Bryce Avary twists in his seat after every question, staring down at the cell phone he's cupping in his hands as though it will give him the answer if he watches it long enough. Can't really blame him for hoping someone will give him the answers. He's been trying to come up with his own for too long. Avary doesn't seem much older than he did when we first met a few years ago, and he certainly doesn't seem old enough to be answering the questions he's being asked. Questions about the years he spent on the sidelines of the music business, waiting for anyone to take a chance and put him in the game. Questions about broken promises, broken hearts. While his hair's grown out a bit, he's still short and slight and his voice is still high and hesitant. Granted, he just turned 20, but so much has happened between then and now.
A few feet away on the desk next to him lies a copy of Calendar Days, the debut full-length by The Rocket Summer, the band that consists of Avary and whatever instrument he happens to be holding at the time. The album officially hits stores February 25; Avary thought it never would. Can't really blame him for that either.
Though he doesn't look much different, Avary has changed quite a bit since he released his first (and until recently, only) disc, a five-song EP, when he was 17. He knows now that when you're dealing with managers and record labels, black is sometimes white and yes is usually maybe. And that often it looks as though you're doing nothing when you're working as hard as you can.
The Rocket Summer performs February 14 at The Door and February 22 at the Ridglea Theater, with Shiloh and Dhandi, as part of the Buzz-Oven showcase.
"After the two years, it totally makes sense, because I've changed a lot, just as a person and a lot as a musician," Avary says. "Now it just makes total sense why it took so long. I know a lot of people were like, 'So what do you do? You're not in school. I don't see you playing and stuff. Do you just sit around?'
"I've just been trying to get the songs right," he says. "It took a little longer, but I'm just really glad that I didn't sign anything when I was that age. It was always the smallest, like the lowest-end major-label guys. I don't know. People are scared to take risks. And now that I've signed stuff, major labels are calling up all the time now. It's just kind of funny."
Making a career out of writing and playing songs seemed so much easier, so much more possible, a couple of years ago. Avary's older brother, Blake, used to tease him, tell him that his career had already gone as far as it was going to go. Because that's what older brothers do, particularly when their kid brothers are 17-year-old aspiring musicians. Bryce had just released his EP--five cuts of, as one song put it, "Teenage Love Rock"--and a song from it, "So Far Away," was getting regular airplay on KDGE-FM's The Adventure Club. That's it, Blake would tell him, you're through.
Blake didn't believe it, of course, and neither did anyone else. Especially Bryce. Because that's what 17-year-old aspiring musicians do. Bryce was excited about hearing his music on the radio--"I almost got a concussion, I was jumping so high," he said in May 2000, not long after "So Far Away" first appeared on The Adventure Club's playlist--but he knew it was only the first page of the script. Him jumping up and down listening to the radio? That was merely the opening scene that gets the audience involved. The credits hadn't even begun to roll.
The rest of the script, as it turned out, needed some polishing. The story was erased and rewritten almost weekly, but it never got any longer. Avary would get calls from managers and A&R reps who had heard his songs on the radio or gotten one of the many packages he sent out, but none of them was saying the right things. He came close a couple of times: Michael Dixon, who manages Ron Sexsmith, offered to fly Avary to London to hang out, maybe do some recording, with the hopes of adding Avary to his client list. But the deal never clicked. So even though Blake was joking, it appeared that he was right: The Rocket Summer came out of nowhere, and it seemed as if it was heading back there just as quickly.
Avary knew if he waited long enough, something would happen. But it was hard for him to stay patient, especially since he was making grandé lattes at Starbucks while holding down another full-time job, recording songs at his parents' house in Colleyville; killing time was killing him. Last summer, he decided to stop waiting for something to happen to him and start making things happen on his own. That's the way he'd always done it before. He wrote the songs and played all of the instruments in the studio. He booked the shows and put out the records. He hung out at shows from the time bands were loading in until long after they'd put their gear back in the trailer, just hoping to meet the right people, make the right connections. He knew he could do it again. All he needed now was enough money to make the album he wanted.
