In the Valley Below talk the challenges of a sophomore album

Photo: Hiro Yoshida

In the wake of their well-received but almost unintended 2013 debut album, The Belt, In The Valley Below find themselves for the first time creating music with public anticipation peering over their shoulders. The enigmatic indie-pop duo toured tirelessly behind their first full-length and recently relocated more than 2,000 miles from frantic L.A. to relatively sedate Michigan. Yet, as they tackle the traditionally tricky second album, their creative approach is little changed.

“The last record, we weren’t recording to make a record for most of it – we were just trying out our production skills and writing some songs,” said Angela Gail, hunkered down with her ITVB partner Jeffrey Jacob in their basement studio. “Now we know we have some fans who will listen to it, but we are still doing the same thing, where we just want to write really great songs that we don’t get sick of listening to.”

Raised in small-town Michigan and Memphis, Tenn. respectively, Gail and Jacob independently made the time-honored move to Los Angeles in search of rock ‘n’ roll recognition in the 2000s; she as a solo artist, he as a guitarist-songwriter. Juggling casual jobs with touring and recording, their paths crossed when Jacob joined Gail’s live band. But it was while playing together in L.A. rock band Sabrosa Purr at the 2011 SXSW Music Festival in Austin, Texas that the pair recognized their rare creative connection. “We sort of balance each other out in a nice way, because we both come from a songwriting background,” mulled Jacob. “And when you collaborate with someone it’s a built-in checks and balances system.”

Emotionally and personally, I’m not working two jobs at restaurants anymore, so the things we write about are a little different. We still tap into those things, but now it’s about the journey that we’ve been on, too. And that’s just a different kind of struggle.

While ITVB irreverently flit through styles and moods, it’s the call-and-response, contrast and coming-together of their voices – hers a lithe, loaded purr, his more wounded and conversational – that renders the pair’s output distinctive. “I feel like I’m kind of writing the same songs that I always did,” said Gail. “But now sometimes when I write something I think is great, he might totally shut it down … And then a lot of times if I’m writing and I’m stuck and normally I would just give up … he may solve the puzzle.”

Originally a studio-only project, In The Valley Below self-released an EP in 2011 which caught the ear of manager Pete Galli. He secured them a deal with Capitol Records in 2013 – a time when major labels were barely signing anyone – and contracts with a variety of other labels in multiple global markets (“Anything that we’ve gotten, he’s been at the helm,” said Jacob). Thus began the convoluted evolution of The Belt which, although recorded and produced by Gail and Jacob in their home studio, included tracks mixed by Dave Sardy (Oasis, Band of Horses), John Congleton (St. Vincent, David Byrne), Pete Min (Airborne Toxic Event) and Lasse Mårtén (Lykke Li, Peter, Bjorn & John).

The album eventually emerged in the summer of 2014, supported by extensive international touring with the likes of The Airborne Toxic Event, White Lies, and Cold War Kids, plus high-profile festival and TV appearances. Propelled by summery single “Peaches”, which was first picked up by European radio, the electro-organic, stylistically-noncommittal Belt earned comparisons to everything from Fleetwood Mac and Phil Collins to the xx and Cold Cave. The record disconcertingly spans shamelessly radio-ready hooks (“Stand Up”, “Neverminders); distracted, gauzy nostalgia (“Take Me Back”); aching farewell (“Hymnal”); and throbbing, ominous desire (“Palm Tree Fire”).

“I’ve just been surprised that people are listening to it at all – pleasantly surprised,” said Jacob. “I’ve never really thought about what other people would think about our music, so I didn’t really have any pre-conceived notion of what people would say.”

Through their videos, photos and on-stage attire, ITVB cultured a cult-ish, boho-goth image that – combined with a deliberately ambiguous off-stage relationship which Jacob will only describe as “intense and mysterious” – embroidered the elusive allure of The Belt’s harmony-heavy, consistently catchy collision of squelchy synth pop and woozy, bluesy Americana.

