The Perpetually Curious Journey of Avi Vinocur: A Classic American Story, Part Two
BY STEFFAN CHIARZI
Last week, we got a true taste of who Avi Vinocur is, where he came from, and the journey he’s on. A large part of that involves Metallica, and in this second part of our in-depth feature, we explore how the two came together and how it works.
Not only is Avi Vinocur engaged in that intriguing journey with Goodnight, Texas, but he is also at this point a de facto “bonus member” of Metallica whenever an extra acoustic guitar – or mandolin even – is required. It is not something which has ever been officially stated, but a quick look at the last decade shows Avi increasingly popping up, and even Howard Stern found himself interviewing our hero. So it’s time to find out how the two found each other (Metallica and Avi, not Avi and Stern).
“It was someone called Pete Krawiec, who has kinda worked on and off for the band and assisted Zach [Harmon – Metallica Crew Chief] with projects around HQ, who suggested me when they were finishing the guitars for Death Magnetic. I went up and met Zach the first day, I also met James and Lars the first day, which was sort of intimidating, although I wasn’t a huge fan or anything, which I think made it more comfortable for me and maybe indirectly for them.”
So you walked into HQ and there they were?
“Yes, James was right there. I walked in and he said, ‘Hey, who’s this? Who are you?’ And someone said, ‘Avi, he’s gonna help out Pete and Zach with some inventory stuff.’ Zach wasn’t sure I was needed. Pete explained that I was, then he left us to it. It was on that first day I think Zach had me go and clean out a toolbox of his, which was something of a test. I told him, ‘You have a few tuners. You don’t have any drum repair stuff in here,’ and a few other things. So I think he was like, ‘Oh, okay, so he knows what being in a band is and what might be needed.’ I didn’t hear from him for a couple days, so I asked him again if he needed me for anything. Eventually he told me to meet him at one of our storage spots, you know, like Rock-It Cargo or whatever, and then it became, ‘What are you doing tomorrow?’ and perpetuated from there. Plus we got along. I could tell we were pretty different, but we both liked each other’s sense of humor and we saw eye to eye. He’s also a good teacher, so I was learning a lot.”
Another bonus was that, from the get-go, it was clear Zach was going to be flexible in allowing Avi to pursue his path as well as work with the HQ team.
“Well that’s what made the job feel important,” affirms Avi, “I was going to be working and learning. I was still in college at the time, going to school during the day, two-three days a week, and coming into HQ at night. Sometimes I’d go upstairs [at HQ] get on my laptop and write essays and things. Zach was cool about me disappearing and doing homework. I also wanted to do this job, so I started thinking I should just dive into this and finish college later. Zach said, ‘No way, just finish your schoolwork.’”
That support and flexibility towards Avi came from several directions within the Metallicamp. “I certainly preferred to have the freedom of being an hourly employee, where I could take off and go on tour with my own band, and everyone was super supportive of that,” he explains, almost still disbelieving of his situation. “I could go on tour for a while, come back, and there’d be work. The fact that I was employed by them, and that they kept me employed, is another reason that I could live and be in a band of my own, because it really supplemented my income. I was able to get gear, go record, do tours, get a van. The only reason I could do that is because I was being consistently employed and had the freedom of being able to come and go. Really, I can’t express my gratitude for that, for them, and that was Zach, the band, and Vickie [Strate – Metallica Club President] figuring out a way for me to do both.”
When did the band first become aware that the guy who was helping with their manifests and carnets at HQ was also actually a player in his own right?
“I think Zach had told them early on that I was a guy who knew about guitars because I had a band. And they were like, ‘That’s cool, you’ve got a band.’ They knew I did it, but when the Jack Daniel’s commercial came out [featuring ‘I’m a King Bee’ played by Avi’s former band, The Stone Foxes – ED], I got a text from James saying, ‘Just saw your booze ad again.’ He said it was everywhere. And I thought, ‘Wow, he recognizes our song, he recognized that I was singing in this ad.’ I gave them our records when they came out, but we didn’t really talk about it. Robert was always asking how the tour was, where’d we go; he was always down for it. But I never shoved it down their throats, because they’re there to work and they don’t want this kid saying, ‘Check out my band, you’ll like it!’”
However, there did come a moment where Avi the HQ dude became Avi the musician who Metallica decided was needed for active musical service. How did that bridge get built? Sammy Hagar figures into this mix.
“So James did a couple acoustic benefit shows with Sammy Hagar; he played solo at the first one and I went there just as a tech/assistant,” explains Avi. “He did one at the Masonic, and after that, one at the Fillmore. And he said he wanted to fill it out a little bit, that being up there by himself was cool, but he wanted some more sounds around him to make it more interesting. So he had pedal steel player David Phillips play with him, his daughter Cali sang a song, and then when they played the Fillmore… well, I feel like Zach might’ve said, ‘Hey, he could play mandolin, he plays mandolin.’ I don’t know if James had brought it up to him first – I don’t know the order of it – but somewhere between Zach and James it was like yeah, that’d be cool. Then James asked what songs I wanted to play. So I made a casual demo of a mandolin/guitar version of ‘Motorbreath’ and he said, ‘This is great, let’s do it.’
