There's something entirely too precious about a young, indie-rock musician with a classic music background. It's a fact you just can't shake out of your head. You'll see some skinny, androgynous, moppy-haired hipster onstage adorned in whatever young-adult Geranimals are fashionably out of season and think--awww, s/he must've looked absolutely adorable in formal attire playing the cello at age 11.
But in the case of San Diego's Jimmy Lavalle, guitarist for Tristeza and brainchild behind his solo project, The Album Leaf, the classical education thing is getting a little out of hand. Sure, he has been playing and studying music since he was 4. OK, a good portion of that was in a classical vein. And, yes, the name of his solo project is a classical allusion--to a piano theme, used as a title by the likes of Frédéric Chopin, Alexander Scriabin and Antonín Dvorák--but, please, enough with "classical" being used to describe his music. The warm, electro-bubble Lavalle churns out has little to nothing to do with Varèse, Schoenberg or Boulez, much less Bach, Beethoven or Brahms.
"People always say that and people always ask about it, but I don't really hear a classical influence in my stuff," Lavalle says during a gas stop en route to Buffalo from Detroit. "I never understand that. I think it all started with the first bio that went out with the first record. You know, when something's new, people just find something to pinpoint and explain it. And it's right there in the bio--it says something about classical music--so then The Album Leaf was said to have a classical thing going on. Like when Tristeza first started out it was immediately compared to sounding like Tortoise, which it doesn't sound like Tortoise just because it's instrumental [music]. And I think that's why the classical thing started, because I have had classical training, and I did grow up playing classical music, and it may come out in my music, but I don't really hear it."
What you will hear on One Day I'll Be on Time (released on Tiger Style), The Album Leaf's second and latest album in its four-year existence, is a wide array of pretty, almost picturesque, instrumental percussion loops and catchy keyboards. "The Audio Pool" recalls the gentle body sway of a good Stereolab groove circa Emperor Tomato Ketchup, only without the paper-thin political-cum-lyrical veneer. "Hang Over" dives into atmospheric electronica that ebbs and flows against a keyboard fugue that flirts with the forlorn before skipping back into a more beguiling mood. A recurring guitar line motif dances with waves of electronic accents to a simple drumbeat for "In Between Lines." "Asleep" marries a four-four pulse to a patient strobe of keyboard tones that's almost ambient, while "The MP" and "Vermillion" both take a similar approach and arrive at something vastly more melodic in the former and more syncopated in the latter. He incorporates environmental recordings into a few tracks, most effectively with the sound of soft rain that opens "The Sailor" ever so gently, setting an ethereal but earthy tone. All in all, One Day has the wispy, gauze-y sheen of dream pop without the squeaky, whiny vocals that would push it over into twee-land.
It's a sweet, good-natured sound that's quite different from the intricate, jazzbo textures Tristeza twists out. And even though Lavalle is a songwriter for both, switching gears isn't a big problem. "It's really easy for me to distinguish between the two when I'm writing," Lavalle says. "A lot of times it's even things I've originally written for Tristeza and it doesn't go over right, and we'll say, 'It's not working,' or whatever. And then I'll use it for myself and explore it on my own, and it becomes something else. Most of Tristeza writing now is done with all of us together on the spot rather than how we used to do it, which was me and Christopher [Sprague] would write outside guitar parts and bring it in [to the band]."
"But with Album Leaf stuff, I'll write it as I record it at home," Lavalle continues. "I never really sit down and write. I just get an idea, and I'll start messing around on my machines and come up with drum loops. I'll record it and listen to it, and then I'll think, 'It could be this.' So I'll pick up another instrument and keep going. For the new record, I started with drum loops or sounds, and then I'd take those as the base and sort of improvise guitar or Rhodes pieces over it, creating layers. It works well for me because whenever I got inspired to do something, I'd do it. And instead of trying to figure it out [musically] I'd just record it and then go back and edit and edit and find a structure within that."
Though the composition is done solo, live, Lavalle still needs a little help. This tour stretch includes a drummer, bassist and keyboard player, with Lavalle playing Rhodes and guitar. "I get a group of people together--friends, musicians I know--and go through and teach them their parts: bass, drums, keyboards," Lavalle says. "And then we just practice and practice, and then it becomes pretty nice. Because nobody plays music like anybody else does, so it's always interpreted in completely different ways, which is refreshing for me. It brings an outside interpretation to what I had originally thought of."
This interpretive/collaborative process is something that Lavalle appreciates. When he takes The Album Leaf to Japan in November, he says that he'll either have members of tour mates Gogogo Airheart back him up or Japanese musicians he befriended while touring Japan with Tristeza. And he's also working on a series of collaborative 7-inch singles that will come out on Better Looking Records. Thus far, he has or plans to work with Connor Oberst (Bright Eyes), Marc Bianchi (Her Space Holiday), Paul Jenkins (Black Heart Procession) and Karla Schickele (Ida).
"Mostly I just want to do things with people that are friends and that I respect musically and have fun with it," Lavalle says. "That's my whole thing behind The Album Leaf. I'm not really in it to make a lot of money and be a total business about it. I just want to do it and have fun."
Eventually, however, he'd like to see The Album Leaf move toward something a bit more pliable and loose live. "I've got ideas for how I want to be able to do stuff so that I can perform it live with one or two other people as opposed to a full band," Lavalle says. "Running samples or running loops and playing two things at once. Because Album Leaf music is actually really simple. It's delicate, simple melodies that aren't hard to play. I'm not about complex stuff, to make it hard on the ear. So it's really, really easy, I think. And it's not that difficult to play two things at once. But what I want to start being able to do is sitting and playing loops live, instrument to instrument, and eventually setting in, maybe behind a drum set, and playing a simple beat with my right hand and doing bass lines on my keyboard with my left hand. And then having another person playing, who's not confined to anything, being able to do different things. And then you'll have sounds and loops going live, playing along with them, and changing melodies over the top."
Wherever his solo work takes him, he's none too worried about having to stick with any one game plan. In fact, he seems more interested in what he hasn't even tried yet. "[Album Leaf] is pretty much an outlet for me to be able to do different things than what I'm confined to do in Tristeza. That's the way I look at it," Lavalle says. "I think I'm pretty open with it, in so far as I don't think I have to stick to a certain style or anything like that. I think I can do anything with it, and it'll always be Album Leaf, because all Album Leaf is is just whatever I write. I think that's probably why I keep playing, because I'm still not doing exactly what I want to be doing. But I think that that's just the way it is. I'm never going to be doing exactly what I want to be doing because then I'd just get bored. So I'm always going to be trying new things."