The door that seals the back lounge of The Avett Brothers' long, shining tour bus slides open silently. At once, the quartet's members—brothers Scott and Seth Avett, bassist Bob Crawford, cellist Joe Kwon—pause and glance up, smiling to their longtime manager, Dolph Ramseur, as he steps across the threshold: "NPR wants to know how many new songs you're playing tonight," Ramseur says, his inflection kindly implying an apology for the interruption. Scott reaches for the setlist. The band exchanges some final thoughts. Scott makes the pronouncement: "Two, but if there's a real serious need for another new song, we could do one."
Tonight, the Brothers' bus sits a dozen feet from the front gate of Stubb's, an Austin, Texas, BBQ institution that also doubles as one of the Capital City's biggest and most venerated venues. In two hours, the band will take the penultimate slot of an NPR-produced bill on the first night of SXSW. The Decemberists will headline, and—in less than 48 hours—Metallica will take the same stage. The show is the band's first since a year-ending stand in North Carolina, but it's likely just the start of what could be a monumental year for the Concord band: After serving as the flagship act for the label that takes Ramseur's name for five albums, The Avett Brothers will release I and Love and You, its Rick Rubin-produced major label debut, in August. Still at least four months ahead of release, the anticipation behind the album is growing steadily. A recent Rolling Stone story suggested it was one of the mostly eagerly awaited albums of the year, and NPR needs to know the names of the new tunes so it can plug the disc.
Ramseur jots the name of the songs down ("I and Love and You," "Kick Drum Heart") and excuses himself. The band turns its attention back to the new album, and—in one of their most extensive interviews about the record to date—reveals several of the record's guests, a few tracks that did and didn't make the record, and its thoughts on recording with Rubin and touring with Dave Matthews Band. The Avett Brothers open for DMB at Walnut Creek Amphitheatre Wednesday, April 22, at 7 p.m., and—if you're keeping track at home—the band's now verified four of the 17 tunes it finished with Rubin: "Kick Drum Heart," "I and Love and You," "Slight Figure of Speech," and "Tin Man."
INDEPENDENT WEEKLY: So, where does the new record, I and Love and You, stand now?
SCOTT AVETT: Oh, man. Well the record’s finished, other than post-production stuff and getting the artwork together. The majority of it has been approved as far as the mixes are concerned, and we’re looking toward the next step of mastering. We anticipated to have it out in the spring, but we’ve really taken more time to do it. As it translated into more effort and time, I think it’s translated into even a more refined, complex record—package, really, with audio, with visual, the whole thing, with our drive for it. [Ed.'s note: The proposed cover is a vaguely lugubrious painting by Scott Avett of a woman against a black background, with a painted font that's somewhat suggestive of the Black Sabbath cover font, but condensed and colored.] It’s going to end up being a positive thing, that we held off for a little bit. That’s the long and short of that as far as the album’s concerned. We have not edited down which songs will not be on the record.
You went in with about 30 songs, right? How many remain?
SCOTT AVETT: Yeah, about 30 songs. We’ve got 17 recorded, and we’ll edit something yet, we just haven’t come to that yet.
Out of the 30 songs that you went in with, what worked about the 17 you actually put on tape?
SETH AVETT: We initially took into account pretty heavily which ones right off hit Rick, which ones he, right off, was gravitating towards. Turns out, the ones that he liked we also felt strongest about, for the majority of it. Some of them just weren’t ready. They just weren’t developed enough yet. They were exciting to record and get done in the studio, but we realized the more we listened to them they weren’t exactly done. And we would have developed all of them and made them all finished if we could have, but there’s only so much time and so many hours in the day.
SCOTT AVETT: Yeah, exactly. They seem to make the decision for themselves. Excuse me: They make the decision for us, as we start whittling away at what we’re going to edit out. We decided, “If Rick liked them, then let’s do what we have in common.”
SETH AVETT: Because we felt strongly about them all to an extent.
During last year’s shows, you seemed to be doing maybe an half-dozen or so new songs. Did some of those get scrapped?
