In part two of DiS's epic interview with ex-Grandaddy frontman Jason Lytle, we turn away from his old band's glory days and move on to his current career, as a solo artist touring debut album Yours Truly, The Commuter, which came out last week.
DiS: Seeing as how you wrote all the songs in Grandaddy, it seems natural for you to also play songs from that era now. Do you worry about blending the two together, as opposed to keeping them separate entities?
Jason Lytle: I think I gave that whole idea about 30 seconds of thought, and I gave it about 10 seconds of concern. And then I started putting together a set list that I thought would be fun to play, and it’s pretty much Grandaddy songs and my songs. And I’m okay with it. Totally okay with it.
DiS: Do you feel in any way that you’re playing cover songs by yourself?
JL: No, no. Absolutely not. It might be easier to explain if you heard some of the rehearsals. Rusty [Miller, multi-instrumentalist]’s an old friend of mine, and I’m playing with Aaron [Burtch, former Grandaddy drummer]. So that’s half the battle. And Rusty’s in this great band, too, [Jackpot] and I’ve been a fan of it forever. I don’t know, I’m just playing my songs. I start strumming the chords, and I start seeing the stories in my head – the same stories that began when I started making the songs. You know, they’re my songs. And the ones that don’t sound like what Grandaddy used to do, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. They’re mutating in ways that are actually pretty interesting to me.
DiS: How about Grandaddy’s biggest hits, like 'The Crystal Lake', 'AM 180', 'Now It’s On' and songs like that – are you gonna continue playing the most recognizable songs?
JL: What I have been trying to do – being the scheming strategist that I am – is to kind of break it down to three categories. I’m trying to play some of the more recognizable stuff – Grandaddy songs – and it’s a big bonus if they’re still fun and we’re having a good time playing them. They tend to be some of the more energetic ones. And then that of my new stuff that I think sounds good being played live - ‘cause I haven’t figured out how to play all of it – although some of it I have, and I’m kind of surprised at how it’s coming across. And then there’s the more obscure Grandaddy stuff that I didn’t quite get enough of an opportunity to play when I was in Grandaddy. Every now and then, I’d get the opportunity – an encore here or a radio show there. A lot of those songs I really love, but there was this pressure to make the show this hard-hitting thing, and there wasn’t a lot of wiggle room as far as that kind of ‘guilty pleasure’ stuff. It’s really enjoyable for me now to do some of the b-sidey kind of stuff.
DiS: How strong is your awareness of what people expect from you – versus simply doing what you want?
JL: [thinks for a long time] I don’t really care what people expect of me. Getting into the heart of the matter, it’s ‘make yourself happy’, and in the back of your mind you realize that you are like a lot of other people, so if you’re making yourself happy, there’s a good chance you’re making a lot of other people happy, too. That’s how I try to approach that. Once you start imagining scenarios and second-guessing things, that’s when you get less-than-accurate results.
DiS: Your new album is quite a clear continuation of Grandaddy-like themes. Which is fair enough, as you wrote Grandaddy's songs, but did you know within yourself that there was an expectation to do songs that are a mixture of these certain things and have animal metaphors and stuff like that?
JL: Computers and robots…
DiS: Yeah, although I was going to say that you didn’t include a lot of robots on this one, though, did you?
JL: They just helped me with the recording, but they were in the backseat this time.
DiS: Right. But you know what I mean, right?
