From the archives – an interview with Jason Lytle around the time he was releasing the final Grandaddy album “Whatever Happened to the Fambly Cat”. Most people agree it wasn’t their best but I still think it has its moments. Now he’s back touring again and is due to release new music under his own name shortly. Judging by his myspace page, which includes a bonkers tune called ‘On a Piece of Wood I Go’ and a cover of Queen’s Bicycle Race, the new material promises to be gloriously eccentric.
For more info see www.jasonlytle.com
Grandaddy Q & A
Despite a sequence of great albums which began with both Under the Western Freeway and the Sophtware Slump in 2000, Grandaddy never seemed to reach their full potential or breakthrough to a larger audience, overshadowed by the success of their peers who shared the same aesthetic and thematic sensibilities, including Radiohead, Mercury Rev and the Flaming Lips. Vocalist and songwriter Jason Lytle decided to split the band last year, but not before releasing one more epic album of sonic and melodic majesty, “Whatever Happened to the Fambly Cat”. Lytle spoke to the Skinny about the album and his reasons for ending the band, as he was preparing to leave his home town of Modesto, California, the inspiration behind many of the band’s songs.
The album marks the death of Grandaddy as a band, and the epic nature of many of the tracks seems to reflect this.
I wasn’t thinking too much about death, more like the end of a journey. There was so much going on related to that, in addition to the band – moving from this place that I’ve lived, Modesto California, for a long time that contributed to much of the material that people have come to know.
So have you left Modesto already?
I’m still here right now, the house is for sale; so it’s completely empty and I’m doing things like scrubbing floors, dusting countertops and clearing up the yard, shit like that. The studio was here and everything, but it’s all moved now. All my belongings are 12 hundred miles away, I was living out of a bag throughout this 3 week press trip I’ve just done, and I lost my luggage so I don’t even have that anymore!
You’re studio is in storage at the moment; will you be setting it up again when you’ve moved to Montana?
Yeah, that’s the plan. That part of it’s pretty exciting, it’s a complete change of environment. I’m not seeing it like “it’s all crashed and burned and I’m ready to throw in the towel”, I’m looking forward to working, and when I’m taking breaks being around good, healthy, inspirational stuff, not just fucking off.
The recent ‘Todzilla’ EP was a postcard of discontent with your hometown Modesto, was that your way of telling yourself you’ve had enough?
Yeah, it was like, this isn’t even funny anymore. It gets pretty ridiculous around here. Part of it is the fact that’s it home, but the other part is the fact that people just don’t know what to do with themselves so they decide to do the worst version of all the options. All I can do is cruise around and take it in, and just go man, “this place just sucks. At first it was funny, but It got to the point where it isn’t funny anymore, and then it just starts affecting you and then you’ve just got to do something about it and get out while you’re still alive!
You’ve said that when you’re not busy you have a “substance abuse problem”?
Yeah, I come from a long line of drinkers- it’s not like I’m cowering behind a dumpster in an alley, it usually starts off light hearted and social enough, but a part of it is not knowing when the party should end, an ability to know when to say when. I needed to rearrange my thought process.
It’s a stimulation thing too, I’ve always placed a pretty big importance on making sure I’m having fun and there’s a lot going on and I’m being excited by something, and when you’re in an environment where that’s just not happening you’ve got to create it artificially and it becomes a long running bad habit.
And I believe you quit drinking during the recording of the album?
Yeah. I was falling way short of where I should of been and I could see there was a good chance that the album was entirely going to suffer from my inability to juggle technical stuff and getting to the essence of where the songs needed to be. I had other shit going on, a big relationship that was on the out, and the uncertainty with the band was bringing me down.
So the split has been on the cards for a while?
Yes, a lot of it was because of the uncertainty and I was hoping and waiting, like we’ve always done- sometimes you’ve just got to wait things out but years were going by and there were no answers coming.
Do you have a Brian Wilson like attention to detail during the production process, because the way it’s mixed makes it seems that way, there’s so much going on and so much depth and warmth.
That’s where it gets down to the unspoken artistic part of it- knowing that you have this crossword puzzle, there’s a point when all these words and all of these pieces are going to fit together and it’s going to make sense- always being, for the most part, slightly out of reach of that can be pretty maddening, but the challenge and the payoff of finally getting it right is pretty immense.
