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Avi Buffalo's success seems beyond its teen members' years

The Long Beach group has started to play on-the-grid clubs, despite several of the musicians not being old enough to drink.

August 11, 2010|By August Brown, Los Angeles Times

Last spring, just before Avi Buffalo played the birthday party for its new record label, Sub Pop, the band got carded. Having schlepped all the way from its hometown of Long Beach, the young indie rock group (two of whom are still teenagers) members arrived to show the club owner their IDs to enter the venue. She promptly freaked out.

"She kept yelling, 'But there's alcohol everywhere,'" said singer-guitarist Avigdor Zahner-Isenberg during a conversation inside the band's suburban Long Beach practice space. The club owner stonewalled the band at the door. Fortunately, its management team and Sub Pop smoothed over things, and the band played on time. Keyboardist Rebecca Coleman, who recently left the band to pursue her own musical projects, grimaced at the memory. "It's kind of pathetic that we have to be the band with a chaperone."

Unlike many of today's teenage pop stars who project an almost aggressive air of wholesomeness, Avi Buffalo performs music that documents a different and arguably more honest swath of late adolescence. It's one besotted with sex (or at least aspirations toward it), dreamy idleness and a need to try on all sorts of identities, including the canyon jangle of the Byrds and the fuzzy guitar tangle of Pavement.

The band, which opens for My Morning Jacket on Thursday night at the Greek Theatre, is preternaturally good at articulating teenage emotions, with all the frothing hormones and eagerness that that implies. But they do it so adeptly that their self-titled debut feels like it has at least decade's worth of hindsight.

The first thing one notices at an Avi Buffalo show is something so obvious that it almost seems shocking — Zahner-Isenberg can really, really play guitar. In an L.A. indie rock scene where the zenith of effort for many young songwriters is to fall out of bed long enough to light a joint and release a badly copied cassette, the casual skill and incisiveness of Avi Buffalo's arrangements are startling.

Take a tune like "What's In It For?," the band's first single. It starts with Zahner-Isenberg's reverbed, barely overreaching voice that evokes his Sub Pop labelmates the Shins, atop a nostalgic glow from pre-Beatles rock. But instead of chords, Zahner-Isenberg quietly peels off a dozen little runs, each modest but melodically exacting. Those flourishes make the grand, slacker's-lament chorus even more rewarding — a line like "What's in it for someone with nothing to do? What's in it for me?" cuts right to the Millenial heart.

The soft-tempered frontman honed his chops in unlikely venues, ranging from a jam band called Monogram (which, he admits, was unafraid of the wah pedal) to O.N.E., an R&B act in which the guitarist was the youngest and only white band member. During his sophomore year at Millikan High, his tastes turned to the sonic experiments of Wilco's "Yankee Hotel Foxtrot," particularly the contributions of the band's avant-jazz guitarist collaborator Nels Cline. The two soon became friends and shared billings at DiPiazza's in Long Beach — after Zahner-Isenberg was old enough to get inside the club.

"Avi and I share a love of guitar that is more than just rhythm and/or lead but color, bringing emotion and mystery to a track," Cline said. "Avi has curiosity and openness where songs and sounds are concerned. A cool chord or surprising coda here, or a vivid solo there, can make things rich and compelling, no?"

The group, with drummer Sheridan Riley and bassist Arin Fazio, quickly caught on in fringier clubs like Pehrspace and Mr. T's Bowl and soon graduated to more on-the-grid venues like the Echo. But although Zahner-Isenberg worked sporadically with producer Aaron Embry on tracks, band members often felt lost between the easygoing but too familiar Long Beach house party circuit and a sycophantic L.A. indie scene where neither people their age nor with their temperaments seemed welcome.

"There's a small DIY scene, but especially in east Long Beach, there's nothing to do," Zahner-Isenberg said, while Coleman joked that in L.A., "there's this super-indie thing where you have to dress like you just came from the farm."

Already looking ahead to trying music full time, Zahner-Isenberg admits his grades slipped, and Riley called her senior year of high school "miserable" from balancing school with early tours.

After Embry passed their demos to a curious Sub Pop scout, however, the band had to live up to its promise much quicker than members expected. Zahner-Isenberg wrapped up the record, which spans three years of his early songs, and the band's barely left the road since. After a stint with Modest Mouse, a set at the Wilco-curated Solid Sound Festival in Massachusetts and a long European tour are forthcoming.

Their record deal and tour bookings would make many older Echo Park peers grind their teeth in envy. But they know it happened fast, and Avi Buffalo still can't shake worries about the one thing in a music career they don't have experience in — making it work in adulthood.

"I had this nightmare where I turned 30," said Riley, who is 18. "I dreamed I was living alone in some dumpy apartment still clasping onto my Avi Buffalo record."

august.brown@latimes.com

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