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Where the buffalo roam: Avi Buffalo signs to Sub Pop

October 22, 2009 |  2:36 pm


Try not to hate Avi Buffalo. Still a couple weeks shy of his 19th birthday, the Long Beach-bred singer-songwriter has appeared in Rolling Stone, has been the toast of nearly every local blog and most recently signed a recording deal with Sub Pop, arguably the most storied indie rock label -- all this at a time when most teenagers are grappling with lingering acne and how to score a keg without a fake ID.

The pact with the Seattle label capped a six-month ascent in which the falsetto-voiced guitar prodigy born Avigdor Zahner-Isenberg rose from playing Long Beach house parties and coffee shops to a residency at the Echo, tour dates with Beach House, and spots at the Monolith and F Yeah Festivals. Not bad for a guy who, as of this spring, was “failing five classes and getting Cs and Ds in the others, trying to do the bare minimum to graduate [from Long Beach’s Millikan High School].”

Of course, most high school seniors don’t have a fallback plan that involves signing with the label behind the Postal Service, the Shins and Wolf Parade, following a bidding process that included offers from Warner Bros. and noted indie Dead Oceans. But according to Zahner-Isenberg, the decision to sign with Sub Pop was an easy one.

“Out of all the offers, Sub Pop seemed the least concerned with what was marketable and more down to put out something that they loved,” said the precocious frontman, who cut his teeth in practice sessions that often stretched up to 14 hours a day. “The music business is a pretty weird thing that doesn’t make much sense in a lot of ways and it rarely works well with art -- you’ve got to wait to put stuff out, time your releases, etc. It was important to have a good relationship.”

Speaking with Sub Pop’s head of A&R, Tony Kiewel, one immediately senses enthusiasm for Buffalo’s artistry and not merely the commercial possibilities of his first single, “What’s It In For,” an irrepressibly catchy slice of Shins-esque jangle pop just waiting to be snagged for a crucial contretemps in a Michael Cera vehicle.

“Avi’s guitar style is different from every other indie pop guitarist. He’s not just hammering out a bunch of chords, he’s pretty much soloing through his songs with these crazy jazz rounds,” Kiewel said. “But it wasn’t just his musical skills. His lyrics jumped out at me. Usually, the lyrics of someone that young doesn’t ring true to a 35-year-old, but to use the old cliché, he seemed wise behind his years,” Kiewel said.

Kiewel also related an anecdote of the band’s trip to Seattle earlier this year, to play a show that the label had helped arrange.

“I was a little concerned about the age thing, and wanted to make sure that the whole label was at the show, just to make sure that they could be 100% behind Avi Buffalo. When they came on, a co-worker came up to me and said, 'If we don’t work with him, I’m quitting.' That doesn’t happen every day,” Kiewel said.

The recording of Buffalo’s debut full-length is currently in its final stages, with a release date tentatively slated for spring.

-- Jeff Weiss

Photo of Avigdor Zahner-Isenberg and keyboardist/vocalist Rebecca Coleman: Benjamin Hoste