Most groups wouldn’t start a label to release an album by a fictitious band, but then most groups don’t have a near-professional caliber skateboarder for a frontman either. And yet, these are arguably the most mundane aspects of Grandaddy, a Modesto, California five-piece which began as just another Pavement-esque indie outfit and has quietly morphed into a stargazing, psychedelic collective on par with modern pop contortionists like the Flaming Lips and Beck.
The shift has been so dramatic that many critics have accused Grandaddy of trend-hopping: gauging what’s cool in indie circles and imitating the standard-bearers. However, in an interview before their recent show in Chicago, guitarist Jim Fairchild dismisses such charges, saying that any similarities between them and other bands are purely coincidental. “Pavement was not renowned for stellar recording qualities,” he explains. “There was a lackadaisical and sloppy aspect to their recordings. We had very meager means when we recorded our first album for Will Records [A Pretty Mess by This One Band], so it’s naturally going to sound more lackadaisical and sloppy than our current records.” Fairchild also flatly denies that the band’s third album, The Sophtware Slump, was a deliberate attempt to capitalize on the post-OK Computer craze—when suddenly it became okay for an indie band to attempt a prog-rock opus. Grandaddy scrapped the lo-fi toss-offs and absurdist lyric sheet in favor of expansive, sophisticated epics like “He’s Simple, He’s Dumb, He’s the Pilot” and “Miner at the Dial-A-View”. While Fairchild openly admits that the band members are huge fans of Radiohead, he insists, “There was no deliberate effort to chase OK Computer. Not even close.”
Whether or not the criticisms have merit, they have become obsolete with the release of the band’s new album, Sumday. No longer content to labor in other people’s shadows, Grandaddy has finally produced its definitive work. That’s not to say that the band has abandoned all the elements that have informed its sound, but rather that the band has managed to combine their diverse influences in a way that forges a distinct identity. Turns out that Grandaddy were more thoroughbred pop than anyone could have imagined. Songs like the first single, “Now It’s On”, and “El Caminos in the West” have a shimmering, West-coast vibe and easily rank among the most overtly commercial offerings in the band’s catalog. The alienation and reticence that characterized much of The Sophtware Slump are noticeably absent on this outing, replaced by direct, fluid arrangements. “We were all surprised by the results,” says Fairchild. “It’s really radio[-friendly]. I think Jason was more comfortable allowing that aspect of his songwriting and our sound to shine through on this record.”
Yet getting such astonishing results took quite a bit of patience—two and a half years to be precise. Much of that time, according to Fairchild, wasn’t actually spent laying down the tracks, but constructing a home studio and obtaining gear. “The funny part is that once we finally did finish assembling the studio, Jason [Lytle, the band’s singer and principal songwriter] realized that he had written about two songs total. He went through this panic period. But sure enough, one month later, he had 30 songs ready to go. So the recording itself didn’t take much time. We did it over the course of six months—so maybe two or three of solid activity.” Fairchild adds that the band demoed many songs that didn’t even make the cut for Sumday. They actually had enough material to release a double album, which the band considered doing before shelving the idea at the last minute for unspecified reasons.
Fortunately, what hasn’t been gone missing in the upheaval and long lag between albums is Grandaddy’s unique sense of humor. Whereas many deliberately experimental groups can seem pretentious and ponderous, Grandaddy has always tempered their arty explorations with wit. Songs like “Stray Dog and the Chocolate Shake” and “The Go In and Go-For-It” uphold that tradition, as Lytle fills them with a colorful cast of characters—a football coach with a toothpick in his mouth, a limo driver with magic hair. The band’s odd sense of humor carries over to their business dealings as well. Turns out that Arm of Roger’s The Ham and Its Lily, the album from the fictitious band created by Grandaddy and put out by their fledgling label, Sweat of the Alps, was originally a fake version of The Sophtware Slump. Fairchild says that the band sent it to V2 following their signing to “freak them out, because, you know, it’s horrible, a complete joke.” (The joke is apparently on their fans as well, since they are presently selling the title for $12 through cdbaby.com.)
While the band clearly has a good rapport with their current record company, they’re not as quick to laugh about their former label. Lakeshore Entertainment, which used to be known as Will Records, released a b-sides record entitled Concrete Dunes while the band was working on Sumday and Fairchild claims that the band was never consulted about the project. Not only did the album contain a few songs that had already been compiled on The Broken Down Comforter Collection, but it also featured tracks that the band had hoped would never see the light of day. “We have no relationship with Will [Records] anymore,” says Fairchild. “Frankly, it kind of disgusts us to see their name on the back of our new record.” Apparently, the label continues to have a stake in Grandaddy’s albums despite the contract with V2.
Lingering business concerns aside, Grandaddy couldn’t be more pleased with their present position. “Jason has completely cemented his version of pop songwriting with this record and we’re so excited to be playing these songs right now,” boasts Fairchild. The confidence in the new tunes was evident on their recent tour with Pete Yorn. Following our interview, Fairchild and the rest of Granddaddy took the stage and devoted the entire performance to songs off Sumday—with the exception of one cover, one track from their second album, Under the Western Freeway, and perhaps most surprisingly only one selection from The Sophtware Slump. But before the audience had a chance to register the shock, Lytle had already put down his guitar. “Thanks. We’re Redheaded Stepchild.” Strange behavior for any other band, but, coming from Grandaddy, it all made perfect sense.