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Q&A: The Avett Brothers’ Scott Avett on Confronting Tragedy for ‘The Carpenter’

‘I don’t know that we ever understood life or death as well as we do now,’ says the banjo-guitarist.

Patrick Doyle Jun 29, 2012
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Scott Avett

“We’re very excited,” Scott Avett says about the Avett Brothers’ seventh album, The Carpenter, set for release on September 11th. In January 2011, the band started recording a total of 24 songs in Asheville, North Carolina, for the follow up to their 2009 LP I And Love And You, once again working with producer Rick Rubin. The brothers get loud on “Paul Newman Versus the Demons,” lead a waltzing sing-along on “Down With the Shine” and contemplate life on the road on the acoustic ballad “The Once and Future Carpenter.”

Speaking with Rolling Stone, Avett discusses why the band made a banjo song the first single (“Live and Die,” which you can stream below), their already-in-progress next album and how the band is coping with the illness of bassist Bob Crawford’s daughter, Hallie, who was diagnosed with brain cancer last year. “I and Love and You was kind of the freshman attempt at chapter two of our existence as a band,” says Avett. “This record is a much purer approach to that, which will be joyful and more painful in some ways.”

Why did you want to make “Live and Die” the first single? 
One beautiful thing: it’s one of the few songs on the album that has banjo. It’s an amazing time right now, the way banjo has become accepted. There’s teenagers playing the banjo again! When I was a teenager, that was ridiculous. I fell in love with the banjo, and I think it’s just amazing thing that’s happening. I get lost thinking, “That’s not a banjo song. That’s just a melody that sounds great.” It could be a pop song. You can forget about whether it has banjo or piano or anything in it. I think some of the parts of the song really open up and breathe, and the release in the song is so inviting, and I’m very proud. I’m very excited to perform it. It really takes the heart rate up; I can envision the relationship between the song and us and the fans when we play it live.  

You’ve mentioned this record will have louder songs like “Paul Newman Versus The Demons.” 
For sure. Before we started the Avett Brothers proper, we were in a loud band. We were really concerned in our craft, and we really pushed it and it was about extremes: extreme melodies, extreme loud guitars and extreme movement onstage, so it’s not really a departure for us. It’s kind of a return to that moment. And it’s been in us forever. We grew up in the Nineties so Nirvana, Soundgarden were ingrained in us. That’s something that we’ve always had in us. So I think that really was what was driving Seth [Avett] with that song. It’s that true rock & roll spirit.  

Any other huge musical differences that separate The Carpenter from I and Love and You?
There are some songs that we sat on and we kept close to our hearts, one in particular called “A Father’s First Spring” that wrote itself very quickly. Another song called “Through My Prayers.” Those songs feel very private. They feel very intimate for us personally, and to release them will be the mark of an ending of a relationship with those songs that we’ve had. I don’t remember when that happened last. But I’ve given myself to it for long enough that I just give myself to it. But we’ve kind of spent enough time with these songs that they’re personal, and I think that’s a good sign.  

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What personal issues are you addressing in those songs?
One is about life, and one is about death and about personal accounts of that. Since this album’s been done, we’ve dealt with more and much heavier versions of that as well. So, maybe that’s added to the closeness that we hold them to us. As we get older, a lot of the things we said in the past that we thought we believed about understanding life or death, I don’t know that we understood them as well as we do now and I don’t know that we understand them now, but we’re closer to an understanding. The hard times with Bob and his daughter’s illness was something that we woke up to and changed our lives entirely.

I don’t know if the closeness to our hearts that some of these songs have will translate to the people. But I know how impactful and how heavy it is for us. So I guess emotionally, that’s a big difference. I and Love and You was kind of the freshman attempt at Chapter Two of our existence as a band. This record is a much purer approach to that, which will be joyful and more painful in some ways.

How is Bob’s daughter now?
Well, they went through St. Jude’s in Memphis, and we got a new understanding of what that place is about and how the entertainment business has a role in that, which changed our roles, I think, a little bit. But their daughter and them have returned home. She’s not in the clear at all; she still receives treatment, but she’s home and they’re stationary, and that was a big milestone for the journey. They’d been in hospital for nine months, literally. So Bob would come out and play shows, or he’d be living in a hospital, literally.

Insane. Insane. And the wear on a person mentally, just to see someone they love go through that as well is just a strain, personally, on your individual self. It’s just massive for him, his wife and Hallie’s mother and Hallie. It’s imperative that we keep our heads up and push through and do we what we do. And we’re doing it, you know.

Did the huge reception that you got from I and Love and You make it easier or harder to write new songs?
Both. It made us understand our goal for songs more clearly. Sometimes it would feel so jumbled. I might have a mound of lyrics, and I would just throw them together and try to then pull from the junkyard, as Bruce Springsteen would say. It would be a mess, and very overwhelming. We’ve kind of learned how to inventory pieces in much clearer ways. Working with Rick, we watched him inventory, and I noticed a switch where we could talk about songs in parts much quicker than we used to be able to. At the same time, there’s a limiting sort of angle to that. Someone says, ”Is that the chorus, or is that the bridge?” and I’d be like, ”Well, who cares?” My point is, learning to inventory and learning to write songs in a new way heightens the challenge.  

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What were you listening to when you were working on The Carpenter?
Before I and Love and You, I got really into Townes Van Zandt, lyrically, and I was very moved by the sort of dark scope that he was kind of presenting, so there were still some remnants of that. I also got into Jerry Jeff Walker, some of those Texas songwriting vibes. You know, the thing about all those guys ”“ and John Prine, too ”“ it can be really sad sometimes, but they’re never really really “woe is me.” Just as soon as you think they’re a really great, stand-up kind of guy, they’re kind of admitting that they’re just scoundrels as well, and I can relate to that. They’re very real in that way.

 Do you think the Avett Brothers will curate their own festival?
We do think we will. We’ve had plans to do that. We actually attempted it once, and it was awesome. It was in Charlotte in 2005 or 2006. And we called it the Festival Essex. And it was just a whole group of our friends in bands, and it was pretty cool. And we stepped back and we said, “We’re going to return to this when we can.” And we do actually have some preliminary plans to start trying to put that in place. So, keep an eye out, for sure. We really believe in the North Carolina group of musicians, you know? From Doc Watson to John Coltrane, there’s just so much in that North Carolina, and we’d love to bring some of that life to a festival.

You guys recorded 24 songs for the new record. After The Carpenter, are you guys already even thinking about the next one?
Yeah. I feel like we probably got the next one well on its way. I have no doubt that Seth and I, if we could get off the road for a little bit, or we could just do it on the road, we could probably gather enough to start. But do you know what happens when you do that? Every time you have another dream, you end up on another airplane. We’re careful. We’re probably slower with them now.



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