Editor's note: I recently had the opportunity to interview Scott Avett of the Avett Brothers prior to the release of the band's new album, "Closer Than Together." The interview, along with these photos taken during the group's concert at Barclays Center in Brooklyn, appears in Americana Highways.
Scott Avett is having the type of month multi-hyphenates dream about: a new album; a sold out show at Brooklyn’s Barclays Center; an appearance on The Tonight Show; and the opening of a huge collection of his paintings at the North Carolina Museum of Art.
“Today is the first day I’m constantly reupping as a musician,” he said during a Monday morning interview four days prior to the release of “Closer Than Together,” the Avett Brothers 10th studio album and the group’s first since “True Sadness” hit number 3 on the Billboard Top 200 in 2016. “I’m dedicating for the first day in many, outside of playing shows, just to work on music and on being a musician again.”
He laughs. “With all that’s going on, I have to do that. But I’m full in all the way. I’m going to try to keep going and try to keep making what I’m supposed to be making.”
On the music front, that involves what Avett calls a “gradual evolution” of the group’s sound and vision. While the group says it does not make “sociopolitical” music, “Closer Than Together” addresses gun violence (“Bang Bang”) as well as toxic masculinity and greed (“New Woman’s World”).
But more than anything, the album represents a call for unity, no surprise for a band whose earnest, seemingly simple songs about the human condition touch on issues of great depth for us all. You especially see that during the Avetts’ live set, which I witnessed first-hand while shooting the show in Brooklyn later that week.
During a 30-minute phone interview, Avett touched on the group’s creative process, his various outside projects (including a Broadway musical based on the Avett Brothers’ music and producing Clem Snide’s new record), the freedom of working for a major label as the music business turns upside down, and the effect of a Judd Apatow documentary on the making of “True Sadness.”
Here are excerpts from the interview, edited for clarity:
On the group’s “life and death output” and the effect it has on him: “Every one of them, by the end, there’s this output of life and death from ideas and thoughts. In some ways, it’s the death of songs in that we’ve recorded and released them, and yet there’s this new life that does reflect seasonal growth and dying off and rebirth. Creatively, it’s reflective of life and the trust we have in each other. But the songs have many lives and deaths as we are documenting them and putting them out there.
“I’m more aware of it than I used to be. I used to be so miffed by how short and grumpy I was at the end of every recording session. I would just be a total pain in the butt to live with. Seth (his brother) would certainly agree. Now I’m much more aware of it and doing things to combat it.”
On how the “True Sadness” documentary affected his approach to music making: “It was exhausting, but so was ‘Four Thieves Gone,’” Avett says, referring to the group’s 2006 album. “Seeing the documentary myself helped me to observe (how he responded to stress). I was able to observe this self I was on screen, this really unguarded vulnerable self. Isn’t that amazing, that we can do that?
“We had the same process with this record for sure, the same feelings for sure, but I did more to combat them and keep them in place, I tried to use the parts of them that are good to fuel what I do as opposed to stopping something in its tracks, which I’ve been known to do because I didn’t know what to do with it.”
On the documentary’s effect on the band’s popularity: “’True Sadness’ had a little longer life because of that documentary, but the cool thing was we saw real numbers change at our live shows. More people came out who were curious, who had no idea what we were. It was sort of like, ‘Here’s this group. Why have I missed them?’
“It was exciting to see that growth in our concerts. That’s our real time life, where we come and share all of these creative lives and deaths that we experience within a show.”
On the band’s continued growth and evolution two decades into their career: “Not everyone knows all the missteps and failures. There are all these hits and misses here and there. They always happen, but when one miss happens, the attitude has to be there will always be another opportunity. We have to know it’s OK, that there are always going to be misses. In fact, there should be more misses than hits.
“For the longest time, we always sort of ranked ourselves. Early on we had to do that, because no one was going to rank how we did. And we were very lucky. We were raised in a very caring — probably it’s a spiritual thing that I didn’t know at the time — environment in which you were encouraged to accept yourself as being part of something bigger and something grand.
“So, it’s a gradual evolution for me. It’s been in real time. I really don’t take any time to compare where we are consciously. Sometimes I forget where we sort of were or where (songs) came from. But when I think about it, I can certainly hear two different bands, especially as far as sound goes.”
