It was once suggested by a cynical critic that Bryce Avary, aka THE ROCKET SUMMER, needed hit in the face with a dead fish in an effort to snap him out of his terminally sunny disposition. But Avary’s no stranger to the dark, either, and that’s only strengthened his resolve.
Story: Emily Zemler
Photos: Ralf Strathmann
As Bryce Avary sits outside the empty Coors Ampitheatre during the San Diego stop of the Vans Warped Tour, it seems he can’t stop grinning. The 24-year-old multi-instrumentalist rarely drops his glowing smile; his eager, positive attitude is infectious. There doesn’t seem to be any specific rhyme or reason to the singer’s mood, beyond the simple excitement and gratitude to be playing a segment of the Warped Tour to highly receptive audiences. As Avary sits, beating the heat in a shady spot beneath the overhang of the amphitheatre stage, it’s not exactly happiness that ascends Avary to this state of being. Most of the time, it’s more an unyielding belief in the possibility of good.
This quality doesn’t just apply to Avary personally, but to his musical persona as a whole. Since leaving the Militia Group in 2005 shortly after his sophomore disc, “Hello, Good Friend”, for the major leagues of Island Records, Avary has attracted a significant mass of devout fans to his side by virtue of the positive, helpful sentiments which he infuses in his music. But despite his optimistic perspective and the blindingly hopeful sentiments that pervade his Island debut, Do You Feel, the man behind the Rocket Summer isn’t a walking ray of sunshine with a perfectly tuned life.
Two years ago, shortly after marrying his longtime girlfriend Tara and crafting Friend in Brooklyn, Avary experienced what most would describe as a nervous breakdown, battling his way through severe insomnia and intense depression, all of which eventually landed him in the hospital.
“How do I even really go into it?” Avary asks rhetorically, his perma-smile temporarily descending into seriousness. “I wouldn’t sleep for three or four days at a time. When I would sleep, I would always have the exact same dream. I was recording Hello in New York, and I got on a plane and went home and left all my stuff there. I never went back. I got my stuff when the record was being mixed later. I ended up getting really sick and going to the hospital and going to all these psychiatrists. I was in this extreme depression. I was actually hearing voices, mostly telling me to kill myself. This happened right when I got married; luckily, I have an amazing wife who really helped me through it and stuck by my side. I remember somebody saying, ‘I guess she didn’t know that when you said, “In sickness and in health,” it would be so soon.’”
Avary hesitates to be completely open about the experience, but when he does, it’s obvious it evokes a number of emotions. Inspired by what he calls a “supernatural” instance involving God illuminating his darkness and a renewal of his personal spirituality, Avary crafted Do You Feel in the hopes he will inspire others to pull themselves out of similarly low points in their own lives and inspire positive change. From infectious choruses that remind listeners “You got so much love in you” (from “So Much Love”) and lines like “On dark and stormy days, somewhere it’s glowing/And even though I know I’m here/I know I’m going” (from “All I Have”), Avary’s intent to reveal the diamonds in life’s rockpile is strikingly clear.
“This record was what I really wanted to do,” he explains. “I feel like I was pulled out of this horrible rut in my life. I’m just so thankful God pulled me out of that. I just want the Rocket Summer to get people through bad times. That might seem cliché, but to me, [it’s] extremely important. A common theme on the record for me was always wanting to do something better for the world and knowing that I should, but all my own little issues were getting in the way, whether they were serious or petty. I started writing some songs questioning what I’m here for. What am I writing songs for, if it’s not to inspire people?”
The pressure to do exactly that is not lost on Avary; signing to a major meant facing the label’s level of expectation-a far cry from the days when he was borrowing money from his family to finish recording albums for the Militia Group. It also meant that while his songs staunchly reflected honest views of himself and his beliefs, the record had to bring something constructive and meaningful to his fans. So as Avary sat alone in a rented apartment in Los Angeles between July and October last year, penning the entire album note for note, there was always an overhanging sense of responsibility.
“There’s no denying that being in a room 13 hours a day, seven days a week, never stopping and creating constantly can make it hard to sleep at night,” Avary says, noting that writing in paid-for accomodations was a drastically different experience than when he started scratching out songs in his bedroom at age 12 and eventually getting them on his self-titled 2000 debut EP by age 16. “When I get in bed, I can’t stop hearing a song and thinking about what I’m going to do tomorrow. That happened to me a lot on this record; a lot of insomnia. Although with all that said, it was probably the easiest record I’ve ever made.”
