Timing is everything. I’ve been trying to nail down an interview with Jimmy LaValle from The Album Leaf for the last 3 months. It’s tough to hit a moving target. Jimmy has been touring non-stop all over the world and rarely stays still. Late one night I decided to send Dave Brown, his manager at Holiday Matinee, another interview request. It turned out to be my lucky night. A few minutes later an iChat message that said, “What up fool?” popped up on my screen. It was from Jimmy. He had just finished his last US tour date and was spending a couple of weeks in his home sweet home San Diego, CA before touring Europe.
Not only was Jimmy available for an interview, but he was happy to try out his new iChat account on his Apple PowerBook. Jimmy was honest and forthcoming, even when hit with tough questions about his recent commercial success, music critics, and even former bandmates. An hour and a half later I saved our iChat transcript. It doesn’t get any rawer than this. Here it is for your enjoyment.
You are a tough man to pin down. It seems like you are always on the road. Are you sick of touring yet? You’ve been going steady all year long.
Not really, but getting there.
Is touring in the US better than Europe, or vice versa?
Well, it depends. Once I get more established in Europe, it will most likely be better there. In Europe my reviews are good, but this will be my first official European tour.
In general, Europeans seem to be more into electronic and dance music right? Sounds like they’d be a good fit for your style of music.
Yeah, my best show was in Berlin (sales wise) on my last tour with Sigur Ros.
I’m not sure if this is possible but you should try to track your sales in the European iTunes Music Store (E-iTMS) while you tour around Europe. So far, the Europeans are going crazy for digital music. Downloads in Britain alone were over 450,000 in the debut week of the E-iTMS. (REUTERS, 9/17/04)
Have you been tracking your sales on the iTunes Music Store (iTMS)?
You have an iPod right? Is it engraved?
Yeps. 20 GB (3rd generation). It says “Congratulations from your friends at Apple.” (Editor’s note: it was a gift from Apple.)
I wish I had some “friends” at Apple. Many musicians use their iPods for everything from storing a list of upcoming gigs in Notes to aiding in the actual song composition process. Do you use your iPod for anything fancy like that?
For me, it’s solely for listening to music now. I haven’t figured out how to do anything else on it, but it’s with me all of the time and wherever I go.
What have you been listening to the most on your iPod?
I normally just have it on random and skip around until I find something I like. It doesn’t take very long. I’ve mostly been into old stuff like Bob Dylan, Neil Young, Nick Drake, and that kind of realm, but I still listen to a lot of different things. Lately I’ve been getting into everything from Electronic and early Country to Metal and Hip-Hop. The ‘Recently Played’ playlist on my iPod might include Hank Williams, Ray Price, A Tribe Called Quest, Slayer, Leaders of the New School, and Metallica.
Do you always feel like you are growing as a musician?
I actually don’t. I feel like I should be a lot better than I am, but I feel if I was better, I wouldn’t create the type of music that I do, if that makes sense?
Well if your playing technique hasn’t grown, what about your writing? How has your song composition grown or changed between your last album, One Day I’ll Be On Time, and your new one, In A Safe Place? One obvious difference is that your new one isn’t purely instrumental. You did some vocals this time.
Yeah, my songs have grown, but I think it’s a natural progression in writing. I guess that’s a contradiction from the last statement but This is the first record I did as Album Leaf being my main thing and not a collection of Tristeza, my previous band, leftovers per say.
Was The Album Leaf considered a side project until now?
Yeah, but it was always my thing and more important to me than anything else, even though I did it on the side.
Is Tristeza going on without you or will you still be a part of that project?
Tristeza is still together, but I won’t be a part of it anymore. It’s kinda weird, but more power to them. I wish them well.
Was there a falling out with the other members of Tristeza or were you just ready to go off on your own?
It was a few things. I got too busy with The Album Leaf to stay committed to Tristeza. Also I started wanting to do different things with Tristeza musically and some members didn’t want to add those elements.
