Near the end of the 1971 film Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, the title character, played by Gene Wilder, has just bequeathed to Charlie his candy empire when he turns to him and asks, “Do you know what happened to the boy who suddenly got everything he wanted?”
“No,” says Charlie.
“He lived happily ever after,” Wonka replies.
The audience is, of course, happy for Charlie. Out of the five young contenders vying (albeit unknowingly) for the chocolate factory, he is by far the kindest and most sincere. He's also from a poor family, which makes his big break that much more important.
Talking to musician Jimmy LaValle about his deal with Seattle's Sub Pop Records brings Wonka's words to mind. LaValle, a San Diego native who records and performs as The Album Leaf—a three-piece backing band joins him for live shows—has recently joined the probably 1 percent of young musicians who get the chance to, at least for awhile, fully dedicate their lives to their craft. The Album Leaf's first full-length release on Sub Pop, In a Safe Place, comes out June 22, the day before LaValle's 26th birthday. For the thoroughly likable kid with a mop of dark hair and an impish grin, the days of surviving on 39-cent cheeseburgers seem just about over.
“It's basically [in] the last year I've been able to live comfortably,” he remarked over dinner a few weeks ago at Hillcrest's Amarin Thai restaurant, “but it's only been in the last three to six months I've been able to buy things. Buy myself a new car [a 1966 Chevy Impala, actually], pay for my insurance for a year right up front, get my registration—all that stuff.
Like a lot of aspiring musicians, for most of his early 20s LaValle scraped by on money earned from intermittent part-time work—teaching piano lessons, rolling out health food bars for a Hare Krishna-run factory—in order to stick with the sort of relentless touring schedule small-label bands need to endure if they want to sell records. He estimates that during the past few years (and his past few bands), he's done close to 50 tours of the U.S., Europe and Japan. Many tours would wrap up with LaValle coming home broke. At one point, his older sister, Jamie, took him in rent-free until he was able to get back on his feet.
Though the three-record deal with Sub Pop likely won't earn LaValle enough to, say, purchase his first home—he lives in a tiny Little Italy apartment with his three-legged Calico cat, Pookie—it's so far allowed him to do some basic things he hadn't been able to do before. On a trip to Seattle last month, he went shopping for a new pair of sneakers and, unable to decide between a black pair or white pair, he bought them both.
LaValle's name is a familiar one in San Diego's music scene. For close to a decade, he's bounced from punk and hardcore bands like Crimson Curse, Swing Kids and The Locust to the instrumental post-rock outfit, Tristeza—a band that garnered a fair amount of respect in the underground scene—to his solo project, The Album Leaf.
LaValle is frequently asked how he moved from hardcore (The Locust is an acquired taste even for people who dig the sound of nails on a chalkboard) to music that's often described as “delicate”—or, as LaValle put it, “comparatively sissy.”
“Playing hardcore is a total release and a total rush. You go crazy when you play, you jump around, throw your guitar and throw yourself into the audience. It's really, really fun,” he explained. But “as far as going from hardcore to normal, it's just a matter of growing up, that's all. I'm not saying those people haven't grown up, but as far as me as a musician... a lot is just about growing up.”
Describing The Album Leaf's music isn't easy. To some extent, it's background music—music to chill to, music that's easy on the ear. The “background music” label doesn't insult LaValle. “I think of it as something you put on and go about your business, let it kind of spin silly right there,” he said.
As one person interviewed for this story said it, The Album Leaf is Sunday-morning music.
Like its predecessor Tristeza, The Album Leaf falls into the amorphous “post-rock” category—to some extent a label slapped on any band that defies immediate classification. It's also a distinction that carries with it certain a level of respect. Post-rock bands like Durutti Column, Slint, Tortoise and Labradford don't necessarily sell a ton of records, though they consistently make it to the top of critics' lists and get heavy play on edgier college radio stations.
