Last year was transitional for North Carolina's Avett Brothers. Until then, Scott and Seth Avett and bassist Bob Crawford were primarily known as a rock-inflected bluegrass outfit with a fanatical cult following. They'd spent the years since their 2000 debut earning their fans the old-fashioned way: through nonstop touring. The Avetts also self-recorded a series of albums for country indie Ramseur Records, culminating with 2007's Emotionalism.
The changes began with the Avett Brothers entering a Los Angeles recording studio to work with producer Rick Rubin. They also left the indie world behind, signing with Rubin's Columbia Records-owned imprint American. Having spent so many years acquiring a devoted fan base, most bands might be fearful of alienating them with so many wholesale changes. Not the Avett Brothers.
"You have to be careful not to write or draw or paint or illustrate or perform or compose in regards to the market," says Scott Avett. "For us, we work very hard to keep all that [separate], and let it be what it will be. If they don't like it, and we know 100 percent for sure that it's the right thing and that we're doing what we're supposed to do, then all will settle."
The band's Rubin-produced I and Love and You is a more mature record than the Avetts' previous efforts. It's marked by a more serious tone, with the focus shifted from barnburning bluegrass toward sophisticated but stripped-down chamber pop. Avett credits Rubin's touch.
"I think [Rubin's production] makes a difference mostly in how we would have made the next record," says Avett. "I think that Seth and I sort of automatically perceive progression as a building-up. I think that's a natural way of looking at things, like we're going to progress, so we're going to add and we're going to build and we're going to increase. I think Rick showed us and helped us see for ourselves that that's the same thing."
Avett says Rubin kept things organic, while pushing the band to try a new approach.
"He basically showed us that progression may not be more as far as instruments; it may just be the right quantity or the right placement," says Avett. "[Previously] we would blow something out with instruments or ideas, or changing in tempos, or adding of overdubs here and there, and then we would pull it back to what it should be. Seth and I tend to build up, build up, build up, looking to build up a bigger record. We thought automatically that that was the progression, and it really wasn't. It's more about us finding our element at that moment, and Rick did a great job of helping us find our element that we're comfortable in now."
The Avetts have been playing together for a decade. Scott still sees the band's career as an ongoing journey, with the move to a major label, a famous producer and big studios as just another step in that journey.
"In the end, I look at everything that I do artistically as a body of work, so you're not always going to have this peak period," he says. "Everybody always wants to talk about the peak, and they want to talk about the masterpiece. But there are going to be these pieces to the whole, these parts that are going to be special in their own right. They're necessary and they're key. Regardless of whether people like them or not, it's just the way it is. If you don't show that, [then] it's not representative of you as an artist. The thing that comforted me the whole time was, if we made a terrible record and we do learn something from it, then it's totally worth doing. If it bombs and we get dropped, people hate it, so be it. If we learn something from it, then it's priceless."