Catching Up With… Jason Lytle

Music Features Jason Lytle

Grandaddy shut down amidst personnel and financial unrest at the release of Just Like the Fambly Cat in 2006, but frontman Jason Lytle never planned to stop recording. Around that time, he packed up his rig and relocated from his longtime base in Modesto, Calif., to the Big Sky Country. Montana’s vistas show up on his first solo work, Yours Truly, the Commuter, with pastoral keyboard passages and a contented final line, “I’m here for good.” Think dreamy Flaming Lips melodies with a hint of Radiohead’s electronic-rock dissonance, but the key influence here is obviously Grandaddy. On a noisy outdoor balcony at the Driskill Hotel in Austin, Texas, during SXSW this past March, Lytle discussed commuting from Montana, the status of Grandaddy’s catalogue, and how he wants to make a complete mess of his next record.

Paste: Why did you end up in Montana?
Jason Lytle: I’m one of those guys who needs space. I figure things out at a slower pace. When things are moving too fast, too much stimulus, I just start shutting down and blowing fuses. I can hop on a plane and be in L.A. and do all this crap and come home and make sense of things after. I just have to have my own regroup time. I can’t have the constant thing going all the time. It’s identifying how your motor runs and working with it rather than working against it. Once you start working against it, you start introducing medication and substance abuse and nervous breakdowns.

Paste: “Fürget it” and “This Song is the Mute Button” stand out in this collection because they’re so tranquil.
Lytle: It’s good to hear, man. Thanks. I have a lot of songs similar to that that have ended up B-sides, for lack of a better term, castoffs. That’s the stuff that comes naturally to me. It was nice to have a platform for that and not be so worried about: “Gotta make a record, it’s gotta sound like a band.” Blah Blah Blah. I could easily make a double album with songs like that. Actually, one of my concerns with this record was, I wanted it to be a little more adventurous or extreme in some direction, but I knew it was my only opportunity for a debut solo album. I had to think a bit. I had to make it more well-balanced.

Paste: Balancing became a constraint then?
Lytle: You’re in a weird position when you realize you love all sorts of different types of music. If your ability level is such, you can actually record these different types of music. At some point, though, you have to ask yourself, “What type of music do I want to make?” A lot of it is dictated by mood, and my moods are up and down with the weather and with just being alive. So I end up with a pretty well-rounded catalogue of stuff to draw from. I tend to work in this way where I kind of lose myself for a while. Then I have to snap out of that and become my own secretary and make sense of what happened when I was losing it. Eventually I just got to the point where I wanted to make a well-rounded record. The second one will be a complete mess. I’m looking forward to making the messy one.

Paste: Have you started mapping out the mess?
Lytle: Yeah. I just moved to a different location. I just set things up to where it’s really easy for me to work super fast. My control room has two pianos, a pump organ, 16 different synthesizers and modules, and a drum set. Everything in this one room. Plus, I know my equipment so well where I can be out of my mind and just make shit. I just kinda have to have the backup beats going.

Paste: Are you working by yourself?
Lytle: It’s coming up mad scientist. Bouncing from tambourine to piano to sound module to drum machine to drum set. And wake up the next morning and go, “What the hell just happened?” I like working like that.

Paste: Do you have all of the equipment you’ve ever wanted?
Lytle: My biggest weakness is my own musical ability. I’m self-taught. I believe in practicing, but just enough. I don’t really like to practice. I love to play the piano. That feeds my soul, but I don’t practice. It actually makes more sense for me to walk on a treadmill or on an elliptical machine than to play scales. Unfortunately, it shows sometimes. When I play live you’re not going to look at me and think I’m the most proficient musician. I’m more into arrangements, more into sound. My weakest link is that I love to spend time outdoors more than I do indoors. I’m pretty into tools. When it’s time to start working on stuff, everything’s there. My tools are there. I don’t know about me.

Paste: I see you’re still performing with Grandaddy drummer Aaron Burtch.
Lytle: He’s the original guy I played with to begin with, super way back, and a good friend of mine. I’m trying to stay away from the idea of having a band again. If I am faced with the prospect of playing with a group, I want to make sure they’re good people. All these guys I’m super comfortable with. I think people get that. The audience wants to be part of it and if you sense tension and weirdness up there, it just kinda sucks.

Paste: How do you keep the demons at bay while touring?
Lytle: Certain situations you just gotta give up on it. I tend to drink a little too much in those situations because I internalize all that stuff. The Austin thing is like a bright, burning light. It comes, it happens and it’s over with. For some reason, if I was faced with the prospect that this was going to last two or three months, then I’d be pretty screwed. But I know it’s only going to last a few days, so I’ll power through it. We’re driving back to Montana, so I know I’m going to have plenty of time to shake it off.

Paste: Is it going to be easier to sustain everything now?
Lytle: Yeah. It’s kind of an experiment right now. I’ve had a number of talks with myself at 3 a.m., head on the pillow: “Do you want to do this, and if you’re going to do this, this has to be the case, this has to be the case…” It kinda got out of hand with the Grandaddy stuff. I think if I do it right I can pull it off.

Paste: You’re going to keep playing Grandaddy material, then?
Lytle: Oh, yeah. It’s free reign. They’re my songs. [In a high voice] “They’re my songs, dammit.” It’s all good. It’s actually really good to play those songs with my drummer Aaron. Everything syncs up so naturally. Right now we’re playing the SXSW set. It’s pretty concise. Hit ’em fast, hit ’em hard. It’s about 50-50, old stuff and new stuff. It’s just natural. If it would have taken some big abrupt shift, that would have been weird. I haven’t become somebody different. I’m still me, the guy who wrote songs for Grandaddy.

Paste: How has the breakup been sitting with you?
Lytle: These things happen for every artist, for every band. If you’re an artist, you die. If you’re a band, you die. You can either go about it in a cruddy way or have a little control of the situation and not put everybody through some big awkwardness. It was a good time to do what we did.

Paste: Tell me about life in Bozeman.
Lytle: It’s kind of Boutiquey. but it has a lot of what Montana represents, which is hard-working, self-sufficient, mountains, national parks, emphasis on the outdoors. The town has just enough good restaurants. There’s not too much of anything. The only thing there’s too much of is fresh air and quality outdoor time.

Paste: How does the album’s “commuter” title figure in?
Lytle: A lot of that is my concern and fascination with going to that world and coming back to this world. I’m actually pretty good. I’m really responsible. I’m not like the flaky musician. My credit score is really high. I pay my insurance and bills. I’m pretty upstanding as a citizen. I don’t have a number of handlers. I’m not a basket case, and I don’t have assistants and stuff. I do need to frickin’ totally lose myself to get to certain place creatively. It’s hard bouncing back and forth between those two worlds. It’s not always pretty, but I’m trying to get better at it.

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