When the Avett Brothers convened with Rick Rubin a couple years back to create their ninth studio album, the producer presented them with a novel idea. Rubin, who worked on their last three LPs as well as mega-sellers for Red Hot Chili Peppers, Johnny Cash and Dixie Chicks, asked the Americana group to make demos of their songs, remix them and try recording the remixes.
They had hits and misses with the process but ultimately arrived at an album that blended folk, pop, cinematic orchestrations and even EDM for what became True Sadness. From the heavy beat of lead single "Ain't No Man" to the lush symphonics of closing track "May It Last," the LP is the group's most varied and one of its most emotional listens, thanks to lyrics that cull from the lives of brothers Scott and Seth Avett and bassist Bob Crawford.
When Rolling Stone asked Scott earlier this year if he felt the band's diehard fans would stick along for the ride, he said he never doubted their loyalty. "From the beginning with this band, there have been good and bad responses," he said. "I think the people that are in there with us are willing to stick with us." Here, he goes deeper on how he and his bandmates arrived at True Sadness.
What do the words "true sadness" mean to you?
For me, personally, the title ties into the cover. Astronauts with a horse obviously have no chance in outer space, and symbolically, we have no chance at whatever is to come [laughs]. "True sadness" is a statement about how pitiful it is. But it's not meant to be completely grim; it's just poking fun at how ill-equipped we are, hanging onto memories and the past. It's truly sad.
The cover also reminds me of Give 'Em Enough Rope.
The Clash's second record.
Oh, right. The funny thing is, we discovered the Clash album after we finished our art. It's uncanny. I made our cover by hand with our photographer, Crackerfarm. When we were done, he sent me an image of the Clash album. If I had seen it, I certainly wouldn't have made what I made. But when I did, I thought it was awesome. Maybe it's coincidence. Maybe it's fate. Maybe it means something. But I think it's great that they're so similar, since I never saw it.
Let's get back to sadness. Since many of the songs on the album flirt with dark themes, what's changed in your and your bandmates' lives since your last record, Magpie and the Dandelion?
This is our first record since Bob's family dealt with his two-year-old daughter's cancer. The journey has been one of despair as well as hope. And my brother went through a divorce, which taught us a lot about the poison of media. It doesn't take a lot to feel the pain from it. But with growing older, we're definitely not hopeless. We channel it all through music, so we can dispose of the darker and more despairing thoughts. I hope it's all redeeming.
Did you ever second-guess writing songs about your personal trials?
I certainly don't, and I don't think Seth does. We made something that was true to ourselves and what we stand for. I'm a true believer in living life like an open book. I tell my kids all the time, "The more secrets you got, the unhappier you are."
"We'll play a barn burner of a show and Bob and I will stay up for two or three hours just talking about Blaise Pascal or Tolstoy writings."
Spirituality plays a major role in some of your songs. How much do you talk about it within the band?
Constantly. Constantly. Constantly. We talk about spirituality, politics, sports – but mostly politics and spirituality. Seth is always laughing about how we'll play a barn burner of a show and Bob and I will stay up for two or three hours just talking about Blaise Pascal or Tolstoy writings. It goes a lot of places.
Rick Rubin asked you to make a bunch of remixes of your demos so you could build them out. Did that ever backfire?
"Ain't No Man" never got any better. The remix process took it down from where it was. We were just talking about a kick drum and claps, and ultimately Rick, the entire band and all of us did the claps together in the pool room of the studio. It was just a good time. A funny thing about that song is it was probably written sometime between 2004 or 2006.
How did it end up on this record?
I remember coming up with that while walking one of my dogs through the hayfields my father has for his cows and making a recording of that. When we were doing our demos, I was looking at ideas I had, just reading titles, and I remembered that one. The next morning, I woke up with the bass run and was mouthing it. Seth just grabbed it, and we just build it from there.