Fame is no easy pill to swallow, no matter what your age. So imagine being thrust into the spotlight straight out of high school. Three years ago, that’s precisely what happened to Long Beach teen Avi Zahner-Isenberg. At 17, the high school senior was occupying his time just like most guys his age: attending class, fiddling around on guitar, and trying his hand at forming a rock band. Unlike his peers, though, Zahner-Isenberg quickly found himself on the music-biz fast track. By 18, he had adopted the name Avi Buffalo, gathered a team of musicians, signed to indie-rock mega-label Sub Pop, and released a buzz-worthy debut album. (Pitchfork summed the band up as “graceful beyond their years” in 2010.) Before long, he and bandmates Sheridan Riley (drums), Arin Fazio (bass), and Rebecca Coleman (keys, vocals) were on the road, touring across the U.S. alongside Modest Mouse and playing festivals like All Tomorrow’s Parties and Primavera Sound.
In the time since, Zahner-Isenberg has laid pretty low, slowly restructuring the Avi Buffalo lineup and trying on a few more musical hats from his Long Beach home base. His projects have ranged from building his own home recording space (Hood Ranch Dressing Studios) to sitting in with friends like Wild Bunch to, as of late, beginning production on the next Avi Buffalo album. It’s a project, he said, that took a long time to get back into.
“We toured nonstop, and that’s how you’re supposed to do it, but we definitely needed some time to get our heads back together and figure out what the band was,” Zahner-Isenberg told me. “[The break] allowed me to just sit at home and play an acoustic guitar for a few months, and after that time, some things finally started springing forth. But I wouldn’t have been able to get to the point of writing songs again if we hadn’t taken that time.”
Nowadays, it’s full steam ahead for Avi Buffalo. The band currently exists as a three-piece made up of Zahner-Isenberg, Riley, and bassist/multi-instrumentalist John Anderson, though they’re looking to add a keyboardist for future tours. They’re also deep in the process of making album number two. When asked how the new songs compare to the last Avi Buffalo record, Zahner-Isenberg was both eager and cryptic.
“It’s a lot more refined. It’s a lot darker,” he explained. “We’re trying to avoid unnecessary brightness and figure out the right sounds …. The first record was really bright. It was my first time in a studio. Now I know what to use and how to use it, and things like that make a huge difference.”
Since starting Avi Buffalo, Zahner-Isenberg has maintained the role of frontman and figurehead. He writes the music, the lyrics, and acts as creative director, wielding his diverse taste and still-growing production knowledge over the project. During our conversation, he vacillates between talking about chord changes and discussing microphone placement. He describes the last Avi Buffalo record as sounding “red or pink or green or yellow” before telling me that he prefers the juxtaposition of darker tones and upbeat lyrics to songs that are “bright and poppy.”
Currently, Zahner-Isenberg is in the midst of a pretty rigorous recording schedule. He comes across as unyieldingly passionate but also slightly overwhelmed. He half-jokingly referred to it as the “thinking-out-loud stage” of the album-making process. And when we started talking music, his reference points spilled out in a tidal wave of artists, sounds, and tones.
“I’ve been listening to Roy Harper, The Lillies, Glen Campbell, 60-Watt Kid,” he told me. “That band The War on Drugs — their album Slave Ambient is really good. It reminds me of the middle section of Wilco’s catalog, between the stuff of Summerteeth and Yankee Hotel Foxtrot.” The list wound on to include Elliott Smith, Clams Casino, and the new Beach Boys, which he called “half the worst thing in the world and half the best thing in the world.”
It’s an impressive list, especially coming from a 21-year-old. Then again, Zahner-Isenberg has long been considered wise beyond his years. This Sunday, August 5, and next Sunday, August 12, he brings Avi Buffalo to Muddy Waters Café as part of a short string of West Coast dates, a sort of road test for the new material. I, for one, can’t wait to see what he’s been up to.
Avi Buffalo play two all-ages shows at Muddy Waters Café (508 E. Haley St.) on Sunday, August 5, and Sunday, August 12, at 8 p.m. Little Owl and Aan open this week’s performance. Call 966-9328 or visit clubmercy.com for tickets.