"You're Just Sitting Back And Laughing, Watching The Show" Grandaddy Interviewed
Jason Lytle has walked across the street to stand in the sunshine while we talk. But the parrots are back. He can’t seem to give them the slip. “They're distractingly loud,” he mutters. Two minutes later it’s something else. “Jesus Christ,” he half-yells over the sound of a heavy exhaust and mechanical crunching. “Fuckin’ garbage trucks.”
The noise outside his window has been weighing on his mind of late, perhaps more keenly because he shouldn’t have been thinking about it at all. A few months back, Lytle settled on a plan: 20 years on from the release of Grandaddy’s indie-rock masterwork ‘The Sophtware Slump’ he resolved to re-record the album as a suite of piano songs.
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He picked out some nice studios, and some nice pianos, around Los Angeles, but you know what happened next. One pandemic later Lytle was back in much the same spot he was two decades ago - cloistered in his apartment alone, trying to make these songs function. “The conditions for doing the actual recording were far from ideal,” he says.
“There was a lot of environmental noise I was contending with, and it was the dead of summer. You'd keep the air conditioner on while you were working on songs, and when it's time to record you turn the air conditioner off and hope you get the take down in the amount of time it takes for the house to start sweltering again. I don't have a very good relationship with my neighbours at this point. Apparently I've gotten in trouble a few times for noise complaints, which really sucks too because I'm an early morning person.
“That's when I get my most productive creative work done. I wake up and I'm just waiting for the rest of the world. There was a lot of really annoying things, and all I could do was laugh, like,' This doesn't need to be this fuckin’ hard!' All you have to do is get 75% of the way into a great take and some jackass screams by on a Harley-Davidson. The upside was that I got a lot of extra rehearsal done on the songs. I just had to laugh about it. I felt like I was still the same guy [as back then], trying to cobble together these parts to make a comprehensive song. The work is never done.”
Grandaddy formed in Modesto, California in 1992, with Lytle finding a new obsession after a knee injury had ended his hopes of a career as a pro skater. A punk kid who’d spent his growing up decoding the ELO records that landed in his house through his stepmother’s radio station job, his music squared that circle by dressing up classic pop hooks in flannel and slacker tape hiss.
He was eventually aided and abetted by a live crew comprising the late bassist Kevin Garcia, who died in 2017, drummer Aaron Burtch, guitarist Jim Fairchild and keyboard player Tim Dryden. But on record Grandaddy have always been a case of indie-rock as cottage industry, with Lytle performing all the instruments, producing and mixing his own songs. Isolation has always been part of his deal.
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As 1999 ticked over into 2000 he holed up in a farmhouse close to nothing much, adding layer upon layer to ‘The Sophtware Slump’, a quietly miraculous collection that crossed baked Americana with gauzy synths and a sense of homespun tech paranoia. Speaking to the Guardian’s Laura Barton prior to Grandaddy’s split in 2006 (they reformed in 2012, and released ‘Last Place’ in 2017) he described his former self as “frustrated, hungover, and trying to call my coke dealer.”
“It gets most bleak when I see photos of it,” he says. “Like, 'God you used to live like that?' Now, one of my favourite things is going on these therapeutic walks through Ikea. Everything is so orderly and clean. I don't remember being such a slob. It was probably because at some point you only have so much energy in the day. I was obviously very busy, and very focused, and very preoccupied with music and parts and trying to get these visions on tape. Some other stuff fell by the wayside, like dishes and laundry and making the bed in the morning.”
Generally, Lytle isn’t a reflective person when it comes to Grandaddy’s music. He’d prefer to park old work and has a famously adversarial relationship with recreating songs live, which he self-admonishingly continues to liken to “having to make a crappy sketch of a beautiful painting”. But that attitude can only take you so far once your records start chiming with people, and Lytle knows it.
