Jason Lytle on the Return of Grandaddy, the Biggest Indie Rock Reunion Ever

Fans think that Grandaddy split up 10 years ago at the height of their powers, even if frontman, songwriter and producer Jason Lytle won’t admit it.

Though 2006’s Just Like The Fambly Cat was essentially a Lytle solo record (only Grandaddy drummer Aaron Burtch contributed tracks), Lytle was plugging away harder than ever when the band went on standby and he left their hometown with little fanfare. Burnt out, overextended and spread thin, he traded Modesto, Calif., for Montana.

Lytle has always been a talented producer. He’s worked on all the Grandaddy albums himself and he’s lent his talents to many of his famous friends (M. Ward, Band of Horses, Earlimart, etc.), but leaving Modesto for the wilds allowed him to master a routine that vacillated between extreme productivity and extreme outdoor adventuring, a realization of his long-held dreams to live with nature just on the other side of his fence. 

Seven and a half years later, Lytle moved back to Portland at the wishes of his then-wife, where he’s honored as a minor deity to generations of plaid-wearing slackers who rightfully cherished Grandaddy’s masterful ode to the new millennium, 2000’s The Sophtware Slump, as a document of the push and pull between nature and technology. Portland was the biggest city Lytle had lived in, and though he enjoyed the closeness between nature and civilization, it was no Montana. 

When Lytle and his wife later separated, when he eventually found his way back to Modesto in 2015 to wake up Grandaddy again. While Lytle released solo albums in 2009 and 2012 that maintained Grandaddy’s sonic hallmarks—woozy, warm synths and crunchy guitars—and while the band briefly reunited for a few shows in 2012, now it was actually on.

This history unfolds on the band’s new album, Last Place, the first proper Grandaddy record in 10 years. It’s a gorgeous collection of songs that opens with Lytle living on the roof of a big box store and asking why he would ever move, wryly blending his personal history with surreal images of phony ecosystems.

Last Place stands among the best Grandaddy records for channeling some perspective on the cyclical patterns and processes driving Lytle’s journey. Documenting moments like his ex sitting lakeside looking at pictures on her phone, or tearing down symbolism when Jed—the humanoid robot stand-in for Lytle at his most unreal—is explained as a metaphor for being drunk and passed out on the floor, Last Place is tantamount to Lytle taking inventory of his life, yielding some of the most transparent and cathartic moments of the Grandaddy discography thus far. 

Last week, hours before Grandaddy’s first New York Shows in over a decade, we spoke about living in strip malls, getting chased by grizzly bears, how to pronounce his name and why clouds might be moving faster.

Jason Lytle, lead singer of Grandaddy. Shot on location at Le Poisson Rouge, NYC. Emily Assiran for Observer

So I just wanted to start off and play devil’s advocate. I totally get the idea of living in a Target, just because in the last few years there have been whole aisles of fruit and nut mix, of trail mix. You could forage for winter hypothetically, if you wanted to, and not even have to leave.

I’ve been in certain strip malls where you could be born there and you could die there, and you would never…because I guess, yeah. ‘Cause you know how there’s dentist offices in strip malls now…I think there’s enough painkillers.

You could go there, you could shop for groceries—

Everything, yeah. You could have whole communities, lifespans, taking space in some tiny strip mall. And not be depriving yourself. Actually live half a decent life. [Laughs]

There’s this ultra-modern big brother mall downtown in the Financial District just called The Oculus, this big white modern art sculpture that connects to another mall called Brookfield Place to the point where you don’t even have to go outside. Offices, grocery stores—

Yes, and unbeknownst to you, there are thousands of people that live there. Remember that movie that Tom Hanks about the guy that lived in the airport?

The Terminal, yeah. I was thinking of WALL-E, you know?

[Laughs] It’s been a while.

“I could literally leave, make coffee, throw a day pack together, leave my house and within an hour almost dying of hypothermia or be chased by a grizzly, falling off a 10,000-foot precipice, then be home watching Frasier that night and sleeping in my own bed.”

From what I’ve heard, you going back to Modesto after your separation and starting up the Grandaddy engine again was very much in the opposite vein of the classic Odyssey story when you go home again and everything’s different. You found a lot of things to be the same.

Well, I think for me the main thing was, I needed to get back to California. I needed to leave back in 2006. The band stopped, and I’d always just been fascinated with Montana, so I was like, “Alright, there’s nothin’ stoppin’ me. So I ended up there for seven and a half years, and as much as I loved it, I always felt like I was a visitor. Always slightly jealous of the natives, the people who’d been there forever.

Like a voyeur?