JL: Yeah. In this line of work, it’s pretty impossible to leave out the concept of self-perception and being perceived and expectation stuff. But usually I think I’ve done a pretty good job at trying to come at things with a clear head. It got really, really hard towards the end of Grandaddy, but this time in particular it wasn’t so much of a concern. I did find myself pretty swooped up in the idea of making a record. It felt good working on these songs. It self-perpetuated. Although, I will honestly say – I felt so free and excited by everything! "I can do anything!" And I was thinking of going in all these directions with it. I had some noisy stuff, and I also had a lot of insane shit. I kind of ran the gamut. But it helps for me to have an overall focus, like "this is what the album is gonna sound like, this is what I’m gonna shoot for". At one point it was pretty all over the map, and I had quite vivid conversations in my mind about it. Like, "alright, listen… Not trying to totally influence you here or steer your head, but you’ve got one opportunity to make a debut solo record!". And that’s good advice. But then the other voice goes "nooo, grrrr, arrgh!". But I get a bit like that. I get super excited. And it may be kind of a manic thing. But I’m not making a big compromise by making the album more listenable. Like, "I’m gonna make the songs under 15 minutes long, and it’s not gonna be like playing a yawny record backwards". And after a while you start making the songs, and it starts making you happy, so I really narrowed the album down to my strongest songs. But one that I felt I could do a lot of justice to sonically. And I’ve probably said this with other records, too, but I just wanted a good front-to-back listening experience. I’ve gotten to the point where I’ve already started bragging – "well, you think this one sounds like Grandaddy? Well, I’m gonna show all you guys on this next one!". And I’m probably gonna go into it saying the same thing. I don’t like it when listening to an album is a chore.
DiS: I said before that the album continues the line of the Grandaddy material. Are you disappointed in a comment like that?
JL: No, no… I would like to do the ultimate escapist album. But I think I do story songs well. But I really like the moody, transporty, "let’s leave this world for three and a half minutes" kind of songs. I would like to put more emphasis on the happy accident, but that doesn’t happen as much when you worry too much about all the guitars being tuned and all the gear working right – oops, that microphone is in the sink, or it’s outside, when I thought it was actually facing this direction, picking up that instrument…
DiS: You talked, years ago, about being able to use all your gear on autopilot while being drunk or whatever. Is that still an approach that you use?
JL: I probably drink a little too much red wine when I’m recording. I have red wine ring stains all over the mixing console to prove that. But I’ve cut back a bit. It used to get a bit ridiculous. It got to the point where all of it was painful. That just sounds pathetic… but making a record – it’s hard. It’s really hard! And especially if you really want it to be good! [laughs] It sounds so simple, but the more you build it up in your head and the better you want it to be, the more difficult it is. And then it’s like, "fuck, I’m in pain – how can I make myself not in pain?", so you take things to trick yourself into thinking that you’re not really in that much pain, and then you just end up being in more pain later. That was a strategy that I had to develop. A: I knew I had to keep making records, and B: I had these problems, so I was trying to make the two worlds co-exist. But now I get my best results early in the morning. When I’ve woken up and the rest of the world is asleep and I’ve had eight cups of coffee and my brain is going a thousand miles an hour. And I’ve been lying in bed the night before, trying to figure out where this chorus is gonna go. Like, there’s a missing piece of the puzzle, and I’m just not sure what it is. And then I wake up in the morning, and that’s when I start really knocking out the good stuff. I don’t really like having been up too late. Sometimes I get some good results out of the sloppiness. But… I don’t like being fucking sloppy.
Video: Jason Lytle: 'I Am Lost (And The Moment Cannot Last)'
DiS: It might just be my reading of you, but you seem more at ease now than you have been previously – but do you think it will affect your music in the long run?
JL: I’m never gonna lose that. Still to this day, there are times when I can’t leave the house for two days, ‘cause I’m so disgusted by humans. I don’t get it… I don’t get any of it. I think I have some passed-down, familial, clinical depression sort of stuff. And I always stay away from medication. I don’t have the kind of ability to shut down sometimes. And on the super highway in my brain, all the lanes are going a thousand miles an hour, and there’s nothing I can do about it. It’s sort of turning into sedation. I just need to have two or three glasses of wine every night to shut it all down.
DiS: What’s the aspect of other people that you don’t get?
