The Return of Grandaddy: Still Making Music That's Pretty and Uncomfortable
Jason Lytle's putting out the first Grandaddy record in 11 years, out on Danger Mouse's 30th Century Records. We talked to the singer about Enya, getting his ass kicked, and why now.
When Grandaddy decided to pack it in prior to the release of their fourth album, 2006's Just Like The Fambly Cat, their announcement never felt like it was the end. Maybe it was because no band these days can seem to stay broken up, or maybe it was because they had unfinished business after not giving a proper send off by touring their final album. Either way, when they reunited six years later to play a few gigs together, it just felt natural to have them back.
Grandaddy were formed 25 years ago in Modesto, the 18th largest city in California as an outlet for Lytle following a bad skateboarding accident. Although it took them some years to get widespread attention, their debut album, Under the Western Freeway, took off following the band's signing to V2, which reissued the album. In 2000, they released their sophomore album, The Sophtware Slump, a post-millennial concept album about "trees and computers" that elevated them to the upper echelon of indie rock. Tours with Elliott Smith and Coldplay followed, along with their third album, Sumday, in 2003, but Grandaddy seemed to reach their peak. After recording Just Like The Fambly Cat almost all by himself and cocktails of booze, drugs and painkillers, he bowed out long before the album saw its release in May 2006.
What is most remarkable about Grandaddy's return is that it wasn't the idea of frontman/producer/co-founder Jason Lytle. At the time, he was deep in Montana, where he moved after the band split, finishing off his second solo album, Dept. of Disappearance. But Lytle was eventually convinced to get the whole gang—Aaron Burtch, Tim Dryden, Jim Fairchild and Kevin Garcia—back together under certain terms and conditions.
Last Place is a return to the comforting idiosyncrasies we have always loved about Grandaddy. Like all of their albums, Lytle's songs carefully balance the beautiful with the bizarre, returning to the band's endearing signatures—the quirky electronic squibs, the chunky, fuzzed out power chords, the wistful piano riffs, and a plethora of hooks delivered by Lytle's unmistakably vulnerable falsetto—that thrive with a newfound blitheness that came from a pressure-free environment back home in Modesto. Not many reunions, comebacks, whatever you want to call this, result in an album this good.
Noisey phoned up Lytle at home to discuss why he said goodbye to Grandaddy a decade ago, how he was convinced to give Grandaddy another shot, the joy of no longer running a pawn shop on stage, and his decades-long love affair with the music of Enya.
Noisey: It's crazy to think that Grandaddy began 25 years ago.
Jason Lytle: [Laughs.] Oh my. That is nuts. Just hearing that makes me think of some crusty, old-ass, should-not-be-doing-it-anymore, broke down rock dude, but I don't feel like that!
When the band broke up in 2006 you claimed that it was partly due to you "refusing to buy into the way things are traditionally supposed to be done." What exactly did you mean by that?
God, who knows why I said that, but there is definitely some truth in that. I feel like that was the whole time that Grandaddy even existed. Where we came from and the music that was going on, y'know, that wave of punk rock that was made by rich kids with brand new guitar amps and expensive clothes. I grew up getting beaten up by jocks and rednecks who called me a "pussy faggot skateboarder." Early on when we'd play shows people would yell out, "Play faster! Play harder!" And that's when I discovered the band Low, and felt the only way I could make things better was to make the music prettier and more uncomfortable. Their music was so slow and so sparse, it just made me nervous listening to it. I became so fascinated with the idea of testing people live, the way they did it. I went from being so into the Pixies and Nirvana and dirtier Pavement, and then started reining it back in after hearing Low. So we integrated keyboards, and having keyboards in front of me while I was wearing a guitar was a total faux pas.
