“Take the time to peel a few layers / And you will find / True sadness,” sings Seth Avett on the aptly named track “True Sadness,” one of 12 on The Avett Brothers’ eponymous 2016 album. It’s a fitting lyric to describe the depth of personal introspection mined to bring True Sadness to life. Already known for the raw intimacy of their music, the brothers get bluntly (and beautifully) to the heart of matters — reflecting on such heady subjects as divorce, tragedy, and hope.
Recorded at producer Rick Rubin’s Shangri-La studios in Malibu, the record debuted at number 3 on the Billboard charts, earned two Grammy nominations (Best Americana Album and Best American Roots Performance for “Ain’t No Man”), and spawned a critically acclaimed documentary by Judd Apatow and Mike Bonfiglio called May It Last: A Portrait of the Avett Brothers.
I recently caught up over the phone with band member Bob Crawford (stand-up bass, backing vocals) to talk about True Sadness and May It Last.
True Sadness is introspective and even kind of melancholic lyrically but also often musically lively. You said a pretty accurate description as far as down, but lively. When True Sadness came out, somebody asked me at some point, “What does that mean, ‘true sadness’?” And I actually had the opportunity to speak on a similar topic this past weekend. It’s this idea to me that the human heart, human soul is so complex that we are somehow capable of feeling incredible joy and incredible sorrow at literally the same time. If you get to be any age in life you just realize pretty quickly that suffering is a major part of our existence on this planet. I guess you can never really reconcile ourselves to it, but there’s probably a search for meaning in that. Being able to recognize the joy in the midst of the suffering … that’s what True Sadness means to me.
There are some interesting musical departures going on the album — such as the hints of psychedelia on “May It Last.” Can you speak to how that came about? The process for True Sadness was a little different than what we were used to. We recorded with Rick Rubin at his studio Shangri-La in Malibu. Me, Scott, and Seth, we recorded all the songs — just three of us — acoustically, like very old-school Avett Brothers. Upright bass, banjo, guitar, and vocals. Then we recorded everything with our band. So a seven-piece band playing all these songs. Then we took those versions of the songs and … a [sound] guy remixed them. He would imagine like techno, or this and that, or dance music, or just remix it. Then we took those remixes … and then we rerecorded them with our live instruments. So we got a blend in some of the songs.
Why did you decide to do it in such a manner? Because we worked with Rick Rubin. The first day there he was like, “Well, we could just do what we always do, or we could try to do something different.” We figured we would try [something different].
Do you have a favorite song on this album? Or one that speaks to you the most? Yeah, I can’t really speak to a favorite song. They’re all special in their own way … I mean there isn’t that really with any of our songs; there isn’t a dog in the bunch. We have like 200 songs, and there’s not one that you’re ever not happy to play. We reinvent them so often. We’ve grown over the years from three people to seven people, and that always allows for re-harmonization and reimagining songs.
How was being filmed for the film of this record? It was weird. It was great because the people who filmed us were great people. We really got along with everybody …. I always kind of feel like if I have a task to do, you can film me all day long. I’m comfortable. I don’t like being filmed in a meeting. Like that was weird. Other than that, it was fine. They were wonderful people to work with. What they made was beautiful. That’s how I would want my kids to imagine this time of my life. That’s how I would want them to see what I do for a living …. [The filmmakers] treated our family with a lot of respect and care and compassion. The way they told our family story — I really don’t think it could have been any better, from where I stand. A lot of positives came from that movie … a lot of people have reached out to us, and that meant a lot to see that on the screen. I feel very fortunate to have been a part of it. It was a real dream …. Judd was amazing, and [director] Mike Bonfiglio was amazing. Everybody who worked on it and every crew member were just great human beings, and we just really all got along very well. Which made it easier.
You guys reveal a lot of personal stuff I think in music, but it’s quite another thing to reveal yourself so completely on the big screen. Well, you know, Scott wanted to do it, so. So basically he called me and said we’re doing this okay. … He’s born to be onstage. He’s just real natural like that; it’s not even a show for him. He loves people. He loves to talk to people. He’s very comfortable doing that. The whole time I’ve known him, he’ll talk to everybody — the driver in the car, the man on the street. He just connects with people.
How long does a tour usually last? We’ll go out for 20 days. We’ll come home for two weeks. We’ve been on a never-ending tour since 2001, pretty much. We just take off three months over Christmas, and that’s pretty much it. We keep threatening to take a year off because literally …. We have not taken a break in 17 years.
Why is that? You build this machine. Then you’re responsible for people’s livelihoods. And you really can’t stop. … It’s a classic Frankenstein situation — you build the monster that is gonna eat you.
I suppose the other side of it is some people tour straight for two years and then take a year off and then tour for two years. Maybe this way you can have a semblance of a normal life at home. We’ve created that, though, with our schedule. Truth be told, this year, 2018, is the most time we’ve ever had off, probably.
As long as you’re still enjoying what you’re doing. Very much so. We love it. We’re about to figure it out at some point. We’re gonna figure out what we’re doing.
Well, not knowing what you’re doing has been working for you so far. It’s probably the secret to our success.
The Avett Brothers play Sunday, March 25, 7 p.m., at the S.B. Bowl (1122 N. Milpas St.). Call (805) 962-7411 or see sbbowl.com.