The small Central Valley town of Modesto, Calif., hasn't gotten many upbeat headlines over the last few years. It's served as a backdrop for the Laci Peterson homicide, a stop for confessed Yellowstone murderer Cary Stayner and the hometown of murdered Washington intern Chandra Levy and fallen politician Gary Condit.
"I used to think Modesto was just like any other town, but I'm not so sure that's the case anymore," says Jim Fairchild, the 29-year-old guitarist in Modesto rock band Grandaddy.
"It might have something to do with the fact that Modesto is walled in. The Sierra Nevadas begin 30 miles to the east and the coastal mountain range about 30 miles to the west. A lot of people feel trapped, and outsiders tend to put the natives on edge."
Modesto has impacted Grandaddy, too. A major label contract and critical acclaim have helped the band escape the Modesto city limits, but the region's stunning tracts of agriculture, polluted natural beauty and local crop of ne'er-do-wells have permeated frontman Jason Lytle's lyrics, including those on the group's recent release, "Sumday" (V2).
Fast food bags slap against his body as he walks along on a windy day; cars filled with booze, cigarettes and kids peel out in the local park and lawn sprinklers whisper to office-park workers, "Are you happy with what you're doing?"
"Those lyrics, both positive and negative, are pretty dead on," says Aaron Espinoza, Central Valley native and frontman for Earlimart, who will tour with Grandaddy this summer. "The characters in those songs always seem to be sad and drunk. And a lot of times, it seems like there's nothing to do in Modesto except to drink and get in trouble with the police."
The five guys in Grandaddy all grew up in and around Modesto, where the band solidified its current lineup in 1995 and released a pair of albums before hitting its stride with 2000's critically acclaimed "The Sophtware Slump." The album is a sad opera of man and nature's battle with encroaching technology. The subject matter, along with the band's low-fi approach to studio experimentation, earned the group plenty of comparisons to Radiohead and The Flaming Lips.
For a band not used to accolades, Grandaddy reacted well to the praise, hunkering down in Lytle's home studio and recording "Sumday" in short order.
"Up until a few years ago there was very little ambition within the band," says Fairchild. "But going into the `Sumday' sessions, we decided that if we were going to keep playing as a band we had to try to outdo ourselves."
At the core of the new album is Lytle's bittersweet voice crooning over a mid-tempo sway. "I'm rolling down a well-worn road," he sings on "I'm On Standby," and you'd think the band was covering a long lost Neil Young track. But a soon as you settle in for a dusty California country tune, Lytle begins to describe his displaced mood as "out of order" and "powered down for redesign," while a whir of synthesizers and heart-monitor blips begin to pepper the otherwise earthy mood. By the last note, it's become a Young song entering a post-millennium crisis.
Similar scenes play out in other "Sumday" landscapes, the protagonists either dreading a future of "dinner dates and data files" or numbing themselves to the inevitable, passed out in a Datsun.
"When I listen to some of the songs, I picture Jason driving around in his truck, his left arm out the window, snapping pictures and then coming home and describing that kind of desperation," says Fairchild.
"The town is such a strange and beautiful place, and we're so steeped in it, there's no way it couldn't come through in the music."
Matt McGuire is the Music and Nightlife Producer for metromix.com.
Originally published Aug. 1, 2003.
Grandaddy blasts out of Modesto rock orbit
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