On a Thursday afternoon, Scott Avett and I are talking about professional wrestling and stock car racing.
A day later, I tell him, I'm going to visit his hometown of Concord, North Carolina, to watch my first-ever wrestling match in the Cabarrus Arena, a glorified high school gymnasium that holds 3,000 fans. Avett assures me that this is the right way to do it, to shirk the bright lights and extreme glitz of the major productions in favor of the small, stranger spaces. When he and his brother and bandmate, Seth, were kids, they'd see races at the humble Concord Speedway, not NASCAR's nearby monstrous hub. It's more personal that way, Avett assures me, more endearing.
Suddenly, I realize we're talking about music, too.
"Seeing all this stuff in a pretty small venue can be pretty dang awesome. There's a pure intent to it," he says. "It reminds me of music: You have to work your way up, and if you can get the sponsor, you can get to the big leagues."
During the last half-decade, this is precisely what's happened for the Concord-based band. After relentless touring and a string of albums built on the harmonies of bluegrass and the gusto of punk rock, the Avetts nabbed a spot on the roster of mythic impresario Rick Rubin, a move that propelled them to headlining slots in arenas and the top rows of festival posters. The Avett Brothers are only a dozen years removed from playing the state's smallest dives. But they are, in truth, a world away.
True Sadness, the group's fourth record with Rubin, is its riskiest set to date, sometimes foolishly so. The usual heartrending ballads are here, as are the affable Americana shuffles that have become its recent stock-in-trade. But then there are songs—remixed and recalibrated by Rubin with synths and drum machines and samples—that seem engineered expressly to climb the charts. To wit, opener "Ain't No Man" just earned the band its first No. 1 single slot, though it feels a little like a casual summer lark, a song destined to be be forgotten as soon as the season fades.
For the first time, it sounds like The Avett Brothers are trying to move to the bigger leagues, not do it of their own accord. Scott spoke about that idea, as well as the political turmoil of the state he has long called home.
INDY: What does everyone ask first about True Sadness?
SCOTT AVETT: Everybody asks what's different about the recording process. It is very different; I can't really deny it. While we were making it, I kept going, "It's just another Avett Brothers record. It's no big deal." I'm convinced now that it's not another Avett Brothers record. It really is the most complex and involved record we've ever made. It doesn't matter what this record does; it's not just another Avett Brothers record.
When you first began working on True Sadness, you had intended to record it together, as one group in a room. Why the drastic change?
We were so excited about our band, how it's grown, and the family vibe. We were excited about taking that into a room. We kept talking about "Go to Sleep" from Emotionalism, a song where we just crammed a room full of our friends and recorded it. We were thinking we needed to go big on that energy and make an album's worth of that energy.
We'd already recorded everything in Asheville as a demo. But then when we went to Malibu, Rick Rubin said, "Why don't we meet at my house tonight, and let's talk about a game plan for the next two weeks while we make this record?" That's when he said, "What if we assemble songs instead of forming them? What if we use more electronic tools? More computers? More beats? And see what happens?" His point was that we can do what we wanted to. We could make a hard turn, an all-electronic album. I felt like we should be open to it.
We agreed that we should explore both. We'd make two versions of every song. The first order of business was going to be that Seth, Bob, and I would record all the songs. Right off the bat, that was going way, way back. Why not have as much material as possible to see what works? We recorded with the three of us, and then as we made that old-school recording with the seven-piece band, we were assembling remixes in a studio adjacent to the main house.
Often when there's a proposal so dramatic, like a remix album for a mostly acoustic band, there's protest. Was there with True Sadness?
There was some concern, I'm assuming, from some folks in the band. But everybody held their tongue and said, "Let's trust the process." There was never any breakdown or conflict. When Seth and Bob and I were on board, we just asked the rest of the guys to trust us. There was some worry and concern but, ultimately, not enough to speak up.
When did you decide it worked?
As soon as there was a batch of these tunes remixed, I went in and heard some of them. I knew there was something there. There was a world here. At one point, we were talking about doing them all electronic and releasing them and, six months later, releasing the band versions. What would that mean? What would that say? How would that live in the world? As we kept going, the most sincere thing was to allow those different perspectives to serve the songs and release the best version, instead of doing something radical just for temptation.
The sound that first defined The Avett Brothers—bluegrass and rock 'n' roll with harmonies and energy—has spread since you began. It's not so novel anymore. Is True Sadness an attempt to stay ahead of that trend?
Not really. I feel like we're already on the backside of our career. We just are what we are. We might become bored with certain sounds and doing certain things. But when it comes to songwriting, we're still exactly what we are in many ways, as much as has changed and as much as we would like to explore. Our exploring and changing has luckily always been at a healthy pace and has never been a reflection of us making marketing moves.
