Smile Politely

Hot air balloon to success: An interview with Seth Avett of the Avett Brothers

The Avett Brothers have amassed large loyal fan base through a steady stream of indie folk music with clear and earnest vocal pop melodies over roots laced instrumentals, and that loyal fanbase is set to converge on the State Farm Center this Thursday, September 27th. In some ways, the Avett Brothers are progenitors of the indie folk craze that swept the nation earlier this decade and has worked it’s way into the fabric of our culture. The Avett Brothers represented a more optimistic brand of indie folk and saw their stock rise while bands like Bon Iver, the Decembersists, and Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeroes also found an audience with their respective styles of indie folk.

I got to talk with Seth Avett, the younger of the two Avett Brothers at the center of the band, and ask him about what this whole ride has meant to him — about why humility matters to him, how things are different after success and after becoming a father, about his home state of North Carolina, and about his truck. Turns out Seth Avett is a Ford truck guy. You can also listen to this interview in full below.

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Smile Politely: Getting to understand who you are, what your music is, and what you guys represent — obviously a folk band — you’re very optimistic and you guys are known for genuineness and humility. My first question is, where does that come from for you?

Seth Avett: Well it’s sort of a funny thing — sort of an interesting thing — that there’s an irony, or a juxtaposition, or an opposite there when you’re looking at answering the question of why you’re so humble. [laughs]

SP: I know, I know [laughs]. I don’t mean to say “why are you so humble?” — I mean to say “why do you think humility is important to you?” Where does that come from? Is from your parents, is from your church is from, is it from your school, ya know?

Avett: Totally, and it must be coming form all those places. And as a band, you can only be so lucky, and you can only hope for such a healthy arc with your band, or with your project. Because we have had success and there’s no denying that there’s been a steady growing from the beginning really, but it’s been so much more like a hot air balloon than a rocket. And that’s given us a lot of time to process what was happening and to understand and to maintain and to caretake for the relationships that grew with an audience. So that helped as far as a band, and on a personal level — humility and self awareness and staying connected to the reality of how small you are and how small any person is — I think that that just comes from being grown up — from being grown up people.

There’s really no way to get into adulthood without having your ego completely attacked if not demolished, ya know what I mean? And it’s not to say that we don’t have egos. We certainly have our own egos, and make mistakes accordingly, but when all of us are either well into our late 30s or into our 40s and have had personal struggles with all the things that you would expect — you know, death, divorce, cancer — all these things have become very real parts of our lives.

So it’s kinda hard to not face your own humanness and your own humility as you become a grown up person. So that’s sort of a natural progression. And with songwriting — the reason it makes its way it into our songs is because we can only write about what we know and what we’ve experienced and what we’re trying to know about. And we love music that has vulnerability. We love listening to music from other artists that’s helpful. So we try to fall in the same line.

SP: Talking about your guys career arc, you guys did build up a lot independently over the first several years of your career, and then in the last 10 years or so you’ve got to work with (legendary producer) Rick Rubin, and recently had (legendary filmmaker) Judd Apatow follow you guys around and make (the HBO Documentary film May It Last: A Portrait of the Avett Brothers, and you’re still living in a small town (Concord, North Carolina — where they grew up and where their parents still live).

What is different about your life now that you’re in that echelon working with people like Rick Rubin and Judd Apatow — people at the highest levels of the entertainment industry?

Avett: Well there are differences. It is made known to us that there are these perspectives — and the way people see us when we go out into the town that we’re from — we go out in Concord or a lot of towns throughout the U.S. — if we’re in a smaller town, we do have this very fortunate experience of getting to meet a lot of folks and folks expressing to us what the music means to them, or how it’s been integrated into their lives. So it’s always been at the forefront of our interaction with people, but what it’s done for us is kind of given us a way of living a pretty balanced life.

Because we are very connected to our roots and where come from, and now it’s just that the difference is we’ve built this project to a place where we also get to have the very unique and fun experiences of spending time working on a record in Malibu or performing in Madison Square Garden. It’s easy to focus on just the work and never really even acknowledge the excitement around some of these high profile things. That kind of seems to be our way — we don’t even notice it because we’re so focused on our work. But each little opportunity all along the way up to and beyond working with Rick or Judd or anything that can be seen as a victory has just built onto the next thing, and we’ve just been very fortunate, there’s no doubt about it.

