In the year since releasing its major-label debut, I and Love and You, the Avett Brothers has had more time off than ever before. Of course, for this hard-traveling band, "time off" means playing 90 shows in a year instead of 200. And for an act that's recorded an album a year for the past ten years, it must feel downright leisurely to not record new music until January 2011. The Rick Rubin-produced You features more piano-driven rock songs and fewer moments of kick-stomping bluegrass-punk. Still, the Avetts' reputation for fantastic live shows — thanks to onstage energy, ingenuity with traditional instruments and depth of the down-to-earth lyrics — has only increased its fan base. B-Sides spoke with bassist and band — if not blood — brother Bob Crawford, who was humble and funny and assured us that the Avett Brothers are still snapping plenty of strings.
Katie Moulton: Where are you guys right now?
Bob Crawford: I'm in Las Vegas. Which is someplace I've never been, never wanted to go, never imagined I'd be, but I'm really happy to be here now that I'm here. I see a Target in the distance and Kohl's, so I kind of feel at home. We got the Bass Pro outlet here at the casino.
You recorded your major label debut, I and Love and You, with Rick Rubin, which drew a huge amount of buzz. Do you have plans to work with him again?
I don't know ultimately what his role will be, but we're definitely in communication with him. He's a really good silent partner.
Is that his style when you're actually recording?
Yeah, pretty much. He takes a lot of notes and points things out and then suggests trying. He's always about trying things, and that's really been good for us — to have the patience to try things and take time and work on one little thing [that can] make everything else just a lot better.
Speaking of "I and Love and You," I read that the song was actually about the growing distance between the band and its fans. You guys have always had a really strong bond with your fans — is that still true?
It's just the difference between playing a show and having 50 people there and talking to every person there after the show and spending time with them and getting to know them personally like we used to — [and the fact that] when there's 2,000 people there, it becomes impossible to do that. It's not a self-imposed distance, it's a practical distance. We're trying to set things up that can make up for that. It's just an inevitable thing, and it's an honest thing, and we're doing what we can to mitigate that.
Are the live shows as spontaneous as they seem — like everything could break and combust in a second?
Yeah, it really is. That has been a fact of our existence. Strings don't break as often as they used to, and technique has changed — that has helped to mitigate a lot of technical issues. But technical issues still come, and they come nightly, and sometimes they're obvious, and they stop the show, or they slow the show and become an obstacle that we get to work around. That can be really exciting. [Laughs] And sometimes people don't even know — something goes wrong, and we're able to handle it or cover it.
When you've been doing something for ten years, you get good at faking things. Or when it all goes down, something breaks, you're not up there sweating bullets anymore because you've been through it a million times. If Scott [Avett]'s banjo breaks, and Seth [Avett]'s guitar breaks at the same time, well, I'll play something to cover that, a bass line, which I did for years now with Joe [Kwon, cellist]. The guys can sing a line a cappella — you get a bag of tricks, a tool box, and you can dip in there and find the thing to keep the show rolling.
Right, keeps it interesting for everybody.
And there's always the five to ten minutes of comedy routine that Scott and Seth are able to pull out of their...pocket. Back pocket.
Like you said, you've been with the band for ten years. How did you join up with it?
Scott had just graduated from college at Eastern Carolina, and I was going back to college in Winthrop University in Rock Hill, South Carolina, and [the universities] share Charlotte. A guy I was in the guitar program with there said that these brothers were looking for a bluegrass bass player, and I had just gotten an upright bass, so we got together and auditioned, and I knew pretty early on it wasn't really bluegrass, but it was cool and exciting and very raw, it was just a lot of fun to play with them.
So you knew right away that it wasn't exactly bluegrass, but what musical influences were you bringing to the table? What did you grow up listening to?
Well, you know I'm from Jersey, so I liked Springsteen first, punk rock second, classic rock third, alt-rock fourth. But I fell in love with bluegrass music, and that's what brought me down to the South. I went to a bluegrass festival in New Jersey, and then I came down to MerleFest in North Carolina, and I figured that every day North Carolina was probably like MerleFest — which it wasn't, but it was still great. When I met them, it was like, 'This isn't exactly what I imagined, but it's really great, and close,' so I just knew it was something I wanted to be a part of.
How many instruments do you play?
I think the question should be, "How many instruments do you play well?" and the answer would be zero. [Laughs] I play bass, guitar, piano, trumpet and mandolin, with varying degrees of success. I understand music theory to a good extent, where I can apply what I know to eke out a melody on a lot of things. I'm no different than a lot of musicians — once you understand certain concepts, then you develop a melodic intuition, you understand chords and scales. I do feel more comfortable on a string instrument. I feel more confident. I've been playing the mandolin recently, and I feel really great on it — it's a joy, a relaxation; it's joyful to play. I feel I could spend time with it and get really good at it. But a brass instrument or a woodwind instrument, it's a matter of mastering these physical techniques.
I just love music, and I just appreciate it. I look at it like it's a foreign language. You could study Spanish and then you can say a couple things, and then there are people who immerse themselves in it — they can understand the slang of the language. I think that's the whole thing with music — you can pick up an instrument where you can say a few things, you know, fake your way through, maybe take a trip down there for five days, maybe order yourself a cup of coffee and a beer, something good to eat and maybe get directions to the museum or whatever. Or you can immerse yourself in it and go down there and live awhile and hang out with the locals.
So basically, you speak many dialects of string.
Yes, yes. [Laughs]
What do you think of the appeal your music seems to have across generations? At your last show at the Pageant in June 2009, there were grandparents and parents and little kids up on shoulders.
This is one of the most unique things with what we do, that I have experienced ever — [either] being a fan of music or going to see music. When I was growing up and in high school, a guy would be like, "My dad is taking me to see Bob Dylan tonight," and it was like the father was like, "Son, come see the living legend. Let me connect you to my generation." But never in my life have I seen three or four generations of the same family at a musical performance [like at our shows]. We are fortunate, and I don't know why. I cannot attribute it to anything but luck.
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