The Avett Brothers started as an acoustic post-show hootenanny, cobbled together by brothers Seth and Scott Avett. At first, the gig trickled down from the band's rock group, Nemo, after the duo decided to strip Nemo's punk aesthetic to its core: banjo and guitar. But rich harmonies and old-fashioned bluegrass style found vibrant expression in the band's live performances. When Nemo broke up, Seth and Scott Avett auditioned stand-up bassist Bob Crawford in 2001 in a Best Buy parking lot, and thus the Avett Brothers were born.
Word of mouth about the group's live shows and poignant, rustic albums spread, eventually attracting the attention of legendary producer Rick Rubin, who handled the knobs on the band's 2009 major-label debut, the sterling I and Love and You. We spoke with Crawford about Rubin, new members and the band's sudden head-swiveling success as he and the group drove to Park City, Utah.
The Pitch: What was working with Rick Rubin like?
Bob Crawford: A lot of the intensity was, for us, on a musical level. We aren't used to playing a song 50 times in a row. These songs are lyrically driven, and this music is how we present these words — so, yeah, it may be ramshackle. When we got in the studio with Rick, we had to listen to what we do. Even tempo, steady, in tune, and playing as a band — the kind of rudimentary stuff that took us almost a decade to get to.
Is that because you started as a string band with no steady drummer for a long time?
The banjo and the guitar dictated what was going on with the high-hat or the kick drum. And if there was the broken string or lyrical improvisation or musical improvisation, or how the whole thing would break down — a lot of that was sort of what we trained ourselves in. I think this experience of recording I and Love and You is going to be where we turned a corner and just moved into another phase.
Is the song "I and Love and You" a love note to your audience?
Seth may have said that, but I have a different opinion. And that's fine. I also am a big believer in a personal interpretation of a song, and that's why people love songs. You apply it to something in your life, and you can personally carry it with you as something that you can ruminate on.
How have the additions of cellist Joe Kwon and drummer Jacob Edwards affected things?
Scott and Seth — they're brothers, they trust each other, and at some point along the way they've instilled in me a great deal of trust. We'll just look at each other during a set, and there's this little grin or something. We've shared personal and professional triumphs and tragedies. It's really gratifying to have a relationship like that and to have had this decadelong journey. He [Kwon] is really a part of the fabric. And adding Jacob now — it feels very powerful onstage.
Is it surreal to go from being barely able to draw a crowd to playing stadiums?
A lot of our journey has been slow, so that alleviates some of the awe of it all — all the oh, my God! Because if you happen overnight, you will almost panic when you realize how many people are out there. We're very comfortable on the stage because we've been doing it for 10 years. So it's a very natural habitat.