The Album Leaf is the project of Jimmy LaValle, who has been doing the project in one form or another for 18 years. I was fortunate to get to sit down with Jimmy, Matt, Brad, and Dave (the later three join the interview later in the process). From what I’ve read, Jimmy has a reputation for being a very laid back, nice person and it is all true. They had just come off of a drive from El Paso, TX and had slept very little between that gig and the one they were about to perform at Club Dada in Dallas, TX. I was promised 15 minutes of time with Jimmy for an interview, but that turned into almost half an hour. They were very generous with their time and the results are below.
Somewherecold: I’m here with Jimmy LaValle of The Album Leaf and Matthew, Brad and David are not here with us.
Jimmy – That’s correct. They are running around somewhere.
This is your 18th year as The Album Leaf, correct?
Jimmy – Yes, yes.
What has that journey been like for you and how has your approach to music changed over that 18-year period?
Jimmy – I don’t know. I mean, it’s obviously been a very long journey as far as growing up as a person. I started this as a kid essentially. I’m an adult with two children now. I’m surprised. I’m surprised that I’m still doing this. I hadn’t ever started anything else. I mean, I’ve never… well, maybe that’s not true, but I’m just… It’s cool. 18 years later I’m still doing it. Even bands like The Cure, or something like that, which I’m not, but I think about songs we are playing and think “this song again?!” It’s a great song and I love it, but “this song’s so old!” Shit like that. It’s been a lot of fun.
I’m aware that, in previous iterations of The Album Leaf, it’s only been you.
Jimmy – Yeah, it started as a solo band. The first three records I played myself. And then the band was assembled around the In a Safe Place era. Everything before A Chorus of Storytellers was me essentially with the exception of players from Sigur Rós. It’s my project. It’s still my project. The songs, they start with me. They end with me. I get a bit more comfortable saying that nowadays. I wasn’t really comfortable with it for a long time because it’s not kinda the way I view it even though I am the songwriter and I quote/unquote call all the shots and make the records and make the records what they are and the end result is my vision. I still see it as kind of like a band and everyone is pretty invested in it. We are all supportive of it but it is my thing.
So how does the dynamic work when you are recording? From reading other interviews, you bring in ideas, structures, or demos to the band.
Jimmy – Yes, essentially I will have songs. I have songs front to back. Then the songs are there and they get cycled through everybody in a sense. Everyone has their way with them and they throw their ideas at them, throw everything that they are hearing at them. Those ideas then come back to me and I kind of cycle through them. Sometimes I rearrange, sometimes I leave it as it is, most times it sparks some other idea so then the song will change again based on it. Sometimes it brings about a melody I didn’t hear or a bass progression I didn’t hear or a trumpet line that he [Brad Lee] came up with that sounds pretty cool. For instance, “Back to the Start” was everything except for the melody which was that song for a long time. The melody was Brad’s trumpet idea and then I played it on synth and was like “ok, cool, there it is.” Now the song has a melody. Everything else that’s there including the drum beat was preconceived and pre-done by me. The last piece of the puzzle was something that just came and a lot of that stuff just happens.
A lot of other songs like “Glimmering Lights” and “Wandering Still” and “Lost in the Fog” were created from the ground up by Dave and I. Dave is a pretty strong collaborative partner. Just a tad bit deeper than the other dudes are. Just as far as like building things from the ground up. We had some shows in San Diego and he came out a couple days early and we spent a night or two in the studio and came up with those songs. We just jived off each other during the process and had all these things we had ready to work with and record like drum pads so we could key in his kick snare rhythm. We had an ebb and flow going on the entire time and it started that way then developed the way it turned out even into the mixing phase which went to a separate person, my friend James McAllister, who is Sufjan Steven’s drummer. He’s a longtime friend of mine. We have collaborated in the past on all kinds of stuff and I brought him in to mix on this record and he brought the songs to a further level than what I had been at. So, half the record was very collaborative and half of it was just what I did.
Since we are talking about songs in particular, I want to ask you about “Between Waves” itself. Can you talk to us about the recording process for that song and the writing process? Since this has the longest track and vocal…
Jimmy – When we were playing it I realized it was the longest I had sang and I was like “really, another verse?!”
By the way, I dig your voice.