Yeah, and that was fine, because I loved it so much. But then I ended up moving to Portland, which is my first attempt at living in a big city. And that was kind of a compromise to keep working and stay valid with studios and musicians and stuff, but also to make another person in my life happy. I was there for three years and it was done, I needed to leave. And the idea of coming back to California was very, very appealing. I didn’t know where I was gonna end up.

And then the whole Grandaddy thing…it became clear that was gonna start happening, so I was just like, “Man, I’m just gonna get a little apartment and hunker down, for logistical reasons, just set up shop there.” And that’s what I did. If you would’ve told me six months before that point that I would be back in Modesto, there was no way. It was not even a possibility or consideration.

Jason Lytle,lead singer of Grandaddy. Shot on location at Le Poisson Rouge, NYC Emily Assiran for Observer

Well, you’re a minor deity in Portland, and they light candles for you on the Pacific Coast. Have you ever been on the receiving end of that adulation? I know you talk about nature a lot, and Portland seems like a wonderful place to observe that distinction between nature and technology that so much of your work is about.

Yeah, I gotta tell you though, Montana spoiled me. One of my favorite things to do was go on these really epic adventures. And the thing is, I grew up someplace where, in order to get way out into the nitty gritty, into the back country, I would have to travel two, three hours. But I could literally leave, make coffee, throw a day pack together, leave my house and within an hour be almost dying of hypothermia or be chased by a grizzly, falling off a 10,000-foot precipice, then be home watching Frasier that night and sleeping in my own bed.

There was something amazing about the whole epic day trip that I really got into, and I managed to incorporate that into my working process a lot, where I’d just watch the weather, see what the weather was gonna do, work two days on music then get all excited when I’d see three days of sunny forecast come in, head into the mountains and have some big adventure. That became a pretty regular back and forth, which was weird. I loved it, and I wanna end up back in a situation like that.

You’ve talked before about that aspect of your personality before, the part of you that likes being wild, going off-road and adventuring as the same part of you that had trouble with the Grandaddy grind the first time around. The media aspect of it, the not being able to make your own schedule.

Yeah…I grew up skateboarding, there was lots of freedom, road trips. I’d work a job for three weeks and quit when I had enough money to go on another trip, and I think I kind of got addicted to the freedom thing. Nobody told me what to do, nobody forced me into a schedule. I decided to not go to college, I was just like, “Alright, I’m gonna wing it, let’s see how this thing shakes out.” And it’s great that I live in a country where whatever circumstances allowed me to do that sort of thing, but there’s never been any guarantees whatsoever.

“I enjoy the aspect of it where I no longer have any control.”

Have you seen different responses to your work from fans in different parts of the country?

I enjoy the aspect of it where I no longer have any control. There’s a big relief of the album coming out and it’s almost like I don’t have to talk about it anymore, and it’s no longer mine. I think I’ve heard every possible take or prediction about what this is about or what that means to them and I’m like, “Oh, that’s an interesting, unique take on that! I wasn’t thinking that, but I’m going to consider that a little.” Because at some point there’s no wrong answers, you know?

And I do enjoy there being an open-endedness to a lot of the music. I don’t think I’m ever fully aware of that. It’s a lot more exciting, a lot more mysterious when it can just keep going and mutate however it wants.

But technology kind of has this weird invasive role on this record that it didn’t have on the other records. Is it present in that scene where your ex is sitting by this lake going through pictures on her phone? I know you’re conscious of how it invades nature in those lyrics, in those moments.

Yeah.

Was it imposing itself on your personal life in any way you didn’t expect?

No…a lot of that stuff is just, singing the way people talk is so…possible, and it’s so available, anyone can do it. I just love tapping into a moment and being able to iterate that in a natural way. If anything I have a big problem with people that just fall back on clichés in writing their lyrics. Sing it the way you say it and it’s actually gonna resonate a lot more, and don’t use that overused inflection and don’t just give up and use that overused line.

Jason Lytle, lead singer of Grandaddy. Shot on location at Le Poisson Rouge, NYC Emily Assiran for Observer

You use them sometimes consciously to poke fun though, no? “Damned if you do, damned if you don’t.”

“Damned if you do, dumb if you don’t” is actually what I say. [Laughs]

You’ve said that the gap between Grandaddy records just represented time passing, and I’m wondering what you think of this idea of Accelerationism, the fact that media consumption, news and how quickly we absorb information is speeding up. Your music helps reclaim natural time over things.

I’m sort of obsessed with this, and I’m probably just making this up, but I seriously think clouds are gonna start moving faster. We’re gonna look back and say, “Remember when clouds used to just cruise by?”

When is it time to remember how things used to be, and when is it time to accept the new reality?