He wanted ‘The Sophtware Slump’ to last, and it was specifically designed with that in mind. “By that point I'd come around to this understanding with myself that there's a good chance I'd be living with a song, and possibly playing it, for years to come,” he says. “So in order for that to be the case I had to be OK with it on all these different levels.”
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‘The Sophtware Slump ….. on a wooden piano’ tunes into this element of the record at every turn. The arrangements here range from stately to piercingly intimate, drawing out the poise in Lytle’s melodies and shining a light on the record’s lyrics. Hewlett’s Daughter, a spacey fuzz-pop jam in its original iteration, sparkles as its chorus is drawn out patiently, placing it in the wheelhouse of gilded singer-songwriter fare from the 1970s. “Well, if any one of them was going to slightly resemble a Randy Newman song…” Lytle laughs.
“The way I chose to play that one was a little bit more freeform, deviating from the original. Around the time ‘The Sophtware Slump’ came out I had been writing songs and recording songs just enough. I was doing all the tracking myself and that was something I was very interested in, but when you're tending all those different plots of ground, there's the possibility of spreading yourself a little thin. I really wanted to hone in on lyric writing, even the poetic part of it. Words flowing, beating yourself up trying to find the right way to phrase something, and how that's going to help phonetically to enhance the line.
“By the time I reached the writing phase of ‘Sophtware Slump’, there were no more throwaway lyrics. There was no more phoning it in. At the same time, I'm so fascinated with production, and audio, and gear, and layering, that a lot of times the words kinda got pushed into the background. For me the cool thing about this is that I think there are a lot of lyrical moments that may have been overshadowed, even not pushed up enough in the mix. That alone caused a lot of songs to have different dynamics that might be a surprise.”
Thematically, ‘The Sophtware Slump’ is reminiscent of a specific time, vividly conjuring Y2K and viewing the rapidly evolving relationship between humans, nature and technology through the lens of destructive consumerism - it is a junkyard of broken promises and quick fix gadgets that couldn’t save us.
Since it was released it has only become more prescient, because of the computer in your pocket, naturally, but also because of who Lytle is - a production nerd and gearhead who can’t stand to be inside when the sun is shining. After Grandaddy dissolved he moved to Montana, balancing increasingly insular solo recording work with regular disappearances into the wilderness, before drifting in and out of a marriage in Portland and back to Modesto.
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“I don't feel like I was ever making some kind of statement,” he says. “It was just so at the forefront back then, you know? It was when the internet really started taking off. I can remember some of my first gear purchases, or the first emails I ever sent on really crappy dial up. The album before, ‘Under the Western Freeway’, was around that period.
“‘The Sophtware Slump’ comes around and we're full blown in the middle of, 'Here We Go! The Internet Age!' It was impossible to not notice, or be affected by it, like any other big trendy theme. And how some people decided to use it more wisely than others. For me it was like this big kind of awkward baby that was learning how to walk. You're just sitting back and laughing, watching the show. I think I always had a pretty good sense of humour about all these things.”
The set dressing on ‘The Sophtware Slump ….. on a wooden piano’ might be different, but it succeeds in foregrounding elements that have long been central to Grandaddy’s appeal: Lytle’s bummer-pop smarts and the whatever it takes invention behind his process. Whether he was glomming ideas from Jeff Lynne in his youth or scrambling to make records within the store returns window on his equipment, he’s always had that in his corner. Still does.
“I laugh now when I listen to some of those early ones,” he says. “There were a couple of full blown Grandaddy albums that were janky cassette only, where I'm teaching myself all these production techniques and I'm feverishly reading Mix magazine, and any tech magazines I can get my hands on. It's pretty funny for me to listen to some of those recordings, because I know why they sound so shitty. I can tell you exactly why. I just threw myself in and I had a few mentors that I would just harass. I'm kind of humbled by the level of drive I had back then.”
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'Sophtware Slump' 20th anniversary box set is out on November 20th.
Words: Huw Baines
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