Just a few years ago, The Avett Brothers (brothers Scott and Seth and non-brothers Bob Crawford and Joe Kwon) were making raggedy, punk-inspired bluegrass on tiny North Carolina-based record label Ramseur Records. Not too many people knew who they were, but their fan-base seemed to grow every time they hit the road as they won over crowd after crowd with their high-energy, heart-felt live shows. So it made sense when legendary record producer Rick Rubin snatched them up, signed them to his American Records label (a division of Sony) and produced their next album himself — they were just too good to keep a secret for much longer.
That album I and Love and You came out last year and the band hasn’t slowed down since. And whether old or new, fans know one thing: the guys, especially older brother Scott, can really throw down onstage. Scott shreds through banjo strings, launches himself off of his kick-drum stand, throws himself to his knees and sweats through multiple layers of clothing every night. It’s hard to imagine him standing still for any amount of time, let alone long enough to paint detailed figurative portraits — but he can and he does. Though he once thought he had to choose between music and visual art, he’s managed to incorporate both into his life, working on a slew of non-musical projects as well as creating the artwork for (or at least designing) each and every Avett Brothers’ album cover, plus a bunch of merchandise and even the beautiful watercolor backdrops used during the band’s live shows.
As long as I can remember, I would draw and doodle and look and, you know, just be probably a hyper-observant kid, visually. I don’t know that I was a good listener, but visually I looked and noticed things as long as I can’t remember. I recall my dad — he would play this game where he would draw a squiggle on a piece of paper and we would complete the shape as whatever we imagined that shape would be a part of. So if it was like a little squiggly line we would make snake out of it, or it could be the hair on the head of a guy that we would draw. And then I didn’t really get serious about any art until I guess it was my fourth year of college. I was actually graduating with a broadcasting communications degree. Although I’d drawn a lot, I didn’t start painting until 1999, when I was 20 or 21.
At that point were you already working on music more seriously?
Well, we’d always played music. . . . Music was just something that I was just born to do. I just always did it. It was kind of like speaking — it was just an extension of how I communicated. So entertaining is kind of this secondary part of that. If I’d gone out to hang out with friends, a lot of times . . . my agenda was to command attention at some point in the night. So I’d tell stories or manipulate the night to a point where I could either sing or play something for somebody or show something to somebody—it’s really kind of conniving, I guess. It’s not healthy when it’s not your occupation. You’re kind of destined to find out how to channel that in the appropriate venue, literally and metaphorically. You get to the point when you’re like, “This is what you need to do for a living.” . . . Drawing was just, in some ways, maybe, I think that if I wasn’t a social being, that’s probably all I would do. . . . And I really really do prefer to do it by myself. There’s something from art school that I remember, how the 3-D artists, when they’re having to pour and cast things — it’s a very social art, it takes a lot of hands to help do it. And painting is a very solitary sort of endeavor. And although I am a social being and love to talk and love to entertain, that’s something that I cherish more than I probably know.
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After you took that painting class — was it a painting class that you took at school that re-sparked your interest?
Yep, it was a painting class I took with a professor named Leland Wallin. And he’s a student of Phil Pearlstein, who’s a very famous figurative painter from, I think he’s from Pennsylvania. So yeah, Leland had me do a field painting — I did a painting out on the campus of the college I was at. I was finishing up my minor in art, and he said, “You have to stay and get your degree in fine art. You need to go to graduate school. That’s what you have to do. This is what you were born to do.” And so I thought more or less, “I’ll finish [my art degree].” I respect Leland immensely and I believe exactly what he said.
So you went to graduate school?
I did not. I had a BS in communications — I’d done performance and radio and news broadcast. And I completed my BFA in painting and I applied to some schools and I got into the one that Leland had recommended, which was Florida State. Hold on a minute, not Florida State — it was the one, the Gators, whichever that is. University of Florida. Got in and deferred it because our music was taking off at that point and I said, “Well, let me defer this and if [music] keeps going I’ll keep going, but if it kind of tapers off then I’ll go to graduate school.” And Leland had said, “You know, you have to do this — music is very difficult to make a living in, and art is as well but that’s not even the point. This is what you were born to do.” He encouraged me not to chase the music (laughs) and eventually I said, “Don’t chase any of it, just do what feels natural.” In hindsight I feel like that’s just what I did. I let it lead me and I didn’t try to force anything and I’ve been able to maintain an education in art to this very day. . . . But it’s actually possibly prolonged [it] — you know, like a love relationship can be prolonged if you don’t live it out? Say you’re in love with somebody and you never actually live that out, and you part ways and you’re always looking back going, “We never knew, we never knew.” In some ways the fact that I never followed through with [painting] has kept me in touch with it, this affair with the visual that I just can’t shake. I think it’s just a part of me.
Have you done the album art and everything for the Avett Brothers all along just because you’re the artist of the group?
Early on, and I’ve become less this way as we’ve gone on, but early on I was just a control freak about it. But to me, I never saw any difference — the whole idea of somebody doing an album and then having someone they don’t know make the album artwork is extremely bizarre to me. That seems strange. They seem to be so akin to each other that it doesn’t make sense to me. It doesn’t always have to be the same artist making the music and the visuals, but there’s got to be something to it. And I know a lot of artists would agree. That’s just how I feel about it. I could be off-base and wrong but for me, it just was a no brainer — it had to be done that way. I tried and I’m trying to let go of that and maybe I can change for the next one . . . but I have always done the visuals, the layout. I’ve had help from Seth as far as elements, but as far as the design of the layouts, I’ve designed them all.
The pieces that you’ve used for the album art, were they deliberately done as album art or did you pick from works that you’d already done?
