By Jeremy Hallock
By James Khubiar
By Observer Staff
By Kelly Dearmore
By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
Bryce Avary doesn't really look all that happy, which is pretty weird because, let's face it, Bryce Avary is supposed to be happy. Or so anyone who's taken a listen to the 27-year-old Grapevine native's surgary-sweet power-pop as The Rocket Summer would assume.
After all, over the course of the first three full-lengths of his decade-long career, that's the persona he's carefully crafted—a sort of happy-go-lucky caricature of a young man willing to take the dreaded sad and sappy emo tag his music's been labeled with, turn it on its head and give it a positive message. It's what's given his music its incredibly charming quality over the years, what's made it such an attractive listen since he first started earning area accolades as a promising 17-year-old looking for his first big break in the biz.
But, on this night, some three weeks before his new album's February 23 drop date, he looks stressed. Maybe a little tired too. Definitely anxious.
When pressed, he blames the waiting game. A couple weeks removed from the release of Of Men and Angels, his fourth LP and his second on major label Island/Def Jam, very few of the details surrounding the release have been sorted out. A few headlining dates have been scheduled throughout the country to promote the release—most prominently, no doubt, this week's show at the Granada Theater, which will celebrate the disc's arrival—but as for an actual tour? That's still up in the air. (It's since been confirmed that he'll hit the road with baroque pop-rockers OneRepublic, which isn't a bad pairing.) It's all getting to him on this night, serving as a ticking time bomb in his head. Time's no longer on his side as far as promotional details are concerned, which Avary says is especially frustrating since his new album has been done for more than a year now.
"It's not normal for a record to come out a year after it's done," he says. "It's usually more like five, six months." He sighs, knowing there's nothing he can do about it. This is the major-label machine he's dealing with. And that, for better or worse, has always been his dream. "It's coming out," he finally musters, "and that's all that matters."
Not exactly a convincing show of strength, but, hey, he's trying to be positive. It's a stark contrast from when he starts talking about the album itself—something he's clearly proud of. He describes Of Men and Angels as a more musical record, as "bigger and bombastic." And, yes, as a more spiritual record too. The album title comes from a Bible verse, after all—1 Corinthians 13:1—which bemoans making noise without meaning behind it. A fitting selection, no doubt.
"I think everyone can relate to that, y'know? There's a lyric in one of the songs called 'This Is a Refuge' where it says, 'I don't want to look back in all my years/Recollecting the mistakes/Because then it will be clear of how I ran/And chased a place my whole life/And then become aware that I was there.' It's basically just that idea of something I was just yearning for."
Specifically, he's referencing his last release, 2007's Do You Feel?, his first on a major label, the burden he felt to produce the kind of hit record the label wanted and the disappointment he felt when the album didn't find him at the top of the music industry heap. Looking back, he knows where he went wrong. He meticulously prepared for that album—to a fault, actually—making mix CDs containing hundreds of his favorite pop songs, trying to break them down scientifically to see what made them so effective.
"I was trying to make a fricking huge hit record," he says, smiling a somewhat shameful grin. "Going on, I'm still trying to make a fricking huge hit record. But not really, at the same time. [With Of Men and Angels], I just wanted to make a great record that people would be like, 'That's the one.' With this album, I just wanted to write great songs."
That's never been Avary's problem. He's always had a penchant for penning catchy, affecting songs. But Of Men and Angels indeed reflects a clear change in philosophy. This time around, Avary says, he wrote without the aid of his favorite songs. It was no less painstaking a process, though—his description of writing and rewriting the chord progressions and song structures of the new album doesn't sound all that different from an obsessive-compulsive combing the fringes of an Oriental rug.
"I wanted to make a record that was far more organic and real," he says. "Do You Feel? was a highly produced album in the sense of making sure everything was perfect. I produced that album so I knew it, but I said at the time, 'Let's just do what we gotta do to make it sound like Green Day, but still be The Rocket Summer.'"
In short, he learned his lesson. And the new album reflects as much. Most prominently, the songs feel less guarded, more reflective of Avary's somewhat shaken core. They're still poppy—ridiculously and unrelentingly so—but not so much of the bubblegum variety. They're more epic in scope, more arena-ready than Warped Tour-approved. Maybe a little less confident too—but, in turn, more authentic and certainly more gripping than anything he's released before.
"With Do You Feel?, there was a whole lot of expectation," he says. "And we kind of spent a lot of time [preparing the new record]—at least I did, behind closed doors—being frustrated."
The Rocket Summer you'd expect? Not exactly. But, in his defense, the wide-eyed kid from Grapevine most people immediately recall upon hearing his name? He was a teenager—and a decade ago, at that.
Says Avary with a shrug and a smile: "It's just different."