Discussing ‘At Best Cuckold’…

Arriving almost remarkably fully formed, Californian act Avi Buffalo’s eponymous debut charmed its way through 2010.

An infectious, bright and emboldened record, it matched folk-influenced tapestries against gilded power-pop to create something that felt like sunshine dappled across autumn leaves.

Then, there was nothing. New album ‘At Best Cuckold’ is the band’s first album in four years, a return that finds the project both refining its sound and moving beyond those early influences.

Clash caught up with Avi Buffalo frontman and creative core Avi Zahner-Isenberg to discuss their return.

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Avi Buffalo, ‘So What’, from ‘At Best Cuckold’

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How have you spent the past four years?

I’ve been working. I’ve been working on my music. I wrote a lot of songs, I played with a lot of people and studied a lot of different types of songwriting. It took me a long time to write and also to record, because I studied a lot of different types of recording as well.

Do you find it easy to write?

It depends. Sometimes I write real quickly and sometimes real slowly.

Were you able to home record?

A lot of the record was done in studios. I did it in Tiny Telephone, then a few other places – I used this studio in Westminster, and then a place in New York. A lot was done at home. I did a lot of basic tracking in studios and then overdubs would be done at home.

So it took a long time to complete?

Yeah. Totally. There were a lot of songs that took a long time to figure out how to record. There’s a lot of stuff that I did where I would do a lot of demos, and I couldn’t imagine what it would be until it was finished and figured out. It’s totally dependant on the song. Sometimes I’m playing different instruments on different demos, different ways of recording, until it was ready, until it sounded right.

I had to get the concept right, then we would go in to record it. I’d do it live with other musicians – drums and bass and stuff like that. We wanted to get a live take. A lot of the demoing was really informing the complete, actual recording of it. We’d overdub the recording and then see which one worked best. We’d work on it at home or in different studios, having the freedom to get really creative.

This album feels rather more nostalgic than the debut.

There’s definitely a lot of reflection. There’s a lot more looking through the experiences I’ve had, even since the last album. There’s a lot I had to remember, and then begin to put it into my writing as I was writing the songs.

Is this record to be taken autobiographically?

It was based on my life. Literally, emotionally, and all that.

Do you find yourself going back over material and making realisations you’d never had before?

Totally. It’s another reason why I like demoing, because you can record stuff and then listen to it later. You can hear things which you didn’t think about before. Stream of consciousness writing can be very helpful in that regard.

Stream of consciousness?

A lot of the time that’s where I start. Sometimes I won’t be thinking about it, I’ll just do it. I draw inspiration from that kind of writing in my lyrics. I feel like when you use that channel you won’t know immediately what it is you want to write about, but maybe a week or a year later you’ll hear it again or sing it again and think, ‘Oh, I was writing about that one time in my life.’ I didn’t even realise that I was saying it, but there it is.

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I wanted to really seek out tones… and get them right. Not abuse them, but use them in contexts that were tasteful…

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Who influences you?

Everybody from Brian Wilson, Burt Bacharach or modern people like Bill Callahan. A ton of different types of things. Also things that are non-musical. I grew up on a lot of folk music like Paul Simon or Joni Mitchell, who are intense lyricists. Some things that are not from music, but from films or books. Ideas that people are telling me about that struck a chord with me. Stuff like that.

This record feels a lot more diverse than ‘Avi Buffalo’ – right down to the songs’ lengths. Some are extremely long, others barely last for 60 seconds.

It’s just a happenstance of… that first song (‘So What’), I wrote really quickly and I first imagined it as an interlude, when I recorded a demo of it. It was extremely lo-fi. I just wanted to do it again, I realised it was just a good song. A lot of bands have done stuff like that. There are all sorts of extremes out there. It’s a good way to diversify a record, I think, to have both long songs and short songs.

I wanted to incorporate a lot of things in this record. For my debut, it was just such a rushed process that I didn’t really have the ability to do that. I wanted to really seek out tones and emulate a lot of different sounds I had heard. Seek out new tones and really get them right. Not abuse them, but use them in contexts that were tasteful and create climaxes and comedowns. Moments that were expressive.

Do you view yourself as a singer foremost, or a guitarist?

I mean, definitely, the thing I’ve had most formal training in is the guitar. When I started playing guitar that was my first serious, musical creative thing in general in my life. Also, when making this record, I wanted to get beyond that, so I started playing bass for a while so I could figure out what that’s about. I also play piano, keyboards and am getting more dexterity, familiarity with that instrument. I taught myself how to use drum sequencers, electronic instruments, in a different way to creating music than I did before. 

Do you view Avi Buffalo live and in the studio as being two distinct entities?

They’re kind of different, I guess, but in the end they’re very similar because when recording I like to get people playing on it who have their own creative vibe, who can add to what I do. And it’s the same thing with playing live: we can play a song and be respectful of each other, but at the same time incorporate something new. I feel it’s the best way to get out somebody’s potential. To figure out what they would really love to do best. Sharing influences, trading influences.

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Interview: Robin Murray
B&W photo: Eydie McConell

Avi Buffalo’s ‘At Best Cuckold’ is out now on Sub Pop. The band is online here

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