Interview with The Rocket Summer: This Is It, Japanese Exchange Student

New York City is dreary and drizzling today, somewhat normal for late February on the Northeast. I’m reveling in the fact that myself and my friend Sara, who used to intern in this very building, are finally inside the Island/Def Jam offices and have just landed on the 27th floor, quickly greeted by The Rocket Summer’s publicist amid a bit of chaos. We walk through the noisy, crowded, corridors and I’m drying off as we pass Bryce Avary talking to his manager. Avary’s publicist leads us into her new office, which is decorated with electronics, a large desk, and a grandiose window overlooking the city on the far side of the room. Outside in the corridor, we can hear a lot of talking and laughter, even through the closed door. Soon, Avary, who is the creative mastermind behind The Rocket Summer, joins us and sits diagonally to the right in a chair that rests directly below a decorative mirror. His demeanor is gentle, and in a way, almost endearingly awkward. He’s sporting a jean jacket over a black and white hoodie, hood exposed over the collar, with black jeans, black shoes and highlighted blonde hair that is straight and neatly styled. When I ask him about his day, he can barely find the words to sum up his happiness. “Talk about shock,” he says softly and genuinely. “And just sheer thankfulness right now.”

The radiant air of celebration within the building for an artist whose name includes the word “summer” vastly contradicts the day’s weather, and it’s the reason that Avary is so close to speechless. The Rocket Summer’s most recent effort, Of Men And Angels, released the day before, has hit number one on iTunes today, which has never happened to him before. This new album is a well-written melodic pop-rock effort, which, I find out, was recorded sans Auto-Tune aside from minor tweaking on the drums but never the vocals (somewhere, Jay-Z is smiling). Avary’s past albums didn’t really use it either, but there were more hints of it. He considers this album very “organic and real” while also being “a very slick and produced album.”

“I just wanted it to kind of radiate with integrity, you know? I don’t know,” says Avary. “I was kind of grossed out at how everything was sounding these days.” Agreed.

The writing process came very easily to Avary this time, unlike the creation of any of his other albums. He came up with a good 27 songs that he thoroughly recorded and produced, all of which he hopes will one day be released. “It’s funny, one day I actually wrote a blog, and I asked people to pray for me, so that I could be extra creative,” Avary tells me with a smile, because soon after that very blog was written, the creativity came flowing out of him and he was writing songs every day. A rarity in his world. Things became “magnified and accentuated,” with melodies easily finding their way in. Generally, those melodies come first, but sometimes he is hit with music and lyrics at the same time, and often can build a song around one line. “I’ll start playing something, and the first thing I sing, is what ends up being the song.” At other times, he has a sense of what he needs to get out, and builds the song around a central idea.

“It’s a fairly more in-depth, a little more serious, Rocket Summer album,” explains Avary, even though a very quirky song snuck its way in, that’s both “dark” and “poppy,” called “Japanese Exchange Student.” It stemmed from Avary feeling alone, going through certain things, and waiting to finish the album and go on tour. In a way, he felt like a Japanese exchange student, because when they come to America people become excited at their arrival, and want to meet them, but eventually “the thrill wears off” and they’re alone. “Nobody calls me, I’m alone, last year I was on the cover of a magazine, and everybody was calling me, and now my phone just picks up dust,” he vents as his iPhone ironically continues to light up on his lap, and I’m interviewing him for what ends up being a cover story. If nothing else, he hopes that the song conveys his love for Japan, and brings himself and his band back there, especially because he is amazed by their behavior and respect at his shows, where they scream and clap for a good three seconds, and then collectively become silent as to not interrupt him. “It’s awkward,” he agrees. His favorite places to play include Anaheim, CA, and his hometown in Texas, although that can be stressful due to all of the pre-show phone calls from family and “a heightened sense of anxiety,” which is unusual for Avary before hitting the stage.

