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

Jason Lytle talks to PopMatters about his years with Grandaddy, the importance of being organized, and the inspirations for new album Dept. of Disappearance.

Jason Lytle

Dept. of Disapperance

Label: Anti-
US Release Date: 2012-10-16
UK Release Date: 2012-10-15

“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.”


Spawning Ground

David Antrobus

In this ancient place of giant ferns and cedars, it seems the dead outnumber the living; the living fall away too quietly, too easily, taken away by stealth. There is tremendous natural beauty here, but its hold is tenuous, like moss clinging to rotting bark that will ultimately break and sink into the forest floor.

If I were to choose a visual symbol of my adopted home of Mission, an average-size town in the impossibly green western Canadian province of British Columbia, I would probably come up with a rotting carcass in a verdant pasture, a vision of death amid life. If this sounds harsh, hear me out and I'll tell my own truth about this place.

Clinging to the swift-scoured, salmon-haunted northern bank of the mighty Fraser River like an ailing lamprey to the deadly smooth flank of a Great White, this town, situated about 70 kilometers east of Vancouver, owes its entire existence to the water of its rivers and lakes, and to the wood harvested from the dense, surrounding forest. Settled in the mid-19th century, Mission has managed to survive despite two serious floods, a bridge collapse, the ominous early signs of malaise in the natural resource sector (did we really think the salmon and the great conifers were infinitely, magically renewable?), and a general reputation for unfocussed, redneck belligerence.

It all comes down to the Fraser River. The river has brought both food and trade; it provides a thoroughfare upon which the people of Mission (among others) float the great log booms that are the defeated renderings we humans fashion from the vast tracts of coastal rainforest (cedar, spruce, fir, hemlock) in our seemingly inexhaustible compulsion to exploit her resources and bring Mother Nature to her matronly knees — in part because (we believe) we can.

But the details about life in this town — the jeweler murdered in a robbery, the pretty high school graduate killed by a drunk driver, the 14-year-old suicide — in fact, all the jostling narratives crowding like paparazzi, each insisting on exclusive front page drama, bubble and coalesce and ultimately conspire to reveal the hidden Mission. There is a dark vortex lurking beneath the seemingly placid surface; the ominous shadow of something ancient beneath sun-dappled waters. Even the countless apparent banalities playing out on the town's rural borders disguise something deeper, more clandestine: the hobby farmer up in MacConnell Creek bemoaning his exhausted well; the entrepreneur hungry for an investment opportunity, eager to transform the hillsides of quiet, bucolic Silverdale into sudden, lockstep suburbia; the hiker mauled by a black bear in the mountains north of Steelhead. And always, the numerous lives derailed by marijuana grow-op busts. For all the gradual liberalisation of laws at the consumer end of this local economic rival to wood and water, those who supply the celebrated crop usually feel the full force of Canadian justice, anyway. There are times when nothing in Mission seems devoid of some kind of meaning.

A monastery sits above this town, a Benedictine haven of alternating silence and the evocative clatter of Sunday Matins bells. Its tower is phallic and disproportionately defiant, rising above the landscape like a giant darning needle, casting its intrusive shadow over the patchwork quilt of human settlement as if to stitch a final tableaux, symbolically and definitively, of the history of the original inhabitants and their mistreatment at the hands of the white settlers. Said inhabitants were (and are) the Stó:lo people (their language, Halq'eméylem, was an exclusively oral tradition, so the words are spelled phonetically nowadays). Stó:lo territory stretched along the river valley from present-day Vancouver to Yale in the Fraser Canyon, a 170 kilometer swath of virgin, fecund land, teeming with such totemic creatures as salmon, ancient sturgeon, deer, black bear, cougar, coyote, beaver, and wolf.

The Stó:lo, a Native American (or First Nations) people belonging to the larger group of Central Coast Salish, settled this area around 10,000 years ago. Europeans, attracted by rumours of gold, arrived in the 1850s. The resulting clash of cultures did not work out well for the indigenous people, and today they are still recovering from the trickle-down effects of at least one generation having been torn from its extended family. Residential schools, for which the monastery in Mission is a present-day symbol, were sites of a particularly virulent form of cultural genocide. First Nations children across Canada were taken from their homes, often exposed to physical and sexual abuse and occasionally murder, their mouths scoured with soap if they even dared to utter their own languages. St. Mary's in Mission, founded in 1861 and relinquished in 1984, was the last residential school in Canada to close.

There are 82 Indian Reserves in the Fraser Valley. There are eight correctional institutions, two in Mission alone (Aboriginal people represent around four percent of the Canadian population, yet account for 18 percent of the federally incarcerated population). Somebody — something? — really likes to control and segregate people, around here.

