Interview with the Avett Brothers: A more artistic side

After coming across this musically talented group via a CD from a friend a few months ago, I was on full course to becoming an “Avett Addict.” In investigating their website, buying every CD of theirs I could get and talking with other “Avett Addicts”, I found that there’s more to The Avett Brothers than simply the music that they write and perform as a band. Each one of them is involved in side projects on an individual level. Seth has the “Darling Series,” Scott has his painting and Bob is working on a solo album, due to be released this fall.
Interview by: Jennifer Harp

Having an opportunity at Smilefest 12 in Lake Toxaway, NC to meet with these artists back stage before their set, I had plenty of questions about each of these projects, their inspirations to incorporate even more work into an all ready hectic tour schedule and how their lives have influenced these projects.

I went back stage to meet with the band, only to find that the only half-way quiet place to talk was in their 15-passenger van, which they call home during their travels, performing live across the country in a seemingly endless succession of show dates. This setting proved better than any office or table in a restaurant. Maybe because this van was their "home away from home" of sorts, the guys were very relaxed and open. I spoke with each of them in turn, as they were getting ready for their set, which was due to start in an hour. They each spoke eloquently and passionately about their individual works and about their group work.

The first band member I got to speak with was Scott Avett, known to be one who is always reading, writing lyrics and music and painting. As talented with his painting as with his music, I wanted to know how this artistic side of Scott came to be and how his life as a painter is progressing, mixed in, of course, with everything else "Avett."

HGMN: I saw on your website that Scott, you paint. I would like to talk with you about that.
Scott: Yeah, I would love to talk about my painting. You know, I was talking with somebody the other day, about just the more you work and the more people you meet some equate with success or whatever; it just amounts to more talking. Luckily that is something we like to do... (laughs)

HGMN: How long have you been painting?
Scott: I always drew and illustrated. I probably did that more than studying anything in class. I would kind of "doodle" through out grade school. The first oil painting that I did was in '98, '99? I was twenty-two years old. From there that's immediately where it kind of started. I was at Eastern Carolina University at the time and I had a Professor that said 'Alright, you need to do this.'

HGMN: You had a mentor!
Scott: He really was. I'm glad you said that. I just wrote a letter to him on an airplane last night. I try to thank him about every six months because he basically said 'You must, you must pursue this. You're obligated.' That was important. 'Cause at 22 you don't even know what you wanna be, what you wanna do.

I agree, there is so much pressure to "be" something, a professional.
Scott: Especially when you're in school, there's this, uh, fib that you get a degree and there's going to be a job waiting for you. Advice from my parents, which I recognize is great, I hope will be useful to you and I hope will be useful to me as a parent is, uh, my parents always told me "If you're a bum, you'll be the best bum there ever was. If you're a garbage man, you'll be the best garbage man there ever was."

Good advice for all parents in regards to their children.
Scott: Yeah, that was a real confidence builder for me.

HGMN: You guys are on this crazy, hectic tour schedule this year, which I am sure, is exhausting and time consuming. Are you able to paint at all?
Scott: I'm very much able to paint. An example of how the past two months have gone; tomorrow and Monday I have at home. I'll paint three hours each day. That's what I'll do, I'll go to the studio, I'll paint three hours and the rest of the day will be spent relaxing and preparing for the next road trip. So I get time to paint, it's more spread out, but I think its focus time. I'm at home and I don't have to worry about going into a job or, uh, I don't have children at this time, so it's like, I can focus.

HGMN: Does travel influence your work? Painting?
Scott: The road is good because it turns into something that initially you think would be bad for painting, which I complain about a lot. I shouldn't, because it gives me a good chance to look at the world. It gives me a good chance to go to museums, a lot of museums. (laughs) It gives me a chance to contemplate about what my next move will be through whatever paintings I want to do. And then when I get back to the studio, at certain times, it comes out, a little at a time.

