By Kimberly Chun
Modesto, your Jason Lytle is truly a pleasure to chat with. Here’s more of an interview with the disarmingly honest, down-to-earth ex-Grandaddy songwriter, now touring with his first solo album, Yours Truly, the Commuter (for the rest of the talk, see this week’s Sonic Reducer). Lytle headlines at Café du Nord June 8 and opens for Neko Case at the Warfield June 9.
SFBG: So right now you’re multitasking, printing out flight info for your tour. Is flying an issue for you? I’m just looking at the crashed plane in the artwork for Yours Truly, the Commuter.
Jason Lytle: Ummm, I’m actually OK with flying – I’m a lot better with flying than a lot of people I know. I guess if you’re looking at the artwork - I do have a problem with airplanes landing in my front yard.
SFBG: Do you also live in a log cabin?
JL: Yeah and I changed my name to Hansel and met a girl named Gretel. Nah, I don’t know - it was my first watercolor, OK! I’m already self-conscious enough as it is…
SFBG: So commuting is about moving from one place to another, from being creative to being practical. Does it always have to be one or the other?
JL: Well, unfortunately we have all these tragic examples of people who think it was one or the other. I don’t like to live in a dump. I like the perks of being responsible and knowing that you’re supposed to use that fork for your salad and that fork for your main dish and not being too tragic.
I don’t know. We know too many examples of people who decided they were just going to be tragic and artistic forever and have these handlers and have these drug problems, and they just can’t quite get it together. And I’ve had little glimpses of that and I’ve partaken in bits of it myself, but I’d rather be really good at both… It’s a struggle. I’ve been fascinated with the struggle, and that’s why I think I ended up dedicating my debut solo record to that concept: the struggle.
SFBG: It’s amazing that this is your first solo album because you’ve been playing quite a bit solo – for instance, at Café du Nord.
JL: Yeah, every now and then I’ll just go play shows because I realize that it’s what I do, and y’know, it’s like, I played tennis for years, too, and for some reason, in the back of my mind, I think, y’know, I need to go play tennis. But if I just quit playing altogether, when it finally comes time to get back into it, I’m really going to suck. So there are all these things I really like to do, and every now and then, it’s just good to go out and remind yourself that you do these things, and lo and behold, you end up getting some enjoyment out of it as well.
I much rather play music in front of people than play tennis in front of people.
SFBG: You’ve been working on the album for past two years?
JL: Yeah, I moved to Montana – I’ve been here for about three and a half years. Took me about a year to get my studio built up over here. I didn’t start working on the record until… I was here for about two years.
I just started working on songs. I think that part of it is probably ingrained within me, and I think it will always be.”
SFBG: No narrative or concept was there initially?
JL: That would be me lucking out. Probably when you’re dealing with bands where there’s information coming from all different directions, it ends up seeming to be a little bit more scattered, and if you’re lucky, there’s some cohesion there. But I think it’s a little bit more inevitable when there’s one force, one person not only dictating all the lyrics but also creating all the music as well. There’s a chance there will be some continuity there.
I try to veer off and I try to make my subject matter pretty broad, but I find myself singing about things that mean a lot to me. And it ends up being... the concept is me. [Laughs] It’s a concept album and the concept is Jason Lytle. There’s no way it can’t be. I make music that’s meant to be played by me for years to come, and in order for that to be the case, it has to mean a lot to me.
SFBG: So did your old dog really come back to as a ghost ("Ghost of My Old Dog”)?
JL: He does on a regular basis. And I feel a lot better about this because I read this interview one time about George Jones. He used to assume this weird, otherworldly voice like he was speaking in tongues. Anyway I do that every now and then and I realized that it was my dog I’m talking to. So the whole idea is that someone comes home and catches me speaking in this otherworldly type of voice, and they think I’m talking to somebody else when in fact it’s just him. In fact he’s with me all the time - when I’m out on the trail and out on my little adventures.