On signing with a major label (Rick Rubin’s American Recordings, now part of UMG) and advice they received from Paleface, a folk artist who was signed by Polygram and Sire in the 1990s only to be dropped soon after: “One of the things we did right, I think, is work amateur until you get called up into the quote-unquote majors, and I shouldn’t even put quotations around that. We started as amateurs (with the North Carolina label Ramseur Records). The majors would have been suicide for us. It really would have been.
“Paleface is this brilliant songwriter we met in New York in 2003, and what he experienced was the opposite to what we went through. He was on a major label really early and really quick and he self-destructed. He said, ‘I didn’t have to do anything for myself. I always had people around me who would do everything.’ He would always tell us how good it is that we grew slowly, that we made all of those early mistakes in the amateurs.
“We knew how to draw thousands of people in several cities before we ever got to the majors. We knew how to sell records. We knew how to run a business. We knew how to write checks and manage money among each other. We didn’t really need a major label at that point except to advance our creative process, and that’s where Rick came in.”
On taking more than three years between albums: “We’re more apt to take more time now than we used to. We didn’t used to have the financial ability to take the time, but as soon as we were remotely stable (financially), we started taking the time. It’s one of those resources I was talking about.
“Right off the bat, Rick helped give us space that we weren’t taking for ourselves. We weren’t taking the initiative to make space and time at a natural pace. Rick has really helped us take time, make space for the music and follow our instinct and conscience. We were on that path already but he really sped it up for us.”
At this point, with about 10 minutes left, our conversation shifted to Avett’s other projects while staying focused on the creative process. We discussed his art shows (the large one at the North Carolina Museum of Art and a smaller one at the Soho Gallery in Charlotte, both of which will be up through January 2020), and the Broadway musical. The Clem Snide record, which Avett describes as “indie but spiritual” will be released next year, and the band also is expected to return to the studio in the spring to finish some music that was left behind during the Closer Than Together sessions.
Avett graduated from East Carolina University in 2000 with a BFA in studio art. The “full-on big show” in Raleigh, “Scott Avett: Invisible,” is described by the museum as his take on “universal issues of spirituality and struggle, love and loss, heartache and joy, as well as more personal stories of career, family, and living in the South.”
Painting and performing are large parts of who Avett is creatively, but they “can really distract each other badly. They can be each other’s worst enemy. I have to be really disciplined and know when to turn my back on one to work on the other.”
With the band on tour through November, he’s looking forward to taking some time to recharge before, as he describes it, the creative muse inevitably returns. And he remains open to following the “spark” that sometimes occurs when he’s exhausted.
“When I’m home and once I’m rested from being out, it’s so predictable, I get these visions of what’s next or these sounds of what’s next. They come in and I’m driven to go out and make whatever it is that calls me,” he said. “But some of the most interesting stuff for me comes after the big efforts, when you’ve had the juices flowing and gears turning. Sometimes that lack of presence you feel because you’re so exhausted actually makes you more present. It causes you to be in real time and something great can happen. That’s really fascinating for my process.”
The Broadway musical, which largely will be based on 2004’s “Mignonette” as well as other songs from the group’s catalog, is an additional artistic challenge for the group. “It seems so natural,” he said of “Swept Away,” which premieres at Berkeley Repertory Theatre in June 2020 before moving to New York. “Early, early, early on, I could see these songs as a Broadway piece, but I put that idea away years ago. To see someone else imagine it or see it in the same way, that’s exciting. They’re producing something that may or may not work, but it will be fun to see what happens.”
With three children — ages 4, 8 and 10 — and a career filled to the brim, Avett said he has learned over the past several years not to “overvalue work time” and to “give more value to the nondoing.”
“I swear, I’m doing much more within less work time than I used to, because adopting that principle causes you to be more relaxed and have a more fulfilling family life,” he said. “It’s easy to say that a career is the most important thing you have, but that’s such nonsense. It’s all so silly. If I afford myself more family time, which is super important, then I’m more relaxed when I go to work. And when I’m working, what I’m doing is more sincere and more fun. I just couldn’t get that before the age of 40. I couldn’t get it.”
As the conversation ends, I asked Avett if he enjoys music and art as much as he did 20 years ago.
“I think I do,” he said, laughing. “But in a different way. I try not to treat it as critically as I did 20 years ago, and that makes it more fun. It’s been a shift, because as many times as I say I’m going to change careers or going to quit, I never would. I’m always excited to move on to the next thing. There’s always the next thing to enjoy. I think that’s the key.”
To see more photos from the show, go to my Facebook album here.