The Avett Brothers return to the road this week for a string of dates that will see the band land in Macon on April 2nd. Scott Avett took some time to talk to Sound and Soul about the artist’s role in society, his enthusiasm behind the board for Clem Snide’s forthcoming effort, and what it takes to shift gears from painter to performer…
AI- Closer Than Together… That album continues your long-running association with Rick Rubin. How has that dynamic changed for you and the band and Rick over the course of I think five albums? Is that right?
SA- Yeah, it sure is. Five albums since… Let’s see, I guess we met Rick in 2007, 2008. So I guess 12 years working with somebody, our friendship has mostly been the core of our working relationship– which I don’t know that you anticipate when you start working with somebody, especially somebody that’s a legend like Rick is. He’s done such deep work with so many people that actually inspired and influenced us as literally children. But really, it’s evolved mostly in just a bond as friends and fellow humans that want to create beauty while we’re here on earth.
You hit a lot of proverbial nails right on the head with that album. “We Americans”, “Bang Bang”, “New Woman” are just a few selections where you explore a lot of the big topics and discussions in the United States right now. I want to mention that Jason Isbell just released a new track, “Be Afraid”, and it’s kinda rejuvenated the debate on what an artist’s role is in society. How do you feel when you put songs out like that? Is it the responsibility of the artist to bring all of it to light?
If you identify yourself or if the world identifies you as an artist– by that I would say you make it your business to try to mimic beauty or make beauty and in this regard, making songs– we accepted that obligation early on. We realized that what we’re on the planet to do is to make art and music. So with that, I think our obligation is to be ourselves. Just like if you’re a carpenter or an architect or a doctor, whatever you may do, I personally believe that it’s the number one priority to be you while you’re doing it. And what we try to do as a group, as a unit, is represent who we are, what we are, where we are… I don’t think that it’s an artist’s job necessarily to tell others what to do. That’s more like propaganda. But it is our job to share our story with people. What we try to do, namely, is just share, reflect on what our story is. And that’s all it is– just our example of ourselves, what we go through, our view, our perspective of our little space that we occupy in America. Looking at that as part of this unit, we’re all in if we were born… Well, not necessarily if we were just born [but] if we identify as people who live in the United States, it’s something that we all share. Whether you like it or not, it’s unifying reality.
You also have a tremendous other career as a painter, and I believe your Invisible show just finished up at the North Carolina Museum of Art. Was that the first formal art exhibition of your work?
Not the first formal exhibition, the first museum show ever… You know, you could say it was my first formal solo show? I guess you could say that ’cause leadin’ up, I would organize, with the help of others, my own shows. I wouldn’t really rely on other people as much as I did in regard to this show. So I guess you could say that. And it is a career, I’m not correcting anything, but it’s just like the songs… I just think it’s what I’m called to do– to create things, to make things, and explore wherever that takes me. It’s my duty. That’s my job here on earth.
With painting versus writing, does that all come from the same place or do you tap into something different?
Thankfully so, it’s a mystery where all that stuff comes from. If something comes as an idea in a melody, I certainly don’t see it as a painting or hear it as a painting. And if I’m seeing something or envisioning something in my brain or in my heart for a painting, that’s what it is. It’s a painting or it’s a print or it’s a sculpture or whatever. However, where it starts is obviously something spiritual and something mystical. I think it’s all a privilege and a gift from something that just remains unknown to all of us. I just try to be open to it and try to act on it when it’s pressing enough on me.
What’s coming next for you as a painter or a visual artist?
Well, I wrapped up that show at the North Carolina Museum of Art, and now I have a show up in Charlotte at the SOCO Gallery, and that’s called In the Light of Unlearning. That show will wrap up March 6th and at that point, which I’m in now, I think is the time where I’ve been painting in the studio when it’s right– and I go back on tour this week. Right now, I’m preparing to be an Avett Brother again (laughs). I’m kind of pacing around my house playin’ songs and remembering that, “Oh yeah, I do this as well!” I’ve been very much involved in the visual art for some months now– but I transition, you know?