“At first I was just gonna play mandolin, but then he asked me to sing harmony on that song. Then we did ‘The Unforgiven,’ which is another one of my favorites, and he’d sort of already pitched me that one. I told him I could do a harmony on that one too, so at the studio they set up a mic for me and I sang a harmony on it with him. It felt pretty good locking in on the first try, he looked over and said that’d be great. And he made it clear right away that he was not doing it for charity [well, he was doing the Hagar gig for charity, but not including Avi for charity! – sarcastic ED], that he liked the way it sounded, and he thanked me for doing it. He further said that if I wanted to get up there with anyone else that night, great, go for it, not to feel like I couldn’t or something. He just was super cool about it. It went over really well, the people there liked it, and it seemed like he liked it. I think I sent him an email afterwards that said, ‘Hey, if you ever need anything acoustic in any other setting, I’m happy to do it.’
“Then when the Masonic show came around, I was gonna work the show as a tech. One day, Zach left me a voicemail, which is pretty rare, and was like, ‘Hey, I think you’re gonna need to be at the Masonic show.’ So I called him back and said I could do it. He just said something along the lines of ‘You’re going to be there playing at the Masonic.’”
That Masonic show – the first Helping Hands Concert and Auction benefitting All Within My Hands – was, ironically for an acoustic set, electric entertainment. And seeing Avi up there was certainly a big kick for all his friends and family.
“Yeah, that show, that was the most surreal,” he laughs. “Just being onstage for the whole set, getting the setlist in advance, learning all these songs, covers, their originals, figuring out parts for them, wondering if they were gonna hate what I was adding? You know, what’s Lars gonna think?!? Was I even gonna be in the mix?
“But once we got there for rehearsals, they were stoked, they had ideas, and since I had sung with James, Greg [Fidelman – Producer] said during the rehearsals to just go for it and sing whatever parts I felt were right to sing. Look, I tried to be cool about it, but I really prepared a lot and learned a ton for it. I’m still shocked at how audible my voice is on that record, and the fact that I’m even on a Metallica release – and that my name’s on the back cover – even just holding that vinyl was the most shocking thing still to this day.”
You’d accuse most, waxing this lyrical, of hyperbole at best or sycophancy at worst, but you have to understand, Avi doesn’t “do” those things. And as such, this is all genuine, honest humility mixed with observation. Avi, as you might have gathered, doesn’t miss details.
“Being onstage with them, you’re taken by just the power,” he gasps. “I’ve played with a fair amount of bands, but I’ve never felt that sort of tornado begin when you go onstage. And they’re all in it! They’re like captains on a spaceship and they’re fucking blasting off together, and they’re locked. Even without looking at each other, they’re locked, they’re going into battle together. Acoustic is obviously not their best-known setting, but that power and that energy is still there. It’s a different type of kinetic power between the four of them than any other band I can think of.”
And did you feel that kinetic power was also then enlarged that first time to include you, or were you part of it because you were within the force field? Which was it?
“I didn’t know how it was going to feel. I think there were moments in the set where I felt separate from it, but the dead beginning, the count in and the first fucking beat of ‘Disposable Heroes,’ the crazy acoustic version of that song was just like oh, my God. In rehearsals it hadn’t felt that way. It was new. The energy was so infectious. I was like, ‘Am I playing everything the way I practiced it? I don’t know! I’m just flailing at this thing!’”
Hardly. As has been proven by the fact that Metallica has come back to Avi several times since, including for the S&M2 shows, which as it stands are the last arena gigs the band have played.
“That’s surreal too,” he chuckles, both at the fact he played them and that those were the last big gigs. “It was the first time I had ever performed in an arena, period, the first time I’d ever used in-ear monitors too.
“Those shows were… I mean, apart from being unlike anything I’ve ever done, they felt like something unique and powerful was happening, and came together the way we had all hoped it would. It’s one of those examples of them jumping into these situations, all together, like Ninja Turtles, and saying, ‘We’re gonna do this! We’re going for it. We believe in the people around us, we believe in ourselves,’ and seeing it through. If you were an audience member at that show, you’d be thinking how well ‘all the rehearsals’ must’ve been because it sounds so polished, so great. The band looks great, the production is amazing, everything. We did not have that many rehearsals, because rehearsing with the symphony is so hard to schedule; you can’t just be like, ‘Hey, everybody meet down here for rehearsal for five days.’ They have a union with specific rules and times, so in the end there wasn’t a lot of time to rehearse.”
What struck me hard was how seamless your appearance was, as if you’d never not been there.
I felt pretty good, I mean, I think the reason I was on that song is because of the Masonic show. And Greg pointed out the vocal part in the chorus that I was singing, the high part in the pre-chorus, needed to be there. And I think James was like, ‘Why don’t we just get Avi in here to try it out?’ Or they may have even tried it between themselves. I was running errands…”
You don’t happen to remember what you were erranding at that time, do you?
“I was going to Walgreens to pick up supplies for the Australian tour. New bottles of Advil and stuff for the roadies.”
So then you come back, and you realize that you are about to become part of this giant gig!
