By Jim Schutze
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Jason Lytle has spent the past decade fronting Grandaddy, Modesto, California's top-grossing indie-rock band. Before that he was a professional skateboarder. When you call up Lytle at his house in Modesto, this is hard to believe, since the proliferation of Jackass chic in recent years (and the persistence of my own junior high memories of certain baggy-pantsed friends) paints a picture of skateboarders as a loud, boisterous, often obnoxious people. Lytle is neither loud nor boisterous, and if he's obnoxious, it's only because he's speaking so quietly on the phone that I have to keep turning up the handset volume to hear him.
Neither is Grandaddy's music the expected stuff of skaters, which I'd put closer to seminal ska-punks Operation Ivy, weird jokesters Suicidal Tendencies or CKY, whom I've never actually heard but includes Jackass regular Bam Margera's brother Jess and is therefore skate-rock by association. In fact, Grandaddy sounds more like heartbroken scientists than anything else. The Sophtware Slump, the band's breakthrough 2000 album, featured songs about sad robots, discarded electronic equipment and the general struggle between man and machine that keeps activities like camping and horseback riding in perpetual vogue. Sonically, too, the band evokes a plain of digitized nature, straddling mechanized precision and human warmth: coolly humming keyboards atop strummed acoustic guitars, gently sagging tempos juiced by drum-machine blurt, careful multitracking of Lytle's adenoidal singing. Imagine those inside-the-game scenes in Tron with more boots and beards.
Sophtware's follow-up, Sumday, does the same thing, only less explicitly. Robots show up again, in "Stray Dog and the Chocolate Shake" (which I could swear was the name of a Limp Bizkit album a few years ago): "The supervisor guy turns off the factory lights," Lytle sings over a dinky Casio beat, "so the robots have to work in the dark." But mostly he's concerned here with the "carload of kids with beer and cigarettes, burning out and doing lawn jobs in the park." "The Group Who Couldn't Say" celebrates the empty satisfaction of office work; "El Caminos in the West" looks for abandon where it's "collapsed and futureless"; opener "Now It's On" describes the joys of kicking it outside. Still, the music hints at technology's iffy encroachment into our lives. In "O.K. With My Decay," a tattoo of bleeping keyboard tones portends total system shutdown, and there's a sterile Kubrickian dread to "The Warming Sun" that belies its title. In "The Go in the Go-For-It," Lytle even sends off a mysterious e-mail reading, "Farewell to thee." So how does a band of California dudes led by an ex-skater end up making the soundtrack to an ultimate battle out of Terminator 2? Lytle chalks it up to environment.
"I kind of wish somebody could spend a week here. Then that question would be perfectly laid out," the singer-guitarist says with a little laugh. "If we wouldn't have made the conscious decision to tough it out here, the material would be a whole other creature. It was almost like this kind of creepy experiment: Let's just go ahead and shun this natural urge to head for greener pastures--or, I don't know, more concrete pastures--and get stuck in this rat race of high rent and competition with other bands and the soap operas that go along with the music scene, and let's just stay here. The benefits are the low-rent situation and being able to separate yourself when necessary. And the fodder for song material is often hilarious."
Seems likely, given Modesto's status as a central Californian agricultural center that lies but a 90-minute drive from San Francisco, one of the globe's hottest media centers. Lytle points to Sophtware's sleeve as an example of the culture clash that exists around him. "In the album's artwork there were these pictures of these computer keyboards that were just sort of degraded and chunked into the dirt," he says. "And that was a real scene that I'd come across on this long walk one day, like 30 miles west of where I live. I was seeing that a lot on a regular basis--that whole 'machines and nature, and never the twain shall meet, but they did' thing. So I played with that idea knowingly from song to song."
Sumday carries less of that song-to-song throughline, and it feels like a smaller record than Sophtware--not as weighed down with moments of grandiosity, as in Sophtware opener "He's Simple, He's Dumb, He's the Pilot," which virtually blasted off into space on a bed of programmed keyboard arpeggios. In a way, the scaled-down dimensions are a relief, since Lytle's melancholy, though often beautiful, can sometimes start to drag; Sumday, in comparison, moves rather quickly.
"I kind of think it's maybe less broad strokes," Lytle says of the new album's scale. "If you can imagine stomping on a distortion pedal, people would think of it as this big wall of fuzz, when in fact it's like a thousand little needles that turn it into that wall of fuzz. I think I was just a little bit more concentrated on those individual needles this time, and not just with the wall of fuzz. It's just not so obvious, I think." He sighs, as he often does. "It was actually somewhat liberating. The only bummer for me was that I wasn't able to be so reliant on these kind of mysterious figures or creatures or metaphors; I wound up being a little more telling and a little bit more personal. That was kind of weird, but there's a certain point where you just gotta throw your hands up in the air."
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