Eleven years since their last album, The Skinny catch up with Grandaddy frontman Jason Lytle to discuss the band's collapse and resurrection
It’s a strange thing, speaking to Jason Lytle via Skype. This was the man who, at the turn of the century, foresaw a digital society that was riddled with anxiety. He wrote songs about building alcoholic robots in his kitchen, about table top devices through which you could dial-up live video streams of any place on earth or the colonised planets beyond, and about time-travelling pilots – all of this, at a time when something like Skype was barely conceivable. Yet, here he is: coming through the laptop speakers, loud and clear, beamed digitally from the other side of our planet. It’s all I can do to refrain from asking: “How’s it going, 2000 man?”
The Sophtware Slump, released by Grandaddy in the year 2000, captured the mood of uncertainty felt about a swiftly modernising world as it moved into a new millennium. It was widely-cited alongside OK Computer as a work of prescience, one which explored the complex relationship between man and machine, and it was largely the handiwork of Lytle, who got the band together to play the songs he had written in a barn in the middle of nowhere. Unlike Radiohead’s offering, it was playful, fun and served with a large dollop of irony.
Lytle said at the time that he was sorry that the Y2K bug didn’t hit – perhaps dreaming wistfully of the material such an event would have yielded. But his album kind of inadvertently imagined what the world would have looked like if it had. The Sophtware Slump envisioned the blurring lines between the digital and analogue worlds, often with Orwellian outcomes. Speaking from his home in Modesto, California, he remembers it as a “weird little album,” but one of the most exciting times of his life.
“I had stupid, messed up, backwards recording procedures,” he says. “Singing about anything, throwing whatever at the wall and I think that definitely influenced the songs that ended up on the album too. It was a really exciting time for all of us, because I saw a lot of potential for a lot of wild fun and weirdness.”
The band went on to record two further albums, the excellent Sumday and the underwhelming Just Like the Fambly Cat, before splitting up in 2006. Their collapse was largely the result of Lytle’s struggles with the demands of being head of a successful, touring rock band – which made the news of a comeback record and tour a little surprising.
“The travelling with Grandaddy was a big contributor to me having to shut all that down. I’m not good with too much noise, too much chaos. I can handle little stints, my preferred tactic is to get in and get out. I have learned even at this point that somewhere between two and three weeks I have to check the fuses, I have to be worried. I start wearing down, things start going awry somewhere between two and three weeks.
"I just don’t deal well with, like… mechanical sounds, bustle, stimulation, it’s too much. I have to have a quiet space, preferably something that has no evidence of humans. It’s the chaos, I mean chaos in a manmade way,” he says.
Lytle was dealing with these stresses by “pouring booze” into his body, until that turned into a problem of its own. He was the first to arrive at the party, last to leave, drowning his sorrows, finally finding himself on the verge of a breakdown. “It was just the pressure, and the pace and all of it, it was on the verge of snuffing out my love for music too, which would have been the biggest crime in my mind.”
He got out before a total collapse ensued, and moved to Bozeman, in the Montana mountains. Bozeman was the setting for part of the philosophical novel Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. In the book, Phaedrus is a mysterious academic teaching at the local college, who becomes obsessed with his own efforts to define “quality”, escaping to the mountains and eventually, in Chicago, suffering a complete mental breakdown and receiving electroshock therapy. Thankfully, Lytle never reached such depths, but his relationship with “the back country” of Bozeman was a contributing factor to his recovery and plays as crucial a role in his story as it did in Phaedrus’.
“I do feel like I benefitted a lot from that, creatively,” he explains. “I had these incredibly intense work stints and then I was like: ‘Obviously I need a break here because I’m going fucking nuts.’ I would head up to the hills and next thing you know, all these blockages, all these things I am trying to figure out start revealing themselves. Plus I am thinking differently. I am completely out of that controlled electronic, overthinking scenario, into one where I could be all of a sudden very concerned about falling off a cliff, dying of hypothermia or getting eaten by a grizzly.”
Having grown up skateboarding around the agricultural community of Modesto (to which he has recently returned), Lytle was made to feel claustrophobic by the harsh, urban schedule of touring. In Montana, he was able to rediscover part of his freedom. He says that the outdoors “wakes up a part of a lot of us that exists, that a lot of people might not be able to find as well.” In this, he echoes the thesis of another book, The Outrun by Amy Liptrot. In this memoir from 2016, the Scottish author returns to Orkney having sunken into alcoholism amid the pressures of city life in London. On the island, she discovers a passion for nature she previously supressed and this, in turn, feeds her creative side.
Similarly, Lytle recorded two excellent solo albums in Montana and was, for the most part, happy walking in the hills, cross-country skiing, “just chipping away at music, getting the occasional project, staying afloat.” After producing a record for Band of Horses (Why Are You OK?, 2016), he realised that he needed something to call his own. It was around this time, too, that his marriage collapsed. Having previously resurrected Grandaddy for some Sophtware Slump anniversary gigs in 2012, he had been approached by band members and management to reform and record, advances he had previously resisted. Now, however, the timing was right. The new album, Last Place, became “a matter of survival”.
The first thing to say about the record is that it is seamless: it contains some of the best Grandaddy tracks to date and stylistically, is inseparable from their earlier work (Lytle’s solo albums, too, are sonically consistent). He explains that when he was wondering what direction to take things, he looked to the past for guidance. “I was continually referring back to Grandaddy,” Lytle says. “It was kind of cool, I went back to ‘Grandaddy school’ to make another Grandaddy record. In my mind, it’s a pure place. It’s not much of a stretch, it’s kind of what I have been doing for a while and a lot of it draws of influences that I was growing up with, it’s kind of a natural process to me.”
For those unfamiliar with the band, Grandaddy’s sound is somewhere between ELO and Mercury Rev. It’s space-rock, delivered in a trucker cap and a beard. Last Place explores some of the themes that fascinated Lytle back in the day, technology, existentialism, sci-fi, and the human condition. Like previous works, it is emotional, it is funny, it is weird and it is, occasionally, very sad. Despite his qualms about digitalism and society, in music Lytle views technology as “another tool in the toolbox”, he says, “to get the thoughts out of my head in the best sounding and most expeditious way as possible”.
He talks of the turn of the century being a time when he was inspired as much by the latest recording gear as he was by the world around him. Nowadays, he needs to switch off and unplug regularly, but his obsessive nature means that he comes back and immediately has to clear his inbox. “I feel like continually, the wind is blowing, the leaves are falling and rather than letting it all pile up and dealing with it later, I am out there with my rake, just raking. The wind keeps blowing, the leaves keep falling, I keep raking,” he says, laughing. In his late-40s, his anxieties are not getting any better.
He doesn’t have kids, he says, and so ploughs his obsessions into other areas: “I end up obsessing over some pretty weird stuff,” Lytle explains. “I have this one thing right now where if I open the door and the handle isn’t facing towards me… well, I have to figure out the perfect number so that when I open the door the handle is facing me. I have all these strange little OCD things that have always been there and they’re getting worse and worse and worse. It’s like this fussy old man kind of thing that’s partly funny, but is very concerning.”
For now, he seems content enough. Grandaddy has a two-record deal with 30th Century Records, Danger Mouse’s label, and he’s about to take the band on the road. Jason Lytle is excited, and rightly so. It’s good to have him back.
Last Place is released on 3 Mar via 30th Century Records. Grandaddy play Potterrow, Edinburgh, 23 Mar; Irish Centre, Leeds, 27 Mar; Albert Hall, Manchester, 28 Mar.