“I got back and was setting the bags on the table when I heard, ‘Where’s Avi? Come in here, remember your part from “All Within My Hands?”’ So I went up and sang it. Then Greg asked what I was doing September 6th and 8th.”
Please tell me you said you had to run errands for the Australian tour?!
“I did make that joke actually.”
“Then James looked over at me, gave me a smile, and said it was great. I remember asking if I needed a suit? And he was like no, no, no, just wear black, you’re fine.”
Let’s be clear, Lars, James, Rob, and Kirk all have love for Avi’s work, but there is for sure a tether with James in part due to their shared appreciation of Americana sounds, whether mandolin, pedal steel, or banjo.
“He hit me up at one point for a crash course in bluegrass playlist,” remembers Avi. “He was saying he’d heard it a lot and knew a little bit about it, but was interested in the history of it, how it evolved. He said he loved it when those bands are just fucking shredding super tight and then they’ll all modulate together, how they can be so locked with these super-tight endings. He was very curious about it.”
History currently shows that not only was Avi part of Metallica’s last arena gigs, but he was also part of their last live gig as the calendar stands, with November 2020’s second Helping Hands Concert (this time globally live-streamed from HQ) seeing him once again step in and step up.
“Yeah, it felt like they were really open to me contributing, even bouncing ideas together which was great. They were asking as a collective, and including me in that was, you know, amazing.”
Did you speak up?
“Greg told me not to be shy about speaking up. He’s been a good supporter of mine, which is great because my tendency is to be shy. Plus I work for them, too. He was saying that obviously they’re gonna have ideas of what I could play, but I might have a better idea of what suits the instrument, and that I should tell them. And they just said, yeah, go for it. So it was all of us. I also helped figure out where you could fit keys in this thing. For example, there was an arpeggiated part that I was like, ‘Hey, I actually think Henry [Salvia, keyboardist for show – ED] could do that part instead of the mandolin so I can focus more on my vocal on that section.’ Everyone said okay.”
“Yeah, it was! I mean, collaboration with people outside of them hasn’t been an enormous part of their careers. But I think that they’re open to it, and I personally think they’re great at collaborating with people.
“They have their process. Watching them design and redesign these songs that they’ve played forever, just trying stuff and being open to each other’s ideas, it’s so fascinating to watch them do it. You’d think they would be like, ‘Oh, no, it’s riff this, this, this,’ but they think about it, they’re very patient and thoughtful with it and they really take their time. I would say maybe more than other bands I’ve worked in.”
Avi goes on to mention how Metallica has a royal sense of humor in the workspace, one which involves some self-deprecation and all-round humility. And although obviously aware of the ways bands work, it is clear that these have been monumental moments in his life and career, which brings me back to what Avi Vinocur and Goodnight, Texas are up to in these pandemic days.
“Goodnight, Texas has a new record that’s going to come out sometime this year once it becomes more apparent when we’re gonna be able to actually hit the road with it, so we’re gonna hold onto it for a little bit,” explains Avi. “I just got the final masters back and it turned out great. And then on February 12, I surprise-released a solo album called Hindsight recorded entirely on my phone in quarantine: just lo-fi, demo-like sounding songs. I joined this songwriting group, actually one of the members is Clint Wells who hosts Metal Up Your Podcast [a fine Metallica-rooted podcast – ED]. He invited me to join this songwriting group with some talented dudes from Nashville, Austin, and LA. We’d get weekly prompts to write a song, so I started writing songs for it, and the stuff has been turning out cool, so it’s some of those songs and a few other things, including a very, very rare Metallica cover, ‘Escape.’”
We are about to wrap up our conversation, and it strikes me I am still not sure whether Avi is more of a mandolin man or a guitar hero?
“You know, guitar is much more natural to me, I started by playing guitar, but mandolin just feels cosmically connected to me. I feel this connection to the darkness of it and the songs that come out of that. So with mandolin, I feel like it is more meant to be with me, but guitar feels more natural. I think I would probably pick mandolin, nowadays, because in terms of just screwing around with something, mandolin is a lot more fun for me.”
And we’ve managed to conclude this interview without any mention of Howard Stern. How do you feel about that?
“Oh, that’s fine. That was one of the most insane couple days of my life.”
In what sense? I mean, seeing as we’re about to conclude this interview, I just want to comment on that experience.
“Just having Lars introduce me by name, explain who I am, what I do, mention my band. Having Howard Stern react cool to it. And then the video and the release of it coming out, and they tagged me and everything, and the Metallica fans then knowing who the guy from the Masonic show or whatever was…”
I mention to Avi that they might even now know the guy from Chase Center. He laughs, still a little shy perhaps and still a little in awe of all which has happened to him.
“The response from fans was really warm, which I was so grateful for because I wasn’t sure what they’d think. I mean, they could easily have been, ‘Fuck, who the fuck’s that fucking guy?’ But instead they were like, ‘Oh, great. That guy’s Avi.’”
That guy is Avi.
And now, you know, do yourself a favor and hop on his vintage yet very vital wooden wagon before there’s no room left for stragglers.
Or check out the music video for "Hypothermic," the latest single from Goodnight, Texas.