Jason Lytle: What’s Wrong With The Safe And Warm?

Interview

We meet at lunchtime in a posh West London hotel, the day after the last date of Grandaddy’s reunion tour.

Posted 10th October 2012, 10:01am in Features, by Derek Robertson


It’s hard to believe, but the man slouching opposite me is responsible for some of the most influential indie music from the turn of the millennium. Jason Lytle, erstwhile leader of Grandaddy, is in full slacker uniform; vintage tee, scruffy trucker cap and old-school shades. He’s also nursing a beer and trying to adjust to being awake; evidently it had been a long night. We meet at lunchtime in a posh West London hotel the day after the last date of Grandaddy’s reunion tour, a triumphantly received two-hour trip down memory lane at the Shepherd’s Bush Empire that’s left him tired but elated, satisfied but sad.

It’s also an interview that nearly didn’t happen. He’s a hard man to pin down, and after aborted attempts to meet in Malmö and Glasgow, it looked like our schedules would prove irreconcilable. London became the last throw of the dice, and it’s a great relief to see him finally walk into the lobby. Such travails neatly reflect a symptom of our modern world, the sort of hyper connected yet strangely alienating reality he described so vividly, and seemed so scared of, on 2000’s ‘The Sophtware Slump’; the very definition of a #firstworldproblem.

That album, recently reissued, came out just as the dot-com bubble was beginning to sag under its own weight and with Y2K fears a very recent memory. Uniquely, it suggested that far from destroying us, technology would simply lead to disappointment, both with ourselves and how the future was supposed to be somehow better, perfectly capturing the post-millennial come down before it happened. Neither angry nor bitter, it was more a resigned sigh regarding undeniably truths; people get sad, things die, dreams go unfulfilled. It gave short shrift to the myth of technological salvation – life went on, our problems and insecurities as acute as ever – and remains a modern American masterpiece.

“A couple years went by and something happened
We gave Jed less attention
We had new inventions.”

‘Jed The Humanoid’, taken from 'The Sophtware Slump'

Lytle, however, doesn’t see the last ten years as vindication of such ideas. Rather, as he sees it, he was simply describing common human failings, an inherent weakness regarding our curiosity and desires – this is just the way we are. “Any time the general populace is given something, it’s like ‘What are you gonna do with it?’ You can research health and you can make yourself better, or you can just do porn and video games; it’s ridiculous. It [the album] was about ‘We’ve all got this, what are you gonna do now?’ and then standing back and watching. It’s kinda fascinating, but also a little sad.”

He professes to enjoy such contradictions regarding the Internet – “I love shit like that, love it” – yet famously is not on Twitter. “I tried it… but I didn’t really get it. I liked the colours, and the photos. I also liked the interactivity, but I was really bummed out that your posts can only be so long. I tend to ramble, and use a lot of dot dot dot, parenthesis, and stuff. I guess I don’t do it right.”

I’m not sure if, in his eyes, anyone is doing it right. To many, our fascination with hi-tech gadgets coupled with a throwaway culture will have only one ending; ecological disaster and the sort of dystopian nightmare portrayed so graphically in Blade Runner and RoboCop. It’s another common theme in his work, and one he’s particularly pessimistic about.

“I’d say [we’re headed to] more of an idiotocracy specifically… but yeah. At some point, we have to remember walking down the street, you saw some guy with a cell phone and you’re like ‘Oh, hey, that guy’s important’, you know? Or even a guy driving down the street in his Land Rover, and you’re like ‘Oh, hey, that guy’s important’. Now everyone has a broken down, shitty Land Rover. Within your lifetime, you see these little evolutions happen where at some point, someone was ‘the shit’ because they had these things. Nowadays, I’ve given money to homeless people who were arguing on their cell phone as you’re handing them cash. It doesn’t really matter any more, but it does, and you need some quiet time to try and remember how things were and how ridiculous they’re getting.”

“Bust the lock off the front door
Once you’re outside you won’t want to hide anymore.”

‘Now It’s On’, taken from 'Sumday'

Sociologists have long debated the phenomenon whereby despite being more connected than ever before – always “on” – we feel increasingly isolated and alone; the implications of Dunbar’s Number on social media being a perfect example. Part of Grandaddy’s appeal was the reverence they afforded to moments of simple, contained pleasure – falling asleep under a tree, or gazing down from ice shelves and glaciers – to be found in the wilderness, and how losing touch with such appreciation was leading humanity down a very dark path indeed. They prescribed nature’s beauty as the tonic to a constant diet of hustle and bustle, a beneficial retreat into your own mind and imagination.

