Crossing state lines, a pothole-ridden highway can turn to smooth blacktop in an instant—like a little reward for exploring new territory. In essence, this is what the Avett Brothers discovered when they sat down to record the song "Laundry Room," arguably the most polarizing track on the band's successful major label debut, I and Love and You.
"I've heard complaints through the grapevine about that song being so different on the record from what it had been live," says singer/banjoist/pianist Scott Avett. "But it's actually one of the most important songs on the album. The first day in the studio for I and Love and You, we started out like we always had in the past. We put up three stations with partitions, set up just like we did on stage, and said, ‘Okay, this is our starting point. We'll play the songs just like we do live.' But when we worked on [‘Laundry Room'] all that day, nothing good happened—it just sounded abrasive and terrible every time we did it. That had never really happened to us before, where we were just stumped. So we made a call that night to try a different approach, to change the tone. We came in the next morning and sat down with the guitar and piano—instead of standing up in full charge position—and we did it one time and all agreed, this is it. This is how it's going to be done. In retrospect, we had to get our sea legs in the studio, and changing up that song kind of provided the sort of confidence and mood that we needed for the rest of the record. It set the tone."
For some longtime fans of the North Carolina-based Avetts' rough-around-the-edges brand of Americana, the mellow reworking of "Laundry Room" seemed to substantiate their fears of a major-label soul squeeze. In reality, though, Scott, his brother Seth (vocals/guitar/piano), and bassist Bob Crawford had been gradually driving toward these smoother roads since 2003's A Carolina Jubilee. And to their credit, Columbia Records had wisely paired the band with a trustworthy chaperone for the last leg of that journey, with superstar producer Rick Rubin keeping things respectfully reined in on I and Love and You. The album has its slick moments, but it never ventures too far from the folk, pop, and country touchstones the Avetts had already established during their decade in the indie world.
"It was very unintrusive," Scott Avett says of the partnership with Rubin, whose most noteworthy prior foray into Americana had come with Johnny Cash's comeback albums in the '90s. "Rick was able to lead and produce in a very quiet manner. He didn't take charge in the conventional ‘take charge' kind of way. But that made him all the more effective, I think. I learned a lot from that—the capability for making things happen without throwing a fit, so to speak."
As if jumping to Columbia and working with Rubin wasn't enough, I and Love and You also debuted with a high-profile promotional push at Starbucks, making the Avett Brothers' arrival in the mainstream all the more tangible, and almost aggressive. Still, by the time the album was released in September, any concerns of a backlash had long since been dismissed by the band members themselves.
"It was a non-issue," Avett says without hesitation. "All the worrying we did about signing with a major label had to be done before we agreed to sign a contract. So we allowed that to happen at the table, and from there, it was done with. We kept the decisions that were important to us protected and in our court, but we were also willing to let go of some stuff, because it was time for that—it was time to learn. It's always time to learn really. But it seemed like, for us, it was time to take notes and let someone else take the lead in certain departments. Whether people loved it or not, we would walk away getting an education in working with a serious producer in a serious studio on a major label. We saw that as the greatest reward of the whole process. And we had a hunch that we'd be able to make a really quality record we could be proud of, too."
If the reviews and record sales are any indication, the Avett Brothers knew exactly what they were doing. I and Love and You reached a career-best 16 on the Billboard 200, and Paste magazine not only named it their album of 2009, but also ranked it the ninth-best album of the decade.
"We've been very fortunate to get to the point where we could reach some of these milestones," Avett says. "But at the same time, you never really feel ‘arrived.' I don't feel any different as far as what I need to do—the demands I have of myself as an artist. That hasn't changed at all. Rather than going back to pat yourself on the back, you have to step away and return to where the music itself is made and the way you feel when you make it. That's kind of the trick of it for us."