Rock and roll is famous for having groups with siblings that haven’t gotten along. The creative tensions in the Everly Brothers, the Kinks and the Black Crowes may have helped generate some of the great music. But it also made life in those groups uncomfortable, and at various points led to temporary breakups between periods of activity.
One doesn’t hear many stories about battling brothers when it comes to Scott and Seth Avett of the Avett Brothers. (The band plays at 8 p.m. Friday, Oct. 16, at Bell Auditorium.) And bassist Bob Crawford, who became the third member of the Avett Brothers in 2002 – two years after the brothers began making acoustic music together after the demise of their band, Nemo – said the harmony between his bandmates is no illusion.
“Their father taught them that in this life there are going to be a lot of people who are going to be out to get you and want to get you in every way and want to take advantage of you and can possibly even hurt you or rob you, just don’t have your best interests in mind,” Crawford explained in a recent phone interview. “And they hardened that they had to be each other’s best friend. They were brothers. They had to be out there for each other. That has always been evident. That (protective environment) was afforded to me when I entered (the group).
“That ring of protection and care has continued to expand,” he said. “That, I would say, on a whole, is a very true quality. What makes a person who they are, the moral compass that they have, and I’ve seen on a daily basis this genuine care that they show for everybody. None of us are perfect. We all make mistakes. We all have bad days. We all get down about things. But I’ll tell you, on a whole, I haven’t met many people like them. They behave on a daily basis in this very genuine, honest way, and you have to think it came from the way they were raised. There’s something special going on with those guys.”
Thirteen years into the group, there is definitely a close brotherhood among the core trio. While Seth and Scott Avett are considered the primary songwriters, Crawford has become a key member in the songwriting equation.
In fact, on the group’s latest studio album, Magpie and the Dandelion, Crawford has a writing credit on every song. The trust and support that exists among the three is evident as Crawford talked about the creative process in the Avett Brothers. What isn’t so clear – even to Crawford himself – is exactly what he brings to the writing equation.
“You know, I’ve been trying to express that or clarify that or understand that for as long as we’ve been together,” he said. “I don’t know if my role is set because there are times when I’ve been like ‘What about this verse?’ Like with them, words are so important to them and so personal to them, and it’s a moment of just clarity or a moment where they’re stuck and I express something and they go ‘OK, yeah, yeah, yeah.’ And maybe Seth and I will go work on it (the lyric) together. Or, they’ll take it at face value.
“And there will be times musically where there have been sections of songs (where I’ll say) ‘Let’s try this, we’ve never done this before,’ and they’ll be receptive. And there are obviously times where I just form the bass part or I’m just there with them or we just talk about things.
“I’ve got the best job in the world. I try to not think about it too much and just be as present as possible … I think (by) just trying to be present and just trying to be the best I can be for them, I think no matter what my contribution is, it will be successful, or at the very least, honest.”
Whatever has been happening since 2002 between Scott and Seth Avett and Bob Crawford, it’s helped make the Avett Brothers one of music’s most compelling groups over a time span that has seen the musical range – and the band – expand considerably.
During their first five years as a trio, the Avett Brothers released five studio albums that gained steadily growing attention within the alt-country/Americana scene. The albums were praised for their strong songwriting and the authenticity of their rough-hewn, largely acoustic sound.
But that sound changed dramatically after the Avett Brothers signed to uber-producer Rick Rubin’s American Recordings label and partnered with Rubin for the 2009 album I and Love and You. That CD retained the Avetts’ acoustic foundation, but broadened its instrumental and stylistic reach to the point that the group could no longer be considered simply folk nor acoustic.
The Avett Brothers’ sound has further expanded, as the band teamed again with Rubin on two more albums, 2012’s The Carpenter and Magpie and the Dandelion. Several musicians who have played on those albums have since become part of a larger touring lineup, with drummer Mike Marsh, keyboardist Paul Delfigia, cellist Joe Kwon and fiddle player Tania Elizabeth all helping to bring the more varied and frequently more muscular sound of today’s Avett Brothers to life on stage.
Many have credited Rubin (known for producing acts ranging from the Beastie Boys to Johnny Cash to Slayer) for punching up the Avett Brothers’ sound. Crawford said while Rubin has contributed significantly to the three most recent albums, the band itself has instigated the course of the music.
“It’s always generated from within the band. The musical direction, I would say, the direction is not very preconceived,” Crawford said. “Every song kind of begins to demand its own attention and its own instrumentation and what not. But what Rick does, which is obviously a very valuable part of the equation, is he kind of guides it along and he’ll point us in a direction. He might say I’ve got a verse here, or maybe a chorus, or repeat this or maybe an instrument on the beginning.
“He’s the world’s greatest listener. He could be the world’s greatest fan of music,” Crawford said. “And so he may tell you he doesn’t play music or he can’t play a lick of music, but he’s very interpretive and very effective for how everything works together.”
Over the two-plus years of touring behind The Carpenter and Magpie and the Dandelion, the expanded Avett Brothers lineup has grown more accomplished and potent as a live unit and also expanded its repertoire to where the group can play upwards of three nights with different set lists. Crawford loves the variety the group can achieve from night to night.
“I think we’re finally beginning to realize that potential that I would put in the vein of the Grateful Dead, where you’ve got this mass of material that you’re sitting on top of, and it’s only right to kind of go through it and do as much of it as you can,” he said.