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Escape Velocity

Keeping The Good Wonkiness: Avi Buffalo Interviewed
Daniel Ross , June 1st, 2010 07:56

Daniel Ross talks to Sub Pop sensations Avi Buffalo about the pitfalls of youth and drinking with German guys

The sweetness of Long Beach natives Avi Buffalo's music, with its lyrical barbs, makes a neat mirror image of how they are in conversation – lovely, for sure, but vulnerable. With their Sub Pop single 'What's In It For?' constantly on 6 Music and the reception to their arrival remarkably positive, there's an awful lot for such a young band to get its head around, and most of it has to be dealt with by singer and guitarist Avi Zahner-Isenberg. A prodigious musician, he is a fiercely well-schooled guitarist and inventive songwriter. When they play live, later in the evening, he greets each musical offbeat with a bop of the head, each chance for a guitar solo with a screwed-up face and gallons of sweat. Few performers can claim to live so completely in their own songs. For now though, he is sitting on the steps outside The Lexington, strumming an acoustic guitar and giggling like Tom Hulce in Amadeus.

Joined by keyboardist (and ex-girlfriend) Rebecca Coleman, he is positively buzzing. In fact, it is up to Coleman to continually reassure him that they actually have the time to answer my questions. When they do, the answers inevitably mutate and meander into whimsy. Their self-titled debut album performs the same trick with righteous results, but will life on the road make Avi Buffalo think twice about a second? Chat commences with their recent ATP performance...

So, I saw you play at Pavement's ATP a couple of weeks ago. How did it come about?

Avi Zahner-Isenberg: Our lawyer, Matt Kaplan, knew some people. And when I say 'our lawyer Matt Kaplan' I don't mean business lawyer: I mean this amazing music father figure and great dude. He also works for record labels and all sorts of stuff, and he was just like "ahh, send some stuff over," and, I don't know, like... yeah... go on. I'm out of it. [Giggles]

Why, what have you been up to today?

AZ-I: We've just been hanging out.

Rebecca Coleman: We woke up in the hotel in Antwerp. It was ridiculous, because last night there were all these German guys drinking all night at the bar and finally at three in the morning they said, "You can't do this anymore, go back to your rooms!". And so they were like “Aaaargh!” and stole a bunch of candy and put it in a microwave. I don't know why we know this. It's rumours.

AZ-I: [sings] Rumours!

RC: And then we just drove here. We stopped at a huge, stinky service station with try-to-make-you-feel-good inspirational words everywhere, like 'Refresh', or 'Relax', and it smells like shit.

AZ-I: There are some wonderful things about Europe in that sense, all the signs that say 'Relax'... it's wonderful in that sense. The shitty stuff is bad, but at the same time, poop smells good. Sometimes, right? Come on.

Do you mean, err, your own brand?

AZ-I: No, like, cow poop! So uh, what's up? What other questions do you have? Sorry we're bad on time... we're bad on time, plus I'm out of it.

Not a problem. I imagine everyone will have been speaking to you about your age.

AZ-I: Right, we're young.

But you must be sick of people saying, "Oh, this is a great record for such a young band". Can't they just say it's a great record?

RC: We were scared at first that it might be a little too gimmicky.

AZ-I: It's really important to just remember teachers, ATP was such an honour for us to play because there's all these heroes there. That's all that really matters, is this love, and you get to meet them and talk to them.

RC: I'd say that it hasn't been too overwhelming.

AZ-I: It can be overwhelming if you're not careful. And I'm really young, and I'm tender, and I need to make sure I'm doing the right thing. To take care of myself and learn from people.

RC: Because we're young, it's not attracting a really young audience. I think that would be the worst thing to happen.

AZ-I: My dream is to make music that old and young people like. I feel like we don't make music that's good enough for young people. If you look at bands like Atlas Sound and Panda Bear...

RC: Look at Donovan! My half-brother's stoked on Avi Buffalo, so is Sidney my cousin…

AZ-I: But if you look at Animal Collective and Atlas Sound, people that are doing new things, Jim O'Rourke...

RC: What are you talking about? Kids don't like that stuff that much.

AZ-I: All sorts of people love Animal's kind-of hard for me to explain. Panda Bear is such a beautiful, talented person. And Person Pitch is such a beautiful record.

RC: But Donovan doesn't like it.

Where is the balance between noise and melody for you?

RC: You can only combine melody and noise so much.

AZ-I: You can combine whatever you want to combine.

RC: I think the noise mostly comes from the pedals [points to Avi] and experimentation on your instrument. I think you really have to choose one to a certain extent.

