Since it’s inception more than 12 years ago as songwriter Jimmy LaValle’s side-project from the band Tristeza, the Album Leaf has steadily increased its popularity in the lexicon of ambient music. The band’s latest effort, "A Chorus of Storytellers," and its widely successful subsequent tour has cemented their status along with Sigur Ros, Mogwai, and Explosions in the Sky as luminaries of the genre.
Blast got to catch up with ever-humble LaValle to talk about the songwriting process, instrumentation, and the status of the band.
BLAST: Do you think of your songs of having an overall story or emotion or is it more abstract than that?
Jimmy LaValle: I wouldn’t say it’s more abstract than that, I’d just say it’s more natural than that. I don’t really sit and think about what I’m going to write about or try to tell a certain story; it’s not really about that I guess.
BLAST: So how does the songwriting process start, is it some kind of motif or idea?
JL: It’s kind of whatever it starts with really, like maybe some programming I did, or a drum line, or some guitar part I have floating around in my head or a simple melody it just kind of starts with whatever it starts with, I guess.
BLAST: So that’s the start of a song. When do you decide a song is finished?
JL: Well I definitely can and do noodle around a lot (laughs). I don’t know, it just feels like everything’s full, everything’s there. I never really thought about it but there definitely is a point in the process when it is done-it definitely happens, I just can’t explain it. I guess the song just kind of feels right, you know?
BLAST: It seems like in on an Album Leaf record, you hear these certain redundancies, but it’s not overbearing or obvious, it’s like they’re meant to be there. Do you look at an album as a composition with some common themes more than a song, or is it more of a collection of compositions?
JL: I definitely do think of records as front to back-one piece of work. That’s the one thing that bums me out about iPods, or digital music. Everyone talks about quality or saying that vinyl sounds better- I don’t really think those are that big of a concern. But the one thing that really bothers me is not listening to records in sequence.
BLAST: A lot of instruments are used to make an Album Leaf song. Are there any instruments you won’t touch?
JL: I don’t know, maybe a five string bass (laughs).
BLAST: I still haven’t heard an accordion.
JL: (Laughs) No accordion but we used a didgeridoo on this one. We thought it might be cheesy but it ended up sounding really cool.
BLAST: The Album leaf has been your project since 1998 and yet you didn’t sing on it until 2004. Why the wait, and what finally prompted the decision to sing on an album?
JL: Just to do something different really. I know I can play stuff, I know I can write stuff, I know I can run around and play drums, and guitars, and keyboards and whatever else, and singing just kind of keeps things more interesting and more fun and another thing to think about live and think about the fact that now I need to sing this song or whatever it is. It’s just to keep it a little more fresh and a little more challenging. It’s boring to do the same record over and over again so it’s just to do different stuff really.
BLAST: To that point, do you look at the making of an Album Leaf song in terms of accessibility?
JL: It definitely crosses my mind, yeah. There’s a song on the record, "We Are," that’s on the record that I didn’t like at all until we put vocals to it and then it really came together for me. And before this record I had thirty or so ideas floating around for songs and a lot of times I think this, that, or something else just kind of sucks and I just write it off. So, there’s definitely thought behind it and there’s definitely things that I don’t think mix well with other stuff that I want to do but at the same time it’s not really about pleasing people, it’s just about me feeling really good about it.
BLAST: For the latest album, "A Chorus of Storytellers", you brought the live band that you’ve been touring with into the studio to write and record the album. What caused the change? Why not keep total control?
JL: It wasn’t out of my control, we all worked together on this one. It was just a lot of ideas, some were great ideas, some weren’t that great but we worked on them and got them there. It was also a nice way to think about representing what people had seen of us live in the last eight years, and also to experiment with different drumming styles, and a thinking about the music as a whole a little differently.
BLAST: I’ve read it was kind of a shock for you when "In a Safe Place" got big because you had always looked at it as just a hobby and now there was pressure to maintain that level of success. Do you still feel that way or are you past that now?
JL: I definitely do feel that. Being older and being married and having responsibilities and things like that- I mean, at this point in my life, I can’t really turn around and go work at the record store or the coffee shop. It certainly affects the decisions that we make-like it’d be cool if we get to the point where we’re known for our live show as much as the music, so someone could barely know the music but still be enticed to the show. So yeah, it’s like some of the shows we’re doing on this tour are with a stringed quartet. That’s just the way things are nowadays, you’re always trying to look for new ways to be semi-successful and make a living.
BLAST: The Album Leaf has been around for 12 years. To give you some perspective, I’m 20, so you’ve been around for more than half my life.
JL: (Laughs) That’s crazy!
BLAST: Yeah, so is this whole thing a trip for you? The fact is, you travel the world playing your unique brand of music, and there is a market for your work everywhere you go.
JL: Yeah, to be honest, I’m just really grateful. I’m grateful that we can do that-just go around and play to the demand of people who want to see us, and for that I’m just really grateful.
BLAST: You also get to do something that most people can only dream of.
JL: I just really couldn’t be any happier with this situation.