After a brilliant career tending to the sci-fi pop landscape, Jason Lytle is retiring Grandaddy. A story of suburban living, skateboarding, rehabilitation and a rearview mirror. By Jonathan Valania
“The difficulty, my friends, is not in avoiding death, but in avoiding unrighteousness; for that runs faster than death.” —Socrates
“Fear not death, for the sooner we die the longer we shall be immortal.”
When the end came, it was not nasty, brutish or short. Death was not proud, nor was it soft or painless, truly shocking or terribly sad. It was just the end. There would be no tears, flowers or services for the dearly departed. No deliverance from the valley of the shadow. No ashes to ashes or funk to funky. No half-mast flags or “Taps” played on warbly boomboxes in beer-stained VFW halls. There would be no raging against the dying of the light. When the lonesome crowded death of Grandaddy came—after 14 years, five albums, four EPs, countless tours and enough critics’ hot air to float a fleet of zeppelins—there was only a simple declaration: uncle.
“We’re just not going to get to that next level,” says Jason Lytle, Grandaddy’s singer/songwriter/leader. “We could get up on that big rock ’n’ roll conveyor belt one more time, but I know how it’s going to end. I’m doing everybody a favor and ducking out gracefully.”
The reasons for Grandaddy throwing in the towel are manifold, complicated and personal, but in the final analysis, it came down to money. “Basically, the band was going broke,” says Lytle. “I mean, everybody was going broke and wrestling with this idea that they had invested all this time in the band. Certain people had already started to move on, and other people had really invested a lot of their lives in it. Some people had more of a safety net, a back-up plan, than others. We got together to sort all this out, and it was great, because it was the first time in almost two years where we sat in a room together and just hung out.”
It’s January, and Lytle is talking to MAGNET in all the usual New York City press settings: an upscale restaurant, a fancy hotel bar, a brisk walk in Greenwich Village. He’s speaking about the fateful band meeting a month earlier in the band’s home base of Modesto, Calif., where the death warrant on the good ship Grandaddy was more or less signed by all who once made her sail.
It was the first time the whole band had been together since the final encore of a show in Dublin that marked the end of a disastrous and dispiriting season of touring hell following the release of 2003’s Sumday. As always, the members of Grandaddy returned to Modesto after the tour to lick their wounds and sober up a little. For Lytle, home was a suburban tract house in nearby Ceres, fully outfitted with a grand piano and a 24-track recording studio, where he would begin writing and recording the follow-up to Sumday. As with previous Grandaddy albums, Lytle would write all the songs, play all the instruments except drums, do all the overdubs and pretty much make all the production and mixing decisions. As per usual, this would prove to be a long and painstaking process—some two years in the making—further complicated and elongated by Lytle’s struggle with drugs and alcohol and a painful break-up with his fiancée.
All the while, Lytle’s bandmates would try to hold on as best they could, squirreling away modest record-company advances and meager touring income until the album was readied for release and they would again be paid for playing their role in the Grandaddy organization: performing the songs live.
During the recording of previous Grandaddy albums, when the money ran out (as it invariably did), the rest of the members of the band—guitarist Jim Fairchild, keyboardist Tim Dryden, bassist Kevin Garcia and drummer Aaron Burtch—would work under the table for a friend who owned a landscaping business. But by the time Lytle began making Just Like The Fambly Cat (which V2 is releasing in May), this shaky economic model was no longer workable.
“Touring was our only way to make money, and it was never a lucrative thing for the band,” says Lytle. “Every tour was just like, ‘Let’s watch the crew and the booking people and the management—every single person who was possibly involved—get paid and the band go home fucking broke, pulling their pockets out in front of their wives or girlfriends, wondering what they’re going to do for the next couple of months.’”
The protracted and costly process of making Just Like The Fambly Cat had burned through all expected record-company advances and stretched Lytle’s bandmates beyond the financial breaking point, which weighed heavily on his conscience. Having recently pulled himself out of a drug-and-alcohol tailspin, Lytle had privately vowed to himself that there would be no touring in support of this album.
“If we go on tour, somebody’s gonna fucking die,” he says plainly.
The unintended consequence of that decision was that there would be no way for his bandmates to make money as Grandaddy. Fortunately, some enterprising young ad executives had decided to use the band’s “Nature Anthem” in a Honda Civic Hybrid commercial.
“That was a nice little windfall,” says Lytle. “But while word is spreading that I’m getting rich off Honda ads, the band is fucking digging trenches and sweating and cursing my name. Meanwhile, I’m in my home studio deciding what quirky little keyboard patch I’m going to be using for this next song. I was running out of ways to financially compensate everybody. So basically I just gave it to the band: the whole thing. That was one of my ways that I could try to compensate for what a bum steer they were getting.”
