NEW YORK, NY – OCTOBER 05: (L-R) Scott Avett and Seth Avett of The Avett Brothers live in concert at Barclays Center on October 5, 2019 in New York City. (Photo by Debra L Rothenberg/Getty Images)
This has been a damn good year for traditionally American music, from Bruce Springsteen’s brilliant Western Stars and Gary Clark Jr’s stunning This Land to Joy Williams’ beautiful Front Porch, albums steeped in blues and folk have stood out for most of 2019.
Add another to the list as the Avett Brothers, who said they would never make a “socio-political” album, have made a masterpiece in Closer Than Together. A literate, eloquent, beautiful and passionate work, Closer Than Together should be right up there with the other albums I mentioned in what should be a highly competitive Grammy field for Best Americana Album.
Highlighted by the brilliant “We Americans” and the feminist anthem. “New Women’s World,” the duo of Seth and Scott Avett have delivered a profound and powerful statement that is thoughtful, moving and maybe most importantly in 2019, not divisive, as Seth explained to me in this compelling interview.
I spoke with Seth about the new album, his admiration for writers from Bob Dylan to Bob Marley, the movie Old School and much more.
Steve Baltin: Where are you today?
Seth Avett: In Phoenix, Arizona. We’re performing here tonight and it’s about 110 degrees outside.
Baltin: For a band that would never make a socio-political record you had a lot to say on this album. Who were the artists or albums that inspired you in making a record like this?
Avett: I can say, depending on where you are in your life and what’s happening in the era you live in, I feel it’s a mistake to think of a political landscape and a personal set of values or personal perspective as two entirely different concepts. A lot of what’s happening in politics or what we think of as politics, a lot of it just seems like a television show and a lot of it is built just like a television show. But in terms of writers that have been able to do that well and be able to address topics that could be considered political of course you have to mention [Bob] Dylan. I really love not just the obviously beautiful, massive songs like “Blowing In The Wind” or “Masters Of War,” I really love some of his “Talking Blues,” from those early records, where he kind of exemplified if you’re writing in that way, if you’re writing in a super-conversational way, that no word is off limits. Definitely Dylan; I love Bob Marley’s approach because he wouldn’t take a side during election and I think that’s brilliant. I think that’s the right way . He was big on, “We’ve gotta come together, it’s no good to take a side and make an enemy of half the people.” And I really believe that you have to speak the truth. And there are plenty of times where you have to pick your battles and stand for a certain thing. But I do believe on the whole Bob Marley is a great example of someone who made great music, beautiful music, but also didn’t make needless enemies. And I would be remiss to ever mention my love for music that heads into the political realm without mentioning Rage Against The Machine because I believe that a lot of times poetry is spoken about and thought of in terms of gentleness and that’s right and well and good. And I’m a huge Mary Oliver fan, I’m a huge [Emily] Dickinson fan, that makes sense. But it’s a beautiful thing to see the way [Zack] de la Rocha would bring poetry in such an intense way and with so much blood and ferocity and to be speaking such undeniable truths about some forgotten peoples.
Baltin: I love “We Americans,” which, to me, goes back to a Woody Guthrie mentality and to me really captures the love but also difficulty of being American right now.
Avett: I never feel any reason to apologize for being an America. One of the unfortunate things about a very intense time where we’re all sort of being dogged with these tidal waves of “news,” some of them important, some of them unimportant, all of them presented as if it’s the end of the world, is that our memory gets limited. We forget what happened a month ago and what happened a year ago is ancient history. We can’t keep it straight because we seem to be very much involved in our panic about what just happened. And I think sort of a dangerous thing about that is the concept of history and history as a study seems to be lost a little bit. And when we talk about being an American it’s a big conversation. Just even now when you said writing and touring under this administration, funny thing is I’ve never thought of myself as being under an administration. I haven’t thought about my own personal life being heavily informed by someone who might have a certain job even if that job is the most famous in the country. It’s an odd thing to be right and wrong in that. In any event, I feel like when you’re looking at being an American you need to be looking at the last few hundred years at least. And I don’t think we do that so often. I think that it’s sexier to just look at whatever our hatreds are doing now. So the idea of an administration, a four-year thing, the far left and the far right kind of take turns. All the people that thought Obama was a horrible person, they got their chance to feel wronged and be angry about it. And then George Bush when he was in, everyone thought he was a bad person and they got their chance to be wounded and wronged and speak out about it. The pendulum swing sort of runs some people over for sure. In the art world, and art and music, it just so happens a lot of the art world leans left or is really far on the left. So if you’re in the world of songwriters and touring musicians it almost seems like there is only one party.
Baltin: Are there individual songs or passages that surprised you then?
Avett: You know the movie Old School and that moment where Will Ferrell has the debate and he does the whole debate and he kills it. Afterwards he’s like, “I blacked out, I don’t know what happened.” It’s not like that for me. There have been times where songs have come along and they come along so quickly I think of that scene in that movie, which is just wonderful. But not so much. For the most part the melodies come about in that way and some early phrases come about in that way. Like the song “C Sections And Railway Tressles” came like that. But that’s a real rarity for me. For the most part it’s more like a stanza will come along, or a couple of lines. For “We Americans,” the phrase, “I struggle to understand the good and evil, but I’m doing the best I can in a place built on stolen land with stolen people,” all that came about without originally being connected to Uncle Sam or anything. That just came about where I was with my baby son, just me and this little boy in this dark room early in the morning and I was doing something for him, getting diapers ready or something, and that just hit me. Then the reality that it was connected to America and what that all meant kind of came a little later. So now it’s surprising to me that was the initial sort of seed of that song. But otherwise yeah, I go at them like homework a lot of times. “We Americans” took a long time to write.
Baltin: I love that you reference Old School, which many may not expect. Do you think sometimes people mistake you guys as being too serious based on the music?
Avett: Perhaps. I think music is a tool like anything else. I think that it can be very useful and we need to listen to and watch things that help us. I’m almost 40 years old, this is a more recent development in my mind, but to reference a song on the record, the “Bang Bang” song, it’s never been more clear to me it’s important to take good things in. There’s a reason Mr. Rogers is worthwhile. There’s a reason that when you watch something that gives you calm and hope and knowledge without playing to the darkness that we all have a sick attraction to, it’s good. I want to make music that helps. I don’t want to just make music that exemplifies my darkness or my sadness or shows that we exist. We got it, we all know that it exists. But I hope that we’re making music and I hope I am able to continue to make music for my whole life that at the bottom line is helpful rather than harmful.
Baltin: On that note what is the music that inspires you to be hopeful?
Avett: I listen to Louis Armstrong almost every day. There’s a compilation called Louis Armstrong Sings Back Through The Years and it’s a two compact disc sort of thing. It is just unbelievable, the band throughout is incredible. And like Louis Armstrong, I think a lot of people will look at him and put him in a box thinking since he’s of a certain time he didn’t bring a certain kind of soul or whatever that came about later. But I’m here to say that’s absolutely not true. If you listen to his playing and singing it’s gold all day long. Nothing can ever be taken away from it. And god is in it, god is in his playing. So I listen to him a lot. I listen to Mozart until basically it hurts my brain, but to inspire and to keep the horizon expanding.
Baltin: And last question: how did it feel to play death in the video for ‘High Steppin'”?
Avett: (Cracks up) Really natural. One almost might say supernatural.