This record is toned way down compared to a whole record of remixes, but to not use the computer in 2015, when we were recording and assembling this, almost seems insincere. It's nostalgic and not acknowledging the tools that are there. It's like saying, "Ludwig just came out with this great drum kit, but I'm not going to use it. I'm going to keep using these buckets and cans, because that's what I'm used to." You're a representative for a tradition you built. There may be a part of me that eventually says, "I love old-time music, and I would love to be a traditionalist." But you can be a traditionalist within your own life, where you hang on to whatever. Maybe you hang on to the time you first fell in love or the time you graduated, and you live life based on the ideas you form then. That can happen to artists. What I want to see is a healthy, sincere change, not based on career advancement.
What do you mean when you say you're on the backside of your career?
How do you take away a career that's eight albums in? If it ended today, it already existed. If it ends today, I'm completely content. Anything that happens at this point is icing on the cake. That being said, there is no end. If I wasn't doing this, I'd be doing something else, creating. This is just one of the places we all come together and create. We're always going to do that.
At what point have you done enough, where you simply decide to go home and work on the farm?
As much as I admire farming—and if I can spend money toward farming and good use of my land, that's something I'm interested in—that would be a hobby. I'm an artist. It sounds late, but in the last year or two, I have finally accepted that there is no run, unless you call a life a run. As long as I'm living, I can't not make things.
You've tried to stop, then?
I've tried several times to stop. It's like exercising for me. If I don't do it after a while, I don't operate real well. I'm not good to my family. Why is that? It must be because I'm an artist.
I also kept some of these daydreams alive and thought, "Well, if I ever get put out enough, I'll just quit it all and won't have to face this muse, and I will become a farmer." But I was speaking with a guy I work with on our farm about a year ago, and we were trying to make a game plan—what we needed to do, what it cost, what would be the farm plan and the template, what we were trying to farm. Every bit of money that made it possible had been through music and art. I realized farming was someone else's dream, and I didn't need to get involved. Just because I have a body that is able doesn't mean I am eventually going to go do that. I have to be realistic about what I'm capable of.
I also had a guy who's a really great promoter in the D.C. area say to me a couple of weeks ago: "You mean so much to those people out there. God gifted you the talents to do this, and the only way you can repay him is to use those talents. That's your gift back." If that's true, all I can do is be responsible for that. In a lot of ways, I feel obligated to do this.
The Avett Brothers are the biggest band in North Carolina, and North Carolina is under scrutiny for, among other bad ideas, HB 2. What do you hear about us on the road?
On the bus, we talk about it. There's always current events going on, and especially when it's close to home, it hits harder. I'm always trying to put myself in check and step back and say, "What really is my business? What am I qualified to speak on?" Some of the guys in the group have read HB 2 fully. But I don't have enough information to trust the birth of these things that are written into the bill. Where do they come from? Why? I don't know. There are a lot of elements to this, and when it comes to the political part of it, I don't feel qualified to speak in detail.
Will the band take a public stand, especially when you play the state?
We have made conscious decisions about not making a statement, but we do think that what we do—and we see it work—is an inclusive scene. We think our presence is needed more than ever because what we do is all-inclusive. Every night when we play, someone is seeing us for the first time. And sometimes, they're coming for reasons that are very sad, like deaths or illnesses, or very inspiring. If we took that away, it would hurt. We'd be taking away something that, unlike politics, is all-inclusive. When you buy a ticket, you don't have to say who you're voting for. For people on the ground, real people, we need to be present and all-inclusive. That, to me, is very important. If I made statements politically, I'd be toying around with becoming a politician. I don't have what that takes.
You played Pat McCrory's inauguration in 2013 and caught flak for it. Knowing the decisions he has made, do you regret it?
That was no statement on our part at all. If a Democrat is the governor coming up and we get invited to play the inauguration, we're there. God knows what they'll do once they're in. It's all or none for us. This is farfetched, but if we had been invited to Obama's inauguration, we'd have been there. If Clinton is president, we would do it. We just try to be all-inclusive. If I were you, I'd ask a counter.
So The Avett Brothers do have limits? You won't play for Trump?
[Laughs.] I would say give me a little bit. I don't even know what to say about that. The whole thing is so wild. I try to keep everything so on the ground and do good things. I fall short so much, but I try to do what my grandpa would do—be as loving as possible to all and any, at any time. I just don't know if politics will ever be able to do that.
This article appeared in print with the headline "And It Spread"