Listening to the Avett Brothers is like hearing the past and future of music at the same time.
Like most great acts of the past forty years, their foundation is the depth of their songwriting; brothers Seth and Scott, work together and separately, producing great album tracks like “Salina,” off their 2009 release Emotionalism, one of any number of songs you could point to, analyze, enjoy, listen to over and over and still hear something new. The form of “Salina” is somewhat unconventional, a fact that’s often overlooked because of the song’s folk roots. The bridge is a new song in itself (so is the beautiful, extended coda, for that matter). It’s one of those tracks you wish would never end. (But, hey, you can always replay it.)
“That one is a closer example of what our newer stuff is like,” said Seth by phone from his home in North Carolina. “The parts are written by me and Scott both, but they fit like puzzle pieces. It was like, this is a section and that’s a section, but what’s the next chapter? What can tie it together? What can put a period at the end of a section? Even if we do write separately, we’ll work until we realize, hey, these parts are meant for each other.”
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And then, of course, there’s the live stuff, which situates them in the present and even points to the future. The Avetts are one of the most exciting live acts around, and they’ve been busy touring the festival circuit this summer, as usual, bringing what’s (too easily, perhaps) been called “white-knuckle folk” to their fans. Theirs is not the tired energy of much of what passes for recycled Americana these days. They rip it up.
The Avett Brothers have never played the Gathering of the Vibes, but they’re pumped about it. “I really enjoy playing festivals, because there’s a certain celebratory vibe to them that you aren’t going to find in any interior venue,” Seth said. “There’s a certain kind of joy and excitement and freedom that comes with outdoors festivals anyway that can’t be synthetically produced otherwise.” Theaters and arenas, he said, sometime make it hard to read the crowd, but festival-goers tend to leave it all out there. “If they haven’t been baking in the sun all day,” he added.
The Avetts have also been scooped up and embraced by the jamband scene. They’re on the cover of the most recent issue of Relix Magazine, a clear indication that they’ve been championed by Deadheads. They’ve shared bills with Widespread Panic. The Avetts’ fan base is dedicated in a way that resembles, say, the following enjoyed by Phish or the Dave Matthews Band, though on a smaller scale. “I don’t think we went out searching for [approval by the jamband scene],” Seth said, “but the festival world is very populated by that crowd. And although we have a little more harder edge stuff that might turn some folks off, we’ve never had a problem.”
Their newest album, The Carpenter, which will be the Avett’s second major-label recording and their second time working with famed producer Rick Rubin, will be released on September 11, and the first single, “Live and Die,” debuted on NPR’s All Things Considered earlier this month. The process of writing songs for the new album, Seth said, sort of bumped along in between touring and everyday life, the lines between which seem to become more and more blurry as they reach new levels of success.
“I don’t know if it’s always going to be like that, but it’s like compulsion or lifeblood,” Seth said. “For me [writing songs] is something that I have to do. It’s like holding my breath if I don’t work on songs. Something is gaining steam, taking up space inside me, and it makes me uncomfortable to not write songs.” Initial ideas arise daily, he explained, but there’s a huge difference between seeds of a great song and the final product. “You can have all the initial ideas in the world and never have a song. It’s like having a field recording. If I wake up at three in the morning, it’s my obligation to grab that recorder and put that idea down.”
Development, Seth said, is the more important step, and it takes a certain level of commitment. A great producer -- a Rick Rubin, for example -- can step in and help out, but that’s not quite Rubin’s role when he works with the Avetts.
“Rick is not a musician,” Seth said. “He’s one of the greatest lovers of music. The guy just loves music, and he’s more about feeling, the spirit of the song... He’s got no formula, no formal rules. He’s not going to say, ‘Seth, maybe you should try the minor there.’ What he might say is, ‘It feels like the chorus is coming up too soon. I don’t know why it feels like that, but maybe we should explore it.’ It’s always about feeling, and he’s big on the experiment.”
Occasionally the Avetts and Rubin don’t agree on the direction a song is taking, but there’s a certain level of trust that they are going to learn something new in the process of discovery. “That’s the point,” Seth said. “It’s up to us to follow through with the music, and [the album] won’t come out until we believe in it. Everyone knows that it doesn’t go anywhere until we approve, so it’s not going to hurt anyone if we play around with it for awhile.”