SCOTT AVETT: Yeah, probably. There’s a couple in the sets that we might have decided were done, that there wasn’t any editing that we could honestly do on them, though we may not have seen eye-to-eye on that with anybody. If they weren’t going to change any, they didn’t have a place in this process, which was taking songs and developing them with a producer.
SETH AVETT: So some new songs, we’ll still play live. But they won’t make an appearance on this record.
SCOTT AVETT: They’ll have to find a new venue.
Did “Kick Drum Heart” make it?
SETH AVETT: We did record that one. That’s pretty definite.
SETH AVETT: For sure.
SCOTT AVETT: They’re both interesting songs, both songs that were exciting to record and that came out.
SETH AVETT: “Kick Drum” took not the longest journey from start to finish, but “Tin Man” took a huge, huge journey from the demos we did.
So, going into the studio, was the idea that—if a song didn’t have room to evolve—you weren’t interested in putting it on the record?
SCOTT AVETT: We couldn’t really. Somewhat. Some of them didn’t change at all. Don’t get me wrong. It wasn’t that we didn’t make that conscious decision up front. That was kind of hindsight, but we did consciously make that decision in particular on a song like “Solomon.” We talked about “Solomon.” We had a handful of songs that we saw very huge limitations in how we could change it. We were kind of backed up against the wall. Even crowd exchange with that song in my mind is a big variable. You’ve built a relationship with the crowd in that song with the way it is. Some of them we don’t mind changing. The crowd will have to learn to understand that. Some of them, though, we share that with the crowd. So it’s like, that relationship’s there, so we can’t, really. It’s kind of doing some kind of mind biopsy on a person. You can’t do that. They’ve already made that relationship with that person. You can’t go change them entirely because those two people are one now.
SETH AVETT: We don’t want to make it out that it was a common goal to change every song before it was finished. We’re just talking about the occasions where we did something where Rick felt it needed to be something more. We were like, “Well, we’ve played it 1,000 times like this. Our minds can’t wrap around changing it.” That was a pretty relatively small part of the process for us. But “Solomon” was a good example of one where he would hear something different, and, for us, there wasn’t really a comfortable way to make that change. Whereas somewhere else the change would be, “OK, we’re going to do this chorus twice now.” All in all, the change doesn’t affect anybody, but it affects the song on the whole. It’s not really difficult for us. Like, “We’ll play two choruses. It’s OK.”
BOB CRAWFORD: It’s not like writing a new part.
What was the biggest change in the studio for “Tin Man”? How did you handle it while making the record?
SCOTT AVETT: That song changed a lot from demo to live, very much so. Before it was the drum song that it is in the show that we play now, it was kind of patterned after a Buddy Holly approach, where it was minor, or like an Everly Brothers approach. There were no drums. There was very little to it. We turned it into [the live, drums version] because we were yearning for that. Kind of like “Late in Life” did.
SETH AVETT: Both of those songs started as a joke I was making. We talked about “Late in Life” some, but “Tin Man” we started playing on our soundcheck almost making fun. But it started to make sense. Generally, a lot of times that happens where we’re just kind of messing around or staying loose with a song and then it becomes what it’s going to become.
What was the best thing about this process? And the worst? And to what extent did it feel like a test of how far you’ve come as songwriters and musicians?
SCOTT AVETT: It’s always stressful when you go in the studio, and all your armor is sort of stripped and it’s like, “OK, now you’re going to perform all the songs you’ve been working on, and everybody’s watching and waiting for your part.”
SETH AVETT: “Can you really sing? Can you play the instrument?”
SCOTT AVETT: For somebody, for me in particular, it’s like, “I’ve been playing drums on these songs, and now I’m in here and I’ve been messing around on the drums for like a year, and now I’m in front of Rick Rubin playing drums on a song.” A couple of ’em got by, and I made it. But we all agreed, “Whatever’s best for the record. ” If I was singing backups and it wasn’t working, if Seth needed to pull in, who would we pull in? Enrique Iglesias? [Laughs.] We were like, “Look, we’re going to do whatever the vision of the song is, we’re going to make it happen.”
