Friday, October 30, 2009

Interview with Avi Zahner-Isenberg of Avi Buffalo

Left to right, partying in the men's restroom: Arin Fazio (bass), Sheridan Riley (drums), Rebecca Coleman (keyboards, vocals), Avigdor Zahner-Isenberg (guitar, vocals)

Avi started recording songs three years ago during his sophomore year in high school, amidst the deterioration of his first band, Monogram (Dylan Wood of Time of Wolves, 60 Watt Kid). After being asked to play a show by Bill Cutts of Outsider Folk, Avi got together some friends to play an acoustic set in 2007 at the Zephyr Cafe, a vegetarian restaurant in downtown Long Beach. With the summer time and a local fall music festival approaching, a full electric band was in order. They were later asked to play in Los Angeles, and did, and kept doing it. A year later, Avi and Aaron Embry (Amnion) began recording the songs that would become Avi Buffalo's first record.
The band was recently signed to Sub Pop which will be releasing "What's in It for"/"Jessica" 7" vinyl single on December 8. A full album will be out in the spring of 2010.

Q & A with Avi Zahner-Isenberg of Avi Buffalo

The Nightfly: War, The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, Cold War Kids, Sublime, and now Avi Buffalo are all bands that were formed in Long Beach. Did all four of you grow up here?
Avi: Me, Sheridan and Rebecca all did. Arin grew up in San Pedro and Huntington Beach.

The Nightfly: Not to knock education, but it seems like a tragic waste if someone with an obvious gift for music such as yourself were to end up in law school or medical school. What would you tell a kid who wants to skip college and focus on music?
Avi: I've known a few people who have skipped college to focus on music. Sometimes it's a good thing, and sometimes it's not. It really depends on the person and the circumstances, and everything else you could possibly think of. I feel a bit wary about not being in school; I have a lot of free time right now though that will change in a few months.

The Nightfly: Did you personally have a “career” plan to begin with or did everything happen very organically?
Avi: I've always wanted to play music for a living, primarily as a guitar player. I used to play blues with old guys and I've learned a few jazz things. Once the Avi Buffalo stuff started to gain momentum I just went with it, and here we are!

The Nightfly: On your MySpace page you list Neil Young, The Beach Boys, Wilco, Flaming Lips and several others. One influence that stands out on your list is jazz guitarist Wes Montgomery (1923-1968) – when did you first hear his recordings and was the guitar always your primary instrument?
Avi: I first heard Wes when I was in 8th grade: "Smokin' at the Half Note" with Wynton Kelly on piano, Paul Chambers on bass and Jimmy Cobb on drums. It was a really moving record for me at the time because Wes kind of meets blues and jazz in the middle, so I could pick out some of the licks and I had a lot of fun with that. Guitar has always been my main instrument.

The Nightfly: On “What’s in It for?” the guitar sound is vintage The Byrds – do you see it as an advantage or disadvantage if fans and critics group in Avi Buffalo with the current crop of bands that favor a late-1960s-Laurel Canyon sound?
Avi: It's both, and it's a very stressful conflict. Part of me really loves that sound and wants to emulate it, but there are so many bands that do that, and I'm very excited about sounds that are new. Being from a blues/rock background a lot of those sounds are what cling naturally to my playing, so a lot of the time I just dig in and enjoy it.

The Nightfly: Your voice is instantly recognizable which is vital if a singer (and/or a band) wants to stand out from the crowd. How did you “find” your voice?
Avi: It took me a while - in my first band I just yelled a lot. I'm not sure if I have a specific voice I use. I like singing really soft sometimes, but when I belt it - like on the infamous "What's in It for" - I usually lose my voice, so I'm looking to get voice lessons soon.

The Nightfly: Although your music is different from his, there is a certain Jeff Buckley vibe to you as a singer and performer. Are you a Buckley fan?
Avi: I've heard him before, but never listened extensively. Very good though!

The Nightfly: Thom Yorke is the singer who first comes to mind when listening to your voice. Has he and Radiohead been an influence?
Avi: I've never really gotten into Radiohead, but it's good stuff!

The Nightfly: Has your family been supportive so far and is there musical talent in your “gene pool”?
Avi: My family has been extremely supportive of the music stuff, and my whole family is into music. My uncle was a flautist in the Indiana Philharmonic for a number of years, my father sings, my cousin plays piano, etc.

The Nightfly: Does everyone in Avi Buffalo write music and lyrics or are you the sole/primary songwriter in the band?
Avi: I write the music and lyrics.

The Nightfly: Other than records, what inspires you?
Avi: Just music in general, playing music, and playing with inspiring people.

The Nightfly: How did the Buffalo part of the band name come about?
Avi: My friend Isaac Cruz suggested the two of us be called Isaac Lightning and Avi Buffalo in 8th grade. I kept Avi Buffalo because I thought it was cool.

The Nightfly: Is it intimidating or just very exciting to have the band be signed to a famous label such as Sub Pop?
Avi: It's exciting, though for the first time I do feel some pressure with the music/performance which is a bit scary, but we just have to keep practicing hard and stuff.

The Nightfly: Spike Jonze’s brilliant film “Where the Wild Things Are” has a whimsical soundtrack by Karen O the Kids [various musical friends that she enlisted for the project]. Hopefully this might signal a return to the concept album type of soundtracks of yesteryear such as “The Graduate” with music by Simon & Garfunkel where you have a single artist/band contributing songs as opposed to the more common approach of a music supervisor picking a dozen or so songs/snippets by different bands. Would you welcome the opportunity to do a soundtrack?
Avi: Yeah, that'd be kickass.

The Nightfly: What do you hope your music gives the listener and what has the music of your favorite artists/bands given you through the years?
Avi: I hope that it makes sense to people and sounds good. I've gotten so many things from music I can't really put my finger on one thing. It feels good!

The Nightfly: Which do you prefer: songwriting, recording or performing live?
Avi: It depends, but i really love recording. It can be a really fun process because you have all the time you want to stop and redo, etc.; you can just keep going forever and the possibilities are limitless.

The Nightfly: Which five albums or songs are your favorites?
Avi: Right now I've been really into Ariel Pink's "Worn Copy" record, because of the beautiful songs and recordings. I also love Neil Young's "Chrome Dreams" (the unreleased record), Panda Bear's "Person Pitch", Jim O'Rourke's "Eureka", Wilco's "Yankee Hotel Foxtrot", Penguin Cafe's "Music from the Penguin Cafe." And I have a Fela Kuti Greatest Hits album that I'm really into right now.

The Nightfly: Do you see the band going in a different direction down the road or is it even possible to predict such things?
Avi: Probably, I feel like things go in different directions even if you don't want them to. I have a general feeling of how I want it to be, but it's just a light at the end of the tunnel sort of thing.

The Nightfly: Are there definite plans at this point for a tour and festival gigs in 2010?
Avi: Yes, there are indeed. Nothing official yet though.

The Nightfly: If a company wanted to make Avi Buffalo action figures, how should they look?
Avi: Just like the band!

Bio: Avi Buffalo/Sub Pop