Jason Lytle On The Pains Of Touring, The Weather, And Why Being Solo Is Better Than Being In Grandaddy
For someone who kind of hates touring and would rather be hanging out in the woods than playing shows, Jason Lytle has already had a pretty busy year. Hot on the heels of finishing up a successful string of tour dates with the classic Grandaddy lineup earlier this summer, Lytle just released Dept. Of Disappearance — his second proper solo album. His truncated tour in support of the album kicks off tonight. I had the chance to sit down with him in NYC and talk about the making of his new record and how radically his life has changed since his former band called it a day back in 2005.
STEREOGUM: So, was most of Dept. Of Disappearance recorded before the Grandaddy reunion tour earlier this year?
LYTLE: Oh yeah. It was entirely done before then. I was just wrapping things up on this record as I was starting to figure out how we were gonna pull off the Grandaddy tour, but there wasn’t really any overlap.
STEREOGUM: Where was the record made?
LYTLE: At my studio. I have a nice home studio. I’ve always had my own studio, even during the Grandaddy years. I’ve lived in Bozeman, Montana for almost seven years now, and I have a nice setup there for recording — a 300-square-foot room with all of my gear. I engineered the record, recorded all of it, and played all the instruments. I had a friend come in and help me a little bit while I was recording the drums, but that was the only outside help that I had.
STEREOGUM: How long did it take to make the record?
LYTLE: That’s always been a tough question for me to answer. One of the luxuries of having your own studio is that you can work on things forever. At the same time, I’m really bad about having any kind of loose ends with a project … and when you are making a record, it’s basically nothing but loose ends. So in a way it’s this never-ending torture for me until the thing is finally mastered. I’ll typically squirm and resist until it’s finally too much, and I’ll go in with all my songs and spend the next two weeks just intensely working until I’m spent. Then I’ll rest, reassess, and then make rough mixes that I can take with me and listen to. I’ve also gotten into recording based on the weather. I try to spend as much time as I can outdoors — which is the main reason that I moved to Montana. Rather than spend ungodly amounts of time in the studio, I’d much rather be outside. I find it funny that I fell into this line of work because even though I love being around my gear and I love making songs, I’d so much rather be outside, and the two things often have nothing to do with each other. So I always watch the forecast. If it seems like it’s gonna be sunny for the next few days, I’ll spend as much time as I can outdoors. And if it looks like storms are gonna be coming through, I’ll plan on just being in the studio. The winters are super long in Montana, so my last two solo records were basically made during the wintertime. It just makes more sense to me to be shut in and focused when it’s cold outside.
STEREOGUM: I can understand that. I’m from Oklahoma; we had pretty brutal winters there. Is your place in Bozeman out in the country?
LYTLE: Actually, no. I live in town, but I feel like I still get the best of both worlds. I enjoy having my modern conveniences, but from my front doorstep I can be running from bears or dying of hypothermia out in the woods in about 15 minutes. It’s a weird existence. Living so close to the wilderness, I can wake up at 6 a.m. and watch the sunrise from some place way out in the woods, and then still manage to make it home to have dinner at my own house that night. I really appreciate that. I love living someplace where I can easily have a day trip to the country — you know, seeing elk and hiking around on mountains — but still be at home at night to fall asleep in my own bed while watching Frasier. I’ve never lived someplace where there was such an extreme contrast — you can go from the city to the country almost instantly.
STEREOGUM: It’s interesting to think about this as music made by someone who was trapped indoors due to the winter weather.
LYTLE: I love that, though. That’s how people used to do things. Your life and your work and your chores were sort of dictated by the weather. There’s something … I don’t know, I just like the natural rhythm of that. I’m pretty sensitive to my environment, so it makes more sense to me to work this way — rather than working with the air conditioning blasting on me and under artificial light, surrounded by bags of cocaine. [Laughs]
STEREOGUM: Do you suffer from seasonal affective disorder? Like, do you get bummed during the winter months? Because that would certainly influence the mood of the music as well.
LYTLE: Yeah, I do, but I also really look forward to the winter. I do a lot of cross-country skiing and things like that. It’s so beautiful where I live. You know, it will snow for a couple of days and then the sun will come out for a few days and it will just be amazing. It’s usually at the end — during that last month or so of winter — when the snow isn’t pretty anymore and the roads are constantly muddy. That’s usually when people are kind of at their wits’ end. That being said, I really love the winter as much as the summertime. It’s just easier to stay indoors and work when it’s cold out.
