Avetts bring double dose of ‘True Sadness’
Scott and Seth Avett were born and raised in North Carolina, but Ohio is one of the places that always has embraced the Avett Brothers’ mix of folk, bluegrass, Americana and country with a rock attitude.
“I have a real relationship with Ohio. It’s really dear to our heart,” Scott Avett said. “We discovered something in Ohio. It’s so American and so good, and it’s all about the people. We’re really appreciative of it, so thanks for having us.”
The band, which also features Bob Crawford and Joe Kwon, will be back in Ohio next week for a two-night stand at the Akron Civic Theatre, and Scott Avett took part in telephone interview to talk about the band’s latest album, “True Sadness,” their musical friendship with Newton Falls natives Jessica Lea Mayfield and David Mayfield and other topics (the conversation has been edited for length).
Ticket: You recently took part in a Jerry Garcia Band tribute show in Virginia. How did that go?
Avett: That was an amazing experience like we’ve never had. On top of the list of benefits was learning these songs and taking us out of our element and really helping us view a set list, how long a song goes on, keys and chord changes we don’t use — it was really educational. Then on top of that, you get to go enjoy playing for some great people. And then you’re on the clock, so you get paid for it. Just amazing.
Ticket: In an interview before the concert, you said one thing that impressed you about Garcia was how he interpreted other writers’ songs and how those interpretations evolved over the years. Do you think the experience of studying his work will influence how the Avett Brothers approach cover material?
Avett: Undoubtedly. It already has … mostly in terms of chord structure when I write songs. I don’t want to get too detailed here, but I’ll use this as an example. I noticed with the (Grateful) Dead stuff and the Jerry Garcia Band stuff, really the changing of chords per word, the more active chord structure is something I tend not to bother with coming from a country or folk point of view. I feel a kinship with Jerry Garcia just because of the banjo playing he did as well as his love for old-time songs. Someone like Jerry Garcia, and someone like John Hartford, too, their interpretations are so in line with how I think it should be done. There’s just no doubt it’s going to change what we do a lot. People may notice, people may not.
Ticket: What songs in the Avett Brothers’ catalog have evolved most over the years?
Avett: They’ve all evolved. I’m usually surprised when I hear an original recording — “Wow, we’ve gotten completely away from that.” I’m just going to use an example on the new record for how fast something can change in a drastic way. It’s funny how “True Sadness” is a rock song on the record, but I think ratio wise, we’re playing it more in a bluegrass / country style than the rock version, and that’s the single they’re pushing on radio right now. But we’re really having a good time playing it alt-country and banjo and fiddled out. It’s amazing how something can change just because it’s right, it’s right that way.
Ticket: The band always has mixed some cover songs among the originals. What makes you decide to cover a song?
Avett: It can be something Seth or I have a love for. With John Prine, we weren’t really aware of John Prine’s catalog when we were asked if we’d be a part of a tribute, so they sent us his entire catalog. We didn’t realize what we were missing. “Spanish Pipedream” was the first one we heard. “Hey, let’s cover that one,” and it became one of the covers that fit right in our wheelhouse, it was right there.
We did a Band of Horses song recently. Those guys are friends of ours. So to have a love of a song and a love of people you’re friends with, that’s a nice prerequisite. It could be any reason, a sense of ownership. The Blaze Foley song “Clay Pigeons,” I found that song and I felt like he was singing to me, like I should have been singing it. It’s like you don’t have to learn it. You just listen and all the sudden you know the song. I like those being our cover songs the most because we step on stage and take ownership of them.”
Ticket: “True Sadness” is your fourth album with Rick Rubin as producer. How has that relationship evolved?
Avett: We’re total friends. We’re lucky enough to get an opportunity to work with someone who’s amazing like Rick. In an artistic sense and a business sense both, that was obviously a great opportunity for us. Then, just the icing on the cake, we became great friends. It was either faith or luck. Either way, I feel very lucky to have his friendship and be able to experience this with him.
Ticket: I read that the first single, “Ain’t No Man,” was based on an idea from several years ago.
Avett: It was never demoed. It was just a little idea I had on a handheld device. It is an old idea. The chorus was written in about 2006.
Ticket: Are you someone who regularly goes back and revisits old ideas that never were developed for one reason or another?
Avett: I have so many ideas that I record. I have to go back and inventory and listen with fresh ears — “That’s silly; I don’t believe that” or “That’s a stupid melody.” Then I’ll go back and that wasn’t a stupid melody, it’s got legs or my life has changed and I actually believe that now.
For me, I totally just dive in. I really like to submerse myself in someone else’s music, like Dr. Dog, I love that band. I’ll listen to Dr. Dog like crazy and then dive into my pool of ideas, and I’ll let that make the recipe. I’ll think about their collection of instruments on some song or just a lead or a verse / melody.
I’ve never done it with the that band specifically, but I’ll lead off with that melody and let it go wherever it goes. I’ve heard (Bruce) Springsteen talk about this junkyard of ideas. And I have such a surplus. To me, there are some that are obviously brilliant and some that are obvious to me are complete crap. I have to find the most crap I can and make it better.
Ticket: That seems to be working pretty well for you. Now that you’ve been living with the new songs on the road for a few months, are there any tracks that your feelings have changed about, either lyrically or how you approach them musically?
Avett: Right now, “Smithsonian” and “Victims (of Life),” those two tunes, it’s been exciting. “Smithsonian” strangely is very sensitive. There have been nights it’s just pocket and resonating perfectly, and nights where it feels boring, nights it’s mediocre, other nights where it feels really groovy. And that tends to happen as a song is getting explored and discovered as a band. We played it enough and learned it enough to record it, and then it lives live. Live is a whole different thing. The same thing is happening now with “Victims.”
Ticket: The Avetts have a long history with a local family, the Mayfields from Newton Falls. Jessica Lea Mayfield and Seth recorded an Elliot Smith tribute album together. David Mayfield has played with you guys a few times. Your father even has played shows with their parents. How did that relationship start?
Avett: When we played at Kent Stage the first time, we met Jessica. That was one of the few times in my life that I felt I was standing beside greatness. I know she is just completely through-and-through God-gifted. Witnessing that and being around someone so special like that is really an honor and so great to see. We’re always reaching out just to be apart of her life and her songs.
And then we met David, and he is just brilliant. He’s a firecracker on stage. He’s volatile in the best way, and he’s a great artist. The whole family is very talented. We felt a kinship, family to family, with them, and I don’t know that we’ve yet to see the real melding of our efforts. I think we’ll make something very special together. I think they’re brilliant. Jessica just floored me with her brilliance.
If you go …
WHO: The Avett Brothers
WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Tuesday and Wednesday
WHERE: Akron Civic Theatre, 182 S. Main St., Akron
HOW MUCH: $57.50, $49.50 and $45.