Subscriber OnlyMusic

Jason Lytle: ‘I’ve always felt like an underdog, through every period of Grandaddy’

The songwriter on the band’s sixth studio album, Blu Wav; overcoming inner turmoil and substance abuse; and learning to relax

Jason Lytle was driving through the desert near his hometown of Modesto, in California, a few years ago when he was struck by a bolt of inspiration. The Grandaddy frontman, who relishes long drives on wide, empty roads, was tuned to his favourite satellite radio programme, Willie’s Roadhouse, hosted by the country legend Willie Nelson, when he heard a song: Tennessee Waltz by Patti Page.

“I remember listening to it, going, ‘Wow, this is a genre of music that’s like old, slow bluegrass,’” he says. Lytle is sitting outside, palm tree visible over his shoulder, his faithful hound Guapo at his knee as birds twitter in the background. “Long story short, I couldn’t find the genre – so I just said, ‘Screw it, I’m going to make it myself.’ And that kind of set me off on this quest to create this genre of music that I was starting to hear in my head. ‘Keep it simple, keep it sweet,’ was basically what I kept coming back to throughout the whole process: these ingredients of slow waltzes, really simple lyrics and lush instrumentation.”

Apart from inventing a genre that has lent its name to Grandaddy’s sixth studio album, Blu Wav (a portmanteau of “bluegrass” and “new wave”), Lytle has spent the seven years since Grandaddy’s last album, Last Place, undertaking a variety of musical projects, including the indie supergroup BNQT and a revival of his side project Admiral Radley.

There was also a necessary period of grieving: Last Place was tainted by tragedy when the band’s bassist and founding member, Kevin Garcia, died suddenly following a stroke just two months after the album was released. Perhaps as a reaction, or perhaps simply as an evolution of his artistry, Blu Wav – which was written and played almost entirely by Lytle alone – is not like Grandaddy’s previous releases. The Modesto band are known for seminal modern indie-pop and indie-rock songs such as AM 180, Now It’s On and Hewlett’s Daughter, but Blu Wav is an altogether different proposition.


This time Lytle wanted to make an album that had “a very distinct vibe, a very distinct feel, and you know exactly what you’re getting into. It’s like this ‘I’m in this mood, so I’m going to put this album on,’ and that’s it – you’re swimming it in, from the first note to the last note,” he says. “And I feel like because there’s always been so much time in between Grandaddy albums, I kind of have to hit all these marks, dynamically; there’s slow songs, fast songs, happy songs, sad songs. It has to be like this big smorgasbord. And I was a little envious of other bands or other artists who would make these albums that’d have this very distinct feel to them. So it felt like, ‘Man, I might actually have the opportunity to finally do this, to make a Grandaddy album that is not trying to hit all these marks.’”

From speaking to Lytle, it’s clear that he struggles with the industry side of the music business. He speaks openly about the wrench of reliving often difficult and painful songs on a nightly basis, and of the monotonous grind of touring. “I don’t have a lot of fancy friends, I don’t network, I don’t go out and I don’t feel a need to immerse myself,” he says with a shrug, smiling resignedly. “I’ve probably missed out on a lot of opportunities because of that, but I value my alone time and my normal time. I like to ride my bike, I like to cook, I like to read and I don’t like to be in the middle of the shit a lot.”

There is still part of him that feels a need to prove his worth. “I still feel like an underdog. And I’ve always felt like that, through every period of Grandaddy. I’m always going to have a little bit of impostor syndrome. There’s always going to be this inferiority complex that comes with [having been] destined for a very, very mediocre, unknown upbringing. We always felt like we were outsiders, that we had something to prove, being from where we’re from.”

Now, aged 54, he welcomes the “tempering” of that urge. “I like being more relaxed, and I like just saying, ‘Screw it, I don’t give a shit’ with a lot of it. But there’s still some immature part of me that really does feel like he has to continue proving something,” he says, shaking his head. “And that’s weird – I don’t know if I’ve ever said that. Probably because it’s kind of embarrassing. But whatever.”

The songs on Blu Wav, such as You’re Going to Be Fine and I’m Going to Hell and Watercooler, are undeniably melancholic, enhanced by Lytle’s beautifully idiosyncratic vocals. Another song, Ducky, Boris and Dart, sounds like a subtle nod to lost friends, with lines such as “Well, thank you, my friend, but this ain’t the end / We will meet again”.

“I try to make ’em happy,” he says, laughing. “But I think there’s some humour that exists in even the sad ones, whether it be with the imagery or even a little bit of playfulness in how the lyrics fit together. At some point all of my writing is attempting to achieve this feeling I had when I was seven or eight years old, listening to certain songs for the first time and wondering, ‘Whoa, what the hell is this doing to me?’ – and those were usually sad songs,” he says with a chuckle. “But, yeah, I mean, I wish the happier, more upbeat ones just flowed out of me easier. But it could’ve just been the vibe of this album, as well.”

In recent years Lytle has also been dragged, not always willingly, back to the past with the rerelease on vinyl of Grandaddy’s first three albums, to mark their 20th anniversaries.

“I was kind of getting tired of all those reissues,” he says. “Especially for somebody who still makes [new] stuff. It feels like the well has not run dry, so it kind of felt like that’s all I was doing: sitting around with a piece of straw in my mouth, talking about the good ol’ days.” He smiles. “I do have that part of me, the artist, who’s, like, ‘I made it. It’s done. I’ve moved on.’ And I think a lot of that is the subject matter, too; when I start thinking about the emotional part of it, and what I was going through at the time, and how much unrest and confusion and chaos there was in my life, that part of it is not that fun for me to revisit. Because it led to a lot of heavy shit – substance abuse, and inner turmoil and relationship insanity. So that’s the kind of stuff that I’ve been trying to mellow out on and get better at. A lot of stuff I’m not super-proud of. But I definitely keep that in mind.”

I definitely do not subscribe to that ‘hunched-over, sad, tragic artist’ thing. I’m not into that at all – it’s not a good place for me to be

He likes the idea, he says, of making “happier, more celebratory music – or more appreciative music” – from now on. “And I think you can do that in a reflective, calm kind of way – not like The B-52s.” He pauses, correcting himself. “I love The B-52s, but once you start delving into party music as a genre, it’s a slippery slope,” he says. “I’m all up for keeping it potent and thoughtful but still hopeful and happy. So maybe that’ll be the next genre that I lean into a bit.”

The prospect of touring or playing Blu Wav live, meanwhile, depends on being offered gigs in unique environments or situations. For now he is adopting a never-say-never approach. But is he happy now? He doesn’t answer immediately.

“Ummm ... yes,” he says. “The healthier I am, the happier I am. I definitely do not subscribe to that ‘hunched-over, sad, tragic artist’ thing. I’m not into that at all – it’s not a good place for me to be.” He shrugs. “I like to be outside, I like to be healthy. Pretty simple, really.”

I remind him of something that he said in an interview a few years ago, that he planned to make one more Grandaddy album and then “settle into his twilight years”.

“It’s so dramatic,” he says, smiling as he shakes his head. “I think part of that is just me tricking myself into making another record. I did that a few records back, and eventually my manager was, like, ‘You know, you don’t need to say that – they don’t believe you any more, anyway.’ He laughs again. “But I might just keep saying it, because it sounds so dramatic. I like it.”

Blu Wav is released by Dangerbird Records