The Toad Interviews Jason Lytle
[I wrote this article for the good folks at The Skinny, who were kind enough to give me the opportunity in the first place. Song, by Toad does not, yet, have enough pull to swing interviews with the likes of Jason Lytle, so I am very grateful for the chance, and a big thanks to Milo from Products of a Gaseous Brain, who suggested me in the first place.]
When Grandaddy dissolved in 2005, their lead singer disappeared to the mountains in Montana, essentially turning his back on the industry to reinvigorate his relationship with music. Jason Lytle sits down with Matthew Young to explain how he found the road back.
King Creosote didn’t just vanish for ten years in between the fall of the Khartoum Heroes and the release of his first album on Domino Records. Micah P. Hinson wasn’t saved from self-destruction by the redemptive power of music. And Grandaddy’s Jason Lytle didn’t just run away to the wilderness to live in a cave for three years after the demise of one of the most successful indie bands of recent memory.
This is the vague story that percolated through to my mind when, after more than ten years of what any independent band would consider wild success, Grandaddy finally imploded. Lytle moved out to Montana and made a clean break ostensibly, it seemed, to retire. But like Hinson and Anderson before him, Lytle seems to bristle slightly when faced with the simplistic version of his own life story.
He didn’t, of course, just vanish. “I did a lot of collaborative stuff, a lot of back seat things. I contributed a lot to M. Ward. The Dangermouse and Sparklehorse record – I’ve got a couple of songs on there. I’ve done some commercial stuff, some remixes of old songs. I kept the studio moving, and kept myself busy which is a good thing, in between spending a lot of time outdoors and just enough time indoors to pay the bills.
“I wasn’t sitting trying to find myself under the guide of some guru in India” he says, rather insistently, “I wasn’t completely removed, but I was definitely on the backburner. I was like ‘how do I fit into all this?’”
How indeed. Even at the height of Grandaddy’s fame, he says, when they were playing all the big shows like Letterman and so on it was “like we snuck in the back door. It was like Revenge of the Nerds.”
In interview, Lytle doesn’t really talk much about music, either- at least not directly. And that’s a good thing, because it’s when you hear him talk about his life now that you start to get some sort of feeling for why Grandaddy fell apart.
“I moved to this town in Montana to be surrounded by mountains, basically. I’ve always read about expeditions and mountaineers and the outdoors, and that’s what fascinates me. I don’t read memoires of Keith Richards and Mick Jagger.”
“I was always reading outdoor magazines, and it’s a big part of my life, actually to the point that I avoid it because it’s not very rock ‘n’ roll, it’s like my own personal, secret thing. In the grand scheme of things it’s my balance. I can easily go on some four hour nature hike and listen to Kaiser Chiefs and Neon Neon on my iPod and it makes no sense with my surrounding environment, but somehow I’m making my own sense, and then I go home and work on music.”
So contrary to what tends to be the received wisdom, Lytle wasn’t turning his back on music at all. He was simply, it appears, turning his back on what his life had become in order to actually repair his relationship with music “I like it when I can put a cap on things,” he muses. “In big cities with too many stimuli I can’t put a cap on it and I start blowing fuses.”
During our conversation Lytle takes a long time to formulate his sentences; the pauses are occasionally so long that I start talking again, only to realise that I’m actually interrupting. I think of someone that thoughtful and deliberate, and I think of the relentlessly intrusive side of being a famous musician, and the two simply do not go together, and this is where I start to understand.
“In my personal life I’m very on top of my own finances; I love tools, I love accountability. I didn’t get into this line of work to escape work. At some point you need a little help, but the people I end up really looking up to never got into this line of work so that eventually all they do is go to cocktail parties, get flown around and hang out in Monaco. I love getting my boots dirty.”
This comes back once again to the industry itself. To support the juggernaut that it has become, you end up with an amazing system of hangers on circling around the single essential body: the band.
“My friend has a dad who is a car mechanic, and there’s always three or four guys standing around, and one guy’s doing the work and all these other guys are just standing around the cracker barrel telling stories, and I’m just not comfortable with that. And for some reason the music industry breeds it, people just like to stand around and talk shit about stuff. I just want to do good work, and I get in, and I can network to a degree, and then I’m out. Later.”
At the time of this interview Lytle’s band has just returned from a stint at South by South West in Austin, Texas. I wonder how he took the sheer frenzy of the festival, especially taking into account that he seems like a man who has taken a long time and a lot of thought to push the music industry to a safe distance. But instead of just flying in, playing the shows, and flying out again, he and the band took four days to drive from Montana to Texas. They listened to books on CD and stayed at shitty motels. They found a few skate parks along the way and stopped to go skateboarding.
Skateboarding figures pretty heavily in Lytle’s life. He reckons that Grandaddy got out of the music biz at the right time, because just as they did, the whole industry seemed to descend into chaos, something he compares to skateboarding:
“If anything, these are trying times but in a good way. I saw this with skateboarding. Skateboarding has seen three or four big public ‘Hey, skateboarding!’ times where it’s trendy again. I’ve seen big peaks and valleys so it’s easy for me to fall back on the skateboarding thing and see the same thing going on with music as well. A perfect example is Tony Hawke: he has probably seen three of these big peaks, and he remained credible throughout all of it; he never lost his head.”
It’s when he talks like this that I remember that I’ve been listening to Jason Lytle’s music for over ten years now. And it’s when I think about just how much has happened to me in those ten years that it becomes really obvious why musicians find it so irritating to hear people trot out the two-sentence version of their biographies: they don’t even begin to tell the story.
And this is particularly true of someone like Jason Lytle, who isn’t a ‘rock star’ and who doesn’t seem to define himself by what record label he’s signed to or how many albums he’s sold or even, really, by his success. Consequently, we weren’t really talking about the break-up of a successful band and the subsequent re-emergence of the lead singer, we were talking about the last fifteen years of someone’s life.
Jason Lytle – On a Piece of Wood I Go (Demo)
Grandaddy – Lava Kiss