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It's an old story in music. A band works hard and earns a loyal, if somewhat diminutive, following. The band works harder and gains an even bigger and still super-loyal fan base. The band gets signed to a major label or imprint, mostly on the strength of their fans' support, and they start to change up their sound, egged on by their increased recording budgets. Their first set of fans—maybe even the first two sets—gets upset and cries foul.
The Avett Brothers know this scenario all too well—even as they stand as one of the great independent-to-major-label success stories of our time. Their story goes like this: Scott and Seth Avett, along with bassist Bob Crawford, self-released their first couple of albums, beginning with a self-titled EP in 2000. To suggest that their sound was sparse and burlap-rough in these recordings would be an understatement. It's not that those traits hindered the group's overall effort—quite the contrary, actually. Such bare-boned rawness earned them plenty of acclaim throughout their home state of North Carolina and its surrounding Mid-Atlantic region—so much so that they were able to continue recording and start touring across the country.
Here, of course, is where things started to get tricky. In 2009, when the band signed to Rick Rubin's Sony subsidiary American Recordings and released the breakthrough Rubin-produced I And Love And You, fans were upset by the album's production sheen—a vast upgrade from the Avett Brothers' previous releases—because it wasn't the low-budget efforts they'd grown so accustomed to hearing and adoring.
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Crawford, taking some time off from the recording of the band's upcoming, once again Rubin-produced follow-up, says the change was simply due to an increase in budget. The practical limitations of the meager resources available during their fruitful infancy were removed from the equation.
"The rustic sound really wasn't our plan," he says. "That early sound had more to do with what we could afford and our abilities with our instruments and the fact that we had little knowledge on how to really make a record. We had limitations professionally, limitations talent-wise and monetarily. The goal then was the same as it is now—to make the best-sounding record possible. The goal is to always make it better."
And, in the band's defense, this new formula has worked. The Starbucks-backed I And Love And You, with its shiny pop aesthetic, has earned the band legions of new fans—many of whom adore the sound and their decidedly un-banjo-shredding nature. Its sales figures stand as the biggest of the band's career; its chart positions, on both Billboard and iTunes, the highest.
But, naturally, even in the face of newfound stardom (the band performed at this year's Grammy Awards, you may recall), Crawford insists that such commercial factors aren't affecting them as they record their much-anticipated new record. While opting not to get terribly specific on what can be expected from the record, the bass player, who also performs with roots act the Overmountain Men, takes a measured approach in describing what lies ahead for the band.
"We don't really know what the final sound of this new record will be yet," Crawford says. "But, like I said earlier, it will sound the best we can make it sound. As a musician, I want to be challenged. I want to play the old songs in a new way because I want to grow as a musician."
And if the old fans don't approve?
"I don't dismiss the fan that wishes we wouldn't move forward," Crawford say. "But we've always done what we wanted to do."