JL: It’s just details. I don’t know. They remind me of myself and all the things I don’t like about myself. But it’s not just people. It’s details. I really look up to people who go with the flow. Me and Rusty travelling together is a pretty good combination, ‘cause he sees how wound up I get, and I’m like "I’m not this type of person!" and I’m fucking stressed, and I worry. And he sort of has this approach of ‘hey, woah, go with the flow, it’s all gonna be alright!’, and I’m like ‘ahhh… That makes a lot of sense’. It’s probably easily remedied with some perfect doses of some sort of medication at some point, but it’s just the way I am.
DiS: How are you anticipating the release of this album? What do you think is going to happen once it hits the market?
JL: I’m almost cheating right now, ‘cause I just talked to my management company, and they say that the press is really, really good. But all that is is a nice validation. When I’m making my own records, nothing leaves the house until I’m really proud of it and happy to say ‘hey, I made this record and I’m going to be able to play these songs for a while!’. There’s nothing I’m going to have to be ashamed of. We’ll see. I don’t mind that x-factor that you have no control of. I’ll just put it out there and see how much and to what level people like it.
DiS: Do you know that there’s a talent show over here called X-Factor?
DiS: Just to get your connotations straight. It’s kind of like American Idol.
JL: American Lytle. I love that show!
DiS: Among fans, Grandaddy was as celebrated as much for the vast amount of high quality b-sides as the actual albums. Are you gonna continue such extracurricular activities?
JL: On one hand, it was nice to have something to do with all those recordings that existed. But on the other, it was a little annoying, ‘cause it became one of those singles games, where they needed more b-sides for all the different formats they put out. So there are actually some pretty crappy ones out there that could have been a lot better.
DiS: Dare you mention one?
JL: One crappy one? There’s this one called 'Phone Conversation With Chris' [an iTunes bonus track for Just Like The Fambly Cat]. It’s an old-timey mellotron beat, and I’m pretending I’m leaving a phone message for my friend. And it’s just not good. Everything that I read by somebody who’d heard that song – they fucking hated it. Whenever I do read about this stuff, it’s 50-50, but everybody hated this thing. But I have a lot of good stuff lying around where I just need to add drums. Some half-baked ideas.
DiS: Considering how the music market’s working now, I’m guessing the pressure to put out b-sides is not as big anymore. I mean, you put out the title track from your album on iTunes, and then that was the single. So, what is the format of releasing what used to be released as b-sides?
JL: I don’t know. If anything, you don’t waste your time making a bunch of crap, and you just spend your time on the good stuff. I love making albums, something that is a group of songs. That’s what I really get into. So when I have to do these one-off things – I put work into it, obviously, but I don’t think I’m as fully dedicated.
DiS: Is the new album representative of how you think you’ll keep on working? Doing the album on your own, and then touring with a band under your own name?
JL: I considered maybe coming up with a new name, or even doing some kind of Grandaddy-derivative name. For a second. But it really came down to Google. If you google my name, Grandaddy pops up, and when people google Grandaddy, Jason Lytle comes up. If anything, the only inconvenience of the whole thing is that 80 per cent of the people I talk to pronounce my name wrong. Everyone thinks it’s 'Little'! L-Y-T-L-E! But I have a very practical view of things. It’s a matter of finding the right information. But Grandaddy was Grandaddy, and it was the whole band, this entity, and it was a period of my life, and it can never be recreated.
DiS: Did you have any band names that you considered?
JL: Yeah, hold on. You gotta give me some time here. I’ve got a few… The Assholes. The Turds. The Pukers. The Fuckfaces… [laughs]
DiS: Why didn’t you go with any of those?
JL: You’re not gonna get a good answer here! [laughs]
DiS: Alright. So in terms of touring, your enthusiasm wasn’t always super high. But how do you feel about it now?
