There are only three shopping days until Christmas, and Scott Avett has just begun his annual quest for gifts. Avett's absence from the Christmas hustle and bustle this year is not the result of garden variety procrastination or an unreasonable fear of the mall. This year, Avett's band, the Avett Brothers, has been pathologically busy.
The Avetts - brothers banjoist/vocalist Scott and guitarist/vocalist Seth, with stand-up bassist Bob Crawford - are closing the book on a calendar year that has been the most rewarding since the band officially began six years ago. 2007 has seen the Avetts sell more albums, log more road time and mileage and score more industry accolades than ever before, and it's clearly a great feeling.
The year began, naturally enough with roadwork, but not until The Avetts had put the finishing touches on their 10th release, "Emotionalism," which hit the streets back in May. In the midst of a grueling touring cycle that saw them spend nearly two-thirds of the year away from home, The Avetts took time off in November to collect a pair of Americana Music Association awards, one for Best Duo/Group and the other for Best New/Emerging Artist (they were also nominated for Album of the Year, but lost to Patty Griffin - as did Lucinda Williams and Bob Dylan).
Avett says he and the band were surprised and extremely grateful for the awards.
"You can't help but be surprised when there's some sort of validation for something you've been trying to convince so many people of anyway," says Avett with a laugh. "You take the time to be rewarded and pat everybody on the back and then move on to the next thing. We're always a step or two ahead."
Avett suspects that the band's AMA awards may have spiked sales and raised their profile, but he doesn't necessarily have any empirical evidence to prove it.
"I'm sure it was more powerful than I'm aware of because I don't see all the reactions, sales wise, until well after," says Avett. "And anything, like Christmas, will effect sales and people coming out to shows and whatnot. I'm extremely guilty of looking ahead too far. We're doing demos for the next record, and it gets harder to settle down and think about 'Emotionalism' at this point. It's hard to balance that when you're a songwriter or an artist and you're thinking ahead all the time, and there's a responsibility to promote what you've done, and it's still new to many many people."
Even as The Avetts move further into the process of creating their new album, it's hard not to reflect on 'Emotionalism,' the biggest critical and commercial success the band has had to date. Upon its mid-May release, 'Emotionalism' debuted at number one on Billboard's Heatseekers Albums chart and interest in the album has remained consistently high over the subsequent seven months.
"It has been better than any other record we've put out," says Avett of the response to 'Emotionalism.' "It's sold more copies. It's given us more opportunities to play before people who are familiar with the album. The distribution and the coverage on it was a step up."
Perhaps one of the biggest reasons that 'Emotionalism' specifically and The Avett Brothers in general have been getting so much attention is that they represent a new way of thinking about old time bluegrass music.
The Avetts are bringing a 21st century mindset about the creation and dissemination of music to a genre whose roots were planted before the beginning of the last century, and that fresh approach has captured the imagination of fans and critics alike.
"A lot of the appeal and the writing (of 'Emotionalism') was possible because we had stepped up our ability to promote ourselves and promote the promotion for other people," says Avett. "That helped hugely. It wasn't just a learning process of what we were recording, and it's not all because the record was a step forward for us. It's also because our business sense and our musical marketing sense is much stronger now. It's very interesting and very relevant in today's world of music, especially if you're independent and there are more and more people who are."
Avett sees a lot of parallels between the advances made by older and more accomplished musical peers and what he and the Avett Brothers are attempting with bluegrass. In his mind, they're all building from a similar foundation, but sees The Avetts as benefiting from their later start.
"Tom Waits was doing it with blues and jazz, and Bob Dylan was doing it with folk and country, and we're doing it with some of those things as well, but we just have a lot more to work with since those guys," says Avett. "Punk rock has lived and heavy metal has lived and hip hop has lived to its fullest. There's so many new things to pull from, it's almost like a reassessment of that - I've obviously got a lot of time to think about this - and going at it again so the wheel can be turned again, and there can be new blood, and we're not the only ones doing this."
The Avetts's experience with other forms of musical expression is firsthand rather than theoretical. Both Scott and Seth did stints with alternative rock bands in their Concord, N.C. hometown, eventually expanding to Charlotte and Greenville. After playing separately, the siblings joined forces in a heavy rock outfit called Nemo, which gained a decent following in the region.
As internal pressures began to mount, the Avetts began letting off steam in an acoustic setting that came to be known alternately as the Back Porch Project or Nemo Downstairs. In 2000, the Avetts and Nemo guitarist John Twomey officially became The Avett Brothers and self-released their debut, six-song EP.
The following year, Nemo broke up, Twomey left The Avett Brothers, and bassist Bob Crawford was brought into the fold. With the acoustic trio finding a larger and more loyal audience than any of their rock predecessors, the Avetts decided to stick with the bluegrass/country format, releasing their first full length album, "Carolina Was," in 2002.
