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Grandaddy Looks Within

 
In the summer of 2003, three years after the release of their heralded breakthrough album The Sophtware Slump, Modesto CA space-pop quintet Grandaddy returned with a new album, Sumday, which featured a whole lot more 'pop' than 'space.' For those looking for a second helping of The Sophtware Slump's blend of post-millennium tension and often spooky electronics, this might have been come as a disappointment, but those who listened with fresh ears, heard a surprisingly gentle, disarmingly buoyant song set that, despite a lingering preoccupation with technology, was ultimately about the band, and especially frontman Jason Lytle, looking for themselves. Warm, emotional and insanely melodic, Sumday was quietly one of the finer records of 2003. I sat with Lytle in the bowels of New York City's Hammerstein Ballroom before a Grandaddy show last June to discuss the band's recently constructed Modesto home studio, writer's block, double meanings, their new label Sweat of the Alps and being from the Central Valley.

Better Propaganda's friend Jesse Ashlock chats with Grandaddy's Jason Lytle.

Better Propaganda: So the album kind of started when you bought the house, right?

Jason Lytle: Yeah, I got the house and I had a hard time just diving into it. As a matter of fact I didn't really want to do anything at all. I was kind of fed up with everything that surrounded music. Music had kind of turned into something that I didn't like anymore, so a lot of it was just kinda doing nothing. Trying to filter out the band and bring back the good and try to trick myself into liking music again.

BP: What did you have to do?

JL: Well I did nothing, really, I just did normal stuff, you know?

BP: What did you do to trick yourself into liking music again?

JL: Well, the moving thing? Just the assembling of a studio and the cleaning of the old house and the whole storage thing, it's just really mundane, repetitive. I think a lot of that had to do with it, and sort of outfitting the new house, that was equally as time-consuming. We did a lot of construction and a lot of buying and selling of old gear and buying of new gear and research for how the studio was going to be and all that stuff just takes so long. At the same time we're trying to redo the new website. From a distance it seems like nothing is going on when in fact it is. And plus I got pretty well into the construction of the studio and I realized I didn't have any fucking songs.

BP: But you did came up with some?

JL: I just all of a sudden unloaded all these songs, in demo form. And one thing I did there too is I actually acquired the same four-track that I had started recording on in the first place, just as another little trick to get myself back into it. I can really work this thing, I can bang out a demo of a song in literally three hours. If I have a rough idea of how the arrangement is, it's super easy for me to work on this machine, so I wanted to make the writing process as easy as possible. So literally within three months I had anywhere between 20 and 30 new songs, so that was good, cause I had that to draw from. And the songs that ended up on the record I narrowed down from those, what I considered to be the strongest, the most impactive, for me.

BP: It seems like your songwriting focus changed from the last album. You're a storyteller, there's narrative-based stories in a lot of your songs, or scraps of them. But lyrically I feel like there's less about the machinery and more about the people on the new album. Do you think that's true?

JL: Yeah. Probably an obvious example of that is the whole 'Jed the Humanoid' thing. That's a big one. And I look back on that and that's I don't know, mabye that's the one thing I told myself I was really going to dial in the lyrics, not one word was going to be wasted, and I was really into the idea of being very concise lyrically and I think there may have been a little more confidence this time to where I wasn't so reliant on inanimate objects or somebody else to kind of take the blame for me. The whole 'Jeb the Humanoid' is basically about boozing too much. I've struggled with the alcohol for a long time. I don't know, it was a lot easier for me to live through him than sing, 'Ooh, I gotta quit drinking.' That's no fun.

BP: At the same time, you were talking about no wasted words and it seems like there's no wasted notes at the same time. You guys have really distilled what Grandaddy is all about in these new songs. As a result of that it's not a pop record, but there's this perfect pop quality, there's an incredible melodic aspect

JL: I'm glad you recognize that, because my working process had a lot to do with each song. I worked on each song, specifically that song, until it was done. I didn't jump around and I didn't go, 'Oh, I'm having problems with that one and maybe I'll go add some piano on that one or some distorted maracas on this one.' A lot of times it helped in terms of focus, but it also got very nerve-wracking because sometimes I couldn't get anything done and what you may know as writer's block. Downtime would exist from anywhere from one day to maybe two to three weeks, sometimes. So of course the whole time you have this guilt that's just pounding away on you. And you want to be working, but I was very insistent on not working unless I was really into what I was doing, I needed to be excited.

