Concord, N.C., trio The Avett Brothers has signed to American Recordings, the division of SonyBMG/ Columbia led by famed producer and Def Jam Records co-founder Rick Rubin. An EP entitled Gleam II, due July 22, is expected to be the band's last output on Ramseur Records, the Concord-based independent label that released five full-lengths and two EPs by The Avett Brothers since 2003. Sessions with Rubin began in late June and will continue in August, with an as-yet untitled LP expected by spring 2009.
"We got to talking about music and the state of music and how our record was better than theirs, talking about the general mass of music. That's probably an opinion he would share for a number of acts," said Scott Avett, en route from New York to Delaware on the band's tour bus Thursday morning. "But he expressed that we should work together because this is something that needs to step forward, to step to the next level."
Dolph Ramseur, who will continue to run Ramseur Records and manage The Avett Brothers, says the deal wasn't driven by finances. Both the band and the label were profiting and attracting new audiences. The deal with American, Ramseur and Avett agree, represents an ideal blend of increased exposure and artistic integrity.
"I remember telling him, 'Rick, the main goal here is that we want to make great records, and we never want to look back 30 years from now and have any regrets about making artistic compromise," says Ramseur. "He told me that he feels exactly the same way, that he'd never want to put out anything that does not have the stamp of approval of the Brothers."
Rubin first heard The Avett Brothers after a Columbia Records agent sent him the band's 2007 album, Emotionalism. The trio flew to California to meet Rubin last August, and they felt comfortable with him. The band began recording demos of three dozen songs that winter, and in June, finally headed to California to begin work. The band completed basic tracking for 16 of 35 available songs in the first 10-day session. Recent live favorites like "Tin Man," "Kick-Drum Heart," "Late in Life" and "Laundry Room" will be recorded with Rubin, but most of the songs, says Avett, are completely new.
Likewise, the band decided to approach the record with a new vision only two days into the session. "For the past five years, you hear, 'Man, I love your records, but live it's really awesome.' So you immediately start thinking, 'We gotta get the records like the live, with that energy,'" Avett says. "Forget about it. ... It's not the point. The next day, we woke up and shifted everything and kind of embraced the idea that the record will always be a different thing."
The deal with American ends a remarkable run for such a young band on an even younger label: Emotionalism, its 2007 LP for Ramseur, has sold nearly 50,000 copies, and the band made its national television debut last May on Late Night with Conan O'Brien. The bands has become a Merlefest marquee favorite since their debut at the Wilkesboro roots-music gathering in 2004, and in their second trip to Bonnaroo last month, the Avetts played for an estimated 7,500 people. The band's next Triangle show—a July 26 headlining set at Cary's Koka Booth Amphitheatre—reflects seven years of building a fan base from small Triangle venues like The Cave and Kings to Cat's Cradle and, last summer, the sold-out N.C. Museum of Art.
Ramseur says both he and the Avetts have entertained offers from larger labels—from Yep Roc and Sugar Hill to Interscope and Virgin—for five years. Ramseur remembers leaving Nashville following a tour date behind 2003's A Carolina Jubilee, only to turn the van around for a meeting at RCA Records' Nashville office.
"The head of A&R, as soon as they finished playing the three songs, her comment was, 'Well, do you feel like you'd record somebody else's songs?'" remembers Ramseur. "I knew then it wasn't happening. It's a blessing that it didn't."