Lytle says he was paid $75,000 for the Honda commercial. After taxes and Grandaddy’s various handlers got their share, it amounted to $50,000.
“I’m not mentioning the Honda thing to make me seem saintly,” he says. “I was literally scrambling. It was a big part of this meeting to let the band know, ‘My not being in contact has no bearing on my regard for you. I love you guys, but I had to do that.’ I had to make this record. I had to excommunicate everybody for a little while. And everybody seemed to have already made their peace with the band breaking up. By the time the meeting happened, everybody knew it was just a matter of making it official. In the back of my head, I had feared the worst. I had all these disaster scenarios concocted in my mind of arms throwing up in the air, storming off, punch-outs and people screaming at each other, ‘You don’t get it. You’ll never get it.’ It was nothing like that whatsoever. When it was all done, we realized the meeting had come to an end and it was time to leave. And we didn’t want to leave each other. We actually ended up going out and having dinner and drinks and eventually doing drugs.”
It’s hard to gauge if the rest of Grandaddy shares Lytle’s comfort level with the breakup of the band. Only Fairchild and Burtch agree to be interviewed for this story. Burtch confirms Lytle’s assertion that the joyless and penniless tours in support of Sumday—opening for the likes of Pete Yorn and Saves The Day at the behest of V2 and Grandaddy’s management—ultimately broke the band’s spirit.
“A lot of drugs, a lot of bad feelings and an overwhelming sense that this isn’t how it’s supposed to be,” says Burtch about that period when reached by phone. “In the end, it was our own fault. We should have just said no (to those tours).”
Burtch also confirms Lytle’s assertion that Grandaddy could never make its touring revenues self-sustaining. Worse yet, dragging its songs around the world did little to help Grandaddy’s album sales: Sumday only sold marginally better than 2000’s The Sophtware Slump.
“I’ve never been paid above minimum wage working for this band,” says Burtch. “We always toured too expensively: a video guy, a monitor guy, tour manager, a front-of-the-house guy, two backline guys. Each of those guys would get paid $1,500 a week; I made $150 a week. Most bands pack into one little $40-a-night motel room. We each had to have our own room at $250 a head.”
Though saddened and uncertain about what comes next, Burtch seems to be OK with Grandaddy’s demise. “We’ve been doing this a long fucking time,” he says, “and it’s still not happened for us the way it happened for other people we toured with: Coldplay, Bright Eyes, Snow Patrol. We’re too weird, too fuckin’ ugly. We’re not rich kids, and we’re not art students. And in the end, if Jason doesn’t want to do it, I don’t really have a choice. It’s not like I can get a new singer and start playing Grandaddy songs.”
Fairchild is less willing to say all’s well that ends well. “I don’t know if a meeting in a hotel lobby in Modesto is enough to sort things out,” he says. “The conversations that would allow candor haven’t even happened yet.”
Is Fairchild under the impression Grandaddy is over?
“Um, I guess, maybe so,” he says after a pause. “To be honest, I haven’t thought that much about the band in two years. I don’t want to sound blasé, but I feel like I’ve already moved on. It’s obvious that Jason is no longer comfortable with the perception that others are involved, so the only thing to do is to start removing ourselves from the equation.”
Fairchild left Modesto two years ago and moved to Los Angeles, where he’s been writing and recording his own songs as well as producing bands at Elliott Smith’s New Monkey Studio with Earlimart’s Joel Graves. Lately, he’s been playing live with Modest Mouse, and by the time you read this, he’ll have moved to Portland, Ore. “Everything I associate with Modesto,” he says, “I associate with Grandaddy.”
Modesto served as both city of origin and base of operations for Grandaddy. Located in California’s fertile Central Valley, Modesto is perched midway between the coastal mountains and San Francisco to the west and the foothills of the Sierra Nevadas to the east. Surrounded by endless vistas of farmland and backcountry, Modesto is a sleepy bedroom community of 200,000 in search of a tourist hook. Even the city’s official Web site seems to struggle to come up with a compelling reason to visit: “Maybe you would rather explore our regional mall or local shopping centers, picnic in one of our many parks, visit our McHenry Museum, play a round of golf or just bask poolside in our warm sunshine. Whatever you choose, you will have the opportunity to enjoy all of the ‘Water, Wealth, Contentment, Health’ that Modesto has to offer!”
For the men of Grandaddy, all born and bred in the area, the reasons for staying were simple: It’s sunny all the time, the cost of living is cheap, and there’s not much to do but drink beer, skateboard and grow your beard—and maybe start a band. Jason Lytle was born here 37 years ago. His dad worked his way up from bag boy to middle management in a local supermarket chain. His mom was an artsy loner who encouraged her son’s creative interests.
