Like many young aspiring musicians, Seth and Scott Avett’s early visions of rock music stardom were anything but simple. But putting aside the wreckage of a rock band and keeping things simple put them on a slow and steady path to creating the genre-bending trio the Avett Brothers. The band mixes bluegrass, folk and punk rock to create a unique brand of Americana-roots music. Several years of hard touring have helped earn the band a devoted following but the brothers remain largely unfazed by their success, keeping their humble North Carolina upbringing close at heart.
“It was a total lack of planning that got us our sound,” Seth Avett says. “We took all of Carolina’s culture – the education, universities, people, music and sports – and added it into the stew, it wasn’t intentional, but our sound came out of all that.”
The band began taking its current form 11 years ago in Charlotte. Scott Avett, 34, and Seth, 30, had been in bands during high school and college, and at the time were fronting a neo-punk outfit known as Nemo. It satisfied their lust for electric guitars and the brothers shared a rebellious urge to create something distinct and grand enough to stand out from the shadows of NASCAR and big-time college basketball. As they envisioned it, Nemo was supposed to be the band that got them on the cover of Rolling Stone.
At the same time, the brothers also experimented with acoustic instruments and the traditional sounds they grew up around. This resulted in forming what came to be known as The Back Porch Project – or Nemo Downstairs. The side band featured Scott on banjo, Seth on acoustic guitar, and Bob Crawford soon joined the brothers on upright bass.
When Nemo fell apart there was a mourning period, like the demise of that first great high school romance. “It was very difficult, and a hard breakup,” Avett added, about Nemo disbanding. It maybe wasn’t the same depth of love you share with your wife, but this was our first love, and it was genuine and intense.”
Nemo was supposed to be the band that got the Avetts on the cover of Rolling Stone. When that didn’t happen the brothers were hesitant to attempt starting up another five-piece. Instead they turned to The Back Porch Project, and began focusing more intently on pushing past traditional acoustic formats typically heard in country, bluegrass and folk music.
When Nemo fell apart it hit the brothers hard, like the demise of a first great high school romance.
“It was very difficult, and a hard breakup.” Seth says. “It maybe wast the same depth of love you share with your wife, but this was our first love, and it was genuine and intense.”
The brothers were hesitant to attempt starting up another five-piece rock outfit. Instead they turned to the Back Porch Project and focused on pushing past the traditional acoustic formats of country, bluegrass and folk music.
Out of Nemo’s debris the Avett Brothers emerged. It featured a leaner lineup, and it was mobile due to the acoustic instruments – they could play anywhere.
“We took the ambition out of it when Nemo folded, and stopped thinking about being on Rolling Stone,” Seth says. “We wanted a band where I could simply count on Scott, and Scott could count on me.”
The Avett Brothers released a self-titled EP in 2000. By 2002, the current lineup was in place and the band issued Country Was. Even after that release and a brief tour, there were discussions between the Avetts about graduate school and pursuing other careers. But the band played on and released A Carolina Jubilee in 2003.
It gained the band some traction by harnessing the intensity of its live shows in a studio release, and it further refined the band’s signature sound. The Avett’s wanted to take this band to new heights by keeping it simple. As the band took off, they resisted moving to New York, Los Angeles or Nashville, instead continuing to make Concord, N.C., home.
The brothers were raised on their family farm in Concord, about 30 miles north of Charlotte. Their father, Jim Avett, was a welder by trade and an accomplished musician in his own right, (he has released two albums of country songs since 2008). Growing up around the farm, not only were the brothers exposed to hard work, they also were able to explore their father’s musical influences.
Scott and Seth sifted through recordings by Bob Dylan, Doc Watson, Woody Guthrie and Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, among others, studying the way these artists played, sang and told stories. In turn these historic influences were mixed with harder edged artists popular at the time.
Conspicuously absent in the Avetts’ background is bluegrass. It’s tempting to place a bluegrass label on the band when one sees the banjo, but the Avett Brothers defy the genre. It’s less Bill Monroe and more AC/DC’s Angus Young, only with a banjo.