STEREOGUM: Are you someone who tends to work thematically, or do those things usually reveal themselves to you as the record comes together? I was just thinking about that because Dept. Of Disappearance has such a coherent, unifying thread running throughout: lost people, maps, dislocation, being found ….
LYTLE: I feel really lucky that some kind of continuity usually starts revealing itself to me as I go. The way it normally happens is that I’ll narrow down what songs seem to fit together and put them next to each other, and then some new focus starts to take place, which generates this new wave of enthusiasm for all the songs. I’m always just hoping to be enthused. Often it just feels like there’s something going on and I’m trying to figure out exactly what it is and then tell about it. For this record I kept imagining this woman up in the mountains in a blizzard and she’s trapped, and there’s a guy down in the valley that can’t get to her and can’t do anything about it. I realized this same narrative was kind of happening in several of the songs. I haven’t laid down on the therapist couch and tried to figure out why as of yet, but that was the story that seemed to be unfolding.
STEREOGUM: Interesting. I hadn’t thought about it with that kind of specificity, but that does make sense.
LYTLE: There’s also a lot of weather on this record, which I guess shouldn’t be surprising. It’s funny, even with all there is to look at on the Internet, I still mostly use it to look at what’s happening with the weather. It’s one of the most basic, ground-level, uncomplicated things to be obsessed with, I guess.
STEREOGUM: I love that. Obsession with the weather is just one of the most basic human concerns. My family back in Oklahoma was always obsessed with the weather, but we were also farmers, so it made sense. Then I move to the city and it’s the same thing. It’s like fortune telling: Please tell me, when I go outside today, what is gonna happen?
LYTLE: That was always one of my big problems with touring and traveling so much. I never felt like I knew what direction I was facing or where I was. When I’m back home and I’ve been home for a while and I’m out hiking and walking around, I feel like my instincts — even my sense of smell — are sharper. I feel really tuned in, like I’m really ON. It feels really powerful. But when I’m touring and spending time on airplanes and in cabs and in places that are really loud, not ever really knowing what direction I’m facing, I start feeling really at the mercy of the world. I feel weak and vulnerable. So it’s important for me to live somewhere that allows me to reset those mechanisms inside myself that make me feel good and happy and productive.
STEREOGUM: Does that make you dread the idea of going back on tour?
LYTLE: Yeah. There’s a big part of it that I really just fucking hate. You know, had the money not been so good for doing that last Grandaddy tour, I’m not sure I could have done it. It was just the epitome of closed-in environments. Too many dudes standing around and lurking the hours away. I’m generally so busy and independent when I’m at home — I’m super active, I’m not a sitting-around-and-drinking-chamomile-tea kind of guy. So yeah, the whole thing of traveling in a group, rock band style, is just not my thing. It was still super awesome to hang out and play music with the guys, and it was great to see people be so excited about it, but it was a big reminder of why I had to phase myself out of that kind of life. When I’m touring on my own it’s usually a situation where I’m doing just enough stuff to make the label happy and fulfill my obligations. I just try and be more thoughtful and a lot more picky about my touring situations. I can’t go out and be a road dog anymore. I’m not into it.
STEREOGUM: So the Grandaddy tour didn’t make you nostalgic for the old days?
LYTLE: No, but I don’t want to diss the experience either. It was awesome paid vacation, especially for some of the guys who have regular day jobs back home now. I don’t want to undermine the experience for anyone else, but I would just have these moments where I felt like, “This is embarrassing. We’re grown men doing this?” You know, I had to get myself out of that and invent this new life for myself, and I’m very very happy in this new life. I feel like I just barely escaped the whole rock and roll thing by the skin of my teeth, and I somehow came out healthier and eventually fell back in love with music. So, for the Grandaddy tour — which lasted just over a month — I just accepted the fact that it would eventually come to an end and it would be fine. A certain amount of it was simply just work, but the other aspects of touring like that … I just couldn’t be bothered. I’m proud to say that I’ve grown up — and there was a time when I didn’t know if that would happen or not. There was a moment when it looked like I could have become this pickled, pathetic human trying to extend my adolescence into forever.
STEREOGUM: Well, rock and roll can keep you young, but often in the worst ways.
