The Album Leaf Biography
Having just landed home in San Diego, LaValle talks with Adam McKibbin of The Red Alert about revisiting Seal Beach, assembling the multimedia live show, and licensing music to the big guns, which he's been doing quite a bit (you can hear Album Leaf's music on The OC and in a Hummer ad, among other places).
Welcome home. Where have you been lately?
Well, we started about a year and a half ago. But in the last three months we did the States, Europe and I just did a couple shows with Tristeza down in Mexico.
You’ve done a lot of touring in the past, both as The Album Leaf and then with Tristeza and your other bands. Is it more or less stress when it’s your own thing?
It started out as more stress, but now it’s less. Now there are people doing stuff for me (laughs), so I don’t have to worry about it as much. When I was tour managing and all that stuff, it was way stressful.
Are you writing songs again now? Or are you taking some time to decompress?
I’m just starting right now, actually, to write songs.
With vocals again?
Have you been a lifelong musician? Were you a band kid?
Yeah, I was, actually. I grew up in the school band from the third grade.
Was there a parent that fostered that? Or did you seek that out on your own?
I can’t really remember. I started playing piano when I was four. The first thing I did in orchestra was violin. I think that my parents might have done a little forcing, but it was all for myself (laughs).
The Seal Beach EP is finally getting its proper release here, and it comes bearing four of the original five songs -- what happened to the fifth?
I just had the opportunity to replace things that I didn’t like. That’s about it. I felt the song that’s on there now, “For Jonathan,” worked better. It was written in the same time period, and it fit better with these songs than the other one.
And then we have the five bonus live tracks, four of which are taken from one show in Atlanta. Did you know going in that that show would be recorded for posterity, or did you have a bunch of shows to sift through?
A friend of mine just did that. I didn’t know that he was going to be recording it, but he did, and then afterwards I got the recordings and I said, “Oh, wow, they sound really good.” A lot of times with live recordings, even though it’s live, you have to go back and overdub. Then the recording from Portugal was with Dave McDonald, who recorded all the Portishead records. I was running two lines on that tour, so it wasn’t really a hard live recording to do from the board.
It’s nice, too, because it’s pristine but you still get the audience ambience -- the sneezing and what not.
Totally. And it was that kind of thing on that tour. It was a really large audience but really quiet, so if someone sneezed, you would hear it.
What’s the ideal space for you to play?
I, of course, would rather play theatres, like 500-capacity theatres. It’s still larger than a venue, but you can sit down and sit back and feel the vibe on a show. It’s not giant, it’s still kind of intimate.
Andrew Pates does the accompanying visuals for the show. How does that collaboration work? Do you hand off the music and then he goes off and returns with something, or is it more back-and-forth?
No, that’s exactly it: I give it to him, and he works and then comes back and we have practices for the tour. He’ll project it on the wall while we’re practicing, and there are just little things that I’ll want to tighten up, on a break or something like that.
How did you guys find each other?
That was actually through the bass player for Tristeza, who is on those live tracks [on Seal Beach] playing bass. We’d already done one tour with Sigur Ros and they’d done visuals, and he thought since they already had it all set up, we’d get visuals, just a loop going on. All my close friends and people who worked with Album Leaf -- booking agents and label and managers -- were just like, “You should definitely try to look into that.” We started doing tours and [Andrew] would come. It started it out pretty ghetto in the beginning (laughs). He’d use a PlayStation with a DVD to project onto a blank screen, and it was never in sync with the music or anything. The music would stop and the visuals would keep going and then you would see this quick black screen. Then we started to sync the show and count it off together and now we’re running it all through the system.
Do you feel that you can’t go off the path, then, since you have so many elements coordinated?
Yeah, definitely. I miss that. That was what was nice about playing those shows with Tristeza, just being in a band situation where it’s not so -- but that’s the thing, that’s the road I chose to go down with Album Leaf and the show we do, and I’m happy with it. And we actually have other songs that he had ready to go that we can do, so we can stray off.
Speaking of those other bands, are you still playing with Black Heart Procession?
Um, I think I am. I don’t know.
Yeah. They’re recording, and I’m apt to be involved, but they’re just as lazy as I am when it comes to doing stuff (laughs). When it comes around, we do it.
When it comes to licensing your music, how do you decide who to say “yes” to? And how heavily is management involved?
It goes to management first, but the decision is mine. I don’t think there’s really anything that I’ve said “no” to. There’s like a Bud Light ad coming up... Their commercials are normally all tits and ass, so we’ve been negotiating about the content to be sure it’s not that kind of thing, to make sure it’s more of an Album Leaf kind of commercial. But that’s like a 30/70 percent chance.