HGMN: Do you see as you travel for your shows the differences in the culture across the states and do you pull that into your art as well?
Scott: There's no question that...yes. There's've perfect timing! (laughs) I was writing in my letter that I was seeing the journey, traveling, different characters from many different places, working their way into the subject matter of my work. And that is something that's specific and very original. I can't help it; it's just what's happening to me. I'm from North Carolina. I'm from the South, but it's hard for me to write or paint about just that because that is a very little part of it right now. I'm everywhere and meeting many people. Traveling is such a big part of the experience that is finding its' way. Different forms and imaginary forms of travel are finding their way, or ways, into the subject matter of my work. Dog sleds, canoes, planes, go-carts, you know. Things that literally aren't. But dog sleds and canoes are very much coming from my reading and travels, just things that I am seeing. As good symbols for the 'journey', which the 'journey' pretty much equals life and whatever our 'journey' turns out to be. I don't mean to get too far... (smiling)

HGMN: Oh, no, no, you're fine. I follow you. As you are painting or writing your songs, do these two areas "cross-over" per say? Does one influence the other?
Scott: I'm going to say no. This question came up a couple of weeks ago in a talk I was doing in Charlotte. Basically, they parallel very close and they run almost identical patterns, but, they rarely...I don't listen to music when I paint. It's almost rarely, I can't say never. When I do listen to music it's got to be something that I'm very familiar with or music that I'm not just discovering because I put a lot of effort into hearing something that I've never heard before or something that may really inspire me or influence me in the music realm. So I need to keep's really kind of like two polar heads, they need to stay apart, but keep going down the same path. I see some of the, uh, like I said, the traveling, some of the indirect parts of music find their way into painting. Then indirect parts of painting find their way into music.

But they never cross?
Scott: Not yet.

HGMN: Not yet?
Scott: Not yet. Never's a strong word.

HGMN: Do you do exhibits or sell your work?
Scott: Right now I've got some work in a gallery in Charlotte, called Empathinc. It's a nice little spot. And there's a Gallery in Montreal that I'd like to do. That's just such an outreach for now. Right now, what I'm really trying to focus on and be patient with over time, is building a body of work that is lasting. That I'm not going to look back on and say, "I could have done that better, I shouldn't have shown that before it was truly developed." So, right now, I focused on building that body of work. And then I hope to explode with a series of shows.

HGMN: You state in your artist's statement that the central characters in your paintings are all inter-related. Are you going to work off that as a base?
Scott: Sure. That's kind of the idea. I'm learning that I can stake claims and say I'm gonna do this or do that and a lot of times it changes, you know, just like life. It's not exactly going to turn out like you think it is. But I have done, somewhat, or I'm happy with the fact I may have introduced some characters based on different feelings of my own. That's what I say in part of my statement, that I can incorporate some of these 'journeys' and, maybe, maybe as you travel more the character that is 'Fear' starts to dull, or maybe as you travel more the character that is 'Hypochondriac', or you learn more and get older and start to loose that fear. So that character is found in certain situations. This is the kind of concept that I think I'm going towards, well, I hope to be going towards.
The symbol of the 'traveler' is just the continuum of the time line.

HGMN: That's where you are in your life right now?
Scott: Yeah, and the characters basically are all self-portraits, but they're not always me, you know?

HGMN: Now I have one more quick question, about a live performance. What inspired you to stage dive in Greensboro, NC, at the Flying Anvil?
Scott: Were you at that show?

HGMN: Yeah, you know it!! (laughing)
Scott: That's just part of our background, that we didn't intend to get mixed in to what we do. When we quit playing in rock bands it was a relief to play a lower level energy show.

HGMN: Well, it got a little crazy there that night in Greensboro.
Scott: It did. It's an exchange, it's an exchange. It's something that's not aggressive or painful, but it's something that just... the best way I can put it is you start feeling like nothing is happening in the world. This is not true, but it's a good thing to believe for a moment. Nothing's going on anywhere in the world except 'that right there.' It's not about them and it's not about me, it's an exchange and sometimes it doesn't happen in a night and those are kind of long shows, but when it does happen...(smiles)

As we laugh in remembrance of that incredible show, the back door slides open behind me and Bob Crawford climbs into the van. Thanking Scott profusely for sharing so much with me about his feelings and his personal work, I then turned my attention to Bob. We chatted amiably while he got ready for the upcoming set. With his quick grin and equally quick wit, Bob had a few surprises up his sleeve, especially when it came to discussing who played most of the instruments on his new album.

