The Avett Brothers on Recording ‘The Carpenter,’ Working With Rick Rubin + the Reasons for the Folk-Rock Boom
As leaders of the Avett Brothers, Seth and Scott Avett have enjoyed tremendous mainstream success, particularly for musicians whose songs are rooted in traditional folk, country and bluegrass. And yet not much has changed for these siblings from Concord, N.C. Their 2009 major label debut, ‘I and Love and You,’ cracked the Top 20, arguably kick-starting the current folk-rock boom, but chatting with Diffuser.fm following a recent string of European tour dates, younger sibling Seth seemed reluctant to take the credit.
Like its predecessor, last year’s follow-up, ‘The Carpenter,’ was recorded in Los Angeles with legendary producer Rick Rubin, but this time around, the brothers weren’t afraid to put the down the banjos in favor of experimenting, most notably in the electric ‘Paul Newman Versus the Demons.’ In his conversation with Diffuser.fm, Seth discussed how fans have received ‘The Carpenter’ and shared his theory on why old-timey sounds are all the rage. He also extolled the benefits of being pretty and looked ahead to this year’s Mountain Jam festival.
After the success of ‘I and Love and You,’ was there a lot of pressure on the follow-up?
Nope, not in the least. Next question. [Laughs] No, I’m kidding. But I think I felt more excited than anything, just because we had had our initial experience on a very discernible observable next level. It was undeniable that ‘I and Love and You’ was the most obvious step in our popularity after its release. But we were getting our sea legs making ‘I and Love and You,’ so to speak, and I think that contributed to some murkiness in the product. I’m proud of the record still, but I can hear the toll that new process took, working with a new producer, and working in California, and doing nothing but that work for 14 hours a day for weeks on end. When it was time to make ‘The Carpenter,’ it was more taking what we learned from ‘I and Love and You’ and really putting that use, now that we’ve got those tools, and now that we’ve got a few hundred mores shows under our belt. We were that much closer to finding our voices.
What has the audience reaction been now that you’ve been touring with the new material for the past few months?
I think it’s been good overall, especially in Europe, where we just spent about a month. Hearing them sing ‘Live and Die’ has been a head-turning moment for me. I just thought, “Wow, they know this song? That’s interesting.” And seeing that ‘I and Love and You’ has stuck with them as well. But the reaction for ‘Paul Newman Versus the Demons’ across the board has been a bit spotty. [Laughs] That’s always interesting. I think we played it in Baltimore or Boston for the first time, and you just wonder how it’s going to go. You just look out over a couple thousand people, and there are a handful of guys who are like, “Yeah, I love this song!” and the rest of the crowd is just like, “Huh?”
Overall though for ‘The Carpenter,’ it’s really interesting to see people know it and respond to it. And again, Europe has been an awakening moment overall, because people are less familiar with the entire catalog, and you’re not always sure which record they came in on.
You touched on this a little, but how has it been working with Rick Rubin?
It’s very fitting for us working with Rick. But there were some growing pains in the beginning, as far as breaking down and doing some rebuilding. But his demeanor in the studio is very complementary to ours. He’s very calming. He’s never heavy-handed and never too pushy, and he’s always in an exploratory kind of place. I think for some folks, that might not be always be good and they may have trouble with it, but for us, it’s a great fit. Rick’s become a friend of ours, and we see eye-to-eye pretty well. We trust each other, and we work really well with him.
So do you think you’ll work with him again?
We’re working with him right now. We haven’t really a had a starting or stopping point since we met him. It took us a year and half to get all the paperwork and the lawyering and all that stuff figured out. But even that year and half where we weren’t contractually bound to each other, we were working together, so we don’t really think of it in terms of separate jobs or projects. When we can carve out time to work on a record, we do it.
You’ve said you had a lot of leftover songs from making ‘The Carpenter.’ Are you working that material now, or is it all new?
We are working that material, but I’m not really in a place to say anything definitively. We’re still feeling out how to share it, but we do want to and we do plan to. The timeline for that and the form for that isn’t figured out, but there was a relative wealth of material. But the rest of the material that we recorded for the album didn’t read like B-sides, at least in my mind. The material was very much like a record that didn’t see the light of day, so it’s not really acceptable to let it go and call them “the leftovers.” So we do have a dialogue with Rick about that. But beyond that, we’re developing material as we go.
