Wax Stories #6: The Avett Brothers – Emotionalism

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Spring 2009

The first time I heard The Avett Brothers was in the lounge of Second West Ashton Hall, a dorm at Seattle Pacific University. I was sitting with Kristin, hanging out on our laptops and talking. We’d only been dating for maybe a month at this point. Somehow music came up in conversation, as it often did (and still does) and she mentioned that she just started listening to this band called The Avett Brothers. She pulled up her iTunes and played me “Die Die Die.” I freaked out.

I was on a folk binge at this point, mostly singer-songwriters. Recently I’d become more inclined to explore my bluegrass roots. My grandfather is a bluegrass stand-up bass player and I grew up going to festivals (if you get the chance, my grandma would love to tell you all about the time she pushed me around in a wheel barrel when I fell asleep early one night). So when I heard those jangly guitar chords and banjo noodlings, I knew it was exactly what I was looking for. Strangely though, in my excitement, I insisted to Kristin that it sounded reminiscent of “Pink Triangle” by Weezer. It doesn’t sound anything like that at all.

A lot of our first hangouts and dates revolved around exchanging music. We’d sit on her dorm floor with our laptops and switch USB drives (sorry, music industry). I requested she give me Emotionalism. For the rest of the quarter, I devoured the album. I found “Shame” to be poignant and the harmonies on “Weight of Lies” felt otherworldly. However, the standout track for me was almost instantly “The Ballad of Love and Hate.” Kristin felt the same.

The rest of spring quarter was constant trips to Gas Works Park, skipping classes because it was too sunny and warm to hang out in a dull classroom, and walking around Seattle with no real destination. It was the cliche fledgling college romance. As summer came closer, we both finalized our plans. I was going to Alaska with my good friend Zach and soon-to-be buddy John to work at a helicopter tour company in Juneau, Alaska. She was going to volunteer at an orphanage in the Philippines with her friend Patricia for most of the summer. We’d only been dating a couple months as the school year came to an end, but it never really crossed our minds to break up. Following the cliche romance story, “The Ballad of Love and Hate” played through my laptop speakers as she came to say goodbye to me for the summer (I kid you not, that actually happened).

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Summer 2009

Since Kristin was across the globe, I wouldn’t be able to call her for most of the summer. Instead our only option was to write letters. I started writing my first one while on the plane to Juneau but didn’t mail it out until she left for the Philippines. The second letter I sent was some weird joke about me being pregnant with a drawing of me on the bottom with a big belly. These would the only two letters she would get for the first half of the summer. I felt like a dumbass.

During my first week there I stopped in at a coffee shop called Heritage Coffee in downtown Juneau with Zach and John. Heritage was some sort of chain exclusive to Juneau, but it always felt like being back in Seattle when I stepped inside of one. The first thing I saw was this tall man with a huge beard serving gelato wearing a t-shirt with the Emotionalism album artwork. He even looked strikingly like Seth Avett.  I’m not usually one to reach out and make conversation with people I don’t know, but I was flabbergasted that someone else  knew who The Avett Brothers were – and in Juneau no less! I ordered my drink and hesitated before saying “hey cool shirt, I love The Avett Brothers.” He lit up. He was just as surprised as we were. His name was Jacob Warren. We had a quick conversation about music and later found out he actually had already befriended John before Zach and I flew up.

About a week later we biked over to the local hang out – The Waffle Co. The bike I was borrowing from a coworker was hard to ride. I’d later find out the tires and handlebars were bent. The ride over was so rough that I considered just turning back but trekked on anyway since I didn’t have anything else better to do. Most of the evening we just hung out on our computers so Zach and John could Skype with their girlfriends. Over the course of the summer I’d become exceedingly jealous of their luxury to call their girlfriends whenever they wanted. As the night progressed more people John knew started showing up, including Jacob and a crew of other people. Eventually as the shop’s closing hour was imminent, Jacob picked up a guitar and started playing some Avett Brothers songs. I was hanging out on the outskirts and keeping to myself most of the night, but this caught my attention. The bigger surprise came when another five or six other people started singing along with him. I joined in too. We sang through “Die Die Die,” “I Would Be Sad,” “Go To Sleep,” and ended with “The Ballad of Love and Hate.” The whole time my mind was elsewhere.

