The Avett Brothers sure have come a long way since their debut way back in 2001. If you had asked me back then whether they’d be recording a Johnny Cash tribute song for the country great’s latest album, appearing on late night talk shows, on “Austin City Limits,” and on Starbucks Valentine’s Day compilations, I’d have thought you were crazy. Hell, even my chiropractor friend has heard of them.
But has this new level of success meant the band’s sold out (whatever that means anymore)? It’s a question bassist Bob Crawford addressed during our interview recently — even without being prompted. Crawford’s response was interesting and, certainly, compelling. I’m not one to take to claims of “selling out” anymore than I am to take to claims of the Yeti eating rock road ice cream. But with the Avett Brothers, a band that started touring by self-mailing 40 press kits — and only getting a call back from Athen’s Casa Nueva — you can’t help but root for their success, whatever that means these days.
The trio is coming to Athens, Ohio, Feb. 24. Be sure to check them out in person, if you haven’t yet. You’ll know quickly what the hype is all about.
Graffiti: You have a lot going on with the Starbucks CD, the (Johnny) Cash tribute and the overseas trip coming up. Can you catch us up on anything else that’s been going on?
Crawford: A lot of it is stuff we did right when we went on our break. We went on our break really before Thanksgiving, but we did a little work here and there in the interim. A lot of the stuff is things we accomplished throughout the year t hat’s well time so we could have things working for us while we weren’t working — like the “Slight Figure of Speech” video. We did that while we were out in California last year and were really busy. All of these TV shows, like we taped Craig Ferguson in August and it aired in October. The “I Love” Song we did that in early November. That will be on the Starbucks album. The Cash thing that was just a couple of tracks Scott and Seth recorded on a song that Rick Rubin had and we did that like two years ago almost.
If you work hard while you’re on the road you kind of make the most of your time so you can be on vacation and still have your name out there and have things happening. We’ve always been good at doing that. When you’re on the road, you’re away from home, so you might as well be working every minute you can. That can be doing a radio show on your day off, when you’re in between towns, or doing a radio show in the morning before a concert. If you can get that attitude that when you’re on the road you’re always working, you can get a lot accomplished.
And then also while we’ve been off we’ve been working on a bunch of demos. We have about 20 demos recorded, working toward the next album. We’ve got some other things we’re working on while we’re home that might or might not get done. Our time off is tight and we’re trying to get as much family time in as possible. But things come up and it’s hard not to try to take care of it when you can.
Graffiti: When you talk about taking care of things while you’re working, so you can enjoy your time off, was that something the band cultivated during all those years you were booking your own shows and touring extensively, or is that something that being signed to a major (label) helped with?
Crawford: What the label does is it brings things to you. That really helps out a lot. I know there’s always a lot of, well we did so well independently and people have this attitude toward major labels. But for us it’s worked in our favor. I think a lot of that’s because we have a positive attitude about it, that they’re there to help us and we’re there to help them. We have to put up our end of the bargain, which means doing things they want us to do, and they in turn do things for us that we want to see happen.
As far as doing things while you’re working so you can have some time off, that is a little new for us. We’ve been together since 2001 and this is only the second year we’ve had time off, so it’s kind a new concept of having time off. This is the first year we really did a great job of timing things out. For instance Austin City Limits aired (Jan. 22) and we taped that three months ago.
We’re learning, and we’ve always been learning of how to get the most out of our time.
Graffiti: Was the Cash tribute something that came about through Rick (Rubin)?
Crawford: It did. Well, that was basically, we were in the studio in California with him and he said, hey I’ve got this Johnny Cash song, and Seth can you put some boot stompin’ on it? One of the songs, and I don’t think the song we used it on made the album, it didn’t in fact.
You can go to Lowe’s and buy a plastic bucket of chains —I’ve seen it used a few times in the studio as a percussion device — and you pick up the chains and drop it in the bucket in rhythm and it makes this whoosh whoosh sound, this big percussive sound. So Scott did that and Seth stomped with his boots, and Rick put that into the Johnny Cash song, so we really didn’t do much for it, but it is something, it is a contribution and it’s very exciting to do something like that.
But that was something that took an hour or two and we were already in the studio, so we just added it onto whatever we were doing.
Graffiti: The demos you talked about, can you elaborate on the sound that you’re working on? Is it going to be an expansive sound again?
Crawford. Yea, continuing, and, of course, it’s stripped down. But even stripped down you can tell it’s a progression. It’s always been a progression. Really, it’s continuing on the lines of “I and Love and You.” It’s really exciting; it’s definitely something even different from that. It’s continuing to move. I can’t really define it because it’s still early. It probably has more rock and roll elements to it. It really sounds good.
Every album’s different but I think we’ve got something better than “I and Love and You” and I think “I and Love and You” was a good album. Of course, the newer songs are always the most exciting, but it’s always nice to have the stuff ahead be more exciting than the stuff behind.
Graffiti: Now, when you say it’s more rock, is that based on song structure or instrumentation?
Crawford: Maybe a little both.
Graffiti: It seems like with that last album, the Avett Brothers are everywhere. All my friends listen to them now, and I just got back from a tattoo shop and they were playing, “Emotionalism.”
Crawford: That’s great.
