“I don’t want to be a fucking tragic, pathetic artist,” Jason Lytle tells me by phone from his current residence in Montrose, at the mountainous edge of Los Angeles.
And, for the record, Lytle is very much not those things. He’s on the verge of releasing a spruced-up version of what is arguably his most beloved work, 2000’s The Sophtware Slump, the second full-length released by his band Grandaddy. At the time, Grandaddy was referred to by some as America’s answer to Radiohead, which made a lot of sense considering that Lytle found much inspiration from that band as well as other indie artists of the time, like The Flaming Lips and his friend and tourmate Elliott Smith. But those kinds of comparisons fade over time, and in 2020, Grandaddy can stand on its own and claim ownership for a page of indie music history, buoyed by that release along with the two great collections that bookended it, Under The Western Freeway and Sumday.
The Sophtware Slump took elements experienced in Lytle’s hometown of Modesto, California and colored it through the lens of a world advancing exponentially. The relationship between nature and technology is central to his works, as well as how core human emotions of sadness, loneliness, and longing don’t dissipate with quick wi-fi or the latest iOS update. And the lyrical content is juxtaposed with ornate compositions that weren’t afraid to show off their homespun nature. Lytle often lets the seams show, if only to the benefit of knowing that his handmade, one-of-one craftsmanship couldn’t be made by anyone else. In short, his music sounds couture.
Grandaddy would eventually call it quits as their fourth album descended onto the world in 2006, reuniting briefly in 2012 and then more formally in 2017 for the album The Last Place, soured by the death of founding bassist Kevin Garcia the same year. It’s hard not to think of Garcia, Smith, and the many other contemporaries that have passed away over the years when Lytle reflects: “I want to have a healthy, productive life. I have too many friends who have seriously just died or committed suicide. It’s too much. And I’m trying really hard to be really healthy. A weird thing, man.”
For now, Lytle is certainly productive. In addition to the reissue, Lytle re-recorded the entirety of the album on solo piano, which he’s offering as part of a very cool vinyl set this month and on its own next year. And he’s still writing music, noting during the interview that he just got an eight-string ukulele that he’s looking forward to tuning up after our call, for work on a new solo effort that he describes as “really slow, pretty, bluegrass-kind-of music.” We spoke about the reissue, the atmosphere it was released, and the double-edged sword of nostalgia, edited and condensed below.
Tell me about the time in 2000 or 1999, when you were writing this music, what you saw in the world that you were trying to convey at that time?
Well, I remember wanting to make a really good record. I remember the whole Grandaddy thing had really kind of started firing up and our minds were kind of blown by how busy we were and how interested people were after the whole touring cycle of Under The Western Freeway, the album before it. And I just wanted to step up. I wanted to make it the most interesting, imaginative sounding record that I could. There was a lot of exciting shit going on at the time, too. The Flaming Lips were making these really amazing, cool, weird-ass, imaginative sounding records. Radiohead’s OK Computer blew my fucking mind. I was just feeding off of all that stuff.
The whole idea of making exciting, experimental records at home was becoming more of a reality with the gear and the technology. And luckily, I got really involved and excited about home recording about five years prior to that. By the time we started getting into money, we got this deal from a record label called V2 Records based out of London. It was actually an international presence, and I just felt like everything was lined up and I just started buying tons of gear. And I’m really inspired by gear, I’m really excited by equipment and just like sound and audio.
All that time of being hunkered down in Modesto, which is like this really weird place. It’s very indicative of all that sort of awkwardness that existed at the time. Primarily, I guess the example I can use is the internet age. We had entered into the internet age and some people used it wisely. Some people used it in a very idiocrasy kind of manner. And I think I was more fascinated with that. I’m a lot more at home just like sitting on a bench at the mall, watching people walk by, and quietly profiling everyone.
And I think that that was probably one of the best decisions I ever made with Grandaddy was deciding to stay in Modesto and not getting caught up in the need to keep up with some scene or keep playing at that one venue because that’s where shit’s going on. It was just like stay there and develop and develop and develop and develop, even to the point of getting weirder and then you don’t even know that you’re weird anymore. You created your own thing and you only become aware of that when you finally do go on to play shows and you find yourself hanging out with other bands, and they’re just telling you that you’re this thing. And you’re just like, well, we’re just this thing, and they’re like, no, but like, you’re this thing.
