The Avett Brothers on 'The Carpenter,' Gap ads, faith, and how cancer has shaped their songs

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The Avett Brothers may be one of the hottest acts in the music industry right now — their album The Carpenter debuted at No. 4 on the Billboard 200 last week — but that doesn’t mean they have an entourage cleaning up after them.

Empty pizza boxes and orange peels were strewn throughout their room at New York City’s Dream Hotel — which apparently leaves oranges on your pillows — where I sat down with Scott and Seth Avett (left and right, respectively) as well as bassist Bob Crawford (center) to chat about their new album, the currently hot state of Americana music, and the driving force behind their songs.

On a recent rainy Tuesday afternoon, the day before the band performed on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon, the three gents crowded onto the end of one of their hotel room’s unmade beds to talk about their long road to stardom, the changing face of the industry, and why Warrior is the best movie ever.

Below, read the full conversation, and at the end of the interview, check out an exclusive video of the Avett Brothers breaking down the lyrics of their album closer “Life.”

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Let’s start at the beginning. You two [Seth and Scott] began playing in separate bands, correct? Then you later ended up merging efforts?
Scott
: Yeah. When we were much younger. How old were you, Seth?
Seth: I would have been 14 and you 18, or something like that, so that would have been around like ’94. Scott and I each just fronted our own bands up until the point where we could both be in the same town, and that was after you [Scott] got out of college, I guess.
Scott: Or towards the end of it, I suppose.
Seth: And then Bob fronted bands as well growing up, and then we all kind of came together around 2001.

Why did you decide to start playing together?
Scott
: Seth and I – like we were just saying – we were in two bands. Those two bands kind of deconstructed and came together, so we had this rock band. It was loud and rocking, and as that was starting to sort of implode, Seth and I were starting to look for a clearer medium, or a clearer way to present or express through music.
Seth: And a more mobile way.
Scott: Physically, yeah, something that we could just go and do. We’d already messed around some with busking and just playing folk songs, and just writing songs – singer-songwriter stuff, and that’s when I started playing the banjo, and it was real clear a banjo and a guitar could accompany each other really well, and we could write songs that would be lyric-based. Nothing to hide behind, no distortion, no big band, nothing to lug. We realized relatively quickly that we needed a bass player to do what we were wanting to do, so we just put feelers out, and that’s when we met Bob in 2001.
Seth: And we started realizing early on that it felt really natural to sing songs with a couple instruments and for it not to be super complicated, and part of it is of our natural voice is presented best with just a guitar banjo, bass. Something that’s more of a simple set up—
Scott: Because we had years of big, full stacks, amplifiers, tons of drums, and all those things. Of course, now, we’re headed back towards that, but yeah, that’s kind of how it got going.

Did you all want to work together as brothers?
Scott
: We didn’t really think about working together. We did all this with just the intent and excitement to take it to stages and just to play places. Sometimes they were just corners of colleges, corners of coffee shops, bars, churches, street corners. I don’t remember us ever talking about marketing. We just did it.
Seth: When he was in college, and we lived in these two separate towns, I always had this image in my mind that me and my brother are gonna—
Scott: take on the world!
Seth: Yeah, that we were gonna get together, make a band, that we were just gonna take over.

That’s interesting. I have no desire to ever work in close quarters with my own brothers.
Scott
: A lot of credit can go to Seth for that because I gave Seth plenty of opportunity [to leave]. I pushed him away a lot as an older brother, like “Hey man, get off my back. Stop following me and hanging with my friends.” But for some reason Seth, not that he was persistent, he was just really not accepting to that, and he ended up hanging with me and my friends a lot.
Seth: Even as a little kid, I always just had this vision. Scott is a great entertainer. He always was driven to entertain. That’s not always with music. Maybe that’s on the soccer field, maybe it’s dancing, whatever. But I always kind of had this vision that I would back him up. Maybe I could be like Jimmy Page – someone that’s really got a lot of talent but isn’t in the spotlight, maybe. We’re talking about a little kid’s kind of dream.
Bob: It’s very appropriate little brother worship.
Seth: The bizarre thing is that it actually flowed into real life and into adulthood, which is kind of goofy in a way.

