Best known for founding Grandaddy, the melancholy Calif. indie rock-techno geniuses, Jason Lytle's been a one-man show for a while now. Probably even longer than most Grandaddy listeners would know, since he began recording almost all of the tracks completely solo before the band officially broke up in 2006.
A surprise hastily organized reunion tour delighted fans in September. A new Grandaddy album is (maybe) in the works, but Lytle's consumed right now with rolling out his new solo album Dept. of Disappearance. He'll be at the DO317 Lounge tonight.
NUVO: How are you doing? It's kind of early, in Mountain Time.
Jason Lytle: Ah, in Mountain Time. In rock and roll time.
NUVO: So you'll be here next week in Indianapolis, playing in a small, newish venue. It's a really beautiful place. But first, let's talk about what you did earlier this year, playing in the Grandaddy reunion shows. Tell me about how those came together.
Lytle: Well, part of the condition for doing it was that we wouldn't really make any decisions whether to continue or not. It was pretty much, "Let's be in the moment and put together a strong set of songs and have as much fun as we can and make a little bit of money." And that seems to be the case.
It was a pretty intense month. We planned about three weeks before hand just to make sure everything would sound good. It was a good time, but it also reminded me why I phased myself out of that life as well. Just a whole ...traveling in a group and all the logistics that go along. It's kind of the opposite of flying free and easy. Lots of logistics and preparations and what not.
NUVO: I have to imagine there would be a lot of baggage that would come along with reuniting.
Lytle: You would think - if it ever came to the point where it would come to a head. I don't know; that part of it wasn't... As a matter of fact, once we were talking about this, we said, "You know, we're considering all this, but we haven't even hung out with each other in a long time. So, we actually scheduled a dinner a couple days ahead of the tour, just to hang out. We cooked up some food and lounged around my keyboard player's house for a day and a half. Everything just came right back together. We were just really stoked to hang out with each other. All the old jokes and finishing each other's sentences just fell back into place. That part of it was actually the best part to me.
NUVO: Where are you living right now?
Lytle: I'm in Montana.
NUVO: You've made lots of comments about working in your studio in your house, and then leaving the studio and being in the wild with bears and National Parks, etc. How long have you been in Montana? How has that changed the music that you're making?
Lytle: I've been here about seven years. And I think that I've always been affected and gotten a lot - even when I was in California, I was always making trips to Yosemite. There's plenty of pastures and range lands and woods to find within a 30 or 40 minute drive. But in order to get more serious about it, you had to drive a couple of hours and it ends up being this involved day trip, or, if you're lucky, a weekend trip. But I just always wanted to live somewhere where I was in closer, if not right in the middle of untamed, wild land. Something that resembled the same thing it did thousands of years ago.
It's hard to talk about the effect it's had on me. It sounds kind of ridiculous, especially when I'm still working with synthesizers and working with technology and what-not. You have a hard time imaging some of the terrain that I spend time in effecting that kind of music. But, I think what it does, more than anything else, is awakens something in me - and it is the only way I know to wake it up. And I think that's something in all of us. It manages to get sort of stifled or pushed down or snuffed out by all of the everyday chaos of living in a modern world. It's woken up a creative machine in me. And that's the most important thing.
NUVO: You mention synthesizers and the sounds that you're working with as something [not related to the natural world] but something I've come across again and again while reading about your music is the word "technorganic."
Lytle: You know what, I think that it is fair to acknowledge. Every sound, every box, every synthesizer - it's closer when you get into real old analogue synthesizers with real-time filters. It is still pretty natural and organic. I guess at some point they were saying the same thing about electric guitars. Now, if you use electric guitars it's not that big of a deal, as far as, "Oh, it's a technological travesty," (he says in an old-timey voice). There's a big group of people who would have loved for music to exist only in the form of lutes and hammer dulcimers and keep the guitars for the end of time.
These sounds were made by humans. Even when you get into all the software, they're sounds that were designed by humans. And we can't help but be affected by what we see around us. Some of it gets pretty ridiculous and sci-fi, but I do definitely tend to lean toward the ones that remind me of things that I see around me, when I'm out and about, or nature.
NUVO: I love your track "Your Final Setting Sun," and loved it even more when I read that you said it was inspired by Cormac McCarthy. I love that Southern Gothic, western murder stuff. Can you tell me how that track came about?
Lytle: I was on a drive. I had the music sitting around for a while. It was one of those pieces where there were too many loose ends; it needed words, it needed a story. I was out on a drive as the sun was going down in my favorite part of the outskirts of this town of mine. I don't know much more to say - the image of this dying man in the desert as the sun was going down, and that being the last sunset that he ever sees was just one of those moments of inspiration. I wish they came more often. It pretty much just set the song in motion, and the words came really fast. One of those [times] where I was driving and trying to write at the same time. Luckily, I was out on a dirt road and there wasn't much to hit.
NUVO: I looked a bit around for this, but I wasn't able to find it. Your album art for both for some of your solo work and all of Grandaddy always maintains the same lettered name plates. With Grandaddy it was always those dotted caps, written out. Always, that pasted-on, DIY lettering.
Lytle: The original Grandaddy logo was made by me. It was a sloppy take on a Western font. I was happy to see it get photocopied 62 trillion times (said sarcastically). But yeah, it definitely had some shelf life.
To tell you the truth, I'm so much more interested in living life and doing normal things, and when it's time to be creative and go to work and be in the studio, it all happens really fast. Just like, "Get it done, get it done, get it done." The idea of calling people to help me with all these different aspects of it starts taking all the fun out of it. Literally, a) I'm not really lazy, I just don't want to include any more people than necessary and I don't know how to use Photoshop. (laughs) Once you get over the fact that some people are going to consider that it looks cheap and you're okay with that, it's fine. I just don't know that many people, either, to tell you the truth. I don't go searching out all of these other people, amazing graphic designers, to bring in to my fold. I think I'd rather just be friends with them than have to consider them work partners.
NUVO: And that probably pretty naturally fold into your ideas about home recordings. Do you still do most of your stuff in your home studio?
Lytle: I do about 99 percent of it, as a matter of fact. That is a little bit different of a reason. That's my medium. That's something that I'm passionate about - recording and sound and production and making records. I try really, really hard to make things sound good. I try a lot harder to do that than making them look good.
NUVO: Than lettering your logo.
Lytle: Exactly. Although I did invest in a ruler, so things are pretty straight. To be fair, I am really interested in art. I drew as a little kid and spent just immeasurable hours inside my head just drawing and drawing and drawing. And I do have an interest in painting. But it's all pretty untrained and not-intellectual. If anything, I really like colors and am a visual person, and it really carries into my music.
NUVO: Hmm. Do you think you have synesthesia?
Lytle: I don't even know what that is. What is that word?
NUVO: (Here began my convoluted on-the-spot explanation of synesthesia, more easily summed up as a kind of neurological condition where stimulation of one sense leads to the involuntary stimulation of another. The kind I mentioned above is sound-color synesthesia, where different sounds trigger different colors in various hues, brightnesses and movements.)
Lytle: I have something similar, but I think it may - it's comparable with the fact that I'm not able to just relax and see the forest for the trees. But most of that is like a production thing. I get obsessed. I get swept away. I have to rely on other people and ask them how certain things make them feel. It makes it tricky working on music. I'm trying to create these pieces of music where the end-all is the way they make you feel. It can be pretty tough. I've employed all these tactics over the year to reset my brain. Sometimes even role-playing, pretending like I'm another person and listening to it differently. It can be a bit distracting when you're just listening to parts and listening to certain instruments and trying to figure out what reverb they used in that specific little part.