Jason Lytle is smaller than you might expect under his baggy flannels and janitor slacks, and strikingly deer-like. Beneath his trucker cap, he hides big Bambi eyes that project a vulnerability that may account for him getting beat up by cowboys during his teen years in Modesto, California, where he started as a professional skateboarder and then settled into music with his pals in Grandaddy. Lytle crafted most of their simultaneously folky and spacey albums himself, but kept the quintet alive on the road until 2005, when the bandleader realized he could no longer thrive in a strip-mall town nor maintain a nomadic rock & roll lifestyle.
So he retreated to rural Montana, where in 2009 he finished his solo debut, Yours Truly, the Commuter, and recorded his brand-new album, Dept. of Disappearance, another collection of starry-eyed rock tunes and mountainous ballads. Last summer he played festival gigs with a briefly reunited Grandaddy, and now he’s back on the road solo, but on his own low-key terms, playing keyboards and strumming guitar with temporary sideman Rusty Miller. Shortly before a casual San Francisco performance at the Swedish American Hall, Lytle got stuck in city traffic, and he started his conversation with Rolling Stone on edge. After putting his artistic journey into perspective, he was all smiles.
How has touring affected you, and how has it changed now that you’ve gone solo?
It had almost ruined my relationship with music towards the end of Grandaddy. Touring was fun and scrappy at the beginning, but it became way too big and too involved for me to comprehend anymore. I still have my issues about constantly doubting myself, but I’m the best I can possibly be when I’m at home creating and relaxed and able to put things on tape. I wake up early and go to bed early and I’m working all day, and all that gets completely thrown out the window when I’m on tour. After Grandaddy ended, I took a break, and ended up falling back in love with music. I decided that I would approach touring like when I was skateboarding and taking road trips. I need to be more like a wild animal and less like a pasty, sad musician. I don’t think anyone’s going to benefit from a sick and miserable version of me.
How does knowing you’ll perform this material shape the album you make?
I started letting go of having to make that connection with the first solo record, and with this one, I went even further in the other direction. But I’m still open to the idea of playing interesting engagements, like, “Hey, we got this castle that some weird hippie guy runs in the south of France, and you can visit for three days, and play this show.” I can do renditions of the songs morphed and slightly different, so I’m making another [simplified] version of the album to showcase that.
At the center of your music, there’s a lonely guy singing a song on his own with a simple guitar or keyboard, and then there’s an arrangement surrounding him that evokes big-budget albums made with large groups of session musicians and top engineers and excellent studios. And it’s the incongruous combination of those two opposites that make your music what it is.
When I started, I had four tracks and one microphone, and right out of the gate I wanted to sound like Sgt. Pepper, or Out of the Blue by ELO, and the first time I heard playback, I was like, “That sounds like shit.” And the quest began, and I think it’s really shaped who I am. I was always aspiring for bigger sound. I used to listen to classical music and dense, emotional New Age stuff, and I had to hide it from my friends, because they were all listening to [Metallica’s] Kill ‘Em All and Slayer and all the punk rock stuff because of the skateboarding association. I didn’t go to college, or do the Eurorail pass, go-find-yourself-for-two-years-thing. If I have any sort of culture, it’s because we went on tour in Europe and got to broaden our horizons. It’s the only reason I know quinoa or French wines. But I’m never gonna lose that shitty, scabbed-up, greasy, broken moped dirtbag that I was, and there’s something beautiful about that.
Are you trying to represent yourself with the songs and the grandness of nature with the arrangements?
I’m a sucker for an oversized landscape painting. I love big scenery. It’s probably why I was drawn to synthesizers – I’m definitely trying to make the sound of those sceneries. It’s so tricky talking about the outdoors and the natural world, because I have such a deep affinity for it. There was a key time in my life, right after my mom and dad divorced, and I lived out in the country with my dad. He remarried, and my stepmom, at one point she was a DJ at a radio station. The radio station shut down and she brought all these albums home. So I when I was six, seven, eight, I would roam all day with the dog and come home and just listen to music, and in my own sense, bridge the gap between the two. I suspect it was really influential and I was just there for the taking.