"We never were bluegrass musicians and had no business saying we were, and we never did. It just so happened we started with banjo and guitar," says Avett with a laugh. "We started from the bottom, and we've been building slowly since then."
After the "Live at the Double Door Inn" release, The Avett Brothers were approached by Dolph Ramseur, the independent owner of a small label. Taking a chance on the relatively untested indie, the Avetts signed up, getting help with duplication and distribution of "A Carolina Jubilee" in 2003 and releasing the "Swept Away" EP and the semi-conceptual "Mignonette" full length on Ramseur Records in 2004.
"It was a chance we took on him," says Avett. "We were very lucky that he turned out to be as straight up and as hard working as he is. There's not a major label out there that we haven't talked to in the past three years. Whatever choices we make as we release records, we never forget and we always make conscious decisions on what's best for the art. There's a lot of ways to market yourself, and we can all find ways to make money. I don't need to be rich. As long as my bills are paid and I can feed my family, everything's fine. As far as the records and what needs to happen for the next step, as long as we're progressing, that's the right decision. That can be major label. That can be small label. That can be no label. There's no formula anymore."
The Avetts followed with their second self-released live album in 2005, which was quickly joined by "Four Thieves Gone," an album crafted during an 11-day hibernation in a remote cabin, which went on to become their most acclaimed record to that point.
With the success of "Four Thieves Gone," The Avetts determined try some different approaches with their next album. Breaking with their previous methodology, The Avetts held back at least half of the songs they'd written for "Emotionalism" from their live set.
"We didn't want to get bored with it, and we also wanted it to be a surprise," says Avett. "These days, if you play it live, it's on YouTube, it's recorded on all kinds of recording systems, it's over the top. It's a positive thing, but we're trying to work it into a positive for us
and for our fans. As soon as this record comes out, you start with a song they've heard four or five times and they're excited about, that's the great thing. The next record might even be more so."
In another break from their standard procedure, when they took their material into the studio, they utilized co-producers - former Blue Rags/current Band of Horses bassist Bill Reynolds and noted producer Danny Kadar (My Morning Jacket, Iggy Pop) - for the first time.
"We felt very comfortable with Bill, and we trusted Bill, and from his track record, I knew him as a person, and I believed in him, so that was a comforting situation instead of going in with people you don't know, who just have credentials," says Avett.
"Bill immediately brings warmth to the record, which we try to bring anyway but sometimes you overdo. If it's all warmth and emotion, you lose some of the technical capabilities of what you should be getting out of it. Bill understands the technical differences in the balance in what's commercially good and what's artistically good."
"With Danny, it was just a guy with history and a no-brainer about which knobs to turn and where to go with it. If you're talking about the Sistene Chapel, Michelangelo wasn't the only one moving the brush on the ceiling. Any great work takes help, it takes people, it takes hands. A couple people may take the brunt of the credit, but when the day is done, it's a lot of hands in any great work of art. And you aspire to hope that what you're making is great art."
Because they had always been the only creative force in the studio prior to "Emotionalism," bringing in producers and relinquishing some control was risky but ultimately rewarding.
"We've learned that letting go of some of that control is actually gaining control," says Avett. "Bringing another producer in brought new ears and new sounds and new thoughts and new resources, and it shows on it. It was something that sat very well with us and opened many doors that are not apparent yet for the next album. Sometimes if you want it to thrive, you've got to kind of let it go and let it take a trip around the room in other hands and come back to you."
Obviously one of the biggest components in The Avett Brothers's recent rise has been their ongoing commitment to the road. Dedicating at least eight months of this year to touring, The Avetts are spreading the word about their music the old-fashioned way, one audience at a time. Even as their re-energized old time sound finds new fans via their newfangled web site, Avett realizes that taking their music directly to their listeners is the surest method of exposing their sound to the world.
"When you go on trips - some cross country ordeal or overseas - you always come home feeling learned and experienced, and you have stories to tell and there's things to talk about and remember, and it really does stimulate every part of your life," says Avett. "We're constantly like that, we're constantly being energized by that and it helps. It helps as you grow older, you just realize you're growing older a lot slower because of it. It really keeps you alive. We've grown very accustomed to it and we feel very natural on the road, and we know the ins and outs of it, so that's helped even more."
As Avett notes, the band is already well into the process of formulating their next album. Using the departures of "Emotionalism" as a blueprint, he and the band are once again planning to find new ways to fashion an old sound in the studio.
"We're going to record two or maybe three albums worth of music and record it professionally as demos. Then, we're going to record it again," says Avett. "We've already started on a journey with this album that is very interesting with how it's going to be. It will be extremely refined, not necessarily in technical sound, but refined in our choices artistically."