Almost exactly three years after Grandaddy released their final album, Just Like The Fambly Cat, the frontman of the Modesto, California-based band is making his return to the music scene. His first album under his own name, Yours Truly, The Commuter, was released on May 19th, and Jason Lytle is currently embarking on his first European tour in more than five years, which brings him to Manchester’s Academy 3 on May 26th, and London’s Islington Academy on the 28th.
By the time of the release of the last Grandaddy album, the band had already, quite peacefully, called it quits. Other than a few sporadic shows with either drummer Aaron Burtch or his colleague Rusty Miller from Jackpot, life for Jason Lytle, a former semi-pro-skater, would consist of leaving Modesto and The Central Valley behind for a new home in Montana. Here, Lytle started putting together new songs, the best of which have ended up on his brand new album.
Realizing he would have to play shows again, Lytle put together a new band, which was included on the bill for this year’s edition of South By Southwest in Austin, Texas. The drums are once again handled by Burtch, Miller handles both guitars, keys and harmonies, while the bass is played by Montana-native, Rob Murdock. For this European tour, Burtch is temporarily replaced due to personal obligations. His replacement, however, is his younger brother David, known from another Central Valley band, Built Like Alaska.
Before crossing the Atlantic for the tour, Lytle put out a question on his official message board, asking if any of his fans and followers knew of a place in the UK, where he and his band could stay for a while as they rehearsed for their tour. Greg Braysford, a DJ, promoter and long time Grandaddy fan from Preston, offered exactly what Lytle was looking for, and within long Braysford, known locally as DJ Bik, could greet his hero and the accompanying entourage welcome to his hometown.
It was in this northern town that we got a chance to sit down with Jason Lytle on the eve of the release of his album. The conversation took on a life of its own, and the result is an exceptionally honest and in all probability the longest interview that Lytle has ever done.
Split up into four individual chapters, Lytle first looks back on his old band, reveals his personal highlights and discusses how it all came to an end. In the second chapter, the past is connected with the present as the new album and current tour are talked about, and Lytle elaborates on the joy of playing with his old friend and drummer again.
In the third part, the music scene at large is the topic, and more specifically Electric Light Orchestra, Metric, Maroon 5, The Doors and Enya – artists that Lytle likes, except the one that tends to make him violent. Finally, a classic list of favourites is revealed: Place, restaurant, word, invention, movie, and plenty more. Sit back, read, and enjoy a rare level of access to the mind of one of contemporary music’s most original artists.
Looking back on Grandaddy
What Grandaddy moment are you most proud of?
– Not to immediately start twisting your questions into something else, but one of my favourite things that used to happen on occasion was when I found myself or the band in these ridiculous situations. It was usually wonderful things. Like one minute before walking on stage to play the David Letterman show, the Conan O’Brien show, or Glastonbury. There’s the normal stage fright anxiety that accompanies all of those situations, but I would have these little bright moments of just thinking ‘how did we get here? Why are we here?’ It was as if we’d snuck in the backdoor. And every time that happened, I was always really proud and really looking forward to it. It’s obviously something you can’t start to expect or premeditate, but it was always really nice for me to witness those moments. And I would keep them to myself. I would sort of look at everybody, and I would just go ‘god, this is hilarious, you bunch of dirtbags’! (laughs)
Was there a specific concert that was the highlight?
– Probably Glastonbury. We had really pushed the limit in terms of intake and celebration. We barely slept, it was crazy. The whole thing was insane. But we felt the pressure to really benefit fully from the whole experience. So I was a little bit worried, when it came time to play, if we were gonna hold it together. I was pushing my own limits of being exhausted and just drunk enough, but just having fun. The sun was going down and the sky was doing all these weird colours. People just kept flowing in, and there was a lot of magic going on that night.
Do you have an album that you’re more proud of, compared to the other ones?
– Um… (thinks for a long time) That really is a difficult question, ‘cause I really go into all of them, with whatever’s going on in my life, with the best intentions. They’re so damn personal to me. It’s a valid question, but I look at the whole body of work as just this thing that’s still happening. I don’t wanna look at them as these old yearbooks or these sad postcards from a time gone by. And if anything, I would pluck songs from each album. Obviously I’m really close to all of them, having recorded the stuff myself and been there for every step of the process. I’m like Mr. Miyagi (Karate Kid’s mentor, ed.) teaching and training and moulding the songs, and eventually you just gotta let your students go. They’re gonna do what they gotta do in the outside world. And they’re still doing it, you know.