We’d write more and more letters for the rest of the summer, which then evolved into phone calls when she got back to the states. A few weeks before I came home she saw The Avett Brothers play in Seattle with her friend Nicole. Then finally in September I met her in Seattle for a sweet reunion.

Summer 2010

Kristin was going to be gone again this summer, this time for a study abroad trip to France. I tried to think of a way I could afford to meet her there but the funds just weren’t possible. I opted to stay in Seattle that summer and work while I lived in a studio apartment with my roommate Michael. I got a job street canvassing for the ASPCA, trying to raise money to stop dog fighting. It was miserable. Every day I worked for minimum wage, trying to make a quota, while people repeatedly put me down or ignored my existence. I wasn’t making any money and I couldn’t talk to Kristin. Her Internet access was limited for most of the summer so our Skype sessions were sparse.

Eventually I decided I needed to do something to lift my spirits. Zach was living in Portland, Oregon now with his dad and invited me to come visit. The Avett Brothers were going to play at Edgefield and he thought it’d be fun if we went together. So I readied my car and prayed it’d make it all the way to Portland. It was getting pretty spotty and starting at this point but I wasn’t willing to miss an excuse to get out of town. Luckily I made it with no issues and Zach’s dad paid us to paint a room in his house so I made my gas and ticket money back. The show was great. Between every song I prayed they’d play “The Ballad of Love and Hate.” They didn’t.

In August I picked Kristin up from the airport with sunflowers. I made a special mix for her in the car. The first track was “The Ballad of Love and Hate.”

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January 2011

On New Year’s Day Kristin decided to give me an early birthday present: Emotionalism on 180 gram vinyl. I’d spotted it at Easy Street Records in Queen Anne a couple months before and apparently she took notice too. I played it in my studio apartment on repeat all day as Michael and I cleaned our apartment up from New Year’s Eve festivities and prepared for people to come over for my 21st birthday party at midnight. I’d never had such a nice record. Triple panel gate-fold. High quality pressing.

Later Kristin greeted me at my apartment with a square piece of cake she made herself with a lit candle on a platter.

December 24 2011

I drove in my car from Port Orchard to Auburn with my guitar in the backseat and a diamond ring sitting on the passenger seat, screaming along to Nirvana to get out my nerves. In my guitar case I had the guitar chords to “The Ballad of Love and Hate.” I couldn’t decide if I wanted to play that song or a song I wrote about her and our time apart in Alaska. Eventually I chose the later. She said yes.

August 2012

I spend a week before the wedding meticulously writing every word to “The Ballad of Love and Hate” on a shoe box covered in brown paper. I had no Internet access in my new apartment (which Kristin would be moving into after the wedding) so I had to use the lyric sheet from the record she bought me. At the end of each complete set of lyrics I made sure to write in red the last line “I’m yours and that’s it, forever.”

August 18 2012

The wedding party and I walk down the aisle as my friends Taylor and Marshall play an instrumental version of “The Ballad of Love and Hate” on acoustic guitar and violin respectively. The song fades out and transitions to another Avett Brothers song: “The Perfect Space” off of I And Love And You. The crowd turns and Kristin begins her walk down the aisle with her parents. I’m caught off guard as I start crying and look over to my best man Zach who just smiles and says “I know.”

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Previous Wax Story: Wilco – Yankee Hotel Foxtrot

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Won’t Let Go

Photo by Dorothy Hyunh (http://www.dorothyhuynh.com/)

This post was written on August 14, around midnight, and published August 16.

I’ve avoided writing a blog about marriage or “life as an engaged person” post for a while. Most of the reason lies behind thinking that a lot of the posts I read like this are cheesy and (perhaps ashamedly) Kristin and I have both laughed at how strange some of them are (just kidding, no shame – they’re hilarious). So maybe I’ll end up in that “strangely comical lubby dubby blogger” realm if just for this post.

