I'm a music journalist for a newspaper in East Tennessee, and I've been writing about the Avetts since they were playing mid-week free shows at Preservation Pub in downtown Knoxville. (Stomping a hole in the stage is still an urban legend there, fellas.) Really looking forward to spending some time with "No Hard Feelings," and it got me thinking to this fantastic interview I did with the guys in September 2007, around the time of the release of "Emotionalism." You can't find it online anymore, but I pulled it from the archives for everyone here.
LOVE, HONOR, LOSS: The Avett Brothers proudly wave a flag of 'Emotionalism'
Daily Times, The (Maryville, TN) - September 28, 2007
Author/Byline: Steve Wildsmith; Of The Daily Times Staff | Section: Entertainment
Passion is a difficult thing to define when it comes to such a subjective, elusive topic as music.
Witnessing it live is one thing - it's all too obvious when an artist or a band is going through the motions, phoning in a performance with all the enthusiasm of beaten and broken Cherokee, marching West along the Trail of Tears.
By the same token, musicians who allow themselves to get swept up in the music pouring forth from their instruments, to rise above the distractions of clinking beer bottles and chattering, disinterested patrons and hissing microphones and popping amplifiers ... well, they possess something undefinable, an elusive quality that seems almost transcendent. There's an air of pure joy in such moments, a tribal connection between musicians and audience members that burns on the fuel of purity and unbridled love for a shared communal experience.
Even more rare is finding that quality on a recorded album. Studio tricks and gimmicks have become so commonplace that even the most lackluster of performers can be polished to the brilliance of a diamond.
More often than not, unfortunately, many such musicians are the audio equivalent of cubic zirconias - brilliant-sounding, but fake just the same. Which is why the discovery of a band or an artist that sounds just as authentic ... just as genuine ... just as passionate on record as they do in a live setting is such a rare and wonderful thing.
The Avett Brothers qualify as such a find.
The name may not roll off the tip of the tongue with the familiarity of more popular mainstream artists whose soulless drivel pollutes the airwaves, but that's because the world isn't fair. Mediocrity rises to the surface, while something heavier - something with more emotional weight and resonance and heart - sinks toward the middle, anchored by the sweat and blood and vulnerability of musicians like Scott and Seth Avett.
"We've been putting ourselves out there ever since we started," Scott Avett told The Daily Times this week. "It's wearing our hearts on our sleeves, but it's more than that. It's about actually going deeper; about tearing your chest open and talking about what's in your heart and sharing everything through your music. We lean on it a lot, and when we wanted to name the new record 'Emotionalism,' I wanted to research it and make sure we weren't stepping on any toes.
"Most of the definitions for it were all negative - 'relying heavily, to a fault, on emotion' - and to us, that's something we've done from the beginning. We do it so much in our songwriting that our musicianship might pay a price for it. We get so caught up in songwriting and channeling the emotions behind it, that practicing on our instruments becomes secondary."
Not that The Avett Brothers - Scott, Seth and bass player Bob Crawford - come across as instrumental novices. They've been doing this long enough, and playing hard enough, that most stringed instruments - guitar, banjo, stand-up bass, what-have-you - find their way into the band's repertoire at some point in time.
The group dates back to 1998, when, at home in Greenville, N.C., the brothers would take a break from their rock band, Nemo, and get together with fellow pickers to drink liquor and play acoustic bluegrass and country. The brothers grew more interested in the project, and in 2000, they completed a six-song, self-titled album as The Avett Brothers, and during their off-time from Nemo, they began playing sporadic acoustic shows.
After Nemo fell apart, the brothers fell back on the acoustic music they had been crafting, and in 2002, they recorded their first album, "Country Was." They hit the road and haven't stopped touring, performing or recording ever since. The guys followed up with "A Carolina Jubilee" in 2003, "Mignonette" in 2004 and the full-length "Four Thieves Gone: The Robbinsville Sessions," as well as an EP ("The Gleam") in 2006.
"Emotionalism," released in May, was the band's most successful, sales-wise, to date - it sold enough copies in its first week to garner the No. 134 spot on the Billboard Top 200 chart, the No. 1 spot on the Heatseekers Chart and the No. 13 position on the Independent Artist Chart.
Some of that success, undoubtedly, can be chalked up to the band's incessant touring schedule. They've steadily groomed markets like East Tennessee, working their way up from shows at the Preservation Pub to headlining Sundown in the City in downtown Knoxville to Saturday's date as the main act on The Bijou Theatre stage.
