humble boys-next-door all at once. Now, I and Love and You is about to discuss one adverse effect of that growing celebrity. Avett says he suggested titling the album after the track “I and Love and You” because it encompassed a lament the band now faces. He acknowledges that with bigger exposure come bigger stages and a removal from the intimate show experience with fans responsible for spreading their reputation like wildfire. “For me, it doesn’t come across as a heavy record,” he says of the LP that will feature more piano and drums than previous releases, “but perhaps thematically it could be seen that way.” The success that now enables them luxuries like the ability to lug a piano on tour also limits the ease of simply hanging out with fans like they once experienced. The title, he dissects, is “presenting a difficulty within the phrase that is basically the most important phrase in all of humanity. Those ‘ands’ in between the phrase present the separation. So where there’s a separation in the sentence ‘I and love and you’ there’s also a difficult separation between us and our support sometimes.”
Despite the Southern roots twang they now employ, the two brothers that studied art (Seth got his degree in traditional printmaking while Scott’s oil paintings now serve as album covers) grew up listening to Alice in Chains, and arranged their crystalline harmonies to emulate Jerry Cantrell and Layne Steely. The predecessor to their current old-timey-influenced outfit was a hard rock band called Nemo, and that rock foundation continues to fuel their performance. Thrusting bluegrass nuances into a rock, and even pop, whirlwind seems to touch a sensitive nerve within some people just as much as it ignites enthusiasm in others. There are bluegrass purists that snicker, punk aficionados that praise, and folkies that seem to align with both. But, it can’t be denied—regardless of where they land on that spectrum of critique—the Avett Brothers give one hell of a live show.
So what does one do to wind down after an onstage acoustic blitzkrieg? “Personally, I like to listen to Louis Armstrong when we’re done, to even me out,” Avett says. “I also listen to as much hip-hop as anything else,” he states, before listing his current faves, fellow North Carolina-native Little Brother and Minnesota’s Brother Ali. “I don’t think I’ve ever said this in an interview, but I listen to a lot of hip-hop generally speaking—not like mainstream hip-hop or pop culture, but there’s a lot of hip-hop that I really love that would be considered more underground.” Scott, too, Avett reveals, harbors an inner hip-hopper, having done a stint early on as … a rapper? “Something that people might not know is that Scott was kind of the rapper for the band Kuttphatt before Nemo,” he recalls. “It was a very heavy, very groove-oriented rap-rock outfit in eastern North Carolina and we’ve never talked about that too extensively.”
As far as their current approach and evolution into purveyors of a rock-newgrass hybrid that proves just as rousing as it is tender and raw, Avett is steadfast that remaining open is key. “Our main concern is to honor the song,” he says of the Avett Brothers’ alternating instruments, sound and disposition. “Always, do what the song is calling for.”
The Avett Brothers perform at 8 p.m. Thursday, May 14 at The Rio, 1205 Soquel Ave., Santa Cruz. Magnolia Electric Company opens. Tickets are $20 in advance. For more information, call 423-8209 or go to ticketweb.com