Hardcore Avett Brothers fans might feel a little smug hearing mainstream America gush about this "breaking new band" — a band they've followed closely for nearly a decade. Their recent contract with Columbia Records is no doubt the reason for all the fresh hype, with everyone from NPR to Rolling Stone chiming in. But it's hardly the big break for the Concord, N.C.-based trio. They've been steadily chugging forward for a long time, and this is just the logical next step in their journey.
The Avett Brothers — multi-instrumentalists Scott and Seth Avett, and upright bassist Bob Crawford — formed in 2001. After initially jamming together as a punk outfit, they started leaning toward the opposite end of the spectrum: bluegrass, folk, Americana, putting their own modern spin on the classic styles. They began touring the Southeast and beyond in a pick-up truck, and with raucous live shows and simple, honest recordings, their fanbase has grown steadily, just as the band itself grows stronger with each release.
Over the summer and fall of 2008, the band spent an unprecedented two months recording their major-label debut, due out Sept. 29, called I and Love and You. The recording process, which took place mainly in Malibu, was a big step forward for the maturing band, who in the past recorded their songs in just a few takes.
"When we first started making records, we could only do what we were able to do and what we understood about recording, which was limited," says Bob Crawford, on the phone from Concord during a brief break in touring. "The more times we went into the studio we understood further the capabilities of being in a recording studio ... Once we knew what we were capable of and what the possibilities of being in a recording studio were, the limitations were money and time.
"But now this time, working with Columbia and working with Rick Rubin, those limitations were removed."
Rick Rubin, the legendary producer known for working with the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Johnny Cash, and Tom Petty, discovered the Avett Brothers and signed them to American Recordings, an imprint of Columbia, in 2008.
"He's a great help on the record, and his stamp came from a lot of aiding us to do what we do best," Crawford says. "He heard us and he liked a lot of what we did. In the studio it wasn't a matter of trying to change what we do, it was a matter of we would do what we do, and then he was trying to enhance that as much as he could. Sometimes his great help was doing nothing — just letting us do what we do.
"Whatever the hesitation or fear about being with a major label ... whatever the stereotypical major label experiences, whatever negatives could be associated with that, we haven't experienced those yet," Crawford adds. "It's been a real nice transition. Our team is a lot bigger than it was a year ago and it's a great team."
On I and Love and You, fans can expect the same intimate songwriting the Avetts are known for, with an all-around cleaner sound than ever before, and more pop-friendly, piano-driven melodies as well. The title track, with the catchy refrain "Brooklyn, Brooklyn, take me in," is already being embraced by mainstream radio. But, like the other Avett Brothers albums, the sound is still very different from their live performances.
"The live show is its own thing," Crawford says. "It's definitely a very physical experience and an energetic experience, and we feed off the audience a lot. The recorded world, it's almost like you're making a film. More thought-out, less spontaneous for the most part. More production. When we're live, it's like a fleeting moment, and recording is lasting."
And while you can still expect a rockin' live show from The Avett Brothers — broken banjo strings, head-banging, and all — they're not as wild as they used to be. It's ironic that they seem to be settling down just as their career is really taking off. All three members are married now, two with kids, and that's reflected in many of the songs on I and Love and You.
"A lot of the themes are getting broader and deeper," Crawford says. "In the old days, you had those pretty girl songs and songs about guys and girls being in love. Being in love, courtship and dating and heartbreak and cars and traveling seem to be a lot of our older themes. I think as people grow and go into different phases in their lives, they get older and you get a family and begin to deal with other issues. I think that a lot of the songs on this record kinda touch on the next phase in life."