Avi Buffalo isn't Slayer, but it’s trying
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Let’s dispense right away with the most commented-on aspect of Avi Buffalo: Its members are all just a bunch of kids! With bassist Arin Fazio topping out at the ripe old age of 21, most of this Long Beach, Calif.-based band was born in a distant time at the start of ye olde Clinton administration. Fortunately, there’s more to Avi Buffalo than making aging Gen-Xers feel prematurely decrepit. The group’s self-titled 2010 debut is a frank, funny, and almost unbearably poignant collection of dreamy guitar-pop songs about teenage life, love, and listlessness. Avi Buffalo started out as a vehicle for the band’s 19-year-old singer-songwriter Avigdor Zahner-Isenberg, who posted the beguiling “What’s In It For?” on the band’s MySpace page last year. The song attracted a slew of labels, including Sub Pop, which released Avi Buffalo this spring. The band’s meteoric rise continues with its show tonight at Schubas. In advance of the concert, The A.V. Club talked to Zahner-Isenberg and drummer Sheridan Riley about Slayer chants, silly lyrics, and “Summer Cum.”
The A.V. Club: You played Summerfest in Milwaukee in early July, and the crowd wasn’t terribly receptive. Somebody kept shouting “Slayer!” at you guys.
Avigdor Zahner-Isenberg: I was, like, really into it. I mean, I know we’re supposed to ignore them, because they were giving us a hard time. But it was really cool, because it was like, “Aww, Slaaayer!” I was feeling conflicted about the show. I was like, “Aw, it should be way more hardcore.”
Sheridan Riley: I bought a double bass pedal after the show. And we’re getting some stacks. We’re going to try and make everyone happy the next time we’re in Milwaukee.
AVC: Maybe people were confused. You guys do look an awful lot like Slayer.
SR: If we had a bunch of tattoos, we’d look exactly like them.
AZI: We’re working on that, too.
AVC: Avi Buffalo has been playing a lot of festivals this summer. Is it hard to acclimate to playing to thousands of people when you were playing coffee shops not that long ago?
AZI: It’s not really any different. It’s different in the sense that you look out and there’s all these people there, and you’re like, “Oh my god!” And it’s really exciting and warm. It’s nice to be outside, and getting to look at the sky, and getting air breezing, and stuff like that, as opposed to just playing indoors. The weirdest thing at Summerfest was looking over and seeing that we were on one of those screens. It’s like, “Oh my god, that’s my face.” It’s really weird.
AVC: You’ve only started touring this year. How are you adjusting to life on the road?
SR: The hardest part about it is that it’s very isolating. It’s weird when you get to the point when you can look out a window for 10 hours straight and it’s sometimes too fun. You realize you need to keep your mind—
SR: Joggin’ it.
AVC: Does playing in a band feel like a job yet?
SR: You have to be on your game. You don’t want to slack off. You always want to make sure that you’re doing the best you can, whether it’s with the show or getting to places on time. You always want to be on your game, and sometimes it’s not the easiest thing to do.
AZI: The most “job” part is getting in a van and having to travel for, like, seven hours straight. It’s time when you can’t be playing guitar. I mean, you can play guitar in the van, and you can draw, and you can do whatever in the van. I mean, it’s definitely not a job. That’s the one thing that kind of worries me sometimes. It’s work, but it’s not a job. It’s easier for it to be not a job or work.
AVC: Pretty much everything that has been written about Avi Buffalo thus far has focused on your age. Do you understand that writers find it strange that you’re in a really good band at such a young age?
AZI: At the beginning, they would ask questions like, “How was it being in high school while you were in a band?”
SR: “Are you going to make your prom part of this?”
AZI: “What do the people at high school think about you?”—weird stuff like that. There are plenty of bands out there touring that are like 18, 19, 21.
SR: We’ve met people younger than us and we’re just like, “Oh, shit.”
AZI: And there’s people back home that are, like, 15 that out-shred us super-hard. Youth is a really, really wonderful thing. I’m really glad that we’re young—that we’ve got a young start.
SR: It was a trip straight out of high school to be like, “Oh, okay, go on tour.” I mean, it definitely was a trip. But I think that has less to do with age and more with the fact of just dropping everything and going on tour headfirst.
AVC: How old were you when you started playing music?
AZI: Me and Sheridan started playing when I was in seventh grade and she was in fifth grade, playing drums and guitar in jazz band. We were just loving Zeppelin and Hendrix and stuff like that, and just having fun.
SR: We tore it up. I remember after our little winter and spring concerts, we’d scheme to have a surprise jam after the show. We’d be like [whispers], “Okay, the show’s over. Get on your guitars. Get behind the drums. We’re playing.” Avi and Rebecca [Coleman, keyboards] met in high school, and then I came to high school. We met Arin at a house show that was being hosted by a friend of ours who went to the same school. He’s actually 21. He went to school in Huntington Beach, which is 20 minutes south of Long Beach. He’s sort of the black sheep as far as school, but in no other way. [Laughs.]
AVC: What was it like getting signed to Sub Pop?
SR: I don’t know if anything can really prepare you for somebody saying one day, “Oh, Sub Pop’s interested in you.” We just got done playing in this dive-y bar the night before.
AZI: I’ve always wanted to be a musician that plays in a lot of different things, and I think that I want to just keep doing that as much as possible and have Avi Buffalo be one of those things. When we come off from touring, I want to just have as many things as possible going on.
AVC: You’ve talked about wanting to do something “progressive.”
AZI: We want to do it all—work on more metal-type stuff back home, and also get together with jazz groups and stuff like that.
SR: This is the most cooped up we’ve ever been, as far as being a band together. We’ve never before been in a situation up until really recently where we have to play pretty much every night, play the same songs, the same setlist—not as much variety as we were used to messing around with back home. All of a sudden any idea sounds good as long as it’s a new idea.
AVC: One of the best things about Avi Buffalo is how honestly you write about teen romance and sex. Are your songs autobiographical, or are they based on people around you?
AZI: I think that I’m writing about other people, but I’m really just writing about myself.
AVC: Are you ever embarrassed by any of your lyrics, particularly songs you wrote a couple of years ago?
AB: It’s not embarrassing. It can be weird because I haven’t written in a long time. “Where’s Your Dirty Mind?” was recorded when I was, like, 15. That’s an old song. A lot of lessons and life stuff have been learned since then, so I’m definitely looking forward to writing new things, even though I look back at that song and I’m like, “Oh, I’m proud of that.” But lyrically it is, like, 15 years old.
SR: Never before have the lyrics been under as much of a microscope as they are now.
AB: It’s just, like, whatever.
AVC: You don’t think your lyrics deserve any attention?
AZI: My lyrics are very silly. I don’t really pay much attention to making them. I mean, I do when I do, but I kind of just let it all hang out. It just kind of does its thing.
AVC: What’s “Summer Cum” about?
AZI: It’s about having a crush on a girl and—I don’t even know. It’s just, like, a “smoke some pot and sit down with a guitar” kind of thing.
AVC: Does the girl you wrote about know “Summer Cum” is about her?
AZI: I think she does.
AVC: So, did it work or not?
AZI: [Laughs.] It’s just a song. It doesn’t do anything. If there’s a girl that knows I wrote a song about her, it’s usually just a thing of me being, like, a weird guy. It’s like [funny voice], “I wrote a song about you,” and then just being really awkward. So, it’s not an attractive thing at all.