The Avett Brothers may just be the nicest men in bluegrass-infused rock music. Or just in music generally. Hell, they might be the nicest men, full stop. With their new Rick Rubin-produced album imminent (listen to a couple of the new tracks here), we caught up with Scott Avett before a rare London appearance by the brothers earlier this month.
Scott (centre) and brother Seth (right), together with double-bassist Bob Crawford (left) and cellist Joe Kwon, 29 (not pictured), have already gathered a diehard following in the States with their heartfelt Americana and stomping live sets. Their rep brought them to the attention of Rubin, who has produced their beautiful new record, I & Love & You, and got them signed to a major label (Columbia). All of which should see The Avett Brothers get the widespread attention they very much deserve.
ESQUIRE: So Scott, is life very luxurious now you're with a major label?
SCOTT AVETT: Yeah, we're all sipping champagne and wandering around in our smoking jackets and our slippers.
ESQ: At least you'll fit in fine when you come over to Europe...
SA: Right on! No, "luxurious" quickly goes out of the window when you have nine or ten guys on a bus. It's more like a submarine.
ESQ: You've toured the album in America already, but how are you feeling about the prospect of coming over here?
SA: We're just doing a short run — six shows — but we're very excited to come and do a proper representational tour.
ESQ: Are there any places in Europe in which you feel particularly at home?
SA: In 2000, I spent almost a month in northern Italy. I went to draw and paint and that was terrific. I learned to feel very at home there. In fact, Seth just got back from Venice and he felt very comfortable there as well. Northern Italy drew us in pretty quick. It's easy to feel pretty comfortable in London — New York and London are like extensions of each other. They're pretty similar.
ESQ: Do you think the fact that Brits lack a basic sense of rhythm is going to inhibit your live shows?
SA: Well we'll straighten that out! I doubt it, but we're the ones that are shaking our things. People in the crowd can do whatever they want — it's all good.
ESQ: You guys are from North Carolina — can you describe what it's like to people who've never visited?
SA: I can. North Carolina is divided into three parts: the coast, with the outer banks and the beaches; then you have the Piedmont, rolling hills and a lot of green; and then the mountains. You get a lot of variety in North Carolina, and you get a lot of progressive rural living, as well as conservative rural living, but it’s a terrific state and it’s a good example of America working I think. It has its pitfalls and its problems, but don’t we all.
ESQ: Would you describe your upbringing as "progressive rural living"?
SA: We did grow up very rural, in the country, we were allowed a lot of land to run around on and we were given a very blue-collar style of living, but we also were pressed to seek education. My grandfather was a Methodist minister actually, Clegg Avett was his name, and the great thing about him, he was like a blue-collar world traveller. He was very small town but he knew so much and was very intelligent. We look up to that.
ESQ: Did you play music growing up?
SA: For me, I just wanted to gather attention, I just wanted to entertain people. I didn’t really care how I did it. If it was playing basketball, playing football, whatever it was I wanted to do something. I definitely was [an attention seeker], though that has dulled over the years! It wasn’t good to seek attention during church or something. That wasn’t the greatest spot, so stage has been a good thing for me. It’s a good place to let that out.
ESQ: Were you good at the other things? Football and basketball?
SA: I was going to go to school in Alabama to play [soccer] for a small college. I loved it — I was never going to be that good — but I loved to entertain doing it. But to me, the soccer field, on stage, entertaining friends, it was all the same. It was some sort of expression. I ended up going to art school to paint. It was just about some sort of expression and trying to transfer that to other people.
ESQ: Do you still follow soccer?
SA: Whenever it flares up. When I was a little kid people kept saying, “Soccer is coming! It’s going to be huge in America!” And I’m thinking, “This is going to be great.” It still is my absolute favourite sport. It’s been 20 years and it’s just never done what it was supposed to do in America.
ESQ: Not even with David Beckham.
SA: He just couldn’t do it. Although he’s a fine looking man.
ESQ: When you and Seth were kids, how quickly did you get to the point where you knew you’d be able to play music together?
SA: That is a good point, since I was an older brother that automatically looked down or picked at him, there was an age where all of a sudden a mutual respect started to grow. It wasn’t instant, but at around 15 and 19, the two of us started going out and playing, and looking at each other more as necessary partners. At the time it was like, “Hey, if you’ll just play the guitar I’ll talk to people and I’ll sing the songs and do the lyrics.” Seth quickly became the foundation of guitar — I could pluck whatever other instrument and just sing and it would be terrific. It kind of built from that.
ESQ: Do you remember your first gig, the two of you?
SA: We played as a duet called The Long-Haired Bottlenecks. We made a flier that was two beer bottles with our heads and our long hair on top of the beer bottles. We played at this bar and after our second set the bar said we had to stop playing: everyone in the bar was underage and they couldn’t buy any beer, they were only buying Coca-Cola and tea! They said, “We’ve gotta get y’all out of here, the locals wanna buy beer and nobody can sit down, you have to leave.” And so we had to quit. And of course our friends went out and starting going crazy out front, relieving themselves on the front window. We got kicked out, but it was a terrific story.
ESQ: At what point do you play new material to your parents?
SA: I’m more prone to do that than Seth is. I’m the one that’s excited to get out front and sometimes make a fool out of myself. I’m always very excited to let anyone I know listen to it who I know wont take it and put it on the internet.
ESQ: We're hoping your dad wouldn't do that...
SA: Well he might these days – he knows how to work it pretty good now! We’re always pretty excited and happy for them to hear it. Whether they like it or not, they’re always proud of it. My mother’s a reading teacher so she always likes the words. It’s very nice. She’s a very generous and understanding woman. She’s probably the backbone to the family so it’s always exciting to let her hear.
ESQ: How did you meet Rick Rubin?
SA: Over the years we’ve been in contact with major labels but nobody could really offer anything better than what we were already doing, so we just kept on with our business plan and kept touring. When Rick came to the table he invited us to his house in Malibu. We went and spoke to him, and it was all about the songs. It was all about why we could work together. Could we work together? Why we should know other, and maybe we won’t work together, maybe we’ll just know each other as friends. It was good, it was very, “Hey, whatever this could be we should let it be, and whatever it’s not, it won’t be, and it’s all good.” Rick was very, very warm.
ESQ: The record has a very coming-of-age feel, as though you're accepting who you are — good and bad.
SA: I think that’s just where we’re at. What we write about and what we record is very predictable to where we are in life. That’s a part of the progression. I think the next record will have a similar sort of progressive step to it, if you will. But yeah, the record is an example of where we are.
ESQ: Speaking of life progression, which Avett Brother grows the better beard?
SA: It depends if you like beards or moustaches or goatees! I think beards are nothing but a fascination with adulthood at this point! It’s like we’re just fascinated with this fact that we can grow hair on our faces and when we were 13 we couldn’t.
I & Love & You is out on 26 April (Columbia) www.theavettbrothers.com