What was your experience like trying to build a music career in North Carolina?
I think it was more about where we’re from in North Carolina, because there are certainly artistically strong places in North Carolina. In Concord, there’s not a lot of focus on the entertainment business. It’s kind of ludicrous there to say you’re going to do something like make a living in the entertainment business. It’s a very blue-collar place with a lot hardworking people who are more concerned about farming or contracting or building, and not as much on songwriting or whatever. That kind of stuff feels very far away.
There is really good music in Charlotte and throughout the state, but Charlotte being the next closest place to us, that was exactly where we needed to start. We didn’t think about it terms of starting our master plan to make a living. It was more, “OK, where can we set up our stuff.” It sounds hokey, but that’s what we did, and we had to take it one very small step at a time. But once we started playing in Charlotte, we thought, “How can we get Raleigh? Maybe there’s an open mic in Asheville, or somewhere on the beach in Wilmington.” Then eventually, we started figure out how we could get to Maryland or New Jersey.
There’s a great benefit to not being from Los Angeles or New York, or even Atlanta or D.C. There’s very little competition. And it gives you a sense of calm to not be surrounded by that cultural activity, in a way. North Carolina has been so good to us and so nourishing to us. And a lot of the epicenters are a few hours away. Atlanta is only four hours away, so that’s not a big deal. New York City is only 10 hours away, so we could get up early and be there by late afternoon.
Avett Brothers were one of the first band to become popular with a country-bluegrass sound, and now bands like Mumford and Sons and Band of Horses are doing likewise. Do you feel that you guys contributed to that shift?
Well, I’ve got a lot of thoughts on this. [Laughs] Number one, I think that’s a very natural ebb and flow in the music world. We really like something, then we get a lot it, then we get sick of it and need something else. When Dylan was coming up, it made no sense that a guy standing there with an acoustic guitar and a harmonica could gain worldwide attention. Doo-wop was still king, and rock music was killing it, so there was no reason for people to listen to Bob Dylan. And then later, when boy bands like ‘NSYNC were getting big, Pearl Jam still dominated. I don’t know if they were trying to come up a formula or what.
In 2001, when we started, it was unfathomable to make videos or get played on radio or anything. I think that there was a time for nu-metal and bands like Deftones to sell a million records, a band I love, by the way. It made sense when boy bands were happening, which are happening again and in sort of interesting way. It’s an interesting study in what has to happen every 15 years or so. But we eventually got to this place where the banjo is being presented with more heartfelt and genuine lyrics, and it’s become less of novelty.
Now, allow me to speak on this epiphany I had in Switzerland. I’ll try to make this quick, and it’s not meant to be an insult to anybody.
Yes, of course.
OK, so it should be said that mainstream music needs to have a pretty face at this point, and that’s not to take away from anybody. We’re getting a little older, so we might be on the other side of this, but I think it helps that Scott is a good looking guy, Joe [our cellist] is a good looking guy, Bob [our bassist] a good looking guy, the Mumford guys are handsome young men. Eddie Vedder, Chris Cornell — we basically need a pretty face. God knows they make quality music, but for the masses to want things and buy things, a lot the faces have to be pretty. And it’s not to take away from their talent, but it doesn’t hurt Beyonce that she’s pretty. And I hope that doesn’t come off insulting, but the folk-rock movement, if there is such a thing, is going to have some pretty faces attached to it.
Yeah, and I think that comes from access to the Internet and to the technology that we have.
Right, and it’s just reality. It’s horrible, and it has nothing to do with the music. It’s a ridiculous correlation and makes no sense. You would probably be a lot better off if you never saw the faces of the music.
You guys have a lot of festivals this summer. Are there any that you’re particularly looking forward to?
I’m very impartial to Merlefest [in Wilkesboro, North Caolina]. Governor’s Ball has quite the lineup. Of the Mountain Jam lineup, we’re excited to be seeing Michael Franti. He’s a great guy and a great performer. Did you know he wasn’t worn shoes in 13 years? He’s just a big strong dude full of love, and man, does he bring it. The Lumineers are really sweet guys and gals, so we’re excited to play with them this summer. When we go to festivals, there’s an ongoing joke, something like, “Hey, I’ll meet you by Michael Franti.” And it never happens, because there are always so many things going on, and you never get to see the people you want to see. So I guess we’ll have to wait and find out what happens when we get there.