"If I Was a Studio Rat": An Interview With Grandaddy's Jason Lytle
With his band's first new album in a decade, Jason Lytle remarks that “my life and career would be so much different if I liked being indoors".
"As much as I hate to do this" was Jason Lytle's comical and straight open to our conversation. As a fan of his and Grandaddy and Admiral Radley, I wondered how much his shy but strong personality would come through in person. He did not disappoint in the slightest. He joked often, took extremely long pauses to think of his answers, and generally seemed uncomfortable with the idea that someone would want to ask him a bunch of questions.
Lytle was walking around in a field as we chatted, happier than he would have been in the Chicago snowstorm I found myself in on the other end. The occasion for the interview? Grandaddy is back with Last Place, their first record in ten years. When asked why he named the record that, he laughed and simply said "It's hilarious," as I moved on to another question he returned to the title and said it has a certain "underdog quality" he appreciated. Grandaddy has always seemed like underdogs. Like Weezer's younger brothers, more talented and with much more critical longevity.
1997 brought us the best Weezer song Rivers didn't write in "A.M. 180". They blossomed, and by 2000 they had their best record, comically titled The Sophtware Slump. It was such a step forward sonically and concept wise. They immediately were in the Radiohead/Flaming Lips top indie bands conversation. But, two more top-shelf records and they faded fast, not even touring 2006's Just Like the Fambly Cat. When asked about the progression of their sound, Lytle said that their back catalog is a reflection of who he is.
As his music has progressed through side projects and solo projects, I asked him how his location has affected his records: Modesto, Montana, Portland, and so on. "Yes, I would have to say I am sensitive to my environment," he agreed. From the almost punky pop skateboard Modesto vibe of Grandaddy to the somewhat more mature outdoor themed records he released solo, you can see the progression of his location. Dept. of Disappearance, Lytle's solo record from 2012, is perhaps the Montana record Sufjan never released.
As he has now relocated back to Modesto from Portland, things have come full circle just as the band seems to be coming full circle. Back to the city, he started in, to rejuvenate the band he created there. It's a bit too on the nose of a narrative; it seems almost too perfect for real life. The feeling is explored on "I Just Moved Here", a millennial anthem on never staying put, always being up for exploring. Trading a mortgage for movement. Trading the classic American dream, for the new American dream.
Through the years, the outdoors has remained one of his main themes, reflecting his life. Lytle remarked that "my love and fascination with the outdoors" has shaped his career. Even later saying "my life and career would be so much different if I liked being indoors." This has formed, he said, the spur of the moment nature of his recordings, many happening at the end of long days hiking and exploring.
He reminisced, "I tend to work in starts and stops" often stopping to ask himself "What am I doing?" It was interesting to hear an artist who comes across so assured on record questioning himself in the studio. Lytle made it clear he wasn't jumping out of his chair to make a new Grandaddy record. After their 2012 reunion tour, he seemed surprised by the overwhelmingly positive response but still had to be talked into making a new record.
Songs from Last Place hit on Lytle's ear for perfect pop, like on "That's What You Get For Getting' Outta Bed", which is Lytle's ode to a wasted day, with hooks for weeks. "Check Injin" is a classic tongue in cheek Grandaddy song highlighted Lytle's under the surface comedic abilities. "Songbird Son" is a spiritual successor to the Shins classic closer "Those to Come", except instead of romantic, it's a message of giving up on failed communication.
He even returns to the beloved character "Jed" from The Sophtware Slump. A song about the son of a computer sounds straight out a '90s Simpsons episode, but it works, not only as a sequel but as an emotional push for connection with machines. A kickback to their most popular record might seem like shallow fan service. But Lytle said he thought "People would get a kick out of it" and he imagined the listener "catching up, [as in] what happened to this guy?" It really is as simple as he said it. He liked the idea and wrote the song. Its not as immediate as its inspiring track, but it doesn't need to be. I asked if he would tour Chicago and he sarcastically replied "Its all about you, isn't it," happy to dodge the question with a joke than disappoint me.
"If I was a studio rat..." he would remark to open a paragraph, before likening his songs to "migratory birds." As reticent as he was to talk, he wasn't closed to any topic. I asked him about working with Mark Linkous and found out there was a friendship behind the work. Lytle said they would hang out, email and "do whatever together," and their friendship produced "Jaykub" a mostly forgotten and fantastic pop number that stood out, even on a record of clever and well-placed pop appearances.
When asked about festivals, he said he enjoyed "powering through" 45-minute sets of their best material. When asked about producing the new Band of Horses record, he explained how particular he is about who he works with, and hoped to do more, as long as it didn't interfere with his true love -- the outdoors. Perfectly summed up in his new song "Brush With the Wild", a confident and poppy rocker about love lost and priceless forgetting of all when overwhelmed with what is out there. Our conversation kept starting at music and ending on something about the outdoors. In fact, before he hung up, continuing both that thread and his great sense of humor he jokingly said: "get back to your blizzard."