The story of Grandaddy is often told as if you guys “didn’t make it”. But you did release a ton of music, you received a lot of critical praise and got to tour all around the world. Does that sound like a failure to you?
– No. If anything, it goes back to what I mentioned before. I’d never been anywhere. I’d never left the country. I’d done a lot of travelling around through skateboarding, lots of road trips, but I knew that my life was pretty much carved out. I knew that I was gonna work a pretty menial job – in a warehouse or some job that there would be absolutely nothing fantastic about. So once the Grandaddy thing started to take off, certain aspects of it was really frustrating for me. I have dealt with issues of depression over the years, so sometimes it’s hard for me to hide the fact that I’m just not feeling very happy. But then I would be put into these positions where I would have to talk about, ‘hey! It must be great, you get to travel and to see all these things!’, and of course it is. But sometimes… I don’t care who you are – if you’re feeling a certain way, you’re just bummed out. So I would rather not talk to anybody than talk too much about it. But it was pretty incredible. We had quite some experiences, and all of it was because of Grandaddy – because of this music. I would never have been able to experience any of that stuff without it.
At the second to last five-peace show at Bonnaroo in 2004 (the last was in July in Dublin the same year, and the final show was as a three-piece (with Lytle, Burtch and Garcia) at X-Fest in their hometown of Modesto a year later, ed.), you introduced the Pavement cover song Here with the words “here’s a song by a band that had the sense to bow out gracefully”. How important was it for you to repeat that?
– I can’t imagine doing it any other way. It was like an album ending. Or – you know how sometimes you get to that point where a movie ends, and you’re just like ‘what!? It ended like that!? Nooooo!’. And unfortunately there are these delusions of grandeur that accompany so many people who end up in the entertainment industry, and you have these bright, burning moments, and you wanna keep the dream alive at any cost, and it can get a bit sad. It’s too easy to use Spinal Tap as an example, but there’s too much of that.
What kind of scenario did you worry would unfold if you hadn’t done it the way you did?
– I was really aware of all the little nuances of the evolution. Not having children, the band was my everything. I watched it evolve, and I had hopes for it, and if there were certain things that bothered me, I would do what I could to help those things along. Encourage certain things and discourage others. Trying to be fair through all of it as well. And I don’t know what the comparison would be, where you finally had to let go – but it came to a point where I was dealing with the fact that there were all these grown men that had all been a part of this thing, and this thing was done. There was too big of a threat of all these other factors becoming way more important than the music. You knew it was gonna end, and there’s never a good time, but it was just one of those situations of ‘the sooner, the better’, ‘cause we all had the abilities to move on with our lives at that point. But I really think we rode that wave as long as we could, and then we were washed up on shore.
Do you see things in a different light now compared to 3 years ago, when Grandaddy came to an end? Are there things that you understand now, or appreciate perhaps, that you didn’t three, three and a half years ago?
– I don’t have any regrets regarding how the course of the whole Grandaddy thing happened – the whole journey – but I really feel a lot of relief. I’m much more comfortable being responsible for myself and trying to run my own show. It was a great exercise to bring all these guys into my world and to get good at dealing with people and being more synergistic. But I’m the best that I can be when I’m on my own. When I’m deep inside my head and I’m digging around for things that only I can come up with when I’m by myself. And it got weird, ‘cause there were way too many people involved – and not just with the band, but with label people and crew people anticipating the next step. So it’s a big relief for me to just be standing there at a crossroads, looking in that direction and that direction, deciding which way I wanna go and saying ‘fuck it, I’m going that way!’. I account for my own decisions and I don’t have to feel bad when somebody regrets that I went in that direction and ended up getting eaten by wolves, when it wasn’t my fault.
Is there a personal responsibility towards other band members that is now gone, which is part of the relief that you feel?
