Catching up with Scott Avett

Published 12:00 am Monday, October 15, 2012

by Katie Scarvey
Everywhere you turn these days, it seems the Avett Brothers are there. With their most recent album ‘The Carpenter’ debuting at number two on iTunes, the band’s gotten attention from Entertainment Weekly, Vanity Fair, NPR. They’ve performed at Bonnaroo and the Grammys and appeared on the big late-night talk shows and even been featured in a cool Gap ad – or at least Scott and Seth have.
Salisbury folks are particularly interested in the collaboration between the Avett Brothers and Cheerwine. The band is performing for the Cheerwine Legendary Giveback next Friday in Charlottesville, Va. The Salisbury-based soft drink company, unabashedly Southern but steadily expanding its influence, and the Concord-based Avett Brothers – another local favorite that has sought and found converts on a much larger stage – are a great match. And that deep voice in those Cheerwine ads? Yes, that honeysuckle drawl is Scott’s.
Scott Avett has always been very generous with the Salisbury Post, and we’re grateful that he still makes time to chat with us.
As the band has matured, they’ve gone through some sobering experiences. Last year, bass player Bob Crawford got the devastating news that his young daughter Hallie had a brain tumor.
I got a phone call from Scott Avett around that time. In that mysterious way small towns work, he’d heard, via Sarah Hall, that I had a daughter who had been down that path, and he wanted to do something constructive, including gathering potentially useful information.
While I couldn’t offer much except reassurance that happy endings were possible, I was later able to relay the advice of an acquaintance – a physician and the mother of a child with a brain tumor – who has amassed an invaluable storehouse of knowledge about pediatric brain tumor treatment centers around the country. She also has an immense heart for helping parents (including me) get through the most stressful of times. She pointed the Crawfords in the direction of St. Jude Children’s Hospital, where they in fact ended up.
Talking to Scott this time, it was wonderful to explore lighter topics.
Scott sings one song about 10,000 words that “swarm around my head” and “ten million more in books written beneath my bed.”
You never know what words you’re going to get from Scott, but even if he’s literally phoning it in (he was on the road when this interview was conducted), he’s never…..well, phoning it in. Here’s an excerpt from our conversation.
KS: Scott Avett! Are you all talked out?
SA: No, it takes a lot for me to be talked out.
KS: “The Carpenter” is wonderful. I have a head full of it right now. I was drawn in right away to “A Father’s First Spring,” that line: “The realest thing I ever felt / Was the blood on the floor and the love in your yell/ I was a child before/ the day that I met Eleanor.” You’ve mentioned that the sentiments were very much of a time, of a season in your life. How have your feelings about being a father evolved?
SA: Of course I have another child now (Max), so the claim (in the song) that there’s nothing left…you have to take that back! (laughs)
KS: Yes, that line about the heart being “ruined for the rest of all time” is such a hyperbolic statement but new parents totally understand that, that obsession.
SA : I just trashed everything after having our daughter and our son. I’m still climbing out of the hole. I distanced myself and became very absent in the world of the Avett Brothers, certainly for the first six months (of Max’s life).
Once people are hearing (a song like ‘A Father’s First Spring) those moments of lightening and inspiration are long past; now we’re representing our history.
KS: For a while a Youtube video of you playing a hymn on the piano and Eleanor getting really bent out of shape about it was popping up a lot on Facebook.
SA: She wanted to play the iPad.
KS: How does she feel about being mentioned by name in that song?
SA: She likes the faster songs, like”Live and Die” with its catchy nature. She’ll sing the faster ones, like “Slight Figure of Speech.”
(With ‘A Father’s First Spring’) she does this little sentimental face where she closes her eyes and shakes her head: ‘I understand, Daddy.’ It might be later when that song gets to her.
KS: Someday it will.
“Live and Die” is such a great song and I have to say I am so high on the rhymes in that one: “Live like a pharaoh, sing like a sparrow….bloom like roses, lead like Moses….”When you come up with lines like that, is it just, “oh bam, there it is”….or is it more laborious than that?
SA: Those rhymes to me…they are obvious like a flower would grow. You don’t walk by an azalea bush- there’s one outside right now – and say, that’s so brilliant and beautiful. They are vibrant and brilliant, but they’re natural and obvious and fall in place just like the should. The songs dictate themselves….
(A song) should grow like a tree grows. When you start putting elements out there, you might say, “That tree doesn’t grow that tall; it’s not right.” I bet we miss sometimes. There are more ways than one a song can go, just as there are more ways than one a tree can grow.
There’s this essay you should read. It’s called “The Two Paths” by John Ruskin. It’s basically making the case for interpretation of nature, not imitation. And art for art’s sake is the root of all things bad.
KS: Speaking of art, I heard that the Center for Faith & the Arts got tons of requests from around the country for copies of the “Muse and Spirit” you wrote an essay for. (Avett spoke at the Center for Faith & the Arts Fall Colloquy in 2010, and his paintings were on display at EastSquare Artworks in Salisbury.)