The sound has been referred to as “grungegrass,” “grungefolk” and “punkgrass.” The Avetts seek to create music similar to what they heard growing up, so their songs are built around traditional structures, but the Avetts’ other musical influences, attitude and ferocity take the instrumentation and sound to a different place. Tempering the more rambunctious elements in the Avetts’ music are the lush harmonies created by Scott and Seth, and played out in three part harmonies live.
Band members often sport a look that suits the amalgamation of grunge, folk, punk, country and bluegrass. Call it a circa-Civil War appeal, with tight dress jackets, suspenders, and varying levels of scruffy facial hair in disarray, reminiscent of grainy black and white images of rebel soldiers. But it’s also similar to the look Robbie Robertson and Levon Helm cultivated with The Band in the late 1960s.
At other times, they revert to unassuming thrift-store slacks, plain white T-shirts and bandanas hanging out their back pockets.
Regardless of appearance or sound, songwriting is the core element responsible for the Avett Brothers’ success. Playing music might be considered Scott and Seth’s profession, but songwriting is their craft.
“I started writing when I was 13 or 14, and it set me on fire,” Seth says. “I was drawn to it and knew it would be a lifelong pursuit. It’s a blue collar effort, like laying brick, to get half decent at it you have to put in the time.”
Their lyrics conjure strong visual imagery, and they are influenced by their grandfather Clegg Avett, who was a Methodist minister, and the likes of Kris Kristofferson, Hank Williams and especially Tom T. Hall.
The brothers’ songs capture raw emotion, spirituality and self-effacing moments of evolving maturity. The lyrics are almost conversational, like a back and forth one of the brothers is having in his head, only shared openly such as in The Ballad of Love and Hate, where Seth sings:
Love writes a letter and sends it to hate; My vacation’s ending, I’m coming home late; The weather was fine and the ocean was great; And I can’t wait to see you again;
Hate reads the letter and throws it away; No one here cares if you go or you stay; I barely even noticed that you were away; I’ll see you or I won’t, whatever.”
His voice is gentle but forceful, with delicate phrasing that lightly veils the angry undertones – lifted when the song is played live and seething with energy.
High and lonesome harmonies are mixed with a strong narrative that appeals to audiences.
“I haven’t met anyone that doesn’t have demons, and it’s therapeutic to say and get some of mine out in my writing,” Seth says. “At first it’s for me, five years later it becomes for the audience.”
Up until 2008, the Avett Brothers’ music was produced by manager Dolph Ramseur, via his label Rammer Records. Then producer Rick Rubin came calling. Rubin has worked with musical renegades including Johnny Cash, the Dixie Chicks, Rage Against the Machine, the Beastie Boys and the Red Hot Chili Peppers. The Avett Brothers signed on to Rubin’s American Recordings label, and he produced the 2009 album, I and Love and You.
Bucking trends is nothing new to the brothers, and they joined a major label at a time when bands like Radiohead and Nine Inch Nails were choosing to produce their own albums.
“It was time, and I wanted them to have every tool in their belt to play with for this last recording,” Ramseur says. “We just didn’t have enough money to be in the studio too long, and we’d have to play fast to get out.”
The songs on I and Love and You are the best example to date of the energy found in the band’s live performances, but refined with the technical crafting that comes with a bigger budget. Typical of a Rubin recording, the extras are stripped away, leaving the band’s emotional sentiment and playing.
While more of a balloon ride than a blastoff, the Avett Brothers’ success increased demonstrably since signing with Rubin. Having already released 10 albums, they had attracted a loyal following, particularly in the Carolinas, but with I and Love and You peaking at No. 16 on the Billboard 200, the Avett Brothers began opening shows for The Dave Matthews Band and Widespread Panic. Rolling Stone added the band to its “Artists to Watch” list in 2009.
The Avetts plan to record with Rubin again, but they’re hitting the road for summer tour dates first, adding touring members Joe Kwon on cello and Jacob Edwards handling percussion. Scott and Seth are primarily known for playing banjo and acoustic guitar, but they change instruments during live shows. The manic playing brings more energy, screams from alternating band members and popped strings, yet nobody misses a beat.
“A live setting offers a spontaneity, excitement and power that a studio will not provide,” Seth says. “Every day the live energy that comes from an audience changes, and we feed off it.”
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Published by: Gambit New Orleans | Vol. 32, No. 17, p. 31 | 04-26-11