Tuesday, September 16, 2008

The Avett Brothers: 'A constant state of learning'

Under the guidance of a big-name producer, the hardworking North Carolina hipster rockers return to Jefferson Center on Friday.

the Avett Brothers

Courtesy Jefferson Center

The Avett Brothers, with Justin Gordon


The Avett Brothers' experience around Roanoke is a classic example of musical growth and fan-building.

It all started around here a couple of years back, with shows at FloydFest and the Coffee Pot. The buzz grew. In September 2007 the eclectic, acoustic-based band headlined Jefferson Center's Shaftman Hall, where it returns for a Friday show.

There were only 415 Avett enthusiasts there on that September night at the 938-capacity Shaftman. If there are no more than that on Friday, it will be because front-running music fans haven't yet heard the big news.

By the time the Concord, N.C.-based Avetts -- brothers Scott, 32, and Seth, 28, and Bob Crawford, 37 -- hit FloydFest this July, they had signed with American Recordings/Columbia Records, where they are working with uber-producer Rick Rubin. The late Johnny Cash, Tom Petty, Run-DMC, the Beastie Boys, Red Hot Chili Peppers and Neil Diamond are just a few of the acts Rubin has produced.

Despite that big status change, the band continues to do what it has done since it formed six years back: work.

"It's been a never-ending run. ... We've really been doing it pretty much like this since 2002," bassist Crawford said by phone Sept. 5 from Memphis, where the band had a date. "So we're used to living on the road, and there is a certain level of comfort that we have come to find. But everything is going real, real well these days. We're having a lot of fun out here, and really feel like we're honing our craft, whatever that is. We just feel that after years of doing it over and over again, that it's coming together real nice, real nice."

A learning experience

After Rubin discovered the band, via Columbia Records' artist and repertoire department, he began meeting with the band during breaks in its touring schedule.

Over a year, producer and artists felt each other out at Rubin's home base in the Los Angeles area. In the past couple of months, the band has been using its touring breaks to record with Rubin, though it's difficult to tell how the Avetts' upcoming album will finally sound, Crawford said.

"It's all one form or another of being on the road, but I'll tell you, it's a nice change of pace," he said. "And it's been a very comfortable experience. We've worked really hard while we've been in the studio, but the environment is set up so it's very relaxing, and everybody that we're working with out there, they have great attitudes, and they're really optimistic and positive people to be around, and they're really great at what they do.

"Friends ask me what it's like, and I tell them it's like being in school, or almost having the best internship you could ever imagine, 'cause we've always considered ourselves in a constant state of learning. ... And being there, it feels like we're getting a glimpse into a world that, growing up, we always wanted to be a part of. And here we are, working in probably one of the best recording environments ... there is.

"But the process, just being involved in the process, and being where we are, around the people we're around, being around the equipment we're around, it's like, you know that this experience is going to form the next 10 years of your professional life, you hope."

The band is touring behind its final album for hometown label Ramseur Records, "Second Gleam," a follow-up to 2006's "The Gleam." Both are short -- about six songs each. Both are quiet and meditative. Sandwiched in between is another record, the full-length "Emotionalism," which also received mostly great reviews.

A 'natural' next step

On records, the band has never covered up its emo-folk leanings with a rattletrap of backing music. But onstage, it has not been afraid to turn up the energy and bang away at its instruments. Don't expect those things to change, Crawford said. The Avett Brothers didn't feel they needed to leave Ramseur for just any label, and were adamant that they didn't compromise their music and art for a shot at better commerce, he said.

"We feel really good about the direction that everything is headed in," he said. "We wanted it to be something that added to what we've built that last seven years, and not something we needed to change for, or not something that would redefine us in terms that we weren't comfortable with. It needed to be the next natural step."

It's turned out even better than they had hoped, he said.

"There are things that we're learning in this recording process that are going to aid us, be it us producing our own albums in the future, or be it working with Rick Rubin again in the future. No matter who we work with, no matter what we do musically, we're all taking something away from this experience that I think goes beyond the experience itself."