“Jimmy is more a composer than a rock star, more Chopin than Moby,” said Ben Moore, LaValle's friend and lawyer.
LaValle did, in fact, get the name The Album Leaf from Romantic-era composer, Chopin, whom he admires. Piano drives The Album Leaf's sound and LaValle's preferred instrument is the fat and mellow Fender Rhodes keyboard. He's played since he was 5 and also took lessons on violin and clarinet. From that foundation, he taught himself to play guitar at 14 and picked up drums somewhere along the way. LaValle pretty much plays everything you hear on an Album Leaf record.
Articles written on The Album Leaf like to call LaValle “classically trained,” a label he's rather amused with since he really only took three years of piano lessons. His music, rather, comes across as classically informed, its orchestration often comprising interwoven layers of strings, piano and organ. His songs, though, have symmetry to them—you know where they're going. To LaValle, that's both a good and bad thing.
“Knowing [music] theory actually holds me back in a lot of ways,” he said. “It forces me to stay in the realm of safeness in a way where key changes that would happen from someone who doesn't know what they're doing probably wouldn't happen to me. I wouldn't make that daring key change.... I would make everything pleasurable to the ear and stay to scale.
“Maybe that helps with the way people hear my music,” he continued, “but at the same time I always feel like I could do more. I always feel like I could do something a little more unexpected, but I can't.”
For those not accustomed to nontraditional alt-rock, The Album Leaf is far more user-friendly than its atmospheric-rock peers, whose music often lacks a discernable structure and demands more effort of the listener. In fact, in one of the rare negative reviews of the new Album Leaf record, written for an online music magazine, the reviewer cited as one of the record's failings the fact that his roommate, “a Midwestern, backward-baseball-cap-sportin', chick-bangin', shit-beer-drinkin'” sort, rather liked the CD.
The review had LaValle torn between annoyance and amusement. “I do music that probably a [small] percentage of the world cares about, so it's not really a big deal; it's not something to get pissed off about,” he said.
Sub Pop, naturally, hopes to expand that small percentage. Tony Kiewel, an A&R guy for Sub Pop, said the label isn't quite sure how the new record fits into the alternative-music market. “We tend to just be drawn to bands or music that strikes our fancy,” he said, “and then we just do our best to connect with that band's fan-base and foster its growth.”
Kiewel said Sub Pop plans to cast a wide net for this release, targeting the adult alternative market through retail outlets like Borders, without losing site of independent record stores. The label is also “stepping out a bit,” as Kiewel put it, and making a video for the album's third track, “On Your Way,” something Sub Pop rarely does. (The video's first director was nixed after his idea to attach cameras to birds proved impossible. A Canadian company is currently working on something involving stop-motion animation.)
A decade ago, The Album Leaf's pairing with Sub Pop would have been an odd match. Sub Pop's legacy is as the label that discovered Nirvana, releasing that band's first album, Bleach, in 1989. After that, Sub Pop built itself up by signing grunge acts like Mudhoney and Soundgarden. By the mid-'90s, grunge had run its course, but it didn't take Sub Pop down with it. While many independent record labels that started in the '80s and early '90s have since gone under or have been absorbed by major labels, Sub Pop's staying power is its knack for finding bands whose music doesn't promise hefty record sales but rather a solid, dedicated fan base looking for more than easy-to-digest pop fare.
“Sub Pop represents all that is right with the music industry, and there is very little,” said Moore. “We sat down and listed labels that would be a safe place for Jimmy. Sub Pop was at the top of that list.... Jimmy won't have to worry that the Sub Pop marketing department is obsessed with the new Puddle of Mudd record.”
Sub Pop has had its eye on LaValle for a while, Kiewel said. “I had tried to bring Tristeza here years before, but it just never really worked. We sent them offers and had meetings, then they just kind of disappeared for months at a time.”
LaValle acknowledged this, explaining that at the time, he was moving away from Tristeza, focusing more on The Album Leaf, and didn't want to do anything that would lock him into the band.
