Avi Buffalo: “What’s In It For?” (Avi Buffalo, Sub Pop, 4/27/10)
Talking to Avi Zahner-Isenberg over the phone from his adoptive home of Los Angeles, the singer/songwriter and frontman of Avi Buffalo holds a comfortable and nonchalant air of professionalism. It’s not surprising, considering that in a few hours, he’ll be playing the final show of his first headlining tour, a year-long journey that took him all over the country. It is surprising, however, that all of this is being taken in stride by a kid who redeems non-alcoholic drink tickets at venues because he’s still underage.
But without making too big a deal over Zahner-Isenberg’s age, it still makes for a good jumping-off point to examine one of the best new indie-rock bands of 2010, whose self-titled debut album is full of dreamy, graceful songs built with depth and poise — an album that belies the adolescence behind it.
Like for most other kids growing up in sun-soaked Long Beach, California, life started out relatively normally for Avigdor Zahner-Isenberg, Avi for short. He spent time skateboarding and taking in the usual So-Cal activities that surrounded him, until, at 12 years old, young Avi was given his first guitar. Hours and days were poured into playing the guitar, and he never looked back to the half-pipes of which he previously dreamed. Soon, though he was barely in high school, Zahner-Isenberg found himself sitting in with blues great and club owner Joel Weinberg and with friends out on Huntington Beach, learning a style foreign to most of his schoolyard friends. “I just started hanging out there,” he recalls. “They invited me up and I just started playing with them.”
“I’ve learned a lot about finding a balance. You totally can and should take time for yourself to not fall apart.”
The training propelled his musical appetite, and soon he was branching out, forming his own projects while balancing music with school. When he was 15 years old, the young musician started writing his own material and recruited friends to put it all together. In the beginning, his music materialized under the monikers of 60 Watt Kid and Monogram — acts that, while fun, rarely did anything other than blow out a few ear drums.
“Really loud and abusive to the wah pedal,” Zahner-Isenberg remembers. It wasn’t until his band became Avi Buffalo that his true artistic persona came out and carried with it the depths of his songwriting.
“I really wanted to do quieter stuff, more acoustic-minded,” he says. “I started recording in my room, really quietly, into a really hot mic.” These early recordings struck a chord, and soon all that spasmodic jam music drifted away and Avi Buffalo came into focus. Soon, Avi Buffalo became a full band as drummer Sheridan Riley, pianist Rebecca Coleman, and bassist Arin Fazio — the only one out of high school at the time — all stepped in to expand and complement Zahner-Isenberg’s fluttery falsettos and delicate fretwork.
After this initial buildup, Avi Buffalo went electric, shoveling more fuel into the band’s increasingly locomotive sound. “Shows all the time,” Zahner-Isenberg recalls. “We were driving an hour each way, five nights a week playing shows, on school nights too.” Without knowing it, Avi Buffalo was setting itself up for the biggest payoff for which any young band could hope.
In 2009, the group got a call from local producer Aaron Embry, an artist and engineer who has worked with greats such as Willie Nelson and Elliott Smith. Embry was putting the final touches on a new home studio, and he decided that the group would be perfect to try out the space. It was a total shock to Avi Buffalo, who couldn’t say yes fast enough. Embry took a week to record the group and, according to Zahner-Isenberg, everything just fell into place.
One of its first demos, an ambling and nimble tune titled “What’s it in For?,” floored Embry, who immediately sent it down the line. Two weeks after graduation, Zahner-Isenberg and Coleman flew up to Seattle to play it for the folks at Sub Pop Records. The band got a deal, released its highly lauded debut effort, and set out on the road, opening for label-mates Vetiver and Beach House over that year. “It’s crazy to be done, actually,” Zahner-Isenberg says. “It feels like that’s all we’ve known for so long.”
It was not a year without difficulty. Both Coleman and Fazio left the group within the past few months, both on good terms and likely ready to pursue a sense of normalcy. In the meantime, Zahner-Isenberg and Riley maintained a feverish pace, bringing in old friends to fill out the few remaining dates and trying their best to stay sane in such a nonstop environment. “It was wearing us down,” says the weathered frontman. “I’ve learned a lot about finding a balance. You totally can and should take time for yourself to not fall apart.”
With a bit of wisdom and a whole lot of excitement, Zahner-Isenberg is channeling his energy into a new album that will take an unfamiliar direction. Recognizing that things used to be different not so long ago, Avi Buffalo is ready to slow down and gather its wits. “We’re in a cautious place,” he admits. “We’ve done a lot. And there’s more reason now than ever to make new music.” Throughout the tour, Zahner-Isenberg says that he’s been writing music, and now that he’s back home, he’s taking classes, training himself to record, recruiting new bandmates, and opting to do things his way.
“The biggest risk I’m taking right now is probably not going to a producer,” he says. “I know what I want to do, and this next album is going to be pretty different. I want to go back to those earlier, quiet recordings to get more intimate. If people really liked the parts of our last album that were happy, hopefully they’ll be disappointed.”
Having walked a fine line between cutesy twee aesthetics and dark, subtly complex interplay, Avi Buffalo is now in a position to show off its more mature side, to mark its maps and plot its course, rather than just take the ride. And, again, the nonchalance and young bravado of confidence comes through as Zahner-Isenberg looks to his next great adventure without a hint of any pressure.