I never felt owed. It was never expected and my mind was just blown that anyone even gave a shit. It just makes you want to try even harder.
You mention the idea of expectations and I just feel like the history of Grandaddy, especially those first few albums, is characterized by expectations versus reality. And it sounds like there were high creative expectations that you guys placed on yourselves for this album. But in terms of commercial expectations or where this will take your career, did that all come afterward?
We had a really weird little period at the very beginning. One of the first labels that we got on, it almost ruined us. He was like this super skinny dude and he gave us like… Actually, I have a great story that goes along with this. It almost ruined us being on this label. He heard about us, he was like this ex-lawyer and his life was too boring, so he wanted to get into the music business. It was right around the grunge time. He was from Seattle and he’s probably literally just sitting in an office watching the grunge thing happening in Seattle and just going, my life is boring. I need to hang out with more chicks and go to more strip clubs and stuff. This sucks. I’m going to start a record label.
He did and somehow, based on his connections, he got a partner who lived down here in LA because that’s what you do. I’m cool with his partner now, but this guy that started the label was fucking evil. He gave us this small advance and somehow they came into cahoots with Don Was, the famous producer of The Rolling Stones, and others. And Don Was’ job was to come to Modesto and convince us to get on this label.
Modesto just has like the shitty little regional airport that like nobody ever flies out of. All of a sudden it’s like, Don Was is coming to Modesto. His job was to talk us into it but it’s like if Don Was is telling you to get on the label, you better get on the label. The only reason this story is even at all interesting is that my drummer had the super shitty Ford Escort that didn’t have any seats in the back. We went to pick Don Was up at the airport and we made him sit on an upside-down milk crate in the backseat. And this guy is like used to riding in limos and f*cking leased BMWs and stuff. We were just dying laughing because we’re like driving down the road, going to some bar to have this meeting with Don Was and he’s like sitting on a milk crate in the back of our friend’s shitty car, legs all tucked up under his chin.
Anyways, we made this record, Under The Western Freeway, and it did okay but they were about to drop us, or they just kind of lost interest. And then all this whole other thing started happening where I went to a show, I gave a tape to this guy named Howe Gelb from the band Giant Sand and he passed it on to his management and his management was going to start this new relationship with V2 Records. And the lady who was about to get the job at V2, she was like, ‘I will get this job, but the only reason I’m going to get this job is if you bring on this band that I found called Grandaddy.’
All of a sudden there was this label, and V2 Records was funded by Richard Branson, who’s this gazillionaire in Great Britain. And with this interest from a label that had tons of money and just as we were about to get dropped by Will Records, the dude finds out and he turns it into like this nightmare bidding war. He didn’t give a shit about us. The band almost just died. It almost killed the band. The whole thing took a year with all the lawyers. And we hadn’t even really done anything very exceptional. It was kind of a nightmare.
We got bought with some amount of money. And after that got sorted out, I was just like, I’m not placing any eggs in any basket. This is an amazing adventure but going back to the expectations thing, I have no expectations. As soon as it makes sense to step away from this, I’m ready. I’m totally fine to just like take it as it comes, but with that comes some responsibility. It’s like, you’re not always looking for an out.
Every time there’s a new opportunity, you work hard, and a lot of times, I work too hard and it was like finding that balance of how not to go too hard, but also always entertain all these new opportunities. All this shit would keep happening and I was just like, all right, cool, let’s do this. But I always felt like I was just along for the ride, but willing to do the work as well. You just keep going and keep going and keep going and keep going until it doesn’t make sense anymore, which led to me dissolving the band. But up until that point, it made sense just to keep hammering away at it.
I was living in Santa Cruz when this came out originally, which is a couple of hours from Modesto. And as I got more to know the people who I grew up in that region, in the Central Valley and stuff like that, you guys were something of local legends around those parts. When you get into smaller areas, people hold on to that idea of “the guy down the street that’s playing at the house party, that might make it out and make an impact.” For anyone who is a creative, there are stories like that and I feel like Granddaddy was kind of one of those stories for that area.
Did you ever feel like Granddaddy represented more than just your own creative ambitions, that they were kind of a voice of a region or a period in time?
