In an industry as fickle as the music business, you almost certainly don’t have to be nice to succeed. In fact (to paraphrase a cliché), it might help if you’re not. Like every rule, though, there are exceptions and sitting down for a chat with the Avett Brothers is a welcome reminder of this. In a dressing room buried deep inside the cavernous, Edwardian chambers of Shepherd’s Bush Empire, Scott and Seth Avett, Bob Crawford and Joe Kwon greet TLOBF like an old friend. They laugh at our jokes and remember our name. They even do their best to sound interested in questions they’ve no doubt been asked dozens of times. They exude politeness, warmth and courtesy that feels alien in the hard-boiled world of rock and roll, one that leaves you glowing for the rest of the evening. No, the Avett Brothers aren’t like most bands: they’re like four big, hairy bowls of Ready Brek.
Even more startling is that the band have managed to maintain this manner after ten years of recording and touring together, almost incessantly. “We have to take time for ourselves on the road”, explains Bob Crawford, the upright bassist, when asked about their genial demeanour. “Having alone time when you’re with anyone so much is very important. We’ve always done a good job at hanging out together, but we’re also very good at disappearing and going to our own places.”
“We’ve also worked out our touring schedule over the past couple of years which allows for more family time, which is extremely important. It’s always a tightrope walk, it feels like, but these days we’re successfully balancing our families and careers and being able to do that allows us to continue to be successful in what we do, enjoy it and appreciate our relationships with each other.”
Family is a word that peppers conversation with the Avett Brothers. Like most bands containing the familial denotation, they aren’t all related, but having been together for over a decade, there’s a sense that their usage of the term transcends bloodlines. Their vernacular is laced with utopian values whilst talking to and about one another. Words like respect, kindness, balance and care all roll off their tongues and if further evidence of the worth they place on interpersonal relationships were needed, then their music helpfully provides it. Tracks like ‘Murder in the City’ (Second Gleam, 2008), ‘Laundry Room’ (I and Love and You, 2009) and ‘Salvation Song’ (Mignonette, 2004) all tackle the issue head on and show that it’s been with them throughout their career. I suggest that they are a little more wholesome than your average indie scruffs. They nod, smile and put it down, in part, to their North Carolinian heritage.
“Being from North Carolina definitely shaped us a lot,” says Scott Avett. “The people we grew up around had real honest values that I think we’ve inherited. Work ethic, for one, was one of the admirable priorities in people. It wasn’t “who’s the best?” it was “who is the hardest worker?” That’s how respect was built for a man. That’s how we viewed our father and how he viewed the people around him. So we inherited this do it yourself work ethic, which is the reason why we went the first seven years without a label (not that they were coming to us). But we just rolled up our sleeves and got on with it. In that area, the rural North Carolina setting, where everybody’s kind of labour handed, labour orientated, your work ethic was as important as how well you played your instrument or how well you dressed.”
The Avett Brothers, incidentally, are dressed immaculately. They play their instruments pretty well too, as the night’s sold out show in the ‘Empire testifies. But the sentiment prevails and the brothers share it unashamedly. They conjure Walton-esque imagery when they talk and TLOBF is compelled to question them about their childhood.
“Our rearing definitely affected the journey we’ve taken,” Seth Avett admits. “Our family didn’t really push music but definitely let us know that the arts were important as part of a well-rounded education. We heard music in the living room, where there was always a record player and a bunch of records. We would generally hear a lot of popular country music of the time, 70s and early 80s. Dad would always be playing an old guitar and we absorbed a lot of music when we went to church.”
Whilst certainly not unique in having strong views on religion, the band’s spirituality is another element that helps detach them from their peers. Their grandfather was a Methodist minister and faith has always had a “special place” in their lives. “We talk about it (spirituality) a lot,” says Scott, nodding, before correcting himself: “We talk about those labels a lot.”
“There’s plenty to go in that section… there’s a lifelong conversation there. But to answer it shortly, we don’t really know how to take it away from ourselves. It’s a huge part of us and it’s always present. To take it away would be very dangerous. It needs to be at the top of the list of guides for us. It would be impossible to be here without spirituality, it’s just… there.”
The ‘here’ Scott talks about is a place the Avett Brothers have worked hard to get. Incrementally, their audiences on both sides of the pond have been growing for years. They’ve had hit albums and are finally seeing the fruits of their labour. Their last album, I and Love and You, was their first for a major label and their first with a “proper” producer in Rick Rubin and the band feel that both moves were in the right direction.
“It felt, even during the process, that we were taking a step,” Seth explains. “There were times that it was not easy. We had to really expand on our efforts. Overall there was a willingness for everyone to take their time whilst making the record and not try to rush. We had an attitude that we wouldn’t stop working on the record until we all agreed that it was great. If anybody didn’t agree that it’s great, they didn’t have the opportunity to look at it like we do. But we made sure that we thought it was great before we brought it out.”
The fabled pressures of delivering for a major label are exactly that, the band explain. They assure me that they had full freedom to record what they wanted, how they wanted, a fact that’s supported by the lack of new material since 2009. The Avett Brothers have traditionally been an ‘album a year’ band and their first lull in activity has coincided with their move to Columbia. Bob Crawford explains that the process has changed slightly and that whilst they haven’t released anything of late, they’re as prolific as ever.
“Rick (Rubin) is working with us more as an administrator at the moment. We’re based in North Carolina and he’s in California. We’re spending more time working things out at home and then meeting with him afterwards. We’re taking notes, making suggestions and then going back to the drawing board. There’s more back and forth with that. We’re recording quite a bit more material than we’ve ever recorded for a record so there’s more to choose from and it’ll also turn into more of a heartbreaking process if it turns out we can’t release all of it, but we’d really love to have an album to release next year.”
The rest of the band smile enthusiastically and TLOBF can’t help but feel that our thirty minutes together have been positively cleansing. Remarkably, the qualities they project within close quarters are palpable as they take the stage in front of two thousand fans later that night. They are earnest, endearing and excited. They seem genuinely grateful to have such an audience for their material and happily give them what they want, unconcerned with people’s perceptions of ‘cool’. You’ll have to go a long way to encounter a more refreshing bunch than the Avett Brothers and in the cynical, sneering times in which we live, a band that engender smiles at every turn should be treasured.
Written for The Line of Best Fit