How do you get your foot in the door at a place like MTV? They license some great, somewhat obscure music for their shows -- music they’d never put in their actual rotation.
I think it’s just like anything. There’s probably a kid just like you or I who’s got a job at MTV and has an actual interest. That’s basically what happened with Hummer, too, I think. A kid had a job at an ad agency and got one of the bands he listened to on a commercial.
There was a piece in the New York Times that said The Album Leaf gave writers the kick they might not be able to provide with their own writing. Would you be interested in doing a full-fledged score?
Yeah, and I actually just got asked to do one. I don’t know much about it yet, but I do know that it’s a film and, for once, it’s not a student film.
Cool. I’d also read some interviews where you talked about some fans who’d come to your shows after having discovered you on Napster. Is it a fair jump to say that you don’t agree with the new Supreme Court ruling on those file sharers?
Well, it’s a double-edged sword, in a way. Ultimately, I think downloading is a good thing. For instance -- and this just happened when we were in Mexico doing the shows with Tristeza -- they’d done a tour EP completely themselves, where they burned everything and sold them before shows. A couple of the CDs they’d burned didn’t come out, so this fan said, “I bought a CD and there was no music on it, but I downloaded everything.” Sometimes there’s a band that you can’t find down in Mexico otherwise. You can go to Amazon, but a lot of times countries don’t have the benefit of even getting things shipped down to them. I think, ultimately, free downloading is a good thing, but I can see how people could be pissed off. For instance, my new record probably would have sold twice as many records if it wasn’t for that. I’m fine with that.
The hope is that those people will come out to the club and see you when you come through town.
Yeah, or they’ll buy a T-shirt, so it goes directly to you in the long run -- but not really.
I went to see David Byrne and The Arcade Fire and there was this guy behind me who was talking to his friend about how he didn’t know anything about David Byrne, and about midway through the set, he was like, “Dude, you have to burn me some of that Talking Heads.” I had the urge to turn around and say, “Those are twelve bucks you can safely gamble.” But bands like that really don’t get any sympathy -- people say they have enough money already.
And of course not -- of course you could always use the money.
Yeah, the further you go along, the higher the expenses go. Success is great, but it makes you responsible for a lot of people.
That’s this whole thing with kids coming down on me for Hummer or beer or whatever, the same kind of thing where I don’t think they really understand. You know, when I was 16, I would have done the same thing if the Internet was like it is now. If I’d had that at my fingertips, I probably would have written some nasty thing about the people I respected, too.
Jimmy LaValle was also kind enough to give us an insight into his musical tastes and influences by giving us a mixtape. Check out his selections:
Eberg - "Smoker in a Film"
This is a guy, Eberg, from Iceland, from a great record called Plastic Lions. I don't think its been released in the states. has a really good groove and feel through the whole song, with lots of unfamiliar sounds/ instruments.
Lali Puna - "Faking the Books"
The opening track of this record, it's one of those chord progressions that will never lose in a battle! And the vocal tampering is perfect; this is also one of my favorite vocal melodies from Lali Puna.
James Brown - "The Payback"
You cant beat this rhythm section, the bass line is one of the best grooves in all james brown songs. And the lyrics are great, I always wonder what the payback is?
Big Star - "Thirteen"
This band was way too short-lived. This is one of the most beautiful acoustic songs I have heard with a classic feel; the story that the lyrics tell is very easy to picture, and I like that.
Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young - "Helplessly Hoping"
The vocal melodies they do, are amazing. And the simpleness of the guitar is what gets me.
Brian Eno - "Julie With....."
This was on the first Eno record I owned and heard, Before and After Science. Phil Collins plays drums on this record, but this song is so well done with dynamics and such a simple melody. Very inspirational to me. It started my obsession with Brian Eno.
Papa M - "Over Jordan"
I wasn't much of a fan until I heard this record; this song's sincerity I think is what got me. I do appreciate his records now. Mostly because of this record, Whatever Mortal.
Styrofoam (w/ Andrew Kenny) - "Front to Back"
This song is just too good; you can't beat Andrew's vocal melodies in any song, analog set and all. He's got a pop sense I will never have. And the programming on this song as well as the chord progressions are so good.
Tommy McCook - "Heatwave"
The simpleness of this groove is so reserved and in the pocket it's sickening. These were the pros though, the ones that started it all. and this song is a solo fest that is very well done.
Cynty and the Monkeys - "Lady Lady"
There is something about her voice and the story. And of course the music is great. This is just a downright feel-good jam.
Bob Dylan - "Highlands"
I love Dylan. This is a 16-minute song and the lyrics don't repeat, he is such a storyteller. I listen to this song when I wake up a lot.
The Album Leaf's new EP, Seal Beach, is available now in the ARTISTdirect Store.