“I’m just always trying to find balance”: An Interview with Jason Lytle

Jason Lytle
Dept. of Disapperance

“When my work flurries happen, they happen really fast.”

Jason Lytle is talking about his recording methods, but he might as well be referring to his activity in the late summer and fall of last year. In the space of a few months, his band Grandaddy (defunct since 2006) reformed for a series of live shows, he released his second solo album, Dept. of Disappearance, and he went on tour to promote it. That several reviews of the album make a big deal of that word “disappearance” is not unexpected, considering the many overwritten reports of Grandaddy’s demise from the last decade. But this says more about critics’ tendency for drama than it does the man behind the songs. Despite his former band’s legacy having grown in esteem and producing his strongest collection of songs since 2005, Lytle’s demeanor is marked by balance and an appreciation of everyday inspirations like a well-tuned studio and natural scenery.

A few years ago, Lytle relocated to Bozeman, Montana from his native Modesto, California. It’s up to the listener to decipher how the new geography informs the lyrics of his solo work. But there’s little denying the persistence of Grandaddy trademarks in Lytle’s compositions, which are equal parts Jeff Lynne and Mark Linkous. Singularly aware of how to merge high and low fidelity, Lytle is a home-studio wizard, and he says his top priority in the studio is organization.

“Usually what I’m trying to do is get all the gear super sorted. Brand new cabling, making sure it’s short cable lengths and that the most-used gear is connected by really high quality cabling. Usually it’s laying out the studio making sure that everything is really easily accessible. You know, I’m writing lists a hundred miles an hour and I’m just knocking the songs off left and right, so I need everything to be working and sounding good [with] minimal setup time and breakdown time.”

From a technological standpoint, Lytle says his studio does evolve, but gradually. “It’s definitely always evolving. I got some new gear. Most of it is quality modification like interface stuff — I made sure that converters were upgraded. . . . I’m always selling and buying, but it’s always little, minor upgrades, just making sure — there’s that whole rule, if something sits around for a couple years and doesn’t get used you need to get it out of the studio. I guess I’ve been doing the home recording thing for fifteen-ish years now, so I’ve just gotten used to the fact that I’m always looking at things, kind of like tending to your land I guess: One section and moving onto another section, bit by bit by bit, until everything’s doing what it should be doing. But it’s all in the name of working fast.”

Though he is very accomplished at home recording, he continues to cite the benefits of the professional recording studio, saying the desired outcome of a song should dictate the approach to recording it. “It can only be based on a case by case scenario. I hear too many songs throughout my library of music — songs that I think really fell short because they were done too hastily. I was in too big of a hurry. I was ill-equipped. I was feeling the inspiration but I was looking around and didn’t have the correct tools, any number of things. So I think it kind of depends. Maybe back in the day that’s where the benefit of having a producer really shined through. He could probably look at something and say, ‘this is totally going to come across as done in a scrappy version’ or ‘we could make this demo work’, or ‘this is almost there but we need to bring this into a good studio and open up the sound a bit’. I guess it would be great if you had the equipment and skills and ability to either shrink things down accordingly or make them really huge sounding depending on what the song required. Obviously the hardest part is to make them sound huge. It’s much easier to make things sound small.”

Sensing that he would have an opinion on the loudness war, I ask him to explain (in his words) why people shouldn’t confuse ‘loud’ with ‘huge’. Calling that confusion “one of the biggest misconceptions” in music production, he explains, “The more guitars and the more frequencies, the more density that starts to occur, things actually start getting smaller. Your brain has a hard time making sense of that fact, but it’s true. A good example sometimes is you can hear the way a compressor will kick in on a radio. Say you’re listening to the radio, and all there is are a vocal and a guitar and it sounds big and rich. And then it all comes apart when the drums and guitars and everything kicks in. The compressor completely squashes everything to make all that sound fit, and it actually ends up sounding way smaller than the guitar and the vocal. And that’s kind of an everyman’s sort of example of why it doesn’t always quite make sense that thirty guitars and a fifteen piece drum set don’t sound as good as one guy and an acoustic guitar.”

This discussion of quality and quantity prompts a question that hangs over the Grandaddy discography. With so many Grandaddy songs out there, why were there so few proper albums? “That is a weird one. It’s a representation of the time, you know? I think a big reason why a lot of that started to happen is because our record label in the UK. There was this tactic of releasing multiple versions of the single. But in order to do that, you had to create extra B-sides. That allowed them to sell more. And it was totally underhanded and stupid, but at the time it was one of those things where it was, ‘okay that’s what everyone’s doing’. So it was sort of frustrating to me because I was always on tour and I was scrambling to come up with these B-sides and somehow get them recorded, so that kept me busy/frustrated for a while. So sure, there are all these illegitimate kids that are running around all over the place who don’t have a proper home. I guess it was also an opportunity to get rid of all the stuff that I don’t think was worthy of being on an album to begin with.”

If given the chance to redirect the energy it took to create those extra songs into compiling an album, Lytle says he wouldn’t bother, as the process allowed him to grow as an artist. He says, “Another purpose that stuff served is that the whole time this was happening I was learning more and more about recording. And possibly the fact that it’s not going to be on the album, lent to a little more experimentalism or excitement or just trying weird stuff. Maybe I would have been a tiny bit more conservative, trying to get proper guitar and drum sounds on certain albums — maybe I [would’ve been] a little less likely to be experimental.”

