MAGNET Classics: Grandaddy’s “Sumday”

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The Making Of Grandaddy’s Sumday

By Jud Cost

Modesto, Calif. As a very young kid, I can barely recall seeing the name of that San Joaquin Valley town as I devoured the back pages of the “Sporting Green” of the San Francisco Chronicle. The Modesto Reds were a single-A minor league baseball squad that played in the California League, alongside outfits that included the Stockton Ports, so named because the town—located at the confluence of both the American and Sacramento Rivers—not only produced grapes for wine, but was the largest inland shipping port in the state.

But the Modesto Reds were special to a young kid then growing up in San Carlos, Calif. The Stuart family ran a drycleaning store on our main street, Laurel Avenue, that was frequently visited by that kid and his dad on Saturday mornings. I can still smell the wicked chemicals they used to remove the stains on that clothing. The Stuarts’ son, a strapping lad and a recent graduate of Sequoia High School in Redwood City, was now playing professional baseball for the Modesto Reds. We would get glowing, firsthand reports from the dry cleaners every week.

Their son would go on to hit a jaw-dropping 66 home runs for the Pittsburgh Pirates’ single-A farm team in Lincoln, Neb., in 1956. It was a staggering, Paul Bunyan-esque feat that would soon earn him a ticket to the big club, the National League’s cellar-dwelling Pirates squad. Yes, this was Dick Stuart, later to be known as “Dr. Strangeglove” for his defensive liabilities. But I saw Stuart play many times for the Pirates against the San Francisco Giants, brandishing his mighty offensive prowess to the point of getting nervous glances from a pretty decent Giants pitching staff that included Mike McCormick, Johnny Antonelli, Jack Sanford and Sad Sam Jones.

But the day I remember most might have been Stuart’s darkest hour, defensively. For some unknown reason, he was playing left field at the sparkling, new Candlestick Park (torn down just a few months ago) and came rushing in to cover what he must have reckoned was a pop-up. But the ball, hit by one of the Giants’ “beloved Willies”—either Mays, McCovey or Kirkland—went so far over Stuart’s head that it rocketed off the left center field wall for an easy, stand-up triple by the time he had retrieved the ball.

Quite a few years before that baseball gaffe, my mom and dad had stopped on a drizzly day at a roadside photo-stand in Modesto, on the way home from visiting my grandparents in Sacramento. They decided to have their little buckaroo snapped, waving a cowboy hat, supplied by the photographer, with the little shaver barely able to sit astride a stuffed horse, standing almost upright, à la Roy Rogers’ Trigger. That sepia-toned photo from old Modesto has been lost for decades. Large reward for its return.

Fast-forward 40 years to my then current MAGNET assignment to meet up with Grandaddy, a curiously named indie-rock outfit from Modesto whose early records on Seattle’s Will label were most intriguing. I first met the boys in the band late in the previous millennium, as they were packing up their fishing gear and brownbag lunches before heading out toward the Stanislaus River, not more than 20 miles away from home, in the general direction of Yosemite National Park, maybe 75 miles down yonder.

I hopped into the pick-up truck of Jason Lytle, Grandaddy’s resident genius, and we did the first of our many chats along with lead guitarist Jim Fairchild on a riverside picnic table as the rest of the boys in the band angled for trout. They caught a few, too, as I recall. Another such encounter also stands out: Lytle and I were about to chow down at a time-tested Mexican restaurant close to his home and spent some time discussing whether it would be wise to extract a spoonful of chili sauce from a jar that looked like it had been left on the table since the days of Pancho Villa. We decided to take a chance, and we’re still standing.

Standing was about the last thing Lytle could do after he blew out his ACL as an up-and-coming member of a professional skateboard tour. “I was actually pretty good, with a career planned out in front of me,” says Lytle. He turned to music to compensate for his loss, and the unique vocal sound he used to deliver his addictive melodies turned into an unexpected career move, for both him and four of his skate-rat pals.

