The Reeducation of Avi Buffalo

Published September 8, 2014

ABOVE: AVI BUFFALO’S AVIGDOR ZAHNER-ISENBERG. PHOTO COURTESY OF RENATA RAKSHA

When the world first stumbled upon Avi Buffalo back in 2010, its band members had barely graduated high school. Their debut was a sweet, eponymous pop nugget, picked up and pushed out by the folks at Sub Pop Records, and filled with wide-eyed lyrics and pristine arrangements that felt at once youthful and fully formed. At the band’s center, frontman and namesake Avigdor Zahner-Isenberg was the boyish embodiment of this juxtaposition: self-assured with a deft set of guitar chops, a disarming stage presence and lyrics that never tried to sound wise beyond their years.

This week, we become reacquainted with Avi Buffalo for the release of the band’s sophomore record, At Best Cuckold (out tomorrow via Sub Pop). The album is largely the work of Zahner-Isenberg, alongside longtime friend and collaborator Sheridan Riley, and it’s packed with the kind of inquisitive emotionality that made its predecessor so immediately appealing. In the time between, Zahner-Isenberg has dipped in and out of school, relationships, and various musical projects, eventually settling back on Avi Buffalo as his outlet of choice.

“I wanted to be a session guitarist, and this project just fell into my lap like a sweaty octopus,” he explained during a recent phone interview. “I remember thinking ‘I’m not ready, this isn’t right, this isn’t wholesome, and I’m not going to get humbled by this.'”

As such, At Best Cuckold is a record marked by uncertainty about love, life, and creativity, informed by four years’ worth of musical immersion. Below, we chat with Zahner-Isenberg about old records, higher education, and the benefits of going slow.

ALY COMINGORE: It’s been four years since we last heard from you, but you’ve kept busy. I almost forgot about those West Coast residencies you did a year and a half ago.

AVIGDOR ZAHNER-ISENBERG: [laughs] Oh yeah. That was an interesting set of shows.

COMINGORE: Was it helpful? I think you guys were just on the verge of recording then.

ZAHNER-ISENBERG: It was.  We really needed to play live, to really practice. I mean, you can practice, but there’s no practice like playing live. It was necessary.

COMINGORE: I wanted to start off by going back a bit. What did going home look like after you finished touring the first album? Did you move back in with your parents?

ZAHNER-ISENBERG: Yeah, at first, totally. I wasn’t making any money, so it was time to do that for a little bit. I went to [Long Beach] City College for a couple of months. I met an amazing girlfriend who I had for a while, so I was able to stay with her a lot of the time. [laughs] Then I was just writing a lot. We’d been touring for about a year, so after coming home I just slept for like a month or two and then tried to get back into the swing of things.

COMINGORE: Did you you know you wanted to take a pretty pronounced break between records?

ZAHNER-ISENBERG: Honestly, when I first started writing I kind of thought that it might take four or five years. I started taking a recording class, and I just wanted to become a really good engineer so that I could run the board for people and stuff like that. I wasn’t necessarily thinking about [another album]. I knew I had to keep writing just for myself, but I didn’t know if I was going to put out another record or if I was going to keep Avi Buffalo going. I was thinking about a lot of projects and that was just one of them.

COMINGORE: What changed your mind?

ZAHNER-ISENBERG: About two months into school I realized that it wasn’t for me, still, and that I was a lot happier with the opportunity I had to try and make another Avi Buffalo record. But I was also 20 and I knew I had a lot to learn about, especially in regards to recording. I didn’t know how to get any of the sounds that I would have wanted for another record.

COMINGORE: What was the college experience like?

ZAHNER-ISENBERG: It was cool. I mean, it was Long Beach City College. There was a really good recording program there at the time—it’s actually been shut down since then. But I knew a lot of people who had gone through that program and are professional engineers now. It was legit. I was also taking an intercultural music class, which was Latin music from all over the world, and that was cool too. It was a really positive, very culturally rich environment. That class was mostly kids of Latin descent who wanted to learn more about the music of their culture, and a few people like me who just wanted to know something about it. That was probably a more interesting vibe than the recording class. But I knew I had to do it—I had to at least try to see if school was my thing.