Is it like that? Do you have to flip a switch to go back and forth?
I really do. I didn’t acknowledge that before and sometimes I would find myself on stage still in my studio mode, which is a very solitary mode. And it would trip me up, you know? Like literally I would be in a daze sort of. I’ve changed my acknowledgment of that into a preparation of goin’ on a trip for a long time. You go on a journey and as you get back and you walk into the house and see everybody that you left behind all at once and they bombard you with questions and news, it can be mind-boggling and confusing. So I try to prepare for that. If I’m returning from a journey, I may try and take a few laps around the building before I walk in– just to remember, “Oh yeah, this is where I’m at. That’s a good thing. It’s where I’m supposed to be. Now step in and do your thing!”
Well, speaking of journeys, you also recently took a journey with your friends, Clem Snide on their new album [Forever Just Beyond]. You’re the producer of note. What put that together? ‘Cause it’s been a while since those boys have put out a new album. How did you get involved?
I was listening to some Pandora station… I can’t remember what it was. It might’ve been a Jason Molina [station]? It was going deep and it was relatively obscure and the Clem Snide songs kept popping up. It was just like anything, I took note of it. I tend to focus on something and just go headfirst into it, so I just geeked out on Clem Snide’s entire catalog and then Eef Barzelay’s solo records– and I just became an all-in superfan. In the process of that, I covered one of their songs and in the process of that, Eef Barzelay– who ultimately is Clem Snide at this point– reached out to me and I returned the message… And next thing I knew, we were writing songs via email!
We’d never met in person and before we ever met in person, we had five or six songs developing. He said, “Man, I would love to help bring this to life if you were willin’,” and we’ve had a blast makin’ [the record]! I hope they’ll be more to come. I identify and relate to Eef’s music so close and so directly. I feel like I’m part of it. I feel like it’s… “Mine” is a silly way to put it, but I feel like it’s mine just like it’s his, and I don’t mean it in a possessive way. I feel like I’m part of it, that should be how it’s said. It was a very natural education in his work and a natural introduction. In our world and in our business, we’ll get invited to do certain things every now and again. Sometimes it doesn’t feel natural really. It feels maybe more commerce-based. This was pure fandom, pure love of something, and feeling connected to it, and the door was open to go and be part of it more directly. That’s what happened. So I knew that it was right. I’m very excited about it coming out, and I’ve got some shows to play with Eef and Clem Snide. I’ll be in Clem Snide for a couple, three days in April up north and hopefully other parts of the country in the future.
How do you approach making a record from the producer’s chair versus the performer?
I did perform on this record as well, but as far as producer, just being another opinion or another observer in the studio. I’ve learned workin’ with Rick that it’s just invaluable. It’s so good to have someone that’s willing to say, “Yes, you’re right, we should go with this.” And I know as an artist, it’s very easy to get distracted at any moment because there is no end to good ideas and there’s no end to the next idea and a song can be done correctly in infinite ways. There could be 50 versions of the same song that are masterpieces, and staying focused on one delivery can be very difficult. When you have someone to guide you and help you see through it, it’s super helpful. I think as producer, my job is just to be in there and be present with Eef and keep focused. And Eef and I are both extremely guilty of loving distraction (laughs)! In fact, distraction is not a word in our vocabulary, it’s all data! I heard that from Richard Rohr once– there is no distraction, it’s just data! I love that! However, if you open yourself to that completely, you never follow through. So I made that part of the job, I think Eef would agree. But also just partnering with Eef to help him with his songs ’cause ultimately it’s his record.
Did I see that the Avett Brothers are in fact going back into the studio this spring to work on a new project?
We sure are. It’s really just a matter of the stream of creating and making songs for Seth and I is constant. It’s sooner for us to go than normal into the studio, we’re much less prepared than we normally are when we go in– but we know that it’s time. I don’t know why we know that, but we’re just eager to remain in that stream of songs. I think people should keep their eyes open but no further details than this– we plan to at least have another release this year if all goes well.