That’s a good point, that’s a good point. I love using that example, too, because we all have our semi-Luddite friends who are like, “I’m never getting’ a cellphone!” A ham and a haw, a ham and a haw, and eventually they’re getting a cellphone. You spent two or three years moanin’ and groanin’ about not gettin’ a cellphone and now you don’t know how to use the thing, then you’re just far behind because you decided to be an old grumpypants about it for the longest time. So I dunno, if you just regard it all as tools, it’s gonna make your life a little bit easier, and uh, don’t forget about the important stuff? I dunno. Just tools to make the important stuff funner, maybe.

It’s working for you as long as it’s working for you.

Yeah, I don’t go much deeper about it than that.

“The whole reason why I’m sitting here right now, why any of this for me exists, is because I was 5 years old, my family was falling apart, and I was tucked in the corner with headphones on, drawing on a little art table that my mom made me out of one of the doors in our house.”

There’s this one picture on your wall that you don’t get rid of. The one of your ex waterskiing.

Yeah, that’s a real story. That was my one and only waterskiing trip that I’ve ever taken. I grew up skateboarding, so I have the balance thing down. But my somewhat hilarious waterskiing story…there’s always gotta be beer involved with waterskiing, and at some point the process of being pulled out of the water by the boat is semi-violent. You kind of sit there, and the person takes off and you get pulled out. But after three or four hours of that, you’re kind of just sippin’ on Coors Light the whole day and the pain threshold…

It’s like snow skiing. If you didn’t have hot chocolate and a hot tub after, why would you do it?

[Laughs] Or schnapps. Yeah. I remember I couldn’t lift my arms up, because at some point the physical task of a speedboat yanking on my arms for three hours was kind of on the verge of a torture chamber. I remember I woke up the next day like “This is great!” went to brush my teeth and couldn’t actually lift my arms up. They were so taxed, but it was good, it was worth it. I got some good memories out of it, and a song.

Talking about process, you were talking to Emily earlier about your process for setting up a session as a producer. I know you had a lot to work through before you could get back on the Grandaddy horse, but…

You better tie this in with Band of Horses. [Laughs]

Yeah, sure! The process as it relates to your time producing, your time working with Ben and Band of Horses, your work with Danger Mouse on Dark Night of the Soul, which eventually transitioned into your relationship with his label 3oth Century Records that’s releasing this record. How has process helped you worked through your other shit? Just the vocational process of plugging shit in, feeling out how a room sounds, getting things ready.

I mean, that’s my zone, that’s my safe place. The whole reason why I’m sitting here right now, why any of this for me exists, is because I was 5 years old, my family was falling apart, and I was tucked in the corner with headphones on, drawing on a little art table that my mom made me out of one of the doors in our house.

I head headphones on and I was discovering Pink Floyd, The Beatles, KISS and Beach Boys, all with headphones on. With all the chaos going on in my outside life, this was literally reshaping my young, moldable brain. Just pumping music and production and all the feelings that came from it. So, I mean, look at me now, it’s still all I’m doing, just trying to re-achieve that feeling.

Jason Lytle, lead singer of Grandaddy. Shot on location at Le Poisson Rouge, NYC Emily Assiran for Observer

Is there serenity in that?

Yeah, it’s sort of this double-edged sword where if you do work like that, people might think that you’re available to them, but I’m actually so in love with Ben and Band of Horses, it had to be a labor of love. In order for me to actually get results—good, proper results—I have to take it on as my own thing, and I can’t promise that’ll be the case if all of a sudden I become this contract producer guy.

It’s not a side-gig for you; producing and your own work are very intertwined.

Yeah, the passion’s gotta be there, I have to love it. I have to immerse myself in it and just be 100 percent available for it. And that’s obviously easy to do with my own stuff, but a little trickier when you’re working with other people’s visions and stuff.

You’ve talked about a constant attempt to keep things in balance in life. And you’re not in control right now, at this portion on the wheel of life and death, so how do you keep that balance when traveling? How do you get wisdom from the grind, after the production and the parts that are very much Lytle in his element?

I run, I’m a runner. I run anywhere from three to eight miles. When I’m home, no two days go by without me [running]. I go out in the country and I run where there’s nobody else around, so it’s meditative and it’s also clearing my brain, this mind-body thing going on. It’s a nice thing to be able to have on tour, too, because you obviously just need a pair of shoes, maybe a pair of shorts or whatever. Or a park and a river.

“We’ve structured this whole plan for the next year based on learning from our mistakes and doing things a little smarter.”

We’re right by Washington Square Park right now.

Yeah, I know, the first thing I do when I get to a place is, I get on Google and just see where the closest big green splotch or river path, and I’m just like, “Later.”

Come to think of it, all your shows this week are relatively near parks. Is that a coincidence?

No! The hotel we’re staying at right now is right next to a nice one, too. We’ve gotten a little bit better at planning that out now, too, not that all venues must be near a park or must be near a cow field.

