Catching Up with Jason Lytle

Music Features Jason Lytle
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Fresh of a month-long reunion tour with his band Grandaddy, singer-songwriter Jason Lytle returns with his second album of solo material, titled Dept. of Disappearance and due on Oct 16 via Anti-. We had a chance to catch up with him and discuss his writing process, his other projects, and his reflection on his legacy.

Paste: Some of the songs on your new album, Dept. of Disappearance, have been appearing in live sets for more than a year now. How long did you spend crafting the album and how does taking an extended time with making an album affect the audience’s experience with it?
Jason Lytle: That’s pretty much always been the process for me. I’m pretty involved the the overdubbing, layering and finessing of the production aspects of my albums. Some of those songs that you allude to were partially recorded even before I started playing them, and it took a while to decide which songs were going to make the cut and be included on the record. One of the criteria was that the songs had to be able for me to play them from front to back in a stripped down scenario. And, I haven’t really thought like that in a while. Previously,I really didn’t give a shit, and was like ‘shoot first and ask questions later.’ There are plenty of Grandaddy songs that are just awkward and weird sounding if they are played on their own, with long extended instrumental sections. That really fuels your anxiety when you are on stage that much more.

So, yeah, it probably took me a year and a half to two years to write these songs and then really roll up my sleeves and work on them individually.

Paste: That’s interesting, because comparing this album to your first solo album, Yours Truly, the Commuter, it is much easier imagining you performing the first album in a minimal capacity, as just a guy on stage with an acoustic guitar. On this new album, I found there to be an increase in the complexity and adventurousness of the layering of sound. Talk about how you build these memorable arrangements and soundscapes. Are they mostly the product of playing with equipment that you have at your disposal or is it all heavily pre-conceived in advance?
Lytle: Well, it really depends. I remember at a point toward the end of recording, when I had about 80 percent of the album tracked, I had this clipboard up in my studio that said ‘Instruments that haven’t been used yet’ and then I had this big list of things, mostly in the name of further rounding out the collection in terms of sounds. I don’t know how many things on that list I ended up using, but one thing I really like about the process is something that people who work in a creative field but in an office environment will understand. Their desk is in complete chaos and it may look completely nonsensical to anyone else, but, you know, you wouldn’t want anyone to touch anything because everything has its own place in your mind. The whole idea behind my studio is that it is one big room and everything is in that room. And, I mean everything. Actually, I do have a grand piano that doesn’t fit in there but its in the room that is just immediately next to it. But in the room, there is another upright piano, drums, all my keyboards, a whole art station where I work on artwork and then all the outdoor gear and all the microphones and all the cables and the drawers, all the maintenance stuff, and all the percussion stuff… I like to be able to look around and see it all there. I am truly inspired by gear. As far as my creative process goes, I like to be able to look around and find inspiration in something like the color of a certain guitar.

I also have a sort of checks and balances system that I’ve worked out over the years where I am able to figure out what direction the song needs to go and what I need to add or remove to create my desired effects. So, sometimes it is is more like that.
On one particular song from the new collection, “Last Problem of the Alps,” I was really trying to create the sound of a blizzard… on a mountaintop… at night. Every now and then, I’ll move into this kind of risky territory and try to create these soundscapes that actually have the ability to paint pictures in other people’s minds. But, you know, that’s sort of asking for a lot and tricky. But, on this song, I was hell bent and bound and determined to work on it until I felt like I got it right.

Paste: Equally as important and impressive on Dept. of Disappearance is the storytelling that is happening in the lyrics. While you may be using persona or something like that to get these tales across, how much of yourself do you put into characters that you sing from or sing about?
Lytle: Well, I’ve learned over the years that it helps having a strong connection to the characters. I mean, I’m sure that there are greater tellers of tales who don’t need that. But, who knows, maybe Tom Waits sees a little bit of himself in all of his characters, too [laughs]. For me, I feel that it is really important for me to have a tight bond with my characters. And, it wouldn’t be too tough to go to a therapist and have them confirm the connections. They could tear apart my songs and probably easily find me in there, because its not like my songs are too far fetched. So, yeah, I am definitely creating stories that I able to connect with on a personal level, therefore being able to play the songs for years to come and continue feeling that connection, so I can put some kind of emotion into the performance. If nothing else, it helps the shelf life.

Paste: Getting into some of the specific tracks on the album, “Your Final Setting Sun” will likely be one that will jump out at listeners. The press material for this release mention that the work of Cormac McCarthy served as some inspiration for the track. Could you expand upon that for us?
Lytle: It’s a little weird because I was trying to speak more generally when I said that. That song, though, it has a darkness to it, and, really any time there is a guy laying in the desert on the verge of death, it means someone is telling the story a little bit differently. McCarthy was the first person that popped into my head and maybe I should be a little more thoughtful when I’m patching something together for these press thingies. But, I really do love those classic stories and I’m just a sucker for the westerns, with the dirtiness and the desolation, and being able to tell the story with a modern twist so that we are able to connect with it a little bit better. He manages to do that all really well and that’s why he is, well, he is just one of those writers that I always really look forward to him having something new come out.