Bob, how did you fit into all this? Who were you friends with, or who did you know?
Bob
: I didn’t know any of them. I had been in the film and video production business, and I decided that I wanted to go back and study music in college. So, at 29 years old, I completely went back to college. I’d got out of college the first time when I was 25, so it was kind of ridiculous. But I went back to study jazz guitar and kind of imagined I’d teach music theory at a college somewhere and put away this music dream. So, my goal was to go back to college, which I did. Winthrop University in Rock Hill, South Carolina. And a guy that was in the jazz guitar program with me knew Scott and Seth, and I had just begun to play upright bass. Like, literally two weeks prior had just begun to play upright bass.
Scott: Which he did not tell us that he had only been at it for two weeks.
Bob: I did not tell them that. But [my friend] said, “I know this guy, he’s got a bluegrass band,” which is the first time that that—
Scott: Falsehood.
Bob: That that falsehood was told. But he said, “They’re looking for an upright bass player.” And that’s how I was put in touch with them.

Why was it a falsehood?
Bob
: Because they weren’t a bluegrass band, and I wasn’t an upright bass player! [their manager, Dolph, laughs hard at this] The whole thing was kind of a lie.
Scott: So we get together, we enjoy playing together, but ironically, Bob looked at our whole first tour as a way to put that dream away. He started us on this path of touring as a way to say, “Hey, I’ve done it. At least I toured one time”
Bob: Bucket list, if you will.
Scott: But instead, what happened is it just broke open this thing wide open. We had a good experience, so we had to revisit the places we went, and here we are over a decade later still doing the same thing.
Bob: [And] Scott was going to graduate school, too.

For what?
Scott
: For art. For painting.
Bob:  At that point — it was at the end of 2002 — I was beginning to apply to graduate schools myself and was getting accepted and all these kinds of things, so it kind of felt appropriate to do this. Okay, let’s just go out on the road. We’re a lean machine.  We don’t need to take a bunch of guys, we don’t need to take a bunch of equipment. We can book sports bars and Irish pubs and whoever will take us, and we can just travel and camp and be in one vehicle and not spend much money.
Scott: And at that time, nobody cared about it but the three of us. Nobody had the first dime in us or would have had any reason to think that this would be anything more than one trip out.

What do you think grew your fanbase over the years?
Scott
: Certainly touring.
Seth: Yeah, I’d say touring. I mean, the recordings haven’t really gotten in the way, but as far as true connection, having connection with folks where we’re going to see them again and again, it’s just like this – just like us sitting here talking like this. For the first many years, there was no difference between playing that night and just stepping right down and sitting at a table with folks and having a beer or whatever, so it was all just swirled into one gigantic experience.
Bob: And we talked about – he [Seth] was a front guy in a band, he [Scott] was a front guy in a band, and I was a front guy in a band, and that was back when every band had that one guy who did fliers, who would put together the CDs, who would book the shows, who would make sure everybody practiced, make sure everybody showed up on time. The three of us were that guy in one operation.
Seth: We were immediately almost in competition, like,  “I’m going to be the hardest working guy in the band. I’ll show you—”
Bob: Scott and I were booking daily, calling places every single day. That’s how it is. You send a CD and you call and you call and you call.
Scott: Follow up and follow up.
Bob: It would be like, “Did you talk to him?” Yeah, he didn’t want to talk to me. He said to call tomorrow. And this lady said to talk to this lady, and then Seth was making CDs, and Scott and I – well, at that point, you just worked at the learning center in the office.
Scott: We taught bass and banjo.

Where?
Scott
: Mars Music.
Bob: Which is now Sam Ash.
Scott: It was ridiculous.
Bob: Scott was using his time scheduling to make fliers, and then using the copy machine to copy them and then posting them up.


