Courtesy of Republic Records
The expression “you’ve come a long way, baby” certainly applies to the progression the Avett Brothers have made over the past ten years. The folk rock group out of North Carolina started playing a primitive approximation of bluegrass and folk music but has evolved into a band that can adroitly draw from a wide range of influences.
When the band first came through Cleveland in 2003, singer and multi-instrumentalist Seth Avett says it played the Barking Spider, the hole-in-the-wall folk club on the Case Western campus. This time around, the guys are slated to play at Jacobs Pavilion at Nautica
tomorrow night and will undoubtedly perform before a full house. They're now that popular. And that good.
Originally, Avett and his brother Scott played in different bands before coming together to first play together in the rock band Nemo. They would then form the Avett Brothers and put out a self-titled EP in 2000.
“That was the logistics of being four years apart,” says Avett via phone from a Pittsburgh tour stop when asked about how he and his brother started off in different bands. “When I was a freshman in high school, Scott was a freshman in college. We were kept apart by our age but we started working on songs when I was around 14 and he was around 18. We mailed each other cassette tapes. We played in different bands so the first chance we got, we decided to be in the same band together. I was about 19 or 20.”
Avett says he didn’t grow up listening to the bluegrass and folk that’s as abundant in North Carolina as kudzu, the invasive vine that grows all over the landscape there.
“The only music I actively listened to as a kid was Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd,” he says. “I was vaguely aware of the country music of the time. I knew Randy Travis and George Strait, but I wasn’t an active listener. Nirvana came along and that was damn near a religion for me. I then discovered the rich history of Americana and roots music that came from North Carolina. We didn’t really realize that was there until I was about 15 or so. You want to listen to something that is different from what you’re from.”
In 2008, the band signed to Rick Rubin’s label, and he would produce I and Love and You
. An A&R person at Columbia Records had passed their 2007 album Emotionalism
on to Rubin, the mastermind behind classice albums by a range of artists (everyone from Johnny Cash to Slayer).
“[Rubin] did some YouTube research and got familiar with us through the online resources,” says Avett. “He invited us to his house. We went to his house in Malibu. We sat out on the back porch. He mainly just listened. He asked about ourselves and what we saw in the future. He let us know that he would want to make a record with us if we would want to make one with him. He wanted to feel us out as people. It was very informal and very relaxed. We became fast friends after that.”
Avett likens working with Rubin to “going through adolescence in a short time period.” The band’s transformation was truly remarkable as it grew to embrace not just folk and rock but pop and punk.
“We had developed a thing and we had dialed it in to how we did without anyone else helping, but [working with Rubin] was an attempt to go from being a good band to a great band,” Avett says. “With I and Love and You
, the recording process was very challenging. It pushed us to do well and to take the time to try to find the answers not only technically but spiritually. He wanted us to find the heart of a song and to be open to change and how that needed to get there. He is big on experimenting and saying, ‘Let’s not assume we know the best way before we find the best way.’ That was a big before and after moment for me.”
The band also worked with him on the follow-up album, 2012’s The Carpenter
, and on 2013’s Magpie and the Dandelion
. Each experience was different from the previous one.
“It was mind-blowing,” says Avett. “Since those first sessions were so challenging, they characterized what I thought it would be like to work with Rick. We grew a lot in that time and in the two years following that. By the time we got in the studio to work on Carpenter and Magpie, we were more in the groove. Some of the pain of growing in terms of knowing what the process should and could be like was behind us. That made it more enjoyable and more confident that we could get to where we wanted to go. “
The group is currently at work on a new studio recording. Avett says it’s not finished but it’s “90 percent there.”
“It’s coming along famously,” he says. “There are exciting things happening. I don’t want to speak on them yet. I can definitely say we’re making some sounds we haven’t made before. That’s always exciting. Whether or not they’re great, I don’t know.”