Though Avi Zahner-Isenberg is currently touring in support of his second album, he makes it plain that he considers his music, and really his whole life, a work in progress. At 23, he's the mastermind and primary songwriter of Avi Buffalo, a music project with its name gleaned from Zahner-Isenberg's childhood predilection for spicy chicken wings. On its face, it might seem like a silly moniker. But listen hard enough to Avi Buffalo's latest, At Best Cuckold, and you might find in that name a metaphor for Avi Buffalo's particular, peculiar take on pop music.
Zahner-Isenberg is learning more every day. He's doing it in public, and he's willing to take the heat if it means homing in on new and interesting flavors. If they originate from time-tested ingredients and methods, all the better. In the search for his creative identity, Zahner-Isenberg plays with everything, up to and including timbres, cadences, arrangements. Is that Death Cab for Cutie's Ben Gibbard on album-opener "So What"? No; it's Avi trying something. That tone of gleeful experimentation colors all of Avi Buffalo's output.
Amidst the here-then-gone immediacy of contemporary music, Zahner-Isenberg is in an extremely coveted position. At first, the fluidity of identity he is exploring might seem flippant, or even recklessly naïve. But really, it's a refreshingly fearless move from an artist who isn't even sure whether this is what he wants to do with himself in the long term. Avi Buffalo is a vehicle to bring focus to otherwise ambiguous goals. "I don't like to do anything unless I understand why I'm doing it or what goes into it," he says. "I try to get as much experience as I can and dive in."
In the three years between Avi Buffalo's self-titled debut and At Best Cuckold, that's exactly what he did, going deep on some of the music that resonated with him. "I was really obsessed with Neil Young's Chrome Dreams, and that started to inform how I wanted to write songs," Zahner-Isenberg says. "I also took some classes in recording for a couple months, but then I dropped out because I've already been recording for years now, so I just started working more on recordings at home." It's a tactile approach that unfolds at its own pace. Rushed results are less genuine. As he sings on the album, "Can't be too responsible / Once again, I'm charting distant lands."
The result of that probing period, At Best Cuckold, has the sweep and trappings of the best bedroom pop just about lined up. Tellingly, though, it skirts the notion of straightforward balladry in favor of quirk and quip. The lyrics, which could be placeholders that worked just well enough to keep, or could simply be insular to the point of inscrutability, often seem at odds with the dense, polished instrumentation. In most cases, they are silly enough to charm, playing the earnestness against the absurdity, as when he refers to himself as "a cheeseball on fire," on "Memories of You." Elsewhere on the album, on "Think It's Gonna Happen Again," the same components yield a different result, one that glimmers with icy pathos. "A couple nights ago / I ran over two dogs, then I ate them after," he sings.
No one is more aware of the fleeting nature of the opportunity that Avi Buffalo represents than Zahner-Isenberg himself. He's determined to make his moment as enjoyable and as meaningful as possible. "I care a lot more about making sure that I feel good about what I'm putting out in the world," he says, "because I always feel like it always might be your last chance no matter how it does in the world. So I would just say, ‘Fuck it,' and throw that in there. [I wanted to] let it be real and intense like that, even if it created a weird perception."
Whether his future takes the form of Avi Buffalo or not, Zahner-Isenberg seems confident that his trajectory will produce beneficial results, so long as he keeps the focus on the exploration and the education. "After doing one record, then another record, there's a lot of different things that I'm constantly thinking about incorporating. I definitely know that I just want to make a lot of music. I'd love to learn more about music in really fundamental way and just keep the search going."