Whatever Happened to Suburban Rhythm? The Unsung Music of Long Beach, California: Part 3

Ed. note: This is Part 2 of a longform nonfiction piece on Long Beach’s often-overlooked music scene that eventually became my thesis. The first part was posted Wednesday, and the second was published on Thursday (please read them before moving on; all the parts rely on each other for information). Today, there is a public discussion and panel I will be co-presenting on the topic–along with Cal State Long Beach’s American Studies Program Director Brett Mizelle and local musicians Dennis Owens and Marshall Goodman–as part of the EMP Pop Music Conference being held at USC. For more information on the EMP Pop Music Conference and to see L.A.’s schedule of talks, visit empmuseum.org. To live stream the talk, click here.

avibuffalo

Truth Sets In

It was only 10:15PM when the cops showed up. A Long Beach Police Department squad car drove onto the front lawn of the house at 5th St. and Rose Ave. and announced to the living room full of spectators that they were to vacate the premesis. Avi Buffalo—a four-piece Long Beach band of then-high schoolers who had only played three of their intimate indie-rock songs by the time the black and whites arrived—calmly unplugged their instruments and waited for drummer Sheridan Riley’s dad to pull the minivan around.

“Sorry guys,” singer and songwriter Avigdor Zahner-Isenberg told the 75-or-so people who had piled into the frequent site of house shows that night in May 2009. Outside, as his band loaded equipment into a navy blue Toyota Sienna under the watchful eye of the police, barely-18-year-old Zahner-Isenberg accepted hugs from disappointed friends talked with his band’s manager, a low-key blonde from L.A. She loves their new material, she said. She sees a lot of opportunities for them on the horizon.

Within a year, Avi Buffalo would be the first Long Beach band to take over the blogosphere—Zahner-Isenberg’s curly fretwork, world-wise lyrics and pop charm won over harsh critics everywhere from Rolling Stone to Pitchfork even before their self-titled debut album became the soundtrack to 2010’s endless summer.

The suburban Long Beach teenagers were thrust into the indie-rock pantheon: after signing to Nirvana’s former label Sub Pop Records, Elliot Smith’s buddy Aaron Embry invited them to record at his new home studio in L.A. and before the album was even pressed, they were hand-picked by Pavement’s Steven Malkmus to play at major festival All Tomorrows Parties.

“Avi’s guitar style is different from every other indie pop guitarist,” Sub Pop’s head of A&R told the L.A. Times shortly after signing the band on the hinge of a few Bandcamp demos. “He’s not just hammering out a bunch of chords, he’s pretty much soloing through his songs with these crazy jazz rounds.”

Zahner’s skillful, blues-based approach to jangly college radio jams, however, is not the organic product of pre-Internet cultural collisions in late ‘80s urban Long Beach like Sublime, Snoop Dogg or Suburban Rhythm. Nor is it the result of a culturally isolated teenager who uses his bandwith to collide with the world. Avi Buffalo is the songwriting experiments of a naturally gifted Long Beach millennial, who “was of the age to get really into the Postal Service” and yet grew up listening to his dad’s collection of “weird classic rock and pop stuff” and jamming with old blues musicians in beachside bars.

“I’m of the downloading-a-bunch-of-music generation,” Zahner-Isenberg admits when we meet for coffee one afternoon, “but I kind of feel cheated by the fact that everything is so available on the Internet. You’re able to just type in ‘album, artist, Mediafire’ on Google and that’s all it takes. It’s awesome, but that’s versus everybody else growing up before us who were like, ‘Oh this is the only way to get this CD and I value it a bunch.'”

lbmusicpullquote5It might be easy to lump Zahner-Isenberg in with other musicians around the country starting bands and coming of age in the digital era, but he is still one artist that still could have only come from Long Beach—a city with a penchant for community forever distanced from sonic fads. You’d never know that by scouring any of the numerous pieces about his music that continue to cycle through the press, though. Most of them use “Long Beach” as an adjective not a selling point and instead, the city that created him becomes a fleeting descriptor on the way to more flushed-out thoughts. And that’s if Long Beach is mentioned at all.

Like other artists from this compacted port city, the importance of Zahner-Isenberg’s hometown is never questioned. Even with a news cycle that insists every piece of culture be explored to the depths of its capacity, Long Beach’s influence on the music it has produced is rarely suggested. Though many well-regarded and comprehensive books exist on Southern California music history, it’s a struggle to find evidence of Long Beach in any of them.