What happened to the first two Jeds? Jed three’s the Jed on Sophtware Slump, but did we have the mafia off the first two?

I’ve actually never, ever been asked that question. Nice one! I think it was a rhyming thing. Who the hell cares about one and two? It’s all about stickin’ the rhyme.

You were telling me this great story before we started rolling about Guy from Elbow. I told you that I’d asked Ben how to properly pronounce your name and he told me it was Lye-tel.

You mean Gui from Eel-bah? [Laughs] I was trying to misprounounce every version of Guy Garvey…Gui Gayrevey.

Yeah, so I made a last Grandaddy record called Just Like the Fambly Cat… the band wasn’t touring at that point, so I kind of did this token little promotional tour and…it was weird.

It was a weird way to end this odyssey that was Grandaddy, but we had to do something. In the midst of that, I was doing a lot of radio stuff, interviews and things. Guy Garvey from Elbow, we did some shows with them, he’s good friend and a big fan. He has this indie rock radio show or somethin’, invited me on this retrospective kind of thingy, and right off the bat it was hugs and already emotional because he was really bummed that Grandaddy was stopping, and the band meant so much to him.

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jRC1gwIdCe4%5D

But we started talking and within the first sentence or two, he announces me on the radio and calls me Jason [Little], and I knew right at that moment, “Correct him now, just get it out of the way, correct him now or this is gonna get weird.” And I didn’t. Throughout the interview he kept referring to me as Jason [Little], Jason [Little], and I wasn’t even worried about me, I was just like, he’s gonna feel so bad if and when somebody’s like, “Man, that was a great thing, but you know it’s actually [Lye-tel], right?”

And because he is the type of person that he is, that would probably break his heart, and I didn’t want that! But I didn’t say anything, and I still regret it. Now look at me, I’m still talkin’ about it.

You could argue that was an exercise in ego-death, that in doing it you eliminated this reactive part of you and had a humbling experience.

Yeah, I get [Little] all the time, you go in the post office or the bank or wherever, I don’t correct them. It doesn’t matter. But I don’t want it to get back to him and for him to feel bad about that, because he shouldn’t. It’s a common mispronunciation, but at least it was [Little] and not [Lit-lee] or [Lit-lay]. [Laughs]

So I get that the first time you stopped Grandaddy it was kind of a slog, that the resources weren’t there, it wasn’t profitable, but a lot’s changed since then in the music business infrastructure. The touring grind is stronger, music can exist in multiple genres and contexts, people have a lot more avenues for profits. Do you feel more or less equipped to adapt to this new economy?

I think it helps that I’ve kept a few toes in, with the solo work and with other people, and I get the occasional commercial thing or movie thing or just a collaboration thing. It helps that I haven’t stepped away entirely. I’ve been working with the same manager, who’s also my friend, who’s also Grandaddy’s manager, and he knows me probably better than anybody, he knows what I will and I won’t tolerate. We’ve structured this whole plan for the next year based on learning from our mistakes and doing things a little smarter.

“It’s kind of an old folk’s thing. You get into these like, ‘I need my rituals!’ “

You’ve talked about patterns before, about recognizing them and breaking them.

Yes. Keep on hitting your head against that same spot harder and harder, and it’s like, no…this actually hurts and this is not fun anymore, I’m not gonna do this anymore. The fact that the band has lives and jobs, in a weird way it almost seemed like an impediment, but it’s just more parameters. We’re gonna structure it like this because so and so can only do these things in this chunk of time, so it has limits, you know?

I think the endlessness added to the mayhem last time around and was just like, “You guys gotta git out there and just pound the pavement!” You never know when the end is gonna be and I think my OCD brain just does not work well when…I kinda need to know when things are gonna be this way for this amount of time, then go back to just doing [my] own thing.

Well ritual and routine are many people’s meditation, too, whether you’re chanting shit or not.

It’s kind of an old folk’s thing. You get into these like, “I need my rituals!”

Just be glad you’re not playing SXSW this year, eh? They’d have you playing 12 fucking shows, four sets a day…

Uh….[Laughs]

Are you doing it?

Yes, but it’s one very definite show. Move the barriers, back up the van, throw your shit onstage…there was definitely a “hold out as long as you can until they offer a certain amount of money” to make sure it was only one thing.

These young hungry bands go there and play all day for several days and don’t sleep, that’s kind of the bellwether for a hustle in live music right now.

Yeah, I can actually still do that sort of thing. But I’m like, “No, no, no no no no no, not anymore.” I’ve done plenty of it.

This interview was condensed and edited for clarity

Jason Lytle on the Return of Grandaddy, the Biggest Indie Rock Reunion Ever