The Avett Brothers: Expanding Americana

“The banjo has intensity, AS well as a sense of humor to it, and I liked that dichotomy,” says Scott Avett.
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“The banjo has intensity, AS well as a sense of humor to it, and I liked that dichotomy,” says Scott Avett.

“I started out wanting to be like Jimmy Page,” reveals his brother Seth. “Scott was always a natural frontman, and every lead singer needs a great guitar player, so I saw myself playing the Page role to his Plant.”

The Avett Brothers don’t sound like Led Zeppelin, but it’s an intriguing influence, because they push Americana towards rock much like Page and Plant pushed rock towards folk. Since signing them in 2009, producer Rick Rubin has guided the brothers to massive crossover appeal, as illustrated by their latest album, True Sadness [American/Republic]. The release debuted at the top of several Billboard charts, including Americana/Folk, Rock, Alternative, and Top Album Sales.

Joined on tour by band members Bob Crawford (upright bass/fiddle) and Joe Kwon (cello)—as well as Tania Elizabeth (fiddle), Paul Defiglia (keyboards), and Mike Marsh (drums)— the Avett Brothers are kinetic in concert, and fearless in the studio. Both qualities are exemplified on the frenetic new single “Satan Pulls the Strings,” which integrates hip-hop beats, synths, and funk bass into a huge-sounding bluegrass hybrid.

How did you get going on your primary instruments?

Scott: I floundered on guitar compared to Seth, so I focused on being a lyricist and a singer. I just knew I wanted to be a showman onstage, performing art that I had a hand in creating. By 1999, I was drawn to the banjo. At first, it felt like an ironic attraction—a way to be different. As soon as I had a dozen songs I could play three-finger style—Earl Scruggs style—I wanted to perform anywhere I could, and I continued to fall more in love with the banjo every day. I aspire to express myself freely on banjo, while never taking away from how it’s traditionally used in bluegrass and country music. I’m very much involved in developing my clawhammer style at the moment, and my approach is ultimately more akin to John Hartford than Earl Scruggs. Earl was beautifully concise and direct, whereas Hartford had a freer focus and more of a wild mind.

Seth: There were three major chapters for me in terms of guitar influences. Watching the very mystical image of Jimmy Page playing a Les Paul in The Song Remains the Same made me start taking guitar lessons so I could play Zeppelin songs. Kurt Cobain inspired my next journey. His guitar playing was exciting, because there was no need for any great technical skill. I spent a lot of time trying to write melodies over power chords. I was introduced to Doc Watson’s music at about 14, and the rest is history. Doc showed me that you could have a lot of power without a lot of volume, and that you can be a precise guitarist while still being interpretive. A song can be different every time you play it, and there can be a lot of dark mystery in music outside of rock and roll.

Can you offer some perceptions about each other’s style, and how they play into your core combination?

Scott: Seth knows more music theory than I do, so I depend on him for something to play over, and I let the banjo ride along on top of the song. The banjo serves as a percussive instrument—as it has historically— and Seth’s guitar playing is the melodic anchor.

Seth: Scott has always been naturally loud with his speaking voice, his sense of humor, and his singing. It was funny when he took up the banjo because it’s a loud instrument—just like him! He eventually learned how to play the 5-string banjo with that three-finger picking style, but that was only part of our approach in the beginning. We were very abrasive, and much closer to Nirvana in our attack when we became a trio with Bob on bass. There was a lot of just bashing it out where all three instruments became drums in a way. Now, there’s a lot more dynamic range, because we have the ability to also take a more gentle approach, and that brings a ton of power to the table.

What’s your favorite gear?

Scott: My Deering Sierra has been my go-to touring instrument since I got it around 2000. For years I used a $20 Radio Shack clip-on lavalier microphone to amplify it. I was happy because it was easy to mount, and easy to replace. We eventually placed the capsule from a Shure SM57 inside the banjo, and that has worked well. Some of my Deerings also have a Pick-up the World banjo pickup underneath the bridge, but, for the most part, I rely on the 57. When I use an amplifier, it’s a ’70s Traynor, and I don’t use any effects.