Well, speaking of your fanbase growing, let’s look back five years ago, when Emotionalism came out. It debuted at No. 134 on the Billboard chart. And then this album, The Carpenter – I don’t know where exactly it’s finishing – but it’s way up there according to projections. [The album ended up debuting at No. 4 on the Billboard 200 with 98,000 copies sold.] Why do think it’s caught on?
Scott
: Maybe that’s a normal curve. Maybe that’s how it supposed to be. For us, obviously, it’s supposed to be that way. Maybe it’s much, much more dangerous to start at number one. For us, our growth in numbers has probably equaled our growth as musicians and artists, so we probably really didn’t deserve to sell any records early. Maybe we deserve it now because we’ve finally gotten better, and maybe we’ll start to get worse and they’ll go back down. Or maybe we’ll start to explore, and people will have a harder time understanding. And so it goes down. And that’s all okay. We feel really fortunate about that curve. We were very thankful for 134 on the chart. That was a great place to be at that point in our lives, just as the records before that. They are what they were supposed to be. [Those were] pure creation from guys who wanted to make art, so that was sort of our educational time for this period, where now, it’s time to make hay, and be very diligent and serious about what we make and be a little more pointed and intent on what we’re gonna make and project.
Seth: And the thing about the chart positions is completely out of our hands. We put our efforts towards not falling flat on our face on stage and not falling flat on our face in the studio, but the reason our chart position may be better is because of folks saying to someone else, “Hey, I really like this band, and you oughta hear it.” So that’s “work” being done for us without our hands being involved in it.

Even just five years ago, the idea that a label would push a lead single with banjo in it, like on your single “Live and Die,” is absurd.
Scott
: As a younger man, it definitely was like, “no chance.”

Do you think listeners’ tastes have changed?
Scott
: Yeah, there’s an ebb and flow to popular music and to what people’s ears want to hear.
Bob: You see it in commercials, and you see it in every outlet where there is music. I hear banjos all the time now. I hear them in recordings. Especially if you watch television for an hour, you’re going to probably hear a new folk song. You know – (searching for an example)

Like The Lumineers in a Bing commercial?
Bob
: Exactly. That just shows you what has risen to the top.

Why do you think this Americana boom is going on?
Seth
: Here’s my take on why it’s happening on a larger scale now. Since the institution of recorded, sellable music, we as a culture — there’s a natural ebb and flow. Sometimes, we just want to party. For a certain amount of years, you’re fine with doo wop, and people think, “Just don’t challenge me with all this thought and all this brooding. Talk to me about the party. We’re in the club. It’s a great time.” Sometimes that’s all we want to hear, so it has value. But then you get to the point where you just think, “Man, I want to hear a song that is actually about something. Something that has some thought put into it.” So Dylan sounded so fresh because maybe people were tired of hearing the same love song over and over again. In the early 90s, there’s a reason people were ready to hear some of the more brooding and even bitter lyrics of someone like Cobain because a few years before that, there’s no chance that those records could have been so big. No chance. Right now, maybe it’s a time where some thoughtful lyrics, or an acoustic instrument that doesn’t sound robotic or synthetic, is very pleasing to the ear, but you hear enough natural sounding instruments, maybe you start thinking, “Man, I wanna hear something that’s kind of crazy.” I just think there’s a natural ebb and flow.
Bob: Whatever this genre is that will be defined, maybe by you, maybe by someone — maybe it will never be defined — I credit a lot to Nirvana, the grunge, to the rise of alternative music in the late 80s and 90s, to that becoming accessible. And college radio becoming en vogue. And those college radio people from the early 90s getting older and having their tastes and starting to make more money and saying, “I want to buy this. I want to go see these guys.”

The industry doesn’t really seem to know what to do with the whole Americana genre. The Civil Wars will be nominated for a folk Grammy, and then a CMA Award a few months later. No one quite knows where to place that type of act.
Bob
: The genres are a mess. They really are.
Scott: A lot of the names have been taken hostage. I was saying that the other week. Country music – the word got taken hostage by, maybe, a bunch of people writing music for selling or an image for selling. That really shouldn’t be taken hostage because all this music is really kind of based in a country place – the idea of roots music and acoustic music.
Seth: And folk music means “music for the folks.” So what does folk music mean? You’ve gotta be standing up there with a solo acoustic guitar and a harmonica? Rap music is folk music.
Scott: It is. It’s urban folk.
Seth: It’s music for the people. Quality hip hop music – you know, you listen to Mos Def or something like that – that’s folk music. That’s music for real folks.