SETH AVETT: Let’s make it the best song it could be.
SCOTT AVETT: No principle or pride is going to get in the way of all of us agreeing that this is the goal—to make it the best we can in our eyes, not in commercial eyes, not in the people’s eyes, in our eyes. As a test, it was kind of victorious, being able to go get through it. It’s another stage, like saying, “All right, there’s another one under our belt.”
SETH AVETT: A challenge.
SCOTT AVETT: That’s a challenge that we met, and now we’re ready for the next.
One of your claims to fame or infamy has been that, if you missed a note or broke a string or really just messed up, you plowed forward. How does that go with Rick Rubin? Is he like, “Let’s take it again"?
SETH AVETT: Oh, yes.
SCOTT AVETT: It needed to be in tune.
SETH AVETT: Our whole rough around the edges part of our mentality and part of our personality, I mean it’s still there. We’re not going to come off like Nat King Cole. We’re not perfect singers. We’re not perfect players. The record is more perfectly executed, no question, but that’s partially because we’ve played about 600 shows since Emotionalism. That much practice is bound to do something. Beyond that, we did do more, take after take after take in the studio. Like Scott mentioned about drumming: You can’t help but get better at drums if you haphazardly practice drums for four hours straight in the studio. The guy’s in there breaking a serious sweat.
SCOTT AVETT: Never practiced. We just learned how to play when we started playing live. Now here we are.
SETH AVETT: We were just honing it down. It will come across very easily as our best-executed piece, without a question. I think some people will have trouble with that, but we never wanted to be out of tune.
SCOTT AVETT: Let it be known to you from us, that you would be the one to understand that and it can be written at any point, when we were doing Mignonette and we were hitting flat notes...
SETH AVETT: We would have hit the right notes if we knew that. [Laughs.]
SCOTT AVETT: [Laughs.] We would have, if we had the time and known that we needed to back up and redo it, we would have. It wasn’t that we saw that as...
It wasn’t edgy or cool.
SETH AVETT: Yeah. It’s not that we’ve changed it now. We appreciate it.
SCOTT AVETT: We love it.
SETH AVETT: We love early Will Oldham where his singing is technically strong as it is now. It’s great now. It was great then. We know that some people see us hitting weird notes or wrong notes, and they like that. We certainly appreciate that. We all love music that’s not perfect. That’s definitely something that we know about, but it will come across that we’re more experienced for sure.
Joe, Bob: You’ve been quiet.
SCOTT AVETT: They have a hard time with the two of us on the edge.
SETH AVETT: They’re trying to get a word in edgewise. [Laughs.]
Bob, we talked a lot about your respect for Rick Rubin, growing up as a kid into hip-hop in New Jersey. What was the experience like for you?
BOB CRAWFORD: It was good. It was strictly biz. He’s real serious about his approach to everything, and he sees music in a very linear style. It’s important for him to break down and label all the parts of a song. That was pretty much how it went, just trying to see the song—the parts and then the whole, the parts and then the whole, and just kind of move things around. I think he did a lot of that in his mind, trying to move things around and see how where they fit best. Not only with a verse or a chorus, but with bass or drums or guitars or vocals. He was really intent on where things locked in, where the instruments locked in.
That’s where we can talk about on Mignonette or on any other album we had done, we had never focused on locking the interlocking parts. We were always more intent on performing, especially with the initial tracks of the song—the rhythm track, the bass, the drum, the guitars, the scratch vocals. This was an introduction, working with Rick and Ryan [Hewitt, the album's engineer], to things locking together—with a bass locking with a kick drum, or a piano and drums locking together. That was a big difference. There were so many takes, and that was a lot of it. We had never, ever, ever focused on that before—and not to our fault. We’ve always been intent on just going out and doing it.
Seth talks about just learning enough to get through a gig on the drums. When we first started playing together, it was just a matter of getting together, and I, Seth or Scott would have a song. We’d learn it, and go play it. These things got formed over time. The big contrast in the studio was everything became taken apart and put back together, like the parts of a watch. They fit in perfectly. That was the big difference.