SP: Talking about where you’re from – I got a chance to talk to Sam Herring from Future Islands — do you know him by chance?

Avett: Not personally but I love the band and we have many mutual friends and connections for sure.

SP: Yeah because he’s from Greenville [NC], and he’s got a similar way of having very confessional type of vocals, and a very humble attitude — do you think that’s a regional thing for North Carolina? Do you see that across your community or do you think that’s just something you two happen to have in common?

Avett: I think a case could be made that there is something that runs through people that are from the state of North Carolina. I don’t think that I could articulate it but I think there is a sort of blue collar worker mentality there, and there is a great connection to the land. Yes, I think that could certainly be the case. And if you go back into American roots music, Charlie Poole and Blind Boy Fuller and music from the 20s, 30s, 40s, you can find it there as well, and I think there’s even connecting aspects and qualities of that music to songwriters that are coming from North Carolina now as well.

SP: Speaking of that regional music — I don’t know about you, but when I was growing up I didn’t know anything about the regional music where I was from — I was listening to MTV and stuff like that. And I had an older brother too, and he was three years older than me [unlike Seth’s brother and bandmate, Scott, who is 4 years older], and I was always kind of inheriting his style because he knew about some band that I hadn’t seen on MTV or heard on the radio yet.

For you, what was it like? Did you have a sense of the regional music, did you have have music from your parents, did you follow your older brother’s style, or what was that like for you?

Avett: It was about the exact same way. I followed my older brother and we had some older cousins. My dad’s older brother — his sons. They lived out in Murphy, North Carolina and we looked up to them as well. They were a big example for us as far as introducing Black Sabbath and Rush and Van Halen. But yes, regional music, I was not aware of at all until I was in my early teens – adolescence basically. Because Doc Watson ended up being kind of the gateway drug for me. But before that it was certainly whatever pop was around — Michael Jackson, Prince. And our dad listened to the country music of the day — 80’s country music. But as far as the lesser known underground of blues and old time music, that didn’t become a part of my vocabulary until I was well into my teens.

SP: I wanted to ask about a truck I saw you getting into in the movie, because it was an old truck, and I’m sitting there looking at this like ‘this looks like one of my buddies, they drive old trucks like that’, and I’m wondering what’s the story behind that truck?

Avett: Yeah well we grew up with Ford trucks being the thing. Where I’m from the Ford versus Chevy rivalry is very alive.

SP: So you’re on team Ford?

Avett: Our dad, he ran a welding business, and he wasn’t like “it’s gotta be Ford” at all, but he had Ford trucks. So to me that’s just what it was. Whatever your dad does is what you think of what being a man is, so for me that meant denim pearl-button shirts and carrying a pocket knife and driving a Ford Truck. So I bought that truck maybe 8 or 10 years ago and it’s just a great truck. It’s just a great simple regular-cab long-bed truck, and those trucks should go a good 250 or 300 thousand miles.

SP: So you just don’t have an interest in modern amenities in your vehicle?

Avett: No, I do. I have a little boy and a family so we got the Honda. And I do love cars, so I dip into that as well, but the truck always ends up being the go-to because the child seat I can put beside me so my son can be beside me. And of course he’s 3 years old so it’s his favorite vehicle in the world. I’m into — I love modern cars, I love it all. Coming from Concord-Charlotte area, car culture is pretty huge there, so I’m big on all of them. But right now the truck is definitely the go-to.

SP: Last question: You mentioned your son there. You’ve been a touring musician for 15 years now and you’ve had a son for three years, so how has that changed the logistics of being a professional musician?

Avett: It’s changed the feeling of it quite a bit. It certainly makes being away from home a whole different dynamic. It makes it harder to leave, but it also reframes why I have to. I have to remind myself often “he needs to see this, he needs to see his dad following through on his responsibilities. And not only following through his responsibilities but also enjoying it, and being glad to work, and being glad to have a job that he loves, and having enthusiasm for going to work”. Having a kid basically reframes everything. Kinda makes you pause and rethink and take inventory on why you do everything that you do, and trim the fat and realize what’s important, and how the important things need to be presented to him. So it’s changed everything, but everything for the better.

The Avett Brothers perform Thursday, September 27th at State Farm Center, and tickets are available here.

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