Let’s delve into your new album. First, I’ve gotta ask, are you all, deep down, actually just sappy romantics? We’ve heard you personify “love” as a woman in the past on “The Ballad of Love and Hate.” This time around, there is a woman you call “purpose.” You sound pretty lovesick to me.
Scott
: We’re ridiculously sentimental. I used to, as a kid, give Seth a rock or something. I’d be like, “Keep this thing. It wants to be with you.”
Seth: [mocking] It wants to be with you.
Scott: We would personify everything. I remember a straw one time that I was like, “This is so hard for me to part with,” because I had personified it. I was like, “Well this straw really served me well,” and it was heartwrenching. I remember meeting girls at church retreats at Lake Junaluska and meeting them once or twice in a weekend—
Seth: It’d be full on love
Scott: —and going home crying the whole way home that I would never see that person again. Just being destroyed by it. I always assumed everybody did that. Maybe they do, maybe they don’t. Maybe by the time they’re a certain age, they stop. Maybe they close that down. Maybe we’ve been allowed to let that live.
Seth: We’re definitely, definitely maybe overly sappy… we’re definitely romantic. Romanticism is something that, somehow, we’ve always highly regarded.
Scott: Well, let’s face it. When you look at a character  at any time in any movie or any story, you gauge those men by their tenderness. If you watch a man destroy another man, there’s a part of you that says, “Yeah, he got him!” but in the end, if you see that sensitive side, you go, [in a whisper] “I love that man.” Have you seen Warrior, the movie?

I love Warrior. And it didn’t get any respect!
Seth
: It’s one of the finest films I’ve seen recently. I just loved it to death. But that’s a good example of a great character. What is the actor’s name?
Scott: Tom Hardy
Seth: His character, you don’t root for him because he’s so physically powerful. When you see the tenderness in him and you see the depth in him, that’s when you say, okay this character means something to me.
Scott: His power is his problem. It’s his baggage. His tenderness is this gift, and you want it pulled out.
Seth: In that movie, and in so much art that we love, we have heavily championed work that is highly romantic. Neutral Milk Hotel, Will Oldham—
Scott: Ryan Adams.
Seth: Artists that speak on love and speak on feeling in an all-important kind of way. In a way that speaks to the listener in a way that says, “This is all that matters” So we do that too.
Scott: Sometimes music feels predator-like. It’s so hip and so awesome sounding, it’s like eating a bunch of candy and doing a bunch of drugs. It’s like, “This feels so good, and I love it!” but there’s nothing inside.
Seth: It’s just cold.
Scott: Emotional richness just fills you up. It feels really good. I don’t think anybody can get enough of that.

Do you think that sentimentality is partly why so many guys like you? At most bands’ shows, you’ll see many more women in the audience, but you all have tons of guys at your shows.
Scott
: Yeah, it’s terrific.

Do you think you’re voicing something that guys don’t hear or perhaps want to hear?
Seth
: Thematically, we’re talking about a lot of grown man stuff, but I think that we can attribute part of our fanbase to the themes in the songs being something that an adult person can relate to. If you’re in your 30s or your 40s, and you’re someone who has weathered some storms, you don’t want to hear about partying in the club. You just can’t relate to that. That’s maybe in your past, maybe not, but the reality is, you’ve got a daughter, or you’ve got an ex-wife or ex-husband or whatever, and you can’t relate to songs that are all about basically, you having as much fun as you can possibly gather for yourself.
Scott: We like to gather as much fun as we can for ourselves, don’t get me wrong.
Seth: There’s value in music that talks about that kind of thing, but a lot of our themes are really very clearly, very obviously, some very real life stuff.
Bob: And underlying that. It’s not just having a lot of guys come, I noticed early on – I mean, I’m talking 2004, 2005, we were attracting a lot of seniors. People in their 60s, 70s. I’m 41 – I don’t want to think of 60s as being seniors, but we played a lot of bluegrass nights where we had no business being there. Someone would come, and they’d like it, and then they’d tell their kids. We’d go somewhere else and they’d say, “My parents saw you in Ohio, and they called me here in Colorado and said, ‘You’ve gotta come see these boys.’”
Seth: That was really exciting for us because Scott and I, at least, playing rock music – that did not happen. You basically had white dudes from 23 to 27.
Scott: 18 to 27.
Seth: 18 to 27, just white dudes. That’s all that was.
Scott: They just wanted to beat each other up.
Seth: So to have multiple tiers of fans at different age levels is really, really neat. And Bob, I don’t want to think about 60 being senior either, but let’s face it, you’re going to be getting your sweet tea for free pretty soon.
Scott: And your coffee for free.
Bob: Once a year on my birthday, I’ll get a free hamburger somewhere.