Right now I’m sitting alone in the apartment Kristin and I will share as our first home as a family. The living room is completely empty. I have two plates, two glasses, a bowl, and one of each type of silverware. My belongings, mostly clothes and records, are all collected in the bedroom. I haven’t really organized anything; I’m waiting until Kristin moves in so we can set things up together and make it our place.

It’s a surreal feeling, living like this. It’s peaceful and yet jarring. Everything feels like the calm before a storm, but instead of a storm it’s a whole new life waiting on the other side. When I can’t quite comprehend what I’m feeling and struggle to keep my thoughts straight I typically turn to music that I think captures it better than I think I’m able to.

I first heard “Won’t Let Go” when David Bazan played a snippet of it at The Triple Door during “The Song Show,” a series where CityArts interviews artists on stage between songs. Bazan’s been urged for a while now to write a conventional love song that doesn’t involve some sort of twisted scenario (not a lot of people bought his reasoning that “Please Baby Please” was a love song, a song where the narrator drunkenly pleads with his wife for a drink and later their daughter dies in a car accident – basically our generations “I Only Have Eyes For You”). Hearing just that little bit two years ago, I knew it was breathtaking. I thought the same thing when it was finally released on his album last year. But I don’t think I really “got it” until tonight.

As I work on the favors for our wedding, I have this song on repeat. The distant drums, the ethereal guitar twang, and Bazan’s aged soft growl are constantly buzzing in my ears. I can’t stop listening; I feel comforted. Basically in the song Bazan is calling his wife before getting on a plane, explaining that when she gets this message he’ll be on a plane thinking about her and his responsibilities to her – and that he won’t let go of her.

The premises sounds more like a Billy Joel, Peter Frampton, or, heck, even a Bruno Mars song – some generic safe musician. But it’s all about the execution of the story and who is telling it. The track bookends an album that starts with a chorus of “You’re a goddamn fool and I love you” and later details how we as people have lost our humanity. Not exactly “Baby I Love Your Way” now is it? Bazan’s had a rough road with faith that he’s shared publicly through his music and has also publicly mentioned its strain on his relationship with his family in interviews. To Bazan, this isn’t throw away napkin poetry but a thoughtful declaration.

“Who or what controls the fates of men I cannot say, but I keep arriving safely home to you. I humbly acknowledge that I won’t always get my way, but darling death would have to pry my fingers loose.”

What does it mean to love someone that you would literally fight off death, not for your own sake, but to not leave them alone? Darwin told us the animal kingdom is all about survival of the fittest, animals fighting for dominance and doing whatever it takes to get it. Bazan tells us his wife is worth more than pure alpha supremacy. What a novel concept, aye? This probably seems obvious and stupid but I think he touches at something even deeper – love is going against your human nature to give up everything for someone else. That’s beautiful.

It’s not just about avoiding death, it’s about allowing nothing to keep you from the one you love whether it is metaphysical or otherwise.  That’s an easy statement to make but a harder one to fully grasp – let alone follow through with.

In the over three years Kristin and I have been together, I’ve become closer to her than anyone in my life. In those years I’ve learned really for the first time what it means to sacrifice for someone you love. Not just little sacrifices, but knowing your capacity to do whatever you can to make sure they are safe and content. I can probably think of small things I’ve done for friends and family throughout my life that may constitute as “sacrifices,” but they’re not quite the same. Getting to this point has been the hardest thing I think I’ve done. There has been that pain in my stomach when I’ve felt like I cannot do enough only to gain the strength to move forward. I mean a physical hurt. There’s an actual ache when you want to raise someone up but you’re not sure how. And when you figure it out, it’s so much joy – not joy for your benefit but joy for the other person.

Of course, there is much more than just these aspects that go into love, but right now these are the specific ones on my mind. I’d need a novel to explore that, not a blog post.

I love Kristin more than I did the first time I told her I loved her. In twenty years I’m sure I’ll look back and say that I love her more than I did when I said it on my wedding day. Having a responsibility like this to someone else is challenging but the reward is tenfold. I cannot and will not let go of her, I could never afford to do that. Bazan and I could tag team beating the of shit out death because it’d take far more than that for me to stop trying – it’s impossible.

“I will not let go. I will not let go. I will not let go of you.”