AZ-I: I think that sound is sound. I don't like genres that much. But what's noise? What's melody? It's all the same. Melodic doesn't mean that it's like major scales, melodic is anything. Percussive things, whatever. Another thing to keep in mind is that a lot of these songs are really old, maybe some of them could be construed as being a little bit too cliché-sounding or something like that. I want to get away from just major chords, I want to do more with jazz chords, I want to figure out more about everything. How are we doing for time? We're like, negative an hour. Let's do some fast ones. I'm sorry. Thanks so much for doing this.

Are you the same person now that you were when you wrote the songs?

AZ-I: Yeah, but I'm also in a time of growing up and I'm having a rough time getting used to the road. I'm having to do that, and still find teachers... and love! But it's really exciting, I feel like I'm really discovering what love is. It's really great.

Did you all have plans to stay in education before you were signed?

RC: Oh yeah, I was getting good grades in high school.

AZ-I: I decided to give up school, and I really regret it in a lot of ways. I graduated, but I graduated at the bare minimum and I was failing a lot of classes. My teachers were worried about me.

RC: I ended up taking a semester at Cal State Long Beach with the art programme, and then we were touring so I had to finish work early. That was a hassle.

AZ-I: I realised that even though I was scraping by in high school, it was more broad. Then afterwards, I was like, "My life is music", 'cos it always is. So I'm trying to find balance. Any more questions? Let's barrel through 'em. Sorry... I just wish I'd slept more.

How long have you been awake?

AZ-I: A really long time! Like, 48 hours? Plus I'm sleep deprived anyway. Go on. I gotta be honest with you, I'm really out of it. And I hope that people are able to tell, I gotta get on my shit, quite frankly. I gotta get on my fucking shit. But you know what, Mike Watt, John Coltrane...

RC: [Laughing] Stop!

AZ-I: No no no, Mike Watt, he plays this amazing music and you can tell that it's really hard. Music is really hard. I need help in figuring out growing-up stuff sometimes. I've got to be careful.

You're right – Charlie Parker is a good example. He died in his 30s with the body of a 70-year-old.

AZ-I: You've got to get your sleep, you've got to get your water, you've got to get your love. All you need is love! I think that we should probably get going, we're running really late and I don't know how much time we have...

When I saw you play at ATP, Avi, you were jabbing at your effects with your hands all the time. Are you a perfectionist when it comes to guitar tone?

AZ-I: Right, the 28-80... I don't know...I guess when it comes to sound, and the 28-80, I really love new sounds I've recorded. The cool thing about the 28-80 is the mixing of the volume. There are four channels, and you get to mess with the volumes. It's funny how if you move it just a little bit, it makes all the difference. But it also has pitch-bending and reversing, and you can record live if you're feeding back and it'll go BLULUULULU!

What's your relationship with the guitar?

AZ-I: I just love guitar. I've always loved guitar. Right now, I feel like I could try out different instruments. It'd be nice to try out piano, lap-steel, drums, the bass, everything! I have a lot of weakness when it comes to rhythm and bass. I've been in a very trebly place and I need to come down and get on the darker colours. Everything's yellow and orange, but there's also blue... and black. And how to make black work.

So how do you make black work?

AZ-I: I don't know, I've got to try!

RC: It's all about negative space…

What's been the hardest thing for you as a band so far?

AZ-I: Me.

RC: You. Yourself. You're your own enemy.

AZ-I: It's awful. The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.

RC: I've had a hard time being away from home, just because my boyfriend is there. Sometimes he comes on the road.

AZ-I: He helped me record the last song on the record, and he also did the album artwork. He's amazing. He's one of the most awesome people I've ever met. So, one more question. Just because I'm too crazy to not keep talking and going off on tangents.

Right you are then. A lot of reviews of the record ha used words like 'wonky', 'skewed' or, worst of all, 'charming' to describe the sound. I disagree – these are polished, full pop songs without any of that self-conscious cack-handedness. What do you think?

RC: What's 'wonky'?

A bit off-kilter. Unbalanced.

RC: Sort of like Willy Wonka?

AZ-I: We are wonky. We hope to try to keep the good wonkiness.

RC: We've also focused a lot on cleaning it all up. In production it was a lot of Avi going in by himself.

AZ-I: I really love recording at home alone, it's very comfortable. I hope that the next record will be more of that, I think there's a darker element to that. Or something. But yeah, I want to find the balance between the cleanliness and the wonkiness. I need to go to school, get some guitar lessons, some piano lessons... It should be noted that I'm in a place right now that I need to try to pick myself out of and learn a lot more than I ever have. But I'm not on drugs. I do marijuana occasionally, and I used to smoke it more, but I don't any more at all. I did two days ago. I totally didn't, I ate it. I'm going for moderation. I think that, for me, drugs are a really not-good-idea. People have said so many wonderful things about psychedelics, and I'm curious, but I am definitely not in a place right now to try that out. If you're gonna do that you need to be happy and healthy, and I'm not that right now! Happy with music, mixed up with life.

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