After years as indie act, the Avett Brothers hit it bigger

by Walter Tunis

McClatchy Newspapers (MCT)

24 June 2009


For years, the Avett Brothers operated as a sort of rootsy, indie antiquity in motion.

A banjo, stand-up bass and guitar outfit from the bluegrass-rich regions of North Carolina, the band’s music was one part rustic, literate, acoustic charm and two parts seething rock ‘n’ roll. And with every album cut for the independent label Ramseur Records, the band’s fan base grew.

A growth spurt was bound to happen sooner or later. The trio, consisting of guitarist Seth Avett, banjoist Scott Avett and their unofficial sibling but fully indoctrinated “brother,” bassist Bob Crawford, has caught the ears of the major labels — specifically, American/Columbia Records.

Not only that, its first non-indie project, a new album set for release later this summer titled “I and Love and You,” teamed the band with one of the record industry’s most esteemed producers, Rick Rubin.

So how does the change sit with the Avetts? Will jumping from the indie ranks to cutting an American album with Rubin puncture the intimacy and organic energy of the brothers’ rambunctious string band sound?

“We’re a major-label act now,” Johnson said. “We can’t deny that at this moment. But we’re kind of dancing with the one that brung us, you know what I’m saying? That said, we haven’t really changed our attitudes about what we’re doing since the days when me, Seth and Scott we’re touring around in a pickup truck.

“What’s happening now is simply the next step on the ladder for us. If you listen to each album, you will see a maturing process even though you will not notice any great change in the music. We have learned what works and what doesn’t. And then we simply modified.”

Many might argue that making a record with Rubin — whose clients have included Metallica, Tom Petty, The Red Hot Chili Peppers and Johnny Cash — isn’t just a step up on a ladder. It’s more like an express move to the penthouse.

“Rick is very patient, very thoughtful and very mellow,” Crawford said. “He’s a meticulous note-taker with an eye for detail. He can hear a song and break down the parts like the workings of a clock. And he is very aware, as we are, of the importance of each word in a lyric.

“It was a really nice collaboration. As someone who has been playing music for a long time, I can tell you there are perceptions that go with making a major label album — things like people being difficult and demanding. None of that materialized. None of the nightmare scenarios ever materialized.

“The thing is, you can’t dwell on any of this. I mean, working with Rick Rubin? Who could have fathomed that? But then it happens, it is what it is and you keep moving. We just have to keep moving.”

One could have sensed the majors would call on the Avetts eventually. The leap in visibility between the band’s 2005 concert recording, “Live, Vol. 2,” and its briskly selling 2007 studio album, “Emotionalism,” was considerable. And as its popularity grew, so did the size of the venues the Avetts played.

And the shows and stages are getting even bigger. Already this summer, the Avetts have opened performances by Dave Matthews Band at sold-out arenas. But with that comes another challenge: playing in front of a huge audience that paid to hear someone else.

“It comes back to just doing what we do,” Crawford said. “It takes a show or two to get acclimated to that environment. But I’ll tell you what ... it was really pretty cozy up there opening for Dave.

“Still, we do our thing no matter what stage we’re on. The idea of the live show for us has always been ‘pull the cord and let ‘er rip.’ It’s ­always been like that. So there is a sense of comfort and security that comes with that no matter what environment we’re playing in, whether it’s a festival, a punk club, a theater or an ­amphitheater with Dave in front 18,000 people. Of course, it’s more like 8,000 when we start our set.

“But empty room, full room, boardroom, classroom — we’ve played just about all of them. The sound systems change. The environments change. We stay the same.”

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