Avi Zahner-Isenberg loves music. He really loves music.
The man behind Avi Buffalo – he is a man now, not the bouncy, boyish 19-year-old who released the band’s self-titled debut album four years ago – experiences it in every way he can: playing his own music, playing other people’s music, listening to whatever he can get his hands on. That’s what he’s been doing in the four years it took for the new record, At Best Cuckold, to arrive – and he’s been drinking it all in.
“It’s when a lot of external learning happens which is really important to music itself,” he says. “It’s really important to learn someone else’s songs to inspire one of your own. That goes for guitar-playing and recording – just seeing how someone else does it differently, because there’s not just one way to make music and that’s the most beautiful thing about it.”
He continues: “I made three or four experimental records when I was like 20, after touring a lot with my first album. I didn’t really release them, I just put them on Bandcamp and Soundcloud, just to be whatever they were. I would incorporate bits of that sonically into this album.”
That he likes to experiment won’t be hugely surprising to anybody who’s listened to the first album, with its lyrically eccentric and formally expansive brand of California surf pop. If you remember one thing about the single that ‘What’s In It For’ which Avi Buffalo them impose themselves on radio playlists, it’s probably the line: “You are tiny and your lips are like little pieces of bacon.” If you bought the album, you’ll remember the tonal shifts, the expansive guitar solos that came out of nowhere and the incredible sense of freedom.
If anything, though, the new record – beautiful and artful though it is – is a little more conservative, musically speaking. So it’s a little surprising to hear Zahner-Isenberg’s dedication to the electronic, the experimental and the eclectic seemingly grows unchecked. You wouldn’t know it to hear his latest songs, but increasingly his preferred music is synthesizer-based. He’s also a big fan of hip hop. “There’s a lot of bad stuff going on in the world about racism and sexism and hip hop is the only genre that’s really making people face it whether they like it or not,” he says.
Ultimately, no doubt, this will all filter into his releases. For now, though, his experiments in other areas – plentiful though they are – remain in a folder of stuff marked as non-commercial.
He says: “With this record I stuck pretty hard, just for a mood I wanted the album to be in intuitively, to be a little more acoustic in the way it was recorded – more microphones on amplifiers and drum sets and guitars and pianos and keyboards.
“There’s a lot of tracks left over that aren’t on the record. Some of those experiment a little bit more into the electronic or the more experimental music side and I’m figuring out what context to put those in. The ultimate balance for me is a mix between both – to have something that’s kind of out there, something that’s more traditional and to have them contrast each other.”
Another thing noticeable about At Best Cuckold is the mood: it’s a lot more downbeat than his debut effort.
“It’s extremely dark and sad for the most part,” he says, “really, really, really bleak stuff about failed relationships, failed attempts at love and then a kind of hopelessness, feeling like you’re never going to love anybody and then a mix of being just depressed and lethargic and stuff like that – kind of the basic. And then a lot of skeletons in your closet, which is kind of what the whole record’s about.”
All of that will come as a shock to Avi’s followers on social media, where – with his perky statuses and eye-catching art – he seems anything but “depressed and lethargic”. He seems so upbeat.
“Oh yeah, relatively, I think I am,” he says. “But you know, there’s still life that happens. And if you have something, to express it into music makes life a lot more fun.
“People advertise on social media something they want to be perceived as. Sometimes it’s completely different to what they’re feeling all the time. In the human experience it’s a new level to what people can perceive.”
Some of that does make an appearance on the At Best Cuckold. “It’s not a completely bummed-out record,” he says. “It’s good to have a mix of both. Some light-heartedness is important.” He’s right – it’s not a completely bummed-out record. And anyway, with Avi Buffalo – even the bummed-outness is beautiful.