San Diego native Jimmy LaValle of the Album Leaf finds kindred spirits in Iceland’s Sigur Rós.

The Iceman Cometh 

San Diego native Jimmy LaValle of the Album Leaf finds kindred spirits in Iceland’s Sigur Rós.

A personal invitation to join Sigur Rós on tour would be an answered prayer for most up-and-coming ambient artists. But when that fantasy actually happened to San Diego musician Jimmy LaValle, his response was a tad unexpected. You see, he really wasn’t that familiar with Sigur Rós. “I had heard of them,” says LaValle, the one-man band known as the Album Leaf. “I had heard the name, but I’d never heard a record.” Instead, it was Jón Thor Birgisson and his Sigur Rós mates who stumbled upon the Album Leaf’s graceful, organic soundscapes while CD shopping in their native Iceland. LaValle had concocted haunting, wordless beauties of great warmth and reach, electronic enhancements meshing with acoustic guitars, pianos and delicate strings. Sigur Rós was sold. “When I was asked to do the tour, then I did research on them — because I didn’t know anything about them, basically,” LaValle admits sheepishly. “So then everyone around me was telling me, ‘Oh, wow! That’s huge, that’s huge, you gotta do that, that’s huge!’ And I was like, ‘OK,’ even though I hadn’t heard them.” LaValle has since toured with Sigur Rós several times, becoming a close friend despite sizable cultural and geographic gaps. The mutual admiration translated into an offer for LaValle to record his next album — his Sub Pop debut, In a Safe Place — in the group’s studio in Iceland. Once the logistics were worked out, the 25-year-old Californian trekked off to the distant cold and spent hours on end recording, mostly by himself. In a Safe Place consequently mirrors some of the loneliness of a young man far from home. But it also amplifies the Album Leaf’s capacity for heartfelt compositions — even adding lyrics to the mix for the first time. And whereas Sigur Rós can be glacial and droning, LaValle focuses on intelligent accessibility for his material. Shrugging off the suggestion that what he does is somehow more intricate or sophisticated than typical singer-songwriter fare, LaValle says his music is as traditional as anything on the radio. But then again, he feels the same way about Sigur Rós’ albums. “I don’t think their music is that complicated,” he says. “They have the same kind of structure, a classic pop structure. They have their choruses, but there’s no words. It makes it a little more confusing, a little more challenging, to listen to. [But] on [the last Sigur Rós record, ( )], that was all just using vocals as an instrument, kind of like a melody.” Invariably, meditative albums such as In a Safe Place draw comparisons to Brian Eno and other deep thinkers of contemporary electronic rock. But LaValle may be the most unpretentious record maker you’ll ever meet. Perhaps this has something to do with his taste; he names Stevie Wonder, Billie Holiday, Jay-Z and Justin Timberlake as favorites. “I listen to Hank Williams,” LaValle says. “I listen to Johnny Cash. I’m kind of all over the place.” Particularly for a composer whose songs — such as the emotionally charged “Thule” and the soothing “On Your Way” — suggest a serious, sensitive, creative mind, LaValle comes across as a pretty normal dude, devoid of hard-fought beliefs on music theory. All he can manage when asked what common threads unite his musical taste is an “I dunno” and an embarrassed laugh. “I like melodies, I guess,” LaValle says. “I don’t really know. I don’t really ever dissect the music I listen to that much. I don’t really pay attention to why I like it.” Besides his Album Leaf records, LaValle also contributes to bands such as Tristeza and Black Heart Procession. He also has written music for commercials. He’s interested in scoring films — In a Safe Place’s cinematic flair screams for accompanying visuals — but he doesn’t watch movies with an ear for what does or doesn’t work musically. “Maybe I should,” he says. “To me, they’re obviously entertainments. They’re something to pass the time. Kind of like a record.” LaValle’s lack of affectation is refreshing, but it’s hard to believe that he would hit it off with the seemingly distant, almost alien members of Sigur Rós. But he argues that the band’s public persona is misleading. “They’re just like me,” he says. “[They] have fun, are sarcastic, have a good time and tell dirty jokes.” On the road, LaValle is hardly alone. He tours with four other musicians. “We just try to put on a show that you’re not going to be bored with after the third song,” he says with a laugh. And although electronics play an important part in his performance, LaValle uses as much live instrumentation as possible. “My biggest fear in the world is to be a laptop band,” he says. If anything, LaValle wants to demonstrate the human element behind the sometimes otherworldly feel of ambient rock. That, and he wants to set the record straight about so-called serious artists such as himself. “I think there’s a whole misconception [about] people who play any kind of music that’s remotely emotional,” he says. “People on the outside world just feel like, Oh, they must be some kind of starving artist. There’s just that classic stereotype ... people think that a person that does any kind of emotional music has some kind of pain or some kind of this or some kind of that. And of course, there are those kinds of people. But the reality is, everyone is just their own person.” So, the man who would be friends with the enigmatic Sigur Rós, the man who spent countless hours alone in Iceland perfecting his craft, isn’t an angsty artist brooding over his music? “Not at all,” LaValle says. “I go out to bars and drink with my friends.”

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