Grandaddy's Gone

May 14, 2006


The new album by Grandaddy begins with the disquieting sound of a child repeatedly asking, "What happened to the family cat?" It kicks into gear on the rollicking "Jeez Louise," which finds bandleader Jason Lytle conjuring the sense of expectation and self-doubt during a teenage tryst at a Modesto, Calif., motel, and the gorgeous but sad "Summer ... It's Gone," and it ends a dozen tracks later with a pseudo-classical requiem that finds Lytle asserting, "I'll never return to Shangri-La."

You're forgiven for thinking the psychedelic pop band's fourth full album, "Just Like the Fambly Cat," is a heavy affair -- especially if you know the group won't tour to support it, and that after 14 years of slogging through the indie underground, it will be the band's last release. But while there's a lot of regret in these grooves, there's also a feeling of liberation and rebirth, powered by the skewed yet infectious hooks that have always made this group special.

If this is a wake, it's a celebratory one.

"I was shooting for the album to be pretty special," Lytle says in the mumbled tones of the reluctant interviewee, which is nothing new for an artist who's always preferred to let his music do the talking. "I knew that this was going to be the last album, but making it ... well, every period of recording has its ups and downs, and I was sort of ... keeping the band at bay, looking for my own personal prize. I felt like I needed to answer a lot of questions for myself, and questions for other people. But I also felt like if I thought about that too much, it could really drag the whole thing down. There was a kind of depth to the record that I thought was important ... but I wanted to keep that guarded."

Guitarist, keyboardist, vocalist and primary songwriter Lytle formed Grandaddy in 1992 with bassist Kevin Garcia, drummer Aaron Burtch and (later on) guitarist Jim Fairchild and keyboardist Tim Dryden. Most were members of the stoner skate-punk scene in Modesto, which markets itself as the "City of Water, Wealth, Contentment and Health." But there was little contentment in their music, which often focused on the destruction of the natural world, and it never made them wealthy, even when their technophobic second album, "The Sophtware Slump," was hailed by critics in the United States and England as one of the strongest of 2000 and the best at capturing the then-pervasive new-millennial tension.

Suddenly, Grandaddy's tours grew more demanding -- including an ill-fated, mismatched jaunt with Pete Yorn, whom the underground musicians clearly loathed -- and the music that had always been a cathartic outlet started to become a chore. At the same time, the band members still weren't earning enough to quit their day jobs.

"Everything got bigger and cost more money, and there were more and more responsibilities," says Lytle, now 37. "I think the big breakthrough that could have come ... well, it never did, and we never knew if we wanted that, anyway. It was definitely ... soul-sapping. Then I just woke up one day and ... I don't know."

The growing frustration of bandmates who could no longer put off "real life," the poor communication skills of a group of misfits who never fit in anywhere, assorted substance-abuse problems and the end of a romantic relationship that left Lytle more alienated than ever all contributed to the decision to end the band.

"My girlfriend, it just so happens she loves all this artwork by all of these weird, tortured artists who were always ... miserable, and she couldn't handle my ways, although she loved my songs. Not that I was looking for some way to justify my [miserable] behavior, but ... you just can't sit around in a coffee shop with a pad and paper and write great songs. It comes from ... I don't know, something I can't really explain."

Now, Grandaddy is gone, though its four albums remain as treasures for anyone who's heard them: "The Sophtware Slump" may be fans' favorite, though I maintain that 1997's "Under the Western Freeway," 2003's "Sumday" and now "Just Like the Fambly Cat" are nearly as strong. But we probably haven't heard the last from Jason Lytle. He says he's feeling pretty content these days, living in Montana and contemplating how he might be able to return to what he loved about making records without the machinery of the industry that he came to hate.

"It's just kind of funny, the fact that my brain ... well, I can't seem to stay away from playing music. So I'm trying to sing and play guitar now, miles away from everything -- the fresh air, the people, it's really beautiful here -- and just not think about [what to do next], or maybe work out some way where I just don't need [the industry]."

So the man who eloquently sang about the crushing effects of technology may wind up sending us digital musical postcards from the mountains? "Well ... yeah. I don't know. Maybe," Lytle says. And for the first time during our chat, he actually laughs.