I didn't expect my phone interview with Scott Avett — the singing and songwriting banjo player for North Carolina's The Avett Brothers — to send me to Spotify in search of a Mr. Bungle album from 1999. And yet, as soon as we hung up, there I was skipping from track to metal-muscled, bizarro lounge-pop track, trying to wrap my head around what it was that he'd gleaned from that music years back.
Mid-interview, I'd brought up the Brothers' tendency to make their songs bounce, shuffle or swing and asked him, only half-seriously, if they'd taken any cues from beach music, a pan-generational, oldies-style staple in the Carolinas. That was when Avett flipped the script on me.
"Well, you know, it depends on which beach music you're talking about," he responded. "It certainly feels natural to gravitate towards that kind of swing. I know that when Mr. Bungle put out the album California, there were elements of that, of The Beach Boys and swing. I loved the irony of that. To go from that to a death metal sound was so attractive to me. So I think that it was pretty obvious, when I would hear it, how much we [identified with] it."
More than just identifying, Avett says, "We were always wanting to have a dynamic that was a lot of push-and-pull, a lot of contrast. Of course, the rhythm is such a big part of that. ... I think that any one pulse or one rhythm or one style in a show can get kind of tiresome. So we always wanted to offer something that had more facets."
It would be a stretch to call the Avetts' music ironic, but their stuff has always had a frisky, good-humored sense of play to it, one that's largely remained intact even as they've recorded two consecutive albums — I and Love and You and The Carpenter — with such a proponent of serious artistry as Rick Rubin.
The 1990s were a musically formative era for Avett, his guitar-playing brother Seth and brother-in-spirit/bassist Bob Crawford. They've repeatedly described getting into heavy, sludgy, angsty rock during their teens. But in a lot of their own tuneful songs, what you hear is something more like pop-punk's cheerful slacker sensibilities — maybe even a hint of Mr. Bungle's winking hookiness — bumping up against the earnest striving of the youthful folk-rock revival.
Well over a decade into the band's existence — during which time the guys have evolved from a ragged street-corner trio to a locked-in, arena-touring quintet, and done so in full public view — the Avetts are frequently talked about in the same breath as later arrivals, Mumford & Sons being the most obvious. Exactly no one's forgotten that the two bands shared a moment onstage with Bob Dylan at the 2011 Grammy Awards. But they're at least as different as they are alike.
Mumford and the ever-expanding army of strum-and-stomp acts like to use standalone kick drums — something The Avett Brothers did first — but tend to stay tethered to insistent, inflexible four-on-the-floor patterns. Avett used to pull a lot of double-duty on banjo and kick drum — especially before the band got a touring drummer — and he still managed to contribute more than straight-ahead time-keeping.
"Well, the kick drum thing, because of the street performing, it was a means to an end," Avett says. "We started with a hi-hat. That was Seth's idea. He was like, 'I'm gonna do the backbeat when we play, so we can get a little more groove going.' And my idea was, 'I'll play the banjo and scream, and we'll be loud enough together.' And then the more we played, the more we said, 'Well, why don't we get just a little beat?' ... So I took a little kid's drum kit, and we went with it, and it was great."
Despite using instrumentation that got them into folk festivals like Merlefest, "we never really viewed ourselves as anything other than a rock band, really," Avett says. "We always felt like that was our energy."
Much energy has been expended dissecting the ritualized passing of the roots torch on the 2011 Grammys, including the squirreliness of Dylan's performance that night. But I think the CMT Crossroads episode the Avetts filmed with Randy Travis last year represented a truer coming-of-age moment, and not only because it aired within months of their first album featuring a song about fatherhood.
On the phone with me, Avett recalled a mid-'90s summer he spent working with a construction crew that kept the dial on the local country station all-damn-day, no doubt with some Travis singles in rotation. "I gravitated toward something else," he says, "but that was out of rebellion."
Going on 20 years later, he and his bandmates seemed pretty much at home trading songs with Travis, whose music, if not his recent actions, embodies a certain sort of tradition-conscious adultness and reliability.
"Randy, of course, physically was from such a similar place to where we were from," Avett says. "I don't think we ever could've gotten away from what he was. As a grown man, my perspective on that country music and what Randy did has changed; my admiration grew hugely."
He adds: "Country music in general, I felt like I had to break away from where I was from. And I got over that. You get over it in time and you start trying to be honest with yourself, separate good and bad."
Here's something for the "good" column: Even as the Avetts look for ways to articulate their identities as family men past 30, they're still making room for some pop prankishness. And it ain't easy to have it both ways.