I noticed Tristeza is re-releasing some of their CDs with big stickers on them that say “featuring Jimmy LaValle from The Album Leaf.” How do you feel about Tristeza cashing in on your new fame?
Nice question! I wondered if people noticed that! Yeah, its funny, I kinda don’t know what to say. I thought they should have at least changed the name of the band. Christopher, Tristeza‘s other guitarist, and myself were the main writing force in the band. But ya know, it’s kinda behind me, so just let em do what they want. It won’t help much if people still associate me with Tristeza. I think it might be more of a let down to the listener.
well u still get some money from any Tristeza cds sold right?
yes, because my manager is in charge of that!
good. but I GUESS he was in CHARGE of putting the sticker on there too right!!
yeah i bet.
Alright enough about Tristeza—
Thanks! It’s all right though. Tristeza is what put me on the map in the first place.
The past 12 months or so have been quite eventful for you. One major change is your record company. You had a bunch of record companies trying to get you to sign with them. In the end you went with Sub Pop Records. How did you arrive at that decision?
Well, it just felt right. The people at Sub Pop rule. We had been friends for a long time. I got to know a few people there when I was still with Tristeza. Right now, I couldn’t be happier. I had a handful of companies after me, but not enough to brag about.
You have a few soundtrack deals that just got confirmed. The FOX television show The O.C., Starbucks and the MOOG documentary movie have all picked The Album Leaf songs for their soundtracks. Which songs did they pick?
The O.C. is using both “On Your Way” and “Eastern Glow“. The MOOG soundtrack is all original music produced on MOOG instruments. I have a song called “Micro Melodies” on that soundtrack. And Starbucks is using “Window” which I think is a little strange. “Window” is the first track on In A Safe Place and kind of an intro to the entire album. It’s funny how different tracks touch people in different ways. In general, I think people hear different things with instrumental music. There is so much more to music than what people or lyrics tell you. I think that is the point of instrumental music, to me at least. That’s why I choose to go that route with my career.
Now that you have all these big business deals, has anyone accused you of selling out?
Actually, I got an e-mail from a fan the other day about selling out, and supporting the corporate system. That was creepy. I didn’t really know what to say to that guy. But hey, I am not a kid anymore, and this is my career. All ethics aside, no one would understand until you are in those shoes. There aren’t a whole lot of opportunities for major exposure when it comes to instrumental music. The fact that I don’t compose songs with the “corporate” world in mind and I do write songs from myself in my own way, that should be reason enough.
MTV barely plays videos anymore so commercials have become a new musical medium to reach fans. To quote the webpage for NPR’s music show titled ALL SONGS CONSIDERED, “TV is the new radio for indie bands trying to reach a large audience and Fox TV’s “The O.C.” features more music than most.”
Exactly, and there is nothing wrong with that. If anything, the corporate world is getting smarter realizing that mainstream Boy Band pop is just shit. It’s people like you or me getting into those positions to make those decisions on what band to use for what and that is awesome!
Gen X is growing up. We’re making the decisions now. Our generation definitely has a more diverse musical taste and that’s going to be reflected. Just think how many more musical genres there are now compared to what our parents grew up with. TV shows like The O.C. are using lots of electronic instrumental music and that’s what I write. The digital music age and the iPod are helping people listen to more music and expand their tastes. I love that. For me, it even goes back to Napster. In Chicago, a 50-year-old couple came to a Tristeza show at a dirty bar after hearing us on Napster.
Wow! Did they ask for autographs?
Oh Yeah!! That was the funny part!
The O.C. picked “On Your Way“, which is also the song for which you made a video. Did you decide that would be a good song for a video or was Sub Pop pushing for that track?
Dave, my manager, and I decided to go with On Your Way. I had a good feeling about that song and Dave pushed the record company to go with it. He didn’t have to try too hard though. Everyone at Sub Pop liked that track.
“On Your Way” also has vocals in it, which is uncharted territory for you as an ‘instrumental’ artist. Was it difficult writing music for a song that already has lyrics written?
