Fans of The Avett Brothers might not have expected to find the band in such high spirits based on the title of their ninth album, "True Sadness." While the record itself isn't short on somber moments, it represented a broader step in the North Carolina folk-rock band's sound, one that Seth Avett says has him excited for what comes next.
Siblings and lead vocalists Seth and Scott Avett formed The Avett Brothers in the early 2000s, later bringing in bassist Bob Crawford and cellist Joe Kwon as core members. In more recent years, they added regular touring members, including drummer Mike Marsh, violin player Tania Elizabeth, and pianist and bassist Paul Defiglia, who left in August of this year.
With its release on June 24, 2016, "True Sadness" scored two 2017 Grammy Award nominations and peaked at No. 3 on the Billboard 200 despite being the band's most experimental record to date. The Jackson Free Press recently caught up with Seth over the phone to look past the numbers and discuss what "True Sadness" really meant for The Avett Brothers.
After a year since the release of "True Sadness," how do you feel that record has affected the band?
Well, let's see. I think, overall, the journey kind of continues. That record, just like each one before it, sort of stair-stepping down, it felt like a development, a step forward, which feels good, you know? You're right. Over a year, that feels like a reasonable time to take inventory on what it actually means, and some of the experimentation on it has definitely opened some doors since then on the considerations.
I don't know that it's opened the door for us to make a record that sounds like Nine Inch Nails, though that would be awesome, or some other super-hard left turn, but it definitely has sort of broadened the horizon aesthetically as far as what might be possible and what might be the thing to find the greatest path for a song. That's definitely a part of how I look at ("True Sadness"). It's really cool. I think that, a year out, it still feels newer to me than the other records have to me after being out for a year.
... The feeling of a sound being like a fresh kind of sound, I think that tends to linger a bit with the artistic high. I don't know. There might be something kind of self-congratulatory, as well, unfortunately, but the good feeling of it—"Man, I was able to break out of myself a little bit or discover something"—that tends to linger a bit.
Do you feel like the songs lent themselves to that experimentation, or was it something you set out to do?
Yeah, I think it was something we set out to do, but it's a weird thing. Scott and I, the natural ebb and flow, the natural sort of journey that we're on, almost without fail, when we start meeting up with Rick (Rubin, who produced the past four Avett Brothers albums,) and start calling, having conversations, emailing and what not, it's always that he's been thinking about something similar. Just his capacity for accommodating and for opening some doors and making some things possible, it's unreasonably good.
But at some of his urging and some of his responding to what we were saying, from the top, we did set out for some of that exploratory experience. Rick, he's a good guy to have on your side because of his experience with variety and his experience with music that's been made with non-acoustic instruments, in terms of hip-hop and what not. He's got some great tools as far as working with engineers who really know how to find the sound you're looking for.
I feel like you could have taken any of our records, all the way back to "Country Was," (the band's 2002 debut album), and approached the recording process in a similar fashion. It's just, at that time, our heads weren't ready.
Despite it being more exploratory, a lot of fans and critics latched onto "True Sadness." What's it like to see people respond to it that way?
It's kind of hard to say because, and you and I probably have the same thing, in that your relationship to a record is a super personal, one-on-one thing. If you lay in your bedroom, put headphones on and listen to whatever—Neutral Milk Hotel's "In the Aeroplane Over the Sea," (for instance)—that's just for you and the record. It's not for the greater community, and it's not for the celebratory masses or the fad masses or whatever. It's just for you.
Then, if you come to one of our shows, there is no loneliness. [Laughs] I can't believe I've never said this before, but it's just dawning on me. For you to be lonely at one of our shows, you've got to have some super heavy stuff happening in your life—and most of us do have heavy stuff happening in our lives, but still, at our shows, a bigger thing happens and a very connecting thing happens.
I don't know. It's a weird thing, and I can't say for sure, but it seems possible that if we put a record out that sounded like Nine Inch Nails or Portishead, or something completely made up of synth and drum machines, when you came to a show, it would still be just a big party with banjos, guitars, rock-and-roll, and everything.
I kind of look at (records and shows) as two different entities. They do intersect sometimes, but the record is more a thing to connect with when we're not together, but when we are together, it seems like there's no alienation.
I feel like I'm getting a scoop here. Is the next Avett Brothers record a Nine Inch Nails cover album?
[Laughs] Well, you know, I didn't know that, but I might be getting a scoop, too. I keep mentioning them for some reason. Yeah, it's a weird thing, where sometimes you just wake up with a certain thing or a certain band on your mind. Maybe I need to head back to "Pretty Hate Machine" or something, because apparently, it's bouncing around in my subconscious.
Your music does have more intimate moments at times. How do you translate those into a show without losing momentum?
