21 July 2014


Photography by Eleonora C. Collini

There is something endearing, yet melancholic about the music that Avigdor Zahner-Isenberg has been making under his Avi Buffalo moniker since he was a teenager. His 2010’s self-titled debut was an honest, heart-melting take on the tumultuous and overwhelming feelings of late adolescence so many of us could relate to. Four years later, Avi has grown up and is back with At Best Cuckold, a record that, like its predecessor, manages to beautifully capture a certain moment in everybody’s life through sonic metaphors and visceral, evocative lyrics.

In person Avi is friendly, genuine and spontaneous just like his music. He’s very proud of this new album which he self-produced with the help of some friends over the course of a year. “I did some initial tracks in a tape studio then transferred them into digital, overdubbed them home and finally took them around in different places and recorded them in a few different ways”, he reveals. “Then Nicolas Vernhes at Rare Book Room Studio did the final mixing”.

Starting Avi Buffalo as a home recording project utilizing just a microphone and free computer programs such as GarageBand, Avi did his first full-length at a hi-fi home studio in LA, whereas for At Best Cuckold he benefitted of the use of proper studios and better recording gear. “For this album I used professional studios but also got the luxury of working from a home location with better equipment that I had managed to get together over the last couple of years”, he explains. “That way I could have the creative freedom as well as the high fidelity of the studios.”

Writing a sophomore record after a critically acclaimed debut is never an easy task and can put artists under heavy pressure. For this reason Avi wanted to have plenty of time to be able to write lots of songs to then choose the best from. “I recorded so much and there is probably another album potentially ready”, he adds, “though many songs would still have to be overdubbed and mixed and I would also like to write maybe another couple of tracks to have more to pick from for the next record.”

The photo on the album cover, which has Zahner-Isenberg lying upside down with his head on the
floor and legs on a sofa, was taken by Eydie McConnell, one of Avi’s best friends he grew up with and who recently graduated from UCLA with a Major in Art. “Eydie is really multi-talented and has always been into photography”, he says. “Since we were teenagers whenever she needed to take photos she would ask me to pose for her, so, as we have always listened to music together as well, it kinda made sense for her to take the photographs for this record. We did photoshoots in different locations, at my place and elsewhere in Southern California, and then chose the best photos.”

Initially playing acoustic songs on his own, when Avi was first offered proper shows he basically asked a bunch of musician friends to join him till the project gradually evolved into an electric band and continued into the first record. “After that those people had other projects and stuff to go do while I wanted to take a long break from touring and get more into writing”, Avi points out. “There were also other bands I played with in between and through them I met other fellow musicians.” Of the initial lineup, drummer Sheridan Riley is the only member that remained constant. John Anderson originally played bass on the record but then Doug Brown, whom Avi met at eighteen while playing in another band, eventually became the band’s official bassist. “I met John in San Francisco a few years ago”, Avi reveals. “He is an amazing guitarist and among other bands he used to play in Girls, but at the beginning when I told him that I was writing At Best Cuckold he wanted to play bass on it as he had never played it in a band before. I was open to that as I knew he was very melodic and talented, so I let him play a lot on the record but then Doug became our touring bass player instead.” Anthony Vezirian completes the lineup on keyboards.

Of all the new songs, I particularly love “Can’t be too responsible” which Avi tells me that was written on an acoustic guitar at a friend’s house. “I just came up with a chord progression and though it’s a complex song, I wanted the guitar part to be simple. It’s a kind of downpicking strumming tune. It’s a dark song and while writing it I was thinking of Lou Barlow’s Sebadoh and Folk Implosion music a lot.”

Avi believes that growing up in Long Beach, a relatively small town thirty minutes from Los Angeles, had a big influence on his music. “Living in the suburbs can be very boring as there isn’t that much to do. But it’s good to be isolated and make your own fun kind of thing”, he confesses. “I feel that if I had grown up in a big city like Los Angeles instead I wouldn’t have got into music in the same way at all.”

When he first started playing guitar, Avi originally thought it’d be cool to just be a session guitarist, but then he gradually leaned more towards songwriting. “I started as a backdrop musician then began writing my own songs and I saw an opportunity to do that and that went back and forth for a while”, he explains. Singing is something that came out of his songwriting naturally and though he was singing way before he started studying guitar he has never taken proper vocal lessons but only followed his own instinct along with some tips people have given him over the years. “In a way I still consider myself more a guitar player than a singer as that's the only instrument I have properly trained on”, he admits.

For Avi making music is a constant challenge, even disappointing at times. “To play, explore and get close to what you imagine can be hard”, he believes. “Sometimes you have something in mind without knowing how to do it first, then you study other people doing it till you figure it out yourself, which is also very rewarding of course.”

At some point he also thought of being an engineer and just recording other people’s music, a profession he seems gifted for as the Kevin Lithrow and Arjuna Genome’s records (both produced by him) have proved. “That’s another way to express yourself and collaborate with people”, he declares. “It’s really inspiring to me and I like going back and forth between roles.”

Lately, Avi also got into DJing, though at the moment he’s just doing it at friends' parties, usually
playing fun stuff to dance to. He has always listened to different kinds of music but currently hip-hop is dominating his stereo, something you wouldn’t guess from his more folk rock-oriented songs. “When I started playing guitar the first things I got into were actually blues, jazz and R&B which all certainly informed hip-hop music”, he admits. “I also think there are more experimental things being incorporated in hip-hop and those kinds of genres, and you would hear more interesting compositions in drum machines and sequencers in R&B-based softwares, instruments and stuff like that. That’s been amazing, inspiring and quite fun.”

Visual arts have always been a big source of inspiration for Avi too, and though he has never had formal training, he learnt a lot from friends that formally studied art at University. “For instance when Eydie [McConnell] was at UCLA, she had projects she was working on and a lot of times she would ask me advice on ideas she wanted to develop and get me involved. I have done a bit of theory but I have never had formal art lessons, so I am pretty sketchy at it but I would like to properly get the tools to play more with painting and drawing.“ Recently he has done a lot of tracing photographs thanks to Line Camera, a phone application that was originally a social media app that developed as a photo stamp tool but then ended up being as good as Photoshop for creative customisation of images with text and effects. “I was making collages with photographs and then I started putting the photos on a blank screen, drawing over them and moving the photographs underneath. I feel that was more about reading other people processes and thinking about it as opposed to just drawing or taking a picture. For instance I got lots of inspiration from Marlene Dumas’ painting over photographs that she then removes. So I would do this operation by just tracing the core of something very quickly so that when you remove the photo you can barely tell what is underneath but you can still feel that the core was there either unconsciously or consciously.”

I end the conversation by asking him how much importance he gives to reviews and he admits that he barely reads them. “When we released the first single from this record I was checking a little bit what people were saying and that was cool, but then I decided I should keep away from it as much as I can”. He believes that reading a bad review can be constructive depending on where it's coming from, but he generally trusts the opinion of his friends and people he has real relationships with more. “I feel that's a better way to start developing creative ideas and something you can feel passionate about without getting confused about what other people think”, he concludes.

At Best Cuckold is out on 8th sept via Subpop.

Originally published on The 405
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