The lyrics were written by Pall Jenkins from Black Heart Procession, but the music took a while for me to set in right.
What is “On Your Way” about and how is it connected to the video?
Liner notes!!! These are the things you don’t get when buying music from the iTunes Music Store. Pall Jenkins and I collaborated on the song’s concept. He wrote the lyrics based on our conversation about what the song was about to me. Basically the song is about moving on with life or just going somewhere else. But before you get there, you are On Your Way. As for the video, that was completely the idea of the production company, Fluorescent Hill. I just picked one of the concepts they presented to me and what you see is what I got!
In the music video for “On Your Way” there are a bunch of little creatures bouncing around the forest and playing instruments. Are they modeled after real people? Because I think you kind of look like the little green guy on the keyboard?
Yeah, I feel like I look like the green guy too!
These little creatures are just jamming away until the middle of the song when poof! One by one they turn into smoke and drift away. So then they are “On Their Way” when they change physical form?
Yeah. That’s our little inside joke. “Look, they are on their way!”
How was it singing for the 1st time in the studio?
It was nerve racking. I kicked everyone out of the studio to do it! You can see for yourself. There’s a video on the website entitled “Watch jimmy having a good time in Iceland”. So embarrassing!
What! Stage fright? You play in front of thousands of people every month. Plus, you are a solo artist. All eyes are usually focused on you up on stage.
That’s different. I couldn’t be more comfortable in that situation. I am most comfortable behind my keys!
Have you been playing the songs with vocals on stage?
Speaking of Sigur Ros, you had a bunch of people join you in the studio for this album including several members of Sigur Ros and the Black Heart Procession.
Yeah, it was awesome.
Did you write parts for them? Or did they play whatever they wanted and you just gave them a direction?
I wrote the string parts with the exception of some, but they all played their own ideas, and even had some for me to play. Gyda Valtysdottir from Mum is a cellist had a lot of her own ideas.
Sigur Ros let you use their recording studio in Iceland. Is it in a town or just hidden away in the middle of nowhere?
Well they charged me for it, but I got a good deal. It’s in a little town outside of Reykjavik. The studio is called Mosfellsbaer.
I can’t say how they did, but they did. My surroundings influence me no matter where I am. I wrote the first song staring out the window in the house I was staying at. The song is called “Window.” I guess that’s an example.
Is it hard to name instrumental songs?
It’s kind of silly actually. I just name them after things that have meaning to me. But those are for me. What you get as a listener is up to you.
One project that’s getting you a lot of press lately is MOOG.
Yeah. MOOG is a documentary film about Bob Moog and his efforts in pioneer electronic music. The song I wrote is used throughout the film and on the soundtrack (which is out now from Hollywood Records).
There are some big industry names involved in both the MOOG soundtrack and film including N.E.R.D., DJ Spooky, Devo, Bootsy Collins, Mix Master Mike, Stereolab, and Charlie Clouser just to name a few.
What’s crazy to me is that, the other day I was watching the MTV Music Awards, and the Beastie Boys are playing with Mix Master Mike. I played with him as well as sat in with him on stage with Money Mark and Charlie Clouser. There’s so much to learn from these guys. They’ve been in the business a long time.
We’ve been iChatting for an hour and a half. Sorry to keep you so long. One last question: If you had a crystal ball that could predict the future, where would Jimmy LaValle be 3 years from now?
Yeah it has been a long time! I just want to keep doing what I’m doing now. Maybe I’d like to play some bigger venues. But things aren’t too bad. I’m doing what I love and having a good time.
For more information about Jimmy LaValle and The Album Leaf, check out https://www.thealbumleaf.com
Frank Wilson is a retired teacher with over 30 years of combined experience in the education, small business technology, and real estate business. He now blogs as a hobby and spends most days tinkering with old computers. Wilson is passionate about tech, enjoys fishing, and loves drinking beer.