The Avett Brothers cautiously get political on new album
Seth Avett admits the idea of making a record that takes a political stand is not one that appealed to him. “The last thing the world needs is another piece of sociopolitical commentary,” the Avett Brothers frontman wrote to fans in July.
“Closer Than Together,” the Avett Brothers’ 10th album, wasn’t intended to be a commentary on the political landscape.
“We did, however, make an album that is obviously informed by what is happening now on a grander scale all around us,” Avett wrote, before coming around to the admission that just maybe “Closer” has some elements of political commentary.
“The Avett Brothers will probably never make a sociopolitical record. But if we did, it might sound something like this,” he said.
Brothers Scott and Seth Avett, bassist Bob Crawford and cellist Joe Kwon, who make up the Americana group, are best known for their poignant melodies and lyrics that evoke their everyday lives. Their newest album — which came out Friday — uses this approach to address topics pulled straight from the headlines.
Three of the songs on “Closer Than Together” could easily be seen as editorials on America: “Bang Bang” pushes back against the normalization of excessive violence in American culture; “New Woman’s World” imagines women recovering a planet wrecked by men; “We Americans” confronts the nation’s ugliest moments in history through song-as-essay.
The Avett Brothers have spent the last 20 years collecting Grammy nominations, touring the world and cultivating a devoted following while refining their sound. “Closer Than Together” is their fifth collaboration with famed music producer Rick Rubin.
CBS News spoke with Seth Avett about “Closer Than Together” and the decisions that went into releasing an album with such strong political overtones. The interview below has been slightly edited and condensed.
Was there anything about this album, the process of making it, that was different from any of the previous nine records?
I mean, everything in a way, you know? I think we’re pretty aware these days anyway and in recent years — all of us being family people with children and whatnot — just how much life has changed since the last one.
I think that’s a universal truth that we’re always becoming new people. But we’re sort of hyper-aware of it, with the chapters changing and the passing of time being informed by the changes in our children and in our responsibilities.
The perspective is different. The work ethic is different. Our levels of patience are different. The material is different. It certainly motivated and inspired some different conversations between Scott and I. And us with Rick [Rubin]. Certainly some new territory with all that.
I wanted to take you back to January 20, 2017: Inauguration Day. You were on “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert” that night. You played George Harrison’s “Give Me Love (Give Me Peace On Earth).” It seems like there’s a lot of overlap in that song with what you’re doing on “Closer Than Together.” What went into the decision-making process to perform that song on that day?
That was a suggestion from Colbert himself. He brought that up to us. Bob [Crawford] was really familiar with the song. I had maybe heard it before, but I didn’t know how to play it or anything. We had to transcribe it, learn how to play it and then learn to play it as a band.
The song selection is always on our shoulders, we always make the decision, it’s always what we feel comfortable with, what we feel good about.
Colbert asked would we play that song and we listened to the song and [we] were like, “Man, absolutely.” Because it’s always a good time for a loving message.
With “True Sadness” you wrote what you called an “open letter” to fans describing the album. This time around you wrote a “mission statement.” Was that a conscious decision, that wording?
Until you just said that, I had no idea they were different. The meaning to both of those is the same to me.
The age of the liner notes has passed. I am one of these vinyl nuts. I’ve been buying vinyl for 25 years. I was the kid going to the flea market with my Dad. I’ve always loved vinyl and I love the experience so, so much. It doesn’t feel elitist or anything to me, it just feels like such a wonderful way to listen to music because I still very much will sit and look at them. Look at the back cover and open it up and look at whatever the artists wrote in there.
I’m just a real sucker for that kind of thing. And we kind of lost that opportunity with streaming and all that. So I feel like a message that gives a heads-up is sort of — I like to think of it as a sign of respect for our fans.
As you say in the mission statement, some of the songs in this album are clearly some kind of sociopolitical, cultural commentary. Three songs have consistently been pointed out: “Women’s World,” “Bang Bang” and “We Americans.” Were any of those inspired by one particular event where you reacted and said, “I have to write this song?”
All three of them came from completely different places. The one that would fit that description would be “Bang Bang.” I saw a [movie] preview that turned my stomach and then the song started happening.
It’s a funny thing because I’ve never been more aware of the way that we hear things and how they’re informed by who we are and what our experience is.
Anaïs Nin, I think she was a philosopher. I read a quote from her that basically said — and I’m paraphrasing — she said we don’t see things the way they are, we see them the way we are. And I’ve never been more aware of that.
And actually to reference another great mind, [comedian] Bill Burr has a moment in his new standup special where he really makes fun of that concept. We can’t help but twist what we hear.
But all that being said, I had an interviewer ask me recently about that song. They were like, “How come you decided to go at the gun issue from that angle?”
And it occurred to me that I didn’t decide that. I didn’t decide to come at it. A song idea just came along like they do just from thinking about something. And there’s a little bit of that mysterious thing that calls to you and then you just go chasing it. And that’s how that song happened. It was just a reaction to a [movie] preview. And then it kind of meanders into a couple of other concepts related to guns. But that song for the most part just came out of having a gut reaction to the nonchalant depictions of murder in our cinema.
How present was any kind of fear or hesitation that being in any way political would alienate people?
With a lot of the songs that I write, before I bring him to the table, before Scott hears them, if they’re in full or an idea — especially if they’re in full — I come to him with a song pretty much fleshed out.