SCOTT AVETT: A big learning experience exactly for that reason: Pulling things apart rather than just always pretending that they go together.
SETH AVETT: It’s like admitting when you’re younger—not necessarily younger but more inexperienced—that, I can’t speak for everybody but for me, I was less inclined to admit I was messing up. We may have talked about that a little before, but now you don’t have room to pretend. If you’re not going to call yourself out, everybody else is going to. At this point, we do it, anyway.
BOB CRAWFORD: There was a badge of honor. That might be a bad term, but for us it was more about the moment. That’s why the live shows are what they are or what they’ve always been. We didn’t have to: I didn’t know how to play bass when I started with these guys. It didn’t matter because it was just more about us doing it.
How about you, Joe?
JOE KWON: I’d have to go on something that Scott said about kind of going in there and having a certain expectation. For me, I always felt that it was going to be difficult because I’m sure Rick could bring in any professional cellist in L.A., take the part, and be able to play it right the first time and walk out and never think about the song again and probably would never listen to the album. He’s from a different world of music than I’m from.
That was kind of stressful for me. Some people might think I’m from the classical world, and I used to be, but I was never very good in the classical world. So to come into it with that, maybe that’s the expectation that I set on myself that Rick’s going to really chew me out if I do something wrong. But that wasn’t ever the issue, either. I think that was good, to go in with that because it made me ultra-critical of myself. Before Ryan would say, “Let’s try that over,” I’d say, “Stop, I’ve got to do that again." I think that was a good growth thing for me, to be more critical of myself than I have been.
SCOTT AVETT: Those guys were open to our sort of theory that, if you let the people that are your group or the people that you love, play, the spirit will come through in the music. I heard Ryan say that Rick commented—and this may or may not be true to a t—but he’d never seen ... Well, we were all playing all the instruments, moving around for wherever we belonged for that song. At first, I think he was kind of like, “This is a little bit crazy.”
SETH AVETT: He was like, “Are you a guitar player? You’re not really the best guitar player. You’re not really the best pianist. Are you the singer?”
SCOTT AVETT: None of us are necessarily the best but in a group Seth’s the best piano player. In one song in particular, Rick recognized “Look, Scott, you’re going to need to play it because it needs to be unsure.” I would say ,“Seth you need to play, so we get the notes right.” We were really intent on that. He was like, “You do it because it needs to have that unsure [quality].” That is the spirit that comes to it, because note-wise it should have been correct. There might have been some timing stuff that might’ve been a little bit off.
But that’s a perfect example of us, as a whole. You can only be an amateur for so long, and that’s a useless tool to you because once you’ve passed the amateur level and played so much, you’ve got to find new tricks. Amateur is not a tool anymore. That breaking of your voice on stage, it can’t be a tool anymore because you don’t have it. If it’s forced, it’s not real.
SETH AVETT: I think something Rick understands is that—I guess everyone has to find this for themselves in their recording, and I know we’ve all heard records where this has happened—you can bring guests in, you can bring hot shots on any instrument in, but the more you bring in, the less personality the record has. The more perfect it is without any personality. Before you know it, you have a record with people that aren’t invested in it outside the couple hours you’re going to spend in a studio. So we got some help from some real good guys on the drum kit, but we were lucky to meet with them first and realized we liked them well enough to be on the record that we were putting our names on. He seemed to have a good handle on that.
SCOTT AVETT: After laying down the primary tracks, or post-tracking, when we were overdubbing, we had Bill Reynolds come over and help with percussion, and Mo and Paleface helped on some things. And Donnie Herron [guitarist and violinist with Bob Dylan since 2005] was there. Sarah [McDonald] and Mary Ellen [Bush] from Ménage came over, so we still had a lot of that love that Emotionalism has on it as far as the pairing of all of us and friends.
JOE KWON: The energy starts changing, too, when people start coming in. You start seeing the ceilings come up.
So these are the first shows since the New Year’s shows in North Carolina. What’s the touring plan?