Jimmy – Thanks, I appreciate that. I don’t consider myself a singer. I sing, yes, but I’m not a singer. Terra, from Rituals of Mine, she’s a fucking singer. She’s got some pipes. But that song was one of the early songs I wrote for the record and, again, all the music, keyboard line, melody line, and that was it. And it was basically front to back that long. And then Brad had the trumpet idea, which is that counter melody that happens, and he brought in Matt to his studio and they recorded that harmonized counter line. I worked on vocals with my friend and that’s how it kind of ended up. After that, I just embellished and added more to it. It was really kind of like an early song I wrote for the record. Really excited about it and didn’t know where it was going to go and thought it was this totally open canvas with this bed that was really strong, with the melody included, but it still could go further.
When you are picking out the accents to your music, I love the tones that you pick and the sonics, what sort of prompts you or gets you excited about a particular tone or sound?
Jimmy – Reverb, delay, and compression. Reverb, delay, and compression. I’ve always been drawn to Casios. Through and through, I come back to a Casio every time, no matter what. I mean, obviously, there’s a Rhodes. But, like, whenever it comes to what is going to be on top of the Rhodes, I always feel like a Casio or a Moog, just that simple sine… sine wave and that’s it. Reverb, delay, and compression. There it is. It’s about creating that ambience after the initial, beautiful tone you stumble on and then creating that atmosphere around it. It’s pretty much all I focus on really. I use Ableton in my Ableton template. The first thing that opens up are a Valhalla delay and a Waves H Delay and those are my effects. Everything is just sent there and everything just gets wider, everything gets moody, that H Delay has a filtered setting and there’s this nice ping-pong effect. Also, there’s a lot of resampling processes I did for this record. My Casio through my Echo Park through my Holy Grail through my Microverb through my DD7. I chained and this weird thing happened and then I resampled that sound through my Moog effects and through my Filter Factory and then resampled that sound. So, there’s a lot of that process and then taking that one note and spreading it and creating a whole new synthesizer out of it.
On that note, I usually ask what people use since we have a lot of gearheads that read our magazine. What gear do you take to the stage when you do a live set?
Jimmy – Well, it changes all the time based on what I’m choosing to do. My first and foremost thing is I always, always, always have on stage was a Rhodes and a Micro Korg. Then, between this record and my last record, we started doing some not-normal shows. Like, we were doing a lot of one-offs and weird things and flying. We did like China twice and in that time we did Asia and a handful of times we did a lot of fly stuff and got accustomed to my Nord but also bought a Stage 76 floor model. I had this weird thing where my middle C octave was out, it would just cut out, and I couldn’t deal with that. So, I got a Nord piano which is literally just a piano, so that became my new keyboard. Then I got accustomed to playing that instead of lugging around a 150 pound Rhodes. I’m surprised it took me 20 years to figure that out. So now I’m using a Nord and I’m still using my Micro Korg. I literally cannot get rid of it no matter how hard I try. I just can’t get rid of it. There are just certain sounds that I have sampled that I can’t cut.
I also use um… I also did a little periscope video of my stuff because there’s a lot of midi routing, midi triggering, chain selecting within Ableton, also Ableton is controlling our lights and our video, sending notes everywhere and turning things on and off. A lot of pre-programming. I’m running two Roland Boutique modules that just came out last year and those things are just fantastic. I built them into a little pedal board, a controller, that looks like a big flat synth and Ableton is literally turning them on and off during each song that is prechosen. I also have hotkeys to switch between them and they’re also being driven by Ableton. There are certain sequences that I send to them so they are able to fill it out. I got really deep into digital and resampling and having everything in the box and, of course, my heart’s not totally in that so I wanted to kind of bring it back and do things more analog. So, that’s kind of been the happy medium for me is to be able to send and program sequences and sounds and whatever, chord swells, things I can’t do with just my two hands.
*The rest of the band members walk into the room…. Hilarity ensues…. Banter… back to the interview…
My question for the three of you has to do with you working with Jimmy in the studio in a way that Jimmy hasn’t really done before. He’s had other people come in but you are all a part of the band. What was that experience like for each of you and what do you do in the band?