Six years ago, Lytle took the decision to up sticks from his hometown of Modesto, California to Montana’s great outdoors. Fuelled in part by burn out, in part by this long-standing fascination with nature, it led to many questioning his mental health and whether he’d ever make music again. He admits to being “a big time loner”, but believes that such a back-to-basics mentality would be of benefit to everyone.

“As far as being hooked up to the Internet and computers and stuff, you’d be surprised what happens when you get away for five days. Just five, that’s all, give it five days. I have some favourite hikes of mine, excursions that I do, where I know I’m losing the Internet, cell service, or whatever. All of a sudden, it’s a little disturbing how disorientated and afraid you get, the anxiety on being disconnected, but it’s good and it’s healthy.”

“What’s wrong with the safe and warm?
What’s wrong with a book and tea at night?”

‘Matterhorn’, taken from 'Dept. Of Disappearance'

His retreat away from it all has clearly been beneficial, both to body and soul. It’s peculiar how the timing has worked out, but this little jaunt is serving as a warm up for an entirely different kind of adventure; a seven-date October tour of California in support of ‘Dept. of Disappearance’, his second solo effort. Distinctively recognisable, it deals with all the old familiar themes, and fans will be instantly smitten with the songs’ simple, earthy construction and emphasis on melody. It’s actually not far from what you’d imagine a modern Grandaddy to sound like, but gone is the sadness and melancholy. In it’s place is quiet optimism, a contentedness and satisfaction that at times threatens to boil over into full blown joie de vivre. Is he now more at ease with the world, and his place in it?

“I am. I’m glad that comes across, ‘cause I was having a real hard time towards the end of the Grandaddy stuff, like that cliché about being careful what you wish for. And I didn’t want it to go there; it was a wonderful, wonderful position to be in, but I just wasn’t happy. I really wasn’t. I had to make some very deliberate moves to change my life, to reset my brain and get things back into perspective, which had nothing to do with being disturbed, or a depressed artist, or anything like that. I know I’m at my best when I’m happy and healthy, and I’m just making music and art. I got back there, that’s all the matters. I had to get back there, and I did.”

Even lyrically, the album represents something of a volte-face. His lyrics always seemed to be aimed at himself as much as anyone else, self-referential advice being somehow easier to take, and more than one critic has theorised that Jed the Robot was autobiographical. It’s hard to reconcile the weariness contained in lines such as “You’ve lost the ‘Go’ in ‘Go for it’” – from 2003’s ‘Sumday’ – with the reassuring sentiment of ‘Get Up An Go’s “You can do it / Everything is gonna be alright”. Is this his new mantra of positivity?

“Definitely. It’s pretty optimistic. I was actually a little embarrassed by that because it’s maybe too happy-go-lucky, but I thought ‘Fuck it!’ I want to make good stuff, make people happy, and bring positivity into the world. After stepping back from all that stuff, and being able to look at the position I’ve been put in, it’s all about spreading love and spreading a good message. That song ['Get Up And Go'] in particular is like a mainline to that whole point.”

“Welcome back to solid ground my friend
I heard all your controls were jammed
Well it's just nice to have you back again.”

‘He’s Simple, He’s Dumb, He’s The Pilot’, taken from 'The Sophtware Slump'

This newfound peace of mind also stems in part, no doubt, from not just the reunion itself, but the reaction to it. Watching them on stage, it’s remarkable how at ease they all seem; they smile, goof around, and genuinely look like five normal guys just doing what they love. The sell-out crowd responds in kind; singing along, roaring their approval, and even starting a mini mosh pit during ‘A.M. 180’. In every sense it’s like they’ve never been away, a feeling he concurs with.

“It’s actually a little scary. We’ve gone through so much together, and you’d almost suspect that after five or six years, the amount of time we’ve spent away from each other, that things would shift but… no. It’s a little disturbing, it’s like it [the breakup] could have been yesterday. And I’m walking round on stage, playing songs, looking around and being observant, and I’m just thinking ‘Christ, it’s really strange’. It’s pretty fucking weird.”

At the very end, after a two-song encore, Grandaddy are given a five minute ovation. The house lights come back on, and the band has a group hug before leaving Lytle alone, centre stage, raucous applause ringing out all around him. It’s an appreciation not just for what we’ve witnessed, but for their whole career and the fact that this could be the very last time – currently, they have no plans to do this again. He seemed genuinely moved, and I ask what the mood was like backstage afterwards.

“We had a moment, a post-show moment, which was ten minutes of quiet, just kinda reflecting…I don’t know. Some of us are more requiring of that quiet time than others.” Clearly mindful of the pitfalls that befell them in their heyday, he’s now very protective of his bandmates, and shunned both the clamour for a huge, celebratory party and the line of celebrities at the dressing room door. “I was just concerned with wrapping up the time with the band more than anything else. I am a little protective, and I didn’t want other people to intrude on the fact that this was sort of a key bonding moment for the band.”