Photo: Hiro Yoshida

Ironically, when Gail and Jacob finally settled back in L.A. at the end of The Belt’s rigorous touring cycle last year, they realized they no longer wanted to be in their adopted hometown after all. Maybe, with their musical ambitions apparently on track, the city had simply served its purpose. “It never had a real ‘home’ feeling for us … it never felt like it was somewhere that either of us wanted to stay forever,” said Jacob. “I get kind of claustrophobic around large groups of people and I just was starting to get a little freaked-out by the traffic and then just people everywhere.”

Retreating to Gail’s native Michigan to record their second album, they simply decided to stay, setting up a studio in the cellar of their Grand Rapids home. Subtly, the move to more spacious surrounds has crept into ITVB’s new songs. “There’s probably a good three or four songs that have some lyrical influence of the move here,” said Jacob. “We never really hit it on the head, because we like to keep our lyrics a little more mysterious, so there’s not going to be a song titled, y’know, ‘Michigan Here We Come’!”

“Emotionally and personally, y’know, I’m not working two jobs at restaurants anymore, so the things we write about are a little different,” said Gail. “We still tap into those things, but now it’s about the journey that we’ve been on, too. And that’s just a different kind of struggle, I guess.”

While Gail says that they have “nobody breathing down their neck”, she hopes that the evolution of ITVB’s sophomore record, which they began writing at the beginning of 2015, will be much more linear than that of its predecessor. “It already feels like it’s been too long, but it hasn’t really,” said Gail. “We had hard time writing while we were on the road, so most of the songs we wrote over this winter [2015-2016] and a couple came from hotel rooms and the back of the van.”

While ITVB aren’t deviating from their DIY production approach, they’ve consciously tried to shift the tone of their new album. “Our last record was very influenced by some darker, heavier things … and we wanted to kind of lift the spirit a little bit for this [second] record,” Gail explained. “So we would listen to some more up-tempo songs. It’s always classic rock, though, maybe like the Rolling Stones or David Bowie. We’d think ‘how could they pull that song off and not make it totally cheesy?’”

We noticed there’s a more soulful feeling. It’s almost like a more Motown feel, which is strange. We don’t go to church or anything, so I don’t know where that comes from.

For a band born of insular studio scribblings, the aesthetic impact of months of international road work – first as a quartet with additional drums and keyboards, and lately as a trio with just touring drummer Joshua Clair – has been palpable. “The biggest thing, musically, that’s affecting the new record is playing live and thinking about the audience enjoying the song as much as we’re enjoying the song,” said Gail. “I feel like we’re conscious now of having a drummer … instead of, a lot of times [on The Belt] we just programmed a lot of our beats.”

With Jacob and Gail both playing drums during their recent writing and recording sessions, ITVB’s sound has subliminally evolved in rather unexpected ways. “Once we started listening to a few of the songs at once, we noticed there’s almost a more soulful feeling. It’s almost like a more Motown feel, which is strange, or a gospel feel – but we don’t go to church or anything, so I don’t know where that comes from.”

While utterly at home in what Jacob describes as their womb-like subterranean studio, ITVB would once again like to have outside ears mix their new record. “We’d like to just have one person do the whole thing this time … Ideally, we’ll have one of the same people [from The Belt] mix it,” said Gail. “There’s a couple of songs that we’ve finished that we’ve mixed ourselves that we love so much – we’re not sure if we want to mess with them and have an outside producer.”

Even so, fans can expect another instinctively eclectic collection. “Each song has its own production direction that it wants to go, so we don’t produce a song and say ‘oh, this isn’t going to fit with the record – let’s change it’,” Gail explained. “We hope that our voices and our songwriting will kind of tie ‘em all together.”

While In The Valley Below are yet to consider a release schedule or even a title for their second collection, more touring is almost a given once the album appears – although not necessarily with the same band (or premeditated pioneer wardrobe) as the Belt-era shows. “We’d like to have a song out by the end of the year or the top of [2017] – maybe more,” Gail revealed. “The [touring] trio is nice and easy, and we have a really good time, so I’m OK with that. If our budget allows, we’d like to have another player or two.”

In the meantime, listen to In the Valley Below's debut album, The Belt, below.