Grandaddy: You can't go home again

Life in a working rock band has been a painful, puzzling journey for the down-home psychedelicists Grandaddy. They tell Fiona Sturges where they're at
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The Independent Culture

Conversation with the members of Grandaddy, bearded purveyors of lo-fi psychedelic rock, isn't easy. While there's nothing intrinsically unfriendly about the Californian band sitting before me, it's clear that talking about music is a pointless exercise in their view. Drummer Aaron Burtch and pianist Tim Dryden remain switched off for the most part, while bass player Kevin Garcia disappears altogether. It's left to the guitarist Jim Fairchild and the vocalist and songwriter Jason Lytle to explain what Grandaddy are all about.

We're here to discuss their third album Sumday, the long-awaited follow-up to 2000's acclaimed The Sophtware Slump though it quickly becomes apparent that Lytle isn't in the business of analysing his songs. My attempts to discover the inspiration behind the nonsense-verse lyrics of "Stray Dog and the Chocolate Shake" is met with a lot of head-scratching and a mumbled: "It's just the way it came out."

But if explaining the finer points of songwriting is one of the less desirable parts of the singer's job, dealing with the music industry has been nothing short of torture. "I feel like I've got myself in a jam," he says, gazing dolefully at the floor. "I realise how important it is to do what we're doing and I realize how crucial it is to make people happy but the percentage of it that I really abhor is pretty high. There's a lot of ridiculousness in the whole entertainment business, a lot of artifice. But we're fortunate enough to have met a few bands who seem to be reading from the same page and are doing it for the right reasons. For that we're grateful."

For Grandaddy, being in a band appears to be less of a career move than a moral crusade to enrich the lives of their listeners and lift rock music out of its current torpor. "It's all about honesty of intention," says Fairchild. "To create something worthwhile, there has to be honesty, otherwise you're just adding to the crap."

Despite Lytle's prodigious talent as a songwriter, it would be hard to find a man less suited to the lifestyle of a musician. He dislikes flying, feels uncomfortable in "poncey" hotels and abhors being the centre of attention. He talks about "seeing it through" as if Grandaddy were some sort of endurance test. "Look, I have alcoholic parents and I'm like a fully fledged alcoholic," he says, finally looking me in the eye. "I read these statistics about what it is that makes you an alcoholic and I'm totally there. Add that to the fact that you're constantly in a state of 'Where am I?' and being approached by people who are trying to have light commentary on what are very heavy subjects for you. Then there's the fact that you have to stand on stage and you don't particularly like being looked at. Luckily I never went near heroin but right now, to get through tours, I have this sweet spot where I'll drink just enough and I can turn off the rest of the world and just get through it."

I sense that this isn't Lytle playing the tortured-artist card. Asked why he perseveres, he replies: "I guess there are elements that I like. The part that I love the most is making the songs. Then there's the immediacy of our live shows. I like the excitement and not knowing how things are going to turn out. Sometimes I feel like a long-distance runner deciding that he's either going to slow down, drift off and fall into the bushes or sprint toward the finish line. I'd rather sprint toward the finish line. I feel I owe it to myself, the band and the people who get pleasure from what we do."

The band hail from Modesto, California, a small agricultural town that was the model for George Lucas's American Graffiti. Lytle left in his early twenties to become a professional skateboarder, until a knee injury brought an end to his career. "I had to go back to my parents' house and deal with it," he recalls. "In the room where I was staying there was a drum kit and a four-track and a bunch of keyboards and a guitar. The rug had been pulled out from underneath me and I needed something that would consume me in the same way skateboarding had. Almost overnight I made the switch from skateboarding to music."

Lytle formed the band in 1992 with Burtch and Garcia. After spending several uneventful years playing in bars and putting together demos recorded in Lytle's home studio, they finally released a mini-album called A Pretty Mess by This One Band, a blend of psychedelia and college rock. Fairchild and Dryden joined three years later, after which Grandaddy recorded their first full-length album, 1997's warmly beguiling Under the Western Freeway.

It was here that Lytle's downbeat lyrics really came to the fore and the band, hailed as a hybrid of Brian Wilson and Pavement, gathered a small but loyal following. After touring extensively, they finally returned home to Lytle's studio and recorded The Sophtware Slump, a sumptuous work that propelled them to the fringes of the big time. The album tackled the singer's distrust of technology and fear of the future - "The Crystal Lake" was a glorious ode to a lost rural innocence while "Broken Household Appliance National Forest" depicted a land where broken refrigerators and microwaves are laid to rest.

If discontent with their surroundings was a recurring theme on The Sophtware Slump, Sumday finds them pining for home: "I feel so far away from home, always so far away/ The Pacific will pacify us when we're done/ If only we weren't always spun," Lytle sings in "El Caminos in the West". Elsewhere, Lytle is bewildered by the pace of modern life ("The Go in the Go-For-It") and mourns the fading of his older more simple existence ("The Final Push to the Sum"). Musically, they could be a more mournful Flaming Lips with their swirling guitars providing a powerful counterpoint to Lytle's fragile Neil Young-ish vocals.

The band have so far resisted all attempts by record companies to mould their sound; hopes that they would be "the next Green Day" were swiftly nipped in the bud. "Nobody's vision of what it is we're going to do is clearer than ours," says Fairchild. "If someone can come up with a concrete reason why it shouldn't be the way it is, then we'll listen."

Fairchild claims the leisurely evolution of the band has been crucial to their longevity. "Grandaddy's developed in this rather fitful, inelegant but very comfortable way that's allowed us to keep our personalities in tact. There was never like some mad rush to sign us. Even though we've all been close for the duration of the band, I think everyone's closer, more harmonious and more intuitive about their roles than they've ever been."

Does this mean that they could deal with success if it came their way? There's a long pause, followed by more mumbling and head-scratching. "Hell, I don't know," says Lytle. "We start selling a lot of records? I say we cash in and head for the hills."

The single 'Now It's On' is out now. 'Sumday' is released on Monday on V2. Grandaddy begin their UK tour at Birmingham Academy 2 on 10 June