Dave – Me, Dave, everybody plays a bunch of stuff and does more than just their instrument but, I’m the drummer. I do more than just the drums and use some software synths and sounds that happen. Being in the studio, I try to, if I ever work with another person, usually it’s a single person and not a band necessarily, you just go in and you ask what is happening and then you try to figure out what you can add to it. Sometimes that thing makes a lot of sense. Sometimes it gets scrapped immediately, sometimes it sits around a while and then its scrapped, or it becomes the main thing altogether. All these different scenarios seem to unfold when you get in a room, particularly with someone like Jimmy, because it just kind of keeps going. I think a lot of these songs went through a lot of different iterations and versions. There’s a track that’s only available on the 7” that sounded completely different before it ended up sounding the way it does on that record.
Brad – That’s the case with most of the songs.
Dave – Yeah there was a lot of really impassioned moments that created the songs and then there was a lot of weird revision. Then, all of sudden, it’s in this whole new place and it makes so much more sense than it did before when you listen back to some weird demo.
Brad: – Hi! My name is Brad. I play trumpet and bass but other things just happen, like, if I had an idea on guitar. On the B side of the album he’s [Dave] talking about I had a guitar part. We’re all friends. We’ve all done music for a long time. I own and work at a recording studio so the creative recording process is kinda what you do and I think the similarities between this project and most projects is you are just trying to do the best, coolest, weirdest, funnest whatever it is you are inspired to do. Whatever it is, you are just trying to create something the best you can for the moment. In this particular set, we have been playing as a band for six years and we did an EP together.
Jimmy – It’s kinda crazy that we’ve been playing together as long as we have and that this is the first actual cycle with an album release.
Brad – Six years in a band is longer than most bands I’ve been in have ever lasted.
Jimmy – Exactly.
Brad – Not that it’s been a super active six years but we’ve been doing something every year. We’ve played shows.
Dave – A couple tours all over the place.
Brad – But, yeah, as far as this situation, I like working this way because I get to put my best ideas out there and all four of us don’t have to agree, which is nice because that can cause a lot of problems. Having someone who… I mean, we’ve all been in bands where it’s four dudes trying to be a democracy and those bands aren’t together anymore. It’s fuck’n hard. There’s a reason, I think, this band has been around as long as it has cuz there’s a dude who makes the choices. We’re all here because it’s fun and it’s cool and it’s easy. It was a really fun process because you can play any instrument you feel inspired to play. It’s not like we are confined to anything. There’s certain things that some of us do that others don’t but it’s just kind of whatever. Throw it all at the wall and see what sticks.
Matt – Hi, my name is Matt. I play violin and other things. And I’ve been working with Jimmy and contributing to the song writing process for a while. From that perspective, one thing I’ve noticed that is a big change from previous records is….
Jimmy – Matt’s been there since around 2003.
Matt – Yeah. The first thing I ever did, besides watch his [Jimmy’s] cat while he was out on tour, was walk up and record some tracks because he lived upstairs from me. But the big difference is like, pretty much at that point and every other record, Jimmy’s presenting materials, works in progress that are pretty fleshed out. At a certain point, it’s like “I hear violin here, I want violin.” Or help move this song along. And in this one [Between Waves], a lot of these things came together with input from the beginning. Some of the original beats Jimmy and Dave worked out and used Speak and Spells and other really novel ways of beginning the songs. And obviously having more heads included from an early point in the songs have different art that we bring. Yet the songs still sound like Album Leaf songs. Additionally, we employed a rogue’s gallery of mixing engineers on these songs. Still, they sound like Album Leaf songs but, having heard the songs at the demo stage and while they are works in progress after that point, and then hearing the mixes done by the people who came in, it was like, oh! In some cases, they saved songs that we were like “we’re not sure” because these [those that made the final album] were whittled down from quite a few. So there was a lot more collaboration on the front end and on the back end of these recordings. And there was a guy who kept showing up and filming us, which was interesting.
Jimmy – Yeah, someone is making a documentary of us making this record. That is coming soon.
Dave – And I worked on a lot of that soundtrack.
Brad – Yeah, and that’s chill [Dave’s soundtrack that is]. And I did the sound mix.
It was great to meet all of you and thank you for your time.
Somewherecold thanks The Album Leaf for taking time out of their busy schedule to talk to us. It was time for me to exit and let them prepare to go on stage so we left the conversation right about there. Go see them. You will not be disappointed.