If George Harrison had lived to see the days of Twitter and Facebook, his music may have ended up sounding a bit like Grandaddy.
Founded in 1992 by Jason Lytle, the Modesto, Calif., group's charm is found near the intersection of bucolic Americana and the inevitable creep of modern technology. Having spent his most creative years living in Bozeman, Montana, Lytle is a naturalist at heart, but it's his sardonic wit and his penchant for idiosyncratic lyrics about sad robots and El Caminos rusting in the high desert has created some of the most unique imagery indie-rock has seen in the past 20 years.
After splitting in 2006, Lytle released a handful of solo records, produced Band of Horses' 2016 record Why Are You OK, and moved to Portland in 2013. With a new Grandaddy record, the recently released Last Place, in the can, as well as a small reunion tour and a second record on deck as well, we had a chat with Lytle about cell phones, anti-California sentiments and life on the fringes of Cully.
Willamette Week: Are you still living in Portland?
Jason Lytle: I'm back in Modesto. I packed it up and left Portland about a year ago.
Why did you move?
A lot of real-life things. There was this sort of tugging away at me where I needed to get back to California. I'd been gone about 11 years and I was really fantasizing about getting back to my roots.
Did getting Grandaddy back together have anything to do with that decision?
More than anything, I'm at the point where I can make a record wherever I'm at because I do a lot of the stuff myself. Actually, the only other recording that happens besides what I do by myself is with the drummer, and we did all of that at a place in Portland called the Map Room. More than anything it was the logistics of rehearsal and stuff. Once I knew we were gonna be playing shows, that factored in a little. At some point I was laughing and thinking, "There's no fucking way I'm moving back to Modesto." Next thing you know, I'm scouring newspapers for an apartment, and here I am.
Did any of the "go back to California" sentiments ever get to you?
I thought it was hilarious because, once again, I'm doing it wrong. There's this big exodus of people leaving Cali and going to Portland and I'm like, "Fuck it, I'm going back to California." I was [in Portland] just long enough to hear all the moaning and groaning and see certain intersections and thoroughfares and stores getting clogged up—I just got enough of a glimpse of it. I did feel a little glad I didn't have to contribute to that. At the end of the day, I don't care about that stuff. I tread so lightly, and I'm always part of the reverse commute. I do my best to not contribute to what people are complaining about. I even had to deal with that when I moved to Bozeman a while back. Everyone there is complaining about the Californians moving there, but I'm not the annoying rich person who is buying all the property and treading heavily. If anything, people like me should be welcome. But whatever, I want too worried about that. I was just doing what I needed to do, and here I am.
Did you live here long enough to have any of those moments where you thought, "Shit, this traffic or this bougie store wasn't here when I moved here?"
I've had little stints in big cities here and there. Like, I had a friend in L.A. who wanted me to come down and help paint houses, or help out at a skate shop in some city somewhere else, so I'd go and do that for a little then be like, "Nah, I'm over it." I've never been a big-city person. At the point where I was leaving Modesto way back before I moved to Bozeman and was looking at new places to live, I was considering everything: Portland, Boise, Reno. Everything was a possibility, but I always knew I needed a lot of space and outdoor time and a good exit strategy. Ending up in Portland was kind of startling for me because I finally gave in and moved to a big city. I was out there at 42nd and Killingsworth, which is kinda out there by Portland standards, but it was still a bit much with the nervous energy and feeling trapped. I had a few spots in Washington I liked if I wanted to get my nature fix and clear my head, but there was so much other stuff going on. I was trying to make someone else happy in addition to me, so I thought it was best to make the best of it and get through it. I made some good friends in studios and other work-related places, but there was a part of me that was shrinking definitely after coming from Montana and being so in love with however many people per square inch there is there and the access to the outdoors. I'm almost more of an outdoor recreationalist than an active musician at this point. It's such a huge part of my life—biking, skiing, running and stuff. My master plan is to end up somewhere where I'll have direct access to that stuff. All of it was a bit much, even when I got there. Long answer to probably a simple question, I guess.
