[Sundance Interview] Jimmy LaValle for SOMETHING IN THE DIRT
Courtesy Sundance Film Festival
Jimmy LaValle has been making music under the name The Album Leaf, his solo project, since 1998 and released the first album in 1999 called An Orchestrated Rise to Fall on The Music Fellowship record label. He has composed film scores since 2012 starting with Torey’s Distraction, Adrift, as a short film, in 2013 and Before You Know It in 2014.

He has scored nearly all of Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead’s collaborative films except their first, Resolution, and their segment of V/H/S: Viral starting with Spring. His collaboration with Benson and Moorhead has continued through The Endless, Synchronic, and now with the soundtrack to their latest film SOMETHING IN THE DIRT. We spoke with LaValle about his musical career, his uses of instrumentation, the new wave of film composers who, like him, are rock musicians, and how he came to work with Benson and Moorhead in the first place.

How did you get into composing? How long have you been working in the business?

Jimmy LaValle: I make music under the moniker The Album Leaf. I have released records since the late 90s. I’ve been kind of in the band space for a long time, since the mid-90s. The music that I make is primarily instrumental, atmospheric, etc. I had a lot of success in the licensing world with my music being used for TV shows and films. It became a thing of being asked so many times to approve this piece of music for this film or for this documentary, or anything like that. At one point, I just thought it would be cool to instead of using all of my [previously created] music, what if I scored the film for you? And that was my first film back in 2009. Since then, I’ve done about 20 films and I still release records, I still tour, that’s still very much a big part of who I am as an artist, and composing, as in film scoring, has been also added to that.

I think that a lot of musicians have transitioned to that and I think that’s a good thing. So much of what soundtracks are about is setting a mood or conveying the emotion of the piece or the actors or the setting. How did you get involved in this project?

Jimmy LaValle: This is my fourth film with Justin and Aaron. They came to me, again, with the new script, and wanted to see if I, again, would be interested in doing the film. Obviously, [my answer was] yes. It’s been a great working relationship. It’s been great being able to provide the music to tell their stories and make their films even weirder.

I’ll take you back with the first project that you worked on with them. How did that come about?

Jimmy LaValle: Yeah, that’s a better story. Basically, Justin was hired back in, I think, 2005 or so, to film me creating a record. My fourth record, actually. So he was hired by a filmmaker to document me making it.

So, Justin Benson was filming the behind-the-scenes making of your album.

Jimmy LaValle: Exactly. He was a cinematographer. I just remembered him, you know, I chatted with him a handful of times, obviously, during that process, but, for the most part, he was more behind the scenes, disappearing as a camera operator. That was kind of our initial meet and connection. Fast forward to when I left San Diego and moved to LA and he was there. He reached out to me with the script for Spring. He asked if I’d be interested in scoring it and I met Aaron. When I met Aaron, obviously, he’s great. We all kind of clicked and hit it off. They also sent me home with a DVD of Resolution. My wife and I watched the film and we said this is great. I didn’t really have any idea about what he had become. I immediately attached myself to Spring and that was the start of our working relationship.

You mentioned that they approached you with the script for SOMETHING IN THE DIRT? Is that something that you always get as a composer? Do you always get the full script to work with and get ideas for the mood and the instrumentation?

Jimmy LaValle: Typically, I’m thrown a script first. My wife is also a documentary filmmaker, so a documentary, that’s more of a work in progress, so it’s not a script there. With all of Justin’s and Aaron’s films, I’ve received a script first. Sometimes I receive the film when it’s already been cut. So I get one of their early rough cuts or something like that. But with them, I’ve always had a script first and it’s always been a trip to me, because the evolution between a script and the picture is never not surprising. I’m never not completely surprised, because when you read something, the story…you can picture it in your head but you’re not seeing what the filmmakers are making and what they’re thinking. When I read a script, I like to come up with initial ideas and initial thoughts, and musical reactions to what I read. By the time I get the rough cut, it’s a completely different piece. Completely. It’s a completely different process and we have a completely new set of tools to be inspired by. Then you can kind of embellish and add more to it and start to build off of those initial ideas.

As a composer, working with Aaron and Justin, what is your base of instrumentation? Where do you normally work from?

Jimmy LaValle: I’m typically a synth artist, starting from some kind of synth tone. That will always be the base of everything I create. I’ll use that to create drones and atmospheres and melodics and maybe the lead instrumentation. I typically try to create something unique, some kind of unique sound from scratch on whatever synthesizer I might be working on or using, to inform and shape the rest of the sound of the score. Then I’ll add in more elements that make sense to the scene or to the character or something like that. I try to stay away from piano as much as possible, and only use it sparsely if I do use it. I’m always incorporating strings. However, I’m always trying not to incorporate strings at the same time, because I want to do something different.  I try to encourage the player to kind of go outside of the box and do something that’s a little bit more thoughtful or, or just out of left field, for example.

