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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Wax Stories #3: David Bazan – Curse Your Branches

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Sophomore year of college seems to be the “existential crisis” year for most people I know. Freshman year is all about meeting new people, having new experiences, and having the misplaced sense of independence (“I’m an adult now. I don’t live at home. I live in a dorm that my parents pay for and use a meal plan that my parents also pay for”). After the hype of college life dies down, it’s time to process all these new ideas and worldviews that have been stewing over the past year. If anything, I found this to be true for me.

I get a bit nervous writing about faith and thoughts on religion on my blog; I fear what impression it may give people and put everything into some weird, pigeonholed context. However, I feel this album is a good outlet to talk about it. If anything Curse Your Branches has helped me move on from closed mindedness and in to something else that I’m still trying to figure out.

At the end of freshman year, David Bazan – still newly solo after the break-up of Pedro The Lion – played on my campus in association with our campus radio station KSPU. I’d been listening to Bazan and Pedro The Lion since high school per suggestion of my friend Nate. This wasn’t the first time I’d heard Bazan play, but I was intrigued at the idea of him playing on a Christian college campus. Pedro the Lion was often mislabeled as a Christian band, but at this point it was becoming prevalent that Bazan was no longer a believer. I remember feeling secretly guilty singing along to  “Cold Beer & Cigarettes” from his solo EP Fewer Moving Parts in high school, which featured the Bazan husky voice belting “what a cruel God we got” and references to vaginas and sexual deviancy. I was surprised Seattle Pacific University would even allow something like that presented under their banner.

Bazan stood on the stage with only a guitar and a light projection of broken glass behind him. He opened with a song that at the time was titled “Graduation Day.” Opening with a new song is a bit unusual, but I studied the lyrics as he sang. Primarily it questioned the biblical creation narrative, but it was the last verse that felt painfully relevant to the room:

So I swung my tassel
To the left side of my cap
Knowing after graduation
There would be no going back

And no congratulations
From my faithful family
Some of whom are already fasting
To intercede for me

It felt a bit heavy handed to me in the moment, but it was the first time listening to Bazan that I got the impression he had a statement he wanted people to know. If that were true, he definitely got my hooked.

That summer, in 2009, I went to Alaska with my buddies Zach and John to work at a helicopter tour company. After spending a year in the dorms feigning self-sufficiency, I got what it really meant to grind out 50 hour work-weeks and have most of your paycheck go to rent and bills. Being away from most people I know gave me time to think and absorb challenges I had to my worldview in the last year, among other things (future Wax Stories referencing Alaska are sure to come). At night when I would read on the couch, I’d put Pedro the Lion’s discography on shuffle through my laptop speakers. I’m pretty sure Zach and John were pretty sick of hearing it all the time, but it gave me a chance to really listen to what Bazan was saying on those Pedro the Lion albums and try and use them to decipher my experience hearing him at SPU.

Bazan released an acoustic version of “Please Baby Please” earlier that year that I listened to obsessively. But when I found “Hard to Be” (formerly titled “Graduation Day”) streaming on Last.FM when I got back from Alaska, I knew this album was going to take things further than he had with Pedro the Lion. I knew it was something I needed to hear.

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And now it’s hard to be
Hard to be
Hard to be a decent human being

Curse Your Branches is the first album I can recall ever pre-ordering. I had it shipped to my new dorm, which I was living in alone for a few weeks before school started. My stereo was damaged during move-in, so it would be a while before I could actually listen to the vinyl, but I immediately pulled out the download code from the packaging and listened through my laptop.

I’d been going to Christian schools since I was 13. That doesn’t make me a theologian by any means, but gave me a decidedly evangelical perspective on things. I don’t want to completely disown my education – I feel like I did learn a lot of valuable philosophies and concepts, but I was really only seeing one side of a controversial and often upsetting story. Of course I had questions and issues with things that came up in the Bible, but everyone I was surrounded by was so sure that all of it was true and said they could cite exact scientific and moral reasons why. Everything could be explained through tactful apologetics. So any doubts I had, I repressed. Not specifically because anyone told me not to question, but because I personally felt it was inappropriate. So when “Hard to Be” opens Curse Your Branches, Bazan is bringing out all these questions I’d been denying myself all these years. It was heartbreaking, but at the same time intoxicating. It made me sad for him while feeling relief that I wasn’t the only one who felt this way.

The album then goes into a borderline parody of the Parable of the Weeds from the Book of Matthew on “Bless This Mess”, then a parable of Bazan’s own with “Please Baby Please,” and then to the title track “Curse Your Branches.” This is the one of all the tracks that will stick with me the most.

Red and orange, or red and yellow
In which of these do you believe?
If you’re not sure right now,
Please take a moment
I need your signature before you leave

How are we supposed to be so sure on what is the right religion or mode of thought when we have so little to go off and so little (relative) time to decide?

All falling leaves should curse their branches
For not letting them decide where they should fall
And not letting them refuse to fall at all

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These lyrics completely wrecked me. Every paper for a theology class that required some sort of faith statement would from then on have a burned copy of Curse Your Branches attached to them. The questions on this album sparked conversations with friends who were feeling the same things and with artists I’d interview for the paper. It prompted me to debate with my professors in class and call out things I thought were bullshit. To my surprise, sometimes they’d even agree with me. I’d spend late nights, when I should’ve been studying, reading lengthy interviews with Bazan talking about his lose of faith and reading the Bible with his daughter. There was so much I wanted to talk about with him. I wanted to hear it from him. I did this for years, and still sort of do today. I’ve realized he’s not the only one asking these questions, but he has become a figurehead to me for all the doubters.

Through all this though, I never have forsake my beliefs totally. I’ve really tried to rationalize myself out of it, but I can’t. There’s still something there. I can’t explain it and that’s really frustrating. I know I sound really ignorant and I don’t really know what to say to people who call me out on it. But this album changed how I view Christianity. It’s not as black and white for me anymore. It’s not something I can shout out some facts I read on an online form and claim I won. I’m not so much interested in debating anymore. I’m more interested in respecting people for who they are and accepting the same respect in return. I’m not going to stop looking for answers and questioning the weird things that are bound to come up.


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When I finally got the chance to interview Bazan a few month ago, I didn’t prepare the questions I would have in 2009. Just as I began to realize I am more than whatever views I’m struggling with right now, so is he. The subject was touched upon a bit, but mainly to help tell his story. When I spin Curse Your Branches today, the questions he brings up are still unanswered. I don’t know if they ever will be, but I feel like I’m in a better place for it. Bazan and I haven’t had the same realization exactly. I don’t think two people ever will. I just hope we can learn to accept that without taking offense.

And why are some hellbent upon there being an answer
While some are quite content to answer I don’t know?

Next week: Grand Ole Party – Humanimals

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