– Well, it was just a weird concept altogether. This whole ‘being a band’. It’s like the boy scouts. You can’t be in them forever. You gotta grow up, you gotta take what you learned by being in the boy scouts. In terms of that theory having any weight, I wanted to make sure that I was being fair, while we were in the boy scouts, but at some point it’s time to take these lessons of how to build a fire and how to construct a shelter with you. It’s weird, ‘cause I have friends that have gotten into the Hell’s Angels and biker gangs, and there’s this weird thing that guys have about being in a pack. And I was always more into running or playing tennis or stuff that was mind-oriented. It was never very natural for me to be part of a team.
Why do you think that is?
– I don’t know. I spent a lot of time by myself when I was a little kid. I got results from it. I drew pictures. I wandered around a lot. We lived out in the country, and I didn’t have a whole lot of friends. I listened to a lot of music. I really loved to draw. I was really into drawing Star Wars and superheroes and stuff like that.
What Star Wars characters?
– At one point, I could pretty much draw all of them.
Which one was your favourite to draw? Jabba the Hutt?
– No, probably Han Solo, actually.
‘Cause he was the guy you identified yourself with? The solo star of the pack, so to speak?
– (laughs) Wow, you’re tapping into something here! Possibly. Good point!
The UK has often been said to be able to appreciate American music in a way that the US haven’t. How did you experience this difference?
– Actually, I haven’t bought into that whole theory. It was always a sore subject for me with Grandaddy, ‘cause I always thought that we were a very, not only American band, but Californian band. So all of a sudden we’re playing all these places and getting all this press and coverage in the UK, and I was like ‘this is great – but what the fuck?’. A lot of it was a logistical thing, though. Right when it all started to take off, we had all these nightmarish problems with our label in America, so rather than the band just dying or treading water, we got picked up by our label in the UK, V2, and there were all these great opportunities, and people just sort of connected with our weirdness. If anything was slightly annoying, it was that they focused a little too much on the beards and that we looked like… forklift drivers. Instead of musicians, you know. But it was funny, and any press is good press, as long as it doesn’t overshadow the music completely. It was nice when things finally started to even out a bit after we got sorted things out at home. That was very reassuring for me. But at some point, you just have to go where they like you and not really ask questions and just go ‘fuck it, they like us, great! Will you have us back, please?’. (laughs)
How about The Beach Boys, who were, from my understanding, more appreciated in the UK and Europe than they were back home, where they were consistently being associated with the surfing and the cars – whereas in the UK, they ‘got’ Pet Sounds? You don’t agree that there’s a European sensibility that Americans apparently don’t have?
– I don’t know. I think I like the fact that I’m naïve to that. It’s never strongly dictated anything in my mind. I don’t wake up and go ‘woah, I’m American and I should like this!’. I don’t do that. I love listening to the Kaiser Chiefs, but some of the slang – I don’t quite get it, but I love listening to them! I think they’re a fucking great band. And I certainly don’t worry about the guy sitting next to me on the bus back home – whether or not he likes the Kaiser Chiefs. I really like the one they did before the newest one.
Yours Truly, Angry Mob?
Is that where you got your own album title from?
– No! Although for a second I was a little concerned, but yeah – you can do worse than having that sort of connection. There’s a song on there that I really like. (sings quite a bit of I Can Do Without You)
You should cover it, for these UK shows.
– Actually, for the live shows I made an outro cd. Like a mix. And that’s one of the songs on there. But anyways, I find my own connection with a band and just go with it. I’m not trying to simplify the whole thing. But at some point we have to take responsibility and start being individuals! (laughs)
But you used to introduce Grandaddy as a ‘bunch of hillbillies who like to camp and stuff’ who were very, very far from Los Angeles, so it must have meant a lot to you to have that identity as this Modesto/Central Valley band. You set yourself up, not necessarily as a counter-reaction to Hollywood, but at least something that was as American, but very, very different from Hollywood and what people often associate with America.
