New Country for a Young Man: Avi Buffalo Grows up and Branches Out
The precocious indie rock phenom is back with more of a country sound on his new album, 'At Best Cuckold.'
Photos by Renata Raksha
Avi Buffalo was just a teenager when he released his self-titled debut in 2010—but he also was more than just a teenager. Profoundly perceptive and offering a hint of self-awareness, Avi had a gleaming, rhythmic, prog rock sound that fell perfectly in line with the carefree, beach-obsessed acoustic music of the moment. Internet listeners ate it up, drawn to Avi's earnest songwriting and meticulously layered instrumentation. I, too, latched onto his voice and wordplay as a breath of fresh air and a departure from overly broad pop songs.
Now, after four years of polishing his craft by engineering, producing, and collaborating with other artists, Avi is back with a new, country-oriented sound and a new sense of confidence. His new album, At Best Cuckold (streaming here), is a clear departure from Avi Buffalo, offering more full-bodied arrangements and a more broad-minded approach to musical ideas. Avi weaves together conventions from several genres, mixing piano and twanging guitars with his (now deeper) voice. He stays true to his former self by creating imaginative and off-the-wall lyrics. On “Oxygen Tank,” for instance, Avi embraces country riffs and electronic looping while drawing a complex image of a “man carrying an oxygen tank” to discuss the pressures of a relationship. The album incorporates its various styles with compositional athleticism; it's clearly the work of someone who appreciates a wide variety of musical ideas.
Since meeting Avi at one of his shows in 2010, I've gotten to know him somewhat as exactly the kind of thoughtful, open, up-for-anything person his recent music suggests he is, and, when I called him up recently to talk about the new album, that sense was even clearer. Avi, né Avigdor Zahner-Isenberg, is the kind of restlessly creative person who is drawn to a variety of art forms.
During our conversation, he discussed finding inspiration everywhere from exhibits at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art to Emily Dickinson poems, and he talked about working on a filmed ballroom dance piece with his friend and conceptual artist Eydie McConnell for an LA radio station. Incorporating contact improv and a Japanese dance called Butoh to address the ambiguities of marriage, the piece wasn't a typical rock musician side project, but given Avi's palpable passion for new artistic experiences, his involvement makes sense. To get a better idea of what else was on his mind with his new album, I also talked to Avi about writing songs, Joni Mitchell, and God.
Noisey: How do you think At Best Cuckold differs from your first record? Less forlorn?
Avi Buffalo: It’s probably more so than the last one. Maybe because I was going through a different patch of life? This record has a lot more piano and orchestral and arranged things. It gets away from typical guitar rock. I taught myself keys when I was 16, and I played mostly all the keys on this record. This one’s different because I am a little bit older and I have been listening to different music than when I first wrote.
My instant favorite track on this album is "Two Cherished Understandings." It deals with a fallout between lovers, and you sing "There ain't no understanding baby." What was this song about? Is it a general statement about our generation’s clouded communication?
Well this song is about a fallout me and my friend Brittny. She was actually one of my first supporters in the beginning, and she kind of corrupted me. We lived together in a ridiculous area of Los Angeles, in Laurel Canyon, deep in the hills. I recorded a lot of my work there, and she let me live with her for $500 per month. The Carradine family [of Kill Bill, etc.] owned the house we were living in.
We were best friends for six years. Then it briefly fell into a more romantic thing, and I was feeling really emotional about it. Brittny couldn’t drive, so I would drive her to work, which I was more than happy to do. It became stressful. There was a miscommunication, and I felt kind of used.
She’s someone I am still super close to, and I know her more than I know most people. It’s also about remembering our friendship. When we were first friends, I would drive her to a popular club in Hollywood called Cinespace. That’s where Justice and other people got their start. When I was 16, I actually wrote “Coaxed” [from Avi Buffalo] about driving her to Cinespace.
"There ain't no understanding baby/Told you that I'd talk to her/thought we understood each other/I was wrong as usual": That specific line is about feeling like an ignorant male. You think you understand the female counterpart, and you are rushing ahead to claim that you understand what they’re about and they believe in. But then you’re completely wrong and you feel like “What’s the point?”
A few times on At Best Cuckold you mention faith and God. On "Can't Be Too Responsible" you sing "Both scared me for days...Come what may/Bring me to my faith again." And on "Oxygen Tank" you wrote "I saw the birds flying in the sky, it made me think about you/and all the pain I knew I'd find/Oh Lord, it let me down and turned my heart around." Are these just expressions? Are you more interested in religion these days?
I disconnected from religion when I was first able to. I never felt like God was real, and I think some people define God in a way to compartmentalize spirituality and to make themselves happier. The songs are wishing that I could be brought to a higher spiritual ground, and I am disconnected with it now. I am sort of talking to my own spirituality. I am trying to save my situation before it’s too late.
When I was first touring, I went to this record store, Amoeba, in San Francisco, and this old man came up to me after my performance. He must have noticed something country in my music, and he asked me 'Do you like country music?' I said 'Yeah, sure!' and he gave me this huge stack of CDs that he had personally picked out for me. He said 'Take this.' I started listening to those CDs all the time when I was 18 or 19. It was amazing old country and one album from 2000 by someone called Shelby Lynne, who I really like. She is this weird pop country star who never got that big, but she is now back touring. Those albums were from the 1920s and 30s all the way to the 50s, 60s, 70s. It had a huge effect on me.
I hear a little Joni Mitchell strumming flavor on "Overwhelmed With Pride." Which country artists do you listen to? Any folk artists?
I can see that a little bit. It means a lot that you would say that. Because she is so fucking amazing. Maybe my songs are close to “Carey” or “California” where she has the down-and-up strumming? I have been listening to her since I was a little baby.
I wouldn’t say I made a 'good' Joni tribute, but she’s a big influence to me. She’s so talented and powerful. Have you listened to Blue? I grew up listening to Court And Spark, and it’s very poppy. I love anything from her early days and into the 70s. When I was on tour in England I was fucking miserable, and I just hated everything around me. And her album Both Sides Now was my mainstay. It was making me cry. “At Last” or “You’re My Thrill” were particularly meaningful to me.
She’s an artist who is not afraid to make her emotions the main point of the music. She makes the performance a therapy for herself. She is super inspiring, and I hope to meet her one day. In terms of other artists, I like a lot of Glen Campbell recently and Fred Neil and darker songwriter-y pop country or country rock slow depressing artists. Sometimes light-hearted ones too.
What is your process when you make a song?
Sometimes I sing and play at the same time along with guitar and piano, and then I’ll say “I roughly got it.” Then, I will turn it down or keep it the same. I try to do everything pretty instantaneously. It can help to do things very quickly, but it’s not always necessary for the end piece. I wrote a lot of these songs while I was in college [for two months]. I was in a recording class and a Latin music class. I dropped out because I realized I could make another album on my own schedule. Three years later—I did it.
Do you prefer other versions of the Avi Buffalo album?
People who I trust about music tell me that they like earliest computer mic recordings that I did alone. If you listen to the old Bandcamp recordings and you compare them to the At Best Cuckold you can hear my parallel thought process. Everything is up close and comfortable. There’s beautiful and rough texture, and that comes from sticking a mic out a window and bumming around out and about. This album I wanted it to be: better production but not frivolous or abusive of the studio—minimalist and creative.
Faith Masi is ready for her country phase, too. She's on Twitter - @Faith_Masi
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