This fragmentation is reflected in the odd demographics of the town in general. Leaving their multicultural mark have been, at various times, Italians in Silverdale, Swedes in Silverhill, the French in Durieu, the Japanese in the early years of the fruit industry (as in the US, the Japanese were rewarded for their labours by being sent to internment camps in 1942), and immigrants from India in the early days of the shake and shingle mills. (The Western Red Cedar, with its straight grain, durability, and imperviousness to the incessant rain, while inspiring Native culture with the quixotic grandeur of totem poles, grabbed more prosaic European imaginations in the form of the shake and shingle industry, which provides reliable roofing and siding components for homes.)

In some ways, Mission is a vibrantly conflicted example of Canada's multicultural mosaic. With just over 30,000 residents (of which 3,000 are First Nations) mostly crammed into a relatively small area, bordered by the river to the south and the mountains to the north, mill workers and biker gangs, artists and Mennonites, muscle car boys and summer folkies, soccer moms and Sikh Temple-goers, merchants and pagans, Freemasons and caffeine addicts, street people and Renaissance Faire anachronisms all rub shoulders with varying degrees of friction, occasionally achieving harmony in spite of themselves. Perhaps the relative accord is due to the overall youth of the population (73 percent are under 35-years-old).

Earlier, I mentioned the presence of death. Why? Because it is everywhere here, its proximity eerily palpable. It inhabits the sly rustle of the towering conifers. It taints the air with the swampy pungency of skunk cabbage in springtime. It hums incessantly in the sub-woofer buzz of the hydroelectric dams. It shuffles along in the downcast, scuff-shoed limp of a lone child returning to a chilly home. From a distance, even the monks in their dark cassocks, knit-browed and bound by their vows of silence, seem eerily close to the Reaper caricature. For actual evidence of its pervasiveness, though, one need not go far back in time.

The bodies of three women were dumped between here and neighbouring Agassiz back in '95. Suicides and the furtive aftermath of murder, barely registering in the town at all, have spattered Burma Road, a potholed strip of rocks and dirt skirting the shore of Stave Lake. In 1997, Doug Holtam of Silverdale (a small community west of Mission) bludgeoned his pregnant wife and six-year-old daughter to death with a hammer. Against all odds, his young son Cody survived the attack. In 1995, a drunk driver, leaving in his wake not only the proverbial outpouring of community grief but also a devastated twin sister, killed 18-year-old Cindy Verhulst during the week she and her peers were busy celebrating their high school graduation. There was the little boy who slipped away from his day care centre and drowned in the swollen Fraser River. The 12-year-old boy found hanging from a school washroom towel dispenser. The elderly pilot whose body was discovered in dense forest a full two years after he had gone missing. And there was Dawn-Marie Wesley, a 14-year-old Native girl who took her own life in the basement of her home after enduring relentless bullying at school; barely noticed in life, Oprah material in death.

As disturbing and tragic as these stories are, however, there was little precedent for the breaking news in the summer of 2003. This one will need a little background.

Since the mid-'80s, women have been disappearing from Vancouver's Downtown Eastside, Canada's poorest postal code. Partly due to the initial incompetence of the Vancouver Police Department and jurisdictional issues with the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP), partly due to the amorphous (read: investigative nightmare) nature of the disappearances, and partly because so few people cared about missing hookers and addicts, more and more women went missing, with nary a ripple in the public consciousness (or conscience). In fact, as of this writing, a horrifying total of 65 individuals are currently on the Missing Women list. For years, law enforcement didn't even refer to their disappearance as crimes, and it wasn't until 1998 that an official task force was even assigned to investigate.

Finally, in February 2002, Robert William Pickton, a pig farmer from the Vancouver suburb of Port Coquitlam (approximately half way between Vancouver and Mission), was charged with two counts of first-degree murder of two of the missing women. More charges followed in the months ahead. Pickton currently faces 15 counts of first-degree murder with seven more expected. DNA samples of 31 women have been linked to his 10-acre farm. In short, potentially the largest serial murder case in Canadian history is now underway just 35 kilometers from Mission.

Given the frequent intrusion of death into the area, I suppose it should have surprised no one when, on 20 July 2003, the missing women's joint task force announced they would be searching an area of wetlands near Mission. Just south of Highway 7 (aka the Lougheed Highway) and the man-made body of water known as Silvermere (itself the subject of a delightfully creepy urban legend or two), the area is basically marshland bisected by a meandering slough. Immediately following the announcement of the search, the site was fenced off with temporary chain link, and the highway's wide shoulders — traditionally home to roadside fruit and flower vendors hawking their locally grown products — were suddenly and unequivocally off-limits.

Driving this formerly innocuous stretch of blacktop, especially under the after-dusk arc lights, with their swirling bug armadas and liquid island oases in the dark, now touched off an indescribably eerie feeling. It was a relief when, on 8 August, the entire ensemble of law enforcement personnel (numerous forensic investigators plus 52 anthropologists) took up their tools again and vanished. They gave no word of what they had uncovered or even whether anything had been found at all, leaving our community to its familiar, fitful dreams once more. Mission's part in this unfolding story, as it relates to the wider world, remains amorphous and indistinct, with its usual chilly glints of barely suppressed horror flickering amid the overall grey.

