Grandaddy's Jason Lytle on Animals, Stepping Away from Touring, and the Toxicity of Social Media

Grandaddy's Jason Lytle on Animals, Stepping Away from Touring, and the Toxicity of Social Media
Photo by Dustin Aksland

This is a free post from Larry Fitzmaurice's Last Donut of the Night newsletter; paid subscribers get a weekly Baker's Dozen playlist that includes music I've been listening to lately along with some thoughts around it.

I've been a fan of Grandaddy since a friend played me an MP3 of "The Crystal Lake," I also remember taking my bike to the Tower Records on Route 17 and picking up Sumday the week it dropped, good times. The new Grandaddy album Blu Wav (out February 16, which is next week) is excellent and a change of pace for longtime fans, but Jason Lytle's still delivering that bittersweet perspective that has made his music so winning for years now. I got to hop on a call with Jason back in December to get into all of it.

This record sounds different to me both in the context of Grandaddy's catalog and your solo career. You wrote these songs in a waltz-like style, and you added pedal steel to the mix, too.
I was definitely aware that it might be perceived as a bit of a departure compared to whatever the other albums sounded like. [Laughs] To be honest, I was attracted to that idea. There were plenty of times I wasn't thinking too much about what I was doing, but every now and then I was thinking about it and bringing some self-perception into the mix, and I realized I was in the midst of orchestrating something I'd always wanted to do that I've seen other bands do: Making an album that had a distinct feel to it. You're in a particular mood, and that's the one you grab. "I'm feeling like this, I'm gonna listen to this."

One of the most clear examples I had of that was the first few Low albums. You know exactly what you're getting into when you put a Low album on—you transform the room when you put that album on. I always felt like when I was making other Grandaddy albums, there was such a gap time-wise between the albums that I had to hit all of these marks. I also appreciated different types of music and energy. There were a lot of dynamics—slow ones, fast ones, happy ones, sad ones. I never got the opportunity to make an album that had a certain feel, so that was attractive to me this time around.

It was also a natural extension. I have appreciation for all types of music, but for the last five to eight years, I've been drawn primarily to country music—older, very simple storytelling. It's a type of music that I'm really fond of. There's not gonna be a lot of guesswork and I can listen to someone's story without wondering if it's contrived bullshit, or if so many songwriters helped with the formula. It was fun to take that on as a bit of a challenge—making an album that's simple and sweet. At least, that was initially my goal. It ended up being loads of layers and production. [Laughs] But it was a nice combination of "This is my intent at the beginning of this project" and "I'll let it become what it needs to become in the end."

"Ducky, Boris, and Dart" stuck out to me on this record, which eulogizes a few different animals you knew. Tell me about your relationship with animals and writing from that perspective.
I was fortunate enough to grow up with animals. Sometimes I forget what a key role they played in my developmental years. I grew up in the country in a very family-oriented environment until I was 5. Then, my dad and mom divorced, and I lived out in the country with my dad and stepmom. We had dogs, and a lot of room for me to roam. There were no neighbors. All I did was nurture my imagination and, eventually, my creativity. I spent a lot of time outside with dogs. I was making up adventures and talking to myself and, maybe it's a selective memory here, but I don't think I was missing out on having friends and neighbors. I was very grateful I got to experience that. Fast forward, getting older, that sort of mystique—the ineffable qualities of animals—they're just a lot more interesting and mysterious than the pathetic, repetitive obviousness of humans. [Laughs]

Any attempt to make a song that has any sort of meaning that's not typical subject matter is always a fun challenge. This one was about three separate stories of the death of three animals, and each verse is dedicated to a different animal. The first one was this little kitten I found in the middle of the summertime, while on a bike ride and stopped at a stop light in the country in Modesto. I heard this squawking sound, and when you grow up in the country, you know the sounds of all the birds, so I was like, "What the fuck is that?" I could not identify the sound that I was hearing, and it sounded like this little baby duck. I put my bike down and wandered out into the almond orchard, and I found this tiny, shriveled little kitten that someone had dumped there. It turned into this whole thing where I found a home for it, and I felt great about that and patted myself on the back, but after the people adopted it, it ended up dying.

Boris was a kitten that was accepted as a gift. It was a story I read about, one of those world record solo boating around the world distance things, and as a gift someone gave her a kitten, which is one of the dumbest things to have on something like that. She was having a hard time appreciating the absurdity of the gift, and at some point the kitten jumps overboard and drowns in the ocean. To me, that was the weirdest image of this cat being like, "Where the fuck am I?" and then it ends up diving overboard.