HGMN: Bob, I hear you have a new album coming out. What inspired you to do this?
Bob: I just started recording stuff when I was at home. Kind of like my dream, I think, to be able to play on the road with a great band and when I'm at home have my own little studio. I actually took some money and got some tools, supplies, borrowed recording equipment. I started recording. This album... I kind of wanted to throw this one on the merchandise table, throw it onto myspace and not make too big a deal out of it. I've been working on it for over a year and I'm more excited about my next one that's all ready a good way done.

Well, you're busy...
Bob: But this is what I want to do, you know?

HGMN: Music's obviously your passion, you're just driven?
Bob: Musically, I'm driven. (laughs)

HGMN: Do you write all of you own music and lyrics?
Bob: Yeah, I do all of my own stuff. I don't know if my lyrics are as meaningful as Scott and Seth's, but I've always been more, like, texture and stuff. That's something I kind of lock into, but I'm proud of it and I'm happy with it. So, I'm going to do a CD release September 7th in Greenville at a music store called "East Coast Music and Video." Then before the Rocky Mount show I'm going to play three songs. And the album will come out that day. Dolph's helping me out with all of that.

HGMN: He's been very supportive of everything you guys have been doing, with your side projects and all that.
Bob: He's our guy, man. We're all doing everything under Ramseur Records, pretty much.

HGMN: So you'll stay independent with him?
Bob: I hope so. I can't see it being any better. You know, we got it real good right now. And we don't need a big endorsement, a big label.

Some of your fans are wondering if you will have any tracks on your new album featuring just your vocals with only bass for accompaniment.
Bob: No, there isn't. There are a couple of scaled down songs that are vocal, guitar and there's one that's just vocal and guitar, there's one that's vocal, guitar and harmonica. From there it gets a little more...well, I play bass on everything. I played almost all the instruments. Seth plays drums on one track and I have another guy play drums on five or six tracks. Then...I played in "One Leg Up", which is a great band out of Asheville and the mandolin player and clarinet player played on a track. And then a friend of mine played piano on a track. Other than that, I did everything myself. It was great!

Looking at my watch, I realized the time was flying by. I saw Seth outside of the van window. Bob, who made our interview feel more like a conversation than a question and answer session, was now in his dapper best, suit jacket and polished boots, ready to take the stage. I thanked him for his time and he just gave me one of his lop-sided grins and jumped out to catch his "co-hort's" attention.

Seth Avett came around and climbed up into the driver's seat of the van, struggling a little with the over-size van door. Laughing at himself, he set me immediately at ease with his genial smile, warm handshake and graciousness. In talking about his individual project, some of his inner workings were revealed, showing what makes this talented artist tick.

Seth, your "Darling" series. Beautiful. Will you be doing another?
Seth: There will be another one, for sure. It's mainly a question of deciding which route I want to take. Clearly we have a lot of material to work from. For the next Avett Brothers record we'll probably have thirty songs to choose from...and more beyond that. It's like each of us have our own story. We have a collective story and we have our own story and tell it in a different way and for me that's named the "Darling Series." That'll continue, yeah. I want to give it the right amount of time, and since we are so busy it's something that you have to focus and concentrate on; you want to make sure you don't rush it.

Like wine, you want it to age.
Seth: Right, to give it the time it deserves. It should be what it should be. I don't know when a new record will be out, but the material's there and the ideas are there. I eventually will have to decide between three different paths of which way to take it.

HGMN: Will it be the "haunting" type, as before?
Seth: One of them is, well, actually maybe two out of the three are. (laughs) See, all of the songs I've done are kind of an exorcism of sadness, kind of using the writing of the record and the recording of the record to kind of get past the real difficult part of my life. I'm in a different chapter of my life now, so there's still a lot of sad songs. I want, just like we do with the Avett Brothers records, the record to make sense all together. You want to have a good variety and a good scope of, not only texture, but also verses.

