Interview: Seth Avett of The Avett Brothers on respecting Elliott Smith, music as conversation, and their rise in Americana


[dropcap]R[/dropcap]egardless of genre, live music always walks a fine line. There are bands that give it their all to the crowd and there are others who mail it in and collect their guarantee from the venue while leaving many pissed off and disappointed. It’s always a battle between the passionate and the jaded, and in some instances you’ll never know which side will show up on any given night. Tonight on a brisk early autumn evening at Boston City Hall, people are going to experience one of the most enjoyable and electrifying live shows they’ll ever see.

Does it make sense to use the term electrifying when it comes to a folk and roots rock act? Once The Avett Brothers close out the first night of Boston Calling Music Festival, it’ll become apparent. They love to put on a good time and they got the songs to back it up. Leading up to tonight’s festivities, Vanyaland chatted with Seth Avett about that Elliott Smith tribute album he put out with Jessica Lea Mayfield, going from doing everything themselves to being one of the biggest Americana acts today, working with Rick Rubin and the inside scoop on The Avett Brothers’ upcoming ninth album.

Rob Duguay: A few months back you were part of a unique release with Jessica Lea Mayfield where you both released an album of a bunch of renditions of songs written by the late singer-songwriter Elliott Smith. Who came up with the idea for the album and what was it like for you doing a different project outside of The Avett Brothers?


Seth Avett: It was kind of an obvious conclusion that we came to. I’m not sure if there was ever a point of either of us saying, “Hey, we should do this.” It was just born out of natural conversation. Jessica and I realized at some point that we both loved Elliott Smith’s music and we just sort of did what musicians do when they’re playing shows together, they hang out backstage and pass the time by figuring out Elliott Smith songs. Or that’s what I think that’s what they do [laughs]. We learned one backstage in a venue at a show that she was opening for The Avett Brothers. Rob, I’ll tell ya her voice made so much sense on the Elliott Smith song “Twilight”.

It just blew my mind and if there was a moment for the conception and idea for the record it was right then because it was so good and it felt so natural and so right to hear her voice singing his lyrics. It happened naturally out of the both of us being fans and really the most surprising part was us following through with it over the next four years and carving out the time when we had the time to do it. For the second part of the question, it was different than anything I’ve done before since it was basically done in those pockets of time where I wasn’t working with the band. It was also the first time in nearly 15 years that I dedicated myself to a different musical partner outside of my brother Scott. It was a big learning experience for sure.

From playing with Jessica, were there any similarities between playing with her and playing with your brother Scott?

It’s totally different, totally 100% different. It’s the difference between having a really meaningful conversation just with one friend or with another friend, it’s a completely different background all together and it’s a different set of life experiences. It’s funny, Jessica and Scott do have a lot of similarities and they’re great friends as well. There’s definitely some senses of humor and some laughs when we all get together that all makes sense to us but with Jessica, her approach to music is very unique and very her own. Her sensibility within melody, her sensibility with her music all around is completely different than mine. It was a lot of fun to be around it and a lot of fun to figure out how that worked with mine. I think Jessica and I both have a more tender approach to performance and to singing than my brother Scott does so I understand pretty well how Scott and I sing well together and how we can get the most out of our differences. It was a new challenge to figure out how to make the most out of Jessica and I’s similarities.

Definitely seemed like an interesting challenge but also a great learning experience.

No doubt.

When you started doing The Avett Brothers with Scott, you guys were self-releasing your own albums and self-booking your own tours. Now you’re one of the most popular bands out there today. You’re playing all over the country, all over the planet, playing huge festivals and playing big venues. Did you ever think when you were beginning the band with Scott that it would be as big as it has gotten?

Not at all. The odd thing about it is that the previous project that Scott and I had going, which was a rock band called Nemo, that band when I was 19 and 20 years old I fully expected it to be this big success and this big journey. Then when that ended I sat down all of those expectations, all of those dreams, all those possibilities, I sat them down completely. At the time there was no Americana roots movement that was looked at beyond what it was. There’s always been one since recorded music got going. There’s always been an element of folk music and of American roots music in the market so to speak.

When we started in 2000 and 2001 learning songs from our area that we’re from that were written during the ’20s, 30’s, ’40s whatever, there was no representation of that in pop culture. That was the time of *NSYNC, Eminem had just broken through, and Christina Aguilera. That wasn’t a time where it could be expected to be a revival of a genre to work your way into anything that could be considered big. So not at all, in fact it was very much the opposite. I was really just trying to settle in and learning how to perform for a living, how to make it something where we could travel and make it a viable way to sing for people. Maybe get them dancing possibly but otherwise just figure out a way to eek out and carve out a modest living through music.

That’s what every musician pretty much tries to do and it’s awesome of how well you, Scott and the band carry themselves on stage. You always seem like you’re very grateful for everything that’s been happening to the band and you can really appreciate that as a spectator.

I appreciate you saying that, it’s not an act. It’s been a long journey and we’ve been very fortunate to see a return in terms of appreciation so it’s a very wonderful two-way street that we’re on.

The past three albums The Avett Brothers have put out have been produced by Rick Rubin at American Recordings, which is pretty much a luxury in itself. The band is also in the process in doing another album with Rick. What’s the experience like working with Rick in the studio and what makes you and Scott keep on coming back to have him produce your albums?

Well, in the beginning there was more of a self-awareness factor for me and the band I think in those first sessions of I and Love and You because it was like “OK. We’re in the studio with Rick Rubin, what’s happening now?” That was kind of a situational hurdle to get over and to get past the newness and excitement of that to get into the work and to dig into the very real challenges that came about when we started working on that record. I think after that we learned so much during some of the trials of making that record and when we started working on The Carpenter and it was after a couple years had passed. Our friendship with Rick has honestly and genuinely grown to the point where we have this great dialogue with Rick, this great rapport and we get each other laughin’. We’ve had really good experiences, really good binding relationship experiences together and we’ve really grown together as friends. Now we shake off this whole expectation factor and the nerves around making a record in an upper echelon studio with a world-renowned producer and all that.

Once you get on the other side of it, what can you really make it? You can dig into the work and what you’ve done is added another super valuable asset. It’s like having Scott there, it’s like having Bob [Crawford] there, it’s like having Joe [Kwon] there. Now we got this great addition to the mix now what can we do? So that just hasn’t run out. Basically every time we’ve worked with Rick and every time we meet with Rick, just to listen to music or talk about music whether it’s our own or anyone else’s we further strengthen this connection and I think that it really benefits the process. So far that’s the case and we haven’t made a move to not work with Rick because it always challenges us in really good ways, it always pushes us and helps us find our way to the best way to presenting a song which is really what this is all about.

You’re working with a guy that has produced some of the best albums in music history so it must be a blissful experience every time you go into the studio with Rick. Does the upcoming album have a name yet? When can we expect it to be released?

We don’t have a name for it yet and we’re well, well, well into the process so I can’t really say a lot about it. It’s still sort of revealing itself as we work through it, very seriously we hope for it to come out sometime around March and April next year. That’s what we’re shooting for, not title yet but it’s well on its way and we’re really excited about it.

BOSTON CALLING :: Friday, September 25 to Sunday, September 27 at City Hall Plaza, 1 City Hall Square in Boston, MA :: With The Avett Brothers, Bully, Alabama Shakes, alt-J, CHVRCHES, Walk The Moon, and more :: Advance tickets

BosCall Schedules Sept 15