“We feel really lucky to get it out there. We wish we could do it even more,” Scott Avett says of his band’s upcoming record, Magpie and the Dandelion. Having just wrapped up soundcheck, the Avett Brothers are sitting in a dark booth at the Manderley Bar at the McKittrick Hotel in Manhattan, resting for a short bit before their performance, a live taping for PBS, later that night.
The group feel lucky indeed: It has hardly been a year since the band’s most recent record, The Carpenter, was released, but the Avett Brothers are already thinking ahead, eager and excited to talk about their newest collection of songs. Before their performance at the McKittrick Hotel, Seth and Scott Avett, alongside bassist Bob Crawford, discussed the group’s new record, their home state of North Carolina and the sudden popularity of banjos.
These songs came together while you guys were recording The Carpenter. Does this record feel like a sequel of sorts?
Scott Avett: A little bit. Each following record is sort of a sequel to the last one. This one may have a little more tie to The Carpenter, as much connection as Blood on the Tracks and Desire would have. It lives on its own, it needs to be titled differently, it needs to look different, but it certainly is that next step.
What feels most different about this record?
Seth Avett: The Carpenter feels like a lantern and Magpie . . . feels like a bunch of fireworks. With The Carpenter there’s a consistent sort of maturity and arc, and with Magpie – Scott made this phrase up about “young wonderment,” and there is some sort of sparkly-eyed wonderment to Magpie, where there are these young sentiments and you’re surprised by different lessons. Whereas The Carpenter feels like you already know, a sort of . . .
Seth: Yeah, reflecting, and you already know what’s happening, and you’re sort of pontificating and speaking on it, whereas Magpie feels more like things are happening and you’re reacting in the moment.
I love the verse on “Good to You” about the wedding that you can’t attend.
Bob Crawford: Most guys on the road, whether you’re a rock star or you’re just traveling a lot for work, you’re going to be in that situation. You have a wife or a girlfriend or a family, and you can’t make it. You just can’t make it.
Scott: The funny thing is that we started to write that song in 2005.
Bob: We’ve missed a lot of weddings.
Seth: On The Carpenter, the idea of wanting to be good to you would be more of a given. Whereas on the song “Good to You,” it’s a revelation.
Scott: “Morning Song” is basically talking about admitting that maybe you just don’t really give a shit after all. These songs are less predictable. It’s not that risqué, necessarily, but maybe on a subtle level it’s actually darker and more dangerous.
Bob: At first when I saw the wonderment quote, I was like “young youth and wonderment”? This is the heaviest thing we’ve ever done. It’s dark, it’s edgy, it’s a little more middle-aged, it’s anxious and it’s unresolved. A lot of what we do is autobiographical, but for some reason when I hear “Skin and Bones,” I hear the story of the Avett Brothers.
In some ways the album feels like a commentary on how hard that can be – trying to embrace subtleties in songwriting while dealing with all the success you’ve had in the last few years.
Scott: We were once told by a writer that as soon as you start writing about the music business, it’s over. That’s when it’s over. But it’s kind of like, look, well, you live it, and what’s different about the music business than a lot of other businesses? We’ve also learned the power in simplicity. There’s no question that “Oceanfront Property” by George Strait says way more than you would think if you just count the words in the song.
Seth: We’ve always written about our lives, and now this is part of our lives. We believe there are artistic, poetic and legitimate ways of talking about that world: glamour, fashion, being on a pedestal. There is a lot of loneliness in it, and there are a lot of relatable sentiments.
Your band has always surrounded itself with a close group of friends, artists and support acts. How important is that sense of community?
Bob: I think it always was important. I remember us just driving around the first couple of years and Scott saying “Man, it’d be great if we just had a bunch of friends and we could all just drive around together and play music.” That Bob Dylan-Rolling Thunder Revue kind of attitude.
Scott: It was always important that it was sincere. We were allowed a lot of years early on under the radar where we could make all of these sincere friendships. The night we met Paleface, Regina Spektor, Langhorne Slim and Nicole Atkins, we were all in a small room in New York City, and I was like, “This right here, we should take this on the road, and it will be the next coming of that whole scene.” It never happened, but all of us are in very interesting places now, and we do all care for each other quite a bit.
You mentioned George Strait earlier. Are there any current country artists that you guys are into?
Seth: We’re friends with Old Crow Medicine Show. They’re in Nashville. They’re an animal of their own. They’re friends, and we’re always interested in what they’re doing.
Scott: Shovels and Rope – her voice is straight-up country. There’s so much history in that voice. I think writing is the trick there, because there are things that certainly turn me on about someone like Josh Turner’s sound.
What are your thoughts on the whole world of commercial Americana that’s emerged in the last few years?
Scott: At the end of the day, it’s terrific. The changing form of somewhere between rock and country and folk is really beautiful, and it’s been happening way longer than us or Mumford & Sons. It might be a perfect storm right now, with what’s happened with pop culture and the economy, even in the way people eat and live their lives – the back-to-the-earth sort of thing.
Seth: We’ve noticed that banjos aren’t laughed at as much as they were when we started. When we started, we’d go into a bar and play and people would laugh at us because we had banjos. They thought we were hillbillies. The idea of seeing people with banjos in Rolling Stone was laughable. It was unfathomable.
Scott: In the end, none of the textures of it will really matter that much. It will really just come down to what it always comes down to, which is quality of songwriting.
Your home state of North Carolina has been in the news a lot recently. Does that affect you guys at all as a band?
Scott: It’s interesting, because it’s not a North Carolina that we know. I’m a big believer in the New South, and the South that I know is an extremely giving, compassionate and beautiful place. The polarization doesn’t really make a lot of sense to me.
Seth: It’s a good bit more even-keeled than it seems like when presented in the media.
Bob: We have a lot of conservative fans, and a lot of Tea Party-leaning fans, and we have a lot of liberal fans, and this is a really special place for us to be in, because we’re a safe zone from all the partisan bickering. We’ve been asked to get involved in some of these things in North Carolina, but we can’t. We don’t want to. We’d rather bring everybody in.
Seth: We’re not in the business of alienation. That’s not our calling.
Would you say the polarization of the state is to some degree a media creation?
Bob: It’s hard to downplay what has happened there, because I go out with friends to dinner and they’re teachers, and there is a reality to some of these things that are going on. However, our role in it as a band is to be motivators and cheerleaders and just do what we do and welcome all who like what we do. It’s important to not act like we know something that we don’t know. And sometimes we’re asked by people to act like we know something that we don’t know.
Seth: Our role, at least at this juncture, is to provide a place for celebration, and a place where hopefully there’s some love.