HGMN: Do you feel that with each one of you having your own side projects, that it helps you as a group, you know, stay interesting to each other? I mean, you guys do have to spend a lot of time together.
Seth: (laughs) We do spend a lot of time together in the van and we're not able to do a lot of the stuff we want 'cause we perform together so often, but it does keep us healthy. Everybody, you, me, everybody out here today, we all need that thing for ourselves. Whether that's doing yoga, running or making a cake or recording a solo album or painting. Everybody needs something; they gotta have that 'thing' for themselves. Don't let that change just because you're in a group with a concentrated interest. The Avett Brothers are our concentrated interest and that's our priority, but in order for every person to stay sane you gotta have something for yourself and exercise that right.

HGMN: Is it difficult deciding when to work on which projects?
Seth: We're all very clear on it being a priority, like...I would never put a recording session on my own in front of anything Avett Brothers. You know, from Bob to Scott to me, we all make sure that there will be time for those things, much the same way you make sure there is time for you to sit down with family. We all have things that we gotta do and you know, it takes a little prioritizing.

HGMN: Speaking of family, on most of The Avett Brothers albums there are clips of recordings of you guys as kids and also more recent recordings during recording sessions, just goofing off. How did these "family moments" come to be part of the albums? Whose idea was it?
Seth: Well, the kid one was my idea, but it wouldn't have mattered, it could have been any of our ideas. Scott and I are very attracted to honesty and the connection to knowing what the truth is. And the truth is that we are people that grew up in the South. We don't feel very good about the "glamorous separate yourself from the common folk" kind of stuff. That is very wrong for us; we don't feel comfortable with that. At first it's kind of funny, those recordings. On our new record "Four Thieves Gone," the end track, it's got two of our buddies and us sitting around, drinking, having a fun time. It was late at night, and we were just playing around...Are you familiar with Will Oldham? Part of his incredible artistry is how he displays his vulnerability. We feel, like, if we're able to show, like, if we're really, really sad; sad enough to be, it's the type if sadness that's embarrassing for most people and it's embarrassing for us and if we go ahead and show that, that's a part of being human. That's also a victory. If you're able to write a song that shows just how incredibly sad you are, you're not keeping something for yourself, you're saying "Here it is, I'm really in a bad place." A lot of my favorite songs are sad songs. Like, I listen to Robert Johnson and he sings about something sad and it makes me feel good 'cause I can connect with it.

HGMN: I was reading a review of Merlefest 2005 a while back and read that the author thought that you had "one of the most beautiful screams in the history of rock 'n roll."
Seth: Wow! (laughs)

HGMN: Do you plan these things, or is it just, you're up there and get caught up in the moment?
Seth: All that is just being able to let loose. I'm sure some metal singers, and some hard core singers, which is a lot of the stuff Scott and I really enjoy listening to, prepare what their scream will sound like. That's not us. Every person has a certain sound when they scream and, like, someone saying that about mine, or ours, is a great compliment, but it's just how it sounds. My Mom doesn't like music when people scream. For us every emotion can't be expressed by singing it pretty. Like, sometimes a rap makes more sense. Sometimes, like a crooning type sound will direct the emotional drive. or a very pretty soft voice or a very pretty opera voice or sometimes a scream, sometimes talking, sometimes whispering. So, the comment on the scream is nice. The thing is you will sing your best when you let it be your voice. When you try to sound like a certain singer, it's not going to be as good as if you sang with your own voice. And that's no different than screaming.

HGMN: You guys do an incredible live show. I've heard people say that they prefer The Avett Brothers live shows over the studio work.
Seth: We have a little confidence there though, because studio work is different than a spontaneous, this is the day, this is the night, moment. We like when people like both, but we can understand that some people like the records more and some people like the moment more. I'm a big fan of the moment myself.

After that, it was time to give the band some time to themselves to do whatever it is they do behind stage before a show. I didn't get to ask them about that kind of thing, even though questions of that nature were on the list of questions that I had brought with me that day. I found after talking with these three guys about their side projects that none of the trivial type stuff seemed to matter. They are each a deeper, more intricate part of a whole, more meaningful picture; which they are not afraid to reveal, piece by piece, each in their own way.