– It had a huge influence on why we were able to develop into whatever we developed into. I can only imagine what people thought when we walked out on stage. Let’s just say they heard a few of the songs, and in your mind you don’t know what the guys are gonna look like. And probably more often than not, we threw people off a little bit with our crappy gear on stage and me looking like whatever I looked like at the time. Jim was good-looking, and Aaron is back there chain-smoking, wearing a fucking Slayer shirt, playing this beautiful, little fluffy beat. It was all very confusing, you know! And we’re all pounding beers through the whole thing, trying to play this pretty music. But the funny thing is that it was all very real. We were a product of what we came from. And we loved the fact that we resisted moving to LA – or even San Francisco, which wouldn’t have been so bad, but we realized that in order to develop and become our thing, we had to stay in Modesto. And I probably got a little long-winded talking about it on stage now and then, but I was just trying to let people know about it, and it always seemed like an appealing idea to me. I think that’s why I would always mention it. Who knows, maybe 80% was like ‘who gives a shit – play that one song we’ve heard on the radio’. But I love the fact that there’s a story behind the band. It adds a little more depth to it.
Did you notice any of the news stories that appeared when you shaved off your beard?
– Yeah. Now I’ll let my facial hair grow for four or five days, and it drives me insane. I can’t believe I ever even had a beard for that long. God.
Is Grandaddy coming back together? I notice you have facial hair!
– (laughs) Every time I get the tendency, I’m gonna fire up the razor. That’s how I’m holding the Grandaddy thing at bay. If somebody steals my razor, there’s a good chance the band might reform! (laughs)
Connecting the past and the present
Seeing as how you wrote all the songs in Grandaddy, it seems natural for you to also play songs from that era now, as you did at South By Southwest. How much, though, do you worry about blending the two eras together, as opposed to keeping them as separate entities?
– 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.
Do you feel in any way that you’re playing cover songs by yourself?
– No, no. Absolutely not. It might be easier to explain if you heard some of the rehearsals. Rusty’s an old friend of mine, and I’m playing with Aaron. So that’s half the battle. And Rusty’s in this great band, too, (Jackpot, ed.) 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.
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 those? ‘Cause they’re the most recognizable songs for the audience still, which I’m guessing is still gonna consist of Grandaddy fans as well as your personal fans.
– 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.
How strong is your awareness of what people expect from you – versus simply doing what you want?
– (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.
Without saying it’s a bad thing in any way, your new album is quite a clear continuation of the Grandaddy-like themes – obviously, since you wrote all the music, so I’m not saying it’s strange or anything. But in the three years that have passed, there might have been urges within you to put out music that was radically different, but maybe you knew 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.
– Computers and robots…
Yeah, although I was going to say that you didn’t include a lot of robots on this one, though, did you?
– They just helped me with the recording, but they were in the backseat this time.
Right. But you know what I mean, right?
– 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 oneopportunity to do 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 Yanni 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.
I said before that the album continues the line of the Grandaddy material. Are you disappointed in a comment like that?
– 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…
You talked about, years ago, about being able to use all your gear on autopilot while being drunk or whatever – that you could leave the technical aspect out of it, ‘cause that would control itself. Is that still an approach that you use?
– 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.
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, if you don’t have what I guess we could call “challenging surroundings” like the ones the Central Valley offered you?
– 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.
What’s the aspect of other people that you don’t get?
– 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.
How are you anticipating the release of this album? What do you think is going to happen once it hits the market?
– 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.
Do you know that there’s a talent show over here called X-Factor?
Just to get your connotations straight. It’s kind of like American Idol.
– American Lytle. I love that show!
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?
– 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.
Dare you mention one?
– One crappy one? There’s this one called Phone Conversation With Chris (an iTunes bonus track for Just Like The Fambly Cat, ed.). 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.
Considering the changes and 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. But not in the old-fashioned way. So, what is the format of releasing what used to be released as b-sides?
– 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.
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?
– 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% 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.
Did you have any band names that you considered?
– Yeah, hold on. You gotta give me some time here. I’ve got a few… The Assholes. The Turds. The Pukers. The Fuckfaces… (laughs)
Why didn’t you go with any of those?
– You’re not gonna get a good answer here! (laughs)
Alright. So in terms of touring, your enthusiasm wasn’t always super high. But how do you feel about it now?
– 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.
Are you more comfortable on stage now, than you were 4-5 years ago?
– 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 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.
Why was it huge to be playing with Aaron again?
– When Grandaddy ended, it was awkward for everybody. I kept in contact with some guys, more so than others. I talk to Jim. But the thing is – I don’t talk to Tim and Kevin, 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’re were doing these shows at the San Francisco airport (You Are Hear, December 2008, ed.). 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 ‘1-2-3-4’, and we played for an hour, an hour and a half.
