Despite seven years on the road, slowing down may be a difficult proposal for the North Carolina-based Avett Brothers (pronounced ay-vet). And the buzz around their upcoming album, I and Love and You (American/Columbia Records)--slated to hit shelves Tuesday, Sept. 29--isn't going to make that any easier.
New Jersey-born/South Carolina-based Bob Crawford, the group's stand-up bass player--and only non-Avett--finds the prospect of sitting around all but unbearable. And with a new musical project almost complete and a new family project in the works, everything in Crawford's life will be a whole different kind of busy.
The Avett Brothers began playing as such in 2000, with Crawford joining them in 2002. With harmonies that sometimes sound eerily like entire choirs, jangly guitars, lyrics that evoke collective human memories sung in the brothers' goose-bump-inspiring voices and richly layered bass, piano, banjo, harmonica and handclaps have put the Avett Brothers in that weird, tenuous place between genres. Their musical diversity also guarantees that their fans and their shows are anything but homogeneous.
The band performs in every kind of setting--from dark little honky tonks to thousand-seat arenas. The addition of I and Love and You, which boasts famed producer Rick Rubin at the helm, will not only increase the cross-section of listeners but will also make for more than a dozen releases. If the title track is any indication of what the rest of the album offers, both critics and the medley of Avett Brothers fans alike will have 13 more reasons to cry out those three little words to the Americana/country/punk/bluegrass/folk/rock band. But the album may also put the band at the tipping point.
"We did opening gigs for Dave Matthews," Crawford said, a surprising slow, soft drawl flavoring his words. "We got to play eight shows and play on these really big stages in front of 15,000 people. But then again, we played in Omaha, Neb., a couple of days ago, and we played for 400 people. It's the variety right now; we're in this magical time. If we get big, it's going to be one thing. If we flop, we're going to be back to playing small places all the time. If we stay where we are, we'll have variety. I don't see it staying where it is, though. It's either going to flop or it's going to go large."
That impending change that Crawford foresees may be what keeps them constantly traversing America's highways.
"We've been on tour since 2002 pretty much," Crawford said. "We're getting closer to it, but rarely have we been like, 'Here's our tour. It starts here and it ends here.' We'll go out for seven weeks and come home for five days. We'll go out for six days, we'll come home for a week. We'll go out for a month, we'll come home for four days. It's constant. We had four months off this year, and that's the longest we've ever had off. We have about three months coming up starting in November, and that's a tremendous amount of time off for us."
While the band was on their four-month hiatus, Crawford worked on a couple of side projects. In January, he recorded an album with his other project, the Ober Mountain Men, which includes singer/songwriter David Childers, one of Crawford's idols. Crawford and Childers worked on the album, writing songs back and forth across the Internet for three years, and plan to release it in January 2010. But Crawford didn't spend his entire time recording. He and his wife are expecting a baby in November.
"I spent a lot of time at home and a lot of time with my wife. Obviously, we made a baby," Crawford said. "And when I'm off now, I'm off. To be a dad: probably the greatest project I'll ever work on in my life. I'm trying to really savor this. Everyone tells me this is a very special time in our lives and, as busy as [we are], we're trying to take advantage of it and try to be in the moment. It's so hard to get off the road and stop. To stop doing music. You try to sit still, but it's difficult. I think my daughter coming is going to inspire that. It seems to for Scott [Avett]. He had a daughter and that made it easier for him to be still."
The September release of I and Love and You provides only a small window of time for fans to soak up the Avett Brothers live before the band takes themselves out of musical commission for a while. According to Crawford, it's an album that shows a great deal of growth for the band.
"Each album is a step forward," Crawford said. "What I love about I and Love and You is that it's a little bit of everything. It's a step toward the future, working with Rick Rubin and the engineer, we added more artists to the group. You can't deny that. The more I listen to the album, there's things that are so us about it, so four years ago, but there's things that aren't us at all."
Crawford reflected that those things probably would have been inherently Avett if the group had known how to do those things five years ago. But they didn't. So they worked with people who did.
"There are a lot of studio aspects to making something aurally pleasing and aurally dynamic and crisp and alive that we don't know how to do. But Rick Rubin and Ryan Ewett know how to get that," Crawford said. "The songs changed from creation to demo, they changed from demo to recording, and they change from recording to live. They're always changing, and that is the beauty of it. That is the fun and that keeps it new all the time, which we need."
On his fifth interview of the day, Crawford said, jokingly, that reflecting was something he'd kind of been forced to do. And even though he tries not to give the same answers in each interview, one common thread kept popping up.
"Each album we've done is equal distance from the one previous," Crawford said. "With all the steps on the ladder, you keep getting higher and higher. I think I and Love and You is a natural, mature step."
Sometimes taking a step forward means reaching back, which is exactly what the Avett Brothers have been doing. They've been digging way back into their catalog and reinventing some old songs, a joyful prospect that makes those old tunes feel as fresh as the new ones. Otherwise, waving goodbye to their loved ones and living out of suitcases would be an unacceptable substitute for being at home.
"If it isn't fresh and it does not continue to grow, there's nothing that can keep us here," Crawford said seriously. "Nothing that can keep us on the road, nothing that can keep us from our families."
And since I and Love and You promises such musical growth, the band may want to think about adding a nursery to the bus. Stepping up is something the Avett Brothers know how to do. Stepping back, however--for them and fans alike--is going to be a hell of a lot tougher.
Wednesday, Aug. 26, with the Heartless Bastards, 8 p.m., $20. Knitting Factory, 416 S. Ninth St., bo.knittingfactory.com.