As a listener, one of the joys (and frustrations) of this wealth of non-album tracks was the pursuit of songs that were hard to obtain, or only rumored to exist, or half-heard or misidentified. Because the various B-sides and one-offs weren’t organized, and seemed to outnumber the album tracks, the task of ‘completing’ the band’s catalogue became a challenge. Lytle says he can relate. “Yeah, sometimes I forget all about that part of it. There’s nothing wrong with a little mystery. I remember, I used to — before the Internet — I’d be driving or sitting in my car in a parking lot, some song would come on and I’d go, ‘Oh my God’ and just be completely bowled over, blown away, and of course the DJ doesn’t say what it is. And there’s no way to figure out — so I would etch it into my brain. And I’ve had songs that I carried around for years, just hoping that someday I’d wander into the path of them and I’d find them again. There’s a magic there that is something of a bygone era anymore, with the Internet and the apps that you can hold your phone up to the radio.”

That Grandaddy’s trajectory coexisted with the development and popularization of Shazam and other similar applications is fitting, as Lytle’s lyrics and soundscapes were often commenting on the double-edged effects of technology and modernization. But critical responses to the band sometimes over-interpreted that one aspect of the music, positioning him as a kind of seer or prognosticator of the link between technology and alienation. Comparisons of The Sophtware Slump to Radiohead’s OK Computer only added to the dystopian reading. Lytle interprets this as a subjective view of his work by city-dwelling individuals who were already inclined to have those fears.

“It’s mostly people in cities that have that sort of grim reality as a prediction. I had some people thinking that I had some sort of answers because I was, like you said, making some sort of commentary on it. If anything, I was just like, ‘Well this is how it is. This is where it’s going.’ But I think, if anything, where I stood on the whole thing was, yes, I accept this, this is fine. I am right in the midst of the creation and the invention of the computer age. And it’s an amazing, incredible, mind-blowing invention, and look what people are choosing to do with it, you know? And if anything, it’s just me kind of sitting back and watching what people are deciding to do with this incredible tool.”

The doomster characterization of Lytle and Grandaddy overlooked the frequent use of humor within such observations about modern life. See for example 2005 EP Excerpts from the Diary of Todd Zilla, which is a simultaneously funny and poignant prelude to a band breakup. Presently, however, Dept. of Disappearance does dial back some of the humor in exchange for a more consistent atmosphere.

“I definitely didn’t go into it trying to make a serious record. I think that it’s all about the art, or the balance, of writing lyrics. You find that in the way you structure conversations. I’m just always trying to find balance. I think too much joking — too many silly little jabs — can end up distracting from painting a scene or achieving a mood. But sometimes you need that to bring it back down to earth. I think I was hell-bent on trying to achieve a mood, in trying to reach a feeling with a lot of this stuff. That may explain why there’s not as much tongue in cheek stuff, but I could go through the songs individually right now and probably pick out a lot of stuff that I find is hilarious — that you either overlook or you just didn’t think is as funny as I did.”

Lytle’s lyrical focus on nature also seems to have grown stronger on this release. “I could say that it’s more about mountains than anything else. It’s about time spent in the mountains, adventures that have taken place by me and other people in the mountains. But it’s also — they’re just so mysterious and scary and wonderful. That is a source of inspiration: Something that you look at from a distance, or even as you’re heading toward it; the anxiety that picks up. It’s a pretty endless source of magic for me. I spend as much time wandering on the trails, in the hills, in the back country as I possibly can when I’m not working or travelling. A lot of people have different ways of getting to ‘that place’, but I have found that the combination of physical exertion and being in ever-changing, somewhat rugged terrain is a pretty good place for my brain to be.”

One song that best represents his ability to synthesize nature and isolation and mood is “Hangtown,” a mysterious almost-Country track from Dept. of Disappearance. At the risk of spoiling the mystery, I ask him to provide some commentary on how and/or where the idea for the song emerged. “I don’t actually remember exactly writing the lyrics, but I do remember when I was working on the song, I kept referring back to this little road trip that I took. There’s a little town in Montana called Bannack and it’s considered a ghost town. It’s actually sort of marketed as that, tourism-wise, but it was totally off season, and it’s one of the nicest and most preserved ghost towns in the country, I think.

“But it was a grey, overcast day, off season, and I was the only person there. And I’m wandering the streets of this ghost town, and they had a hanging gallows there that was once a functioning one. And it really helps if I can go back to a different place when I’m writing a song, to refer back to some sort of image and kind of get myself out of wherever it is I’m sitting at the point I’m working on it. So I kept going back to Bannack, Montana and that’s all I can remember, you know?

“I think at some point the melody and the name of the song came at the same time. And I realized, once again, my undying fear of sounding too much like one thing. I was like, ‘This has the possibility of sounding way too country. Not only am I not going to ask somebody to play pedal steel on it. I’m going to start the song off with all of these sorts of interesting, otherworldly synthesizer sounds.’ And then not only that, but try to make a song about a “hangtown” where a hanging actually takes place and it’s from the perspective of the tree that the guy is hanging from. That’s all I can remember for fear of completely erasing the magic of it.”

Lytle’s tour for Dept. of Disappearance included some dates with Band of Horses and some shows he describes as “scaled down” to himself, “a drum machine, piano, synthesizers, some samplers and a buddy . . . doing these tweaked renditions of songs on the album.” His tour continues in Europe throughout February. When asked about the possibility of new material from Grandaddy, he returns again to his principle of balance. “As far as the Grandaddy stuff goes, I’ve been kind of going back and forth. I have a feeling at some point I’m going to get really excited about the idea of making another Grandaddy record. I just have to be really careful about there not being too many weird demands or obligations that accompany it or might take the fun out of it. I’ve got to be really careful about that one.”