LYTLE: I actually enjoy being a grown-up, responsible person. I didn’t want to become this numb thing, just being dragged along by this machine. The drinking becomes a big part of it. I didn’t want to necessarily become the clean and sober guy who can still sit at the bar and listen to the same old stories and dumb chatter over and over again — that’s why you have to stay drunk! The only way to exist in that lifestyle is to stay drunk. It’s the only way to tolerate it. And I didn’t want that.
STEREOGUM: Would the ideal scenario for you be to just put out a record every couple of years and then go about your business without ever having to play shows?
LYTLE: Yeah. You know, if I really liked a band and I knew that the reason that they were no longer making records was because of all the non-creative, mundane bullshit that comes along with it, I would think that was really unfortunate. It would be sad that they weren’t able to come to some compromise in order to still make records and make things work. For me, I know that the option exists to just make records in my studio and not tour. And if I ever feel like I no longer want to play shows, I won’t. But I’ve learned enough about how the machine works — and about working with a label — that there are certain things you can do to really help the process and support the label and your record without making yourself go crazy. You just learn when to say no to things.
STEREOGUM: All of that stuff aside, how do you feel as a performer? Is there some aspect of playing live that you enjoy?
LYTLE: I actually think about this a lot. You get a certain charge out of performing in front of people, but I also have enough stuff that I do at home — things that require a lot of adrenalin and endorphins — that I’m less interesting in having to go out and prove myself in that way on stage. But that is actually my favorite part of performing. I get super anxious before I perform, and I don’t always know what I’m gonna do when I get out there. Lately my m.o. has been guitar/piano/sampler/drum machine … and then I just get up there and wing it. That adds to the anxiety because I don’t have a structured plan when I get up there. It’s very improvisational and I really appreciate that. I usually think, this is either gonna be pretty neat or it’s gonna fail miserably and I’m gonna be bummed at the end of it, so let’s get up there and see which one it’s gonna be.
STEREOGUM: So what are your touring plans for this record? I know some dates have been announced.
LYTLE: It’s a pretty reasonable set of tour dates, along with some dates opening for Band Of Horses. We’ll see what happens after that. I always love it when a venue has a piano. I actually did this residency in Portland recently where I played for seven nights in this tiny little spot called the Owl’s Den. I’d be interested in doing more stuff like that. It was probably the most fun thing I’ve ever done, performance-wise. Next time I might only do three days rather than seven if I do it again, because it started to get kind of crazy by the end. The first three nights were actually the roughest because I realized that the bartender had been giving me these beers that were extra strong; the shows got better after that when I finally chilled out on those beers.
STEREOGUM: I noticed that you contributed to Spirit Of Talk, an upcoming illustrated book celebrating the music and art of Talk Talk. How did that happen?
LYTLE: I’ve been a huge fan for a long time. The original idea was that the book would be about the artist who created all of their album art, which would come with a CD of people covering Talk Talk songs. So, I recorded a song for them and then scribbled a few words for them. I covered a song called “Tomorrrow Started.”
STEREOGUM: Oooh, that’s a great song.
LYTLE: Yeah, I love it. I was scouring the Internet looking for the few interviews with Mark Hollis that actually exist and I found one where he mentions that “Tomorrow Started” was one of his favorites, which made me feel good. You should google “Mark Hollis” and “Danish interview” — it’s an interview where he talks about both Spirit Of Eden and Laughing Stock.
STEREOGUM: He’s a good example of someone who did it his way.
LYTLE: He’s such an inspiration. You don’t get better than that guy.
Jason Lytle tour dates:
10/22 – San Diego, CA @ Casbah
10/23 – Los Angeles, CA @ Bootleg Bar
11/29 – Bloomington, IN @ Bluebird Nightclub
12/01 – Madison, WI @ Barrymore Theatre
12/03 – Ann Arbor, MI @ Michigan Theater
12/05 – Toronto, Canada @ Massey Hall
12/06 – Montreal, Canada @ Métropolis
12/09 – Boston, MA @ House Of Blues Boston
12/11 – New York, NY @ Manhattan Center Grand Ballroom
12/14 – Philadelphia, PA @ The Electric Factory
12/15 – Richmond, VA @ The National
Jason Lytle’s Dept. Of Disappearance is out now on Anti-.