The Avett Brothers: Rockin' Steady Wins the Race

Music Features The Avett Brothers
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On a chilly Texas morning, The Avett Brothers’ new tour bus pulls up in front of Roadhouse Relics, a one-of-a-kind Austin art space decorated with replicas of antique road signs and vintage neons. It’s just shy of 8 a.m. on the second-to-last day of SXSW, and as the bleary-eyed band members filter in for their Paste photo shoot—dressed sharply in thrift-store ensembles that’d fit nicely on the cover of The Band’s self-titled 1969 brown album—they’re shaking off the grogginess, glancing around for coffee.

Back in 2005 when they released Four Thieves Gone, there was no bus—they were all crammed with their guitars and banjos into a Ford E-350 van. Brothers Scott and Seth, bassist Bob Crawford and tour manager Dane Honeycutt would alternate hour-long sleeping shifts in the back seat as they cruised, exhausted but determined, down the seemingly endless highway toward their next gig. (As usual, they’ll hit the festival circuit this summer, with performances at Sasquatch!, Forecastle and the Strawberry Music Festival.)

The band’s dogged work ethic over the last eight years has paid off, as they’ve built a rabid fanbase the old-fashioned way—great songs, constant touring and a no-holds-barred live show that wins them hordes of new converts at every stop. After four LPs, a live album and two EPs, they’ve finally jumped from tiny North Carolina indie label Ramseur to Columbia Records. “We took hours and hours with the contract, making sure it was fair for both parties,” Scott says of the band’s new deal. “Really, we focused on keeping our artistic freedom and integrity more than anything, because we have always followed that, and if we follow that then we know the rest will come.”

The lack of trepidation about a major-label deal comes with the band’s experience playing small clubs and taking their knocks on what Scott, 33, likens to the rock ’n’ roll version of the amateur boxing circuit. “The amateur circuit in any business, in anything you do, has got to be educational,” he says. “It’s got to beat you up a little, and teach you and grow you until you’re ripe and ready to go.”

Seth, 28, also expresses thankfulness for the band’s slow-and-steady path to success. “If we’d gotten the type of attention we’re getting now at 19, 20 years old, we would’ve used it as foolishly as most 19, 20-year-old kids. [At that age], you’re too young to understand what fame is, and why fame is not necessarily a positive thing. A lot of times, I think that’s what has somebody ending up on God knows what—cocaine and the party scene. … It’s a benefit for us that we’ve become grown men and then started to gain some popularity with our artwork. Otherwise it would’ve been very dangerous.”

Now mature enough to fully appreciate and capitalize on the opportunities coming their way, for Act II/Scene I, the Avetts have teamed with legendary producer Rick Rubin for their forthcoming album, I and Love and You.

Rubin—whose credits include the Beastie Boys, Public Enemy, Danzig, Slayer, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Rage Against the Machine, The Mars Volta, Tom Petty and Johnny Cash—played a big part in getting the band signed to Columbia, where’s he co-chair. “The Avett Brothers’ music touches me,” he explains. “There is a depth and wisdom mixed with longing and honesty coming through loud and clear.”

Even based on rough mixes of seven tracks from the new album (all that was available at press time), it’s obvious that this is going to be the Avetts’ best-sounding, most carefully arranged album. While Rubin and the band resisted any temptation to overdress the record, they subtly expanded the instrumental palette with classically trained—and now full-time—band member Joe Kwon on cello, Heartbreakers keyboardist Benmont Tench, Bob Dylan fiddle player Donnie Herron and a rotating cast of drummers, including Scott and Seth, Simone Felice of the Felice Brothers and Dashboard Confessional’s Mike Marsh.

During the sessions, the Avetts took their time, trying different approaches as Rubin helped them break down their music to see how the individual parts worked together. “When we recorded the other albums—Four Thieves Gone and Emotionalism come to mind,” Crawford recalls, “it was [more] guerilla style, run-and-gun.”

At this point in the band’s career, Crawford says, they’re more aware of how to play their instruments and find a groove. But, of course, with experience comes a certain loss of innocence. “As you learn these things,” Crawford says, “you’re going to let go of the ignorance that was charm. But as Scott has said before, charm will only get you so far. We can only be The Avett Brothers and play out of tune for eight years—boy, we got away with it a long time. But I think we’re approaching an area where we need to stand on some firm musical ground. And I’ll tell you, if anybody complains or is taken aback by the fine-tuning, I hope that the words cut through to another level and strike a deeper chord.”

On I and Love and You, the Avetts’ lyrics do resonate more than ever. Rubin’s influence in this regard was essential, especially in using repetition to drive home the best lines and hooks of a song, and in his encouragement to peel back the music to let Scott and Seth’s simple yet profound lyrics—“There’s a darkness upon me that’s covered in light … and I’m frightened by those who don’t see it.” … “Ain’t it like most people, I ain’t no different, we love to talk on things we don’t know about”—shine through, unhindered by competing sounds.

This sonic evolution is the latest milestone on the Avetts’ path toward a lasting, meaningful artistic career. Still, they know there’s plenty more to learn.

“We’re still working it out,” Scott says, “but I think there’s been a lot of valuable lessons. … At the risk of coming up with a formula or format to follow—[sometimes] you need that consistency, not necessarily with the art, but for the traveling. We keep learning. We got to. There’s your sign of success. When you stop learning, stop gaining knowledge through experience, then you’re starting to slip.”