Yeah, we try to play to the strengths of our band and who we are, and play on the benefit of having nine records. The reality there is that there's plenty of material to work with, so there's no excuse for falling into a rut, there's no excuse for playing the same show every night, and there's no excuse for playing a one-dimensional show.
We're big fans of dynamics, and we're big fans of being kind of all over the map. We love so much music, and we love so many different presentations. It's only natural that we'd try to take the audience on a little bit of a rollercoaster. Maybe this song has an element of bossa or a Caribbean kind of feel, and then take it all the way to a kind of heavy rock sort of feel, then as close as we can get to a kind of Simon & Garfunkel moment.
I feel like that kind of thing makes sense in our day and age because, well, one, our attention spans seem to be getting shorter, but also because the variety is just through the roof. Every color, every sound, every texture is seemingly available. So I don't know. We try to watch bands that have the potency of a two-and-a-half-hour show. We watch Bruce Springsteen and watch Metallica and watch groups that have proven it's possible to be there with an audience for an extended amount of time.
We try to learn from our elders, from the masters, and use it, and also just try find out, "How best do we communicate with a crowd?" It's not just a crowd-pleasing thing. We want to surprise ourselves and surprise them. A lot of times, the moments you aren't planning for are the moments that make the show the most memorable.
At the level The Avett Brothers are, touring is an all-the-time thing. How do you still make time to just be people and have normal lives?
Well, during this chapter, I feel like—I don't know. Two things come to mind when you ask that question. One is that most of us have young children, and having young children, there's really no way to think that you're like a star. You just can't, not unless you're in the stratosphere of celebrity, and you have a team of people raising your kid for you.
That's the furthest thing from what we're experiencing. When you're changing a diaper, and the water heater is breaking and whatever, the regular-life things are in full effect right now, you know? [Laughs] In my life, the idea of being separated from reality, man, it's not there at all. Yeah, we step out onstage, and there are generally a lot of people that are there and excited, but everywhere else, it's taking the trash out to the trash bin and going to the post office and trying to get the dishes done before you go to bed.
All I can imagine is you doing all your chores as a full band.
[Laughs] Yeah, that would be nice. Maybe I need to see if I can hire Joe Kwon to come help me get some of this stuff done. But yeah, we've got a good balance happening. The band itself, we've been lucky to never really become like celebrities. The band has gained popularity, and a lot of good things have happened there, but you're not going to see my face on the front of People Magazine, and that's a blessing.
I recently read about Paul Defiglia transitioning out of the band. How does it affect the band as a unit to have a long-time member leave?
Yeah, there's a down part to all of it, but I certainly don't mind talking about it. Really, you know, Paul's been with us for a little over six years, and it's just been awesome. It's been a real pleasure, and it's been one of the more impressive things in my professional life to watch him become a pianist almost from square one.
Paul barely, barely played piano, and that's pretty impressive (going) to full-on performer. The reality is that Paul has spent over half his life working on and playing the upright bass. The guy is one of the best bass players I've ever known, and he's just a great musician.
The life on the road has its ups and downs, and it's not for everybody. Sometimes, it's not for anybody. [Laughs] But yeah, he's got a lot of different musical interests, and it's not like this was an easy decision for him, but it was something that was unavoidable for him. He needs to be doing different things, and I think that he needs to be playing bass more and producing more in the studio because he's got a hell of an ear.
In terms of how I process it, at first, it's just, "Aw, man," because I love Paul. He's also a dear, dear friend and just hilarious, and has the same kind of dark sense of humor that a lot of us do. He's just a wonderful person, so my initial thought was, "Man, I'm going to miss just having coffee and whatever, just being ridiculous together." It's going to be a lot harder to just stay in each other's lives.
But in terms of musically, my belief is that the songs, the connection we have with people through those songs, and really, what Scott and I have in our brotherhood is the nucleus of the atom, you know? I believe that will kind of carry through and has shown itself to carry through in a lot of difficult scenarios.
Musically speaking, really, within the first few days of processing that (Paul) was going to be gone, I realized, like with a lot of difficult things in life, "How can I change my understanding of this from a blow to an opportunity and a chance to reinvest myself and recommit myself to this band and to this project?" And I'm there. I've done a lot of prep and a lot of planning, musically, looking at how to fill the space with other instruments, along with maybe me or Scott sitting down at the piano some more.
There are places where you can't replace the part of a person who's not there anymore, but in some places, it's just good to embrace the negative space, let there be some more space. The bottom line is that between the six of us, there's plenty that we can do when it comes to making sound and when it comes to playing songs. The only thing that's available, really, is being open to discovery and finding out what happens when just the six of us play.
The Avett Brothers perform at 7:30 p.m., Thursday, Sept. 21, at Thalia Mara Hall (255 E. Pascagoula St.). Langhorne Slim also performs. Doors open at 6:30 p.m. Ticket prices range from $25 to $85.50. For more information, visit theavettbrothers.com.