Dart was a bird that flew into the grill of my truck during a road trip. I pulled over and I guess I could've put it out of its misery, but it was in its last hours, so I tucked it into a brush of sage and drove away. So those are the three stories.

In the press materials, you suggest that the next Grandaddy record could come quicker. There was a lot of time between the last album and this one. How do you see your process taking shape moving forward when it comes to the project?
I was aware that this album was going to have a unique place in the Grandaddy catalogue. I don't plan on touring in support of it—I might do some one-off engagements, but I don't know what sort of format that will look like—so it's just about sanity and having something to look forward to. I have this growing collection of songs, so why not get cranking on those? All the exhausting logistics about touring, if I'm able to not have to worry about that stuff, I might as well be working on something.

I also had this very realistic thing happening where I'm not someone who enjoys spending inordinate amounts of time sitting indoors in front of the computer, which is unfortunately what recording looks like these days. My ears are getting really shot, and it's not as easy or enjoyable for me to spend time working on stuff—and, to be honest, all I see is decay. I'm not getting better in certain physical ways, and my eyes are getting a lot worse, too. The process of working on music is becoming more fatiguing.

But I also have this part of me where, once I get on the trail of trying to figure out songs, I get hyperfocused and have a hard time pulling myself away from it. I have a finite amount of time left when it comes to operating at that level of focus and intensity, so I'm getting it while I still can. At some point, it might end up being very long gaps between strange-sounding albums, but this next one I have in mind is more along the lines of a traditional, all-over-the-map Grandaddy album.

The recent Sumday reissue was a chance to revisit a notable moment in a very long, accomplished career. Tell me more about that time for you and for Grandaddy, and how things have changed since then.
Oh man, it's entirely different. I feel like we were really, really lucky. We snuck in the back door on a lot of different levels. I don't feel like there was ever any real goal or intent in he very beginning. You could not have started from something so small, organic, and innocent. It was self-driving, in a way. I can't think of any real carrots that were dangling, or "We got a dry erase board here and we're accomplishing this by then, and then we'll get to this point." Everyone was just doing their thing and working shitty jobs, and I found these guys who wanted to play music with me—and this was after I started playing music live, recording in solitude for years.

There was always some reason not to stop. [Laughs] That's all it really was. We kept getting better, more accomplished, comfortable, then it was, "Oh my God, playing a show out of town," then a couple of shows, then we're in San Francisco. Then we got this deal with V2, and we got to experience just enough of that—the music industry, tour support, budgets, advances—and prior to that, all of that was a much more common thing. The streaming thing, the free music, was nonexistent at that point. It was a convergence of budgets running out—the money in the music industry not being as available—and around the point of Sumday, especially in the European tours, the only obvious direction was bigger and more. We'd already gotten to the point where it just about made sense to have everybody still getting paid in the band, and for me to keep making albums.

But the problem started to become that it took me so long to make albums. Keeping everyone paid was becoming less realistic—to operate on the level we'd become accustomed to. And I was very aware of that! I was like, "We can't keep going at this rate. The budgets are disappearing." We kind of lucked out that we got to experience that, but everything was changing, and it was going to be unrealistic, foolish, futile, and embarrassing to keep going like that. I had to be the one who looked a few years down the line and saw that we might want to get out with our credibility intact instead of linking ourselves up with people we don't want to be linked up with. It had high potential for getting twisted into something that was not gonna resemble this incredible place we'd arrived at, and I just wanted to get out while the getting was Not safe, but I just didn't want it to get shitty.

I knew there was gonna be fallout, and that came in the form of certain band members being bummed, but they also came to realize that my decision was the right decision eventually. There was just a bit of a shock at the time.

What are your financial realities now when it comes to making music and supporting that?
I'm kind of like this with any line of work, but I don't know how anyone survives or pulls off what they do, and I fall in that category. I have to hustle. I'm very frugal. I do have a lot of interests and hobbies that aren't music, and luckily a lot of them don't cost a lot of money. A key part is that I've had the same manager for 18 years, since the Grandaddy days. We're actually really good friends, but he could not be more non-demanding, and it works both ways. Sometimes he's not the most aggressive at finding stuff, but I could also go two or three years without paying him shit, and then I have a windfall, and I pay him. Luckily, he has a lot of other clients he works with.