“We had an old door lying around the back shed of the house when we were kids, and she found a little spot in the corner of the living room and turned that into an art table for me,” says Lytle. “Some of the best memories in that house, when the family was still together, are just me at that converted door on cinder blocks with headphones on and drawing a lot.”
Noticing her son banging out beats to the music, Lytle’s mother bought six-year-old Jason a drum kit. Later, after his parents split up and his father remarried, Lytle’s stepmother brought home a pile of albums from the radio station where she worked. It was all typical AOR fare for the time: Steely Dan, Foreigner, Rush. But there was one group that would have a profound effect on the future music of Grandaddy: ELO.
By the time Lytle was eight, he had made another life-changing discovery: skateboarding. “My dad took me to one of the first skate parks in our area and bought me a helmet and got the pads and everything,” he says. “I skated there a couple times, and the people at the skate park claimed I had natural ability. By the time I was 16, the skateboard thing really got its claws in and started shaping me into the person I was to become.”
It was around this time Lytle learned that too much cheap beer can lead to really bad decisions. “This was huge news at the time in Modesto,” he says. “I was 17 years old. One of the other guys was my age, two other guys were a little bit older. We got super wasted and went to the one skateboard shop in town. We broke into the shop and stole everything, cleaned the place out. I woke up the next day and went, ‘Oh my god, what am I going to do?’ I made an anonymous call to the owners of the shop and took my share—I knew where they lived—and left it in an alleyway and just kind of stuffed it behind the fence and drove off. That ended up helping me out when it came time for sentencing. But one of the guys, his mom caught him burying his stash in the backyard. Sure enough, I’m in school sitting in class and get the call to come to the office. My dad is standing there, and I’m like, ‘Oh shit, here we go.’ I ended up going to juvenile hall for two and a half weeks. If I was 18, I probably would have gone to jail.”
After that, Lytle vowed to use his skateboarding powers to do good. By 19, he’d become a competitive amateur skater, tooling up and down California for competitions. He’d even secured a sponsorship deal with a cool boutique skate supplier. Then, almost as soon as it started, Lytle’s skating career was ended by a torn ACL.
“It was a backyard ramp at my friend’s house, and there was a nail sticking up on the top of the ramp that I didn’t see,” he says. “I popped the nail, turned weird and came down on my knee. It just snapped.”
Doctors told him his skating days were over and that he needed surgery. (Unfortunately for Lytle, he wouldn’t be able to afford it until securing health insurance as part of Grandaddy’s 1998 deal with V2.) For nearly 10 years, he walked with a limp. With skateboarding no longer an option, Lytle returned his focus to music, playing drums in a series of go-nowhere pick-up bands. Meanwhile, his musical tastes were expanding beyond the narrow confines of the suburban skate-punk scene.
“I would go hang out at the mall with my friends during the day, where we’d eat nachos and push each other into groups of girls and do all that stupid Beavis And Butt-head stuff,” he says. “And then I would come home and put on Stravinsky. I would just get wrapped up in it and do my homework. With the whole ELO thing, here I am in the middle of skateboarding, listening to bands like Fear and Suicidal Tendencies and just not being able to shake this thing that I have for rich, textural music, and it was something I had to keep to myself. The Cars was another band that totally opened my mind. I played Cars albums all the time, particularly the first one and Candy-O. I just completely wore the albums out. I studied them from front-to-back: the blend of keyboards and guitar and the harmonies.”
During this time, Lytle worked a series of low-wage, eye-opening day jobs that schooled him in the realities of the human condition and instilled in him a sense of self-reliance and determination: operating a forklift at a 7-Up plant, working the line at a pistachio factory, mopping floors at Kmart, assembling trophies in a trophy shop, picking up trash at the local drive-in. It’s also during this time—when he saw firsthand the robotic interaction of lo-fi machinery and unskilled laborers—that Lytle’s worldview would begin to come into focus in his songwriting: the prevailing po’-faced melancholy of living in a disposable technocracy, where today’s iPod is tomorrow’s space junk, and cubicle drones in Dockers dream of electric sheep under Ikea lights. These themes would later crystallize on The Sophtware Slump, whose songs about sad, alcoholic robots and fake plastic trees created a soundtrack for the dot-com hangover. But even before Grandaddy was formed, Lytle had envisioned a place where the point-and-click future meets the campfire folk strum in a haze of binary-code blips and radio static.