SCOTT AVETT: Now we’ve got this under our belt. The record‘s coming out in August. That's a little bit later than we wanted it to because we really wanted to be touring immediately for the record, and we want to put some more time and put our personal hand on the lighting and set design and everything because that’s coming. We want to be proactive in it. We’ve all agreed we’re moving in that direction, and we’re taking that on the road with us some this year. So that’s a new thing about the road, a new element to the road show that will be there. It will probably be just as haphazard as we were when we first started doing the live show. Except in the light-set world, there’s going to be pieces falling and shit. [Everyone laughs.]
SETH AVETT: We’re going to take our raw and rough thing to a new thing, with lights falling all over us.
JOE KWON: And we’re going to do the lights when we’re playing.
Your upcoming tour with Dave Matthews Band ruffled plenty of feathers. Is that a distraction?
SETH AVETT: It’s not really on our radar so much. We’re not putting a lot of effort into keeping our ear to the street for negativity. We’re aware that it’s out there, but it would be a stretch to call it a distraction for us.
SCOTT AVETT: That’s one thing of a big basket of things that people not in the music business don’t understand. I mean, they don’t know Dave Matthews or where he comes from. A lot of them don’t know where a lot of the art that they listen to or like or dislike comes from. I’m guilty for saying that I don’t like things that I’ve never even heard or seen because I didn’t like the name. It happens. You’ve just got to get over it. I remember seeing Jack White talking about it and just read it, and figured “Oh.” I understand it more now. The trend thing is one thing. Lasting art is a whole different ball game. The trend stuff just bounces as it keeps solid rolling through the whole cycle. We’re doing the right thing for our…
The complaints seem especially problematic since, 15 years ago, Dave Matthews Band pulled itself up from obscurity by touring and recording in much the way you have.
SCOTT AVETT: Absolutely.
SETH AVETT: That’s a major point. We feel a kinship in the method of our work in the way that he’s done it, and they’ve done it. Plus beyond that, their whole camp has been really good to us so far, encourages us, and has treated us well. We haven’t done the shows yet, but everything’s been really good. I think we all feel comfortable throwing things out there like you hate somebody. “Oh, I hate this movie star. I hate Angelina Jolie." You’ve never met her. You don’t know her. You don’t know anything about her. The more you think about it, the more ridiculous it gets. You think, "I don’t ever want to say that again." They are real people. Why should you say something negative about somebody just because you don’t like the melody on some certain song? It’s ludicrous.
BOB CRAWFORD: Like you’re sick of hearing the hype about somebody.
SETH AVETT: It’s not their fault it’s there.
SCOTT AVETT: We were offered that show with Widespread Panic. I know there was some threat about that. I was guilty of thinking that some of the drug culture that follows some of these bands defines that band or is attached to that band. It’s not their fault a lot of times. Nine times out of 10 it’s not their fault. You can’t put any stock in that. They can’t help that.
Oh, a lot of people a lot of times, they get really mixed up with what’s good and what they like. They get them confused and think they’re always the same. That’s just a huge problem with most people’s tastes. They say “Man, I hate this, it sucks.” They could say, “Man, I hate this, but, man, it’s quality.” I mean whether you like us, Dave Matthews, Metallica, Crowbar, whatever, if it’s quality, it’s quality.
You guys haven’t played in a bit. Did you actually practice this time?
SCOTT AVETT: We rehearsed five times in the last six weeks, and that’s the first time we’ve rehearsed in about the past three-and-a-half years.
BOB CRAWFORD: We’ve practiced five times in the last six weeks and five times in the last four years.
SETH AVETT: Bob and I were talking about it earlier. It’s been a real joy. We’ll get together and play for like three or four hours, eat supper together, getting a camaraderie amongst us that doesn’t have to do with performing, which is important.
SCOTT AVETT: We’ve been missing that. We’ve all been doing our own work at home. We’ve been doing a lot of work for the record and getting together once a week and rehearsing. We’ve got a lot of new songs that are going to go well beyond this I and Love and You record.