“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.”
But Coleman stayed in the group — in fact, it’s hard to imagine it without her. She’s Zahner-Isenberg’s harmonic foil both in voice (a Joanna Newsom–like croon versus his huskier Devendra Banhart) and on keys. The two now have an uncommonly mature dynamic. Their romantic dabbling caused a rift in their intimate hometown scene (typified by restaurant gigs and house shows), which they saw as an opportunity for a clean slate. Rounded out by drummer Sheridan Riley and bassist Arin Fazio, and with the help of manager Ashley Jex (bassist in the Monolators), Avi Buffalo started looking toward Los Angeles.
The band prioritized music above all else. Grades suffered, but the songs only got better, and Sub Pop’s Kiewel, tipped off by Embry, had begun to obsessively check Avi Buffalo’s MySpace page for updates — like the rest of the growing horde of fans, journalists and potential backers. The dam broke when recording began, though for the four, it was mostly business as usual.
“Because of their youth, there’s this optimism that’s pretty rare in people who are working so hard at something,” says Embry. He also heads up the band Amnion. “There were these epic days of them doing, like, 10 takes of a song, then working on that song for a week and realizing we needed to start over. They would always bounce back with the same enthusiasm, absolutely knowing, ‘This time we’re going to get it right. … No, sorry, we didn’t get it, but next time we’ve got it.’”
Two songs from those sessions, which included contributions from Farmer Dave Scher, will be available on Sub Pop 7-inch at Avi Buffalo’s November 5 show at the Echo, a homecoming of sorts which, like the band’s May residency, will find the 21-and-over venue opening its doors to all ages. Rules seem to bend as easily as guitar strings for Zahner-Isenberg — “What’s In It For,” b/w “Jessica,” doesn’t hit stores until December, but locals can pick up the band’s first proper release early. What’s more, Avi Buffalo recently completed their second minitour — opening for Beach House, also fresh signees to the mega-indie.
Zahner-Isenberg still lives at the same Long Beach address he’s had for going on 19 years (his birthday is also November 5). His parents, he says, have overcome most of their fears about his future. Avi Buffalo’s debut album, according to Kiewel, will be released once Riley graduates.
Avi Buffalo, Aaron Embry and the Wildbunch play the Echo on November 5 at 8 p.m.; $8 advance, $10 day of; all ages.