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Interview: Bob Crawford of The Avett Brothers

Interview: Bob Crawford of The Avett Brothers

Bob Crawford’s last name is not Avett, yet he is one third of the popular bluegrass-cum-classic rockers the Avett Brothers. Though they released their breakthrough album Emotionalism two years ago, the band seems to generating more and more buzz. I spoke with Crawford a few weeks after the band’s triumphant two night stand at Portland’s Crystal Ballroom. The show was full of intense energy and it transformed the ballroom to one of the small bars I used to visit when I lived in Vermont and the local boys came out with their cellos and folk songs. I am proud to present the Spectrum Culture interview with Bob Crawford of the Avett Brothers.

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Hello, Bob.

How are you?

Good. How are you?

I’m doing great. Now, where are you located?

I’m in Portland.

Portland. Great!

I just saw your show a few weeks ago.

Well, you have a great town in Portland. That is a great place.

Thank you. I’m not from here. I just moved here last year.

So where are you from?

I grew up in Philadelphia, but I’ve lived all over the place.

Really? I’m from South Jersey. Atlantic City. We were in Philly on Friday and Saturday and I tell you that is the place I saw all my concerts growing up. I would go into the city and go to South Street every weekend almost. It’s a very special place.

Where did you play? The Electric Factory?

We didn’t. We played the Trocadero. We play the Electric Factory when we go back in October.

I don’t know how old you are, but do you remember what the Trocadero used to be like? When I was young, that place used to be pretty sketchy. They really cleaned it up.

Being in there during soundcheck and looking up at the beams and the ceiling, they cleaned it up but it should probably be condemned.

Were you there before they opened up that Convention Center in Philadelphia?

I’ll tell you what I remember of the Trocadero. I saw one concert there. It was Danzig and Soundgarden. It had to be 1990 or 1991.

Okay, that was around the same time I was growing up around there.

A buddy of mine and I went to see a couple of concerts at the old convention center. We saw Neil Young and Crazy Horse. This was during the first Gulf War. We also saw Phish and after we saw Phish there we got lost. It was the only time we got lost in Philly and it was pretty insane. Getting lost in that area was crazy.

The first show I show I saw at the Trocadero was the Violent Femmes in 1993.

Oh my god.

Just waiting in line and people were all over the place peddling drugs and then going into the bathroom to find one of those troughs instead of urinals. That place used to be an old strip club before they changed it to a concert hall.

Really? I guess I had heard that and forgot that.

I haven’t been there for a couple of years, but I remember there was a gap and I returned and they cleaned it all up and there are urinals now.

I’ll tell you, I’m really excited to go to the Electric Factory. In my mind, the goal is to play the Tower Theater someday.

That would be nice. That place has a lot of history.

Yeah, a lot of history.

I saw Radiohead at the Electric Factory in 1997. That was pretty cool.

I bet that was pretty great. I saw one concert there. That was Bob Dylan. Patti Smith opened for him and she came out and sang “Dark Eyes” with him.

I saw her at the Troc once too, right after college. That was pretty cool too.

Good stuff, man. Good stuff.

So, let’s talk about your band. First question for you. Let’s clear up a popular mystery, at least among my friends. How the hell do you pronounce the name of the band?

A-vett. Like a corvette.

I’m sure you’ve heard all different variations of it.

Ah-vit. Avery. Apparently, Bruce Springsteen has a station on Sirius and he guest DJs every once in awhile. He played “Go to Sleep” and said he said, “Now, the Avery Brothers.” There’s many different pronunciations and ideas of what the name is. It’s Avett and a good way I like to tell people to remember it is it’s like a corvette.

Gotcha. Now, being a non-Avett, do you feel that gives you less ownership of the band?

Not at all. The three of us set out on a journey that we are still on eight years ago. We really worked as a team, especially in the early years when we were forming everything and establishing ourselves. It used to be that Scott and I booked all the gigs and Seth would make the CDs. Like literally at home, he would copy the CDs and cut out the covers with an Exacto knife and put them in the CD sleeves. We had a real small operation going and everybody had their jobs. I’ve always felt a full third of the organization.

That’s good even though it’s not reflected in the name.

And it doesn’t need to be.

When I saw you guys, I was surprised. What surprised me is the type of music you guys play and the amount of people who showed up and knew the words to the songs. If you look at the progenitors of your kind of music, bands like Chatham County Line and bands like that, they weren’t able to attract the size of crowds you guys are pulling in.