But there's something more at play, as well. The brutal honesty, the stark and raw emotional vulnerability, that turns up as common themes in the songs the Avetts make strike a chord with listeners who seek a stirring of the soul, in addition to entertainment, when it comes to their music.
"I can say easily that our most important goal and our greatest concern is for the songwriting, and everything else comes second," Seth Avett said. "Performance and recording may be close seconds, but that time we put into our lyrics, our melodies, our songs - that's our life's work, and it'll be the biggest part of what our life's work will be in the years to come.
"Between Scott and I, we feel the best songs we've heard, the songs we love the most, have given up something. They've given over the type of feeling and heart that can be disarming and even alarming in a way. Our favorites are the ones where we believe what they're saying, that we believe they believe what they're saying. Even if they didn't write the song themselves, I want to believe in that beautiful voice.
"We want to offer that as well, and we feel that vulnerability is an important part of writing the songs as well," he added. "Trying to be honest is imperative."
That vulnerability and honesty is what makes the music made by the Avetts so genuine. Perhaps it's earthy, rootsy, bluegrass/folk/Americana sound of the instrumentation. Maybe it's the uplifting two-part harmonies, earnest and pleading and urgent. Perhaps it's the punk-rock intensity carried over from their days in Nemo. Whatever it is, when the Avetts sing, you believe them. They don't present their emotions with a sense of melodrama or maudlin weepiness; they do it with honor and integrity. They stand up and proclaim themselves as men - men with wounded hearts, heavy with grief from lost love or the longing for what could have been - but men just the same. It's a reflection of their own personal philosophies as much as anything else, and how fervently they believe in the dual nature of love as a life-giver and a destroyer.
"I get so weary of hearing people in this day and age talking about how they can't get married now because they've got plans or they've got a career," Scott Avett said. "At what point did love, or your heart, get affected by your means of finance? At what point, through human growth, did that happen? Maybe it's always been there, but I see it as a much more honorable thing to change my life for a true feeling and a true, honorable relationship.
"I realize now, looking back, that being vulnerable, using it as a tool in the music, is something we strive for. At first, I wrote songs claiming to be better than any human really is or could be, but now I'm saying, this is something I strive to be like and want to be like. It's not something we can claim to be, because we're human, and we screw up, but it's something we strive for."
With "Emotionalism," the Avetts have staked a flag in the ground, claiming such rocky emotional landscape as their own. It's a land that's at the same time foreboding and inviting, and it requires rigorous honesty and righteous vulnerability to traverse it. They don't always walk it with ease, but the difference between the Avetts and most other groups out there is that they're willing to try.
"The word 'Emotionalism' is kind of a flag in the ground, stating, 'This is what we're trying to do; this is who we are,'" Seth Avett said. "That's a big part of it - trying to present who we are and what we are in our songs, songs that are relatable and understandable and make a person feel like they're not alone. Those are the songs that are the most truthful, the ones that are most important to us.
"Everyone has their troubles, and we all sort of sabotage ourselves in different ways - whether it's heroin or alcohol or people starving themselves - and we're all heading toward the same place: death. At some point, those things are going to take you out, because a lot of people have this voice coming up from way down, telling them they don't deserve to have a good life. That's much more of a universal problem than I previously realized, and as I learn more about it, I want to lend comfort toward that."
Rock 'n' roll as a mechanism for healing. Rock 'n' roll as grace. Rock 'n' roll as a power greater than the collective will of the individuals that make it. This is the higher power to whom the Avetts look toward, the light at the top of the mountains, both musical and personal, that they seek to climb.
It's not always hip, and it's certainly not trendy or fashionable. But it's honest, and it's real, and in this day and age, those are things that perhaps matter above everything else.
"That's not very rock 'n' roll - it's not what Spin or Rolling Stone want to portray, because that's not fun to read about," Scott Avett said. "But that's what we believe in. We're not about going out and acting crazy. We've gotten to the point where we're so focused that craziness needs to get out of our way. We've got songs to play and write? When do we have time to get involved in crazy stuff?"
"As a band, we're not a group of motivational speakers, but we do want to offer something positive," Seth Avett added. "We want to offer people the chance to come to a performance, to have a good time, to appreciate something artistic. We want to create something that allows people to find a concrete proof that they're certainly not alone in this world."
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