The Album Leaf's Jimmy LaValle on San Diego Days, the Locust, Working with Benson and Moorhead, and His Storied Career

The Album Leaf's Jimmy LaValle on San Diego Days, the Locust, Working with Benson and Moorhead, and His Storied Career
Photo by Zev Schmitz

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Jimmy LaValle's always been an interesting figure in music to me because he's done so much in terms of the act of being in bands—a lot of it before his most well-known project the Album Leaf, which was very far ahead of the ambient pop trend that would continue to course throughout indie for the following decades after the Album Leaf's 1999 debut An Orchestrated Rise to Fall. I had a great time talking to him about the San Diego scene, exposure in the era of analog music discovery, and plenty of other topics.

You recently released a 20th anniversary edition of One Day I'll Be on Time, and you toured behind it before putting out this latest record too. Tell me about what you think your fans find special about it.
It feels like that was the first record that exposed me to a lot of the core fans that I still have. Obviously, it continued onto In a Safe Place being the first Sub Pop record, which exposed me to even more people, but every record is a timestamp and that record—which was made when the Album Leaf was a side project for me—is something that still resonates with people. "The MP" resonated with a lot of people because it was in a BMX video, too.

That record also came out when a lot of indie artists were getting exposure on MTV and reality shows. I had my fair share of Real World, Road Rules, and Teen Mom syncs. "Vermillion" was a bit controversial, with the Hummer commercial that it synced—during that time, that wasn't such a cool thing to do. [Laughs] The original recording of that record is its own entity, and I felt like revisiting it in a way to show how those songs have evolved through the years. It was improvised record—a lot of one-takes that were not really thought out and got more solidified as I played them through the years. I wanted to recreate how those songs have grown into more fully realized ideas.

One thing I find really fascinating about your career is that part of your success early on was due to syncs and what was thought about back then as more non-traditional methods of music discovery. It's pretty commonplace now, but even when I was listening to Album Leaf records at the time, I'd be hearing it throughout mixed media.
To me, that was a glorious time in music discovery. It resonated with peoples' interests and culture in a direct way. Obviously, skate videos and BMX videos still exist, there's still songs being synced on TV shows—but you didn't have SoundCloud, and it was the Napster era of the internet. It was a magical time to discover music.

This tour that I just did, our trumpet player is 25, and it's been the greatest experience to travel with him because he's so fresh and curious about music—he's a jazz school kid. Having conversations with him about the discovery of music and how things used to be...there was a saying that used to go around around bands not paying their dues because they didn't grind on tour and sleep on floors. Now, bands kind of just blow up, and it's because of the internet, syncs, Spotify playlists and ads.

The fact that you were discovering music on these non-immediate platforms made it more of a radical discovery. What Spotify does for you—or, what it's supposed to do for you now—you do in an analog way. You'd get a record and go, "What does this person do? What other bands are they in? What are other bands on this label?" You'd go down this rabbit hole of discovery that could've all started from hearing a song on a BMX video. Obviously, bands are being discovered and things are happening in organic ways as well—it's not to say that it's all gone. But, maybe it's nostalgia and how we thought of it. Rewind 30 years and our parents probably feel the same way about radio play. College radio had a big impact on indie and underground music back in the day as well.

There's such an oversaturation now. I would not want to be starting out now. It seems so difficult to get seen and heard. And then there's gas prices, hotel prices, rent. I used to pay $85 a month for rent and go on tour for six months like it was nothing—I'd just sublet my house. [Laughs]

"Making it" was a different experience back then. What was that moment for you as things were taking off in the early 2000s?
I was just super thankful and excited. It really started with Tristeza, where we felt like we were really getting a buzz—and that meant selling out the Middle East upstairs, where 150 people were psyched. In our moment, that was like, "This is cool. A room full of people that recognize songs from the record!" We'd come from playing house shoes, and here we are in a regular venue with a backstage room. Insound and Tiger Style both invested into Tristeza and the Album Leaf, and that was a really good feeling—having a team behind you that really believed you and gave you money to make a record in the old-school way. We spent two weeks in Chicago recording our first record at King Size Records. Having that feeling was just great.

I hate to state this, but Tiger Style were the ones who were funding my early creation of In a Safe Place, with me going to Iceland and then signing with Sub Pop, which was a major career shift for me. During that time, Sub Pop was signing Iron and Wine and the Shins and Rogue Wave, and I was a part of that. I put a lot of thought into my show after doing a lot of touring with Sigur Rös, too. It was exciting to see the upward trajectory in the old-school way. It just felt good to be recognized in that sense.

Tell me about what San Diego was like in the late '90s when it came to the scene.
I'm thankful for coming up in that town, which is my own unique experience. I came from a pigeonholed hardcore scene in my teenage years, which was perfect for the time and the time being. I was still in high school, I was touring, jumping off bass drums and crowdsurfing—but my heart was always half-in half-out with that music, it was just an exciting thing to be a part of. I still loved a lot of bands from that era and have a lot of lifelong friends from it.

The first time I toured was when I had an eye-opening exposure experience, and that was when I was playing Midwestern music festivals in the late '90s. It'd be hardcore festivals where it'd be 20 bands in a 12-hour time period inside a VFW hall or a high school cafeteria—anywhere kids could organize to make a show happen. Shitty PAs, shitty stages. Having only really lived in San Diego, then being exposed to other people that wore their hearts on their sleeves—it was this community that felt really open and inviting. I was like, "I don't have to act like I'm cool, these people are just living in it."

After that tour, I came back to San Diego and left the hardcore scene. I started Tristeza with some Midwesterners who moved out to start the band. My music taste started to evolve, which was when I started playing drums for Go Go Airheart. Those guys were five to ten years older than me, and their record was the first time I heard Plastic Ono Band or King Crimson, earlier bands that were outside of the box. I was meeting other people who were super supportive, and after GoGoGo Airheart practices I discovered the Rhodes piano that I still have today, and noodling on that evolved into An Orchestrated Rise to Fall. I was exposed to Rafter Roberts, the first guy who really knew how to do computer production, and we were coming up with all these really cool records to us. That was the time of Black Heart Procession and Pinback.

It was just a cool, supportive time. We were all always at the same shows. It existed in a bubble where I never paid for a show, and I worked sound at the Casbah and got to see bands as they were coming through, too. It was a really great community to be a part of.

As someone who's listened to both the Album Leaf and the Locust, I've always wanted to hear from you about your part in the latter band. I've always thought to myself, "I wonder what he was doing in that band."
[Laughs] I have to go back into high school. Gabe Serbian, who was the most recognized drummer from the Locust who passed away a year ago, he and I had two bands—Steel Tree and Junometric. We were both heavily influenced by the Gravity Records scene, and the bands in that scene were four to six years older than us. We really looked up to them. There were bands like Swing Kids and Guyver One. The singer for Guyver One was Eddie Castro, and him and Justin Pearson of the Locust had this notorious house in San Diego called the Avocado 500 Club. They'd do all of these house shows in their living room, and when Gabe and my high school best friend Corey and myself started going to these shows, we somehow ended up in their community.

Corey was dating someone who lived in the house and was introduced to Eddie, who needed a new guitar player, and Corey said, "Me and my buddy Jimmy can play guitar," so we joined Guyver One, and because Eddie was roommates with Justin, we all started playing shows with the Locust a lot, and through that I met Justin and was asked to join the Locust when two members, Dave Warshaw and Dylan Scharf, left. They wanted me to play keyboards because they knew I could. That's kind of how the Locust happened. JP and I became really close friends, I moved into a house behind the main house in the same lot so we were able to take over three houses in the same lot. Justin's house was where the shows happened, and we had this cottage in the back where I lived with [Bobby Bray] from the Locust, and Luis Hermosillo from Tristeza's brother moved in too, which is how Tristeza came together.

I was looking up to these guys at the time because they'd gone to Europe, toured the States, and done all of these infamous hardcore festivals. For me, it was perfect to experiment with teenage angst. That also morphed into the Crimson Curse, which was JP, Christopher Sprague, and I as well as the drummer from Guyver One.

Long story short, JP and I had a huge falling out and I quit, and I quit all of the bands I was involved in, including Swing Kids and Crimson Curse, and I started to focus on this new project Christopher and I were doing with alternate tunings, which became Tristeza, and I was also experimenting with bedroom recordings on a four-track, which was my first Album Leaf tape that actually came out in 1998. That's how it all morphed together, in a nutshell.

I also wanted to talk to you about your work scoring Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead's films. I'm really into what they do in terms of their sci-fi and horror approach. How do you think you creatively pair up with them?
First and foremost, they're incredible to work with in the sense of how easy our creative processes are—and I'm thankful for them, because I can go in different routes with scoring, but I'm my most comfortable when I'm sitting in their zone. I can create some suspense, some horror, some mystery, some eerieness. I can tickle my emotional palette, and all of those things exist within their films.

I've definitely been able to grow with them and fall into my own as a composer while working with them. My wife is a filmmaker, and she uses a totally different palette, and when I work with her she pushes me into directions that are somewhat natural to me—but the current film we're working on is based solely off of breath, including the score. [Laughs] That's been extremely challenging and rewarding.

The story of Benson and Moorhead and I is that Justin was hired to be a cinematographer to document me creating Into the Blue Again. So he followed me around with a camera in 2005 and 2006, and he was super quiet and always in the corner. He just disappeared, we didn't connect much but we chatted here and there. Fast forward to 2012, he reached out and was like, "I wrote this script and had you in mind—I don't know if you'd want to score it." I met Aaron and they gave me their script, as well as their first film Resolution, which is what really impressed me. I was like, "Holy shit! You guys are filmmakers!" The tone in that film, I was just blown away by. So I was obviously like, "Yeah man, let's do this."

We cut a little teaser, which turned into the Spring theme, and they got the funding based on that little clip that I scored. Then we continued on. We're working on another short right now. It's been a uniquely great experience, and creatively we see eye-to-eye. We can finish each others' sentences, and they put complete trust in me to create the tone and palette of a film. I have a lot of free rein and trust, and I trust them as well. I get a script and I'm like, "OK, this is cool," and I have a vision in my mind of what it might look like, and then I get the rough cut and am like, "Holy shit, this is not what I was expecting at all!" And then I get inspired by that.

I'm always so thoroughly impressed by them. One thing about Benson and Moorhead is that they always use the same crew. We're a team underneath their umbrella, which is a great thing. I get to see what I bring to a film as well as everybody else. We're all raising the bar together.

Tell me about building the palette of your latest record.
I finished Between Waves back in 2015, and immediately following that I wrote a song and named it "Cycles 1," which ended up being Future Falling's title track. That's how far back this record goes for me. I wish there wasn't so much time in between the last record and this one, but at the same time, I think the record only came out how it did because of all the score work that I'd done in between—the hiccups, twists and turns, and diversions. A lot of my scoring intuition has informed my choices on this record, especially in terms of darkness.

I questioned myself a lot while making this record. I was going to release it as an EP at first, but when COVID hit I took that time to really think about the songs—and overthink them. [Laughs] I have very minimal versions of a handful of these songs, and I feel like I was selling myself short in terms of what I was creating. There was a reason why I was so hesitant and I wasn't totally happy with it. After a lot of tests and experiments, I finally came to, "What is the record?"

Every time I release a record it ends up being my favorite, but this one feels even more so. It represents a new chapter. I went back and forth on, "Do I kill the Album Leaf and do something new, or do I own this thing I created and let it evolve as I evolve?" I feel like letting it evolve is the right play. It's been tricky, trying to fit in older songs and things I'm not super hyped about playing, but also I've been thinking about playing those songs in new ways too. Since the mid-'90s, when I discovered Aphex Twin and the world of electronic music, I've been heavily influenced by all of that—but I didn't really know how to make that type of music. Now, I feel like I'm more focused and able to create what I gravitate towards. As much as I doubted myself on this record, I was also confident with it, and I stand behind it as well.

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Jamie Larson