Modesto was so weird. There was nothing going on, like no venues or shows. It was just this freaky pocket in California with no cultural support. And it became this perverse experiment to stay here and continue making music. Even when I grew up I felt pressured to listen to heavy metal and punk rock around my skater friends. I'd have to hide and listen in secrecy to A Flock Of Seagulls, Aha, and the Human League, and then eventually I became obsessed with Enya. Try explaining to the guys standing on the top of the ramp waiting to drop in that you just bought the new Enya album. I think there is a charm to that though. It became about doing my own thing.
I don't know if you're aware of this, but Enya is considered pretty cool now.
[Laughs.] See! I was so ahead of the game. I love her. Wow, I'm so proud of her.
Your long-time label V2 was sold off and went through major changes after the release of Just Like The Fambly Cat. Did you see that coming because that seemed like the perfect time to end the band?
There was definitely some thought to it. We had completely lucked out, as far as the time period in which we existed. It was the tail end of there still being some money in the industry. It took a lot of money to help us get the exposure that we got. So without all of that there would probably be no Grandaddy on the scale we were on. A lot of people wouldn't have discovered us. We did everything that was asked of us, as far as touring and promoting. But I'd already realized they couldn't throw any more money at us. We had plateaued. Grandaddy had pretty much done what we could go do. At that point it just felt so repetitive, like a machine where we make a record and go all the way around again, and the label makes excuses as to why we remained to exist at the same level. I always kind of saw it as mind blowing that we even got to that level to begin with.
I always felt like Grandaddy were quite successful for the kind of music you were making. Did the label express dissatisfaction?
Half the time record label people don't even know what they like. There are so many clueless people working at labels. There are a handful of good ones who are passionate music fans, but most of them want to be told what to like. They don't know what's good or bad. I mean, they get so oversaturated with music. They have a stack of 450 CDs on their desk of every genre imaginable, and their job is to listen to it all. Of course, they lose perspective. They have to get it out to the world, and the world decides if they like it, that information comes back to the label, and then they decide if they should get behind it. Of course, then they start getting greedy, and try to figure out how to ramp it up to the next level, getting you to appear on TV or playing some weird showcase for the tech industry or something. They put you in these strange situations to give the band a boost. It just became a bit much. I laugh about it now though. I would never want to be more famous than I am, which is a bit weird to say. It's nice for some people to look up to me, but I don't wanna be fucking famous!
You didn't tour after the release of Just Like The Fambly Cat. Did that feel weird, not giving those songs their due?
Yeah. That kind of coincided with everything unravelling. I knew I was going to be bringing things, but I couldn't deal with a lot of things back then. In terms of the band and the music, it was too much, too heavy. So right around the time I was finishing the record I called a band meeting and told them I couldn't do it anymore. It just happened to be the last record we were obligated to give the label too. I did a small, tiny, little tour, and just because the label was saying, "You have to do something." But all I wanted to do was fade away. So yeah, it was a bummer because there were some songs on that album I really like that would have been good live Grandaddy songs.
After Grandaddy you released some solo albums. Were you able to find the space you were looking for through making music on your own?
I definitely had to take some time off and just not do anything. I'd gotten so adjusted to the idea of, like a migratory bird knows when it's time to try and… migrate. There's something inside of you that tells you it's time again, and for me it was just like, "OK, time to make another record!" So it was nice to step away from it all. If I wanted to make one, great, and if I didn't, that would be fine too. So I moved to Montana to change my environment and set up a new studio there. It was nice just to have nothing attached to what I was working on at the time.
After Montana you moved to Portland and then back to Modesto. Why was that?
Well, if I could find one place that offered a solid, unchanging, and dependable situation, I think that would be my preference. I had been with somebody for a very long time and that also was falling apart around my time in Portland, which was also the time I started working on this new record. The Northwest didn't really work for me, and it felt like a matter of survival, so I knew that it was time to come back to California. It actual worked out well because we had scheduled some 2016 shows in the summertime. So I made it a goal of mine to leave Portland by the summer, and when we came back from some European festivals I just decided to stay in Modesto. Rehearsals are a lot easier and I was able to hunker down and finish the album.