Growing up, this highly talented and well-rounded singer, songwriter, and musician surprisingly was not encompassed by music at home. The way he discovered it, and the artists who would inspire him, was somewhat unconventional. He would eagerly await the hunting trips he shared with his father, who, although they are very different, he is very close with. Avary’s dad is “a super country bumpkin” who likes to hunt and shoot guns, and is “the sweetest guy in the world” according to Avary, who told him, “Dad, I want to play rock ‘n roll!” I can barely hear him as he whispers that, but it all makes sense, considering his dad bought him his first guitar when he was 12—which he’d endlessly begged his father for—from a pawn shop for about $40. Avary remembers the reason—good grades on his report card. On those car-rides, he was able to hear oldies, especially the Beach Boys, and the song that made him want to play rock ‘n roll. He begins to hum this song, and immediately everyone in the room joins in, though none of us can remember the exact title or who the artist is. “Wait, I’m going to find it. I’ll find it,” states Avary’s publicist, sitting behind her desk, and multitasking in front of her computer, not missing a beat.

“I want to say Spiral Jetty or something; but that’s not the name,” laughs Avary. “Mungo Jerry!” his publicist interrupts. The song is “In The Summertime,” for those of you who aren’t schooled. We all begin to laugh, although I don’t think any of us quite know why. Maybe it’s the whole Jetty/Jerry connection, or the fact that we know most of the lyrics, but not who wrote them. “You know what’s so crazy?” Avary questions rhetorically. “I was totally reading this Kings Of Leon interview, and the dude was saying that he had heard that song, and it made him want to be in a rock band.” Avary finds this news “so weird” and I liken them to kindred spirits, to which he responds by lightheartedly singing “Yeaaaahhhhh,” mimicking Leon’s lead singer, Caleb Followill.

As far as Avary’s recent musical inspirations, he says that Michael Jackson’s documentary This Is It “definitely makes you strive to be better,” especially due to Jackson, but also the creative souls that he surrounded himself with—including guitarist Orianthi—for the planned shows in England that unfortunately never came to fruition due to his death in June 2009. Although it makes Avary feel like he’d never achieve that level of anything “in a million years,” it also pushes him. He was originally afraid to rent the DVD due to emotional factors, but understanding this very reason, his father rented it and made Avary watch it with him. “You can’t say anything that hasn’t already been said. And that movie really just solidified it,” he tells me. He felt that the documentary really proved wrong those who believed “maybe [Jackson] lost it,” and he’s in awe of how involved Jackson was in every detail of his music and every process that a live show entails.

Such comments eventually draw a parallel between himself and the late King of Pop, and Avary explains that his band mates throw one-liners from the documentary at him. “With our rehearsals, I’m fairly involved, you could say,” says Avary, even though he doesn’t feel as intense as Jackson was. This Is It also affected his band, and it showed at their following rehearsal after they had seen it. “There was something about their vibe that seemed like they wanted to work harder. And they appreciated me more for being that way. It was kind of cool.” Sometimes, after Avary says something, they will say “Michael, you look great. You look great, Michael,” which Avary says with a laugh, eventually citing one of his favorite scenes from the documentary. Jackson’s band misses their cue during a particular song, and one of the directors asks why and is told by Jackson very articulately that they are waiting on him. The director then proceeds with another question. “‘My question is, how are you going to know what’s happening on the screen behind you to cue?’” Avary quotes. “There’s a pause and then [Jackson] just goes ‘I’m going to feel it.’ And then he just does!”

After Avary, now 27-years-old, received that first guitar in his adolescence from his father—his entire life changed—and there was little else he did aside from going over to his friend’s house to learn the drums with him simultaneously, eventually absorbing piano and more as well. “And then, and then… this happened,” he says with a laugh. And that, it surely did. For those who don’t know, Avary started releasing albums when he was 16 and performs every instrument on all of them. When touring, he brings his full band with him.

The Rocket Summer will head back out on the Warped Tour from June 25 to Aug. 15, for the first time since 2007. For Avary, going back on the sweltering summer festival tour was an easy decision. Although it’s harder, he feels older as he reads all of the new bands on the line-up, and the tour delivers a good dose of “screamo” each day and night, it’s “friggin’ awesome” at the same time, for many reasons that include being surrounded by friends. And “sometimes you do want to hear screamo!” Face To Face, a band he listened to in high school, is playing, and he’s looking forward to that, along with All-American Rejects and Motion City Soundtrack. It appears that although Avary does not compare himself to certain bands or necessarily likes their approach, he appreciates them for doing what they do.