SFBG: Do you live near a lot of trails?
JL: I live in a pretty large-sized town that’s right on the edge of a pretty endless wilderness. So I do spend a lot of time in that kind of terrain.
SFBG: Why move to Montana?
JL: I have a big problem with overpopulation. There doesn’t seem to be the numbers here that there have been for many, many years in California. I needed a break.
I don’t know if you know anything about Modesto - you should because you live so close to it - but it’s regularly on Top 10 lists as one of the worst places to live in America. There’s pollution, the overpopulation, the crime, the drugs, the lack of recreational activity. It saddens me to have to talk about this, having grown up there. I’ve seen what it used to be. But it’s shifted into this whole other thing that I don’t understand anymore. So it was a good time for me to get out.
SFBG: On a whole other note, this album seems particularly keyboard-based – how did you come to write the songs?
JL: Actually a lot of it was conceived in the middle of winter, and so I did spend a lot of time… now that I think back, the winters can be pretty brutal here. Snow many, many days at a time. On one hand it makes everyday living an inconvenience, just getting around, but it is really beautiful, and there’s a trancelike feel to it. So I think sometimes I did forget how much time I spent playing piano and looking out the window as snow fell. If anything was gong to take over, it was about just letting it take over.
But if I feel like an album is too weighed down on one end, I like to balance it out, just by getting in other compositional balances, just making sure it’s not too much of one thing and balancing it out with something else. If it feels too folksy and acoustic-y, I try to balance it out with some synthesizers. I love electronic drums just like I love acoustic drums. It’s all about making big pictures, using as many instruments as I have around me, to make a well-balanced picture.
SFBG: Is it easy for you to pick up any instrument?
JL: Well, it’s easy for me to pick ‘em up. It’s not very easy for me to play ‘em! [Laughs] Boy, you walked right into that one.
SFBG: Yes, I did!
JL: No, I, um, don’t play any brass. I think I can ... probably [Sighs] get myself out of a jam with a cello. But I usually end up just making old people next door go to the bathroom. You know, there’s that South Park episode where they keep referring to the brown note. But I won’t go there.
I mostly started out playing drums when I was little kid, but piano is my favorite instrument to play. Guitar is great because you can take it anywhere, great for road trips. Everyone has a guitar lying around. My guilty pleasures are probably all the electronic synthesizers and studio gear – that’s the stuff that I really get swept up in and get lost. The next thing you know two or three days have gone by and your teeth have gunk on ‘em and your hair is a mess. Your socks stink, and your voicemail is overflowing, and any sort of relationships you might have are at the straining point. So I gotta watch myself. That’s when it’s easy for me to get swept away - when I’m in the studio and surrounded by all my towers of knobs and dials.
SFBG: Ever gotten really lost?
JL: Well, usually I’m pretty good about my directions. There are certain precautions – I haven’t resorted to traveling with GPS yet, but a lot of times I’ll just take off and just say, “I’m going to go in that direction for four hours and at that point I’ll turn around,” but it can get a little bit disorienting because the weather shifts, and there are plenty of fire roads and trails, and everything crisscrosses and intertwines, and it’s pretty easy to lose your bearings. I’ve gotten into a few jams but no hypothermia or lost digits yet. But I do enjoy getting out where I know I’m not going to run into anybody for the better part of the day. It’s pretty easy to do.
SFBG: What is it about people’s so annoying?
JL: The thing is people can be quite wonderful. I find the less time I spend around them the more I tend to enjoy them when I’m around them. They’re just - myself included - so fucking predictable.
That’s why it’s that much fun-er… when you’re camping or you’re at a house party, the baby’s in the middle of the room and everyone is watching it in wonder. The little kid is saying all these random things, and everyone focuses on the puppy or the kitten or the baby or the child because they’re just so unpredictable. They’re fun and magical. But humans are just ... There’s too much crap and too much second-guessing, and I don’t know. You can get in, and you can get out. You can have your human time and can have your “I’m tired of being around humans” time. I like a pretty good balance.