Graffiti: Have you gotten a sense of this groundswell of attention? Has the band noticed its popularity increase?
Crawford: Periodically, yea. We definitely know it’s out there more, we know it’s reaching a wider audience.
But I’ve got to say, you’re in Athens, Ohio, right?
Graffiti: Yea, pretty much.
Crawford: It may not be like that everywhere in the country. I’ll tell you this, I booked the first tour and Matt Harvey. I don’t know if you know Casa and Matt Harvey. Matt doesn’t live there anymore. He lives in Seattle. But I sent out 40 press kits with “Country Was” and he was the only one to get back to me and say, ‘We want you here.’ Everybody else I sent them to, of course I had to follow up and make a lot of calls. But Matt was the only one to call me.
The fact that you heard that in Athens, I feel like that’s one of our strongholds. It’s always been a stronghold for us.
But, yea, we come across it. I have a friend who’s a park ranger and he was out in Massachusetts and he called me one day and said I’ve got four people in this class who are really big fans of yours. We bump into that stuff periodically in our own lives.
My father-in-law told me someone he works with is a big fan. So it’s kind of coming around from different ends. We do see it a little bit.
Graffiti: Keeping with that a little, fans that are with bands from the beginning can get set and like a certain sound that the band had from the beginning, and they can be apprehensive sometimes when a band signs to a major label. How do you keep those fans happy and yet grow in your art to expand your sound? Is that something you try to work on?
Crawford: No, we don’t work on it. I think the important thing is to not work at it. We need to continue to write the music, and perform the music and approach the music like we have or those people who have been with us will be shortchanged.
We’ve never had to think about who’s going to like it and who’s not going to like it. Obviously, we have all the respect for the people in the world who do love it and come support us. But if we were worried about who’s going to like this, it wouldn’t be the same. You’re insulting the people who are listening to the music and you’re selling yourself short.
The challenge for us, shortly after we began recording “I and Love and You,” was to not worry about who was in the room, like Rick Rubin, and to just do our thing.
Whatever challenge it was, it was mental; it was our own; we brought it to the table.
Right before we signed to Columbia, my wife was reading an article in “Rolling Stone,” and it was about — I don’t remember who it was, whether it was Smashing Pumpkins or Nine Inch Nails — but it was all about these major label bands going to independent labels, and here we had had all this success with an independent label. I told Scott, ‘man, I don’t know about this, this feels counterintuitive.’ And he said, ‘you know what, it’s all on us. Even if we make a terrible record here, we’re going to learn a ton from the process of doing it and a major label has a lot of influence that we don’t have.’ When you talk about the scope and the reach, of like hearing the music in random places, well a lot of that, in a lot of areas, it would take us maybe 10 years to accomplish that if we stayed independent because we don’t have the reach, the muscle. If you’re with Columbia, you can get on these television shows, you can get your music in Starbucks. A lot of people are like, ‘they sold out,’ but in reality, the goal from day one, and I think it’s with any artist, is to get your art in front of as many people as possible. That’s the goal, that’s why people create things, is to share it. That’s the way it’s been with Scott and Seth from the beginning. They wanted it in front of as many people as possible.
Graffiti: You would think if you really believed in your art, you …
Crawford. You’d stand behind it. It’s like planting a flag, you stand behind it.
Graffiti: I caught you guys in Huntington not too long ago, right after the release of “I and Love and You,” and it sounded to me like the new songs blended in a little better in a live setting than they do on the album. There wasn’t the contrast in styles so to speak. Was that something conscious, that you’d try to have banjo on more songs?
Crawford: No, we haven’t tried to do anything. As easily as we always have, we just perform the songs. We do what’s best for the song. It’s like electric bass for me. I never played electric bass till “Emotionalism”; I played it on the end of “Pretty Girl from Chile.” Our manager, Dolph, said he had never seen me play electric bass before. For me, though, it’s very exciting to do it because it’s something new. For Scott and Seth, it’s the piano and drums. It’s an instrument you don’t get to spend a lot of time with, so you become enamored with it, and you want to spend all your time doing it, and I think that’s how they feel about that.
It’s whatever sounds best, and sometimes it’s experimentation. Sometimes we do “I and Love and You,” with acoustic instruments and sometimes with electric.
Graffiti: I think I read in a recent interview that you guys have tried to map out your sets a little more, whereas before you sort of improvised which song you’d play next. Can you talk about how that’s gone?
Crawford: I think it works in some ways. I was kind of against it. I was not against it forever, but I don’t want to lose those things. We’re not a jam band where we go out and jam with our instruments for 20 minutes a song. I think that’s cool; I like that. So having the set list up in the air, added an element of that, like, ‘whoa, what’s going to happen tonight?”
But here’s the thing, you’re rolling through a set and you’re doing the songs you’re thinking of in the moment or what you feel in the moment and then you get done and three days later you realize we haven’t played this song in a week or a month. You can just as easily become stale doing it like that.
What the set list has enabled us to do is structure the show a little better and have the show build to something. You can get to these peaks and valleys, the ups and downs. You can have a little more control.
I don’t think we’ve sold out or anything by adding a set list, because we are still probably having more variety of songs with a set list. So if I was someone who came to see us play I’d probably like the set list. It’s not like we’re playing the same 12 songs every night.
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