JL: Well, I will admit that it’s still kind of an experiment, ‘cause I don’t wanna count my chickens before they hatch. But the emphasis has shifted. I want the focus to be on the records and the enjoyment of the creative part of it. And to tour it – to promote it just enough, so people know it exists. But even with Grandaddy, the label was like "aaargh!". With every opportunity that came around, they were just "go, go, go, go!". There was just all this pressure for the next album to blow the last one away. And I’m more – make a record, go out, sell some copies of it, have some experiences, come home not being broke and make another record. At some point there were all these outside forces that had convinced me that it’s just not worth it. And I wasn’t trying to skip out of the work of promoting the music, but I didn’t want to beat it into the ground and waste all my energy on all this other stuff.
DiS: Are you more comfortable on stage now, than you were four or five years ago?
JL: Regardless, it’s weird. It’s like getting nervous before going up in front of the class and having to give a report. I used to do skateboard contests, and there’s all this crazy anxiety, while you’re working out your lines and getting your routine down. And then when it comes down to the performance – you step up. And there’s a bit of a high that comes along with that. And I’m a worrier. I worry a lot. I want things to go right, and I’m not the most confident guy in the world, but when you get that rush and it’s time to make it happen – I do get off on that, a little bit. But it’s definitely much funner to be sharing that with other people on stage. And let’s just say that I got some big record deal, and I had some big hit song, and the label’s like "okay, well, we can get you anybody to play with! Anybody you want!" – and I could never do that. I wouldn’t wanna do that. Rusty is such a key component, ‘cause I’m so comfortable around him, and he’s a good friend of mine, and obviously the Aaron thing is huge. And Rob [Murdock, bass] is a good friend of mine, although I won’t have him for very long, ‘cause he’s taking off to medical school in August. And I’m not sure how it’s gonna go after that. I’m really kind of winging it.
DiS: Why was it huge to be playing with Aaron again?
JL: When Grandaddy ended, it was awkward for everybody. I kept in contact with some guys, more so than others. I talk to Jim [Fairchild]. But the thing is – I don’t talk to Tim [Dryden] and Kevin [Garcia], but it’s not for negative reasons. It’s just… people move on. And Aaron I kept in contact with, but not a lot. And to tell you the truth, I didn’t keep in contact with a lot of people. I was kind of figuring out some stuff on my own. But once I realized that I was making a bunch of songs that were gonna become a record, my management company said "hey, it looks like you might have to go play some shows". So I was like "hmm, okay…". So at some point I’m trying to figure out how I’m gonna do this, and my first thought was "who do I wanna hang out with?". And I had already done some stuff with Rusty, so I planned on asking him. And I had a couple of drummers, who were offering their services, but I wrote to Aaron, and went "hey, listen. I don’t know where we stand on a social level, but I would rather play with you than I would anybody else, so I’m just giving you the opportunity. And you can write me back and tell me to go fuck myself". And I had no idea what his response was going to be. But he wrote back and said "yeah, sounds great. Just give me the dates." And I was like, "well, that was easy!". Obviously I was super stoked and flattered. Then I had this weird opportunity come up. They were doing these shows at the San Francisco airport. Just like people playing for change, but it was very structured with people positioned throughout the airport. And I thought it would be a good opportunity to play with Aaron. So I contacted him and said "hey listen, we’re not going to be able to rehearse, but do you wanna play together at the San Francisco airport?". And this was after not only having not seen him in two years, but after not having played with him in… ages. And he said yes, and we met at the airport and gave each other a hug, and within 45 minutes we’d gone through all the security and put our stuff up. I went "one-two-the-four", and we played for an hour, an hour and a half.
DiS: Did he pull off the songs he didn’t even know?
JL: Actually, I’d sent him the album, but mostly I said "don’t worry, it’s gonna be a no-brainer, kind of Grandaddy set and old country standards or whatever". And as you can imagine, it was a very strange crowd at the San Francisco airport. But it was awesome. It was incredible. I felt like a baby that had been abandoned, and then all of a sudden, I’d been put back into my mother’s lap. Playing with Aaron was such a relief. It was good.