You’re taking a process that used to be very collaborative and achieving it through solitary, DIY means. Is that a pragmatic decision based on economics, or do you simply prefer to realize all the sounds in your head yourself?
I think it started off for financial reasons, and throughout Grandaddy I thought about involving others more, but I hit a point of no return, and this is how I have to do it. I work really, really hard to get the stuff to sound the way it does. And it’s equally important to make sure the words seal the deal, honesty-wise. I’d rather you know that you’re not getting bullshitted.
Is your recorded music based solely on your perspective, or do you have the feedback of fellow musicians or folks at the record company?
I have one other person in my life who has a pretty good bullshit detector. It’s my wife. We’ve been together for a long time. She stays out of things, but I’ll surface out of the studio and play something. It’s usually some super-nerdy thing, like I’ve spent three days sculpting this certain sound, but it’s just misplaced. Sometimes I’m like, “No, no, no. You’ve just gotta live with this. You’ll get it.” But a lot of times I kinda know that something’s not working, and I’ll let her listen to it, and she’s just like, “Yeah, it ain’t working.” And I’m like, “Fuck, I knew that already.”
Did you set out to write an album with repeating themes about absence, or did it just come out that way?
It’s a pretty common one [for me]. I devoted a huge part of my life to skateboarding, something to immerse myself in, all the weightlessness and fluidity. And then I had a really bad knee injury, and everything just shut down with the skateboarding thing and I took all that energy and dumped it into music. I like to have a few drinks, and that’s another version of shutting things down. I spend a lot of time outdoors doing somewhat intense little trips into the backcountry, high upon mountains, really strenuous stuff to keep me on edge. And I love that feeling when you come into town, like into a convenience store, and everything is jarring. The only reason that happened is because you were in another place, another realm.
How has living in Montana changed your life?
I try to spend as much time outside as I can, as much as someone who’s supposed to make albums for a living [can]. It’s my church, my religion. I get my balance, and it resets my brain in a really good way. I’m so sensitive to my environment and all the little changes that happen when you’re up on a mountain or on a ridge or on a trail or by a river or in a gulch. I come home and all that stuff’s in my memory, and all of a sudden I’m creative. There’s a part of me that sort of shuts down when I’m in too many airports or hotels or taxis. And in Montana, there are parts of me that just burst alive. You just start smelling
things differently. You’re always aware of which way the wind’s going or where the sun’s at and where you should walk. Geologists, archeologists, they could laugh right now at my attempt to expound upon this. Just because I’m a musician, it ends up being, “Oh really, you like to run and ski, shame on you. Go get your heroin problem back.” Not that I ever had one. “But go get one. It sells more records.”
Was your move also motivated by a desire to curb your alcohol intake?
I tend to drink more the more unhappy I am or the more unnatural my environment is, because I kind of feel like I need to shrink into my own little world just to shut everything else out around me. In Modesto, the only reason I lived there was the band. It’s not a very healthy place. There’s tons of crime. It’s not visually appealing. I had a ghost on every corner and some sketchy encounter in every bar. I’ve always wanted to live in the mountains where I had immediate access to little glimpses of purity, things that weren’t beaten down and trampled and thrown up over. The only one who’s thrown up is me, from exhaustion.
Is there something you’d like to be doing, or would you rather stick to what you’re doing now?
I’m a little too beyond the point of a big career switch and trade school. I’m sensible with my money. I’m not gonna go broke, and if I did, I’d be fine. For me, the most exciting thing is to have a collection of stuff that I made and be able to be proud of all of it, and not be like, “Oh, those were the desperate years. I was really trying to please somebody with that one.” I’m gonna just keep on doing what I’m doing, and not be too worried about having to make some sad attempts at changing things for whatever reason.