Interviewed on April 29, 2017
Meet Avi Buffalo, a young veteran musician originally from Long Beach, California. His two critically acclaimed albums (self-titled and At Best Cuckold on Sub Pop Records) are fantastic shows of songwriting and musicianship. What The Sound had the opportunity to meet with Avi at his northeast Los Angeles sunlit home where he was rocking an In-N-Out tank, pink vans, and some long hair. We chatted about where he’s been, where he's going, and what to expect from his May 4th performance at the Silverlake Lounge.
What The Sound: I originally heard you know your music via KEXP, and that was back in 2010. Right around then your first record came out?
Avi Buffalo: Yeah, that's when it came out.
WTS: Being from Seattle, I want to ask if there were there any Northwest bands that you remember really digging at that time?
Avi: Honestly not particularly but from Northwest-wise what I've really come to dig is stuff like the Phil Elvrum, Mount Eerie, K Records, and things of that region I really like. The Olympia thing, Anacortes and stuff, that's kind of my favorite stuff from out there. We did some touring with that band Blitzen Trapper and they were really cool. They were fun Portland people and good musicians and really nice folks and so that was fun and then we played a show with Julie Doiron who I think is Canadian. There's a lot of good stuff. Modest Mouse is based in Portland now and I kind of got to know Jeremiah and Isaac a little, and the drummer, main songwriter, and guitar guy and they were cool and they got a place in Portland, so there's a lot of stuff you know, in those areas.
WTS: In 2010, how old were you when all that Blitzen Trapper touring was happening?
Avi: I was like 19, 20.
WTS: Okay cool. So was that a lot to take in at that age? Or was it was a super exciting?
Avi: It was mellow. It was good just to be around heartfelt, genuine musicians. It was nice to be around people who we were able to play shows with that were focused on the music side of things and that's what I'm really grateful for. Like Owen Pallett. We did some touring with him and that was really fun. It was just so inspiring to see somebody who works so hard at their instrument and that kind of thing. So it just gives you like a lot of inspiration.
WTS: And were you on Sub Pop in 2010 or 2009?
Avi: We kind of -- we started communicating in 2009. I was only 18. I was just a senior in high school at that point. I had started the project when I was a sophomore in high school and then made an electric band when I was a junior and then in the time before my senior year is when I started recording with this guy name Aaron Embry. That's how it all happened, he was friends with the head of A&R at Sub Pop and that guy had just been checking in and seeing what music he was listening to and that's how he recommended my stuff. The head of A&R ended up checking it out once we had recordings that were a little more legitimate. At the time, I had no clue that he was in the picture. Aaron and I started recording some stuff and then the Sub Pop guy said he liked it and contacted us and Aaron told me 'oh yes, talked to this guy', it was just one of those things. It takes a long time to negotiate those types of contracts. We were making the album and they basically were saying, 'Oh we want to put this out'. My theory is that indie labels don't want to put up money for records anymore. It seems like when you just make an album on your own they'll be interested in it if it's good. So they were kind of waiting for us to make it and were very confident in wanting to put it out once we made it. That was the part that was overwhelming. It was like having to start thinking about stuff I never thought about before, while finishing our record.
WTS: Then you did some touring and played a lot of shows and then four years later, your second album, also on Sub Pop also came out. Did you tour to support that album?
Avi: Barely. I did that record over a while. I knew I needed to make it because I had all these songs in me and I needed them to get voiced. Luckily, the deal with Sub Pop was just an optional second so they were like, ‘If you want to do another one with us, you're welcome to,' so I figured, OK why not? So yeah, I did that, but I was with managers that I had found along the way, and towards the end of making that record they pretty much ruined the process for me. I can't chalk it up to much else, other than the experience on all of our levels was kind of weird, but on their side was really unprofessional. As opposed to the first record where I was working with people who were immediately going for support tours and doing the normal things that you do if you're a small band, like my group was, just open for people again. They weren't doing that, they were overly trying to involve themselves in the creative process which of course was the worst thing to me.
WTS: Were the managers also musicians or just business people?
Avi: They were business people. They could have been musical but they had pretty much squashed any possibility of that, they would have had souls. After two months of touring on that (which was always fun to play) the environment, how it was set up, and the logistics of the tour itself was absurd, not functional, and not sustainable. I just had to get out of that. And then I just kind of went off the grid. Almost completely. That's just what you have to do sometimes. Then I just started playing immediately. People started asking me to play, and I would, and kept that going until I rebuilt into a new chapter where I really felt like, OK, I'm really controlling things now. Really aware of what I'm doing and what I want to do. That kind of thing. I think that always seemed to me how I should do it. From the very beginning, it's what’s worked. When I start giving more on the planning side to anybody else, on the business side, it just starts failing. I think there's a lot of people like that these days. I think it takes a certain amount of brainpower that you're willing to think about these things without being jaded about them, or without getting confused about making something to sell, like a record, a show for people to come to, or a sustainable thing for yourself, then that's totally good and okay and there's nothing wrong with that. And it took me a while to get those concepts because I've been so focused on the musical side of things, which matters so much to me. I never want to lose that so I prioritized that in front of business smarts for awhile. Until I figured out how to not stress about the business side of things and whatever it is, go play a show, draw a cool design, and make a poetry book - things like that. Get creative with it. You don't have cheesy people telling you what to do, it's a lot less cheesy feeling. It feels good.