I don’t understand how we attract the crowds that we do because I know it’s tough out there for music. There are a lot of great bands that I love and they don’t pull a lot of people in. When you read a Pollstar magazine, I was flipping through one that was backstage at a show we played a couple of weeks ago, and I couldn’t believe how few people a lot of great bands draw. I think it’s a battle that bands have been fighting forever. No matter who you are it’s tough to play live music. I think we’re in a pretty tough environment for us right now with the economy and bands are really up against a lot. I am very thankful that we pull the crowds that we do. I think we have a lot of things going for us that are beyond us. Like, I think our songs are good. I think the music is quality; it’s good. I think there’s something about the live show that draws people. We’re just one of those bands who are fortunate to have several things going in our favor right now. People come out to the shows and we haven’t taken a hit yet from the economy. We haven’t seen a drop-off. We’ve seen an increase. With every show we’re thankful. To have two sold-out nights at the Crystal Ballroom in Portland, which is one of, if not the greatest rooms in the country. It’s just a dream come true. The energy reflects in the show. I don’t know if it’s the spring-loaded floor, I don’t know if it’s the fact that it’s Portland, Oregon, which is a really, special magical place, I don’t know what it is, but that place really brings it out of us. People bring it when they come out to the show. Those were some amazing couple of shows. Especially that second night. It was one of the greatest shows we’ve had since the last time we played there.

I went to the first night and I got Jason Webley open for you. I thought his set was great.

Jason’s amazing. I was talking to Jason beforehand. You know, he’s doing a special show coming this summer in Seattle to celebrate his 11th anniversary. I asked him where he sees his crowds growing. He said he does really well in Europe and that one of the greatest places he plays is in Russia. He has an amazing, growing fanbase in Russia. He played this festival in Siberia The first night he played and the second night whoever is the equivalent of the Russian Rolling Stones played. You can see why he would do well over there based on his music.

You might not know this, but I feel this way and a bunch of local musicians feel this way: we don’t like the Crystal Ballroom.

Really?

We feel like the sound is muddy. In this state, we have some strange alcohol laws and they cut the audience down the middle. That really screws up the sightlines in that place. You got a side view. I don’t know if you noticed the division when you were playing.

We noticed the division but we like the idea that underage people can get in.

But most other cities they just put an X on their hands or something like that.

Then there’s a lot of cities that won’t let them in at all. It’s very sad for people who deserve to hear the music. If you’re 16 years old, you deserve to see a band that you like. As far as the sound goes, the first couple of times that we played there the quality of sound is made up with the energy of the people in the room. What room do you prefer in town?

Well, the thing is, my favorite is probably too small for you at this point. It’s the Doug Fir Lounge. The Wonder Ballroom, I think it sounds better. But if you can fill up the Crystal, you should play the Crystal.

I guess our naiveté works in our favor.

Hey, if you like it, that’s great. A lot of people like it. Just the local musicians complain about it a lot.

A lot of people feel a reverence for the Fillmore in San Francisco, but Scott feels the Crystal is our Fillmore. It’s our generation’s Fillmore.

Everyone has a different opinion. That’s cool, man. I brought a friend from DC to that place and he thought it was fabulous. Backing up to before, you said there are a lot of bands out there that you love that aren’t making it as well. Who are you thinking about?

You know, I don’t want to say who is pulling people in and who’s not. I would like to steer away from that.

You got it. How about which bands do you really like?

We feel we are part of a generational movement musically. I would say that bands we feel akin to are Langhorne Slim, Magnolia Electric Co., Jessica Lea Mayfield and Samantha Crane. There is a whole wave of music out there. God, I’m trying to think about them all. There’s a generation of music out there that’s on the move. A lot of people ask us which genre we consider ourselves in and I always like to liken it to classic rock where you have a term that more tries to describe the generation rather than describe the genre. Chatham County Line, whom you mentioned, they are friends of ours but I feel like they’re taking a traditional genre but there is a spin by the way they approach it. They are pretty true to the tradition, but they are also different. They are also different.

I hate asking questions about genre. I feel like putting anyone in a box isn’t fair to them. I’ve had Emotionalism a couple years now. I got it when I was covering Bonnaroo a few years ago. I didn’t get to see your set because there was something else going on…

Radiohead.