COMINGORE: What were some of the touchstones that ended up guiding the new record?

ZAHNER-ISENBERG: Well, when I was making the first record I had these dreams about putting all this stuff that I really wanted to do into the next album, whenever I made it. I was also just listening to a lot of music. I got really into Chrome Dreams (Rust Edition), which is this unreleased Neil Young album that Aaron Embry showed me when we were recording the first record. It had a lot of fuzz tones and things that sounded really distant, just because they were bootleg recordings. I hate being the guy that’s like, “Oh, yeah! Neil Young guitar tones!,” but it’s an important thing to me. I also really like messing with mic distances.

I got into a lot of classic rock when I first started playing guitar—Hendrix, Zeppelin, Jimmy Page. But then later on I found Jim O’Rourke and fell in love with his really close, clean electric guitar and acoustic guitar tones. To be brutally honest, he’s somebody who I really think is a staple of guitar tones and arranging. And then I just started listening to stuff I normally wouldn’t be into—metal, R&B, hip-hop. I started out playing rock music, but I was mentored by a blues musician who was in his 60s. I played with him every week and he would kick my ass. He knew nothing of Neil Young—he was all about Lightnin’ Hopkins and B.B. King and Muddy Waters and Robert Johnson. Then I got into jazz in high school and learned jazz chords, which got me into playing in R&B groups and gospel groups in L.A. I wanted to be able to incorporate that smoothness and the finesse and musicianship and tone that I’ve experienced in those kind of environments, too. I also got really into classical music in the past couple of years, just as a sort of safety net. And jazz connected me to free jazz, like late period John Coltrane, Alice Coltrane— Miles Davis is super important to me. It’s been about fitting in as much as possible.

COMINGORE: You took yourself to music college, essentially.

ZAHNER-ISENBERG: I tried, for sure. And I surrounded myself with people who were in college. The girlfriend that I met a bit after coming home was this amazing musician and poet, and she was studying comparative literature and queer theory at the time, so I had a sort of secondhand education. My best friend, who shot the album art for the new record, just graduated from UCLA. We’ve done a lot of art pieces together, so a couple of times she invited me in to be critiqued by her art students and her professors, which was really nice. We recently did a thing at the Hammer Musuem, and before that I did a dance piece with her at MOCA in L.A. where I was doing live recording off to the side of the performance.

COMINGORE: You realize that being a “working musician” can mean about 5,000 different things.

ZAHNER-ISENBERG: Right! I think for me, what I want to express in music seems to necessitate being in that really immersive environment with 5,000 things all of the time. It’s exhausting! I’ve had this earache for over a month, and I started getting this stress-related itching thing recently. But I’m happy doing a lot of work all of the time.

COMINGORE: I want to talk a bit about the album’s title, At Best Cuckold. It might be one of the more depressing ones I’ve run across lately.

ZAHNER-ISENBERG: [laughs] It’s honestly more of an open-to-interpretation thing. I write lyrics that are either literal or metaphorical and I try to bounce them all off each other, not just within one song, but within multiple songs from different times of my life and different perspectives. I kind of consider it to be another thing that can bounce around—like, if the record was a pinball machine, then the metal ball will hit that construct at different points throughout.

COMINGORE: A lot of musicians tend to work fast and release a lot of material with this notion of wanting to capture lightning in a bottle. You obviously feel comfortable working at a slower pace, though.

ZAHNER-ISENBERG: I can understand that. But for me, I feel like when I write a song it gets a lot of the energy of that time out into it, and often times I don’t feel the need to make three more [songs] about the same time. I like waiting another month or a couple weeks—whatever it is. I used to wait even longer; I’d write and record a song really intensely and then I wouldn’t make another one for two months, just so that stuff sounds different, musically and emotionally, because you get into different things all the time.

AT BEST CUCKOLD IS OUT TOMORROW, SEPTEMBER 9, ON SUB POP RECORDS. FOR MORE ON AVI BUFFALO, PLEASE VISIT THE BAND’S WEBSITE.