A fairly lucrative day job working for his then-girlfriend’s father’s environmental-technologies company afforded Lytle the capital to acquire banks of keyboards, microphones, guitars, four-track recorders and the emerging digital home-recording technologies he had been reading up on. The mechanics of songwriting seemed fairly self-evident to him, but the fact that he couldn’t stand the sound of his voice was a major stumbling block.
“Maybe it would have been different if I were turned on to Lou Reed or Leonard Cohen,” says Lytle. “But at the time, I had no exposure to people like that. Finally, I started to hear people that did know about people like that, like Steve Malkmus and Frank Black.”
Around 1992, Lytle met Aaron Burtch at the skate park. Burtch knew how to play drums and had a friend named Kevin Garcia who played bass. A jam session was quickly arranged.
“It was actually kind of horrible,” says Burtch. “And then Jason started playing us some of the songs he had been working on, and even then, they pretty much sounded like Grandaddy songs: quiet voice, falsetto singing, strong melodic sense.”
Within a year, Fairchild and keyboardist Tim Dryden joined the band, and after some trial and error, a name was grudgingly agreed upon. “For a while, we were Simple Simon, which was horrible,” says Lytle. “Somewhere there’s a list of all the crappy names we considered. At night, we would sit there and drink coffee at Lyon’s Restaurant; that’s where all the new wavers and punk rockers went. I remember having a conversation with Aaron explaining why Grandaddy was a good name: It looked good on paper, it’s easy coming out of the mouth, and the timelessness of the idea of a grandfather. Also, it’s kind of a term that people don’t really use anymore.”
Fast-forward some 10 years, past local residencies at backwater shitholes like Izzy’s, where Grandaddy was often drawn into punch-ups with drunken rednecks in between sets of pussy-boy synth pop; past the formation of a mutual admiration society with Giant Sand’s Howe Gelb, who eventually helped the band secure a recording contract with V2; past the universal acclaim that greeted The Sophtware Slump; past Grandaddy being handpicked by Elliott Smith as support for what would prove to be his final tour.
Let’s pause, however, to take note of a private audience with a smitten David Bowie. “The first show he came to see, he was totally overdressed because he had just got done doing this big, fancy photo shoot, and he was apologetic about how nice he looked,” says Lytle. “The next show that he came to see us, he had this sweater; it was really nice, but it was frayed in a contrived way at the ends. It was really sweet.”
Keep fast-forwarding to the months just prior to the release of Sumday, when the band got together to make a jokey promotional film. The 13-minute Now It’s Upside Down was released on DVD in conjunction with Sumday single “Now It’s On,” and it’s a fitting metaphor for the state of the band at the time. Half in the bag and with a film crew in tow, the members of Grandaddy rented a van and drove to a canyon 30 miles outside of Modesto in order to execute the script for their faux-documentary. The plan was to fabricate a van wreck, with driver Garcia swerving to slightly shake the camera. But Garcia, the drunkest member of Grandaddy that day, took a hard right and drove up an embankment on the side of the road, flipping the van.
“We’re laughing our asses off,” says Lytle. “Nobody got hurt; there was a little blood and broken glass. There’s beer bottles and beer everywhere, so right off the bat, we kicked into covering-our-tracks mode, scooped up all the beer bottles and hid them behind a levee. Kevin just disappeared, which was a smart move. By then, someone had called the sheriff. We never got in trouble for it, but the sheriff knew what was going on. He’s no dummy.”
Picture, if you will, the drunken Grandaddy van, lying on its back on a dusty Northern California road like an upside-down turtle. It seemed funny at the time, but in retrospect, it would’ve been funnier if it weren’t so true. Grandaddy kept up the breakneck partying pace, in part to alleviate the drudgery of touring in support of Sumday, where the band’s music largely fell on the deaf ears of Pete Yorn fans waiting in line for a beer and a hot dog. For Lytle, the hard partying didn’t end when he got back home.
“Eventually, I realized I had no control over any of it anymore,” he says. “It was coke, crank, pills, booze—everything. Unfortunately, there are a couple of guys in the band who are party buddies, and we just kind of fuel each other. But we got to the point where we’d have too good of a time, and it wasn’t a good time anymore. I was pretty good at keeping it under wraps. I would go on my little benders where I’d disappear and stuff. Nothing dramatic like crashing my car and drunk driving and having to be picked up from jail or getting in a big fight. One of my favorite things to do was get a big sack of coke and a bunch of alcohol and hole up in the house for two or three days and go insane and come up with all kinds of stuff and sift through the wreckage a week later.”
When he finally did start to sort through the wreckage, it became apparent to Lytle that he needed help. “One morning, I’m sitting at my kitchen table with the Yellow Pages out,” he says, “cold-calling substance-abuse places.”