BP: So a lot of time I'd make rough mixes of these unfinished songs and I would carry them around and I'd listen to them and I'd kind of live with them and I'd redo parts and I'd go, 'That's not so effective.' I was really, really focused on making sure the song was as complete as it could possibly be at the end of it. And I think that's an approach that I've never taken to this degree with other songs?

JL: And sometimes it's fun to have the stray ends that are kind of unanswered. And believe me, there's still plenty of that on B-side material and alternate stuff, which we will have the ability to release. But just for this as a body of work I was really into that, and I needed that focus too, I needed it to be different from the other albums in some kind of way. In my mind, it was that way that it was different.

BP: Maybe I'm reading too much into this, but the whole 'Sumday' double-entendre of this wistful 'someday' and this implication that you're summing up experiences and looking to the future. Is there any validity to that?

JL: Very, very much so. I wish more people got that. They don't really get it. I just found myself coming back to the word 'some' and it was always a summing up and this is the end result of a long work in progress. And just of course the word 'someday' itself which is that longing and hopefully I'll get there and that whole thing. And then of course I love the idea, similarly with the last album [The Sophtware Slump], having an exclusive word that can only be attached to this body of work and nothing else that exclusivity I kinda like that idea as well.

I've had fun throughout the last albums at kind of making up words that weren't words, but you look at them and you go, I know what that means, but they're not real words. I'm sure some writers do that, plenty of them do, I don't know who they are, but for some reason it just seems there's something very personal about that and it's fun too.

BP: I'm sure you don't, but other people seem to see you as custodians of this Central Valley thing and starting the new label seems like part of that. Why don't you talk about Sweat of the Alps and the bands on it?

JL: There were multiple reasons for doing the Sweat of the Alps thing. I haven't actually had a whole lot of input. For me it was good to have the band preoccupied doing stuff that we all believed in, but having their hands in something. I came up with the logo and the name for the label and that was about my only contribution.

The thing that I'm most excited about is that I go on these tangents where I write certain kinds of songs and they have absolutely nothing to do with the stuff that we're known for. And they're usually kind of regionally based, very specific subject matter. You would really get it if you came from the areas that we came from. And I had all kinds of crap like that, everything ranging from one-minute-long vignette-type songs to big sad crappy epics. It's stuff that the label wouldn't touch, so it's stuff that we'll actually be able to put out on this label because they don't want to touch it, and they don't consider it to be competing formats or anything like that.

[Sweat of the Alps band] Built Like Alaska of course is a band that we've been playing with for ages. There's just a built in thing, be it subject matter, or the style of music, just that expansive longing for something that exists other than here and them even more so. It's just having that ability to do that stuff. And there's not a huge obligation really. It's just we come up with some front money for a bunch of CDs and artwork and stuff and just put it out there and hopefully whatever exposure we get can help these people out as well.

BP: There are other regional scenes that the music doesn't seem as tied into the region. I don't know that there's an easy answer to this, but what do you think there is about where you come from that causes bands to create these odes to place?

JL: I don't really know. I just know that I've always noticed a sort of inferiority complex in terms of being from California. You always go abroad or you go anywhere else and it's like, Oh, California, you're written off as California. And it's so much different where we're from, even from San Francisco, we're just removed enough. I'll actually go to San Francisco, I'll end up at a show or I'll end up somewhere talking to somebody and there's some transplant that moved from somewhere else and they're claiming San Francisco as their new home and they're making fun of me cause I'm from Modesto, when in fact I'm this California native that was actually born in Modesto. I actually grew up part-time in San Francisco as well, and I'm getting slagged for being from Modesto.

There's always just been a sort of misunderstanding in terms of where we're from and knowing that there hasn't really been anyone that's made any sort of impact anywhere other than Modesto. That's a challenge that I kind of got into, right around the time that we were led to believe that we should leave. It's like, 'You guys are finally good enough, are starting to get just enough support, don't shoot yourself in the foot, go somewhere else, and make it.' And I said, "No, it's too obvious of a choice. I'm going to bang it out here." I don't really like the whole rock scene thing in the first place, so I kind of wanted to do it by our own terms or not do it at all.

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