Well, first off, I mean, it’s all nice and sweet to see it like that now. But have you ever heard that saying, “Familiarity breeds contempt?” If there’s a band that’s from your town and you hate living in your town, you’re just going to hate that band. They actually represent what you don’t like about being there. So people are just like, “There’s no way they can be good because they’re from here. And I hate being here and everything here sucks.” So it took a while for us to get through that. And at some point, it was actually very sweet and it was very… I love the fact that we were so highly regarded in our hometown. It got to the point where I was like, “Oh, even if you don’t like them, it’s badass, they pulled off what they pulled off.” That was cool. And it still stands to this day, whether or not you like the music or not.
I realized at a point how important it was to stay in Modesto. And there was plenty of opportunities to entertain the idea of moving somewhere else, where there was a scene… Things might be a little bit easier resource-wise. But I saw the worth in just hunkering down and developing a thing that was there, for better or for worse. And how it would be unique for better or for worse.
It literally comes down to cheap rent and just familiarity. And if you could do away with all that extraneous stuff and just focus on being creative, there’s a good chance… I mean, being poor is exhausting. So let’s just say, moving to a big city, you have some shitty dishwashing job and you’re paying all this rent to live somewhere and you’re just exhausted all the time. And you’re stressed because you have no money. And it’s just, that was less of a factor, living in Modesto. It’s cheap to rent, you know where everything is. All you have to do is just, every now and then, drive to the Bay Area and buy some more gear and come home and just hunker down and try not to be too distracted by keg parties and your idiot friends doing something down the street. I realized in the long run, the results were going to be a lot more interesting.
I need calmness. I need focus-time to come up with extraordinary results. And the only way to do that was to stay in the hometown. And then inevitably the music was going to be affected by that sort of cabin fever of just being stuck in your own hometown. A very weird hometown, too, I might add. It was always on the list of Forbes’ “worst places to live in America.” It was always making the top five for any number of reasons.
Air quality. Oh, f*ck. You name it. In order to make that top five, you have to check all these boxes. And it was car theft, it was drug-related crime, it was murder. It was the economy, it was joblessness, you name it. It was a grim, grim place. And people loved hearing those stories too, especially abroad.
The other weird thing about Modesto is how, proximity-wise, it’s also the gateway to the most beautiful places on the planet.
Yeah. I used to always use that example, too. That almost makes it worse. Everything is just almost slightly out of reach. Yes, you’re that close to Yosemite. Yes, you’re that close to San Francisco. Yes, you’re close to Napa Valley or whatever. But it’s just like, “Oh if you don’t have any money, it’s a day trip.” First off, it’s not a day trip. You have to have money for a hotel and gas. And you have to know where you’re going. And it almost makes it worse. That it’s slightly out of reach and you can never go there.
Yeah. I feel like all of these dualities, they’re always very present in the music. I mean, that’s a lot of the essence of your songwriting, nature meeting broken technology. The future that’s not quite as good as we imagined, that kind of stuff. Once this release was announced, it was kind of cool to see, personally, these group chats popping off, of my friends from back in those days. And then seeing that the music still means a lot to a certain type of indie fan of a certain age and maybe of a certain region.
And I think that nostalgia is probably harder on musicians than it is for fans. But for both, I think we have to kind of examine the good with the bad. And you have these good memories associated with the music of your past, but also you have to reconcile the bad memories and who you were versus who you are and all this stuff. As a musician, how do you deal with that? Is this all good stuff that you’re diving back into? Or is there a lot of pain in looking back, too?
I can go on forever about that, but I’ll try to distill my thoughts as succinctly as possible here. So let’s say that you have something in your life that’s just tearing you apart. And the only way to deal with it is to write it down in a journal, which lots of people do and it helps. You get it out. It’s on paper. You’re just like, “All right, it’s in physical form.” There’s something kind of cathartic about that like, “All right, I feel better.” And you just move on. You close the journal, you put it in the drawer. Maybe it didn’t fix you, but you feel a lot better.
It took me a while to figure this out, but I’m not one of those people that wants to just mindlessly beat myself up. I’m a pretty healthy person. I’m just trying to wake up and do good. I’m not trying to wake up and be tragic and fucking chain-smoke and watch black and white movies and just drink whiskey. It’s like a double-edged sword. You want to write a song that means so much.