In a Safe Place began to attract attention well before Sub Pop took interest; in fact, well before anyone had even heard it. While the record's prelude, an EP called Seal Beach, was released late last year to favorable reviews, In a Safe Place's genesis is a story all its own. LaValle, who normally writes and records his music on a computer in his apartment, went to Reykjavik, Iceland, last August to record The Album Leaf's second full-length CD. He was invited there by members of Sigur Rós, a band whose well-earned reputation is that of creating wildly inventive music.
LaValle first met Sigur Rós a couple of years ago after the band's lead singer, Jónsi Birgisson, picked up The Album Leaf's EP, One Day I'll Be On Time, in a Reykjavik record store on the recommendation of the store clerk. Birgisson liked it so much, he asked The Album Leaf to tour with the band as their opening act. After a second tour with Sigur Rós, the band invited LaValle to record at their studio, a place that's fast become a legend among audiophiles. The studio sits in a large, enclosed (drained) swimming pool, drenching music recorded there in natural reverb.
LaValle landed in Iceland in August with templates for several songs and, over a few weeks, laid down most of the album's tracks. Members of Sigur Rós and fellow Icelandic band Mum added finishing touches while Pall Jenkins and Matt Resovich of San Diego's Black Heart Procession recorded vocals and violin, respectively. Though wary about singing, LaValle's voice is on two of the three tracks on the CD that have vocals. Up until In a Safe Place, The Album Leaf was solely an instrumental band.
In all, it took three trips to Iceland to finish the record. LaValle's manager, Dave Brown, financed the first two trips, hoping that whatever label The Album Leaf signed to would pick up the tab for a third-something Sub Pop was more than happy to do.
What LaValle has created with In a Safe Place is a truly lovely collection of songs. The album's title bespeaks the environment in which it was created: a stunningly beautiful, otherworld largely untouched by urban hassles. To make the record, LaValle admits he had to get out of San Diego, something he plans to do for future recordings. “Something as secluded as [Iceland] and as far away from here as possible,” he said. “Just to be away from things.”
Hype over the Sigur Rós connection has translated to higher than normal expectations for LaValle's first large-scale release. But the pressure doesn't seem to faze him. He doesn't mind the extra attention his music is getting, but in the end, “I just wanted to make music with friends of mine, that's it. And basically have a nice package to document it.”
“The Sigur Rós thing is nice,” said Sub Pop's Kiewel. “It'll definitely help us sell records, but it was certainly not even remotely the primary reason for us to get involved in this album.”
LaValle's genuine niceness also made it that much easier for the label to want to release his records.
“Beyond his obvious talents, his work ethic and kindness were big factors in our wanting to partner up with him,” Kiewel said. “It's rare to find someone so gifted and yet also so driven and meanwhile still grounded.”
Indeed, LaValle comes across as someone who can't believe he gets paid for doing what he loves. In the same way someone else might share photos of a fun vacation, LaValle offers visitors to his apartment a look at the photo album he carefully put together of some recent tours and his time in Iceland. And though he says it's not on purpose, a compartment in his wallet holds a neat stack of more than a dozen airline ticket stubs—keepsakes, it seems, of someone who never thought he'd be jumping from Iceland to Japan to Sicily in the span of a few weeks.
“The work I have to do for my job is writing and touring, and then my pay is being able to relax when I'm not doing anything and being able to make a living off of it. It's nice,” he said.
“My mom asked me the other day, ‘Do you ever get sad? In the last year I've not seen you sad.' She's known me through everything.... It's kind of a funny question,” he said.
Has he arrived?
“As far as my own personal goal, I feel like I'm there, but I'm not ready for it to stop or stop right here,” he said. “But as far as where I am now, it's great.”
The Album Leaf performs June 22 at 7 p.m. at M-Theory record store in Golden Hill. www.thealbumleaf.com