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The Avett Brothers: We Americans

Published in Relix Magazine

"I am fully on the touring schedule right now,” says Seth Avett as he climbs off the bus in Santa Barbara, Calif., where his namesake band, The Avett Brothers, will play a sold-out show in about eight hours. “That means coming offstage and getting in bed, having one those nights where I’m asleep but not really sleeping. Then, I wake up before eight, make coffee, spend time with my wife and son, read my Wendell Berry book and eat some breakfast. Having my whole life in one spot on the road is a big payoff, but it’s totally exhausting.”

There is some expected fatigue in his voice—this is the last night of a short tour before he sinks into a few weeks of respite back at home—yet Seth’s grind on the road isn’t exactly the stuff of rock-and-roll legend. But, with the band’s 10th and most outward-reaching album set for a fall 2019 release, the sentiment suits him well. These days, Seth and his brother, band co-founder Scott Avett, are fully invested in finding balance in their lives—between home and tour, between seeking and satisfaction, between the future and past of the band. And between the increasing divide that is slowly coming to define the U.S. Their new album, Closer Than Together, is at once a sonically stripped-down and thematically rich record, with songs that tackle—in no uncertain terms—the most horrific warts of the United States: gun violence, oppressive patriarchy, institutional racism and more. In true Avett Brothers fashion, the outlook is sincere but hopeful; these songs are counterbalanced by more on-brand Avett themes of love, honesty, connection and solitude. It’s an Americana record dissecting the American soul, shaped by centuries of injustice and promise alike. “We look at any car crash as we drive on by, of course,” says Seth. “But we’re also taking in all the positivity we see in our daily lives, too. There’s just as much fruit on the vine as there’s always been. We can find hope. It’s still there.” In 2019, after numerous TV appearances, countless sold-out shows and a five-album run with superstar producer Rick Rubin stretching back to 2009’s I and Love and You, the small-town origin of The Avett Brothers can feel more conceptual than concrete. Seth and Scott grew up in Concord, N.C. Scott, who is four years Seth’s senior, was a soccer star as a teen, with a romantic notion of America’s possibility. “[America], to me, was all about James Dean, Johnny Depp. And I expected that I would get on some path and do great things—that it would all happen within America’s care. Our father always taught us that we had greatness and light in us,” he says. “That was all embedded in my American experience. But we were protected from the evils of the world, and of the country.” “It was a Varsity Blues, Friday Night Lights kind of town. Football was so prized. But I was a student of Kurt Cobain. Anything he said, that was the truth. Feminism, celebrating anti-machismo, that’s where it was at for me,” says Seth. “To me, these cancerous viewpoints of racism and prejudice were limited to history and some kids I thought were idiots. And yet, I’m sure if you ask the black kids I went to school with, they’d answer quite differently.” Seth and Scott Avett have been touring nationally for most of their adult lives, causing their idyllic view of America to be popped in certain ways, reinforced in others. The belief that inequality was relegated to history textbooks certainly didn’t stand, but an inherent humanity shared across state lines became apparent. “I couldn’t help but focus on the ways that the country is unified. I saw the same patterns. People want to be loved, heard and noticed—to feel like they belong,” says Scott. “People are so much more alike than they look or sound.” To Seth, those early tours offered invaluable “snapshots of the whole country. You don’t land in a town, stay for a month, and learn all the nuance or personality. But we learned how rednecks in Ohio were similar to us, and similar to rednecks in California or Minnesota,” he laughs. “Those similarities were overwhelmingly clear—that we were all humans, and being American actually does tie us all together.” The Avetts actually have roots in the punk scene, but they truly found their voice playing an updated twist on the regional string sounds that have longed defined their home turf. They quickly brought in bassist Bob Crawford—a Northeast transplant who had clocked in time in a Grateful Dead cover band—and, by the early 2000s, The Avett Brothers were leaders in the burgeoning new folk scene alongside Old Crow Medicine Show, Josh Ritter, The Felice Brothers and others. (The fourth official member of the group, cellist Joe Kwon, joined in 2006, and the band’s touring configuration has continued to expand.) Along the way, the ensemble made their name thanks to their earnest lyrics and outrageously fun, loose, electrifying live shows, which offered a blend of bluegrass instruments and hardcore energy. With 2009’s I and Love and You, though, the band entered a new chapter. Rick Rubin, best known for his work with rap acts like the Beastie Boys and Run-DMC, and Johnny Cash’s late-career masterpieces, stepped in to take the Avetts further—exploring a fuller, more nuanced sound. And so began a decade of collaboration. “He’s definitely another member of the band when we’re making a record,” says Seth. “It’s much more than a working relationship. It’s a dear friendship now. There’s no hierarchy of decision-making. And it happened quickly. [I and Love and You] was like Rick Rubin boot camp. And from there, the love and care for the projects were immediate.” “We needed someone we could trust. We want those relationships, and Rick is deep into that,” adds Scott. “He defuses any ego, any passive aggressiveness that comes between brothers, quickly and practically. But he’ll also slow down to give us the space we need to create. It makes you feel so loved; it’s so validating.” Unsurprisingly, coming off their fifth album together, Rubin feels similarly familial toward the Avetts.“[Seth and Scott] are unique among brother artist combinations I know of,” says Rubin, checking in from Europe. “When I met their father, I asked him how he raised such impeccable humans—the secret ingredient seems to be love. Those lucky enough to be in the brothers’ presence have their own lives elevated. I’m proud to be welcomed as a team member.” The Avett Brothers have added new sonic colors to their palette with each album, from the lush, haunting I and Love and You up to the more plugged-in, pop-savvy True Sadness in 2016—the band’s highest charting release, which hit No. 3 on the Billboard 200 chart behind Drake and Beyoncé. In 2017, Judd Apatow directed a documentary on the group, May It Last: A Portrait of the Avett Brothers, which included spots filmed during their headlining debut at New York’s Madison Square Garden. They kept pace with shorter tours, allowing for more family time at home, but never disappeared from the road. And Scott pushed his second artistic passion—painting—to a wider audience than ever before by creating the cover of Brandi Carlile’s Grammy-winning, hit 2018 album, By the Way, I Forgive You.