Something else that stuck out to me on this record is – you’ve always had a fixation on the temporary nature of life. It’s only growing, as far as I can see. And I would argue that on “The Once and Future Carpenter,” you seem to be embracing the idea of an afterlife.
Scott
: For sure.

What’s the biggest motivation for you: Is it a fear of death? Or is it valuing of life here and now? Or is it that there is something after death?
Scott
: Obviously, the fear of death is something that happens. It starts coming to life in your 20s, I think. It’s where you start realizing, hold on a second. You notice that first line on your face.
Seth: Or you’re not recovering from the hangover as quickly.
Scott: Something starts to happen. Maybe it happens before that. I certainly was a bit obsessed with it before. It obligates you to acknowledge the fears and face the fears. Some of our lyrics are examples of that – evidence of us attempting to illustrate how we acknowledge them. I would also hope that we bring it up enough that do you ever think that maybe, why should you be so upset about death and dying? Maybe that’s the birth. You were not here before you were born. You were born. You began decaying. Then you say hello again at that death. I would just say everybody – I’m included – we’re all so surprised at death. It’s just so upending. So obvious. Just right around the corner at any time.
Seth: I think that we’re sort of exorcising publicly our processing of that.
Scott: Absolutely.
Seth: Again, talking about weathering storms. Look, you know folks with cancer, I know folks with cancer. [Bob Crawford’s 2-year-old daughter, Hallie, is a St. Jude’s patient currently battling brain cancer. He’s spoken about her struggle before, and I chose not to belabor the point during this interview.] The older you get, the more that becomes part of your life. Like, let’s just take cancer for a second. That’s just a part of our lives. There’s no getting around it. Everybody’s got it in their family. Everybody’s got it in friendships. We have to process it. And we have to process the fact that we’re gonna pass from this world. We like the idea of being resolved to that. That doesn’t necessarily mean that we’re there, that we’re resolved to it, because we aren’t.
Scott: Yeah, we’re not always thinking about it.
Seth: It does come up in our songs because we want to be people that are resolved to it and can handle the finality of that. Either way, you’re going to have to be okay with it, and we like the idea of being okay with it sooner rather than later. I didn’t even realize that was a theme until I started doing interviews for [this album]. I think it’s just on our minds because we’re facing it more and more.
Scott: The more we live and things change and don’t go the way we plan, death just seems so possible in so many realms and in so many ways, that I just kind of say, “The plans for the future and the insurance that we put in our lives seems completely man-made and redundant.”

Part of the success of the Americana genre seems to be that there’s an audience of people who have grappled with faith at some point in their life, and they hear something in this music.
Scott
: Spirituality?

Yes. Sorry, I’m not really being very direct.
Scott
: Yeah, it’s one in the same. What we do is purely spiritually based. I mean, I believe that. The fact that that doesn’t exist to me is bizarre. That there’s not a spiritual connection with each one of us, that we’re not all part of a bigger body, spiritually.
Seth: Well, let’s bring this into the discussion. The contemporary Christian genre has sort of backfired in a way because people have forced a genre on something that doesn’t need a genre to be put into a box. There can be spirituality and there can be references to faith in lots of different kinds of music, and it doesn’t have to be squarely put into this one genre, which, let’s be honest, turns a lot of folks off. As soon as you step up to the mic and say, “Here’s what you ought to believe,” the very first thing that me or anyone that I know does, is say, “How the hell can I get out of here?” I just don’t want to be preached to in that way.
Scott: The team mentality of all that is the problem. I raise my flag, and you raise yours.
Seth: My team is better than your team.
Scott: That’s nuts. I would say every song on — probably everything we’ve written — has been what we would believe to be some sort of a conversation with us and some would say the Maker, some would say God. Something greater. So total discussion with that spirit.
Seth: It’s a discussion that never ends.
Scott: So, that’s why, whatever we’re going through or thinking, all we’re doing is exposing that. Exploiting it. The fact that it’s sold is just how it is. The best thing about it being sold, about it being a commodity for us, is that it allows for it to keep happening. It takes care of the mechanics of it, so we can keep in the bubble to allow us to make it… Did we answer the question?