"I knew that I could get better things than what I was getting," Avary says. "So I just talked to my dad, and I was like, 'Screw it, let's just do it ourselves and then shop it.' He had to think about it, because ultimately it was his money."
He took his dad's $15,000 and booked time at Red House Recording in Eudora, Kansas, with Ed Rose, who has recorded albums by the Get Up Kids and Red Animal War, among others. For six weeks in July and August, Avary recorded, again playing all of the instruments himself, and spent his nights sleeping in the studio's isolation booth.
"I don't remember any of that," he says, laughing. "It's seriously just one big day--that's what it feels like. One big blur. It's a definite step up from what I'm used to, but it was still like...It was actually kind of creepy. There were always spiders in my clothes. One night, like, right before I left, I was sitting there and I could hear things and I looked over and saw a mouse just kind of chewing on my toothbrush. That probably happened every night. I mean, don't know how I honestly made that record." He laughs again. "Other than just that, like, I believe God just totally helped me with it, seriously. I don't know how it happened." Another laugh. "Sometimes it got really rough."
It helped that Avary had already gotten through two rough years; another two rough months wasn't any big deal. It helped even more that once those two months were over, a record deal was waiting for him: Huntington Beach, California-based The Militia Group, a tiny label with only eight acts on its roster, signed The Rocket Summer late last year. To everyone who had heard the rumors about who Avary was allegedly going to sign with, who was calling him, who had shown up to one of his gigs, The Militia Group didn't make much sense. To Avary, it was the perfect choice. As he says on "This Is Me": "Just remember what's right for me might not be right for you."
"I'm sure if you ever talk to people that have worked with me, they might not talk too highly about me," Avary says, laughing. "Just because, I don't know, I change my mind a lot in the last few minutes about things I don't feel right about. There wasn't a single major label that actually offered me a deal. It was just a bunch of yapping. But I had a lot of managers and a lot of production deals thrown at me and stuff like that. I had some bigger and definitely more notable indie labels offering me contracts. But it got down to it and it was like, I can be a priority on this label where eight people spend their day working my record and always picking up the phone. Whether it's the littlest thing that has to do with marketing, they always make sure I see it first. I just knew that it would be, for now, I knew that it would be the best place to be, because I knew that's where I'd get pushed the hardest."
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Calendar Days certainly deserves the push: Avary's songwriting has expanded to include piano as much as guitar (leading to one of the disc's best moments, "Mean Thoughts and Cheap Shots"), and his lyrics have grown up faster than he has. (To be fair, the songs on his EP were written when he was 14.) The disc is hopeful in the way pop songs should be but rarely are; "Skies So Blue" turns a personal tragedy into a four-minute burst of unbridled optimism, complete with whoa-oh-whoa-oh chorus: "It's now wonderful to see beautiful views/Like skies that are so blue."
"Skies So Blue"--now in rotation on KDGE-FM--sums up the entire album, as well as Avary's new outlook. Yes, it was tough for a couple of years, and yes, it could get tough again. But he doesn't care. As long as he can make music, Avary is happy. Contracts, managers, tours, whatever--none of it matters.
"I think it's all worked out as it should, but there's definitely some times where I'm just like...Like, for example, I got to go to the Coldplay show because Ron Sexsmith was the opener. 'I wonder what would have happened if I would have done that.' You can't. I'm finally, just now, not doing that kind of stuff anymore. Thinking about mistakes I've made and stuff. Whatever happens, happens.
"Over the past year I've changed a lot, just my goals and my life and stuff," he continues. "While, of course, I do want this to get bigger and I want to be able to play in front of large amounts of people and just connect with people like that, but you know, whatever. I'd love to be comfortable doing it. I just really want to go out and play for as many people as I can, just be a light in a dark place."