Every single one of them has been deliberately done except this one album, Carolina Jubilee, which I, for some reason, just picked this little drawing that I’d done in Virginia of a tree. I can’t even remember why — I just decided at the time and walked away and never thought of it again. Other than that one, they’ve all been done for the album, including I and Love and You.
I was going to ask about that one. I knew you were a painter and when I saw that cover, I assumed because it had no obvious thematic ties to the album, that it was just a random piece that you liked a lot. But you did it specifically for the album?
Specifically. . . . It started as using a subject matter that’s a historical subject matter — the vanities of human life, also known as the vanitas, I think, in Italian. I’m not positive of that, but it’s . . . a symbol, a still-life heavy in symbolism — all the symbols of the vanities, which are everything material as well as knowledge and travel and all kind of things, all these symbols in one painting. So I gathered the ones that applied to me or us and started working. . . . I wanted to put a figure in it. And as I did that, I realized that there was a degree of intimacy that I needed to grab hold of that wasn’t happening, so I started to strip back the symbols and focus it more on the figure. It ended up just being the one symbol, which is the skull, which is the symbol of inevitable death for all temporary, physical living things. I kept that one and I kept the figure, and I leaned more on the longing feel of life and the letting go and the goodbye which is death. And then I thought about how, basically, the longing to live and then the letting go and goodbye are, to me, ultimately — that’s change. And the record I and Love and You is all about change and new beginnings and departures from old things. That was a common thread throughout the record. . . . And in a lot of ways, I look back on things — it really doesn’t even need an explanation because a lot of the lyrics on the record were written by the person who painted the painting and so whether anybody sees it or can understand it, the same person made them. And over time, people will associate that with the record, and that’s great.
At Avett Brothers shows, you’ve got those huge backdrops behind the stage that you also did, right? I’ve seen you guys several times since you started using them, and the one I love the most is the one with the boat and the swarm of — I guess they’re birds, but they could be some other flying creatures. Did you do those specifically to be used as backdrops?
They’re all specifically for the backdrops. They’re all specifically with set design in mind. They were all done in an attempt to either anchor some symbolism on stage or help with a very handmade sort of drama that I think you can only get from a handmade approach. I kind of get thrown off by saying, “Let’s get some production — let’s get some lights, that’ll be sick, it’ll be crazy, it’ll be old-school and it’ll be awesome.” There’s a place for it, and we definitely love the use of lights, but there’s something about the handmade sort of nature of a watercolor, with the runs and the drips, that takes on a life of its own. And when you blow it up that big, it takes on another life and I see things that I didn’t even see happening when I was painting. That’s really great — it’s this other living, breathing sort of visual thing. It’s almost like a friend up there or something.
Cover of The Avett Brothers’ most recent live album, featuring teardrop watercolor by Scott.
Do you have time to work on much art that isn’t specifically for the band now?
Oh, absolutely. I just spent this morning working on a figurative piece that’s planned to be shown in about 10 days — I’ve got all non-Avett Brothers paintings going into a show just for a week later on this month where I’ll be speaking [at Muse and Spirit’s Fall Colloquy in Salisbury, NC] and where they talk about how peoples’ spirituality and art interact and maybe move alongside of each other. I think I’ve got some things to say about it — I’m not really sure, but I’m going to say something. (laughs) I actually will be showing the cover of I and Love and You — it’ll be in the show as an example, but the rest of the works are all unrelated to the Avetts.
You said that you kind of find it odd when bands bring in other artists to do their album covers, but I’m wondering if any artists have ever approached you about doing work for their record covers?
Well, let me be clear that I don’t see a problem having other artists work [on album covers] as long as they’re close to it. And I don’t have a problem with other artists working on ours, as long as we’re close and can relate to them the process and that it’s relevant. So yeah, I have. I did an album cover for Jessica Lea Mayfield’s record, With Blasphemy So Heartfelt, which she put out — I guess it’s been about a year and a half ago — which ended up just being the vinyl cover. She ended up doing the artwork [for the CD cover] — she’s a brilliant artist, as well.
When you work on your art, whether you’re doing it for a music-related project or not, do you listen to music while you’re painting?
Yeah, some. It’s odd — sometimes I do, sometimes I don’t. I try to listen to things that I’m familiar with already. If I’m discovering new music I tend to bounce back and forth to the notebook too much. . . . Last year I discovered — I know it’s an old record — Bon Iver’s record For Emma Forever Ago. That record’s great to work to. I love listening to that record — it’s very melancholy and seems very pure and natural. I enjoy that and I also enjoy listening to, well, sometimes something very dark, like Neurosis — like big, spacious metal bands. Those are kind of nice because they give me fuel just to move and not really engage too much but just let the music go. But a lot of times I don’t listen to anything — probably more times that not because it’s a distraction.
What are some kinds of projects that you haven’t been able to work on but that you want to tackle at some point?
Well, like our dear friend James Mitchum, who did our “Head Full of Doubt/Road Full of Promise” video, I’d like to animate a very large figurative narrative painting. I don’t know if it’s possible, but I’d love to do it and I’d love to basically do an oil painting cartoon that would go for hours. Maybe if I’m lucky I can do one for just 15 minutes. I have a feeling that I would take several years to do [it], but maybe I’m wrong. Depending on the size, though, I’d love to animate a very serious oil painting. I’ve also started — a couple years back I took on a sculpture project where I was gonna cast a lot of figures and fill a gallery, and as I was making the molds it all fell apart. And at the same time my musical career was really pulling me and demanding a lot of me so I had to abandon it, but maybe I’ll get back to it. I also couldn’t spend enough time around a printing press — I love printing, I love block printing. I’d like to learn how to do photography, as well.