The Avett Brothers’ most recent, Grammy-nominated album, True Sadness, stands as one of the most personal releases of the North Carolina band’s fifteen-plus-year career. But as the album took shape, including such songs as “Divorce Separation Blues,” the band members didn’t limit their candor to the music—they exposed their day-to-day lives for a film crew, too. The result is the new feature-length documentary May It Last: A Portrait of the Avett Brothers, produced by Judd Apatow and Michael Bonfiglio. “We had to think on it for a minute,” says Seth Avett, who founded the band with his brother, Scott. “Would we be willing to open up the doors and have a film crew—three, four people—there for the most intimate parts of the process? I’m glad we did.”
In the film, home movies and early concert footage chronicle the Avetts’ rise from “hillbillies” playing dive bars to renowned musicians headlining Madison Square Garden. Meanwhile, the film crew spent more than two years documenting the band’s daily life: splitting wood and gathering eggs on the Avett farm in Concord, North Carolina, cooking breakfast with family at home, and, of course, workshopping the material that would become their ninth studio album. And while fans will surely appreciate the backstage footage and rollicking soundtrack, it’s the unguarded moments away from the stage—from dealing with the gut punch of divorce to a child’s battle with cancer to the anticipation of fatherhood—that lend May It Last its remarkable intimacy. “I was surprised that we were able to get so comfortable,” Seth says. “To get to a place where the film crew melted into the wallpaper.”
May It Last: A Portrait of the Avett Brothers will screen for one night only on September 12 at theaters around the country. We caught up with Seth Avett about the film, the significance of the Avetts’ North Carolina home, and how it feels to open up to fans in a new way. Watch the trailer and read the interview below, and find a screening in your area by visiting the film’s website.
This documentary caught some extremely private moments. What was it like to talk through your emotions in real time for a film crew?
You can’t pretend. When someone asks you a question on camera, the worst thing that can happen is for you to put up a front and to try and be a star, because that would just be gross and off-putting. Spending as much time as we did with that crew, we got to where it wasn’t just a professional endeavor. We became friends with all those guys, so it made it a lot easier to speak on something right then and there in the moment. Sure, it is not normal to have an experience and then right afterward have someone say, “Well, how does that feel?” But it forced me to process things in a real, immediate way. It’s probably good sometimes for us to ask ourselves, “How did I feel about that just now?”
There’s a lot of North Carolina in the film, from your home in Concord to Echo Mountain Studios in Asheville. Was it a deliberate choice to tackle this project in your home state?
The process changes pretty much for every record, but we really just try to follow the natural path. This time it just happened to be that we worked some in our homes. We made demos at Echo Mountain. It made sense because that is home for us. North Carolina is very much part of our genetic makeup. With any record that we’ve made so far, it’s been paramount for us to connect and to stay connected to the initial inspiration for the songs and to who we are.
What was it like for you to watch the film?
Watching it back was a little bit surreal because I saw different sides of myself. “Oh, so that’s what I look like when I’m making that face.” You know what I mean? It’s also funny to me to hear other people talk about [us], because despite being in a band that has seen some success and has seen some growth and popularity, for all the things that get said about Scott and me, we never hear any of them. To see family members and bandmates weigh in on what we’re like together was different and fun for sure.
Watch: G&G’s Back Porch Session with the Avett Brothers
Many of the people who were interviewed commented on how surprising it was to find two brothers who get along so well as bandmates. Does that surprise you?
As I’ve grown older, I’m always surprised when I hear about siblings not staying in touch and not being able to work together—only because that hasn’t been my experience. I mean, it’s just the most normal thing in the world to me. It’s like most wonderful things in your life you just tend to take for granted.
In the film, you talk about learning from Doc Watson that as a musician, power doesn’t come from volume—it comes from character. How do you think the film might affect the way the audience understands your character?
It will certainly broaden it. The interaction we have with our audience is so solidly built on live performance, on shows. That’s what we’ve always done. That’s what we’ve done for fifteen years: pound the pavement and just get out there and play on stage. Depending on the night, Scott and I might get really loose and start joking a little bit on the mic and embarrassing ourselves. We really are there to connect with people through music and to have that kinship and that camaraderie through songs. So [live performance] is really where our focus is. But if you come and see us play one time, you probably have no idea what the dynamic between Scott and me and the rest of the band is like. There’s real intimacy that is presented in the movie. You could find glimpses of it in the songs, and glimpses of it in the live performances, but to watch the film is about as close as it comes to being in the room with us.