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Since 1999, San Diego-based musician Jimmy LaValle has drifted away from the instrumental rock group by which he first rose to fame, Tristeza, in favor of the lush electronics of The Album Leaf. Some might consider it a solo project, but in recording and on stage he orchestrates contributions from a variety of bandmates, working hard to develop a singular brand of ambient pop. (Or is it poppy ambient?) We caught up with LaValle at All Tomorrow’s Parties’ I’ll Be Your Mirror festival in New York City, eventually ending up on the Queen of Hearts riverboat docked at Pier 36. We promised to ask him just three open-ended questions, making this either the easiest or the hardest interview of his life.
Let’s talk about your most recent release, the Forward/Return EP (released September 18). There’s the press release description of it, then there’s your story of what inspired it and how it was made. Tell it.
It’s been a while since the last album [A Chorus of Storytellers], so I felt like it was time to release something new. In the past, during the second tour cycle on the last couple records, I’ve released “tour EPs.” That was so we’d have some new music to pick up while still “officially” touring on the current full-length. The EPs were really simple—same art, different colors, drop sleeve. Really simple. So this time around, I’ve had a fair amount of time off from touring and have been working on a lot of new music. We started playing some new songs last year, and so I felt like it was time to release something more important than another tour EP.
The EP songs really came together as a record once I brought the band in. Our drummer, Dave Lebleu, flew out from New York to work on the EP for a week. We got a lot done in that time, and the songs started to come to life. He builds modular synthesizers, so he brought a larger rack of modules with him, and we were able to utilize his synth in a really cool way on “Dark Becomes Light.” We recorded drum ideas to songs that were not yet realized, like “Images,” and I was able to edit a really cool song together after the fact. Once songs became more structured, I sent them to Matt [Resovich] and Brad [Lee] down in San Diego for them to record their ideas to the songs. After I got all of their ideas back, we had a pretty solid EP.
I wanted to do seven songs. A lot of albums these days are eight-song records, so I felt seven was more substantial than a normal EP and not a proper full-length. The title [Forward/Return] is based on the forward movement I feel about within the current members of the band, and going back to basics creating the record, recording and mixing most everything at my home studio.
You played I’ll Be Your Mirror in Asbury Park last year, and now you’re playing it in New York in the middle of a string of tour dates. Talk about the differences in preparation between recording and touring, and between a regular tour stop and a festival like ATP.
There’s the whole collaboration of putting an album together, and then that leads into taking a few more weeks, even months to plan what you want to do on tour. I’ve released, like, 10 records or so [fourteen official releases, between LPs and EPs], so I’ve got a lot of songs to play with. There’s also what we can play, what song flows into the next. Then I have to come up with video projections for new songs. When we go on tour, I like going to places I’ve been before. It helps me figure out how to do things a little differently. I can go into a venue and know it and say, “We did it this way the last time here? OK, let’s change it and do it this other way now.”
Playing a festival—we haven’t actually played that many. We’ve done ATP a few times—last year in Asbury Park, and we got invited to play [ATP’s stage at] Primavera. The thing with playing festivals in general is that not everything’s going to go your way. It’s not all in your control. You hand over what you’re going to do, then you get to the show and see how things are going and say, “Well, that’s not going to work.” And you only have so many minutes to set up and to play—get in and get out. You just do the best you can.
Fantasy football time: ATP head Barry Hogan invites you not just to play ATP again, but to curate it as well. Where is it, and who would you approach to play it?
I’m a fan of the desert, so I’d like to maybe see it in something like Joshua Tree National Park. Wait, is that maybe too much like Coachella? It’s kind of hard to get to—there’s not a whole lot around it. Then maybe someplace like Sedona, Arizona. You’d get these beautiful sunsets as bands played outside. I like the idea of ATP in the Southwest.
Who would I invite? That’s tough. I don’t listen to a whole lot of new music. It’s hard to keep up with all the new bands coming out. I really dig Richard Swift, he’s been doing a lot with The Shins lately, but his solo records are really fantastic. I’d love to see a Talking Heads reunion, but I’m not sure that could happen. Maybe just have David Byrne, then. Oh, Brian Eno, too, he’s still putting out really good music. Then I guess we could hope for a Roxy Music reunion, right?