“I'm not a kid anymore,” says Jimmy LaValle. “I guess I'm just a little more grumpy towards things.”
Today, LaValle, frontman / solo auteur of The Album Leaf, is grouchy about the whole “chillwave” genre. After doing some remix work for Neon Indian, the poster-children of that genre, he feels like there's really not too much to recommend the chillwave scene.
“I just feel very critical of it,” he says.
Arguably, after more than a decade and five albums as The Album Leaf, LaValle, 32, has earned the right to be a little curmudgeonly.
“I'm a little more set in my ways,” he says, expressing dismay at the attention hot young bands like The xx are receiving from fans and indie press.
“I'm slowly checking out these hot-shit bands,” he says. “A lot of it's just not that good. I'm kind of burnt on it—all these hype bands are kind of shitty.”
A veteran of the cabalistic and competitive San Diego music scene, LaValle has traded bandmates—and sometimes barbs—with local talent like Pinback, The Black Heart Procession, Crocodiles and Dum Dum Girls.
“It's really close-knit,” he says. “But it can feel like high school. A lot of those guys turn it into a high-school thing when it should be about getting together and enjoying playing music.”
He adds: “No comment on Wavves.”
Last year, LaValle traded San Diego sun for Santa Cruz rain. He feels a bit disconnected from the scene down here but doesn't miss it too much. His wife's taking classes amid the redwoods at UCSC, and he says he finds as much inspiration up north as he did in the 619.
“It's pretty amazing. We drive down to Big Sur; we drive up to the city [San Francisco] a lot,” he says. In San Diego, “I'd go out to the mountains or to the desert. Either way, it's just the state of mind I like to get into.
“I was always the guy who would knock the people leaving San Diego,” he later adds. “I'm in no way saying San Diego sucks, but I'm a fan of Northern California.”
The move certainly hasn't shrunk his creative drive. LaValle typically records alone in the studio and relies on other players to support him live. But returning to the studio after four years to record his latest, Chorus of Storytellers, he brought local players Tim Reece (drums), Drew Andrews (guitar) and Gram LeBron (bass) into the studio for the first time.
“I brought everyone in to help me out so we'd be able to do something new,” LaValle says. “I've done four records by myself, so it's kind of fun to work with other people.”
Make no mistake, though, it's still LaValle's show: “It didn't differ that much [from a solo recording]; it's still my songs, my ideas. The guys would make a lot of contributions—guitar lines—and that would turn into accentuating a new melody. But it's still my music.”
With horns, strings and heavily mic'ed drums, Chorus is a more cinematic, less bedroomy record than The Album Leaf has laid down before.
“Working with Biggi”—Birgir Jón Birgisson, Icelandic producer of Sigur Rós—“was really awesome. We focused on making the record sound as big as possible, especially the drums,” LaValle says.
“It was great to have Tim [Reece] on the record,” LaValle adds. “I do play drums, but I'm not an everyday drummer. He brought a lot of different styles, fills, things like that.”
Despite the studio drumming, most of the record, except for “Almost There” and the mellower “We Are,” is still riddled with The Album Leaf's signature programmed synth percussion. Sonically, Chorus of Storytellers isn't a huge departure—The Album Leaf's searching synths, windy white noise and mournful Rhodes keyboards are still there, as are LaValle's often divisive vocals. (From the record's comments section on the iTunes store: “Your music is great until you sing!”)
Going forward, he says fans should expect The Album Leaf's sound to paradoxically grow more minimal and more orchestral, relying on increased sequencing on the record and more live strings at shows. He's begun using local string quartets at venue cities to accompany his act.
“We'll have one for San Diego,” he says. He adds that listeners will be treated to the same amount of his singing on future albums.
Opinions about his vocal stylings aside, LaValle is cagey when it comes to pulling back the curtain on his musical formula. He'll tell you what he listens to, but refuses to agree on calling his favorites “influences.” Name-checking the usual suspects, '70s psych-rock, Eno, Tortoise, The Sea and Cake, he's quick to caution:
“I just listen to all kinds of different stuff—it doesn't explain what I do,” he says. “Whenever I'm asked to describe my music, I say ‘mellow, cinematic, electronic but not dancey' and end up sounding like an idiot.”
The Album Leaf plays with Seawolf on Friday, May 14, at the Birch North Park Theatre. www.myspace.com/thealbumleaf.