Lytle, by Lytle

When Grandaddy dissolved in 2005, their lead singer disappeared to the mountains in Montana, essentially turning his back on the industry to reinvigorate his relationship with music. <b>Jason Lytle</b> sits down with <b>Matthew Young</b> to explain how he found the road back.

Feature by Matthew Young | 11 May 2009

King Creosote didn't just vanish for ten years in between the fall of the Khartoum Heroes and the release of his first album on Domino Records. Micah P. Hinson wasn't saved from self-destruction simply by the redemptive power of music. And Grandaddy's Jason Lytle didn't just run away to the wilderness to live in a cave for three years after the demise of one of the most successful indie bands of recent memory.

This is the vague story that percolated through to my mind when, after more than ten years of what any independent band would consider wild success, Grandaddy finally imploded. Lytle moved out to Montana and made a clean break ostensibly, it seemed, to retire. But like Hinson and Anderson before him, Lytle seems to bristle slightly when faced with the simplistic version of his own life story.

He didn't, of course, just vanish. “I did a lot of collaborative stuff, a lot of back seat things. I contributed a lot to M. Ward.; the Dangermouse and Sparklehorse record - I've got a couple of songs on there. I've done some commercial stuff, some remixes of old songs. I kept the studio moving, and kept myself busy which is a good thing, in between spending a lot of time outdoors and just enough time indoors to pay the bills.

“I wasn't sitting trying to find myself under the guide of some guru in India” he says, rather insistently. “I wasn't completely removed, but I was definitely on the backburner. I was like 'how do I fit into all this?'”

How indeed. For someone who has had a lot of success, Jason Lytle doesn't, in a sense, seem like a music person. Even at the height of Grandaddy's fame, he says, when they were playing all the big shows like Letterman and so on, it was “like we snuck in the back door. We were not designed to be overachievers. It was like Revenge of the Nerds.”

In interview, Lytle doesn't really talk much about music, either - at least not directly. And that's a good thing, because it's when you hear him talk about his life now that you start to get some sort of feeling for why Grandaddy fell apart.

“I moved to this town in Montana to be surrounded by mountains, basically. I've always read about expeditions and mountaineers and the outdoors, and that's what fascinates me. I don't read memoires of Keith Richards and Mick Jagger. I don't chain smoke, sitting on some dirty couch in a backstage area talking about the latest exploits of the Stooges, although I do appreciate the occasional Keith Moon story.”

“I was always reading outdoor magazines, and it's a big part of my life, actually to the point that I avoid it because it's not very rock 'n' roll; it's like my own personal, secret thing. But at some point I realised that this is what makes me tick, I need to be outdoors. In the grand scheme of things it's my balance. I can easily go on some four hour nature hike and listen to Kaiser Chiefs and Neon Neon on my iPod and it makes no sense with my surrounding environment, but somehow I'm making my own sense, and then I go home and work on music.”

So contrary to what tends to be the received wisdom, Lytle wasn't turning his back on music at all. He was simply, it appears, turning his back on what his life had become in order to repair his relationship with music. It was, basically, so he could continue, not so he could stop. “I like it when I can put a cap on things," he muses. "In big cities with too many stimuli I can't put a cap on it and I start blowing fuses.”

During our conversation Lytle takes a long time to formulate his sentences; the pauses are occasionally so long that I start talking again, only to realise that I'm actually interrupting. I think of someone that thoughtful and deliberate, and I think of the relentlessly intrusive side of life as a famous musician, and the two simply do not go together, and this is where I start to understand.

Lytle most definitely does not, in look or personality, come across as someone who would feel very comfortable with the industry side of the music business, or indeed with the celebrity side of success.

“In my personal life I'm very on top of my own finances; I love tools, I love accountability. I didn't get into this line of work to escape work. I like being on top of things. I think it carries over into the art. At some point you need a little help, but the people I end up really looking up to never got into this line of work so that eventually all they do is go to cocktail parties, give readings, and get flown around and hang out in Monaco. I love getting my boots dirty.”

This comes back once again to the industry itself. How much does it take, especially nowadays, to actually make a record? Not much, but to support the entertainment industry, which is what a lot of popular music gets subsumed into, you end up with an amazing system of hangers on, managers, handlers, organizers and assorted other fluffers circling around the single essential body: the band.

“My friend has a dad who is a car mechanic, and there's always three or four guys standing around, and one guy's doing the work and all these other guys are just standing around the cracker barrel telling stories, and I'm just not comfortable with that. And for some reason the music industry breeds it, people just like to stand around and talk shit about stuff. I just want to do good work, and I get in, and I can network to a degree, and then I'm out. Later.”

At the time of this interview Lytle's band has just returned from a stint at South by South West in Austin, Texas. I wonder how he took the sheer frenzy of the festival, especially taking into account that he seems like a man who has taken a long time and a lot of thought to push the music industry to a safe distance. Lytle's solo project is at a different level, however, and he tells me that playing in small, full clubs again was really enjoyable. In any case, he has learned his lessons. Instead of just flying in, playing the shows, and flying out again, he and the band took four days to drive from Montana to Texas. They listened to books on CD and stayed at shitty motels. They found a few skate parks along the way and stopped to go skateboarding.

Skateboarding figures pretty heavily in Lytle's life. He reckons that Grandaddy got out of the music biz at the right time, because just as they did, the whole industry seemed to descend into chaos, and he explains it by comparing it to skateboarding:

“If anything, these are trying times but in a good way. I saw this with skateboarding. Skateboarding has seen three or four big public 'Hey, skateboarding!' times where it's trendy again. I've seen big peaks and valleys, so it's easy for me to fall back on the skateboarding thing and see the same thing going on with music as well. A perfect example is Tony Hawk: he has probably seen three of these big peaks, and he remained credible throughout all of it; he never lost his head.”

It's when he talks like this that I remember how long Lytle's music has actually been part of my life. Grandaddy formed in 1992, when I was in high school. I first bought their music about five years later, in 1997, so I've been listening to them for over ten years now. And it's when I think about just how much has happened to me in those ten years that it becomes really obvious why musicians find it so irritating to hear people trot out the two-sentence version of their biographies: they don't even begin to tell the story.

And this is particularly true of someone like Jason Lytle, who isn't a 'rock star' and who doesn't seem to define himself by what record label he's signed to or how many albums he's sold or even, really, by his success. Consequently, we weren't really talking about the break-up of a successful band and the subsequent re-emergence of the lead singer, we were talking about the last fifteen years of someone's life.

Yours Truly, The Commuter is released via Epitaph on 18 May.