FOREWORD: Life blows when you realize a band with as much unlimited potential as artful pop sculptures Grandaddy breaks up way before they ripen. But that’s what happened when band leader Jason Lytle disassembled his majestic California combo for lack of proper exposure beyond the ghetto club scene. And these bastards surely deserved widespread attention on par with older contemporaries Flaming Lips or, at least, Mercury Rev.
At Mercury Lounge, I got to speak to Lytle and right hand man, Jim Fairchild, in ’00 when they were in Manhattan promoting their subtly crystalline showpiece, The Sophtware Slump. I had spoken to Fairchild over the phone earlier in the month and gave him the following article that night. Things looked bright then, but ‘03s even better Sumday held on to Grandaddy’s audience without expanding it as much as it should have. After ‘06s wholly respectable, Just Like The Fambly Cat, which took eighteen months to finish and was criminally neglected, they threw in the towel. Hopefully, Fairchild and Lytle’s separate solo albums, due in ’09, will spark better interest. This article originally appeared in Aquarian Weekly.
Since Grandaddy architect Jason Lytle is such a meticulous home recording junkie and obsessed studio gearhead, it’s no surprise he’d shed a tear for discarded appliances and outdated computer hardware. But making a masterful psychedelic sci-fi pop opus to Armageddon out of such refuse would seem incomprehensible, misguided, and indulgent.
Taking inspiration from the symphonic overtures of Electric Light Orchestra and the ethereal resonance of the Flaming Lips (whose obtuse, strangely absurd song titles also enlighten Lytle), Modesto, California’s Grandaddy gained serious attention with ‘97s majestic diamond-in-the-rough, Under the Western Freeway.
Now, following months constructing gorgeous, fleshed-out arrangements, singer/ multi-instrumentalist Lytle, guitarist Jim Fairchild, drummer Aaron Burch, and keyboardist Tim Dryden return on the fully realized, awkwardly titled, The Sophtware Slump.
A 20th century loner goes adrift on the grandiose opener, “He’s Simple, He’s Dumb, He’s The Pilot,” a melancholy “Space Oddity” for the new millennium. Then, the interstellar swirl, “Hewlett’s Daughter,” reaches telepathic heights continued through the dirge-y “Jed The Humanoid” and the isolation-fueled paranoiac “The Crystal Lake.” Sung in a shrill tenor, the guitar-powered “Chartsengrafs” goes schizoid before the reflective piano ballad, “Under The Weeping Willow,” subliminally twinkles.
I spoke to Fairchild via phone late April, 2000.
I thought “Sophtware Slump” had more depth and uniformity than its predecessor.
JIM: When we made Under the Western Freeway, there was a definite idea to make it listenable front to back. The evidence proves we may not have achieved that. The new one is more cohesive. But we want to avoid getting put into this overtly conceptual category. Because this was written closer to the time of the actual recording, the themes are more linear. The concepts that pop up on the record frequently are things that are on sensitive people’s minds right now. Over the last year, these deep, drunken conversations I’ve had have been on this slant, like where do I stand on this issue of rapid progress. And the theme of alienation is also there.
The first album was recorded in six or seven rooms. We had a huge variety of carpeted and non-carpeted floors and different ceilings. This time we did tracking and recording in two rooms because the place was smaller. Jason is a good engineer who constantly researched his gear, placed microphones, and was willing to put in the time.
Songs like “Jed The Humanoid” seem to deal with mysterious alienation. It reminds me of the Flaming Lips.
JIM: Yeah, I guess like their “Waterbug In The Policeman’s Ear.” Do you remember that song? It’s one of those hidden gems that doesn’t land on a proper album. It’s a fucking brilliant song. “Jed The Humanoid” was one of the pivotal points in the construction of this record. It provided more focus than what was there beforehand.
There are many shifting moods and weird intergalactic sound affects pervading Sophtware Slump.
JIM: I actually appreciate you noticing. I don’t want to slight anyone’s interpretations as good as ours, but many people were caught up on this LP being all about one mood. I don’t necessarily see that. We hoped the transition from one mood to another would be effective.
In the bio, Jason mentioned being a fan of Electric Light Orchestra. Were they one of your influences?
JIM: Jason’s an ELO freak. History is starting to prove their worth more than say, ten years ago. They got pigeonholed in that ‘Rock and Roll is King,’ ‘Roll Over Beethoven’ era. They made so much great music and Jeff Lynne’s arranging skills were phenomenal. He had such a sensitive ear towards compositional structure. Parts of songs rear their heads and duck down at the right time to enhance the lyrics and mood and picture you’re supposed to draw.
Like Grandaddy, ELO’s Jeff Lynne made emotionally compelling music. ELO’s prog-rcck contemporaries, Emerson Lake & Palmer, Yes, Genesis, and Pink Floyd rarely crafted chewy melodies and sweet, sticky harmonies. Nor did they rely on beautiful string settings.
JIM: Precisely. Only you face up to your honest emotions and humanity, the technical, robotic things musicians could sometimes lapse into seems impersonal.
What was it like growing up in Modesto?
JIM: There’s always this escapist idea. It’s totally cliched, but it’s like small town boys could only get drunk so many times. Which is still a big deal, but you have to realize there’s something else. You have to create that other thing. That’s still a sturdy ethic and ambition for us. We want to create something that’s better than where we come from, which is unspectacular. Nothing culturally or artistically happens, and you wind up having the same conversations over and over again. Eventually, you have to realize you want to be a part of something on the horizon and seize it. There’s tons of good bands that come from less obvious areas.