Jimmy LaValle l PC: David Black

Why not piano?

Jimmy LaValle: I mean that’s because everyone else is [using] piano. I feel like 90% of film scores are piano and strings. I think that obviously there’s a reason for that. That’s a formula that works. A formula that can sit in that space and not intersect, that leaves room for dialogue and room for your story and has a lot of power and emotion. But I mean, I use it. I just tried to not make it a piano-centered score.

Do you ever use more experimental techniques or found instruments or different types of instrumentations when you’re working on one of these scores?

Jimmy LaValle: I’m always creating sounds from scratch, experimenting with effects chains and then recording that, printing that, resampling that. Creating tones. I use these little semi modular synthesizers that are essentially kind of tone generators that have a single oscillator and have a lot of ways to manipulate the sound. Utilizing that running through, running them into each other. It’s how I came up with the sound for the prism scenes when you see those on the screen, kind of the ambience and tone and the rumble. My scoring is never done when I just lay down a sound. It’s like from that sound, I still have a long way to go. I just keep experimenting and keep kind of resampling and audio manipulating. Even with this score, I use strings, and I use winds: bass, clarinet, clarinet, and flute for the first time. [With that] I also like further manipulation. There’s other places where the source is a bass clarinet, but I’ve manipulated it so much that it sounds like a synthesizer, for example. It’s just a constant. As both [my work} as The Album Leaf and as a composer, or just as an artist in general,  sound manipulating and audio manipulation, editing, and resampling is really centered in my sound.

Do you ever use a particular instrument to represent a character or use a specific theme for a specific character? Or is it more of the experimental tone and mood that you’re working on?

Jimmy LaValle: It shifts. I think this was the first film that really had strong themes and instrumentation that supported characters. I did things like that for Synchronic as well. But for the most part, I definitely use that method more on SOMETHING IN THE DIRT. My main kind of motif is this kind of synth sound, repeating and always moving from its own tone or pitch. It’s kind of always modulating. To me, that really represented the push and pull between the two characters, John and Levi, and how they’re kind of always competing. They’re always trying to one up each other or get to the bottom of this mystery. Also, it suited their addiction to wanting to keep coming back and working on this more and trying to find out more. Even when they weren’t working on it, they were thinking about it. I felt that kind of through-line needed to have a through-line with the instrumentation and with the cue.

John ended up having an organ that supported him [as an instrument in the score] because of his character’s backstory of being part of an Evangelical Church and also having this kind of sinister, untrustworthy, almost villainous, kind of demeanor to him, like the way that he interacted with Levi. I wanted to support that in a way that made his moments not so trustworthy. You don’t really know that you can rely on him and you don’t really know what his motives are. Levi was kind of an interesting character, because he’s had a tough life, had these mishaps, and has no family anymore. But, on top of all of that, he’s really optimistic about his future, what he wants to do, where he wants to go, and what he wants to be. How he’d like to live his life and, and always looking forward to moving forward. So it seemed like the flute [as an instrument to represent his character] kind of fell into place to support his whimsical, optimistic side of his character.

In the case of those two characters, you really match a specific instrument with the characterization that was going on in the film based on the portrayal of the actors and their interactions with the other characters and the story.

Jimmy LaValle: There’s a lot of theorizing in the film, but when they had their individual-centered moments, that was when I really matched the sounds to seeing them on screen.

So, this character is represented by a flute and this one is represented by an organ. How did you work those two instruments together? Because they’re very different instruments. How did you find a way to make them work together or did you put them in opposition?

Jimmy LaValle: I would say that I made them work together. But I think it was unconscious, or not as an obvious choice. I feel like the bed of the score was pretty cohesive. I think being able to change what was on top of that cohesive [bed of the score] and add these things on top of that just made sense. Especially with the main motif, there were moments where you heard the organ doing it or you heard the woodwinds doing it. So you’re hearing the same melody, and [those] melodies are hopefully familiar to you by the time you reach those points in the score.

You can see the changing dynamic between the characters and within the story, but also within the instrumentation, but supported by it as well.

Jimmy LaValle: Right. Exactly, exactly.

Was there anything that you found really, really challenging about this score in particular and putting the music for it together?

Jimmy LaValle: I think that my initial idea that I came up with off of the script was what ended up being the final motif and the final approach. However, when I first got picture, there was a different cue [used in] the temp track that was in there. It really kind of threw me for a loop and was so off-tone from what I had. I never do [but] for some reason, I really got stuck on this one. Coming to the conclusion and finding my way to incorporate this new motif and making it work was really challenging. Beyond that, I couldn’t keep going back to the same sound, same instrumentation for it to not start to feel like you’re beating a dead horse with the sound. Expanding it and really breaking it down [and] trying to go different places with it, creating different instruments, playing the same motif and the same melodies. That was a pretty challenging part of it. Also giving room for their comedy drop moments. When they say something funny and giving [it] that space and not making the score give that away or lean in the direction of “this is funny.”