“But in real life
You’re in another world, you’re with another guy.”

‘The Warming Sun’, taken from 'Sumday'

It’s a shame that a well-earned moment of triumph was tinged with sadness, but then such bittersweet feelings seem to haunt Lytle. Swings between highs and lows, euphoria and despair inform much of Grandaddy’s story, and are at the heart of some of their best work, such as ‘The Warming Sun’. As great as the concert is, it’s hugely disappointing they don’t play it; then again, its mythical status is derived in part through never appearing in their sets. Having previously excused it’s absence by claiming “it’s really difficult to do live…sonically, there’s a lot going on”, it turns out there another reason as well.

“It’s for us. Actually, I don’t know if Grandaddy has ever played that song before. I do it on piano sometimes, on my own at parties and stuff. That was a good sleeper song, and it’s one of my favourites as well. All this shit got poured into it and…it’s one of those weird ones where you don’t really know after a while who likes what, and then eventually you shouldn’t really care too much who likes what, but it’s kind of coveted.”

“But somewhere there’s a someone
With someone else tonight.”

‘Somewhere There’s A Someone’, taken from 'Dept. Of Disappearance'

Being coveted is a fate sure to befall one new song in particular, one that demonstrates as grounded as he is nowadays, old habits die hard; a Jason Lytle album just wouldn’t be Jason Lytle without some semblance of regret. Plaintive piano ballad ‘Somewhere There’s A Someone’ is every bit the equal of ‘The Warming Sun’, a gut wrenching reminiscence about the one who got away. They both tell an eerily similar tale, and he confirms my suspicion that they’re about the same person with a curt “yeah”. I ask if, as he admitted in the past, he still has her photo on his keyboard. He seems stunned – “Holy shit! Wow” – and I can’t quite work out whether he’s surprised by the depth of my research or the fact I dared bring it up.

Eventually, he answers. “Yeah. We have a long winding joke in the band that I owe her some royalties….” His voice tails off as he shifts uneasily in his seat, and it’s clearly still a raw topic. He doesn’t even seem to subscribe to the theory that writing about such episodes can be cathartic, a therapy that helps get over the pain. “But at some point, it becomes like you’re dwelling on it, and whining, and blah blah blah…”

He’s far more at ease talking about the present, and how “I have a pretty good situation right now, I’m actually married.” He points to a woman sitting two tables away; it’s the same one who brought him a Corona earlier. “My wife, she’s almost like a zoo keeper who knows this is the way the coyote acts. I have a lot of particularities, she knows that, and she’s totally understanding. She’ll say ‘Alright, if you need to disappear…’, kinda like the opposite of pussy whipped. She knows my deal, and she lets me disappear on my own for a long amount of time.”

“If you get a feeling next time you see me
Do me a favour and let me know
‘Cause it’s hard to tell.”

Elliott Smith, ‘Oh Well, Okay’, taken from 'XO'

Lytle is big on spreading the love the love these days, and it’s touching that they cover Elliott Smith, a friend who, in the bands early days, gave them support and invited them on tour. Backed by a montage of fuzzy, homemade camcorder clips, a beautiful rendition of “Oh Well, Okay” is a fitting tribute to someone they clearly admired and looked up to. It also highlights the synergy between their music; how touching and heartfelt it is, and how it really connects and resonates with people. It’s a quality that seems to be lacking from a lot of modern indie rock, and I put it to him that I can’t imagine many current musicians provoking the outpouring of grief that Smith’s untimely death, aged just 34, did.

“That’s a shame [if it’s true]. I think that’s why I love music, and this just came from Neil Young, but there has to be feeling, you know? This [music] is all a feeling, and it’s all about passing feelings along. I say this with all honesty, it almost chokes me up. It’s like life; I’m super grateful to still have the opportunity to carry this torch, but feeling has to be at the heart of all that stuff. We win in the end, ‘cause we care and love so much and we’re trying to preserve that and pass it along. All you can do is laugh at all the other people who don’t fucking get it.”

Smith’s story was tragic, and perfectly illustrated the perils and pitfalls associated with being a talented yet struggling artist. Grandaddy, and Lytle in particular, have always seemed ambivalent about fame, and uneasy with the outside pressures that success brings. In many ways, they were unwillingly thrust into the limelight and wholly unprepared for life as indie rock poster boys; they had no affectations, and no ambition other than to be five friends in a band. It was part of their appeal, and part of what held them back. Famously, David Bowie once declared them his “new favourite band”; what effect does an accolade like that have on five normal guys from Modesto?