Did he pull off the songs he didn’t even know?
– 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.
passions and guilty pleasures
I guess you touched on it before, but is there anyone you would like to share a stage with – that you haven’t already? The Rolling Stones?
– (laughs) The Rolling Stones… People used to ask me about Jeff Lynne, ‘cause I’m such a huge ELO fan, but I’m like ‘how if I get to pretend that I’m Jeff Lynne and I get to be on stage with his keyboard player and drummer?’. I got this close to doing something like that. I have all these weird, freak ELO fans, who send me obscure recordings, and I have these instrumental versions of these proper album tracks. And I thought ‘yeah, that could be a pretty good little interlude or encore to put on an ELO cd and then do one little ELO karaoke song’!
Which one would you do?
– The thing was – I had three songs, but the range was way too high. (imitates a high-pitched Jeff Lynne) And then I realized, ‘damn, Jeff Lynne has a pretty high voice!’. There was Telephone Line, Livin’ Thing and one called Waterfall, which was almost a b-sidey kind of song. It’s actually one of my favorite ELO songs. I was like, ‘yeah, it’d be great!’, and then I tried to sing it and went ‘holy cow, this doesn’t sound too good! So much for that idea!’.
You appear on M. Ward’s latest album, and there seems to be at least a metaphorical collective that consists of him, Conor Oberst, Jenny Lewis, Ben Gibbard and other people. Have you considered joining forces further and perhaps do a tour with these people? There must be a fairly good overlap in fan bases, I would say.
– Yeah, that would be great! I don’t have a problem running into any of those people. Actually, I do have kind of a master list that my booking agent asked me to send – like, ‘if you could tour with anybody!’. And I think Conor was on there, and Matt Ward as well. I think it’s a lot more common these days to a package deal. Economically speaking it makes a lot more sense with all these bands to play together. That could be cool. I wouldn’t oppose to that.
What current bands are you excited about?
– I’m a huge Metric fan. They’re fronted by this woman called Emily Haines, who put out an album a couple of years ago. They have three or four albums. They’re from Canada. It’s one of those things, where it’s really distracting, ‘cause she’s really pretty… She almost looks like a model or whatever. But she actually has a rattle-snaggle tooth – like a broken piano tooth – so it kind of messes her look up a little bit, in a perfect way. For those guys who like a woman with a limp. But the music is a great combination of guitar and synth, and unfortunately people compare it to The Yeah Yeah Yeahs, and it’s just not right, ‘cause she writes really good songs. And she made this album, which is all piano songs. She was taking a break from Metric. They just released this highly-anticipated album (Fantasies, ed.), and it’s fucking good. It was like, ‘thank you, I’d been waiting for that to come out!’. And I like song number three on that new MGMT record! (laughs) (The Youth, ed.)
Are there any current acts you genuinely despise? Some that perhaps represent what’s wrong with music?
– That’s a great question. There are a lot of things that annoy the shit out of me. (thinks for a really long time, then realizes he can’t come up with a current band for this category) God, maybe this is a good thing! Maybe this means I’m becoming more compassionate and sort of… forgiving. (laughs) I used to always make fun of this band, Maroon 5. But we were driving around today, and one of their songs came on the radio, and I was like ‘fuck, that’s a great song!’. That’s good, though, right? To search out the goodness in all situations. It was that one song, too. (sings it in a slightly mocking voice) ‘This love has taken it’s toll on me…’ Shit, it’s a good song. I enjoyed it.
What if it doesn’t have to be a current band?
– Whenever The Doors come on the radio, I just get really, really angry.
What’s wrong with The Doors?
– Jim Morrison is wrong with The Doors.
You don’t feel the mojo?
– I do not feel the mojo. It’s actually a good, valid question. Who is it that just really makes you mad? And the only thing I could think of right off the bat was that every time the fucking Doors come on, I change the station immediately. I don’t even give it a chance, to figure it out or try to decipher why it makes me, like… violent. (laughs) But I think I don’t like the fact that Jim Morrison took the rich kid, tortured artist thing to a whole new level. I don’t like rich kids, tortured artists.