Here, it seems, empirical proof takes a back seat to rumour and anecdote every time.

Sometimes, while hiking alone in the tree-bejeweled mountains west of Steelhead, east of the dams, I have suddenly felt the fetid breath of graves, a harsh raven-shadow lurking behind the abundant emerald and olive greens of this sodden paradise. Inexplicable noises in the deep tangled brush; distant rending, gnashing. Something skulking and hungry. With all the assured rationality of the white male immigrant, I've been known to smirk at the idea of ghosts, and yet stumbling along a jade-tunnel trail bristling with old man's beard and devil's club, I've occasionally recoiled from something, the skin of my arms prickling with gooseflesh. There are spirits here, all right, something not too far removed from the capricious tricksters who inhabit indigenous myth. Spectres of a kind, nursing some nameless, hollow ache of unrequited need rendered manifest, paradoxically, by a landscape dripping with life.

The closest we Europeans get to perceiving this (however inadvertently) can be heard in the low extended rumble of the nighttime freight trains as they call out in the dark, hunching parallel to Railway Avenue long after most residents are asleep, lonely as a buffalo herd that's somehow seen and almost comprehended its own approaching ruin.

Of course, my telling is by no means the complete, illustrated history of Mission, a town that can barely hold onto its own name (since 1884, take your pick: St. Mary's Mission, Mission Junction, Mission City, Village of Mission, Town of Mission, and currently the District of Mission). Not by a long shot; this lurid splash portrays but a small corner of the canvas. How can any one person paint the full picture of a community, after all? No, despite my perverse zeal to stir the viscous mud below the bright surface, great deeds and happy memories adorn the history of this place, too, adding the sparkle and lustre of life above and hopefully beyond the stillness and silence. And yet, no matter how much joie de vivre this community may exhibit on its special days, like a red-carpet celebrity when the cameras start rolling — whether it be the laughing children with their maple leaf flags and pancake stacks celebrating Canada Day up at Heritage Park, or the benevolently stoned crowd at the annual Folk Festival, or even the choked air and sharp adrenaline at the Raceway — surely one thing cannot go unremarked: nearly half of those missing-presumed-dead women were of Aboriginal descent. This adds one more layer of indifference to a jaded populace apparently caught somewhere between the small town rural cruelties of its past and the uneasy suburban shrugs of its gathering future.

I know this. I worked with the street kid population here for years, witnessed their hardscrabble resilience. Few people ever gave a genuine damn about the plight of these children, even though some of the throwaways had not yet reached puberty. Two-thirds of street-involved youth in Mission are Aboriginal. Many are sexually exploited by family members, neighbors, pimps and selected citizens, but few speak of it. Some of these kids head west to Vancouver for a date with misery, stretching already tenuous community ties to the breaking point. My job as a street worker was to speak for these lost children, to ensure some semblance of the child welfare system would kick in through advocacy with social workers or teachers or families or counselors or probation officers. In a world in which the so-called "bottom line" — money and the politics of money — has become drawn too garishly, these already marginalized youth were, and continue to be, largely abandoned by a system designed to protect them. Sometimes I stand beside the town's failing heart, its run down main drag (1st Avenue), taking in the pawnshops and thrift outlets and dollar stores, and I'm convinced I truly hate this place... but only because I've loved it so deeply. In life: death. In death: life. The great inscrutable cycle.

In this way, the perennially troubled summer Pow Wow, always skirting the edge of ruin (corrupt, inept politics and sporadic funding, take a bow), yet often prevailing regardless, seems to me a far more accurate symbol of the clutching, ragged breaths that secretly haunt the sleep of this community. The fleeting vibrant colours of traditional dancers whirling in bright regalia — poignant as the plumage of endangered birds, flying amongst the high wailing melismas of the Northern-style singing and the vital, aorta-punching drums of the circles — somehow speaks more of an unavenged wound in time and place, set amid the cruelty that underlies so much beauty, than anything else this conflicted human settlement seems capable of offering.

An absurd contrast, really — this vibrant gathering and the judgmental silence of all those surrounding stories of the dead — the whole place holding its breath waiting for these mortal sorrows to purge themselves before the pristine lawns and asphalt and vinyl sidings are allowed to spread and eventually suffocate every fucking thing that ever felt like something here.

For here, tenacious as the town itself alongside relentless churning waters, the living will no doubt cling to hope and the perpetual dream of life until the muscled river — unnoticed, stealthy, taken for granted — wrestles away everything (horror, joy, splintered wood and the final word) at long last, sending it all tumbling toward the planet's dark and pitiless seas for good.

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