Music Features

Avi Buffalo (Interview)

“Their collective age is equivalent to one of us.”

Maybe an hour into their set, Rogue Wave frontman, Zach Rogue, asked those of us in attendance at the First Unitarian Church of Philadelphia the evening of March 4th what we thought of their opener, up-and-coming Sub Pop act, Avi Buffalo.  Following the above comment, and some polite laughter from the audience, Rogue countered with, “I’m their father.”

“Yeah, it’s definitely a bummer,” stated singer/songwriter, Avi Zahner-Isenberg earlier.  “If you’re being perceived as a kid band, y’know, and try and be a band band.”

I met Isenberg earlier that evening, following him along Chestnut Avenue while he searched for something to eat.  He’d arrived about thirty minutes beforehand, had sound check and then wound up with forty-five minutes to inhale a slice or two of pizza and talk to me.  We arbitrarily selected a pew, (It’s a church venue, remember?), and spoke maybe five minutes before the line of freezing Rogue Wave fans began filtering through the doors. 

Isenberg has that air of excitability and gratefulness that most people in his position lose once they take their good fortune for granted.  Since signing to Sub Pop in October of last year, Avi Buffalo is on their first “long” tour and will be attending SXSW later this month.  Their self-titled debut will be out at the end of April. 

“Yeah, I’m really stoked,” Isenberg said mid-chew.  “Never been there before.  Should be a lot of fun, there’s… we’re playing, like, nine shows at a lot of really fun places and I think it’s gonna be really cool.”

Sub Pop found Isenberg and his crew, drummer Sheridan Riley, singer/keyboardist Rebecca Coleman and bassist Arin Fazio, through musician/producer, Aaron Embry.

“A guy we played with a long time ago, Aaron Embry, who actually ended up recording our record, knew one of the guys at Sub Pop,” Isenberg explained.  Embry mentioned Avi Buffalo to the affiliated acquaintance. 

“So, the guy was checking us out for awhile and been scanning our Myspace and once he saw we had professional recordings up he called us up and sent us some CDs and was interested in putting out our record.”

With no album out, Avi Buffalo was somewhat of a mystery to the crowd.  “Kinda weird to see a seated audience,” Fazio commented before their set began. 

The band is understandably green when it comes to stage banter, awkward and somewhat indecipherable.  At points, they would either attempt to crack a joke, or direct anyone interested to their merch at the back of the church, falling victims to soft enunciation and unforgiving acoustics.  Playing, however, Avi Buffalo translate better live than they do on wax, their brand of folk pop prone to unexpected jazz sectionals and mellow blues jams that seemed to resonate with a crowd otherwise eager to see the night’s headliner.

It’s possible I was imagining it, but I felt a slight wave of relief surge throughout the crowd when Avi Buffalo’s first single, What’s In It For?, made its obligatory appearance.  People seemed freer to tap their feet, nod along.  There is obviously some comfort in knowing a song or two from a band you’re watching perform, as if to say it’s suddenly okay to be attending their show and not visiting like some uninformed poser.  Reception seemed stronger, applause louder.   

As the strength of their single is going to be the band’s sole means of exposure, (other than their live show), until their album is released, I asked if Isenberg was happy with the song’s responses.  “Yes and no,” he said.  “I mean it’s great that people picked up and we’re getting some exposure and stuff and that’s nice.  The same time I feel like that single is somewhat of a misrepresentation of what I think I wanna be doing musically.  And, I want to get beyond that.”

What’s In It For? has been drawing Shins comparisons, which, on top of the already significant age factor, presents another obstacle.  “I love that band,” Isenberg claimed, attempting to make himself clear.  “I mean that’s definitely an influence that’s existed, but I don’t wanna sound like a throwback, retro band or anything like that, either.”

As a new addition to the crumbling record industry, I pressed Isenberg about record labels and whether or not they push artists to stand out so as to make their bottom line in a competitive, albeit dwindling, scene.  He turned to the importance of live music.  “In the end, I mean, I think, in a lot of ways what’s happening is really freeing up artists to do whatever they want because there’s just so much more openness happening,” he offered. 

“It’ll all just be about live music; I think that it’s really… in a good way the death of the record industry is really great for live music because that’s going to be the only thing that matters for musicians and people who, like, go see the band live.  If it’s the only way to pay for something, then that’s what it’s about.  And, that just encourages musicians to put on the best live show they can and really make music really important, really good and just, the bottom line:  Music should always be the bottom line.”

A somewhat naïve and idealistic mantra, but one that Avi Buffalo has had no issue observing.  Tempting cliché, I asked Isenberg about goals:   

“I just want to be happy playing music and I’m always going to be working towards that so the goal is just: music, music, music... like a bunch and just playing a lot of side-projects and recording a lot of music and hopefully learning other instruments more, learn the piano better and everything.  I just want to be able to play a lot of music, a lot of different kinds of music.”

Evidently, music really is the bottom line.