Modesto is a fair-sized town located on both the jet-age I-5 freeway and rickety old Highway 99, rambling down the backbone of central California that stretches north beyond Stockton and Sacramento and south to Turlock, Merced, Visalia and Bakersfield. Those farming towns have become legend as the backdrop for John Steinbeck’s powerful novel, The Grapes Of Wrath.

Modesto’s inland location—80 miles east of the San Francisco Bay Area—deprives it of the “air-conditioned by God” afternoon breezes from the Pacific Ocean that cool down the big city. If you worship the heat, Modesto is your place. The large arch that spans the main drag seems to say it all to visitors: “water wealth contentment health.”

Lytle, who sang lead and penned all the material for Grandaddy in his extraordinary, fragile, cracked-eggshell voice, had nervously slipped a cassette to Howe Gelb after Giant Sand played a show at Slim’s in San Francisco. “I was blown away when Howe left an encouraging message on my parents’ message machine,” says Lytle. Gelb would become one of the band’s biggest boosters before Grandaddy was signed to V2 Records.

“Jason’s amazing, fragile voice—what can you say about it?” says Fairchild. “His voice is so uniquely his own.”

Make no mistake about it: Lytle created all of Grandaddy’s material in one or another of his homemade studios. He then fed his stuff to the rest of the band: Fairchild, drummer Aaron Burtch, keyboardist Tim Dryden and bassist Kevin Garcia. The band’s innovative sound was described to me by their V2 Records publicist as “a combination of Neil Young and the Beach Boys.” Lytle would later use money from V2 to buy a “cookie cutter” tract home next to Modesto in Ceres, whose “Dagwood & Blondie” facade (green lawn, white picket fence) concealed a pip of a recording studio that occupied the house’s kitchen, dining and living rooms. And, who knows, maybe even his bedroom.

The band began, Lytle recalls, somewhere back in the early ’90s, when he and red-bearded drummer Burtch played anywhere they were allowed: in coffee shops, skate demos, street fairs and house parties. Lytle almost didn’t recall that Burtch created the band’s farmyard animal imagery. “I’d almost forgotten what a great graphic artist Aaron is, and what a finely tuned sense of humor we had with our band website,” he says.

Lytle smiles crookedly when he also recalls he was the one who originally created Grandaddy’s slightly oddball band logo. “I remember distinctly the night I drew that up,” he says. “We had a lightning storm that night. Never underestimate the value of a good logo.”

Fairchild takes a somewhat larger view of the boss artwork created by Burtch: “We tried to make something distinctive for the Grandaddy website, and Aaron and Jason’s graphic stuff really did the job.”

Fairchild, always a huge Grandaddy fan, finally joined the band from his original combo, Sufferbus, in 1995. “Everybody knew that I’d hook up with Grandaddy someday,” he says. “I was always playing with Jason and the guys. At that point, the band was more like a street gang. We had people come up to us and say they were surprised that all five of us were still alive after some of the things we got into.” He politely refuses further comment on the band’s shady activity at that time.

When he’s complimented on the “chunka-chunka” guitar that perfectly backs many of his classic pop creations, such as “Now It’s On,” the opener from 2003’s Sumday. Lytle seems baffled by the reference for a moment, before his face lights up. “Oh, the chunka-chunka guitar!” he exclaims. “What a lot of people don’t realize is what a huge Metallica fan I was at the beginning, trying to convince people that you’re tough enough to go the distance.”

Fairchild descries that “chunka-chunka” sound as “the Pixies model. They use it all the time.” Sumday’s second number, “I’m On Standby,” was actually the first song tracked for the album. “It’s a striking and un-aging song that you can’t listen to without smiling,” he says.

Lytle doesn’t recall anyone in the band getting too excited about him doing all the band’s songwriting. “I would play everything I recorded for the band so I could immediately gauge their interest or lack of interest in the song,” he says. “And I would make very thorough demos of everything. Then tap into the taproot. It wasn’t until I started doing lots of interviews that journalists would always ask me in this surprised voice, like, ‘Oh, you write all the material?!’”