The Americana star, who opened that MSG show, reached out to Scott, inspired by his stark, chiaroscuro-style piece for the cover of I and Love and You, painted nearly a decade earlier. “My connection with Brandi relies on nothing; we don’t need to talk often or catch up. But it’s always there,” says Scott. “We knew that if we spent the day together, had a meal, shot the shit and took photos, we’d find something great. She didn’t have to pose too much; I just got her in the booth and started shooting. It was a very precious moment.”

The portrait of Carlile—with those peaceful shadows on her face and her expressive eyes—falls in line with Scott’s collection of large-scale portraits of his family: squirming kids held tight, protected by an unshakable, familial love. Scott calls painting his true calling, even while spending much of his life onstage.

“It may be that everything else is just a distraction to me,” he laughs. “All I’m ever doing is trying to get back to painting. It’s returning home for me.” The Avetts can trace Closer Than Together‘s genesis all the way back to around True Sadness’ release. Listening to the record in 2019 feels prescient—but the truth is that they address the issues of 2016, and now, and likely the America of the future. As the more topical songs surfaced, the band discussed putting them out immediately—album cycle be damned. But Seth and Scott sensed a timelessness in the lyrics, even if that meant change wouldn’t come soon enough.“ When someone hears these songs for the first time eight years from now, or 20 years from now, then that will be the perfect time for them to hear them,” says Seth. Initially, Rubin was struck by the Avetts’ seemingly newfound, sociopolitical songwriting bent. But quickly, he saw the new songs as merely pieces of a greater musical puzzle. “At first, the social commentary songs struck me as a side of the band I hadn’t seen before,” says Rubin. “[But], over time, I’ve come to realize that some of the personal songs have a depth beyond the brothers’ past work. I’m such a fan of what they do and who they are, and I’m always happily surprised with whatever they conjure.” “We Americans” began with a single phrase and slowly, surely, grew into the thematic centerpiece of the album: a sobering reckoning with America’s bloodied, racist heritage, with Seth examining his place in this complex web of history. “I may never understand the good and evil/ But I’m doing the best I can,” he sings, before adding. “In a place built on stolen land with stolen people.” “It’s more an essay and less a song—more prose than poetry. The melody and that phrase came to me at once, in a very quiet moment in the dark. I was holding my baby; he was just a few months old,” says Seth. “It’s a reminder that America is not all beautiful, and it’s not all ugly. It’s complicated as hell.” For six-and-a-half minutes, over somber acoustic guitar and strings, Seth sings of American soil growing cotton and tobacco, mixed with the blood of “a misnamed people and a kidnapped race,” “the arrogance of Manifest Destiny,” “the sins of Andrew Jackson,” “the shame of Jim Crow” and “the open wounds of the Civil War.” But there’s hope in the history as well. There’s redemption to be found. A future not yet written. “We are more than the sum of our parts,” Seth sings. “All these broken bones and broken hearts/ God, will you keep us wherever we go?/ Can you forgive us for where we’ve been?” That prayer isn’t just posing, Seth believes. There’s work to be done, but we’re on our way to a better, more whole nation—amid some of the country’s darkest days. “You see it in any group coming together to do something of value. It’s in Habitat for Humanity. It’s in every AA meeting. It’s in churches and synagogues and temples. It’s in your local flea market,” says Seth. “You see it at our shows, at any [live] music gathering. It’s people coming together and saying ‘Let’s do this. Let’s figure out how to shine a light.” He wrote “New Woman’s World,” with its bright piano and acoustic guitar ringing like a Randy Newman song, as a response to James Brown’s “It’s a Man’s Man’s Man’s World,” with some realtime implications. “I took it to this science fiction, post-apocalyptic place down the road where men have just undeniably destroyed the world and need to accept that they have to hand over power,” says Seth. “I saw it in my mind like a film.” On paper, though, the song reads as an earnest—if rhyming—apology for millennia of patriarchy silencing the voices of women in favor of masculine brute force. “It took us a few thousand years to make a mess so fine/ I bet y’all sort it out in less than half the time,” the band sings, before humbly requesting, “Let me know if I can help out in this new woman’s world.” Even in 2019—a few years into a #MeToo movement that has started to hold men more accountable than ever before—there still exist few admissions so blunt. The scores of powerful men who’ve been toppled by credible accusations of misconduct should only be so honest. “I don’t know if there’ll ever be a floodgate opening [to equality of the sexes], because it’s a massive puzzle of personalities and struggles and challenges,” says Seth. “A sea change takes time, but I believe progress is being made every day.” The Avett Brothers have always been inextricably tied to the American musical traditions that birthed them: folk, bluegrass, rock-and-roll. But with Closer Than Together, they’ve embraced one of America’s greatest ideals—speaking the truth. Hell, the album’s second track is called “Tell the Truth,” with its chorus, “Tell the truth to yourself/ And the rest will fall in place.” As in, even when it’s uncomfortable or difficult. The country’s soul is stained—there’s no secret there. But Closer Than Together is still a risk for the band, an act that’s been perfectly uncontroversial for over two decades. And yet, speaking this truth is all The Avett Brothers can do. “Every time we write a song, we never say, ‘Let’s do an Avett Brothers tune.’ We have an instant feeling and we need to react. It’s about being in the now,” says Scott. “This will never get old because it can only be now. And that’s how we know we are where we are supposed to be at all times.”