“I’m glad it was David Bowie, ‘cause I think that he has a pretty good grasp of the ups and downs, and the multi-dimensionality of scenes coming and going. We were flattered that he zeroed in on us, and I honestly think he got us for the right reasons, so I feel good about that. That part I’m happy about. And then, like, the obvious part of just being flattered is just the obvious part, you know? It was David Bowie!”

“Wrong to say I’m giving up
Right to say that I ain’t showing up.”

‘Levitz’, taken from 'The Broken Down Comforter Collection

At their height, they occupied a unique middle ground from their contemporaries; more accessible than Mercury Rev, less showy and psychedelic than the Flaming Lips. Both those bands shared the same underground, cult beginnings and had their troubles too, but they never ground to a complete halt. Reformations and re-releasing classic albums are currently very much in vogue – Mercury Rev reissued and toured ‘Deserter’s Songs’ last year – and coupled with their rather messy ending, it was perhaps inevitable that one day Grandaddy would return. An indication of just how much they were missed came when they decided to re-issue their first three albums as deluxe vinyls, as well as some classic band tees – both sold out within days. But despite the obvious goodwill, the impetus to play again actually came from within the band.

“To tell you the truth, it was really Jim [Fairchild, guitarist] who boosted my confidence by going ‘People want it! There is a demand!’ ‘Cause I’d been a bit isolated, you know, so my perspective just wasn’t really accurate, I didn’t know. I was like ‘Really? But really? Oh, ok. This is a valid sort of thing that would make people happy.’”

So there wasn’t any trepidation about how they’d be received, or if people might have been indifferent to the news? “Actually I wasn’t worried about that at all. I keep a pretty open Facebook situation, and I’m pretty involved in it. I’ve been playing shows myself and with my Internet activity, the people have been speaking and it’s been very, very clear that they were anticipating, and super excited about, this idea. My concerns were more logistical, like the gear, and sound related stuff. I didn’t want to just schlep our stuff up there and sound like shit; I thought ‘If we’re gonna do this, we have sound really good, and I want all the sounds, samples, and arrangements either just as good or even better than before.’”

“But that old life is gone
I guess that I’ve moved on
To new faces and strange places.”

‘The Final Push To The Sum’, taken from 'Sumday'

Far from feeling that this reunion is a backwards step, he’s enthusiastic about the opportunity they’ve been given; he sees it as a blessing, not a curse. At the same time, he’s dismissive of the idea that it amounts to anything more than just another band on tour. “It took me a while to wrap my head around it, and once I did, I realised that there’s nothing cutting edge or super awesome about it. I know a lot of it is just nostalgia and giving people the guilty pleasure of hearing the live renditions of songs off of albums they’ve heard… I don’t know. I was just like ‘As long as the band hangs out, has a great time, the audience is super happy, and we actually have some money to show for it when it’s all done.’ It’s like a win win win.”

Being so grounded is perhaps simply his way of dealing with the hysteria and hype. They’ve always been a good live band despite some well-documented struggles regarding their equipment, and Lytle has even admitted to performing on the edge; at Glastonbury in 2003 he was “pushing my own limits of being exhausted and just drunk enough.” The last time I saw them live was as a student, in the dim and distant past of 2001; they were a little rough around the edges, but no less mesmerising for that. I wonder if they felt any pressure to live up to such ideals, particularly with the buzz building and the shows selling out so quickly.

“I’m actually ok with that, that’s the part where I think I have the ability to step up. Growing up, I was a competitive skateboarder with all sorts of contests and ‘bringing it’, you know? Now I do all these competitive running events, and that whole ‘pressure’ thing, I actually kinda thrive on it, especially when somebody’s saying ‘no, no, no’, like the odds are stacked against you. I actually think that’s when I have the ability to step up…and the band as well. Ours is a rags to riches sort of story, so we thrive off of that.”

Given the success of this tour, and how highly they’re obviously still regarded, he “doesn’t know” exactly how they’re going to resist the inevitable calls to stay together, tour again, and even record new material. But he’s candidly honest about this not being the end. “I’m actually looking forward to making another Grandaddy record. I mean, I’m looking forward to hearing another Grandaddy record, not actually the making of it…The simple part of my brain will not allow me to go there right now. I just need to go home and rest, and I’ll get excited about it again.”

So it’s going to happen? For real? “I think so. I think it’s gonna happen, yeah.” And with a firm handshake and a wicked laugh he’s off, seemingly ready to plot the full-blown return of a band who should never have been allowed to disappear in the first place.

Jason Lytle's new album ‘Dept. of Disappearance’ will be released on 15th October via Anti-Records.
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