The Avett Brothers are a bear to categorize: folk, pop, ragtime, rock — the sibs dig it all, sometimes in the same song. But this much is true about the bestselling North Carolina trio: "We'll get sad with the best of 'em, buddy," says Seth Avett. Indeed, the Avetts, who headline Sunday's final night of the four-day Clearwater Jazz Holiday, specialize in mood: pensive, lonely and, in the case of the pretty, and pretty bleak, ballad Winter in My Heart, downright depressing.
That song is on new album The Carpenter, their highest-charting LP (top five on the U.S. charts, a smash on iTunes), a gaze-out-the-window beauty inspired by getting older and, in the Avetts' case, getting more popular, too.
"There are a lot of ways to feel lonely," says Seth Avett, 32, during a long, chummy phone call. The band — which includes older brother Scott and "official brother" bassist Bob Crawford — has been on the road for a while. It's all starting to take a toll on the family men. "These days, it has less to do with loneliness and more to do with lack of balance. Putting so much into one thing and then feeling like something else is falling apart. Being more popular but still feeling so isolated."
Music history is rife with sibling bands engaging in fisticuffs — the Gallagher goons in Oasis, the Davies blokes in the Kinks — but Seth says his relationship with Scott is actually one of the reasons he can endure life in a constantly traveling trio.
"Our dynamic is very boring as far as journalism goes," he says. "Scott is a lot of things to me and someone I look up to. We got the fighting out of the way when we were adolescents. We go on a lot of journeys together. We kind of rely on each other too much to be at odds with each other. When you're playing in restaurants and bars, it's more about keeping each other safe. Once you start relying on someone like that, there's not a lot of room for bickering."
Together, the Avett Brothers — along with hot groups like Mumford & Sons and a resurgent Dave Matthews Band — have spearheaded a "natural" movement in popular music, roots-driven bands as far from Rihanna and Chris Brown as you can get.
"It has rendered itself as a growing trend," says Seth, who notes that the Avetts, despite their newfound popularity, have been making records since 2000. "The planets were aligned for Mumford & Sons to blow up. The ebb and flow of pop is an interesting thing to watch. People are growing tired of the party and songs that are all about 'me' and how much fun I'm having. We get bored of hearing one thing, so then you strip down — and then eventually you go back to albums that sound like a robot made it."
Seth and Scott write "99 percent" of their material, working separately and then coming together to blend, to see what works. The Avetts called in superproducer Rick Rubin, a name synonymous with hip cred and a sparse sound, to work on The Carpenter. Rubin's late-career highlights include Johnny Cash's bleak but gorgeous American Recordings series.
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"Rick adds no anxiety to the artistic process," Seth says. "If you're anxious and you're working with Rick, it's on you. He doesn't specialize in musicalities; he specializes in feelings. It really has a calming effect."
Fans have become protective of the bros and their signature sound, to such a rapturous degree that a new track — a feedback-drenched acid rocker called Paul Newman vs. the Demons, which couldn't be more of a departure — has caused a major uproar. So which free-thinking brother penned that oddity?
"Um, that would be me," Seth sighs. "Fortunately and unfortunately. We're getting varied responses for sure, from 'worst thing that ever happened to the Avett Brothers' to 'best song on the album.' I'm a little sheepish talking about it. But we don't like the idea of making the same album over and over again."
Seth says the criticism of the Paul Newman vs. the Demons has beaten him up pretty good. "That's a common thing among humans, right? We will take hold of the negative and hold it close to our heart. But the positive comment we take and think, 'Oh, they just don't know me.' "
That said, the Avetts intend to jam out to Paul Newman vs. the Demons while playing at the Clearwater Jazz Holiday, which is already a rather curious gig for a bunch of alt-folkies. Seth isn't worried about hard-core jazz fans not feeling their vibe, though: "We see a lot of festivals pushing the boundaries, and I think that's really healthy. The elitist festival is really a dying art. Genres are getting bent and getting stretched."
Avett pauses, then laughs: "But maybe we should work up a Tony Bennett cover anyway."
Sean Daly can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @seandalypoplife on Twitter.