SA: That was a big learning experience for me. I did a talk last year (in Charlotte) for a similar foundation. I used a lot of what I learned in the talk in Salisbury. I’m kind of over the idea of explaining art. It feels like such a privileged person’s opportunity. I’ve decided I’d show my art but not talk philosophically about it. What do I know philosophically? (laughs) It’s pointless. (The talk in Salisbury) revealed that I had a lot of questions. It was revealed to me, and to the audience.
Right now I’m in the art-making process.
KS: So you’re finding time to make art?
SA: as soon as I get off the phone, I will be doing some. This fall I’ve got some triggers I’m ready to pull on different projects- one painting, several printing. I do have to put it away for parts of the year.
KS: Right now, it would seem to an outsider that the Avett Brothers are in a really good place right now, with so many great things happening. Are you able to just enjoy that right now?
SA: I’m just focused on the work right now. But there are little moments, like two nights ago in New York City. We finished a really exciting show. As soon as that was done we were in the van going to New Jersey and our bus. You could just see the whole city from the bus, the whole profile of the city. It’s nice to take the moment, that nice moment that is real and hopefully deserved. And then, it’s OK, we need to get to bed, get home, take care of the kids….Sarah’s got a massage appointment, she’s working hard as a mom and needs a break, I’ve got to take Eleanor to ballet.
KS: Can you tell me a little bit about the Cheerwine connection?
SA: It started with the narration I did for those commercials. When I went to (college) for art I got sidetracked with radio broadcasting, and an opportunity to do voiceover work is really appealing for me. With Cheerwine, you couldn’t imagine a better big business plan. To do that with them was really a great opportunity. We realized there were similar philosophies. We’ve both grown but tried to maintain camaraderie with who we are and our neighbors.
KS: North Carolina fans are pretty psyched about the New Year’s Eve performance. Is Greensboro a favorite venue?
SA: Since we started Greensboro has shown its true colors. It’s reminiscent of places like Portland or little parts of San Francisco. Music and art thrive so well in those pockets, Greensboro, Winston-Salem….Salisbury has a little spillover. It’s something Concord could take some notes on.
Since we started performing, making our work available, Greensboro was just a thriving source of championing what we do.
KS: Paleface (the band and the person) is a part of the music scene around here and I know he’s a friend of yours. We were lucky to have him perform recently in Salisbury, and he’s coming back soon. I was blown away.
SA: Paleface…he’s very special. The guy I know- I have no doubt that the whole world should know him. He’s really brilliant.
KS: What other North Carolina bands are catching your attention?
SA: A band that’s been persistent, one I’m not that familiar with musically yet that is gaining momentum is Holy Ghost Tent Revival.
KS: I have heard them in Salisbury. They are really fantastic.
SA: What I have seen was really terrific. In a world where things could happen really fast, I think those guys, as young as they are, have put in a lot of time and are making enough noise…
KS: So how was your experience at the Grammys?
SA: Ken, the producer, came to us and said, ‘I think you’re going to get nominated. I want to set up this show with you, Mumford and Sons and a big name, we’re not sure who that will be yet but we have somebody in mind. Of course that was Bob Dylan.
Well, we didn’t get nominated. Ken said, that’s not right; we still want you to play. I was like, really, seriously? Does that make any sense? That was terrific…He was so generous.
KS: I love that you and Seth are part of the new Gap ad campaign. I was kind of surprised that some of your fans were sort of uncharitable about that.
SA: Dolph (Ramseur, the band’s manager) told me that 90 percent (of reaction) was positive, 10 percent not so nice. I am just thankful for the brilliant angles that people have on what we do. The amount of things we’ve turned down that nobody will ever know….. It doesn’t bother me. It’s OK for people to express their opinions.
KS: What is life like these days?
SA: I view myself first and foremost, beyond my personal life, as an artist. And I have to say that the longer I go without creating the much more unpleasant I become. I try so hard not to let that happen. I’m extremely unhappy when I’m not creating. I have to take control of those moments where I can work. It takes a lot of discipline. It’s harder than it’s ever been.
I remember when Sarah and I got married and we lived in the mountains. She worked night shifts (as a nurse) at the hospital, and I’d work at night. I’d work for 10 or 12 hours and then sometimes I’d play video games for 3 hours, just fry my brain as a reward.
KS: I guess that would never happen anymore, right?
SA: Unimaginable.
KS: Will we ever find Scott Avett on Twitter?
SA: I kind of think maybe I should be on Twitter…Are you on Twitter?
KS: Yes, but people would actually follow you. You should do it!
SA: My only reservation is the time it takes to do it. I’ve been digging out of a hole, returning to a lot of things over the past year. Maybe I will.
KS: Can I take credit for it if you go on Twitter?
SA: Absolutely.