What about poor kids, tortured artists?
– I don’t automatically buy into the whole tortured artist concept. ‘Cause life is hard, life is a struggle, but there are all kinds of wonderful things to be appreciative of.
You sing melancholic tunes, though. Why aren’t you a tortured artist?
– (baffled silence)
– No… It’s gotten out of hand with some people. Some people are just sad. Life can be great, it can be perfect, but you’re struck with these waves of sadness. And I don’t wanna be like that. I think at some point I realized that I could go beyond that. Sort of get rid of it. But we all know what the blues are. Just being miserable with the situation and trying to make some sense of it, and the only way you know how is to make, you know, blues.
Do you know the band Sophia?
Oh, okay. It’s a band with this American guy (Robin Proper-Sheppard, ed.), and he sings the saddest, saddest music in the world. It’s so depressing, but it’s really beautiful. And then when he’s on stage, or if you happen to meet him after a show, he’s usually in a really good mood, and you get the sense that he’s getting all this sadness out through his songs while he’s on stage.
– Oh yeah. I get that. It’s a little touchy to be so premeditative about it – like ‘I can’t wait to play these sad songs, ‘cause then I’m gonna be happy!’. It’s not gonna go like that.
Would you play The Warming Sun (from Sumday, ed.) live?
– I would if I could. It’s actually a kind of difficult song to play. The chord positions are really difficult. I’ve done it drunk at house parties and played my way through it, and it’s doable, but in a band situation there’s kind of a lot going on sonically.
But it’s not that it’s too hard emotionally?
– You know what’s funny? The girl I sing it about… I still have her picture on my keyboard. But it’s all good stuff. I don’t wallow in tragedy. Part of the reason I moved to Montana is that I love mountains and the natural world, and these things make me happy and they make me a good person. But there’s sadness and fucking joy everywhere. It’s about embracing human conditions, rather than stifling, suppressing and denying, you know? And it’s okay to document it.
What’s your guiltiest musical pleasure? Besides Maroon 5.
– I know there’s an answer.
The Beach Boys song?
– No… It’s definitely Enya. I’m a fucking huge Enya fan. I swear to God.
Why is it a guilty pleasure? Why aren’t you mentioning Enya in every interview you do?
– Actually, I have mentioned it a number of times! As a matter of fact, I just sent my good friend Aaron (Espinoza, ed.) from Earlimart a copy of my album, and as a sign of appreciation he sent me a shirt that his friend did. You know the ‘I heart NY’ shirts? He made a lot of different ones, and Aaron sent me this huge ‘I heart Enya’ one, and it’s hanging in a prominent area in my studio.
What’s so good about the music?
– She’s created her own thing. She’s an enigma. She’s a total mystery. And she produces her own stuff. She lives in a fucking castle in Ireland. And then she has this studio. She’s like Mr. Burns from The Simpsons, except she makes Enya albums instead of nuclear stuff! (laughs) But it’s a gooey, guilty pleasure. It’s just so over the top. Nobody else sounds like that. And I really like it. Enya on the fucking cliffs next to a castle, with the wind blowing and an orchestra with fifty Enya voices coming out of their keyboards, and I’m just like ‘yes!’. But I try to mix it up. Like trying to calm down after listening to Mastodon. I love the new Mastodon album as well!
What’s your favorite place in the world?
– My favorite geographical spot on the planet? (thinks for a long time) Definitely Montana at this point. The longer I live there, the more it reveals. It’s very slow in what it reveals, but it’s getting deeper and deeper and more incredible. Say, like, the converse of that would be being super excited and moving to a city – ‘alright, there’s a good burrito place down there and a good Thai food place down there and a public library with free Wi-Fi and blah-blah-blah’. Montana’s very elusive. It doesn’t beckon the world to come there and benefit from what it has to offer. You have to slow down and sit there and just let it happen. Which requires being there for a long enough time to allow yourself to get to that level.
The opposite of that strikes me as being – and it’s a place that I quite like, but – Las Vegas. Do you like it there?