Paste: Something that has become a bit of a trend in your music has been including songs that take a single line or verse of lyrics and build an entire song around them, whether it has been “Nature Anthem,” “Skateboarding Saves Me Twice,” or many others. On this album, you have “Get Up and Go” filling that spot. These types of tracks tend to be fun or irreverent diversions, but there is something to be said about turning a single sentence or statement into an entire song, where you only get one idea to convey and you have to make it count to draw the audience in. Is this song-type something that you are conscious of when you are writing the songs and what’s your feeling of the merits of songs like these?
Lytle: Honestly, I was a little worried about that song (“Get Up and Go”) for a while and I kept thinking “shit man, I’ve got to put some verses in this thing.” It elevated the pressure in my mind to, you know, have the arrangement be interesting, to make sure there are things coming in and going out and getting wide and closing in and moving around. And then when it was all said and done, the song was ending at around two minutes and twenty seconds and I was like ‘you know, it’s not so bad.’

Phil Spector comes to mind as someone who could create an epic and have it be over in, like, two minutes and fifteen seconds, so I just had to be okay with the fact that I had gotten in there and made my point… if anything, the thing that was weird about the song for me is that it was how borderline annoyingly encouraging and optimistic it is. And, I found it interesting how embarrassed by that I was. Those are, like, my own issues. I’m always trying to become a more positive person, not the guy who is driving around and mentally harping on everyone and everything around me. I have my own problem with that. So, if anything, I need to make more songs like that one and, you know, listen to them.

But yeah, I actually love that, just having a simple, positive message in a song and maybe being able to do so without being embarrassed about it. That will be my next goal.

Paste: You have a small support tour scheduled to begin this week in Washington. Are these going to be true solo performances or are you going to be touring with a small band like you did for the last solo record?
Lytle: It’s funny you mention that, because right now is the time that I am really having to focus on choosing which songs I am going to tackle. Some of them are really working out in a scaled-back fashion, as the tour will just be myself and a long-time friend of mine who is a multi-instumentalist. So we are getting together and I’m going to try to put together an hour or an hour and a half of music that works with our setup. We’ll probably be limited to acoustic guitar, piano, some synth stuff, and a small drum machine sampler. And, you know, some harmonies. Hopefully with those elements we can create some interesting renditions of the songs we choose to play. I’m getting more into the idea of not having any pressure whatsoever, and just letting the album thing and the live thing be two completely different entities, but totally valid in their own right. Plus, I’m just not interested in assembling a band that could pull of the songs that I record. So, the fact that I’ve given into that urge to separate the two has actually been very freeing.

Paste: So, the album is coming out now and it is almost immediately following your month-long reunion tour with Grandaddy. Was there thought put into the timing there or is it just a coincidence?
Lytle: If anything the timing was a concern. The label had their worries and I think they like to believe that there is more of a science to this kind of stuff, and that people could be confused by having the two separate things getting publicized at the same time. But, I think it only helps. If anything, we’ve been looking at the calendar trying to figure out when we can put out this album and it already has been delayed long enough that I just had to get it out this year. And once we had settled and moved some things around, we had that block of time free to make Grandaddy available for all of those European festivals that we did.

Paste: How did that Grandaddy reunion stint leave you and how did you all leave it when the dates concluded??
Lytle: Man, it was a lot of fun, and it totally reminded me why I got out of that. laughs I’m just not that person anymore, because there was always this drive to see what we could pull off and find out what next level it was going to go to. This was more of a novelty, and it was enjoying the company of the other guys and playing shows for just tons of super excited and enthusiastic people and actually getting paid for it when it was all said and done. All those parts were really cool. But, it took me about two and a half weeks before I started closing up and I realized that I don’t like being surrounded, and it was that ever-moving, just going and going. At that point I realized that there was a definite end coming and that was enough to get me through it. In the old days, there was no definite end to it. You just never knew. So, yeah, in the end it was super swell but ultimately reminded me why I had to phase myself out of it.

Paste: And what about Admiral Radley? I know Earlimart is back doing their own thing with a new album but has there ever been talk about finding time to get that project back up and running?
Lytle: There has been absolutely no talk, but that’s funny I was just thinking about that this morning. I have a feeling that after Aaron (Espinoza)”s album with Earlimart gets done with its little cycle, I’ll probably end up getting some sort of text message or email with a little Admiral related hint [laughs]. Yeah, we’ll see, I honestly have no idea.

Paste: Looking back at a career that has spanned three decades with a number of various projects, do you ever consider what your legacy might be as a songwriter? As you just witnessed on tour with Grandaddy, there is a certain amount of people for whom the songs you have written mean a whole lot. Do you ever think of your own career in those sorts of terms and, when it is all said and done, is there a way you’d like to be remembered?
Lytle: Sometimes I wonder what is wrong with me that I don’t think about it in those sorts of terms. When I do think about it, though, I’m thinking more about how I need to continue putting out stuff that I am comfortable with and that it is at a certain level. I think I am beyond the point where I would be too distracted by what people are expecting. If anything, that period existed around Sumday, right near the end of Grandaddy. Now, I think that if I just stay on this path and continue making music that means a lot to me… All I’m really trying to do and I’ve said this a few times is to emulate the feeling that I had listening to music when I was eight-years old. With each album that is my goal, to create those moments, and unfortunately they are only moments. So, I’m just trying to pack as many of those moments into a “legacy” as possible.

Plus, there are tons of other things that I still want to do. I really want to start painting, you know, oil and canvas. So, if it ever looks like the shit is dried up, I’ll have no problem just saying ‘alright, I’ve had a good run, I’m going to start painting now. Goodbye.’ I think I’ll have a pretty good idea when I get to that point, and I won’t drag it out any longer than I should.