What's funny is the area you were in, Cully, is kinda remote by Portland standards. It's where people go when they want to set up a compound on a big lot with no sidewalk and plenty of room for their cult and their chickens and their vegan roommates to run free.
There are so many crazy little dirt roads and weird little side streets out there. I kinda loved it. I would ride my bike and run a lot out here and snoop around in all the little neighborhoods, weaving in and out of the area. It gets a little colorful-slash-creepy out there. It's a little bit of a Wild West thing going on out there.
Why did Grandaddy split up back in 2006?
It was a lot of things. I felt like we'd plateaued as a band. Up until then, I did a pretty good job of running on instinct and figuring out when was a good time to bump things up to another level. There seemed to be a natural flow to it, like saying "OK" to things and keeping quality control in check. If anything, we kinda lucked out that things plateaued at the same time the money was going away. The industry was changing big time and I was never kicking or scratching or trying too hard. Being a touring musician isn't interesting enough to me to stay in this, and there were all these reasons why it wasn't making sense anymore. I was falling out of love with music and there was all this baggage tagged on to being in a band and making music. It was becoming not fun to me anymore. The excitement was going away. If anything that would've been the biggest crime—me watching the wonder and excitement and the adventure go away. You're just holding to this thing desperately trying to keep it going. And I saw there was a possibility of me losing this relationship with the guys in the band. There were all these glaring reasons that said, "Stop it."
There are a lot of lessons that have been learned since then. I was brought back into it reluctantly. A lot of the gear stuff fell on me, a lot of the logistics of figuring out how the song was gonna be pulled off [live]. There's always a shit-storm of press and promos that went along with it. The touring was pretty relentless. A lot of times there was no real light at the end of the tunnel. This time it's like, we're gonna do it smart, play a limited amount of shows. The guys in the band have limited schedules, too, so we have to be very selective about what we're doing and how long it's gonna last. A lot of people are gonna be stoked and we're gonna sound a lot better than we've ever sounded, and we're actually gonna make some money because we don't have this big, crazy bill to pay back as was before.
What bill? Like an advance from a label?
Yeah, that doesn't really exist. If anything this is like a paid vacation for the guys in the band. It works that it's so limited and I can wrap my head around when it's gonna be done. The majority of people out there wake up and don't want to go to work for obvious reasons. I didn't get into this to evade work. I can subject myself to a little bit of discomfort because the payoff will be much greater.
What is work right now? Did you find a day job along the way?
Actually, no. I've stayed busy working on music this whole time. I have had the same manager who's been Grandaddy's manager, Jeff Barnett, who I've been with for almost 12 years now. He does a good job of keeping me busy to the point where he turns down a lot of stuff because he knows I like to stay just busy enough but not too busy. I'm super lucky to be one of those people who can pull it off.
What's changed about being in Granddaddy this time around?
I don't feel this heavy weight. I feel like what I'm doing right now—there's accountability. I can wrap my head around every aspect of it. It's very limited so I'm able to enjoy it a little bit more. Knowing I can shut the thing down whenever I want—I have a plan to do away with public performing by the time I'm 50, and I'm 48 right now. I have a whole other chapter I want to embark on that doesn't have anything to do with being a song-and-dance monkey guy on stage.
So this is a finite thing?
Well, I signed a two-album deal this time around. I'm already thinking, "Whoa, what am I gonna do about this next record?" It's this creeping thing I'm throwing ideas at, like when I'm on a ride or hiking around when I have time to think about stuff. It's kind of along the lines of an extended check out at a hotel. It's like, when you call the office and they say you have until 12 or 1, and that extra hour is magical because you have a little bit more peace even though the real end is still gonna come soon enough. Wrapping my head around this new Grandaddy odyssey still feels like a new thing to me.
A lot of your music is about obsolete technology and the slow creep of decay and things becoming useless. From a technological standpoint, 10 years is a very long time. Has anything since the last album came out stuck out as a new source of inspiration?