– I do love Las Vegas. Last time I was there I had a pretty incredible time. I was hanging out with Jim (Putnam, ed.) from Radar Bros. We went to a wedding, and we happened to be driving back the same way and afterwards he called me and left a message, saying it was great to hang out with me. (mimics his friend with a silly high-pitched voice) ‘Hey Jason, it was nice hanging out with you in Las Vegas, and by the way, after you left I threw up all over myself in the gutter… I had a great time, it was good to see you, ‘kay, bye…’ (laughs) But Las Vegas is awesome. Beyond the throw-up story. I love it. It’s so fucking completely, utterly ridiculous. And the rooms are getting cheaper. The economy is so bad that you can stay in these five-star hotels for, like, ninety-nine dollars. It’s great.
Did you go to Montana before you moved there?
– I’d only driven through. But I had a good friend of mine, whom I trusted, who said ‘you’re gonna like this place’. And I was always on tour somewhere. ‘You gotta come visit!’ – ‘I want to, but I’m kind of busy right now!’. And I finally had the opportunity to go check it out. I knew that I was gonna be leaving Modesto.
Where else did you consider? LA?
– Oddly enough, I was thinking about moving to LA. Only because I have a lot of friends there. But eventually I came to the realization that that’s what I’d been doing. I’d been living some place that I’m not thrilled with – in the name of work – and at some point your life has gone by, and I wanna be at some place that makes me happy every day. And there was a time to do that, and that was it. That’s what made me change my mind. It was like one big road trip, and part of it was LA. And I was actually looking at places to live and neighbourhoods and stuff, and I ended up on this big sweeping road trip through the states. But I knew I wanted to keep it kind of close to the west coast, ‘cause my family still lives there. But Montana’s a weird one. I’ve always loved the Alps, and to me it’s like staying in America, but moving to the Swiss Alps. And the culture’s just a bit different enough there. People are a lot nicer and politer than what I’d gotten used to in Modesto.
Did you get to elevate yourself in Montana?
– Literally! It’s a valley that I live in, but it’s about five thousand feet above sea level. I spend a good percentage of the week between six and seven thousand feet above sea level, up in the mountains, biking or skiing.
Skiing? No snowboarding?
– No, oddly enough. I don’t snowboard. ‘Cause that was the obvious thing to do!
Where else have you been, where you have thought to yourself “just let me stay here”?
– I was in Italy on one of the first tours. And I was so sad and depressed and wasted. And they have these shows super late at night, and we went and had dinner. It was one of the smaller village shows, so the people who owned the venue also owned a restaurant, and they cooked us all this wonderful food. And they gave us way too much wine. And I hadn’t had a shower in, I don’t know… Two or three weeks. And I really needed one and just needed to rest. My nerves were rattled, and we were going on at midnight, and I was already drunk. It had been a long tour. And then one of the people connected with the venue drove me to her house and showed me where the towels were and how to turn on the bathtub. And I had my first bath in three weeks. I had been around dirty guys, drunk every night, and I was just exhausted. And next thing you know, I’m in this girl’s bathtub in a little village in Italy, surrounded by body wash and hair products and candles, smelling good things… I’ll probably remember that bath until my deathbed. (laughs) ‘I don’t wanna leave this place!’ And there was nothing weird or sexual – if anything, I wanted her to go away! ‘Just let me sit around your bath vibes!’.
What’s your favorite restaurant?
– That would be the Shalimar in the Tenderloin district in San Francisco. It’s this really sketchy Indian takeaway that has a few seats, and every time the microwave goes on, the lights dim, and there are these 98-year-old Indian men squatting, cutting vegetables on the floor in the back. And the food is insanely hot and spicy, and it’s ‘bring your own beer’. But it’s kind of a limited menu, and it’s just so chaotic and so cheap.
What’s your favorite joke?
– Um… I’m definitely one of those people that don’t retain jokes very well. But! I do have two favorite sayings. And I got to use one of them on the beginning of the record. The whole two shits thing. (in a southern (US) accent) ‘You know what, I could give two shits what you think about that!’. That’s one of them. The other one is ‘Yeah, go fuck a duck!’ (laughs) So, somehow I’m able to justify using ‘two shits’, but at some point I’m going to have to come with a song where I’m able to incorporate the ‘go fuck a duck’ thing. (laughs)
Birds Encouraged Him, version 2?
