As more and more unsigned bands seem to be making it big, it stands to wonder why now, some 10 years after their inception, the Avett Brothers are jumping the indie shark. With their latest release, 2009’s I and Love and You, the North Carolina quartet has abandoned their more jam-bandy roots, opting to go the major-label route with Columbia Records and mega-producer Rick Rubin. What’s even more shocking: The album is arguably one of the Brothers’ best to date.
Within the first few bars of its opening and title track, we get a wistful glimpse of the band’s new digs. Against a simple and stripped-down piano line, frontman Scott Avett confidently speak-sings a love letter to his past, present, and future, and somewhere in between all the hopeful poignancy we fall in love with the Avett Brothers all over again. From there, the record effectively moves through twangy ditties (“January Wedding”), sweeping buildups (“The Perfect Space”), and jaunty rock-outs (“Kick Drum Heart”) with a mix of barely restrained exuberance and necessary melancholy. And no, it never even comes close to sounding like selling out.
This Wednesday, UCSB’s Arts & Lectures bring the Avett Brothers (collectively, banjo player/vocalist Scott Avett, guitarist Seth Avett, bassist Bob Crawford, and cellist Joe Kwan) to the Arlington Theatre. I recently caught up with Crawford to discuss the band’s new tunes, new label, and age-old reputation for being some of the nicest guys in rock ‘n’ roll.
The Avett Brothers are the only band that played both Coachella and the Stagecoach Festival back-to-back this year. That’s quite the honor. Yeah. It’s a good feeling. I feel like we have the potential to pull people in different directions. I think that these days, in my opinion, more people than ever like different music. You can have someone who’s a fan of us who’s also a fan of the Grateful Dead, or who’s a fan of Dwight Yoakam, or Willie Nelson. I think these days in music a lot of bands are hybrids. There’s a little of this, there’s a little of that, and that’s because everybody’s influenced and everybody has so much music that’s so available to them to draw upon, whether they realize it or not. I feel like we’re in a position where some people that like us would normally not like us, for whatever reason that is. It’s exciting.
What did you grow up listening to? When I first started playing music I was 15 and I listened to Bruce Springsteen and punk rock. I liked Bruce and I liked Stray Cats — and I’m 39 years old, so this is the early ‘80s — I liked the Clash, I liked the Ramones, I liked the Sex Pistols, I liked Husker Du, the Replacements. I think I liked Peter Gabriel back then too. I was just telling someone, when I was first listening to music consciously I was 11 or 12 years old and I listened to what was on the radio. And on the radio in the same hour you’d have Jay Giles Band, the Go-Gos, Huey Lewis and the News, Hall & Oates, Michael Jackson, Billy Joel, and this was pop music at the time. Maybe it was a lot of bubblegum music, but it was a great influence on me.
Can you tell me a bit about the title track, “I and Love and You”? Scott wrote the song. It first came to him after a show we played in Brooklyn, in 2005 maybe, at a place called Galapagos [Art Space]. We had this amazing night. It was Paleface, Langhorne [Slim], and us, and it was kind of the epitome of this chapter of our lives and our career and our kinship with those guys, and we just had this amazing, amazing show. Scott has always said he wanted to be taken in by that hipness of Brooklyn; it’s just the image, this symbol for hipness. There was a string of verses that I think had a lot of this Townes Van Zandt influence, but even that’s changed over time. It’s changed from what Scott even initially intended of it, and I think a lot of people can put their own meanings to it because of that. It represents a lot of different things just for Scott. … Of all the songs, it’s the one that’s really taken on a life of its own.
How does the songwriting process work for you guys? It’s changed a lot over the years. I think, more than anything now, Scott or Seth or I will have an idea and one or the other will have something that can maybe be attached to it. In the old days, it was either Scott or Seth or I wrote a song and that was it; that was the way we played it. “Love like the Movies,” Seth wrote that. “Matrimony,” Scott wrote that. But now it seems to be more collaborative than ever — even the contributions I make. It feels like we’re not individually writing these songs. It feels like everybody’s involved, maybe even more so than in the past.
Do you feel like that’s something that just comes with time? Yeah. It comes from the amount of time we’ve spent together—almost 10 years. It’s wild to have a relationship like that. This is the longest I’ve ever had a job, and it wasn’t like we were buddies when we started this band. Scott and Seth were brothers, and I was just this guy who auditioned to play bass. For it to have grown the way it has, and for us to have grown with it … obviously [Scott and Seth] have been together forever, but for me to have a relationship with them and with everybody that works with us, it’s just really something. You step back and realize that that’s the greatest gift of all.
What prompted the move to Columbia Records? Well, Rick [Rubin] was a big part of that. We had a lot of offers … but the opportunity to work with him was a big carrot. Even if it didn’t work out and we made a horrible record and we didn’t like him and he didn’t like us, we still felt we needed to look into it. And after we met him, we realized that there was a lot of mutual respect. He had done a lot of homework and really respected the songs and what we had accomplished on our own, and obviously we had all grown up listening to things that he had created and been a part of. So, rather than him being all, “I’m Rick Rubin and I’m going to make you a star,” it was more of a mutual-respect collaboration, “Let’s make music together” vibe.
What do you think he brought to I and Love and You? I think he brought a little bit of guidance. He definitely brought years of experience. I think a big difference with this record was, in the past I would do the demo track that we’d build on to make the song. We would record the song, take one take, and then build on it from there. Well, with Rick we would record the song 50 times five or six different ways. [Laughs.] We were never conscious of our tempo. We would speed up or slow down in the middle of a song—all these subtleties that we had no idea we were guilty of—and he made us really aware of that. He really helped us to be a better band.
Considering the current musical climate, and the number of independent bands making it big, did you ever worry you were moving backwards by signing with a major label? I brought that up when we were considering signing with Columbia. There was an article in Rolling Stone or Spin, one of those magazines, talking about all these major label bands that were going independent. It was like, man, we’ve proven that you can succeed independently, and here we are going with a major label. It’s like I was saying, we went in thinking we could make the worst record ever and it could be a miserable experience, but we’ll come through it on the other side and we’ll learn a lot from it. I was pretty much sold on it, plus it was the only way to work with Rick. It really turned out to be a good decision, so, so far so good. Everything’s going really well and Columbia and Sony have been really excited. The people that we work with on a daily basis are genuinely excited about the music, and you can’t put a price, you can’t put a value on that. It’s amazing to have people working for you and with you that are excited about what you are doing, so we feel like we’ve got a good team. There’s an Avett Brothers Incorporated in with Sony and Columbia and American, and it’s a good thing. We’re succeeding.
You guys have a reputation for being nice guys. What was the last Avett Brothers fight over? [Laughs] God, it had to be stupid. I dunno. It always comes at the weirdest time, and then there’s like an apology fest and everybody’s the one to blame. It’s always a miscommunication, and it always ends up being a whole bunch of “Dammit, I’m sorry”s and “I shouldn’t have”s.
The Avett Brothers play the Arlington Theatre (1317 State St.) this Wednesday, April 28, at 8 p.m. Call 893-3535 or visit artsandlectures.sa.ucsb.edu for tickets and info.