With their sixth full-length studio album about to be released, I posed Jimmy LaValle a set of questions that gave rise to an analysis of how they approached Between Waves, and how The Album Leaf is about more than just a sonic experience.
Producing a steady flow of ambient, instrument-lead music for the past 20 years has earned The Album Leaf great praise in certain circles. LaValle sits modestly in the driver’s seat of an ever-changing outfit that is known for its use of synthesizers, drum machines, guitars and Rhodes piano to create songs that build progressively and are often instrumental. LaValle tells me that it’s more electronic at its roots, even if his collaborations with Sigur Rós members have often placed their music into the post-rock category. Their extensive back catalogue, which also includes a number film scores, has covered vast ground musically, but the sound is unequivocally their own – warm, beautifully textured and hypnotic, with the power to make one move whilst staying still.
2016 sees Jimmy LaValle back at the helm, releasing The Album Leaf’s sixth full-length studio album and their first since 2010’s A Chorus of Storytellers. A handful of “spontaneous collaborations” took prominence between these dates, as well as 2012’s EP Forward/Return, which sparked LaValle’s writing process for new material. His work with Mark Kozelek on ‘Perils From The Sea’, as well as on ‘Never Had A Baby’ with Peter Broderick allowed the floodgates of inspiration to open and ultimately gave rise to a batch of new ideas for his own work. Between Waves soon became the representation of this, with its seeds beginning in early 2013.
The Album Leaf is truly an outfit that epitomizes the modern era of music-making. They exist through a mixture of live interactions and file sharing across the country, which invariably enables them to up their creative input, as well as keep the project as a living creation. Artists are no longer limited by the logistics of getting every band member together in the same room to throw around ideas. That said, when it’s achieved it can often produce an indescribable energy that leads to unearthing gold as far as bands are concerned. As a solo moniker in music you move to a different frequency. Digital aid is sought to connect with the face behind the screen, alone in a private studio hundreds or even thousands of kilometres away. LaValle’s album-making process flows naturally whilst navigating the digital universe with an end game semi-formed before its completion.
“Dave Lebleu (drums) lives in NYC, so I would fly him out, around some one off shows to get him to track his drums. The other guys would record at their studios or home studios and send those tracks to me via dropbox.”
With the skeleton of Between Waves composed by LaValle, he would then go on to “put their ideas into the tracks and edit them” in a process not entirely dissimilar to a live scenario. It’s the internet’s answer to the often fiery and cumbersome ordeal of making music as a collective, with countless ideas and egos at play. Despite this method, however, LaValle notes that “there was a lot of back and forth” as “a lot more collaboration and inspiration was coming from different ideas and tools.” This method may not work as well for groups that rely almost solely on forming songs based on spontaneous jam-like sessions. Nevertheless, The Album Leaf has developed a sound cross-country dynamic to operate successfully within their perceived limitations.
“I essentially narrowed everything down to about 15 tracks or so. I brought in the other guys in the band to start throwing ideas at them in fall, 2013. From there, the songs pretty much came together and we started doing sessions together.”
With the onus being “strong and concise” for their first record in six years, LaValle deliberately chose to include only eight tracks on the new record. This is in part due to “attention spans decreasing through the years” and his appreciation for that particular record length. However, considering his last release was an EP of seven tracks, one can’t help but think that the songs find their own categorization. Forward/Return felt like a slower journey, despite its shorter length, whereas Between Waves feels direct and punchy. The drums take prominence to deliver a more rhythmic affair, and LaValle lays down just a handful of songs with vocals, as is the case with most of their releases.
The instrumentation across their compositions lends itself to ambience. Their music is full of introspection and warm, calming qualities. LaValle’s former band, Tristeza, fell more on the post-rock side, which he believes could have led people to label his own music similarly. As he states, however, “I’ve always considered myself an electronic artist. Obviously I’m not making dance hits in or for the club world, but I am an electronic artist.” Mentors like Brian Eno, and Jean Michel Jarre paved the way to a much more abstract and experimental digital medium. Within it lies a lot of repetition and builds, akin to house or techno, but also to post-rock in its sparseness. Recognising that it covers great musical scope and influence is the first step to enjoying the mood that it creates.
“I’m happy that it’s not easy to define or that it can be defined in many different ways.”
The Album Leaf is also not just exporting a genre limited to sound. Visuals have been apparent in their live performances since as early as 2003. LaValle claimed that he “had done three tours with Sigur Rós and saw what a little production could do to your show.” Wanting to present something more than just a band was clearly the driving factor in the audio-visual move. During their live shows they have an engineer, off to one side, curating what is a journey in itself. The iconic leaf starts it off, and quivers and takes on new forms as landscapes begin to form. Designed by LaValle himself, it seemed to fit the music like a glove. Each track was seamlessly thread into the next, and with that came a new turn of imagery that appeared specifically chosen for the song. Either LaValle has created content that will pair well in any order, or he has programmed – in sheer mastermind fashion – the entire screening with the songs in their set.
Similarly, it’s no surprise that LaValle has begun dabbling in film scores. Torey’s Distraction (2012), directed by AL fan Tisha Blood, was his first showcase. It saw his music pair with a feature length cult biopic on Apert Syndrome, where themes of endurance, hope and compassion all play a driving role. Next it was the magical imagery of traveling mist, on Simon Christen’s Adrift (2013). Following the ridges of the California coast and the San Francisco Bay Area, Christen dove into an obsession with the fog there, culminating to a 15-minute time-lapse of its journey. LaValle’s compositions followed it beautifully, providing an ambient dreamscape neither rushed nor forced.
“I always try to curb that [music] for the film so that the score has its own personality and connection with that film.. I spend a handful of time trying different ideas before coming into what I feel is the right approach.. And I hope the director agrees..”
2016 sees the band taking on new and unexplored territory. Between Waves will be released on Relapse Records, which is formally known as a metal label. This is a change from their longstanding connection with Sub Pop and City Slang. LaValle states that “they’ve always dabbled in experimental things and less ‘hard’ acts as well – they’ve been great to work with.” There are promises of a modified live set up, including enhanced production from a visual perspective. Whilst the onus for the album was very much ‘strong and ‘concise’, one can’t help but feel their forthcoming performances will be anything but straightforward. Perhaps there’ll be a tightening of the reins, so to speak, but to fans that can only mean a more intensified Album Leaf experience, which will be a gift well-received.