– Yeah! (laughs) Rusty’s joke with Birds Encouraged Him was – ‘cause it’s all serious and pretty – right before I kick into the solo, I go ‘as birds encouraged him on life to hold’, and then I go (whistles bird noises), as if the bird is talking to the guy, and Rusty’s supposed to sing, and he just starts dying laughing, and then the song just self-destructs. (laughs) You know! That’s how birds talk!
Not too long ago, my friend and colleague interviewed Bonnie “Prince” Billy, who told him a joke that I can remember. It goes like this. A guy goes to the doctor, feeling really bad. Then the doctor says to him, ‘you really have to stop masturbating’, and the guy goes ‘why?’ – ‘because I’m examining you!’.
– (laughs) That’s actually really not that good! Is that the best he could do? I heard a couple over the last few days that were a lot better than that one!
Well, let’s hear ‘em!
– I don’t retain them! I laugh! For, like, eight seconds, and then they’re gone!
What’s your favorite song anyone ever did?
– (thinks for a long time) You realize how hard this is, right?
No, I thought you’d have it ready. I thought you were gonna say Livin’ Thing by ELO.
– If anything, I would say Waterfall by ELO. It still knocks me out every time I hear it, and I still love the fact that it’s not one of their big hits. Like, ‘Waterfall! You know, Waterfall!’ – ‘um, huh?’. (laughs)
What’s your favorite song that you yourself ever did?
– My favorite doesn’t exist. But if I got the opportunity to properly re-record Levitz, then that probably would be my favorite.
What’s your favorite word?
– Uh… ‘Sleep’. It’s got a good ring to it. It means strength. There’s nothing better than what it symbolizes. You can be as tired and exhausted, and you could have the worst things happen to you, but if you get eight hours of solid sleep, you’re like… Superman.
What’s your favorite movie?
– Gold Rush, Charlie Chaplin. It has everything a movie needs. It’s more mind-blowing than any movie with modern special effects and capabilities. It just so happens that it’s also a silent film. It’s like this pure product of Charlie Chaplin’s imagination.
What’s your favorite drink?
– Um… Depends on what time of day it is. How about that? Can it depend on what time of day it is?
No. If you ever only got have one alcoholic drink ever again.
– Oh, it has to be alcoholic?
Yeah, ‘cause water would be boring.
– I’ll take a… I’ll take an Absolut and tonic with two wedges of lime in it. Please.
What’s your favorite experience with a female fan?
– (laughs) Oh, man… Breaking up with her. Ending our eight-year relationship, how about that? (laughs)
What’s your favorite invention? The guitar?
– Absolutely not. (thinks) Ketchup! ‘Cause it goes good with everything. And it tastes great!
Vinyl, cd, or cassette, and in what order?
– Cassette, cd, vinyl.
Cassette is your favorite?
– Yeah. I just wish technology accommodated it better. I’ve been listening to cassettes lately, and a well-recorded cassette on a good cassette player actually sounds pretty incredible.
You’re not a vinyl fetishist?
– No, no, absolutely not. They don’t really make it the right way anymore. They make it off of digital masters.
Who’s your favorite actor?
– Charlie Chaplin.
Who’s your favorite actress?
– (thinks for a long time) I don’t know her name. Who’s the girl in the Spiderman movie?
– Yeah. I like Kirsten Dunst. She’s really pretty. I have a leaning towards Scandinavian girls… She looks a bit Scandinavian, doesn’t she?
I would say.
– I don’t like the Angelina Jolie types, the exaggerated ones. I like the more kind of understated thing. Kristen Dunst.
– (in a Swedish accent) Kirsten Dunsten!
Last question and you’re off the hook. What’s your favorite favorite?
– My favorite favorite? (sighs and laughs) Do you know how tempted I am to say ketchup again? (laughs, then thinks for a long time) Alright, here’s my favorite favorite. This is like a big serious answer. I had a really sketchy, fractured family growing up. But my dad… I don’t know, he just wanted me to stay out of jail. He didn’t really care if I went to school, he didn’t care what I did for a living. He had an upbringing that he wasn’t terribly pleased with. He was always stressed, and he had a really bad temper, and wasn’t the nicest guy in the world. But… As soon as things started working out, and once he started seeing I was making something out of this band… He became like a superfan. And he’s my favorite. He’s my favorite favorite.