Update: Avi Buffalo [via Pitchfork]
After a promising debut album in 2010, psychedelic folk rockers Avi Buffalo all but disappeared. Band leader Avigdor Zahner-Isenberg talks about skipping college, isolation, and the long wait for his upcoming second record, At Best Cuckold.
Twenty-three-year-old Avigdor Zahner-Isenberg could have been a relic of indie rock’s past. In 2010, he and his band Avi Buffalo were barely out of high school when Sub Pop released their self-titled debut album, which was warmly regarded for its frisky take on AM radio rock. But instead of quickly taking advantage of their good fortune, burgeoning talents, and climbing momentum, Zahner-Isenberg and the band went silent for four years. “I’ve known a lot of people that rush into making album after album after any kind of exposure,” he says when we speak on the phone. “But I come from more of a musician background”—as a young teenager he took guitar lessons from an older bluesman—“and that makes me think you have to put a lot of time in in order to become good at performing or writing.”
Though his reasoning for the long layoff is sound, four years is a cultural lifetime, and the indie zeitgeist was turning away from guitar-in-hand, heart-on-sleeve songwriters even beforeBon Iver was lampooned on “Saturday Night Live” in 2012. So when Avi Buffalo emerged from hibernation in June with a new single called “So What”, it triggered a minor tinge of nostalgia: This band, in this year? But the song was a sweet surprise, as is their forthcoming album, At Best Cuckold, which infuses a dreamy 1960s rock sound with youthful ambition, evoking the past with a touch of dread. Nimble guitar solos flower from the mix and forlorn piano lines tug heartstrings while Zahner-Isenberg’s tender, breathy voice describes a world of demure emotions and generational anxieties. “Once again I’m charted in unknown lands,” he sings, sounding scared, but resolute. It’s a record attempting to find the sweet spot between leaning on what came before and pressing forward to make something new, a dilemma for any creative twentysomething.
The songs on At Best Cuckold were recorded over four years, as Zahner-Isenberg learned to play piano and bass, program drum machines, and showcase the conscientious enthusiasm of someone trying-out a college experience’s worth of ideas. “I tried to just scoop up a lot of information from different mediums—music, movies, books, people I met—and write from what I was really feeling, no matter how simple or complex that was,” he says.
Born and raised in Long Beach, California, he split time between there and nearby Los Angeles the last few years, living with musician friends. “Long Beach is great for meditative reasons,” he says. “You’ve got to work because there’s not too much going on.” On the other hand, though, was “that L.A. vibe” and all its attendant magic, including a burgeoning avant-garde music scene he immersed himself in. The combination makes for a record born of isolation but not loneliness, one that’s playful but not superficial.
Before I get on the phone with Zahner-Isenberg, at least three people tell me they’ve heard he’s kind of a weird guy—an impression I believe when I follow him on Instagram and am bombarded with dozens of hastily sketched, vaguely pornographic portraits. But when we speak, he reveals himself as a deliberate personality, someone who’s at ease with not being at ease. “These birds seem so fucking free, they’re nothing compared to me,” he sings on a new song. You believe him, even though he sounds thousands of miles away from anyone else.
Pitchfork: You were 19 when the first record came out and now you’re 23—what have you been up to during that time?
Avigdor Zahner-Isenberg: I toured quite a bit initially and then just kind of hung out. I wanted to get more into listening and playing music. A lot of people I was around were in school, so I tried to expose myself to academia. So I could be working on music but then be stimulated by my friends at Cal State Long Beach or UCLA, trying to find out about what they were learning so I didn’t feel like I was just wasting my time or living a pipe dream. I wanted to keep my brain active. I still have a lot of dreams about school.
Pitchfork: I’m struck by how diverse the album sounds without being too busy.
AZI: With a lot of the tone-seeking stuff, I definitely thought a lot about what I’ve seen my peers doing, whether it’s going super hi-fi or super lo-fi. It’s a struggle for people to figure out how to do it right. I took a lot of cues from old analog-style recordings, not in the sense of using analog equipment, but more in a sense of preserving a sound from when you record through to the mix. Also, the beautiful thing about modern music is that you can record anything anywhere and use different environments and different machinery and different technologies to mix and match, too.
Recording is a really strange process. When I made that first record, I didn’t know anything about recording, so I got excited by hearing such a wide frequency range that I just put whatever on it. But then the result sounded kind of strained. My earliest recordings were really, really, really quiet. I would use Audacity and a computer microphone and get really up-close to the mic and get a really warm sound with my voice. With this album, being able to get a comfortable sound was my goal, to make something that fell well on the ears.
Pitchfork: The lyrics good job describing this enlightened, if not solitary, experience. A song like “So What” has the soul-searching quality of your first record, but there’s a more comfortable feel.
AZI: Everything I write is about my own experience. There’s a lot of parts of that song that are purposefully abstract, but a lot of it is just collecting moods and emotions about everything you’re feeling at once. There’s a certain liberation you get from working on something by yourself. There’s also a sense of loneliness, but a lot of “So What” is about wanting to escape and feel pleasure and bliss as either a response to that lonely feeling.
Pitchfork: Were there any writers you were drawing from in your approach?
AZI: Growing up in the ’90s and the 2000s, people my age are trying to figure out how to balance their influences and stay current, whatever that means. But for me, songwriting is an expression of yourself to yourself—using this channel to talk about anything that’s coming to mind and writing it down and looking back and thinking, “What am I writing?” Because you’re trying to creatively express yourself, you’ll end up with something you wouldn’t have been able to tell yourself otherwise. I learn a lot from writing cathartically or improvisationally and then drawing from that. That’s how I write songs.
Pitchfork: Do you think it’ll be another four years before your next album?
AZI: I want to get into a flow where I can write and record in the same place, and I’m hoping that touring this record gives me a lot of energy and some new skills. But yeah, it depends. You write some things in 10 minutes, and some things in two days, and some things in two years. I’m still learning about sound. There’s a lot of different things I want do.
View the original article at Pitchfork.com.