Grandaddy’s Jason Lytle On Restlessness, Shredding, Weird Jobs, & His Placid New Album Blu Wav

Dustin Aksland

Grandaddy’s Jason Lytle On Restlessness, Shredding, Weird Jobs, & His Placid New Album Blu Wav

Dustin Aksland

When Jason Lytle of Grandaddy turns on his Zoom camera, he’s predictably perched outside, a cloudless blue California sky behind him, a palm tree in the distance. I off-handedly comment that it’s very bright. “I can darken things down,” Lytle jokes. “Get in a dark room under the covers and go full goth.”

It’s a fitting start to our chat, emblematic of Lytle’s lighthearted attitude toward the trope of being a tragic musician. Considering Grandaddy have been highly regarded in the scene where many bands do fit that trope — Sparklehorse, Silver Jews, Songs: Ohia, to name a few — some might expect Lytle to adhere to it as well, but he doesn’t. Despite the devastating lyrics of his new album Blu Wav, Lytle doesn’t think it’s that sad. To be fair, the sound is placid and hopeful; the introduction of the pedal steel adds a layer of nostalgic beauty, especially on the old-timey “Jukebox App.”

Since their genesis in 1992, Grandaddy have perfected a moving concoction of rock, folk, and pop, tending to prioritize electric guitars over everything else. Their hit “A.M. 180,” off their 1997 debut Under The Western Freeway, is buoyed by a playful, radiant synth melody. The following LP, 2000’s The Sophtware Slump, served as their magnum opus, a wistful, prophetic start to the new millennium. Though it came out several months before I was even born, I felt an instant kinship with the songs when I listened to them for the first time. The Sophtware Slump is a timeless portrait of the uncertainty of life, of our inability to stay satisfied, of our endless search for lasting comfort and peace.

On The Sophtware Slump’s penultimate track, “Miner At The Dial-A-View,” Lytle croons, “I dream at night/ Of going home someday/ Somewhere so far away,” reminding me of a quote from Giovanni’s Room by James Baldwin: “Why, you will go home and then you will find that home is not home anymore. Then you will really be in trouble. As long as you stay here, you can always think: One day I will go home.” Home is wherever we are not; home serves more purpose as a dream, a tranquil idea. It is better to come to terms with a concept of home as something that exists already within us, as Blu Wav’s cosmic “Cabin In My Mind” suggests.

Grandaddy started off as Lytle on vocals, guitar, and keys, Kevin Garcia on bass, and Aaron Burtch on drums, before guitarist Jim Fairchild and keyboardist Tim Dryden joined in ’95. In 2017, Garcia passed away following a stroke, two months after the release of their fifth LP Last Place. Blu Wav is the first proper Grandaddy record since then, and Lytle has stepped out on his own, with all the tracks written, produced, and performed by him, with the exception of Max Hart on pedal steel.

Lytle leans into the quaint, slow side of Grandaddy on Blu Wav, out next month on Dangerbird Records. He calls the album a “snoozefest,” but he’s proud. “It takes a lot of restraint to have this much restlessness within you and still make an album that’s snoozy,” he says. The title Blu Wav refers to Lytle’s combining of bluegrass and new wave to create a new genre. Today, the coruscating single “Long As I’m Not The One” is out, beginning with fizzy synthesizers that lead to Lytle’s vulnerable lull. Hear it below, and read our interview about Blu Wav.

A lot of your music is about isolating yourself, moving to different locations as a way to sequester yourself away from people and artifice. But then there’s a kind of disillusionment that you find once you’re there and you’re alone.

JASON LYTLE: Grass is always greener. What do they call it… wanderlust. I definitely suffer from thinking that I’m missing out, thinking that wherever I’m at isn’t as awesome as the next place. I think that got handed down from my mom. My mom and dad split when I was like five, and she went off to find herself. And she was always moving to new places.

She always lived somewhere until she realized that the place wasn’t up to her specifications. Like, “Everyone’s a jerk here and I’m thinking about moving here instead.” Then she moved onto the next new place. I saw that from a distance.

I hate moving. I hope it doesn’t sound like moving music. Moving is annoying. It’s really stressful. I like being organized. It’s like the epitome of disorganization. Yeah, I’m sorry to hear that.

It can be an okay thing, restlessness. It can be just as good as it can be bad. I think the subject of things changing and there being a bit of unrest in your life, that just leads to great stuff. But you can get addicted to not being happy with where you’re at, which is something to consider.

You said that when you’re somewhere you feel like you’re missing out on being somewhere else. Do you ever feel like when you’re making music or just art, you’re imagining all the different directions it can go in and get stressed out about having to pick one way to do it?

