For today’s Rock Candy, Jordan Minnick was kind enough to do a Q&A with Avi Buffalo, who plays Slowdown on Saturday with Mother Culture. Get your tickets for the front room show for $8 at etix.com or at the venue.
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By JORDAN MINNICK
Not every high school rock band can say that they nabbed a record deal after graduating.
Avi Buffalo is one exception. They signed with Sub Pop (home to Blitzen Trapper, The Shins and No Age, to name a few) after members graduated in Long Beach, Calif., in 2009.
The group started as singer-songwriter Avi Zahner-Isenberg’s on-the-side solo work, and he used Avi Buffalo as his musical alias. He played his music in cafes and houses and posted tracks like “What’s In It For” on MySpace thinking no one would pick up on it.
But Sub Pop did. And now the band is on somewhat of a whirlwind while its members put off college and home life for a concert tour. Its current headlining tour will come to Omaha on Saturday at the Slowdown.
While was on the road, we caught up with Zahner-Isenberg to talk the tour, recording and what’s next for the young singer-songwriter.
Q. Your age seemed to be one of the most focused-on parts of the band when first arriving on the music buzz radar. Were there times when you wanted to just tell people to lay off?
A. Oh yeah, absolutely. I mean, imagine being an 18 or 19-year-old, and you know, you’re just making music, you didn’t expect anything to happen with it and all of a sudden people are asking you about your lyrics or your music and what it means, or telling you that they like that you said, “your lips are like tiny pieces of bacon,” and you’re just kind of like, you know, “Whatever, it’s just a song,” kinda thing
Q. What has been the hardest aspect of adjusting to the fast success you guys have experienced in the past year?
A. I don’t know if we’ve been successful. But just touring really hard has been the most difficult thing to adjust to. Had to really make a lot of life changes, and whether we wanted to or not, with that.
Q. I’d say there are hints of youthfulness in some of your lyrics featured on the LP. Would you say that this album resonates a lot with your younger years?
A. Well I think it has to because a lot of the songs were written when I was between the ages of 15 and like 17/18.
Q. Do you think there will be the factor of your lyrics maturing as Avi Buffalo gets back into the swing of writing?
A. Um, I hope so. I mean, I would imagine that the lyrics will be—I mean, what I’ve written in the last couple months, I can’t really tell if they’re ‘youthful’ sounding or not. I would assume they’d reflect the mindset of a 19/20-year-old or something.
Q. So this tour marks your first headlining tour, right?
Q. Is it more of a relief to finally have your own tour, or is it a little nerve-wracking?
A. I guess it’s a relief. In general, the headline tours work better for the headlining band, in all aspects. Whether it be, I guess, show-wise or like set-wise or financially even, timing-wise, you get to be on your own schedule instead of somebody else’s. So yeah, it’s definitely more comfortable-feeling, I guess.
Q. And I understand you guys have had a change in the band lineup. Has that been hard or more like something you’d say you’ve been making successful due with?
A. I think the latter. When we’ve had member changes it’s definitely just kind of provided the band with a challenge. And that’s a lot of fun, that’s what you kind of work for, in playing music in general, so it’s been good.
Q. Are you like an official trio now then, or what’s the deal?
A. Basically, right now, we’re in between—basically me and Sheridan [Riley] are the core members right now. Our original bass player Andrew Celik is playing with us right now on this tour. And when we come back, we’re going to take a pretty big break, cause we’ve been touring for a year. And we’re going to, like you said, get in the swing of writing and recording. And when we go back to play out again, we’re probably going to have our friend Barbara Kramer—she’s a really legit, really great person, she’s a bass player. She goes to Cal State Long Beach, she’s a sophomore and she playing upright bass, she’s like first chair in their orchestra as a second-year. She’s really, really great. So she’ll probably be electric with us and collaborating and stuff like that too.
But I think it’s mostly like, it’s always been—I’d like to think of the band as more of a recording project. When it comes to recording, it’s always just like, you know, “Who do we know,” who’s friends, musicians, different people. Like, on the record, there’s three different drummers, on our debut. There’s like Dylan Wood from 60 Watt Kid played on the “Truth Sets In,” which, originally we recorded a demo, he recorded on it. A different drummer played drums on “What’s In It For,” and Sheridan did the rest of most of the stuff. There’s horn players on it, there’s different people playing like sometimes guitars or piano. And I think that the recordings [for the new album] will probably have a lot of different people on them, so I’m looking forward to having a lot of different people on the recordings.
Q. So how do you guys translate your sound to the live setting now, since your recordings are probably somewhat different from what you play live now?
A. Yeah, well it’s always been very different. Recordings are very different from live. And my philosophy on that is just to go totally all-out with recordings, because why not? And then the fun is the challenge in live, because you only have three people, or four people, or two people or one person, and uh, seeing what you can do to make that work in a different way. And use your other strengths to compensate for what was done on the recording.
Q. In about a month, your tour will take you back to your home state California. What are you plans for when you’re home and not on a touring schedule?
A. I’m definitely signing up for a little bit of school, a couple classes. And then I’m probably going to spend a lot of time driving in California between L.A., Long Beach and sometimes even all the way up North to like Oakland where I have a couple of musician friends. Just going wherever is relatively close with musicians around, working on stuff. Just kinda keeping the juices flowing. Just playing enough to get back in the [habit] of writing more.
