When the Avett Brothers met up with producer Rick Rubin to discuss what would become their ninth album, True Sadness – out June 24th – he proposed something unique. The man whose illustrious career has led to creative reinventions for Johnny Cash, Slayer and Dixie Chicks, among dozens of others, said, “What do you guys think about starting songs with a beat, like a remix, instead of doing a band recording?”
The Avetts, who have collaborated with Rubin on their previous three LPs, decided it was worth a shot. “We trust Rick,” Scott Avett tells Rolling Stone. “Not only as a producer but as a friend.”
With Rubin’s guidance, Scott and his bandmates, Seth Avett and Bob Crawford, embarked on a unique musical journey that found the group making sparse demos, re-recording them as lush full-band versions – sometimes with orchestral instruments – and then refiguring them even further. They worked in studios in different cities (Malibu, California; Kernersville, North Carolina; New York City) and variously built up each of the songs in a variety of configurations. Ultimately, they came up with about 20 songs that they could consider.
“We ended up with about three versions of each song,” Scott says. “Then we dissected and tried to identify which song sounded the most appropriate with what approach. We took the ones we thought would sound better remixed to Mitch Easter’s studio in North Carolina. And then we recorded on top of those remixes. We had a lot to pick from and pine over and think about when it came to sequencing. It was a long, exciting, very educational process.”
So at what point did they just tell Rubin the whole idea was crazy? “I think some of the other band members were like, ‘What is going on here?'” Scott says with a laugh. Nevertheless, they remained committed to the concept throughout. “It was really evident once we did some of the remixes that we were onto something really exciting. The songs weren’t too far off from what we normally make anyway. If a song is written well, it can be interpreted in any genre.”
After auditioning myriad configurations of the songs, they arrived at True Sadness‘ 12 catchy, diverse tracks, which reflect the group’s unusual approaches to songwriting. The album spans big-beat pop (“Ain’t No Man”), sparse Americana (“I Wish I Was”) and lush, cinematic drama (“May It Last”). Overall, it’s an unusual and unpredictable expansion of the folk and bluegrass music they started with.
When Rolling Stone asks Scott whether or not he’s worried fans might not be able to accept the breadth of the music on the album, he scoffs and draws an unusual parallel to another artist known for stylistic shifts. “I’m a massive fan of Mike Patton,” he says, referring to the Faith No More singer who also fronts uncountable experimental rock groups. “I would never say that I love everything he does, but I’m always with him on it.
“I think our fans will be fine with the experiments,” he continues. “From the beginning with this band, there have been good and bad responses. I think the people that are in there with us are willing to stick with us.”