No, it wasn’t that year. It was the year Tool and the Police were playing. So, I’ve had the album for a couple of years and I really like the songs. The one thing really struck me about the live show is how much more raucous it is, in terms of energy.

Initially our goal was to play the music live, record it and then put it out. It became evident, quickly, that that was impossible. What we do live does not translate well in a recording studio setting. What we began to realize, especially with Emotionalism, that we can have two animals here. We can have a live animal and we can have a studio animal. Emotionalism is where we tried to embrace the studio. This will continue in the album that comes out in August. It will be very evident even more so there. There is definitely is a reason why Emotionalism isn’t as raucous as the live show can be.

Talk to me about Rick Rubin’s involvement on the new album.

We worked with him.

What new techniques went into this album that we haven’t heard before?

Every album we’ve done has been a step in a different direction. This one is going to have more sounds and more textures to it. We focused a lot more on the band aspects of it. The drums, the organ, the piano. Different instruments here and there to add different flavors. The cello is more prominent. The songs are being fleshed out more. Between Four Thieves Gone and Emotionalism, when we decided to approach our albums from a studio aspect rather than taking something live and recording it, what I think the new album I And Love And You is going to take that Emotionalism thing and fleshing it out even further. A lot of the creativity happens in a studio. A few songs weren’t even written, but more arranged. It was a lot more involved. The song “I And Love And You” was a series of rolling verses. It was Rick’s idea to take one of those verses and make it the chorus. For a lot of the songs, he just helped push in us in the right direction. He never made any demands. His ideas would be like, “I think something else would be better here. I’m not sure what. What do you think?” Or, “I have an idea but it could be a total waste of time. Here it is.” Or, “I like that instrumental hook. Can we put it somewhere else in the song? Can we do it again? Can we do that verse multiple times?” A lot of his ideas were like addition ideas instead of structural ideas. But in some songs there were serious structural format things and “I And Love And You.”

Was this album easier or more difficult to create than your past albums?

There were 34 songs written when we went into the studio with this album. So there has never been a time when there weren’t more than enough songs. We’re trying to hold back from playing a lot of the new album songs live, so in lieu of that we’ve been playing a lot of brand new songs that may or may not ever get to be on an album because the process of writing and demoing is never ending. I think the big thing we were faced with going into this album was pruning. What songs aren’t going to be recorded and why? What songs can be improved upon? It was truly a blessing to go in with more material than you could use. We’ll put 13 songs on this record and we recorded 17. The difficulty was less in creation and more in arrangement and presentation. But I’ll tell you, it was laborious but not cumbersome.

It sounds like a positive experience.

It was a way positive experience. That doesn’t mean it wasn’t challenging. We had never been musicians. I think a lot of the raucousness of the show is because we’re just raucous. The energy takes precedence over the musicianship but now that is beginning to change because if you do it for eight years you’re going to start to get better at what you do. You work up to your ability more. We are more of musicians now and being around Rick Rubin there is a feeling inside of us that we need to play better. We need to live up to this. That was the challenge for me, personally, to be a real bass player. Try to at least.

Has there been time for (solo project) New Jersey Transient anymore?

I think that project is way on the backburner. I have been working with this guy David Childers. He’s from North Carolina and he’s an amazing singer-songwriter. He and I have a band called the Ober Mountain Men. We recorded an album and probably won’t release it until January. Any extra energy I have is going to him for the foreseeable future.

As you mentioned the economic climate is bad for bands and it seems that touring is the best way for bands to make money.

We’re not doing it for money per se. We’d like to distribute the music but we can’t really play a lot of live shows for several reasons. I think the goal is make the music because we love doing it and we’re good friends. We’ll figure out how to distribute it later. As far as playing a lot of live shows, that isn’t going to happen.

What are those reasons?

Because I’m already gone with the Avett Brothers most of the time and Dave is in his mid-50s and he’s a lawyer, he’s got a career. He spent many years struggling playing live and being away from his family. Sometimes the grind of being out there and playing live music is tough. At a certain age, if you’re not selling tickets, it’s not a viable thing to do. I think Dave is one of the greatest songwriters I’ve ever known. I’m happy to work with him. As long as we can make records and record them, we’ll do it and worry about selling it and distributing it later.

It sounds like with the Avett Brothers your time is really being taken up.

It really is and in ways you couldn’t believe. It’s all good.

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