LYTLE: Yes, it’s maddening. And it’s even worse now. I mean, the limitations used to be pretty clear. It’s like, “Alright, I have these instruments. I have this amount of gear. I have these two or three microphones — or one microphone, for that matter.” And I have a limited skill set in terms of how accomplished I am playing whatever instrument I’m trying to play. And then it seems like there’s a lot more options now. We have access to so many different genres of music and so many different avenues of being inspired. I don’t like that open-endedness. I like to know that there are certain boundaries that I’m working within. I definitely had to create those. I had a certain sound or a certain something that I was going for working on this last album. That’s almost a sanity thing. It’s like, “Okay, I can actually wrap my head around this because I know the parameters that I’m working within.” Because even with those supposed limitations, there’s a billion different variables or options. I don’t like there being so many options.

It’s also why I don’t practice my instrument that much. Another example of that, I try to look at the way that I play piano or my guitar and stuff in a real simplistic way. I’ll just try to pick it up and go, “Hey, what’s this thing that I’ve been doing that for like the last 25-30 years of just picking it up after not touching the thing for three weeks.” I’m definitely not one of those people who always has a guitar in their hands who’s just sitting watching TV learning cover songs from 700 different bands. I like to not really know exactly what I’m doing. That causes some limitations, too. So, however I can get my limitations.

A few years ago, you said that this is going to be the last big Grandaddy record. Do you still feel that way?

LYTLE: Oh, no. I just tell myself that to get myself to start working on something. I have to create all kinds of stories to get myself to not be so lazy. But actually, this would be a weird one to end my Granddaddy run on because it’s a bit of a departure in terms of the way the other albums sound. The other ones are a lot more all-over-the-place and dynamic. This one has way more of a laid-back feel to it. But I don’t know. Who knows? Nobody knows. Could be the last album. I’m ready for anything.

I saw someone was complaining to you on social media that the songs have been too slow.

LYTLE: I love it. I’m just like, “Man, you haven’t heard anything yet.” I’m just getting started with how slow and boring they are.

Do you feel any pressure to shred?

LYTLE: The only pressure that I have is that I wish I could shred better. I grew up listening to all that; I have a long history and appreciation of shredding music. I wish I could play that sort of music, but I just have to sit back and listen to it. So yes, I’m definitely a frustrated wannabe shredder.

Some of your songs shred; “Chartsengrafs” is a good one.

LYTLE: I got tons of B-sides and just weird, obscure stuff that’s been collected over the years. There’s testament to my ability to shred. I mean, I will shred I can. I can like I can do hammer-ons. My appreciation for gnarly, fast metal has sent me down some roads. I love Mastodon, Ghost. There was a big debate in the ’80s of metal versus punk. I refused to buy into that because I loved both of them. But people forget what a huge skateboarding band Metallica used to be. Metallica was just the absolute favorite. They were gnarly too, they were dirty. It was a pretty scrappy. I mean, I still like them. But they were one of my favorite bands when I was growing up skateboarding.

When you’re working on an album, are you thinking about how the listeners will react to it?

LYTLE: Trying not to do that. Every now and then, just because of years of programming, I think it tries to creep in. It tries to infiltrate your working process. But I’m constantly batting it away. It ends up being mind games; you kind of have to reframe your thinking and just get back to what’s important. I like hearing all those quotes about people who spend too much time wondering what other people are gonna think are compromising their own art or what the results are gonna be.

But in a weird, roundabout way, I don’t think it’s the worst thing in the world. I think that I have very similar tastes to the people who listen to my music. So if I’m making something that I like, there’s probably a pretty good chance that that they might end up liking a lot of that as well. So it’s not something that I should totally disregard.

How does a song come together for you? What comes first?

LYTLE: It’s different all the time. More often it’s been an intriguing song title. Sometimes, I capture a lot of ideas. Like I play the piano a lot, I play the guitar a lot, and then I’ll record it. Sometimes it’s something that’s like 20 or 30 seconds long, could be a chord progression. But it’s mostly music, unless it’s a clever song title. At this point, I’m open for getting whatever it takes to get me excited about working on something. So a lot of different ways that can happen.

I noticed the last song on the album, “Blu Wav Buh Bye,” is a piano ballad with no lyrics. I was curious about the decision to do that.

LYTLE: Just a little drama. Little dramatic flair at the end, why not?

The lead single “Watercooler” is a pretty dramatic song. The lyrics and the chorus made me really upset. I read a quote from you that said, “Sometimes I just want to be punched in the face with music.” The chorus of “Watercooler” was like that for me.

LYTLE: Have you ever cried at work in the bathroom stall?

Probably. Over a guy not calling me.

LYTLE: [Laughs] I’m sorry. I didn’t plan on that being the first song to be released, it was suggested. I was like, “Alright. Sounds okay to me.” I like them all sort of equally at this point. But yeah, pretty good visuals in that. Office drama.

Do you work in an office?

