Ties that bind
On the eve of the release of a new album, The Avett Brothers are enjoying life together
The Avett Brothers are a family band in every sense. Centered around the duo of brothers Scott and Seth Avett (who share vocal duties and play banjo and guitar, respectively), who refer to fellow founding member—bassist Bob Crawford—as “our third brother.”
Being in a band can be trying on any relationship. Members of the Ramones, for example, famously declared they’d go years without speaking or seeing one another except onstage, and they weren’t even really siblings. But, according to eldest brother Scott, no such acrimony exists among the Avetts, even after an 11-year-long climb to the top of the Americana scene.
“I’ve totally given myself to the time with these guys; I don’t really feel the need to have breaks from them,” Avett said by phone interview while on vacation “as far east as we could get” in the band’s home state of North Carolina. It’s a brief reprieve from the road and, one would imagine, one another before kicking off a two-month tour (beginning with their Chico appearance) and the chaos bound to surround the release of their seventh full-length, The Carpenter, next month. Not so, said Scott.
“Bob’s just two miles away from me, and I’ve seen him twice and played some music with him since we’ve been on break. I spent the morning with my sister and our kids, playing in the water and picking some shark’s teeth, and now we’re getting ready to head down and spend a few days with Seth.
“The more we communicate and work together, the better we get along and the more we understand each other.”
The brothers have been playing together since the merger of their two college bands into one entity, and their musical roots go much deeper: “We had a very musical family, but not in the formal sense,” he said. “We took lessons but for fun, it wasn’t an expectation-based thing. But we sang together a lot with our dad and uncles, and our grandmother was a great piano player, so good she could’ve gone to New York and been a concert pianist. Instead she married a Methodist minister and played at the church.”
Everyone from the aforementioned Ramones to other great family bands like the Carter Family have been cited by music scribes trying to pin down the Avetts’ sound. Talking about what’s influenced him, Scott mentions everything from the usual suspects (Jerry Jeff Walker, Townes Van Zandt, Johnny Cash) to the less obvious (Mike Patton of Faith No More and early ’90s grunge had a big impact). He also doesn’t cringe away from the fact that there are echoes of Grandma Avett’s big life decision in the brother’s own music, leading to a discussion about the universal appeal of gospel music.
“I don’t think gospel music should be alienating to people who don’t follow any particular religion,” he said. “I think everyone’s tied to some sort of spirituality, whether we’re conscious of it or not. Gospel music to me is a moment, a memory and a very important tradition. Regardless what people believe, the music’s all coming from the same place.”
Also like good gospel, the Avetts lyrically explore deep themes like life, death, redemption and acceptance. A good example is the haunting refrain from the new album’s title track, a line that could fit just as well in a Louvin Brothers song as an Avett Brothers song: “If I live the life I’m given I won’t be scared to die.”
“I think it might be having children or getting older, but I’ve had a different awareness the last five years,” Scott said. “I started reading a lot more, thinking a lot more and slowing myself down a little bit. I think, and I hope, it has made me a more peaceful person. A lot of our songs are about surrendering to that. That troubled mind still comes up, and we still write songs about that as well, but a lot of the newer songs are about searching for and finding that comfort.
“I think living your life and facing our fears will let us go out in a much more comforting and peaceful way. We all gotta go sometime, and if we go trying to move forward and progress, then that’s a good thing. In the end, it’s all just an attempt.”