Nowhere, for example, in any of the dizzying number of encyclopedic looks into elements of the 1980s hardcore punk movement will you discover that the scene-changing record label SST as well as SST Studios occupied a noisy corner-lot warehouse in Downtown Long Beach for more than 30 years.

Prehaps it required too much of a digression from the atomized myth of South Bay hardcore to explain why SST spent most of its life located 20 miles south of where it first originated or how come the member of Black Flag with the most eclectic music tastes (“He dug Motown, disco artists, country artists…and adored all kinds of jazz from big band to early fusion,” Michael Azerrad wrote of SST owner Greg Ginn his book Our Band Could Be Your Life) felt comfortable cementing business in fiercely diverse Long Beach.

So why is searching for information on the musical history of one of the largest cities in California like searching for a lost boat in the Bermuda Triangle? Is it merely the fault of geography, which shows Long Beach as yet another easily-forgotten municipal wisp on the edges of Los Angeles’ notorious sprawl? Maybe, but the unique makeup of the city implies something more.

Because of its uncommonly high density and diversity, Long Beach’s musical output happens in a drastically different way than it does in L.A. Instead of splintering into separate scenes like singer-songwriter folk rock, lo-fi garage rock, leather jacket cock-rock and socially conscious hip-hop, Long Beach’s close-knit music community operates as a singular scene, one with multiple influences and tastes.

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This has blessed Long Beach musicians with open minds and multicultural inspirations, but has also prevented any of them from solidifying around a particular “sound.” Good news for musicians looking to branch out, but an unappealing sell for record labels and journalists.

“Sublime and Snoop Dogg aren’t from Long Beach in the same way that Nirvana is from Seattle,” says Aaron Carroll, a former manager at record store Fingerprints who grew up in Long Beach. “It’s easy to say Nirvana is emblematic of a certain style of music that other bands were making in Seattle in the early ‘90s, but Snoop Dogg and Sublime? There was nothing else like it at the time—not even in Long Beach.”

For Zahner-Isenberg and other Long Beach musicians, the unification of disparate music scenes that would elsewhere be heavily fragmented continues to allow the city to be a natural hotbed of creativity, even when threatened by Internet’s mix-and-match reality.

lbmusicpullquote6With a post-genre music scene fueling his preternatural talent, then, it doesn’t seem odd that Zahner-Isenberg returned to Long Beach from European and North American tours and decided to spend a year self-releasing a flurry of trippy, psych-jazz solo recordings. Nor was it weird when he began showing up in a local Baptist church’s Sunday gospel band or making small-time appearances as the low-key guitarist for his friends’ blues, folk, jazz and rock acts.

In Long Beach, it’s entirely normal for a 20 year-old Jewish indie-rocker from the suburbs to play improvised keyboard tracks over pre-programmed hip-hop beats with the old-guard black, Japanese and Latino members of Free Moral Agents.

Even in modern times where young artists can remix the worlds they encounter with the ease of Garage Band, music from this oft-ignored city resonates with a worldy aesthetic that could only be obtained in the diverse cultural laboratory of post-industrial, post-genre, post-mainstream Long Beach.

“In L.A., there are definitely strong waves of what’s cool—these overwhelming trends,” says Ikey Owens, who is a huge supporter of Zahner-Isenberg and other young local artists. “But I remember being in the ska scene and that was the downfall of it. You have to work within this singular motif and it’s so limiting. Eventually that leads to everyone dressing the same way, using the same instruments and talking the same way. Bands in Long Beach don’t have that—there isn’t a ‘sound’ going on here and thank God. You’re not trying to fit into anything so you can be truly creative. Artistically, it’s perfect.”

Revisiting the Long Beach Music Scene is a discussion and panel being held at USC today at 1:30PM. It will be live streamed here: http://www.ustream.tv/channel/empla

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Sarah Bennett is a contributor to the Hi-lo and the editor-at-large at the Long Beach Post. She is also a professor at Santa Ana College where she was once a student before transferring to USC to earn her bachelor’s and master’s degrees. Sarah has written about music, art, food and beer in local, national and international publications for over a decade. An L.A. native and longtime resident of Long Beach, she is the co-founder of Long Beach Zine Fest and managing editor at theLAnd magazine. She never sleeps.
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