Then recording, and then we’ll see what happens, if we’ll go on another tour by that point. Or maybe find other work in music. Like I’d kinda wanna see if I can tap into some session work, and stuff like that, see what I can do and learn more about music. I’d like to learn how to read music finally. I haven’t done that at all, all I know is by ear. So I think it’d be nice to learn other instruments or learn some classical stuff. If I were able to like, sit down and really study up, and be able to play like Bach pieces and things like that on guitar or on piano or something, then that would really help song writing and musician growth in general.
Q. So you said you’re thinking about enrolling in some classes, could you see yourself taking some music classes?
A. Yeah. Like LBCC [Long Beach Community College] has a really renowned recording program there. And I’d like to learn how to use Pro Tools or Logic, things like that. I wanna get a home studio going that I can use fluidly, at my own disposal, like whenever, whatever time, whatever I can do with it recording, multiple instruments at once or whatever. I’d like to try to do whatever I can to get ahold of that. But also some non-musical classes, like some straight-up sociology, otherworldly things. Just kind of feed the brain. Cause we’ve been in kind of tunnel-vision-music mode for a while.
Q. So coming out of high school and jumping into the band/touring thing, do you feel like you kind of missed out, not going to college right away? Are you kind of making up for that?
A. Yeah, well, I mean, I feel glad that I had time off because when I left high school I was in no shape, mentally, to continue school at that time. I was just like, my head was just in the, “Oh, we’re just going to tour forever!” Like, I believed I would be making money by this point, or something like that, that all this stuff was gonna happen.
Of course all the people that help you out, whether it’s label people or management people or like whoever’s kind of pushing in the business direction—people kind of feed you this bullshit kind of thing, that this is some awesome, really amazing opportunity and that this is the only thing you’d wanna do. And you do it for a little bit and you’re like, “Oh, wait, hold on,” like you remember what normal stuff is like instead of hanging on that all the way. At least when it comes to touring.
So I think it’s been good to have this time to travel, see the world like we have and experience and learn a bunch about people and myself, definitely music. And after this time off, now I’m ready to check out some school. So it’s kind of nice in that sense.
Q. I have to say, I’m a bit jealous. It seems like you’re doing what you want to do, no college degree involved or required.
A. Hmm…I mean, you know, but how much is it paying off? Like we haven’t made a dime off of this. After doing this for a year, we’re not necessarily better musicians, because we’ve been touring instead of practicing this whole time.
So, I’m very jealous of a lot of my college-bound friends or college-enrolled friends who are still able to be, like, learning and still doing that versus having all these adult responsibilities that a 19-year-old really shouldn’t have. We’re fortunate to be able to travel the world for free, because that’s all this has really been, you know, travel for free and play music for free. And now I can write and see what other options I have at home.
Q. So would you just be going to school part-time then?
A. Yeah, that’s what I was planning on. I’m not like giving up on music or anything like that. I definitely wanna keep all those doors wide open. And I just kind of want to explore, because before any of this happened, I was just doing Avi Buffalo as a hobby, but my real focus was, “Oh, I wanna be a session player.” And then I kinda got sidetracked doing this whole band thing all the time, and kind of stopped taking lessons and everything like that. So, I kinda wanna get back into that and see with what all the experience I’ve had, playing all these shows, and more jam experience I’ve had, and try to apply that to learning more formal things, and applying them, and just kind of keep the cycle going, as before.
Q. Could you see yourself pursing the jazz and blues you were interested in before Avi Buffalo?
A. Yeah, that kinda thing. I mean I had really intensive training with blues music and relatively intensive training with some jazz stuff. And me and Sheridan, the drummer, we’re rock musicians but we have this love for jazz also. We’re always trying to work on kind of — whenever we’re practicing music, we haven’t really had time for lessons or many formal things. There’s kind of that little weird cross-culmination between jazz music.
I’d love to do — it’d be sweet if I just tapped into the world of doing guitar solos for commercial R&B music. Like that would be a dream. I was doing some of that stuff before we started recording. I was like 17. I was playing with this band called L&E, I was the only the only white guy in the band and everyone else was in their early-to-mid-20s. I was just playing guitar for that stuff, and it was super fun and just right up my alley, combining the kind of casual jazz rules and blues fundamentals and roots music and stuff. I’d like to see if I can do more of that while I’m at home, just for fun and just to make some more friends who play music.
Q. Having been through the recording and touring process with this album, would you say that there are different places you’d like to go with your sound, or just playing music in general, whether or not it be with Avi Buffalo?
A. I think there’s always going to be the recording of my own songs and stuff like that. And I think just depending on wherever, I mean I can’t really predict where it’s gonna go, cause you can’t really tell where the water flows or where the current is taking you. It might take us somewhere very rocky or somewhere very jazzy, who knows. It kind of depends on how I spend my time at home, really. Like whoever I’m playing with or whoever in inspiring me and whoever’s inspiring whoever.
Q. So you said you’d kind of been writing on the road?
A. Somewhat. A little bit.
Q. Is that something you see yourself putting toward the next Avi Buffalo album?
A. Yeah, I think so. That’s usually the intention. When I’m recording something, I’m not thinking where I’m going to put it, but I don’t really have anywhere else to put it but another record. Yeah, I mean there’s a couple things I’ve worked on, none of it is complete. It’s all 30 seconds of a chord progression that I could choose to add something to or combine with another one, or repeat over and over again and make it into a song like that. But it’s all very open-ended.
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