However, if I had a session today, I would take two banjos. One is an open-back Deering Calico customized with a deep pot like David Holt’s model. It’s a blast to play with or without picks, but I would probably use picks in the studio. The other is a one-of-a-kind made by a friend in Virginia at Buckeye Banjos. It’s an old-time-style banjo with a 12” pot and a calfskin head. It’s good for fingerpicking without picks— a very soft approach—and it delivers great tone when I can get that temperamental skinhead to cooperate. When it’s right in tune, it’s terrific. I ended up using it quite a bit on True Sadness.

Seth: Both of my workhorse guitars are dreadnoughts. One is my signature Martin, which is a D-35 with a Swiss spruce top and a flamed koa center wedge in between the East Indian rosewood pieces in its back. The other is a custom dreadnought that Jordan McConnell out of Winnipeg built primarily out of koa. Both guitars are highly flexible, and deliver a lot of low-end resonance whether I strum aggressively or put on a capo and play gently. I use a Martin Thinline Gold+Plus pickup system onstage. I’ll occasionally run through a Marshall Bluesbreaker 2x12 combo, but usually it’s the pickup sound through a direct box.

What is unique about working with Rick Rubin?

Scott: Rick speaks in terms of feeling when it comes to tone. He doesn’t necessarily equate the cost of an instrument with its quality. He’s only interested if a particular banjo suits a particular song. If not, we adjust. His approach to recording is very flexible.

Seth: Rick is good about delegating, and we follow his lead. We work with a brilliant engineer named Dana Nielsen, and he’s the microphone ace. He keeps the technical questions off of our plate while we’re trying to stay connected to the emotional concepts of the songs.

Would you agree that the acoustic guitar and banjo interplay on “I Wish I Was” represents your musical approach?

Seth: Yeah, it’s just us embracing who we are. It sounds pretty much as if Scott and I were sitting down in a room with a guitar and a banjo and playing the song for the first time. We went completely the other direction on a Target exclusive version of the CD—it almost sounds like a disco song with a very driving beat.

“Fisher Road to Hollywood” is based on a fingerpicked acoustic- guitar progression that sounds like it’s in an altered tuning with a capo. How do you play it?

Seth: It’s in dropped D tuning, and the capo is at the fifth fret. It’s a very simple song. You can discover a lot of good one- and two-figure chord configurations if you start playing around and embrace the ringing open strings.

Is that Joe Kwon bowing the cello on the solo section?

Scott That’s correct. When Joe came along in that register, he did a good job of balancing what Seth and I were doing on the guitar and banjo. Seth and I have always longed for a cello in our music, because it’s such a dramatic instrument. Tom T. Hall and Roger Miller are examples of country artists who used cello in their recordings to great effect. We also love the fiddle—it’s such a great tool not only for leads, but also adding character within a song. Bob plays fiddle very well, and Tania is a virtuoso.

“Satan Pulls the Strings” includes all sorts of crazy ideas, from drum loops to synth motifs and a funk bass. How did it develop?

Scott: The concept started from a painful experience with postpartum depression. It’s essentially a fiddle tune, but it was written on the banjo with a simple melody. While we were exploring and recording demos for the album, we presented it as a straight-up banjo/acoustic guitar/standup bass tune rooted in an old-time style. Eventually, it took on more of a bombastic country feel that the whole band enjoyed performing live. We actually recorded a great country-bluegrass version. Man, it’s charged!

When we talked about remixes, however, our engineer felt that “Satan Pulls the Strings” could fall into a hip-hip dance beat with an electronic-music sound. I found it super interesting that this old-time rhythm you could buckdance to fit right into this essentially urban approach. That says something about the similarities between old-time music and modern dance music, and it is very revealing about how inclusive music is on all levels. I was excited about the opportunity to explore that. It blew my mind over and over in a great way, and I felt dangerously proud.

You killed “Satan Pulls the Strings” on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon, but I saw mixed reactions online. Some appreciated your expansion of Americana boundaries, and others thought the devil made you do it!

Scott: Going back to John Hartford, there’s no doubt he took heat for what he did. And if you go back to The Dillards, man, they’d put psychedelic rock and bluegrass straight off The Andy Griffith Show on the same album. Those artists were interested in progressing, developing, growing, and learning. Now, I want to represent a tradition I admire and love. I am very nostalgic, and I love trying to work within the boundaries of history. However, Seth and I are just too curious to stay put. We want to explore, and we want to find out what will happen if we change the scene.