SFBG: Animals seem to crop up a lot …
JL: At some point you’re faced with the fact that you want to make a song about something that keeps you interested. And at the end of the day there are really so many subject matters to draw from. Maybe I didn’t go to school long enough - I don’t really get too deep. I can’t write lyrics like Sting. He gets pretty obscure with, like, Russian poets and references to Sanskrit.
I just like going for a walk. I like a nice, fresh glass of water. It doesn’t take that much to make me happy, and where the problem probably arises is trying to translate that into some interesting songs. Maybe I should start concentrating on instrumentals - because what it really does come down is a feeling. That is pretty much the peak of an effective instrumental - how it makes you feel. A lot of times lyrics tend to get in the way. I do think I try to keep the lyrics a byproduct or a light enhancement. Every now and then I might get excited and get flowery with the words, but I think I’m a little more comfortable letting the music take precedence.
SFBG: Ever thought of working with a lyricist – like, for instance, Bernie Taupin?
JL: That’s kind of what it came to with Brian Wilson, huh? I don’t know, I think I’d have to feel like I was failing pretty miserably. I haven’t gotten to that point. If anything, I can go to the junior college here and take some courses on haiku.
I don’t know. That still remains to me one of the big challenges because very now and then that’s what knocks a song out of the park as far as being a songwriter. I’ll get done working on music and think, man, I really, really like this music and I’m not comfortable slopping some words on top of it and calling it finished. I’ll struggle to make sure the words fit in the feel of the music, and every now and then when the work together, it can be magic. Just knowing that exists and knowing that I’ve come pretty close in the past means that I gotta keep trying to hit that mark again.
SFBG: So what are the upcoming shows going to be like – they’re with a band?
JL: I’m playing with my old drummer from Grandaddy and a good friend of mine here from Montana - actually a guy I met through skateboarding - who just so happens to be play the bass as well. And my friend Rusty from San Francisco who’s in a band called Jackpot Somehow I coerced these guys into jumping on with me and making me not have to stand onstage by myself. The good thing is it’s a very comfortable group of guys that I’m with. We’ve already played some shows together, and I can tell we’re going to get along. It’s going to be a pretty good mix – it’s going to be probably a third new solo stuff and another third recognizable Grandaddy stuff and another third obscure B-sides and non-recognizable Grandaddy stuff.
SFBG: Oh, you also just turned 40, right? How has that effected things – do you see it as a milestone, moving onto new things?
JL: It’s kind of funny you should mention it because I had this big goal, set it when I was around 38. People like to say it’s no big deal – it’s another year. But I kind of understand, so I said, “All right, I’m going to be the healthiest I’ve ever been in my whole life when I’m 40,” because if you set that as a goal, because in a way it’s kind of like middle age, all you’re kind of saying is everything you’ve done, good or bad, you’ve decided to learn from that. And from that point on, you can either use it to your advantage or you can come to terms with the fact that you’re going to have all these fucked-up habits and you’re going to have these things about yourself that you can’t quite sort out.
So I just really wanted to get a handle on things by the time I was 40 - and I did pretty good. Healthiest I’ve probably ever been. Best shape I’ve ever been in. Just strong and good. You just feel healthy. Your weight, your appearance – it’s still good. And my birthday was the 26th of March, so we got to the 20th of March and I was like, I’m going kick ass! I’m going to achieve my goal. Unfortunately we had South by Southwest coming up, and I had seven days to go till my birthday.
SFBG: So you fell off the wagon?
JL: No, no, even when I was healthy, I wasn’t on the wagon. That’s part of the whole trick, too. Just moderation and figuring out what it takes to make it all work. I do think I crossed the finish line the healthiest I’ve ever been, but, whew, it was a real chore! At the end of the day it was an experiment that succeeded.