Making True Sadness Sound Happy: An Interview with The Avett Brothers

Remarkably, after 16 years in the game and the kind of success that sees them sell out arenas, The Avett Brothers want to expose everything. For them, honesty is paramount.
May 6, 2016, 11:11am

When The Avett Brothers announced their ninth album, True Sadness, they did so via a letter on their website in which Seth Avett ruminated on the nature of his art and the relationship between the band’s music and their individual lives. It was an erudite, intellectual, and emotional piece of writing, but then the Avett Brothers—now a four-piece consisting of his brother Scott, double bassist Bob Crawford and cellist Joe Kwon—are erudite, intellectual and emotional people. This is something confirmed in the very strict 20 minutes I have to chat with them backstage at New York’s Madison Square Garden. All four are smartly dressed (they look, in fact, like slick and dapper models from a Calvin Klein advertisement) and incredibly welcoming, even if there’s a film crew inside the interview room capturing their every move. They’re in the process of making a documentary about the band, charting, as does Seth’s letter, their rise from a DIY bluegrass/folk rock sibling duo to a four-piece whose new album is the fourth made with famed producer Rick Rubin and who can easily sell out MSG. Given how verbose the band are—well, three of them; Kwon doesn’t say anything—20 minutes evaporates to nothing, but it’s definitely enough time to get a glimpse into the minds of one of the more unlikely phenomena in modern music, and to find out that, the more things have changed for the band, the more they’ve stayed the same.

Noisey: I’m really intrigued by the letter that Seth wrote announcing True Sadness, and the relationship between your life and your music. I’m sure it’s something that, as an artist, you always have to think about, but it really seems to be at the forefront of this album. Why do you think that is?
Seth Avett: I think it had to be said probably because it may tend to be the opposite of what we’re experiencing as far as accepting that this a big reality exploitation, when it comes to our art and our lives this is a big reality TV show that we’re living. Personally, I think we started on a level that was very revealing anyway—revealing in a way that our art was very much in line with our lives—and now it’s even more so. It’s interesting that that’s happened.

Scott Avett: Plus, when we were younger we were maybe a bit more melodramatic, like “It’s all or nothing! We’re going to be in a band and we have to cut ties at home.” A lot of that has washed away and we’ve realized that we only have what everyone else has, which is a day-to-day existence and much less that’s in our control than we thought. And there’s not so much need to separate it all out. We really only have today to work with, anyway. It just so happens that we’ve spent a lot of days building up this project.

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It’s interesting, because you’d assume that as a band gets bigger and finds itself more in the limelight, that that’s when you’d find yourself to be more self-aware, whereas you’ve said you were more self-aware earlier on. You have a huge audience for your music now—I mean, we’re at Madison Square Garden right now. That must have some effect on the way you approach your songwriting.
Scott: I think we both approached this record differently. We brought songs to it actually in very different ways. But I know with a couple of songs I was thinking about them as a tool—well, not so much a tool, but as an experience of playing them live. If I’m a songwriter that plays on the street and I’m writing and my voice is as a street performer, I’m obviously writing to perform on the street. We haven’t paid as much attention to that in the past—we’ve been like, “This is what the record is, this is what the song called for.” But I have to say, for a song like “Ain’t No Man,” in particular, that to me, was something that we didn’t have in the live set, and when that visited me as far as the melody, I was thinking that the beat sounded great for the live experience. So that was definitely me thinking about the picture to form a piece for sure.

Seth: I’m going to try to articulate something here and I may fail miserably, but there’s two major points about that question. One, to further expound on the self-awareness thing, we had a really interesting experience with our audience where, since our band has never had a “Smells Like Teen Spirit” moment, we didn’t go from being relatively unknown to a massive amount of popularity and magazine covers all over the world. We’ve never experienced that. Instead, what we’ve had is this gradual deal where there is a relative amount of separation between us and our audience, but not as much as it might be if we were superstars. Which we’re not. What we’ve had instead is this ongoing relationship with fans where we hear their stories, they talk to us, we write letters back a lot of the time. It’s not like, “Let me get a selfie with you because I saw you on a magazine cover.” It’s more like, “My mom had cancer, we listened to your music” and so now we have an interaction. So there’s a lot of meaning there, and a lot of value, and that’s something we carry around in our hearts. The second part of this is when we go to make a record, we understand that with the level of popularity that we’re at, there’s going to be a relatively large number of people who hear it. So instead of closing off more, instead of trying to make ourselves safer because we have a lot of eyes on us, we think more in terms of our responsibility to be really, really honest. Because if we’re not, there are all these people who are going to know it. We can’t just put a record out and slight this audience, because they’re people that we’re really aware of and we know a lot of their names. So the songs that we present to them, we better believe them, because we’re going to be presenting them and we’re not in a position where we’d take that lightly.

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Right. I mean, your songs always have come across as very honest, and it doesn’t really seem like you’ve changed much since you’ve become so popular. But beneath the surface, is there stuff that you realize is different? What’s been the biggest change for you since you started out?
Scott: Whether we were proving to anyone else, there was certainly something we needed to prove to ourselves back then. And I think we’ve reached a moment where we know where we’re at. There’s not things we need to prove, but that energy has turned to “Let’s make the greatest things we can possibly make with all these elements and facets in mind.” The proving has gone to a different place. And that now puts us on stage less proud and aggressive and a little more gracious and content and ready to have a good time, to share with those people what Seth’s talking about.

