Some of the members of Avi Buffalo weren’t even born when Sub Pop Records released Nirvana’s Bleach in 1989, but the group’s sophisticated songwriting caught the attention of the Seattle label nonetheless. Lead by frontman and songwriter, Avi Zahner-Isenberg, this quintet from Long Beach had no intention of even releasing a record when a song on their MySpace page garnered them a call from Sub Pop. That song, “What’s In It For?,” is now the first single off their self-titled debut album, which was released this week on, you guessed it, Sub Pop Records. The band will be celebrating their album release with a show at the Troubadour this Saturday, so head out to the venue to get an earful of what has the folks at Sub Pop stoked in 2010.
Avi took some time to talk to LA Music Blog about the bands’ origin, working with Aaron Embry (Elliott Smith and Emmylou Harris), and the decision to sign with Sub Pop (I can’t imagine they had to ponder on that one for very long).
How did you get your start as a band?
I started recording songs about three years ago on my own. I put them on the Internet and I got some shows, so I got some friends to come accompany me, acoustically mostly. We eventually turned into a full electric band, and I got together with friends with like minds to play permanently. We started playing in Long Beach, and then we got asked to play in L.A. We started playing around L.A. a lot more ’cause there’s so many venues and opportunities out there. We met a lot of people, and I met Aaron Embry, who’s this wonderful piano player, engineer, musician, just super-human awesome guy, and amazing soul friend and brother and teacher.
We started recording music together at his house, and it was just going really well, so we started making an album. Halfway through it, we got a call from one of the people from Sub Pop, who had been checking us out and had seen that we had some professional recordings finally and was into it. We all got kind of freaked out and just like, “Oh my God.” We had no idea that labels had been checking us out or anything like that. Then it was kind of a scare, big freak out, like, “What are we gonna do?” We got this album to make and I thought I was just gonna give it away for free on MySpace, and now we might have a contract. Stuff was nuts—Aaron Embry, the guy who recorded us, had a baby, so we took a little break for a while, and then returned to recording the record. A few months later we went in and did four live tracks and finished up the whole thing.
How long did it take you to write this album?
The thing about this record is that some of the songs are really old. Some of ‘em are from three years ago, some of ‘em are from two years ago, and some of ‘em are six months old. Some of the songs had already been recorded and I wanted to redo them. One of the songs is one that had been recorded and was always envisioned to be on a record, but we couldn’t re-record it because the vibe was there, so we kept that one even though it’s really degraded quality. Other stuff is brand spanking new and we just cranked it out. Some of it was live, and some of it was totally live, and some of it was almost all overdubbed. So it’s kind of a big hodge-podge—basically a collective of what we’ve been doing for the past three years. I’m really stoked about what’s coming up next and recording more new music, because I’m excited to start a record that’ll be a little more cohesive-feeling in terms of music that I’ve written in the same period of time.
Where did you draw your inspiration from with this album?
I’ve always been really into guitar music. I grew up listening to Paul Simon and the Beatles and Simon and Garfunkel and stuff like that. I’ve kind of had a folk acoustic guitar background. I’ve been really into Deerhoof kinds of things, jazz-rock kinds of things. Other things I listen to are Beachwood Sparks, and the Beach Boys, and Farmer Dave, and people like that. With the music, it’s pretty hard to say where it all came from, especially because these songs are so old. It goes from everything from the John Coltrane to the Alice Coltrane to the Jim O’Rourke—just anything and everything.
What was working with Aaron Embry like?
When we first met, we played a few shows together and his band Amnion played. We just really loved each other’s bands and loved each other’s music, and just ended up really loving each other and it was just kind of a big love-fest. He’s only 33. I’d had a teacher before, a blues mentor guy who’s like 54 who had taught me a lot of stuff and I played with him at a blues club in Huntington Beach for three years. I learned a lot from him, but at the same time, it was a very “tough love” relationship.
With Aaron it was kind of like a big open love, where anything is possible, where we’d just go back to the most valuable and important things, and it was just a big love-fest and a big learning-fest. I’ve learned so much from him, and at the same time we can feel like peers because we’re just music-connected. So it’s really cool. Imagine meeting somebody you work with that is just teaching you infinite things. Just making your life feel awesome and just totally helping you get your ideas out, and giving you ideas at the same time and teaching you—just a beautiful thing. He’s become one of my greatest friends I’ve ever had, and one of the most awesome teachers and like, soul brothers I’ve ever met, too.
What do you feel that he brought to the recordings?
He has ProTools setup. I used to always record on Garage Band with a computer microphone and I didn’t have much experience with professional recording. He knows about real microphones [LAUGHS] and pre-amps. He had some nice gear that opened up—not that that has to do with anything—but sonically it was a much more open environment for us to get whatever sound we wanted out because of the ability to record live and have these microphones, the real microphones, as opposed to Mac microphones.
Idea-wise, he has a lot of experience. He’s able to hear some of his frequencies better than I can ’cause he’s been around that kind of recording to know what it sounds like. It’s just another person in the melting pot of recording and another person to bounce ideas back and forth with and in a very unique way. I like to record things darkly. I like the darkness sound. I like the treble, but I think that Aaron brought out a lot of brightness in the record—a lot of bright sound, a lot of letting everything kind of hang out. There’s a lot of stuff going on in this record, and in some ways it’s really nice, and that’s the beauty that I found with recording with Aaron. In the meantime, I’m just starting to set up my own real actual recording situation in which I’ll probably be doing things that are more stripped down and more concise. With Aaron, the music was allowed to just be free and open, so I think that’s what was brought out in this record.
Before going with Sub Pop, were there any record labels that you talked with or considered going with?
I talked to the Dead Oceans, I talked to Warner Brothers. Sub Pop came first, but then people had gotten the buzz around and then contacted us also. It probably would have been between Sub Pop and Dead Oceans because I really love the bands that are on Dead Oceans. Secretly Canadian and Jagjaguwar have some really just fantastic people on their labels. I think with Sub Pop it was the relationship with the people working there that was really very nice and the most comfortable, and the most unlike a record label feeling that we could get. We went with that ’cause we seemed to be communicating the best.
Anybody else that we had talked to would have wanted a say in what the record was supposed to be. Sub Pop literally said to us, “Whatever you guys want to do, it’s all up to you; we’ll put out whatever you want.” They totally gave us all the freedom, like absolutely no limitations. Some labels will be like, “We don’t want to put that song on the record. We don’t think it’s commercial enough,” or some bullshit like that. There’s none of that with them, so it was really nice.
I think that’s really what makes Sub Pop the label that they are. They let their artists do what they want—you can just do your thing. So far they’ve done everything we would expect them to do to help us and give us a means to get out on the road and work. It’s really cool.
What else does the band have planned for this year?
We’re touring now and we’re gonna go to Europe in May. That’ll be exciting—I’ve never been over there. We’ll just tour a lot and work on writing new material and recording it and putting it out. That’s the big thing right now, just playing music all the time. When I have time at home, I work on a lot of side projects and things like that with other bands and people to keep myself stimulated. I’m playing in a band called Fort Wife with my friend Elise Ewoldt. She’s a beautiful songwriter. My really old musical buddy Dylan Wood, a drummer and multi-instrumentalist, and I are gonna be working on some stuff and recording when I have time back home. I’m also trying to get a jazz quartet together with bass player Barbara Kramer, a beautiful bassist who went to Cal State Long Beach, and the drummer of Avi Buffalo, Sheridan Riley, and this sax and piano player named John Michael. I’m generally just trying to play as much music as possible.
For more info on Avi Buffalo, check out: