When Jimmy LaValle was a teenager, he lived the punk rock dream: playing in hardcore and grindcore bands, spreading messages about the state of the world, performing at house shows and underground locations, and touring from town to town.
“It was like a clown bus, with so many bands and kids packed into one van and touring together,” he says, reflecting back on his early days. “Those were the roots that made me who I am.”
But somehow, LaValle’s hardcore roots sprouted into the Album Leaf, a project that is anything but hardcore. Originally a one-man side project, the Album Leaf, which boasts some of the most beautiful and engaging ambient electronica to be found in the pop world, became LaValle’s main project.
Two decades later, the Album Leaf is still going strong—and LaValle is as surprised as anyone at its longevity. When asked what he attributes it to, he shies away from saying what he does is unique, but acknowledges that his music “fits in a world that’s not this and it’s not that.”
“I don’t feel like I sound like anything else,” he says. “Although I’m influenced by, and borrow from, other musicians that I hear, I feel like maybe there’s a niche I fit in and deliver.”
In the early Album Leaf years, LaValle was swept up in a wave of instrumental music moving into the mainstream. Bands like Tristeza (of which LaValle was a member), Tortoise, and the Mercury Program were becoming increasingly visible on the pop landscape. LaValle’s continued enthusiasm for the project is due to his commitment to moving forward creatively and stretching his musical bounds. “If it’s pushing me and challenging me,” he says, “then it’s the right step.”
On his new album, Between the Waves, LaValle, who also composes scores for independent films, blends his post-rock instrumental stylings with beautifully crafted melodies, samples, engaging rhythms and subtle instrumentation that wafts in and out of songs. In keeping with the Album Leaf sound, the album is smart, emotional and nuanced. It coaxes listeners to tune in to the smallest details, then rises seamlessly to a joyful crescendo. Like most of LaValle’s records, Between the Waves invites the listener to sit down and take the whole album in without distraction. This is not music to be quickly skipped through on a gadget, but to be savored on an afternoon alone with a turntable.
After years of making records by himself, LaValle was ready to take a different approach on Between the Waves. On this record, he involved a band in much of the post-production and worked with the band members to craft the songs and sounds.
“It just got boring making records by myself,” he says. “It wasn’t what was interesting to me anymore.”
In making the record, everything went through his “filter,” he says, but the songs morphed into “completely different products.”
“There was a lot of collaboration,” he says, “that reshaped and reimagined a lot of the material.”
Where LaValle used to create music alone in the wee hours of the night, he now goes into his studio to work Monday through Friday, 9 to 5. Now a family man with two young children, LaValle says his life has changed quite a bit from his early hardcore days. But he’s grateful for those roots, and wonders if young musicians aren’t missing out on some of the foundational experiences of life as a musician with today’s easy access to digital tools and distribution.
“I feel like a lot of the experiences—and a lot of the hard work, and a lot of the floors slept on, and a lot of the overnight drives, and just being generally dirty and tired—put things into perspective as far as what it takes,” he says. “By no means am I some famous artist or a band that plays stadiums or anything, but I’ve managed to make music my living, and there was a lot of work that went into creating and getting to that point.”
The Album Leaf will perform at 9 p.m. on Saturday, Dec. 17 at the Catalyst, 1011 Pacific Ave., Santa Cruz. $17/adv, $20/door. 423-1338.