Lytle still winces when he recalls the time he slipped the Grandaddy cassette to Howe Gelb at Slim’s. “I was really scared, approaching one of my musical idols like that,” he says. “I had to get really boozed up to do it. I was living with my parents at the time, and I got a reply from Howe on their message machine about a month later, saying that he really liked the tape. And I also got another message from his Tucson pal Rainer Ptacek, saying that he really liked the tape, too, and to keep on doing it no matter what the cost.”

Lytle seems baffled at first when asked if he agrees with all those self-proclaimed “experts” who loved to compare his band to Radiohead just as the English combo was climbing toward the top rung of the ladder. “All I can see is that there were not a lot of options in indie-rock back then,” he says. “We both seemed to have some of that Y2K paranoia that was rampant at that time. I guess I can sort of see that.”

Fairchild agrees. “Actually, I take all that Radiohead stuff as a compliment,” he says. “It may be a lazy comparison, but there were very few bands back then doing that kind of thing that both our bands were doing.”

It’s easier today, Lytle insists, to cozy up to the way their original V2 publicist first described the band to me, as “a combination of Neil Young and the Beach Boys.”

“Sure, I’ll take that one,” says Lytle. “Rustic Neil Young cool and sharp California Beach Boys pop? Who wouldn’t go for that?”

Fairchild laughs softly at Grandaddy’s grand prank: the submission of a fake album to V2 in place of its second LP. “Jason was capable of writing songs that could have been massive hits,” says Fairchild. “All he had to do was change some of the production values, kind of dumbing things down a little bit. And the label was always asking him to sort of do that anyway. So, after we cut The Sophtware Slump, our second LP, we did it.”

After a very long weekend, the suits at V2 were still shaking their heads over the disc that had been submitted under the title The Arm Of Roger. Finally Kate Hyman, the band’s very hip V2 liaison, sent Fairchild, who was “kind of ” managing the band at the time, a message: “OK, Send The Real Record You Fucking Assholes!”

Fairchild is still a little miffed about the comment of an unknown Grandaddy fan after a show. “He told me we’d be a pretty good band if we could just get a new lead singer,” he says. “I think I told the dude, ‘Sorry if he isn’t Travis Tritt!’”

The band usually got along splendidly with their fans, says Lytle: “We tried to treat them differently than most bands did at that time, get closer. We’d ask the kids to send us money to buy food instead of using it for merchandise. That way, they could join us somewhere after the show for a barbecue that was taking place because of their food. Our bass player, Kevin Garcia, was our BBQ expert.”

Sumday feels like a bed-ridden patient waking up from a long nap, tossing on a pair of cut-offs, a T-shirt and some tennies, then blinking hard as he throws open the front door to inhale the rich perfume of a sunny autumnal morning, back in the days when your dad was still allowed to burn the dead leaves from the front lawn in a backyard incinerator.

Twelve years later, the album retains all its Ponce de Leonlike, rejuvenative powers, clearly on display in its opening brace of material. The sinuses are cleared like a double shot of Dristan with one of Grandaddy’s best-ever songs, “Now It’s On,” batting leadoff. The tune’s initial grabber, a hollow voice saying “click” four times in a row, was thoroughly doctored up. “I speeded the word ‘click,’ muttered by an anonymous source, and then slowed it down again,” says Lytle.

“Hey, you have to write a good line every once in a while,” he replies at the certified brilliance of the song’s best couplet: “I wouldn’t trade my place/I got no reason to be/Weathered and withering/Like the season of the old me.” What it all means, according to Lytle, is open to a multitude of interpretations. What it could really mean is that he’s really not perfectly sure what it does mean. After all, the best poetry can defy an army of deciphers.

Fairchild is still amazed at the album’s rock-solid opener. “That’s a pop gem,” he says. “I’m a real fan of pop music, and it was a bold move of Jason to put ‘Now It’s On’ in the number-one slot on the album.”