Even back then I wasn't really harping on it, I was just amused and blown away by how fun it is to watch how people interact with [technology]. I kinda love the fact that I've grown up in the generation where you'd be out driving around or on the street and you'd see somebody with a cell phone and think, "Whoa! That person is important!" And that's not even a car phone. It's like seeing someone walking around with it and wondering what they do. It's something you kind have to remind yourself of today. And then it got to the point where you see some guy crawl out from an overpass and he's arguing with someone on his cell phone and you're like, "OK, I see where we're at now." Now everybody's got one! I always had a comical take on the general public's integration of technology and how they decide to use it. I don't feel like I was ever making any kind of statement. As a matter of fact, I was just thinking of this yesterday. I was looking at my inbox and I had a billion messages in there. The inordinate amount of time you spend dealing with email simply didn't exist before. Let's erase text messages and email. I can only devote a certain amount of time to this. Like, I hate talking on the phone—
Shit, I'm sorry.
Well, it's OK, you've got me on this caffeine buzz and now I'm gonna take a long bike ride after this, so we're good. Anyways, if you erase emails and texts, it kinda blows your mind by wondering how people communicated before. It was kinda clunky, but it worked. You have to step back and think about it in a weird way. And I don't even smoke weed.
Is the new song "I Don't Wanna Live Here Anymore" about Portland?
Yeah, it actually is. I was here for one week and we ended up in the neighborhood [Cully]. It was a little scrappy where we ended up and I was feeling the pressure of buyer's remorse, wondering whether or not I made the right decision. Too much of the logistics of storage facilities and gear and all the stress of moving—I finally felt like I'd had enough. We lived next to this sketchy trailer park. I hadn't done drugs in ages, and I actually went over there looking for drugs. I hadn't been out of the house and I'd been building way too much IKEA furniture, and I was finally like, "Screw this." I walked down to the Spare Room and there was hardly anyone in there. I did a couple karaoke songs, and I finished a song and not a single person was clapping, and I was like, "This is so awesome, it's like my first show in Portland." I got into town and did "When Doves Cry" to echoes. All of it was super depressing. I was really doubting the move, and around the time this song just plopped out of me. It was a no brainer. Because I love the idea of letting people attach themselves to whatever the subject of the song is, I kinda got off on the fact that it could apply to anyone who just moved to a new city or goes away to college for the first time and is doubting themselves.
Was there an inverse of that moment maybe a month or year later where you thought, "Hey, I kinda like this, actually"?
To tell you the truth, another thing I was depressed about was I had this debilitating tendonitis and I couldn't ride a bike. Everywhere you go there's hundreds of people on bikes, and it was like watching a video of someone having sex with you ex-girlfriend or something. I'm an avid cyclist—I have six bikes—so it was kinda painful. But once I was able to start riding a bike and piecing together routes through town and met a couple friends, it started to work. But it got dark again really quick. I had this whole relationship thing fall apart. But I did meet a lot of great people through skateboarding and music and even riding bikes. So I came out of it with some great friends.
In your conversation with Amy, you referred to your stint I Portland as "your last big statement—like going to Arctic station and collecting data. I'll get some good results and I'll be done."
I had no idea to what extent that'd be the case when I talked to her, but that did end up being the case. Eventually my wife split, and we had pretty much made this house look very cozy and comfortable, like two people who care what their house looks like would do. So she split and I sold everything and turned the whole house into my own muni recording mecca. It ended up being what got me through all the shitty weather and being bummed out about my dog being gone and my marriage being over. I was pretty much holding on to working on this album for dear life. It was work, work, work, then I'd go out just enough to get into trouble, then come home and repeat the process. I was trying to stay healthy and sane and drink enough Vitamin D in the process.
So now you're back in Modesto. Any hopes and dreams for your new life in California?
This is kind of a temporary thing as well. It's working out in a cool way because once again I live on the edge of town in the Cully version of Modesto. I have a good escape route for riding my bike and running through the orchards and country roads where I can get near all the sounds and smells I grew up with, which has been very healing. As much as I loved Montana, I felt like a visitor, and it was the same thing in [Portland]. It's cool and it's beautiful, but it's not mine. It's nice to be back around what I grew up with.
SEE IT: Grandaddy plays Revolution Hall, 1300 SE Stark St. #110, on Tuesday, May 9. 7 and 10 pm. $25 advance, $28 day of show. Early show all ages, late show 21+