The Avett Brothers at MSG shot by Avery Peck Let’s talk about the concept of true sadness, as opposed to just sadness. I’m sure we’ve all felt true sadness in our lives, but why did you choose it as the title of and focus for this album? What about it being “true” is so important to you?
Seth: My immediate thought is that putting an adjective in front of sadness hopefully makes it understandable as speaking to a deeper level of sadness, and resolve within sadness. Because we all can get kind of sad for a moment or get our feelings hurt or be irritated or something, but I think if you listen to the record top to bottom you’ll find a lot of themes that are deeper than just being irritated or dissatisfied in some way. It’s really about us growing and getting older and understanding that some of the sadness that you have amassed is not going to go away. It’s just going to stay there and it won’t be a question of washing that away so you can be a happier, go-lucky person. It’s more a question of understanding it, living with it and continuing to contribute in your life even though that’s part of your life. I tend to think that as you get older you just get more and more sad, because the more people you know, the more people you know are going to die. The longer you’re alive, the more sadness is going to happen to you, basically. But there has to be a way of combatting that, of getting past that.
Scott: Yes. It’s called faith.

Bob Crawford: Sure, but I think the goal is not to get past it. The sadness is always there, so the goal is to let the joy in to sit next to the sadness, because the human heart or soul or whatever is capable of containing joy and sadness at the same time, and high levels of both. For example, my experience with someone who’s suffered the death of a child is that they say you never get over it. But a year or two later, maybe they’ve had another child and they’re living their life and they’re involved with activities with a smile on their face, but you can see on their face true sadness. But they’re living and they’re living joyfully as best they can. And so they say you never get over it, but they’re clearly living and living joyfully—how does that happen? It’s because they’re able to, to have the joy and the sadness at the same time. I look at that pain, and from the parents that I’ve spoken to, it’s just a constant ache. But they’re also joyful. And knowing those people, and then this record, that’s really kind of connected a lot of things for me with this concept. I feel like I really understand it.

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On a less somber note, this is album number four with Rick Rubin. Are you not getting fed up with him yet?
Scott: [Laughs.] That’s like saying “Do you get fed up with your buddy?” Which I guess you do, but we’ve been very lucky to just spend time together having a good time, and the time that we spend is doing things we want to do together, that we’re interested in, and we utilize that time really well. So we have not got fed up with him! We very much enjoy and have a good time making records with him.

Seth: We have a lot of good conversations with Rick, and they’re not all about music. Just some of them.

Has the dynamic with him changed since you first worked with him on (2009’s major label debut) I & Love & You?
Scott: There was that initial newness to shake off when we first started. It was very natural to work with Rick right from the beginning and there was a mutual respect right from the beginning, but that doesn’t mean there wasn’t still moments of “Oh my God—we’re making an album with Rick Rubin in Malibu, California!” And having that become a familiar place to be took down some of the obstacles for focusing on the work at hand.

With that in mind, what are your hopes for True Sadness? Where do you go from here, from MSG?
Seth: We don’t normally think in terms of size of venue. A lot of the symbols of success are elements that we don’t really talk about, so it doesn’t feel like there’s a distinction between what I would like to come out of True Sadness. I haven’t really thought about success with it, but to excite our fans and to give some people some good moments always seems to be the goal in some way. That’s not a very exciting answer, but we’ve had such a wonderful time connecting with people I hope this is just a moment where that goes further.

Avett Brothers Tour Dates

5/5 Tuscaloosa, AL Tuscaloosa Amphitheater*
5/6 Nashville, TN Bridgestone Arena^
5/7 Alpharetta, GA Verizon Wireless Amphitheatre^
5/12 Pittsburgh, PA Stage AE Outdoors
5/14 Philadelphia, PA Mann Center
5/15 Fairfax, VA Eagle Bank Arena^
6/5 Hunter, NY Mountain Jam Festival
6/3 Baltimore, MD Pier Six Concert Pavilion
6/4 Baltimore, MD Pier Six Concert Pavilion
6/9 St. Louis, MO Chaifetz Arena*
6/10 Milwaukee, WI BMO Harris Arena
6/11 Minneapolis, MN Target Center*
6/14 Deadwood, SD Deadwood Mountain Grand Event Center
6/16 Muskogee, OK G Fest
6/18 Dallas, TX Gexa Energy Pavilion
6/19 Austin, TX Austin City Limits Live at The Moody Theater
7/4 Portland, ME Thompson’s Point
7/7 Syracuse, NY Landmark Theatre
7/8 Chautauqua, NY Chautauqua Amphitheater
7/9 Toledo, OH Toledo Zoo Amphitheater
7/15 Louisville, KY Forecastle Festival
7/21-22 Troutdale, OR Edgefield
7/23 Kent, WA ShoWare Arena
7/25 Nampa, ID Ford Idaho Center Amphitheater
7/28 Morrison, CO Red Rocks Amphitheatre&
7/29 Morrison, CO Red Rocks Amphitheatre%
7/30 Morrison, CO Red Rocks Amphitheatre!
9/16 Lincoln, CA Thunder Valley Casino Resort^
9/16-18 Del Mar, CA Kaaboo Del Mar

* w/Brandi Carlile
^ w/Brett Dennen
# w/Milk Carton Kids
& w/Nahko and Medicine for the People
% w/Gary Clark Jr.
! w/J Mascis

True Sadness is out now via American/Republic Records