A special blue ribbon might be awarded here for Lytle’s bird’s nest-soup set of lyrics to Sumday’s third tune, “The Go In The GoFor-It.” It’s a perfect little chugging rocker with our boy in his most literate form, sitting astride a set of ultra-cryptic lyrics. “The talk it got so loud/The song cut out so well/That’s when I’d had enough/ With all the talk and stuff/My head did bring it down/Onto more level ground/Where my only company/Was wind blowing through the leaves.” Any decent interpretation of this might be eligible for next summer’s James Joyce Prize at the Siskiyou Golden Fair in Yreak, Calif.

The true story behind “El Caminos In The West” has to be all but dragged out of the guy like a body from a car crash. At first, he says, it was about El Camino Real, the ancient highway that extends from Los Angeles through San Francisco to points north. When the subject is changed to the Chevy El Camino, the slick hybrid road vehicle from 50 years ago that is part passenger car and part pick-up, he’s overcome with the true story of the song.

“Back when I was a kid, everything was different,” says Lytle. “It was OK to ride in the back of vehicles, and there was nobody there to tell you it was unsafe. So, my folks would go blasting down the freeway outside Reno with me and my brother and sister riding along in the back of their pick-up. The first Star Wars had just come out, and we were really up for something this dramatic.”

When Grandaddy got around to deciding what tunes from Sumday to play at live shows, it was unanimously agreed to keep one of Sumday’s songs, “The Warming Sun,” under wraps forever.

“It was just too emotional for Jason,” says Fairchild. “The song was about his former girlfriend, Kristy.”

Says Lytle, “We made an executive decision to not play it, and that was that.”

“At one time we were thinking about getting royalties for Kristy,” says Fairchild, “since just about all the songs were about her.”

In autumn’03, Grandaddy, accompanied by Super Furry Animals and San Joaquin Valley pals Earlimart, played a sold-out twonight run at Bill Graham’s Fillmore West, followed by a happening nationwide tour. The band ended the Fillmore shows both nights with “Lost On Yer Merry Way.”

“That was a truly autobiographical song,” says Fairchild. They had come through what he believes was a life-and-death situation when they were a bit younger. “Our lives were fuckin’ gnarly,” he adds. “We were lucky to all be there.”

I’ve spent a lot of time with Lytle, winging his words to outposts all over the globe. From a few beers in New Orleans to lunches and breakfasts in far-flung California outposts from Los Angeles to San Francisco, after and before gigs and during band rehearsal in Modesto, he’s never at a loss for words. It’s been a rare treat to watch firsthand as Grandaddy turned into what I think is the very best band of MAGNET’s indie-rock era.

It was an odd choice, Fairchild delicately suggests, picking Sumday for this MAGNET Classics piece. “That album was the beginning of the end for the band,” he says. “The break-up began in 2005. Personal relations had truly started to unravel by that time. What you hear in that record—the good and the bad times—it’s all in there.”

Lytle seems to have retained a lighter touch about Sumday. Recent reunion shows by Grandaddy have left him with a pleasant taste in the mouth. “I’ve done well over the years by controlling my depression without meds,” he says. “That move to Bozeman, Mont., a few years ago was what really did it for me. That was so much better than medication.

“Of course,” adds Lytle now living in Portland, “I’ll be moving back to California pretty soon. Hey, I’m a born-and-bred California kid.”

Any band quibbling about Sumday aside, it’s the Grandaddy LP that’s always given me the most pleasure. For some pretty obvious reasons, I guess, it always reminds me of returning to Modesto, a step backward for me that feels like spending a few summers in Woodland, Calif., where my two cousins and I once won a blue ribbon at the Yolo County Fair for creating a large worm out of chicken wire and crepe paper (designed by my brilliant Aunty Ann). We donned that worm and walked it in that year’s Fourth of July Yolo County Fair parade. We won first prize, too, which amounted to 10 bucks per kid, an enormous sum in those days.

For that, I say God bless California’s central valley, and all those who were rewarded in it.