The Mundane As Muse | Talking with The Album Leaf’s Jimmy LaValle
I caught up with veteran musician, Jimmy LaValle of The Album Leaf, before he jetted to Europe for the next leg of tour (to promote his newest work, Between Waves). For a guy who’s been making music at a professional level since ’99, he’s the antithesis of pretentious and has sustained a career that is enviable of any artist, practicing any art form. Here’s what he had to say in response to my slightly probing questions.
Which non-musician has influenced your music most heavily?
Just daily life. The mundane. Everything – nature – silence in nature. Any noise. It’s impossible to be aware of your surroundings and not be influenced by that. That is my non-musical influence. It feels so boring. I don’t know – there are so many bands or artists that have to give some deep, like, introverted or salacious answer. Bullshit. Like, be real. I don’t think of it as that deep, you know? I’m a musician. That’s what I do. It’s what I’ve done with my entire life. There is no deeper meaning. That’s all I know how to do. I’m inspired by gear. I’m inspired by technical things. Midi things. Clear head in the absence of sound. I hear something and it inspires a melody or rhythm or kick drum pattern. When I have time to breathe the creative comes.
What are the challenges of longevity and keeping things fresh? After several years away, did you have an “am I becoming obsolete” moment, or was coming back to music a more positive mental experience?
Honestly, it was definitely more negative. It was just kind of like, “Okay, this is how things used to be – this is weird,” or, like, “Why are we in this city?” We had to figure out ways to streamline our touring and make it easier on us because we put a lot of effort into our shows. There’s a lot of thought; there’s a lot of set up, a lot of production and presentation to the show. To put in all that work and only play for sixty people…the sixty people will enjoy it, but we have families now. It’s harder. We aren’t twenty anymore. I should not be complaining at all. At the same time, it’s pretty incredible that I do make a living off of making music. It’s pretty incredible that this has sustained for as long as it has. But it’s also very daunting. It’s hard to stay on that kind of high all of your career. Yes, I’ve been an established quote on quote act since 1999. Being off the map for the last six years and not really doing anything can be really hard to kind of re-establish yourself as that person, especially in this day and age when it [the market] is so saturated and so trafficky.
Have you found your way back to that kind of high? Or has it evolved?
I mean the act of performing every night – when I’m in that moment – it’s always there. It’s always been that same high. Like, “Oh this is why I do it. This is what I love.” I love to actually perform. When all is said and done and all the hard work is there and we’re actually presenting this show and everything is working the way that it should and looks the way that it should – yes. The performance is the thing. We have very technical backing and a behind-the-scenes system that I’m in complete control of, which is organic although it is computer based. I’ve worked very hard to have that feel. You know, we’re not playing to a computer. A computer is being controlled [by me] and that is also part of the music.
How do you feel about playing cities like Paris after the attacks or places where safety is questionable?
I mean, I don’t have any particular feelings like, “This is Paris, and something bad could happen” specifically. It’s a sad and scary thing. The other night we played Denver, and there was a metal detector at the door. And granted, we’re playing like 500 capped rooms. We’re not playing these giant places, and the fact that there was a metal detector at this small venue was just like, “Woah.” I kind of scoffed at it at first. Then I thought bigger picture, and it’s just really sad. I won’t lie that there are certain times I see someone acting kind of sketchy in the first row and a negative or anxious thought can cross my mind. I think it was the day before the Orlando attacks that a woman – a performer – was shot by a fan signing autographs. I mean, it happens. People are obsessed; guns are more accessible. It’s a sad state of the world. It’s a sad reality. There are so many archaic views [on gun control]. It’s just not progressive. Even the Constitution, which was written by candlelight – like, come on. Sure, the right to bear arms made complete sense back then. But nowadays it’s crazy to me. And the fact that as an artist on my level, who is not very big, that I even have the thought that something [violent] like that could happen when I’m doing something that is expressive and collaborative between the audience is a really sad thing.
What do you believe (or like to imagine) is the primary activity of your listeners when it comes to this album? What are they doing while Between Waves plays in the speakers?
A lot of people listen to it while studying or doing yoga or driving or making out or having sex or listen to it while giving birth or for wedding music.
What time of day do you prefer to write?
It’s more of a constant stream, and I try to keep track of them [the ideas]. I record lots of voice memos on my phone, lot’s of bad beat boxing. The more critically sketched out ideas are on my laptops. There are tons of notes on chord progressions.
Do you take time for yourself amidst touring/ raising a family? How do you create solitude?
I mean, it’s few and far between – my time in my studio writing and creating – that’s pretty much when that happens. On tour it’s really difficult. The moments are often lying on a bench and listening to music in my headphones – kind of tuning out that way. Whenever we do actually find time – when we’re not actually sound checking right up until doors opening – there are little moments where we just take a quick little walk or stroll around the city. Grab a quick coffee. I’ve found a handful of those moments on tour. It’s definitely hard to find that time. This last time in New York we played right by Washington Square Park, and I just people watched and checked out the scene. In New York you can totally just disappear. And you know just kind of escaped it for a half an hour – or what I thought was a half an hour and was probably only like five minutes in reality. Even in Lincoln, Nebraska – which was weird – just like went for a stroll in the immediate area. Went to a coffee shop, just kickin’ it – ran into another band mate doing kind of the same thing too and eventually the whole band ended up there – even though we are travelling together. It’s kind of nice.
Preshow rituals. GO.
It changes based on time – the actual time that I have. I do love a really good meal because it’s really hard to do and to maintain while on tour. It’s hard to be good to your body. I haven’t smoked for five years. There’s still drinking, and there’s things that make the time pass. I wish I could jog in the mornings, but then you have to deal with sweaty clothes in the van. Preshow rituals – it’s really like whatever I can fit in.
Preshow dream meal?
A really good pasta. And I appreciate a really good soup. When I’m on tour I look for a really good soup.
Do you feel more grounded touring or staying in one place?
I’ve got two small children – home is definitely my center now.
What do you make of this quote: “All art constantly aspires to the condition of music.” Is that true?
If I’m a painter that’s how I’m going to feel about painting. That’s what you’re drawn to, that’s why you’re there. That’s why it’s the ultimate to you. So, yes, for me it’s music. Because even when I look at paintings – I’m like so unimpressed by Rembrandt – like it’s so spot on – like you could paint something so photo like – but it seems like an assignment. Where’s the creativity? You’re just recreating something.
Have you ever hooked up to your own music?
Definitely not. No hooking up to my own music.
Links to the Album Leaf’s album, Between Waves and remaining tour dates listed below. Photos courtesy of The Album Leaf, taken by David Black.