WTS: When you were finding your independent creative side while off the grid, were you still making music or just hanging with your close friends?
Avi: Oh yeah, I started producing. I made a record with a hero of mine, musically, this guy named Kevin Litrow, who has this thing called Litronix. He's a bit older than me and I've been into his stuff for years. I also worked on a few other records with people, just played and played. I tried getting into other instruments, played more piano.
WTS: Had you known piano before?
Avi: Barely. Enough to play some chords, really simple stuff, but I wanted to get more fluent with it so I could write more songs in a more complex way. You know, just give yourself time to get back into the craft because so much music out there today, for better and worse, isn't physically played as much. For me, that's where I came from so I have to really respect that for myself. So yeah, trying to get into a zone where I'm learning something every day. That's really the best place to be in on all levels. For writing, for keeping the excitement alive, for keeping your brain sharp, and anything, and your fingers nimble.
WTS: So you started playing shows again around 2016 or '15?
Avi: Yeah more like '15.
WTS: Small shows?
Avi: Totally, it was right after my last album came out in September 2014, so it was right at the end. Then I toured for two months and it was right before 2015 that I ended touring. So it was pretty soon into 2015 when I started playing again, but not doing it through any business thing. I disconnected from those manager people and I just went on my own thing.
WTS: So when someone searches your name on Google, articles pop up from back in 2015. Such as one by the Los Angeles Times that stated that Avi Buffalo breaks up. You didn't actually break up... Were there other members of Avi Buffalo in 2014 that are no longer playing with you now? Or was Avi Buffalo in 2014 just you?
Avi: It was always just me. Always a misbranding thing where it was kind of dressed up as a band, where in reality it's always been me with different members. There's been so many different people that have come through it, done the whole thing. From the very beginning it's taken so many different forms. There has been people who have been really consistent throughout that I've played with, like my drummer friend Sheridan who I've known since I was like 12. Then there's people who know the music, another drummer who I've played with more recently named Dylan Wood. I'm always looking for things to expand it because it's always going to change. If I'm ever going to play with a band ensemble, it's because it makes sense logistically, but I want to be doing stuff with an orchestra. I'm always searching for new things. Sometimes it's just me with a guitar, or piano, but generally it's like guitar/bass. Sometimes it's a two piece, and can be whatever. As long as it's good and as long as the intention is there in the songs and in the musicality, I'm definitely in support of breaking the archetypal band thing because at a certain point it's not what every song needs.
My favorite recordings aren't all just "bands". It could be a soft band, there's this Nina Simone record that's all folk covers from the '60s. She does "Who Knows Where The Time Goes" by Sandy Denny, some Bob Dylan stuff, and Leonard Cohen stuff. It's really good. She just has this soft jazz ensemble, but kind of like a band. There's a pianist, someone playing organ, someone playing upright bass, a little drums, and guitar. It's not like a rock n' roll band, it's this gently playing acoustic/electric group. That's really fun. Of course I like full on bands too. I grew up listening to The Beatles, or when I got really into guitar, in middle school, it was Hendrix or Zeppelin who were really big for me in terms of hearing what you can really do with an electric guitar in an exciting way. Anything is good really, whatever works.
WTS: I know you recently played in Tel Aviv. That's fun. Was it a big show?
Avi: It was. It was this guy named Aviv Geffen who I guess has been around for a while, since the early nineties. He's a super sweet dude and I guess he likes my stuff and he asked me if I wanted to open for him. Said it was a big venue. I checked out his music, thought it was pretty good, Beatles, Pink Floyd-esque, Hebrew Israeli rock. I've never been to Israel before, I am Jewish but I wouldn't consider myself to be a Zionist necessarily, at all, especially at this point where things are at and where things have stayed in terms of Palestinians rights and humanity. Seems to be a huge disregard for life out there. And so I wasn't going to do the free trip thing that the governments have allowed. So I told myself if I ever visit, it'll be because of a gig. So it happened. Aviv was super cool and he's actually politically on the same page that I am too.
WTS: Did you speak to him about it?
Avi: Yeah definitely. He's been around for awhile and he's a really amazing songwriter-musician. He's always been on the forefront of the leftist movements, anti-war, and anti-genocide. Very pro-Palestinian vibe for being an Israeli guy. So he's real cool and he had this Iranian guy named Shahin Najafi who played with him and they had this really cool anti-Trump, anti-Netanyahu speech in the middle of the performance and it was really fucking awesome.
WTS: What was the audience's stance on that?
Avi: They were all with it you know. It's a lot like here where you've got some of the worst people elected and put into power and the people for a very large part do not want that. That's why they're going to support each other like that. That was very special, I was really happy to be a part of that and it was a great crowd.
The people there really hooked me up when I arrived. They put me up in a nice hotel, I ate some really good food. I was there for two days. I was actually producing a record in Germany at the same time. I was hit up by another group of people to go to Munich and then Oberstdorf, which is this ski town in the Alps, so I helped produce a record there and it was right in the middle of that.