But there's been some very lean, stressful years. I've sold a lot of gear. [Laughs] I've had to get pretty creative and crafty. It's come in the forms of collaborating with lots of people. There's been film stuff, some advertising stuff if I'm comfortable with it, the minimal budgets in terms of record advances. Just enough to keep the lights on. I'm still not sure how I'm doing it, but I'm doing it.

You mentioned not touring behind this new record. Talk to me about your relationship with touring.
A big part of it for me is my mental health. I'm definitely an introvert, but I'm a social person as well. I have to dictate the terms of how social I want to be, and for how long. that all gets thrown out the window when I get into a touring situation. I'm constantly surrounded by people. I might even have some real issues that I don't quite know what they're called. I did just discover a book about a real condition where people have heightened senses and can't turn them off.

I've had substance issues throughout the years, and in order to deal with stuff I have to dull the edges. It's my way of dimming the lights. It's turned into a thing where I have to avoid situations where I have to feel like I need to do that. I also place a lot of value on my freedom and independence, and all of that gets thrown out of the window during touring. I love to travel and go on trips by myself, I love going on adventures, I love being outside, but I've become less and less appreciative of cities, noise, venues—the clamor and rigid schedules. And it's all shrouded in anxiety, because even during the days off, I'm always anxious and I never rest. I'm worried about the next show.

When it comes down to it, it's like jumping out of the foxhole and sprinting towards the enemy. I could do it, but you're never at peace and resting, and I've become less appreciative of being in that constant mindset. I have a lot more to contribute when I'm in my own environment, doing my thing—and that's not laying around, drinking tea, and reading books. I'm very busy when I'm home. I just don't like the schedule when it comes to touring life.

I quit drinking two and a half years ago, and when I was drinking, I was like, "I consider myself a social person, and not very anxious." When I quit, I was like, "Oh! I was drinking to make myself more social, because I was very anxious."
It's a hell of a crutch. How did your sleep improve?

Like night and day. Feeling that material change made me wonder how I was living before.
It's one of the craziest misconceptions, that you're knocking yourself out when you drink. When you read interviews or posts about sobriety, it's one of the first things they mention. You're fucking yourself so bad.

I've seen you talk on Twitter about dealing with mental health issues, which resonated with me. You're somebody who is also fairly interactive online with listeners, which is kind of rare these days, especially in terms of your contemporaries. So much of your music has also dealt with the creeping dystopian feeling around technology. Tell me about your relationship with being online and how that's changed over the years.
It changes. I feel like I have a practical take on it. I'm like a farmer. When things are heating up and I have a lot of stuff going on, the label's doing their thing and my manager's posting stuff, I back off a bit then. You don't have anything growing in the field, you're maintaining things, treating the soil, planning, crop rotation. You're staying busy knowing things aren't really happening. I felt the need to always keep some kind of something happening—one toe in it. That's just from trying to be smart about it. Maybe I don't feel the need to back away from it because I don't fuckin' overdo it, ever. [Laughs]

But it does get a bit much sometimes. I don't like this new brand of human that seems to be overly critical, snarky, and shit-talking—these keyboard commandos. Everyone's an expert, and if they're not, then they have something really snarky and clever to say about absolutely everything. Whatever this breed of new human is...I can't wait for it to become something else. It seems to be applauded and highlighted in this current day and age, and it's pathetic. They're not doers, they're not creators. They're just standing there on the side of the road watching the accident and the people helping with the accident, being judgmental and shitty. It's frustrating to witness.

We are obviously living in an age of entitlement where everyone feels they have to be heard. I do wonder what social media's presence has actually done to young people. I think sometimes people are alarmist, but something feels different and wrong about how people act now, too. I don't like it.
It's a slippery slope too, because you sound like an old codger when you complain about it. "Whatever, boomer! You and your old-fashioned ways." No, but there is something very wrong about it. That's where my conversations get slippery. There's some fundamental shit that's really wrong. This notion that they have a right to be heard and their comments matter—you can be shitty and opinionated, and you are contributing nothing. It's all surface-level information that will disappear.

I think there's something to be said for accountability when it comes to what you're saying and what you're contributing to. Why not spread good, positivity, and encouragement? You can't go wrong if you do that, and it's gonna come back to you. There's something kind of toxic about the new normal a lot of these keyboard commandos have gotten used to.

Subscribe to Last Donut of the Night

Sign up now to get access to the library of members-only issues.
Jamie Larson