Traverse City Record-Eagle

June 28, 2013

Interlochen alum plays with Avett Brothers

BY MARTA HEPLER DRAHOS mdrahos@record-eagle.com
Traverse City Record-Eagle

---- — TRAVERSE CITY— Interlochen Arts Camp was both the best thing and the worst thing to happen to Joe Kwon.

The Avett Brothers cellist was a shy, small-town kid from North Carolina when he attended the camp in 1998 on a Governor’s Scholarship. The experience drew him out and gave him a place where he finally felt he fit in.

“I used to be extremely introverted. I didn’t talk to many people at all until I started going to festivals and realizing that there were other kids like me that played music all the time,” said Kwon, who began playing cello at age 9 with an eye toward a classical music career. “I came out of my shell. I started to realize I could be social.”

But it was also at Interlochen where his dreams were dashed.

“I realized I couldn’t be a classical musician,” he said. “I went to this festival and was amazed at how talented some of these kids were. I knew I couldn’t reach this level of expertise. It was terrifying. I felt defeated, for sure, because I couldn’t realize this dream. I felt like I lost something. It sent me into a bad place.

“And at the same time, I had so much fun there. In one way, this weight lifted off me because it was, ‘Oh, I can’t be a classical musician.’”

After boarding high school at Idllwyld Arts Academy in California, Kwon enrolled in the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill on a music scholarship. But by then he’d more or less given up on a music career. In his junior year he changed his major to computer science, and played just for fun, dabbling in new and different kinds of music.

“I worked for IBM and did the corporate America thing before realizing I missed (music). I missed it a lot. I ended up getting into music again and the rest is history,” said Kwon, who joined North Carolina-based indie folk-poppers the Avett Brothers in 2007 and is quickly rising to fame with the group.

The band, named after brothers Seth (guitar) and Scott (banjo), is known for its lively shows featuring a rootsy blend of folk, country, bluegrass, rock and pop. It hit the mainstream with its 2009 major-label debut, “I and Love and You.” The album peaked at number 16 on the Billboard 200 album chart and resulted in critical acclaim from “Rolling Stone” and “Time” and an invitation to perform alongside Bob Dylan and Mumford & Sons at the 2011 Grammy Awards.

Now the band is touring in support of its 2012 album, “The Carpenter,” which debuted at number four on the Billboard album charts. The tour includes stops at Milwaukee’s Summerfest, Denver’s Red Rocks Amphitheatre, the Winnipeg and Newport Folk Festivals, and, on July 1, the Interlochen Summer Arts Festival. The band last appeared in West Michigan in February, when they played for a crowd of about 4,500 at Grand Rapids’ DeltaPlex.

“They have a big fan base,” said Erin Bowen, DeltaPlex event director. “We had people from Virginia and everywhere. They’re kind of one of those underground bands with die-hard fans.”

Kwon said he was excited to discover that the band would play at Interlochen, where he learned his unusual stance -- playing the cello standing up -- from a fellow camper. The 8 p.m. concert in Kresge Auditorium will mark his first time back since he left Camp.

He said he’s looking forward to visiting his old cabin, jumping in Green Lake and perhaps even eating in the cafeteria. But the highlight will be performing again on the Kresge stage.

“I’m excited and mortified because I guarantee that there are kids there who are better than me,” he said, of playing in front of an audience that will include this year’s crop of music campers. “But at the same time I’m excited about performing and showing kids that there’s lots of different ways to play. Even though I wasn’t the best musician or a star there, I made a living out of it, because I love playing music.

“I tell kids, ‘Play what you want. Play classical, play rock music, bluegrass. Don’t let anyone tell you there’s no cello in Celtic music or that it can’t be done.’”

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Tickets for the concert range from $34.50 to $45.50 at tickets.interlochen.org, (231) 276-7800 or (800) 681-5920.