WTS: Geographically-wise that worked out well for you.
Avi: Yeah, fly to Germany first and then flew to Israel in the middle, then flew back to the United States. After that, I did a one-off in New Orleans then SXSW. So that was a long little trip. All of it by myself, I did a Greyhound bus from Austin to New Orleans.
WTS: How was that?
Avi: It was really cool. I feel like I've been stoked on things lately because I've been keeping it interesting and cost-effective for myself.
WTS: You have the weight off your shoulders from three years ago...
Avi: Yeah, the whole system. It's just not set up very well. If I encourage bands to do anything, it's to let go of any preconceptions that you have about it. There's a really cool article by Ed Rodriguez of Deerhoof that he did years ago that I really like about why bands should not give a fuck about SXSW. It was this metaphor for what actually matters is making music, sharing responsibilities in an efficient way within a band, and focusing on being creative. Not about what magazine you're in, but only about the music. People ask me who they should go to once finishing a record, who they should go to for PR, or what label they should send it to. I can already tell by what they're saying is that they're really not focusing on making a good record. I think that's what should be all that matters. If it is good, it will go somewhere. I totally believe that, if you're putting work into the music.
WTS: I've seen some of your Facebook posts, and I know your stance on some things. That said, has this political climate sparked any yearning to create more music?
Avi: Oh yeah, absolutely.
WTS: Has it affected your lyrics for upcoming material?
Avi: Yeah, without a doubt. I mean, anything that's going on in the world does. I think that in the specifics about what's going on now, it's made me really care about not just the intention but the wording and everything tied into creating something. For me, music will always be something for myself, very personal. Though, because all these things personally affect me very much, I don't want to be super lofty and make some sort of didactic message that would be disingenuous or not really based on what my own perspective and situation in life is. That said, I would really love to be able to make something that brings some sort of sense into being a conscious person. It'd be nice if the songs that I write for myself translate to other people if they hear it.
It's kind of a situation of whatever you can do to fight all these things like xenophobia, sexism, homophobia, and racism, and all these things that are so intensely prevalent. Whatever their strengths are to combat that, that's what to do. So, if you're a musician or artist, I believe that making music is a powerful medium. I know it is, from seeing all sorts of people out there big and small doing it with what they're putting out into the world. Not even what they're necessarily saying but what they're playing and the sounds they're making. I think that is just as or even more so effective too. There's a lot to it. When you're there seeing people communicate through music, and improvising freely, they're really communicating a language of love and understanding. It's pretty awesome and I'd love to see more of that all over and incorporate more of that in my own stuff too.
WTS: Are you happy making music right now? Living in LA?
Avi: Yeah, totally, I mean from Long Beach. Living up here is like the same you know, LA County, it's familiar, and yeah I just love music, it's hard not to. As long as I'm like playing every day and learning something new then I'm like loving it. That's what it's all about.
WTS: What's a big takeaway from this past week that you didn't know, admired, or stuck to you?
Avi: I went to see one my favorite songwriters the other night, this guy Jimmy Webb. He was doing a Q&A at the Grammy Museum, weirdly enough. I've been obsessed with his songwriting for awhile and that was really inspiring just to scoop up what his thoughts were on making music, the experiences, and the purpose of what it's like to write songs. Then, the next day I was at a farmers market in South Pasadena that my friend invited me to. It was right off the train, so that was convenient. And then I see Harold Budd. He is just one of my favorite musicians in the past year. I’m really obsessed with a lot of his albums.
WTS: So did you confront him?
Avi: Yeah I totally geeked out. I fanboyed on him.
WTS: What was his vibe like?
Avi: He was a bit surprised. Maybe by like my freakiness. I kind of jumped on him, I was pretty stoked. He's 80, so I had to make sure it was cool. I told him I saw him in Whittier and it was a beautiful performance. He said he remembered that show. Then I told him that I felt like I was levitating at that show. Then he was like 'alright dude', kind of weirded out but really, really sweet. I told him I was a musician myself and what he's done musically has really shown me new perspectives and ways to think about music, has changed how I think about making music. He said 'that really means a lot to me', and I really appreciated that it got to him like that.
I had seen Jimmy Webb the night before, talked to him, then the very next day, a random gift from wherever presented Harold Budd. He was walking with a bouquet of flowers. It was just so beautiful. It was really sweet. I was buying celery, and trying to chill. I was like, 'That's Harold Budd, I'm going to buy the celery, and then OK, going to say hi to him.’ That's been the last week for me. The ‘whoa’ situations.
WTS: So what's the set going to look like on May 4th?
Avi: I’m not sure at this point but I know there's going to be upright bass.
WTS: Right on!
Avi: So that's cool. There is going to be some bowed and plucked upright bass guitar. Possibly some other things, depends on who's going to be around, but it's going to be real fun for sure. A lot of originals, maybe a couple covers. I've enjoyed doing covers lately.
WTS: Any fun cover that you want to share?
Avi: Doing "Wichita Lineman" by Jimmy Webb, because he's so good. It's a good tribute to Glen Campbell who has his new record coming out.