The Avett Brothers get darker

Brian Baker, October 2009

Since Scott and Seth Avett traded in the shredding indie rock sound of their first band, Nemo, for the front porch bluegrass vibe of the Avett Brothers nearly a decade ago, the North Carolina trio (Scott on banjo/vocals, Seth on guitar/vocals and stand-up bassist Bob Crawford) has come to define the DIY ethic.

The Avetts recorded and released their own albums (10 full lengths and EPs over the past 10 years, including 2007's acclaimed "Emotionalism"), booked their own tours and negotiated their first label deal with tiny Ramseur Records 5 years ago.

The Avett Brothers altered their formula somewhat when they signed with Columbia, but not because of their newly established major label status. In fact, the trio already had close to 30 songs written before meeting with legendary producer Rick Rubin, who eventually helmed the sessions that resulted in their amazing new album, "I and Love and You."

"We had all but one," says Scott Avett. "We had started recording before we met with Rick."

The Avetts shook up their songwriting process slightly, crafting stripped down piano and drum demos and appointing them with whatever inspirations happened to present themselves.

"Seth and I had a lot of fragments, and then we met in the studio and attacked the songs in a rhythm," says Avett. "Instead of a song as a whole, we were taking the songs and doing them with piano and drums. The difference was Seth and I built the songs as demos in the studio, just the two of us, and we had instruments all around us, and we were jumping from instrument to instrument and learning what we could to make the demo song happen. That was a different approach than what we've done in the past. The first foot forward was very different and that approach maintained throughout the recording process."

Before the Avetts signed with Columbia, they had a series of get togethers with Rubin where the discussion was music in general, not necessarily the Avetts' music.

"The first meeting was very friendly, talking about music and mutual respect and it was very invitational," says Avett. "Rick is really good about not tying himself or you into anything, and if you're not feeling it, he's cool with that."

Once the Avetts got together with Rubin for the pre-production process, band and producer began winnowing the 30 demos down to a manageable number to take into the studio.

"We met at Rick's house 3 or 4 times with the 30 demos," recalls Avett. "Some of them weren't finished songs. Some of them we thought were finished, and he didn't. Some of them he maybe thought were finished, and we didn't. The first process was figuring out which songs we wanted to attack in the studio. We ended up agreeing on 17 or 18 songs to attempt and if we had more time, we would try more. It was almost like it decided itself, what songs were going to be agreed upon. Rick took an interest in certain songs and had qualms with others, and we just avoided the ones that anybody had a personal difference with."

Whether by virtue of inspiration, instrumentation or maturation, "I and Love and You" shimmers with a quiet intensity and glows with the moody country/folk rock warmth that marked the early works of The Band and Elton John. Avett cheerfully accepts those comparisons and offers a couple of his own.

"I'd also say 'Hunky Dory' from David Bowie, where piano drives the rock and roll sound, and also Neil Young in the spirit of the songs," he notes. "The piano is just as much a country instrument or an old time instrument as the banjo so we didn't really feel any different."

Lyrically, the themes on "I and Love and You" reflect the somber tone that pervades the country at the moment but not to a depressive degree. The album is obviously a product of current hard times, but also a certain sense of optimism that lurks beneath it all.

"When you spend so much time on the road, seeing the country in a hole, you get affected by it quite a bit," says Avett. "You start to feel like it's almost hopeless, then you get close to folks that help you push through that. I think this record has a lot to do with that."

The song Head Full of Doubt/Road Full of Promise sums up the sonic and lyrical balance on "I and Love and You" quite nicely. "That song was initially started by looking around at the bright lights and realizing it was all a facade, and there's really a lot of hardship and despair," says Avett. "At other times, or other parts of the day or other seasons, you're very hopeful, and it changes your vibe altogether. I think the record is hopeful, though dark."

The songs on "I and Love and You" hum with a hopeful solemnity and the lyrics are moodily and more globally introspective, which is something of a departure from the Avett Brothers' typical stomp-and-strum hootenanny. Still in all, the band's longtime fans seem to be embracing what Avett describes as a turning point for the trio, a creative fork in the road that they initiated and Rubin clearly helped to facilitate.

"We write all year long, and as we put it together, nobody can say, 'This record is going to be like this.' It's obvious in the writing," says Avett. "There's a dark and serious tone and, well, life's like that. What if this record's not as raucous as the last one? Well, if we pretend to be raucous, that's not going to work. So we found the tone we were needing to engage in, we wrapped our arms around it and pushed it and tried to emphasize it, and I think Rick (Rubin) was good for that for us."

In fact, "I and Love and You" began like most of the Avett Brothers' previous albums, which may have caused the most fortuitous problem in the band's history. Heading into the studio with Rubin for the first session on "I and Love and You," the band hit a snag almost immediately.

"The first song we recorded after the demos was Laundry Room, and it was the song that set the tone for us," says Avett. "We started attacking it just like we do live - banjo, acoustic guitar and stand-up bass - as far as making it just like the live experience, and we were having a hard time with it. We were not acclimated to the studio or to the song as it was so we backed off. The next day we started and we said, 'Let's do it with guitar and piano. It doesn't have to be what we do live. That's our call.' We cut the abrasion off it, sort of. It was kind of pointed and sharp and really abrasive and when we cut that from it, it set the tone for the album, absolutely."

With a brand new vibe inhabiting "I and Love and You," the Avetts have also gone back to their existing catalog to update some of their older songs to reflect their new approach.

"We've actually reworked some of the old songs in this form, like me on drums and Seth on piano or Seth on acoustic guitar and me on drums or Seth on drums and me on electric guitar. It's the old Bob Dylan trick. Really it's a trick that all musicians realize, the more they play. It's an obvious decision or obvious turn. There's not much rocket science to composition of songs instrumentally as you think when you're a young man. You think that it's so key and so important that they're presented in this certain way, and then you realize there's a million ways to present these songs. And Dylan's the best example for a guy who's broken that down to nothing. It's an opportunity we have to add some more dynamic and surprise for the people who enjoy being surprised."

In that sense, "I and Love and You" is clearly an album that signals a new direction for the Avett Brothers. While their bluegrass/country/roots rock context remains the same, the path they'll take to get there has just gotten a whole lot more scenic.

"There's a pain in my heart for guys like Shannon Hoon of Blind Melon or Kurt Cobain or Jimi Hendrix. It's obvious, the direct tragedy of their lives, but secondary is what would have come of the change if they'd matured as men and artists and gotten past the self-destruction," says Avett. "I understand that directly, and I can see myself on the other side of that. I'm 33, and everyone has this 27-year-old thing they go through as an artist. And we're over that. We realize that it's more like a Tom Waits or Neil Young approach. There are a lot of songs to be found and to find us. The fans that are in for the ride are the ones that get the most out of it, no doubt about it."

Two of the more esoteric aspects of "I and Love and You" are Scott Avett's amazing paintings that adorn the packaging - a weary woman graces the slipcase and portraits of the band are featured inside the gatefold - and Seth Avett's beautifully written mission statement for the album. Scott's paintings are definitely a departure from the Avetts' previous bold, graphic designs.

"I wanted the artwork with the album much more tasteful and thoughtful rather than promotional, if you will," says Avett. "I really didn't want to go into it thinking about what would sell records or look attractive."

As to Seth's powerful essay, it may have come at the end of the process, but it was no afterthought.

"Just like Emotionalism and Mignonette, we put together the concept as it went, so the mission statement was written well after the album, and it was based on the title," says Avett. "It was an outlet for Seth to use his brilliant formal writing, so it was definitely the icing on the cake."

© Country Standard Time • Jeffrey B. Remz, editor & publisher •