“Though other folks here at the label weren’t entirely convinced, I was absolutely certain that Bryce was a star,” testifies Rory Felton, owner of the Militia Group, the label that has issued much of the Rocket Summer’s output. “His drive and personality, combined with his wonderfully dynamic songwriting ability, makes him one of the most gifted people I have ever known. His desire to love all people is so refreshing in a world all tangled up in trying to be cool."
The Rocket Summer have come a long way from being a project Avary started in his Dallas, Texas, bedroom, inspired by such indie-rock bands like Archers Of Loaf, Jets To Brazil and Superchunk. Avary seems to be at the brink of something big. Though he’s watched bands like Paramore and Cute Is What We Aim For-bands who have opened for the Rocket Summer in the past-shoot into the spotlight on Warped Tour’s mainstage, Avary knows there’s something special about his music, and he’s willing to gamble on the fact other people will feel the same way he does.
“We’ve done a lot of tours,” says Avary, who is currently in the midst of the Sleeping With Giants Tour, supporting The Academy Is… “We’ve definitely been a headlining band for a long time. We’ve taken out a lot of bands, and you see these bands get really huge. There’s no doubt that it’s humbling. You do a headlining tour and a year later, you’re watching Paramore murder Warped Tour. I don’t think you’re supposed to compare yourself to other bands, but it’s so hard not to.
“I’m fortunate to have what we have,” he continues, running a hand through his shaggy blonde hair. “We have a really loyal fanbase. I don’t feel like we’re a 15-minutes-cool scene band. [Our fanbase] is not massive in size, but it’s massive in emotion. We’ve never had a record that’s in stores everywhere, and we do now. I think it could be our time. As long as I get to keep playing music, people keep coming to the shows and the music is affecting people-that’s the bottom line.”
Bryce Avary has good reason to be smiling so much today. He’s become a beacon of positivity for a lot of people, embracing both a spirituality and a hopeful attitude that radiates from his music and live performances. (His touring band is made up mostly of childhood friends.) No matter how much he may get chided for being “too happy” or earnest, Avary is clear about the fact that he would rather focus on the good than the bad. It’s hard not to feel a little bit shinier after spending time with Avary, just like it’s hard not to smile as the confetti cannons go off during his set later on the Hurley.com stage in front of a bouncing crowd of overly excitable fans. In a scene of morose, eyeliner-clad, black-haired bands, maybe it’s okay to have just one that’s too happy. The real trick for Avary isn’t being perpetually joyous; it’s knowing that the glass is half full. Perhaps that knowledge is the real reason he smiles so much.
“He’s a fantastic person who puts too much pressure on himself at times,” says Militia Group’s Felton. “It’s because of his drive and his desire to make the most amazing album possible that he drives himself a little nutty at times. It’s not that Bryce is too happy; he just wants to bring out the best in others, and he does that by exuding joy and encouraging it in others.”
“I definitely feel like I’ve gone through more than most people have gone through, and I think people assume things,” Avery figures. “I think the assumptions [people have] of my life is so different than what it really is. I don’t like to go around parading the crap I’ve been through; I just like talking about how I’m out of it now and how God pulled me out of it. It seems like all of our singles have been really upbeat and happy, but there’s definitely a lot of songs that are honest and real. Unfortunately, I’m not as happy as people want me to be.” ALT
Bryce Avary knows all about devoted fans. (He has a few followers who have seen him play upwards of 30 times all over the country.) But he’s also been well-ensconsed on the fan side, growing up on musicians like Elliott Smith, Counting Crows’ Adam Duritz, and most especially Jets To Brazil’s Blake Schwarzenbach. A serious JTB fan, Avary saw the group play three times during his formative years, although we imagine he would have liked to make that number a little higher.
1998 at Rubber Gloves, Denton, TX: “The first time I saw them was opening for the Promise Ring on the Nothing Feels Good tour. That was when I was in marching band, and it was right after a game. I didn’t have a change of clothes, so I was wearing my marching band outfit. I was, like, this little weird child in the first row.”
1999 at Rubber Gloves: “They were headlining this time with Pedro The Lion opening. Unfortunately, I don’t have any cool stories about that.”
2000 at Trees, Dallas, TX: “I got robbed outside by this dude when I was paying to park my car, so the club let me in for free. I saw Blake Schwarzenbach in the bathroom-I think he was shaving-and I was totally ‘that guy.’ I didn’t really know what to do: I tried to give him my CD. He turned to me and was like, ‘I’m bleeding!’ It was really traumatic for me.” [EZ]