By LA Weekly
By Henry Rollins
By Weekly Photographers
By Shea Serrano
By Nate "Igor" Smith
By Dan Weiss
By Erica E. Phillips
By Kai Flanders
“I used to skateboard when I was in elementary school,” says the soft-spoken Avigdor Zahner-Isenberg, “and then I had a hip infection. I went to the hospital for a week, and after, my hip just hurt really bad. I couldn’t ollie as high anymore, so guitar took the place of that.”
Be not misled by this Long Beach teen’s unassuming way. Genius has been born of stranger circumstance. Zahner-Isenberg, age 18 and better known as Avi Buffalo (also the name of his band), is a precociously gifted songwriter and eerily good guitar player. Also, he’s just been signed to Seattle-based indie heavyweight Sub Pop Records.
“It freaks me out,” says Zahner-Isenberg, sitting on an amp in the Highland Park home studio where he recently finished recording an album’s worth of songs with his mentor, producer/engineer Aaron Embry. “We’d been messing around, just making a record for fun. We were probably gonna give it away on MySpace.”
The studio, Hunter’s Hollow, has been the site of a whole lot of growth of late. Embry and his wife are raising a newborn upstairs, and Avi Buffalo — the band and the young man — have flourished in the house’s sound-rigged underbelly. Embry is an L.A. music vet, having played with Elliott Smith, Jane’s Addiction and the Edward Sharpe clan, to name a few, but he’s also a born spirit warrior, the type to speak sincerely of destiny, and to have a teepee in his backyard (which he does). He calls Zahner-Isenberg a “lifer” musician, and with his experience, he’d know.
Zahner-Isenberg, by contrast, is endearingly green and a little shy. His hands fiddle nervously if a guitar isn’t in them, and he’s most comfortable talking when he can effuse over the finger-playing style of Nels Cline. His band is young, too. They embarked on their first tour this past June, to Seattle (for obvious reasons), but what they do — on record, spinning a sensitive and sun-kissed outsider folk; and onstage, often shredding their way to a psychedelic bliss — belies the fact that they have a drummer who’s got a year left at Millikan High.
“The band came up here to play and I had people coming up to me after the show saying they would quit if we didn’t offer those kids a deal,” says Sub Pop’s head of A&R, Tony Kiewel, by phone. He’s an old friend of Embry’s, and the former co-host of KXLU’s Demolisten. “Avi’s just disgustingly talented. His guitar-playing is mind-boggling. He’s not really even strumming. He’s pretty much soloing the whole time and it still sounds like a pop song.”
Zahner-Isenberg’s only been playing for five years, and his is almost the typical suburban story. Under his folks’ roof, boredom got the best of him, so he picked up an Ibanez that’d been collecting dust. His parents paid for lessons — Zahner-Isenberg’s mother inundated him with Paul Simon recordings at a young age, and his father’s bloodline includes a history of Judaic cantorial singing — but Zahner-Isenberg soon found a guitar guru in an old family friend. Or rather, the dude found him.
“To give you an idea of Joel Weinberg,” says Zahner-Isenberg, “this guy’s like a martial-arts master as well as a blues aficionado. He’s buff, usually wears a black tank top, some sweatpants, has a goatee and ponytail. He ran into me playing in a local music shop one day and said, ‘You’re not playing that right. Watch this.’
“He gave me a bunch of CDs to listen to and told me about this weekly blues jam in Huntington Beach. I’d never played on a stage with people, let alone a bunch of experienced old guys, and it was a totally humiliating experience. But the next morning, he called me up: ‘Okay, let’s talk about last night.’”
Weinberg shepherded Zahner-Isenberg into a world full of crusty bluesmen who taught him the vital blues arts of collective improvisation, chops-building and dues-paying. The master-student relationship lasted three fruitful years, up to about the time Zahner-Isenberg started staying in, adding layer upon layer to the very first Avi Buffalo songs using his computer’s microphone. Another key development came when the object of his affection, classmate Rebecca Coleman, summarily dismissed him. He fueled his brokenhearted angst into surprisingly poignant, artful songs like “Summer Cum,” then swept Coleman out of the arms of a new beau when he asked her to join his band.
“We ended up together,” says Zahner-Isenberg, “so I wrote more songs about her. Then we broke up, so there were even more songs. And now there’ve been songs about ... I guess, a lot of girls at this point. But I’m always switching it up with the girl inspiration, probably because every girl sounds different in a song.”