A half-year stretch of sobriety—the longest Lytle had been straight since puberty—brought clarity and a sense of self-control, but it also took its toll on his friendships within Grandaddy.
“There was already a non-communication problem with the band, and then I removed myself from any sort of social gathering,” says Lytle. “I’m definitely one of those people who’s not going to hang out at a bar and be sober, drink Diet Cokes and stuff. I just can’t be there at all. I didn’t have any big slip-ups throughout the whole thing. It was a huge deal for me after the five months to decide that I was going to have a beer. Basically, if anybody asks me about it these days, I just say, ‘Yes, I drink. Just not as much.’”
Further complicating the completion of Fambly Cat—while simultaneously fueling it creatively (see “Jeez Louise,” Lytle’s ode to a codependent couple)—was the Vicodin-fueled dissolution of Lytle’s relationship with his fiancée. “There were drugs in the beginning of our relationship and drugs at the end, but lots of off-and-on sobriety throughout all of it,” says Lytle. “A therapist I saw twice, then never saw again, tried to convince me that it’s impossible for a situation like that. But in the end, we realized we couldn’t be together. So it’s kind of interesting to look at the album knowing the levels of living that it took. The writing was like: sober, super wasted, sober, together, not together, fiancée, no fiancée, band, no band. Meanwhile, everybody in the band was just sort of surviving hand to mouth, and I’m stuck in this position of going, ‘Yeah it’s going good. Hang in there. We’re right around the corner from being done.’ So the theme of the album eventually became: ‘I hate my fucking town, I don’t know what my situation is, and this is all going to come to an end.’”
From start to finish, Fambly Cat is an unmistakable and intentional farewell. The album begins with a child’s voice repeating the phrase “What happened to the family cat?” over somber piano chords, working the metaphor of Grandaddy as the animal shuffling off alone to its decline and death. Even as the record tours through the band’s songwriting styles—terrain defined by Lytle’s haunting vocal melodies, vast beds of placid keyboard sounds and static blasts of guitar that punch choruses into overdrive—we’re reminded that this is Grandaddy’s last joyride. The tellingly titled “Rear View Mirror” finds Lytle packing up the car in anthemic fashion, while closer “Shangri-La (Outro)” ends the group’s recorded work with a simple declaration: “I’ll never return.”
Try to recall the opening shot of American Beauty, with its majestic aerial view of a suburban subdivision: a glittering, sun-kissed mosaic of the 21st-century mundane amid the low-din hissing of summer lawns and the whirling-dervish raga drone of lawnmowers. This is where Lytle has called home since he bought his nondescript house, purchased with record-company advances.
“Modesto is becoming a bad version of what California is turning into: the third mall from the sun,” says Lytle. “It used to be a nice place to come back to from tour, but now I just feel like I’m stuck here. I bought the house with the intention of it appreciating in value because it’s part of this huge commuter corridor. I’ve been benefiting from all the things I hate about this place. The house has doubled in price, so I guess some people do want to live here.”
By the time you read this, Lytle will have sold the house and moved to Montana. Just Like The Fambly Cat will be the last album he’ll make under the Grandaddy imprimatur. He has no plans to perform these songs live.
“I don’t know how I’d be able to,” says Lytle. “That’s my biggest problem. If I could imagine something that would be worthwhile watching and that I considered to be somewhat engaging, I would start working on it right now. But I’m having a hard time imagining what that would be.”
At this point, Lytle pauses to remember the first proper Grandaddy tour. He booked it himself using Maximumrocknroll’s guide to DIY touring, Book Your Own Fucking Life. Thirty-eight days of complete misery. Driving more than 600 miles a day to play to three people. Sleeping on floors. Eating at gas stations. And having the time of their lives.
“We bought this van, it was summertime and we had no AC, and we cut slits in the side of it and flared them out to scoop the air in, which scooped the rain in,” says Lytle. “We put a couch in the back. My big present to everybody before we took off was each guy got their own spray bottle. There we are, just roasting on the freeway in our boxer shorts, spraying ourselves with water. Ten years later, we’re on tour in Europe, on a fancy air-conditioned bus with a driver, driving along the coast of the Mediterranean, and there’s a meteor shower the likes of which I will probably never see again in my lifetime. We pull over, and I remember we were all lying on our own rock with our own bottle of wine. Just looking up at the sky and watching this magnificent light show over the ocean for hours.
“To this day, I’m amazed that we pulled it off considering that none of us are trained musicians. It was really sweet and kind of naive and done in blind faith. I can’t complain. We had a really good run. We affected a lot of people and had a really good time. Aside from really bad business plans, I would like to think I was a worthy captain of the ship.”