Wandering Still: An Interview With the Album Leaf
It's been six long years since Jimmy LaValle's last full-length as the Album Leaf, but as Between Waves proves, the wait was worth it.
The Album Leaf is the critically acclaimed atmospheric rock project of Jimmy LaValle, one of those rare virtuoso types who can seemingly do it all, starting it as a one-man-band before gradually, over the years, adding members to round out the group's propulsive sound. After a lengthy break, LaValle returns this year with new record Between Waves, their first record since 2010's A Chorus Of Storytellers.
"I'm always creating music," LaValle tells PopMatters. "I had been working on songs for this record for quite a long time before I brought the band in. During the creation of this record, I took a break to make a record with Mark Kozelek. That started as one song and turned into a full record, so that took some time away. After that, I focused on what would become this record. I really started to focus on this in the summer of 2013. I took two years to make this record. I wrote and rewrote songs over and over only to come back to where they started. I brought in other people outside of the band just to get fresh ears. I was deep in a hole with this record. It was refreshing to let everyone in to contribute."
The Album Leaf's music is perhaps deceptive in that some people may be soothed by the feel of the songs to an extent that unless you are a musician you might not register at first how sophisticated some of the arrangements are -- there are a lot of subtle elements at play. Would LaValle say that at this point he treats it more like scoring than a "band," even when collaborating with others?
"Well I've always been drawn to textures and subtleties," LaValle notes. "They exist in all of my music. That layer of ambiance, that counter rhythm, that counter melody or harmony. I'm always going for it. My approach has always been to throw everything I can at a song, then peel the layers back and let the things that need to be up front, be up front. That often creates a lot of extra texture that I'll bury in mixing."
There is a certain reverence to some of the material on the new record to an extent I even wondered if "Never Far", with a themes of comfort, being always a part of someone and never far away mentioned in the lyrics, had some religious connotations. "No, no. Definitely not about God," LaValle protests. "I am not a religious person in any way. It is about my son, who was a little over a year old at the time? If you reread the lyrics and think about being a new parent, that's what it's about. You spend so much time hoping this little human, who can't tell you anything with words is OK."
Being a new parent could also explain the delay between records, but Between Waves was certainly worth the wait. Sometimes the best works need time to properly germinate, as it is. Did LaValle find himself daunted by technology options or is it more thrilling these days to have so many ways to construct a beat?
"It's way more thrilling! I have always been a gear nerd," LaValle gushes. "I love gear, I love gadgets, I love new tools to create music and perform it. I generally have the same approach to making music, in the way that some instrument, sound, melody, rhythm starts an idea. That then turns into a song."
Growing up LaValle reflects that he felt encouraged in the arts. "I had the full support from my parents and family," he notes. "They really forced me into it sometimes. Only when I was away from it for a while they supported every time I took a break from it, but I grew up watching my brother play piano and guitar. In a really fun way my brother is still such a better guitar player then I."
The new Album Leaf opus is out on Relapse Records, a champion of artistic integrity in the underground who have in recent years signed more experimental acts such as Pinkish Black or Goblin Rebirth or the odd, moody rock/heavy blues band like the brilliant Royal Thunder, but the label will always primarily be known for extreme metal. Is it weird now being on a label early on known mainly for stuff like Disfear and Dying Fetus? The closest to metal The Album Leaf were previously was maybe was being on the Nightmare Revisited soundtrack with KoRn. But perhaps it makes more sense when learning that LaValle was formerly associated with noise punks The Locust years ago.
"Yes, it's weird," he replies. "A label is a label, and a label with passionate people behind it is really all that matters. They love music. Didn't realize KoRn was on that comp. I can throw that in my trophy case!
"Yes, I was in The Locust when I was 17/18," he continues. "I started out in the San Diego Hardcore scene. Bands like Guyver-One, Swing Kids, The Crimson Curse, and The Locust. I did that for a solid three years all the while I was recording what would become The Album Leaf on a Tascam four-track, alone in my room. I quit all of those bands in the summer of ' 97 and started Tristeza. We created some records I'm really proud of. But I just got a break, you could say, after touring with Sigur Ros and signing with Sub Pop. So I decided it was time to focus on the Leaf. And here I am, 15 years later."
As a music video to help promote the new set, "New Soul" almost politely demands attentiveness -- it moves at a certain pace unapologetically. "I think the closest I got to that 'pop' approach was 'On Your Way' and 'Always For You'," LaValle notes. "Both clock in over four minutes so ... not that close. I've always let the song tell me how long it needs to be. That sounds extremely silly, but as the music goes by, I change when it feels right to change. That could sound formulaic at times, as I do write within a 'pop structure' (i.e. intro / verse / chorus / verse / chorus / bridge / chorus / outro etc.), but really, it always revolves around what feels right."
Meanwhile "Lost In the Fog", another album track, feels reminiscent of an ambient remix of Incubus playing an Ennio Morricone score. I tell this to LaValle jokingly. Is that offensive?
"Well, [Ennino] is a bad ass, so that's good company," LaValle chuckles. "Incubus, however ... I'm not really sure I've ever heard an Incubus song. Not a fan. That was a fun song. It really evolved on its own. Dave [LeBleu, drummer] and I started playing with a 'speak and math' he circuit bent and we caught some sounds, threw them in a sampler, built that funny rhythm you first hear then fell into the rest of the song. We've always referred to it as 'the Macarena song.'"
I ask LaValle if he ever expected this project to be so long running and a major part of his creative life? It is sort of interesting where life takes us, right?
"I guess I never really stopped to think about it," he says. "It just kept going. I never thought to start something else or do something else. I hope my records sound different enough to show that my taste and approach changes. It is crazy when I stop and think about how long I've made music under this name, a long path but I feel fortunate all the time. I never once forget how hard it can be. I'm still not 'big' by any means. But there have been a lot of bands that have come and gone during my time and I'm still here, I still have loyal, fantastic hardcore fans that I appreciate more then they know. Always grateful."
At the end of the day, The Album Leaf's sound can be considered emotional, but sometimes even cathartic. I mention to Jimmy that after a number of deaths of family and friends and my mom having dementia I became very manic and stressed last year or so hyper stating to many people how temporary time is. The Album Leaf band name evokes nostalgia but in a warm way. It isn't so morbid. Does LaValle find it easier to take things at his own pace and stop and smell the flowers as he gets older or does it make you more driven to use the time you have and not, like, watch King Of The Hill reruns?
"Well, I'm truly sorry to hear that," he graciously offers. "I lost my grandmother to dementia. I've definitely learned to manage my time in different ways with age. Mostly, becoming a father has changed a lot of my routine. I get up at 7am most days, drive my son to school, and work a normal day shift. Spend time with my family in the evenings and go to bed generally on the earlier side. I used to write all my records between the hours of 8pm and 6am -- times have changed! But I'm truly excited to see my children grow up and become the people they will become. My son shows a strong interest in music and costumes and I love it. But whatever he wants to do is what I'll support. My daughter is currently six weeks old. I can't wait to find out what she loves. I've definitely entered a new chapter of life and I welcome it."