With “We Americans,” the song is certainly more of an essay than it is a song, really. [I] worked on it for a long time, maybe a year of active working on it. Because it does feel heavy with responsibility and heavy with history and heavy with storytelling and all of that.
We talked a lot about what are the reasonable interpretations of these songs? Is there anything in there that is threatening to us in any way? Or is there anything in there that that bothers us? That it might be seen a certain way? I think that we kind of did our due diligence on that.
If you’re being responsible with your sharing, you know what’s sort of senselessly button pushing, and what is just fair game in terms of artistry and in terms of making something and sharing it. And I think we’re within those realms pretty squarely.
Part of that “sharing responsibly” you talk about in “Bang Bang” with your neighbors and their relationship with guns. I read that you had some conversations with your neighbors.
Scott is the one that reached out to them. And then I sort of followed up with them. And really it was just more or less just funny. They just kind of took it with a sense of humor. It’s our concern. We’re talking about it, like, “Oh my God, our neighbors. Would any of them feel slighted about this?”
And then in touching base with them, they’re like, “Oh man, come on, who cares? We’re good.” These are people that we love and are our dear friends. It’s important to us that they know that we respect them. The song is one person’s reaction to something that he doesn’t like.
In “New Woman’s World,” you talk about “grace that’s born in every girl.” What does that mean to you?
With that song on the whole there are a few things informing that. One is an almost kind of a wink and a nod about — you know, it’s silly to think that women don’t have conflict or wouldn’t start wars. There’s no proof of that.
There’s something in it that’s meant to be a little tongue-in-cheek. “Yes, it’s all our fault. I bet y’all could fix this … no problem. It’s not human beings’ fault. It’s men. It’s us.”
But there’s also some sincerity in there, too. That’s why it was a fun song to write. I think of it almost like a sci-fi film or something, the way the song sort of was born in my mind. Like a post-apocalyptic, now the women have the control, God willing, they’ll get us out of the mess, kind of deal.
I have a little boy and school drop-offs and pickups are just so wonderful. They’re so full of life. They’re just so — it’s just an explosion of life and the energy — they’re just so hilarious, all of them.
Seeing the girls, little girls, 3 to 4 years old, just spinning around in the sunlight, seeming like they had a little more control over their balance and their physical athleticism. And then looking at the little boys that are just like falling into the flower beds. They all just have this wonderful view on life and sweetness and such wonderful questions.
But the thing about the “grace in every girl” is just really a comment on one of these days, looking at all these little kids and just noticing that the girls seem to have a little better hold on where they’re spinning.
You’re the father of a boy — how has that affected the way that you see things?
Boys, from what I’ve seen, they are just interested in guns. And war. And Batman beating people up and all that. I don’t think that all of it is horrible. I think that some of it is. I think potentially a lot of it is and it has to be learned early what’s fantasy and what’s appropriate. Like what a policeman really does — a lot of these conversations you’re right to ask now because a lot of them are really flourishing right now with me and my little boy.
He just learned yesterday, he asked about a prisoners of war / missing-in-action flag that he saw. I’m not gonna lie to him. I’ll put things in the best terms I can for a 4-year-old and I use the verbiage and the phrasing where I can.
So he learned about what war is. And he was just so confused and mesmerized. Like, “Why would people do that?” I’m like, “Son, you’re right to be confused. People fight wars generally because one person or a small group of people wanted more land and more money.” And we just had these beautiful, very candid, conversations about it.
I’m only at the beginning of learning what it means to frame what violence is. Defense versus offense. Keeping a cool head. It really just comes down to a conversation about conflict and weapons and all that kind of factors into it.
I tell him what my Dad told us, which is that a gun is a tool. It’s no different than any other tool. It’s used in the wrong way by a lot of people. But it’s a tool that you use that is very, very rarely used and there are very few uses for it that are appropriate. I think that’s the truth. And my son, he responds to the truth.
“We Americans” feels very Southern, mentioning things the South has wrestled with like Jim Crow and the Civil War. What role did your Southern-ness play in this song?
As a Southerner, I definitely have sort of a defensive chip in me when there is sort of a foregone conclusion about the North having a moral high ground.
— which you point out in the song.
The primary concern for the song, in my mind, is to tell the truth, for there to be accuracy and for us to not kid ourselves about the complexity of what this thing is — to not kid ourselves about the level of unity “back in the day.” We have never been united. And I think that we can strive to be, and I think that we can be in a lot of ways. But we don’t need to kid ourselves about how this whole thing started.
I am a Southerner. I could never divorce that from my character, nor would I want to — I think it’s a beautiful part of the world. But it’s always going to be in the mix.
The song transforms into a prayer toward the end — you’re asking God for forgiveness, for God to forgive America. Can you elaborate on what you’re doing here?
To be American is to accept the varied history and the kaleidoscopic character of this country and its people. I think that we simplify and we over-generalize what the country is and what it what it needs to be well.
Turning it into a prayer is very specifically something that I believe is needed, but I tend to think that without a basis of some sort of faith — and it doesn’t have to be a specific one — but I believe that faith is necessary for there to be hope.
I don’t think hope can be synthesized or manufactured out of an intellectual conversation. I feel like it comes from faith. I think there’s a humility in giving things over to providence.