Preceding Warped are “less scene” tours, including one with OneRepublic, and another in two months that will be “the farthest thing from scene.”

“We can’t announce it yet,” Avary says teasingly, at the edge of a laugh. “But it’s with a very big band from the ‘90s. Definitely like an older crowd, I guess you could say.” As those words leave his lips, I know in my gut who he’s talking about, and tell him I want to guess, but I don’t want to ruin it. He looks at me confidently and asks “Who?” My guess? The Goo Goo Dolls. Avary shot back “I don’t know! No! I don’t know! I can’t say anything right now!” with the most genuine of grins spread across his face. Eventually, after I say that if I’m right, maybe I’ll “accidentally bump into him,” he says, slightly apathetically, “Well, okay then, maybe we’ll see each other,” with a wink.

Less than a week later, the announcement is all over Twitter. When I know, I know. The Rocket Summer will join the Goo Goo Dolls on the road from April 10 to May 14, with headlining shows thrown in before and after, in and out of the country. He relays his excitement about playing in front of groups of all ages—even “an older crowd.” “I never, ever, set out to write songs for teenagers, I’ve always just written from my heart,” he explains. His songwriting has evolved as he’s grown, with his fans right alongside, and right now it’s time for change. “I couldn’t be in a more different place now.

“I’ve always just been really involved… in being involved,” Avary begins to tell me of his charity work, how much he believes in giving back, and how he sees it as a big part of who he is. “I’m just blessed to be able to be in front of a microphone, so I figure I might as well say some things, sometimes, that are helpful.” Right now, the band has made what Avary refers to as a “modest effort.” He always had reservations about starting a clothing company, due to the trend of bands starting them and his loathing of it to a degree. He likes fashion and thinks it can “engage culture,” but it was never something he planned on pursuing. What he created was more the anti-band-with-a-clothing-line, and he made it purely about giving back, bringing people on board who do things for Urban Outfitters and Forever 21. Avary’s company is Call It Captive (CIC), which started in 2008, and partnered with charities for disease research, to Poverty Aid, Doctors Without Borders, orphanages, and The Dream Center in Los Angeles which is a facility “made to essentially help people get back on their feet.” Each time someone purchases an item of clothing, they can choose one of the charities listed, and 25 percent of the proceeds from each sale are donated there. He hopes his efforts “inspire people to get involved,” and after seeing similar companies pop up since, he thinks they have.

While Avary was playing on the Ellipse Lawn at the White House for the Invisible Children rally, he was thinking, “Okay, I’m definitely in some sniper’s scope right now!” They wanted to pull him offstage for too much music and not enough talking. Invisible Children is a movement that began when a group from Southern California traveled to Africa to create a documentary, and it snowballed into so much more, becoming a huge humanitarian effort to help small children in Uganda who are abducted and forced to enlist by the sectarian Lord’s Resistance Army. Although Avary feels helpless only being able to talk about it, he knows that it’s one of the most important ways to help fight it.

It’s now time for this multitalented artist and I to quickly finish up as he spits out the last few sentences about his time performing at the current home of President Barack Obama. While Avary may not be on the same magazine covers now or receive phone calls from all the same people, he has a rare and deep understanding of nearly every facet of creating music, just as Jackson did, and continues to evolve. Yes, Avary finds truth in the fact that he may need to relax a little during the process, but watching This Is It made him more comfortable in his perfectionist tendencies, and he realized that, without a doubt, “It’s good to try to be the best you can be.”

Of Men And Angels is out now. The Rocket Summer perform at NYC’s Highline Ballroom on April 9 and on this year’s Warped Tour, including Susquehanna Bank Center in Camden, NJ, on July 16, Nassau Coliseum in Uniondale, NY, on July 17 and Monmouth Park Racetrack in Oceanport, NJ, on July 18.