LYTLE: No, I don’t, thankfully. I’ve had a lot of really strange sort of weird jobs. I used to not to work that much; I’d work just enough and then I go take road trips or whatever, work just enough to pay rent and then go have fun, but it was usually through one of those temp agencies. They had categories for people who want to get jobs in offices, and then they’d have more industrial types of jobs. Those are the ones I’d go after, like working in warehouses or driving a forklift or digging holes. I would always try to avoid the office jobs because they usually involve typing and I don’t type very well at all.

Digging holes?

LYTLE: A grave digger [laughs]. No. I worked in a nursery. So there’s a lot of hole digging there. Planting trees requires a lot of digging holes, shoveling dirt. It’s about as basic as you can get, moving dirt from one spot to another.

I wanted to ask about the song “Jukebox App.” Is that about TouchTunes?

LYTLE: What’s TouchTunes?

A jukebox app.

LYTLE: It probably is, unless there’s a few of them. The idea came from when I was in a bar and it was the first time I experienced that — where you could program the jukebox from an app on your phone. Within minutes, I came up with the idea for the song. I was like, “Oh my god, think of all the damage you can do with this.” First off, there was that ability to pay extra money and then override other people’s choices. That’s pretty deviant to begin with.

A guy was doing that to me the other day actually.

LYTLE: Really? That’s kind of screwed up. Just imagine a total rich kid coming in, money’s not even an object. But if you go into the bar and you only have like $4 in your bank account and all you want to do is hear that one song — your one favorite song in the world. Don’t even have enough for a drink, all you have is enough for that song on the jukebox.

Also, as far as country music subject matter went, whatever the golden eras of country music were, they’re constantly singing about jukeboxes. I was thinking about that, too. You don’t really hear people singing about jukeboxes anymore, and it used to be such a prominent subject in country songs. And in order to do it, you’d have to have this modernized version of it. So that was a nice way to kill two birds with one stone here — was to mention the jukebox and then come up with this pathetic story about some guy who sabotages his exes’ date night with songs they used to love.

You contributed vocals to the posthumous Sparklehorse album. I was curious about that.

LYTLE: [Mark Linkous’s] brother was putting together this album and just asked me if I would. I got on the phone with him to feel out the situation to see if I was comfortable with it. I ended up liking the idea. That was weird, but it was nice. It was strange having the session set up in my workspace and listening to it and working on it and hearing his voice there and singing along with it. I was actually friends with Mark as well, so that added another level of strangeness to it.

What’s your favorite Sparklehorse song?

LYTLE: I got a lot… It’s a weird one. I don’t even know why I like it so much. It’s called “Cow.” It’s blistering, one of his harder, faster, distorted ones for some reason that I really liked. I don’t know why. It’s odd because if he excelled at anything it was the more dreamy, orchestrated songs, and there’s plenty of those. I just get pretty fired up by that song “Cow.” Going back to the shredder thing.

I wanted to ask about the song “You’re Going To Be Fine And I’m Going To Hell.” There are a lot of motifs in your music about feeling doomed.

LYTLE: Doomed? That probably wasn’t the goal I was setting out for. That one was definitely inspired by the song title. That was just like, “Man, this is a good song title. What can I create around the song title? What’s the vibe of the song title?” It’s weird, it’s part autobiographical, but the other part is just taking little memories of places that I’ve been and kind of creating something that didn’t exactly exist. But doomed? [Interrupted by loud roaring sound] Fuckin’ leaf blowers just don’t stop. Is that coming across very loud?

It’s fine.

LYTLE: Manageable volume?

Yeah. It’s probably bad for you, though.

LYTLE: Well, it’s great [laughs].

You should sample it in a song.

LYTLE: I actually have a song, a B-side, that I built around a recording of my neighbor mowing his lawn. I have this one key and I’ve created a whole chord progression around the key of a lawn mower. Anyway…

You don’t think it feels doomed? I think the phrase “You’re Going To Be Fine And I’m Going To Hell” is pretty sad.

LYTLE: I wasn’t really going to hell. If I was really going to hell, it’d be pretty bleak. I think I was just going through a rough patch. Going to hell sounds better than “You’re Going To Be Fine And I’m Going Through A Rough Patch.”

You sound pretty optimistic when you when you talk about your music.

LYTLE: I spent enough years dealing with phases of depression and bouts of feeling miserable. That serves its purpose to a certain degree, but it’s not sustainable. I think you actually need to be happier, productive, and motivated in order to make the stuff because it’s very laborious process that requires a lot of energy. And you kind of need to be enthusiastic. I’m really grateful. At this point, it’s just like Jesus, I look at everything — all the different phases, everything that I’ve gone through and all the uncertainty, the times that I was broke, and all the times that I had a little bit of money and then I was broke again. The fact that I’m still able to do this and there is a certain sector of the population that still gives a shit… it’s kind of a nice position to be in.

Blu Wav is out 2/16 on Dangerbird Records.

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