And in a way, you’re getting that stuff out of your system by writing that song. But there’s something perverse about having to sing that song on a nightly basis. The reason that you’re writing it was to kind of fix some things or deal with some stuff or get some stuff out of your system. But who writes down in their journal all this gnarly shit just to fix themselves and then on a nightly basis, opens that journal back up, like clockwork. Your routine is to reread it again. That’s almost just like you’re asking for it. You’re not able to let the thing go, which is kind of the point, to begin with. And I was just like, “Man, it might actually be better to write all of these light fluffy songs that don’t mean shit. And then you can sing them on a nightly basis and they don’t do anything to you.” I had to start questioning the concept of playing live shows at a certain point.
My line of thinking used to be, “Make the song mean as much as it can. And then you can invest yourself in it on a nightly basis.” But I started kind of thinking that, “Man, this actually might be harming me. I might not actually be able to move past a lot of things in my life because I’m not letting these songs go. I just need to…” But that’s weird. In a way that’s saying, “All right, I’m not going to play live anymore. It’s too harmful to my psyche or whatever.” And I’m still wrestling with it. On one hand, it’s very satisfying to play a song and be transported back to the place, because you pour that much into it when you’re performing it. But on the other hand, I think it might be not allowing me to move past certain things.
You get to a certain age. I’m 38 now and at a point, you have to decide if you’re going to be one way your whole life or if you’re going to try to figure it out and be that healthy person that you need to be to make it through.
Certain ways just aren’t sustainable.
I think that’s the workaround of this collection, though, is you have this piano version of the album that makes it so it’s not just solely looking backward, and it gives the songs a new life and presents them in a new way. And so did that idea stem from those solo piano shows you’ve been doing over the last few years?
It definitely helped, and it helped my confidence a little bit. A lot of the songs I had been playing already. If I learn a song on guitar, I’ll do it on piano and I bounce back and forth. I just think it’s like knowing two languages; it just allows you to understand. If you have a conversation with somebody, it’s like, “All right, let’s do it in English. Okay, let’s do it in Russian now.” You’re going to see other things that you didn’t see with the crossover, and I think that’s a responsible, productive way of writing songs. It’s just seeing as much as you can in the writing process.
So my last thing here is, I’ve got a couple of Jason Lytle hot takes that I’m want to put on the record. “Our Dying Brains,” I think it’s the best song from this era, even though it’s not on the album. I mean, it’s going to be on the vinyl, but that song is just very near and dear to me. And then I wanted to mention that your first solo album, Yours Truly, The Commuter, I think is a remarkably strong song collection that should be spoken about in the same breath as those first three Grandaddy albums.
So the question here: is there anything about your career that you look back on that you feel is under-appreciated, that should have more shine?
I have a funny thing that I’ve said a couple of times. This is a perfect opportunity to say it again. First off, I could have never, never, ever imagined the trajectory and just how colorful this whole ride has been with Grandaddy. And for so many years, especially around the time putting out a new album, the press, there was just one fucking thing they kept saying. At first, I was like, “Eh, whatever,” then it started to get really annoying. It was “You’re on the verge of greatness. On the verge of greatness. Grandaddy, on the verge of greatness.” And then next year, next album: “On the verge of greatness. On the verge of greatness.” I was just like, “That’s so backhanded.”
But the more I meditated on that line and the idea, to be honest, my life was so insane. My life, everything was so crazy and I was dealing with way more shit that was beyond my ability to handle. If I was any more famous or any more popular or any more successful, I wouldn’t have been able to handle it. I would never wish upon the whole situation to be any more than it was. I think that how it went down or how it’s still going … and it’s the only reason you’re talking to me right now. I had to shut everything down for a little while and reassess.
And now, I’m back and I’m still funny, still introspective, still a relaxed man working on things, and it’s amazing that that’s even happening right now. And the only way that could be the case is just things went the way they did, and if it was any more than what it was, then we probably wouldn’t be talking right now.
So I’m fine with how everything’s gone down and I’m super grateful and I’m just fucking stoked to be around and still excited about working on stuff, and things are sounding super cool. And at this point, my highest priority is there are legions of super faithful, appreciative Grandaddy fans, and just knowing that they exist, it’s just like, “Great. Got some more music coming out.” And that I can even be a part of that and that we can share that just blows my mind. It’s a pretty cool situation to be in.
The Sophtware Slump 20th Anniversary Collection is available November 20 via Dangerbird. Get it here.