Dues, and last respects, are paid
GRANDADDY has passed away, and death was neither quick nor painless.
Instead, the demise of the 13-year-old indie-pop quintet from Modesto -- whose quirky, wide-eyed psych-tronica won critics’ hearts but not enough music buyers’ ears -- came after a long illness visited by drug and alcohol abuse, by dashed hopes and financial struggle, by long periods of uncomfortable silence and by wounds that festered in a town to which the band felt inextricably tied. Finally, in December, the group’s auteur, Jason Lytle, announced that this model of the music business was not for him. He pulled the plug.
“To continue would have been to parade around a smelly corpse,” says Lytle, 36, making the rounds this spring in V2 Records’ attempt to drum up interest in Grandaddy’s fourth and final album, “Just Like the Fambly Cat,” released this month. Even that foray exemplified the disconnect between industry and artist -- Lytle, a blue-collar guy who travels with his mountain bike and camping gear, was arranged a room in a tony West Hollywood hotel.
It might seem equally contradictory to give so much lip service to what amounts to a posthumous release were not “Fambly Cat” -- and the admittedly tortured artist who made it -- so compelling.
Grandaddy’s farewell note is penned in crashing guitars, swirling keyboards and Lytle’s boyish falsetto, musically focused while wavering between hope and resignation, pain and exhilaration, staying and leaving. It’s an inferiority complex turned inside out, its sweet melodies anesthetizing the exposed nerves.
“It’s about reflection, acceptance and closure,” says Lytle, as if it couldn’t have been about anything else.
The seeds of Grandaddy’s inevitable doom were sown long ago, fertilized not just by Lytle’s reluctance as a frontman but by a perfectionist streak that all but excluded his band members -- all longtime friends -- from the creative process. Lytle now acknowledges he was the man behind the curtain all these years, the wizard who bestowed songs onto his players.
“I was like the platoon leader,” he says, “the guy who knew that if it didn’t work out, it was going to fall on him. I was the one who would go up to the top of the mountain and bawl in silence.
“I kinda wish I were the bass player for Green Day or the second guitar player for the Foo Fighters, just up there rockin’ out, guaranteed money, your wives and girlfriends on tour with you, everything laid out and well-scripted.”
Indeed, Grandaddy’s marginal status as a commercial entity magnified not only the pressures on Lytle but the manner in which he dealt with them.
After releases of an EP in 1994 and its indie debut album, “Under the Western Freeway,” three years later, Grandaddy was tabbed as a “next big thing” after releasing its first major-label album, “The Sophtware Slump,” in 2000 for V2. The quintet began a touring cycle that wore quickly on Lytle, and not just because he was constantly in pain from injuries he’d sustained years earlier as a professional skateboarder.
“There was always something flea market about the way we did things,” he says, “but it was fun.... We were this ragtag group of guys that I was really comfortable hanging out with, standing onstage at Reading, or playing the Letterman show. Like we had snuck in the back door, this was our little coup.
“The only thing I was sad about is that some of us thought there would be that big pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.”
IN the end, the carrot remained dangling at the end of the stick. “Sophtware Slump” sold 107,000 copies, and its well-regarded 2003 follow-up “Sumday” 110,000, with the band finding itself mismatched on tours and overmatched -- by its own demons -- on returning home.
“The booze was a crippling influence,” guitarist Jim Fairchild says. “I know there were plenty of opportunities we pissed away due to lack of sobriety.”
For Lytle, things spiraled. After the difficult tours for “Sumday,” he retreated to his home studio in Modesto, a place he describes as “a nervous hive -- just take a bunch of crystal meth and add energy drinks.” The ensuing months became a “swirling perpetual party” fueled by alcohol, painkillers for his body aches and the recreational drugs that he believed lubricated his creative juices. He holed up to work on “Fambly Cat,” leaving his band members in the dark.
The final album, featuring only brief appearances by drummer Aaron Burtch and bassist Kevin Garcia, was made, Lytle says, in spurts of “complete debauchery followed by focused sobriety” -- the latter stage emerging after a friend’s death led the songwriter to seek counseling in January 2005.
Not that his newfound clarity induced him to talk to his bandmates. “Everybody kinda knew it was the end,” Lytle says, a point Fairchild concedes.
By the time Lytle did call a meeting, it was December, the band was owed money by V2, and some, including Fairchild, had moved on.
“The meeting was to tell them I couldn’t live with myself knowing that I was using them to further my situation,” Lytle says. “I was supposed to be responsible for dictating the lives of four other grown men? I didn’t want it. I hate it. There was no tidy way out.”
While still revering his friend and former bandleader’s songwriting skills, Fairchild (who went on to work with L.A. artists Earlimart and Peter Walker, and who recently finished tracking his first record) finds it “kinda frustrating ... the patronizing tone that the other guys weren’t very useful, when nobody was ever given a chance” to contribute.
With Grandaddy’s obituary written, the point is moot. Lytle has moved to Bozeman, Mont., for a change of scenery and to be close to the outdoors activities he loves.
And “Fambly Cat,” the swan song, for all its strengths, ends up pigeonholed as Lytle never wanted to be: “When you hear a Grandaddy song, you don’t want to picture me in my room sitting in my boxer shorts in front of a Casio.”
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