Grandaddy got back together in 2012 to play some shows. But it wasn't your idea?
No, I definitely resisted. I had to be convinced that it was OK. There was a lot of work, just at a logistical level to see how it could happen. A lot of the gear had disappeared—broken, sold off—so I didn't know how it would work. All of that falls on me. Tim [Dryden], our keyboardist, doesn't know much about the technical side of things, so it was up to me to piece everything together. I just didn't know if I was up for that, because it's a lot more work for me than anyone else. So I had to be persuaded that it wasn't gonna be like that again. I think what's changed the most is that there is a lot more thought and care going into what we choose to do live.
I've always found the gear Grandaddy uses to be one of the most fascinating things about the band.
In the studio it's ever-changing. I'm constantly trimming the fat. There are a lot of key pieces from the last two decades that I will never get rid of. But I have a pretty good hybridized situation in the studio. I use a lot of software and computer stuff, and extensive libraries, but I have a lot of the analog gear. With the live stuff the gear has come so far over the last ten years or so. For me that's been the most exciting thing about all of this: we sound so much better! My voice has gotten better, all of the gear sounds better, the other guys are playing better. As charming as it seems our live shows used to look like a freaking pawn shop on stage. Everything was always breaking and being fixed with duct tape and chicken wire. So it's nice to actually show up and be 95 percent sure the equipment is going to work to avoid breakdowns and disappointment.
You sound pretty optimistic. Do you feel good about the new songs you've written?
It wasn't until the mastering stage that I could feel some pride and pat myself on the back a little bit. At this point though it's still a mystery. I really just wanted to make a cool-sounding record for Grandaddy fans. I'm excited to get it into the hands of those people, so that it will be out of my hands.
So would you say you made this album for the fans?
They definitely played a huge part. I feel a solidarity with them, like I'm very similar to a lot of the people that have connected with this music. When I feel like something is working, I often think it will resonate with someone else. I'm not completely at the mercy what I think might be the opinions of other people. It's more straddling what feels right to me and what I think a Grandaddy fan might get a kick out of.
One thing I think every fan will enjoy is the return of Jed. What made you bring back that character?
If there was any pandering that happened on this album that was the moment. It's something I had laying around, and if you'll notice it's only a couple of minutes long. I think it may have originally been a joke, so I had to really talk myself into fleshing it out and turn it into an actual piece of music. More than anything, it's like a couple of friends who meet up at the bar and talk about the old days. Like, "What happened to this person? Or that person?" And in this case it's, "Whatever happened to that Jed guy? What's he up to?" I didn't really spend a lot of time thinking about it. I was more just touching on the matter for a bit.
Last Place is being released by Danger Mouse's label, 30th Century Records. You had worked with him on Dark Night of the Soul. What made you decide to sign with him?
We actually go way back. He's been a Grandaddy fan for a very long time. He knows the albums really well. He's a real super nerdy music fan. And we've hung out many times as friends and had discussions about music and life and any number of things. I feel like there is a lot I don't need to explain to him. I'm not really fond of having to meet new industry people and explain myself, and I don't feel I need to do that with Brian [Burton]. I definitely benefit from that aspect.
If he's a big fan, did he reach out at all and ask to work on the album?
No, as a matter of fact, when I was first plotting out how I was going to make this record I was considering working on it with somebody else. But I reached out to him and I had a few recordings already that he asked to hear about. He said he was busy working on a few things already, but also that he felt the songs I sent him were fine. He encouraged me to keep going and he really gave me some confidence because I didn't know if I was up to the task of overseeing, engineering, producing and doing most of the work myself.
I read Last Place is the first of at least two new Grandaddy albums?
Yeah, we signed a deal for two albums, so we do know there will be at least one more, which is exciting.
Cam Lindsay is a writer living in up in Toronto. Follow him on Twitter.