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Published: 2016/09/15
by Mike Greenhaus

The Avett Brothers: Truth and Sadness

The Avett Brothers have always a rich connection with their fans, but that family bond has more personal than it does now. To kick off the rollout of their ninth studio album, the Rick Rubin-produced True Sadness, the Concord, NC-bred group sent an open letter to their internet community, discussing their rise from sweaty indie clubs to arenas like Madison Square Garden without losing their trademark, banjo-infused honest sound. The group has also opened up about their struggles—including guitarist Seth Avetts’ divorce and bassist Bob Crawford’s health scare involving his young daughter, who was diagnosed with a brain tumor as a baby. Yet for their first album since 2013’s Magpie and the Dandelion, the group tried some new approaches, remixing their intimate songs and using their seven-person touring band to capture that new, unexpected energy. The result is the first album to truly capture the Avetts’ current live energy and a departure from the polished, bluegrass-punk-pop they’ve created with Rubin since 2008’s breakthrough I and Love and You. Banjo player Scott Avett spoke with Jambands.com and Relix shortly after the band’s MSG debut and explores how one of the biggest touring acts in the festival world can still turn in a deeply personal pop record that is filled with both truth and sadness.

True Sadness is The Avett Brothers’ first album in three years and you tried out a number of different approaches for this record. Can you start by walking us through the writing process for this set of songs?

Recording is so different than writing because it just takes time and depending on what you’re trying to do it can take a good bit of time. The exciting part about these songs is the journey we took, starting from 2005-6 to now in Asheville, North Carolina. We demoed them in Asheville and some of them were written there basically on the spot. They grew and lived among us in Malibu, California where Seth, Bob and I played every song in our beloved seven piece band made up of dear friends who came all the way to a remix station in the backyard of the studio.

We did an electronic breakdown remix of the songs. So we have a dance remix version of about 85% of the songs. A fellow named Jason Lader took what we had done as a band and reimagined it. We recaptured our work from him and we actually ended up basically reacting to the remixes of some of the songs and recording them with people playing instrument on those parts.

We also did some recording in our bus recording studio. I think someone who just hears these songs might not ever know what they’ve been through or what these expressions, lyrics, sentiments and feelings have been through. As far as how many times they get played or who buys them, it never matters at that point because we know what they’ve been through. We know we released something that we made as awesome as we could. The evolution of all that has been really exciting to see and it’s built our confidence. We have grown in great ways in the past two years with this recording process.

Whose decision was it to test out this new, electronic, remix approach?

It’s sort of one idea built on another. Originally we were really excited to capture the seven of us playing live. Then Rick suggested the possibility of flipping things upside down and making remixes using electronic instruments. We referenced a couple of different things and talked about what it would mean if we did that. We all agreed that it would affect our writing for years to come, which was the most important thing, and that it would open us to new tools to write with. The first plan of action for that was to just record with Seth and Bob and I. It’s funny how the electronic idea had to start with just banjo, guitar and standup bass for each song to see what we had. Actually, one of those versions ended up making the record. “Fisher Road to Hollywood,” was the very first version of the song we recorded before we went on that journey. That was exciting to experience. After remixing them some of the songs had gotten to the point where the given presence felt gone to us. Maybe not to the world, I don’t know what the world would think about it, but for us it felt like our hands had been removed from them. It felt more mechanical I guess, so we pulled it back and played on them again. I don’t know if anyone would notice that except us. Then we got to where we were and it ended up being pure collaboration among a group of people.

Traditionally, do most of your songs begin with just the three of you?

It’s common for us to start with Seth and I for the demos as far as fleshing out lyrical ideas and it’s common for us to just record with the three of us and build from there. This is the first time that we recorded with this seven piece band in the studio, so we had a lot more to consider.

Did you shy away from playing some of the songs live while you remixed them and worked on them in the studio or did you continue to test them out live as you have in the past?

It’s 50/50 I think. There’s some we didn’t know exactly how we were going to perform live until the record came out. I think we could of if we had to quickly, but we wanted to make it truthful instead of just letting it fall apart from the get go. There are some that just haven’t been played and didn’t get played probably because they were written and put away and we didn’t realize they were going to be on the record. We’ve known they were going to make the record now for maybe four months so we’ve been learning and preparing for that.

In an open letter to you community posted online before the release of True Sadness, your brother Seth wrote a little bit about how your music has become increasingly reflective in its nature and also highlighted the Avetts’ close relationship with their fans. Did you feel that this batch of songs as particularly personal or reflective?

I think there’s always an element of hindsight for us when we are preparing a statement for a body of work because a lot of times we think we’re going to make this certain thing and once we’re finished we realize, “Oh, we just made this.” Furthermore, it ends up being something else to the audience which is also, in hindsight, very informative for us.

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