A Conversation With Seth Avett
The singer and multi-instrumentalist from the North Carolina folk-rock band The Avett Brothers called us recently to chat about the new album The Carpenter.
The Avett Brothers: (left to right) Scott Avett, Bob Crawford, and Seth Avett.
Photography: Courtesy Universal Republic Records
Cowboys & Indians: Where are you today?
Seth Avett: I am at home. I’m in beautiful Concord, North Carolina, at my studio. … It’s a place to kind of sit down, breathe a little bit. It’s got a nice area out back with a view, with a swing from a tree. … It’s a good place.
C&I: Is it a tire swing?
Seth: It’s not a tire swing. I think I would probably hurt myself in short order.
C&I: Well, I love a good tire swing.
Seth: I was always freaked out by the plastic ones that were cast to look like tires.
C&I: Oh, yeah, you’ve got to have the real thing.
Seth: Exactly. You have to have a little black come off on you when you leave it.
C&I: To switch gears to what you actually called about: The Carpenter has just come out. Do you ever feel nervous in the time leading up to a release?
Seth: I think I might if I ever considered it. I think that we are so busy and keep so many things on our plate that we live our lives until the record’s out. I certainly don’t ever feel nervous. There’s a kind of confidence to it; I’m happy with the record. And I’d rather be in the studio, or be with my family, and not focus too much on the future.
C&I: That’s interesting, because the new album kind of carries that theme in the end, I think. It starts at a darker place and there are some revelations throughout. Tell me about the making of the album.
Seth: The writing of it: We’re not into the whole writing-session thing. I think it’s incredible that somebody can do that. But 99 percent of the writing is coming from me and my brother. We write all the time. If an idea’s coming, we try to honor it, and jot it down in a sketchbook. As far as development, it happens when we can make it happen. … The entire session for the album was closer to 20 or 21 songs. Some of the new songs were started six years ago, maybe more, and it just wasn’t time to finish them. We didn’t have the life experience, or whatever kept it from being finalized until now. The writing spans time, generations, relationships, living situations. All of these things go into it.
C&I: When you say you might not have the life experience to finish certain songs, does that mean that you’ll have an idea come up from some sort of random wisdom, and then you understand yourself better?
Seth: Yeah, I almost want to be careful to use a word like “wisdom,” because some of our songs can come off sometimes sort of preachy or “hey, look at what I found out,” and I’m always worried that it’s going to be seen in that way and discounted for that reason. But the truth is, we either write about what we know or what we’d like to know. And sometimes, a song will come about, and we’re only ready in our lives to write half of it. We may not even know it half the time. We might say, “Hell, what’s holding me up on this?”
C&I: What about the recording itself? Where’d you do all that?
Seth: We returned to Echo Mountain studio in Asheville, North Carolina, which was where we recorded Emotionalism and did a fair amount of work — sort of the icing — on I And Love And You. It’s in a beautiful place, close to our house, and we have experience in that area from all throughout our lives.
C&I: Do you keep every instrument that you guys would want to try on hand there?
Seth: We try to keep it as non-formulaic as possible. We feel like formula is a fast-track to failure in an artistic endeavor. So we stay focused on the song itself rather than any other ambition. Because, if you put a guitar lead into a song simply because you want to do a guitar lead, you’re just showing off. Our general idea is to serve the song however we can, and if that means tracking down a xylophone, we do it.
C&I: Getting into the songs that made the final cut: The opening track (“The Once And Future Carpenter”) is an “I’m a rambler, I’m a gambler” kind of tune.
C&I: What were the experiences that sort of led to that theme?
Seth: That was primarily written by Scott, but we share a lot of experiences as far as the rambling aspect goes. It’s been one place to the next, on and on for the last 11 years. Earlier you mentioned that the record starts with some darker themes. That is definitely a part of that song. A lot of our writing has to do with – Hopefully it’s not too fatalist. I don’t know if you know what I mean.
C&I: Yeah, there’s some depression in the first half of the record, some uncertainty.
Seth: Sure. That’s part of us, part of our minds, part of how we thing. But there’s a tendency in us towards hope and clarity, and some sort of development and improvement in life.
C&I: I love the line in that song about “the woman we call purpose.”
Seth: It’s funny. You can personify it, you can find a reason for being in a person, and you can find it in a practice. It’s a continuing process, but we continue to look for it. And to partake in it without destroying ourselves.
C&I: I’ve always wondered about how musicians who have darker songs go back to them nightly when performing them live. Does it ever affect you or your emotions?
Seth: That’s a weird thing. I have commented before about how, in some way, it’s like you’re re-reading a page out of your diary every night. And 10 years on, you may think how you wrote was sort of immature or goofy. But you’ve volunteered to do this, and if it’s something someone relates to, and needs to hear, you can play off that. And then you’re serving. That’s always something I want to be involved in. But we’re real careful, for better or worse, because we know that we have to live with these songs and stand behind them for many years. It’s very unlikely for us to write songs that are based in bitching and complaining. … And I really like music that’s fun, too.
C&I: Well, even when the songs are dark, your arrangements can lift them to a fun place.
Seth: We try, we try. I look at a band like Blind Melon, which was able to sing very joyous melodies while talking about some heavy stuff.
C&I: To me, that indicates some perspective.
Seth: No doubt, because it’s all swirling around at the same time: Good and bad, depression and joy. All those things are happening simultaneously, especially when you get older.
C&I: Oh, you’re so right. Every once in a while, that unexpected emotion will just pop up.
Seth: That’s right, that’s right. That’s part of having a life, living life.
C&I: Musically speaking, which songs are excited to perform live when you hit the road?
Seth: Of the 12 songs on the record, we’ve been playing maybe five. They are already on their journey. We’ve recently been practicing one called “A Father’s First Spring.”
C&I: That one tends to slay me.
Seth: In a good way, I hope.
C&I: Oh yeah.
Seth: That one is starting to get there. And I’m excited about a song called “I Never Knew You,” which is kind of an early-to-mid-‘60s Beatles kind of song. It’s so in our wheelhouse. Every time we practice, we sit and play it and it’s so natural. So fun.
C&I: Some would say that the world is your wheelhouse, though. You guys can handle so many different styles. Just look at “Paul Newman Vs. The Demons,” which is a throwback to ’90s alt-rock.
Seth: [Laughs.] It’s funny – that’s what I was going to mention. That’s the kind of music we played very heavily before we were the Avett Brothers. I wrote the song, we executed in the studio, but now it’s a question of pulling it off. We can play the song, but it’s a stretch for the band. Some people will like it, some will despise it. It’s coming from a genuine place.
C&I: Before I let you go, I do have to ask about your solo stuff. Are you going to do another album someday?
Seth: I am. I would love to. And I have it in my mind. It’s just a question of finding the time. At this point in our lives, we’re closer than ever in knowing how to get what we want in committing music to tape. But I’ll take some time, and take that journey later.
The Avett Brothers will play the 2012 Austin City Limits Music Festival on Oct. 14, and then continue touring the U.S. Get a list of dates here.