By Alex Distefano
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As fairy tales go, Avi Buffalo’s is hard to beat. It all started when Long Beach teenager Avigdor “Avi” Zahner-Isenberg turned his home recordings into a sort of accidental acoustic band. The band went electric, and Zahner-Isenberg accepted an invitation to record some songs with sideman/engineer Aaron Embry. Sub Pop got wind of the work and showed interest. Having just finished high school, Zahner-Isenberg and his band signed with the label before the long-gestating album was even finished. Avi Buffalo have already toured with Beach House, Rogue Wave and Japandroids, and now that self-titled disc debuts next week. We’d just finished the once-upon-a-time, and we’re already at the happily-ever-after?
It’s also a lot for anyone to take in, let alone a home-recorder still a couple of years away from legal drinking age. “All this exciting stuff has been happening,” says a frazzled Zahner-Isenberg, 19. “I’ve been losing grounding.” While the young ages of the band’s members— drummer Sheridan Riley is 18, keyboardist/singer Rebecca Coleman is 19, and bassist Arin Fazio is the elder statesman at 21—hasn’t been an issue when playing bars across the country, the road has taken something of a toll on Zahner-Isenberg. And yet he’s learning to live with it.
“When I first got on the road,” he recalls, “I was really nervous and unsure how to stay stimulated. I’m slowly discovering that there are a lot of really special things about it. Meeting people is the best thing.”
Before Sub Pop came knocking, Zahner-Isenberg was content to jam with his friends and play guitar as a hired hand in gospel and R&B bands. He had planned to go to college and continue doing session work. Instead, he’s trying to stay focused on music in the midst of the music business and remember what he enjoys most about the whole thing.
“Playing for other people is really a great pleasure for me,” he says. On his next break from touring—all 18 days of it—he plans to play music with various friends and even make a quick album with a drummer friend. Incidentally, it won’t sound anything like Avi Buffalo: “It will be very loud, intense, scary music hopefully,” he speculates.
The Avi Buffalo album, on the other hand, is intimate, gangly and quiet. It’s a bit like psychedelic folk, all spooky guitar lines and rustling embellishment. From the Shins-ish yearning of the single “What’s It in For?” to the seven-minute daydream “Remember Last Time,” the songs have a communal vibe that radiates a very personal approach to songwriting. Zahner-Isenberg has one of those high, scruffy voices that makes him sound like either a small child or an old man, and his splintered lyrics are strangely beautiful. Even songs called “Summer Cum” and “Five Little Sluts” gently tug at the heartstrings.
It’s a long way from Avi Buffalo’s debut show in front of a few people at Zephyr Vegetarian Café and, before that, Zahner-Isenberg’s time in the saxophone-spiked “jam-rock” band Monogram. “It’s definitely more bright-sounding,” he says of the album. “I think we used to be a lot darker.”
He seems to miss that somewhat, as well as various other facets of his earlier work. He has had his hand in a lot of music during the past few years, and he’s surprised that this project is catapulting him into the national spotlight.
“I didn’t necessarily think it would be Avi Buffalo,” he admits. “Although it’s an awesome thing, it’s not the most explorative music. I feel like I want to make some more progressive stuff. It’s really exciting that stuff is happening, but I wasn’t expecting it.”
The album, then, is a calling card to the world. It’s an introduction to Zahner-Isenberg—but not the last word. It’s also no solo project by any means: The band are loose and rolling in the best way, and Embry’s guiding hand gives the songs a kind of candlelight flicker. Zahner-Isenberg is quick to shower praise on the producer, who has worked with the likes of Emmylou Harris and Beth Orton. It’s the same with Wesley Chung of the Long Beach band Boris Smile, in which Zahner-Isenberg played guitar during his junior year. Hearing him talk, he clearly relishes the process of collaborating. That’s why he’s eager to work on different projects. If he’s nervous about Avi Buffalo being the impetus for his first national exposure, it’s only because there’s so much more he wants to do.
There’s a refrain on the album’s final track that might come in handy for him: “Try your hardest/Show ’em what you’re made of.” Avi Buffalo have already done just that, and their early success is no fluke. The band earned their happy ending—no, happy beginning—by coming out of nowhere with a soulful first album that’s just about perfect. It’s also a sign of great things to come.