How do you avoid that? It sounds like it’s something that you do avoid. You avoid punctuating the actual dialogue.

Jimmy LaValle: There are certain times where you take the score away naturally before the moment hits or one another moment. I tried to let it fall out, in a way, and then you hear the moment. Then when [the score] comes back in, it’s not as obvious. It’s a little softer. It’s not as intentional, it’s not like the cue is going full and strong, then stops, and then comes back in full and strong. Navigating the entry and outs of those cues to not make it sound so obvious that “Oh, we stopped so that you could say, rose croutons,” or something like that.

In general, who really inspires you as a musician?

Jimmy LaValle: I feel like, at my core, I’m really inspired by Brian Eno. The kind of atmosphere in the world that he can create and the subtlety of the ambiance. How much emotion can be felt just in single note drones with space. I think that’s always something that I’m always utilizing in my own music. I feel like there’s always some kind of atmosphere that’s supporting melodies and the main instrumentation that is happening.

I’m also inspired by electronic artists like Aphex Twin and his melodic sense of melody over really interesting, challenging drum programming. But I also feel like in the last 10 or 15 years or so there’s been a big shift in composers in film, and their background being from the band or [musical] artists world. I think that’s been a really exciting shift. I think that’s been really challenging and I feel like because of that, I’ve even heard your Hollywood big shots like your Hans Zimmers and Alexandre Desplat, it’s kind of changed their approach and changed their tone. These newer composers take a different approach to film scoring because of their toolset. People like Geoff Barrow and Ben Salisbury, obviously, he’s [Geoff Barrow is] from Portishead, and I’ve been a Portishead fan for forever. To see him move into the scoring space and the kind of tones and sounds that he brings, that they bring as a team, just like Trent Reznor, Atticus Ross, and Jonny Greenwood. All of these kinds of composers are really pushing instrumentation and melodics and pacing and rhythms.

A huge score for me was Jóhann Jóhannsson’s Sicario. I felt like that was a really big shift in film music as well. I don’t even know that it’s a direct inspiration, but I’ve always admired Danny Elfman. His sense of melody and his sense of theatrics. Obviously, I’m not that kind of composer but I think his sense of taking chances and his style. You know it’s a Danny Elfman score. I admire that as well.

Have you ever used any atonality in your scores?

Jimmy LaValle: I don’t think I have in the way that I want to. I do feel like I’ve gotten pretty experimental but I also feel like it’s almost like a cinematographer. How you’re like, don’t stop the cut. It’s like hold it, hold it, hold it, hold it. I feel like I want more and more of those kinds of moments where you’re just really sitting in an eerie space that’s just not moving as much and really creating some real anxiety. I also feel like I have done what. I’ve felt very proud film by film. I do feel like I’m pretty proud of myself at the end results when all is said and done. But I do think at the end of the day, you’re bringing your ideas to the table and collaborating with filmmakers. So it’s definitely the marriage of the two, challenging each other in either direction, so it’s still a collaborative process in the end.

Do you have anything that you are working on now or some type of work that you would like to do in the future?

Jimmy LaValle: As far as film, I don’t have anything on the horizon in the film world. But I did do a 60-minute sleep song for the app Calm, the meditation app. It’s 60 minutes of nice ambiance, nice space to support some relaxation, which is really cool. I have a new record coming out. I have shows coming up.

Do you want to talk a little bit about the new record?

Jimmy LaValle: I’m always making new music and I’ve been trying to select and settle on 10 or 12 songs to release. I’ve signed a new label deal with The Network Music Group and have a record contract in hand, so I have a record to deliver. It’s put the deadline on me, and the fire on me to get these things finished up. There are songs I’ve been writing and working on over the last five years or so or longer. I’ll be really excited to get them out and stand behind creative choices I made and direction shifts and feel like it’s a new direction and a new chapter for me. In the fall, I should be releasing a record and also the SOMETHING IN THE DIRT soundtrack will be released.  I also plan on doing the live performance piece with the score as well. I’m guessing in the fall or some time around then. There are two tracks out right now on Youtube.

With Synchronic, I did a live stream performance of four song cues from the film around its Netflix release.

will be the first film distributed by XYZ Films in the United States using their newly formed distribution operation headed by James Emmanuel Shapiro as reported by The Hollywood Reporter. The film just world premiered at this year’s Sundance Film Festival.

LaValle did a live performance of cues from the Synchronic score when it was released on Netflix for streaming and LaValle says that a similar performance is likely for the release of SOMETHING IN THE DIRT in the future.

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