I was hellbent throughout this album, definitely through the mixing part, of really getting it right. It was tough towards the end cos my back started going out on me, it was like everything was trying to prevent me from getting it right. I had way too much fun for a while on the painkillers, and finally I couldn’t do those anymore, and I was in such pain that just to sit for more than 20 minutes at a time was insane, it was like a big cruel joke to make sure that I didn’t get it right.
Were you addicted to the painkillers?
For a while there was a little problem and I kind of sorted that out. But then I got my doctor giving me these non-addictive muscle relaxers so towards the end it was like red wine and muscle relaxers just so I could sit for long periods of time! I was possessed, I had to finish the album. It’s funny to talk about it in a lighthearted way now but sometimes I forget what a chaotic time that was. The worst part of it was having to come back out of that world and be normal to other people, pay bills, be presentable, when a lot of times I just wasn’t. I had shut myself off entirely.
The final song “This is how it always starts” in particular seems to be coming from rock bottom, lyrically.
Yeah, as a matter of fact, there’s a point towards the end where the song is breaking down and there’s a little shaker percussion part; that’s actually a little container of prescription painkillers which and I’m using it as a percussion instrument. That was to the depths, there and back, and attempting to get it on tape.
You mentioned waiting, as a band for long periods. Were you waiting for some kind of breakthrough, for example to a larger audience?
It was more the financial strain; it had become a concern, then it became a problem, then there was the potential it could be fixed but it stayed in that mode for way too long, and there’s a sliding scale, the longer it goes on, the older the guys in the band are getting and the more concerned they are, there’s never been a solid sense of security for the members of the band, we’ve always been winging it, for years. It got to the point where I knew it wasn’t going to get any better. The label were petering out and were pulling back on support, it looked like it was going to get harder rather than more fruitful.
The band also knew that I didn’t want to go back on tour. I said I would consider it if there was a new way of doing it that was more efficient and more healthy.
Was it the sheer amount of touring?
partly, and it was the most foreign environment for me. The whole thing of being stripped of your independence, under someone else’s constant routine. If you’re granted 30 seconds of solitude at any point at all during a tour, you can think yourself lucky. I spend more time by myself than anyone else in the band, I live alone, I’m more of a solo guy than anybody else. some of the others didn’t mind that part, they loved standing around, smoking, talking shit, drinking and partying, playing shows..I loved the playing shows part, the excitement of playing in front of people and how exciting and frightening and invigorating it was,. but all the other stuff was just a waste of time, and the years were racking up, you know, I was like, wow, I’m wasting a lot of time in my life doing this thing I’m told I’m supposed to do, in order to pay a bunch of crew and have my band be miserable because we always ended up coming home broke.
Can you ever see yourself doing a solo show?
the fact that I’m afraid of it makes it kind of appealing, but I don’t want to do it for the sake of doing it, I want it to be special, more scaled down, more arty and not so macho like all the top rock shows.
I would love to think that I’ll be sitting round piecing something together and I’ll think that other people might get a kick out of it.
What was the story behind “the Animal World”, which seems to consign animals to the past?
The initial reason for the song was; my mum is a total antisocial, hermit person so I guess I got a lot of those qualities from her. She sent me a Christmas card one year and it had a picture, almost like a bible picture, of all the animals on earth, like a Noah’s Ark kind of thing, zebras, monkeys, horses, posing in a picture, and underneath it said “Joy to the World” and I thought how hilarious it was because there were no humans in the picture! The humour behind that combined with the fact that I love watching old movies and every now and then there’s a dog walking past or a cat on the fence or something!
To get back to the record, was there a specific story behind the mainly instrumental track “Skateboarding Saves My Life Twice”?
I skateboarded on a regular basis since I was 8 years old and totally grew up in the culture and I feel that it was responsible for dictating the direction of my life and turning me into who it is I am today. Thinking about who I could have turned into without it scares me, with all the other options that were out there. I did it for many years and amongst other injuries I had a really bad knee injury and I had to quit for four years. I eventually got surgery and all of a sudden there it was, back in my life, I started skating again, it was like an old girlfriend or a friend I hadn’t seen in years, I kind of had a new approach to it, it was a lot less strenuous, there was no pressure attached to it, it was totally enjoyable and therapeutic. It came around at a good time in my life.
Maybe that’ll happen with your music once you’ve had a break?
I’ve been thinking about this since and there might be something to that.
Originally published in The Skinny Magazine in 2006