It would be an answered prayer for most up-and-coming ambient artists: a personal invitation from the members of Sigur Ròs to join them on tour. But when that fantasy scenario actually happened for San Diego musician Jimmy LaValle, his response was unexpected.
You see, he really wasn't that familiar with Sigur Ròs.
"I had heard of them," insists LaValle, the one-man band known as the Album Leaf. "I had heard the name, but I'd never heard a record."
Jon Thor Birgisson and his mates from Sigur Ròs had stumbled upon the Album Leaf's graceful, organic soundscapes while CD shopping in their native Iceland. Over a handful of albums and EPs, LaValle had concocted haunting, wordless beauties of great warmth and reach, electronic enhancements meshing with acoustic guitars, pianos and delicate strings. And so Sigur Ròs decided to get in touch with the relative unknown.
"When I was asked to do the tour, then I did research on them -- because I didn't know anything about them, basically," he 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, 'Okay,' even though I hadn't heard them."
Subsequently, LaValle has toured with Sigur Ròs on several occasions, becoming a close friend despite the cultural and geographic differences. The mutual admiration translated into an offer for LaValle to record his next album, his Sub Pop debut In a Safe Place (out June 22), in the group's Icelandic studio. Once the logistics worked out, the 25-year-old Californian trekked off to the distant cold, recording mostly by himself for hours on end.
Hardly his version of Ágaetis Byrjun, In a Safe Place mirrors some of the loneliness its creator felt being so 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. Where Sigur Ròs' work can be glacial and droning, LaValle focuses on an 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 believes that his music is as traditional as anything on the radio. But then again, he feels the same way about the work of Sigur Ròs.
"I don't think their music's 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. On [the last Sigur Ròs record, ( )], that was all just using vocals as an instrument, kinda like a melody."
Invariably, meditative albums such as In a Safe Place draw comparisons to Brian Eno and other such deep thinkers of contemporary electronic rock. However, LaValle may be the most unpretentious record-maker you'll ever meet. Perhaps this has something to do with his own tastes, which range from Stevie Wonder to Billie Holiday to Jay-Z to Justin Timberlake.
"I listen to Hank Williams. I listen to Johnny Cash. I'm kinda all over the place," he says.
For a composer whose songs -- such as the emotionally charged "Thule" or 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.
For example, when asked what common threads unite his eclectic musical favorites, he pauses for a long time, unsure what to say. Finally, all he can offer is: ". . . I dunno."
He laughs, embarrassed.
"I like melodies, I guess. 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. If that wasn't enough, he also spent some time writing music for commercials. And he would definitely be interested in film scoring -- certainly In a Safe Place's cinematic flair screams for accompanying visuals -- but he doesn't watch movies with an ear toward what does or doesn't work musically.
"Maybe I should," he jokes. "To me, they're obviously entertainments. They're something to pass the time. Kinda like a record."
While his lack of affectation is refreshing, it's hard to believe that he would hit it off with the distant, almost alien members of Sigur Rós. He argues that the band's public persona is somewhat misleading.
"They're just like me," he says. "[They] have fun, are sarcastic, have a good time and tell dirty jokes and tell bad jokes."
The Album Leaf will start its tour July 5 at Tucson's Solar Culture, with LaValle being backed by four additional musicians and a series of visuals supplied by an artist friend.
"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. Although electronics play an important part in his performance, LaValle prefers using as much live instrumentation as possible. "My biggest fear in the world," he says, "is to be a laptop band."
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 artistes such as himself.
If you like this story, consider signing up for our email newsletters.
SHOW ME HOW
You have successfully signed up for your selected newsletter(s) - please keep an eye on your mailbox, we're movin' in!
"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, you wouldn't say you're an angsty artist brooding over your musical oeuvre?
"Not at all," he responds. "I go out to bars and drink with my friends."