I think you did. I ask this because those religious themes are something that I have always heard in Americana music — it’s always been clear to me. But I never see it written about because, I guess, people don’t like writing about it.
Scott
: I think people try to avoid it because they’re afraid that it hurts marketing.

Right. There’s a sense that if I expose this side of a band, I will somehow prevent them, on some level, from—
Scott
: We don’t care anything about that.
Bob: We’ve heard of bands, we won’t say names, but we’ve heard of bands that are Christian, but they say, (whispering) “Don’t tell them.” They don’t try to talk about it.
Scott: See, we don’t speak for a team. We don’t believe in that team mentality.

In other news, I’m wearing Gap right now.
Scott
: You are?

Well I figured, what should I wear today? Since you all have your own Gap commercial now, I may as well wear Gap!
Bob
: That’s right, because these guys now insist we all have to wear Gap.
Scott: Yeah right.

At this stage in your career, do you feel any tension — having come from such a small operation — doing something like that? Or making an album with a super producer like Rick Rubin? I looked through the forum on your own site before this interview, and I know that some fans feel like you’re abandoning the down-home roots of your own story, which could just be a factor of having more listeners. How would you respond?
Bob
: The organization is still ridiculously small. I mean, the organization is still – we have a very small crew. Probably too small. A lot of people have a lot of jobs. Multiple jobs per person. But we’ll still show up a festival or a show, and they’re like—
Scott: “This is all you got?”
Bob: Now, we just got two buses and a little trailer, but some bands pull up that have two buses and a semi or three rigs. That day could come for us, but still, we’re 12 years in, and still, we’re really small.
Scott: And as far as the people [in the forums] – this is something I’m starting to grow weary of. I put myself in a bubble. I used to answer all the emails that came in. I was the one that checked the website, and I would answer every email that came in. And that got harder. Eventually, I had to say, “I can’t.” I found my days would be ruined by something I would read. You know like, “Scott’s handsome, but he can’t sing. Seth can sing.” And then you’d see like, “I’m a Scott girl,” and one would be like, “Well, I’m more of a Seth. I don’t really like…” and then all of the sudden I’m home with my family, and I feel like shit and I’m treating my family bad because of something I read. I have not enough time in my life to let these things dictate any part of my day. So I put myself in a bubble, and I haven’t gone on our website in two years now. I just stay away from it. It was really healthy for me to do that because I was on it and so in touch with everything everybody was saying. And being as sensitive as writers will be—
Bob: It’ll affect you.
Scott: It’ll really affect you. So I just kind of put myself in a bubble, and I found myself able to operate much better and be natural and be who I am without letting that dictate things. I think, a lot of times, when people think what an artist is doing is alienating or different or strange, it’s probably impossible for them to have all the facts or know why. You just have to accept that. And you have to trust us.
Seth: And we’re aware that there are always going to be haters.

You and Rebecca Black.
Scott
: That’s right.
Seth: Both us and her. We both know there’s always going to be haters, and we can either be derided for “selling out” or doing things that are outside of our roots, or we can be derided for making the same record over and over again. Either way, there’s going to be some sort of quality of dressing down, so it’s probably better for our own health that we’re following the muse that we feel the most connected to, which is making art that we can stand behind and sharing it with as many folks as might enjoy it.
Scott: And I would also say, along with all this, that before anyone would insult – I mean, some of the most insultable celebrities – I won’t name any names, but let’s say someone at the top. Someone would say, “I can’t stand anything they do. It doesn’t make any sense. It’s tasteless. It’s garbage. It’s gross.” But you turn around and you find out that everything they made last year went to charity or something. I like to dream that that happens. But you just never know.
Bob: You find that out and you go, “Who am I?”

Below check out an exclusive video of the Avett Brothers explaining the lyrics behind the final track on The Carpenter, “Life.”

Grady on Twitter: @gradywsmith

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