I’m 85 to 90 percent certain Jason Lytle did not angrily hang up on me in mid-sentence during our hilariously awkward phone interview late last week; some technical calamity must’ve severed us just as I’d doofishly asked whether it bummed him out that his recently dissolved band, Grandaddy, never got insanely popular in Radiohead — Death Cab — Pete Yorn fashion. Buhhhhhh. Dumb question. Crap interview. Whoever abruptly killed it — God, a tornado, the phone company, Jason himself — deserves a steak dinner.
There are cruder ways to put this (Ween immortalized one: “Don’t Shit Where You Eat”), but I don’t recommend speaking, personally or “professionally,” to bands or artists you love too dearly. Lousy idea. Otherwise you will inevitably reimagine everything you say as being spoken by Goofy — Gawrsh I’m a real big fan, you’re so cool, talk about that, gawrsh. (Skis off cliff.) It’s terribly, terribly uncomfortable and ultimately unpleasant for all involved. Fawn from a safe distance.
And yet Grandaddy remain a breathtaking mix of melodramatic Californian indie rock and dorky new wave synths: the Cars as reinvented by stoned skateboarders clinging to their rear bumpers. The Sophtware Slump (2000) is an absolute masterpiece, syrupy synths poured from multicolored IHOP dispensers over bummer odes to alienated astronauts, alcoholic robots, and the (possibly mechanized) deer prancing through the “Broken Household Appliance National Forest.” I love this record to death. I have nearly wept during spare piano ballad “Underneath the Weeping Willow” and frequently employ epic opener “He’s Simple, He’s Dumb, He’s the Pilot” to end mix tapes, a sort of beautiful Armageddon aesthetic, joining hands and staring awestruck at burning constellations that depict David Bowie humping ELO.
I am far beyond any sort of objective critical distance here.
So now I’m supposed to objectively interview the dude, Lytle, frontman and mastermind, on a brief, mostly solo jaunt to support Grandaddy’s last record, Just Like the Fambly Cat, released months after the band split semi-acrimoniously early this year after a near decade-long run. Take it away, Goofy. Hyuck, back on tour, eh? Hyuck. (Attacked by effeminate chipmunks.) “Somebody tried to sort of get that going — right off the bat, it just sounded corny to me,” he says, dispelling the notion that his two upcoming Joe’s Pub shows will be VH1 Storytellers affairs where he’ll precede every tune with amusing backstories and anecdotes. “Some nights, you’re just feeling it, y’know? You kinda get into conversational mode with the audience — it can be an endearing thing. But some nights I just don’t feel like saying a word. I don’t wanna go into it thinking I’m supposed to tell this really clever story along with every song.”
Too bad, but this isn’t surprising. Grandaddy were casually known to many as the Bearded Guys in Trucker Hats Band, far more a disguise than a hipster pose. Live, they distracted you with arty videos and often hid behind live trees scattered about the stage, pine needles covering keyboard vines in another flourish of their Compu-Eden visual aesthetic: gravel roads strewn with busted computer parts, goldfish aquariums made from hollowed-out iMacs, etc. Lovely, but not terribly inviting. At a quickie Other Music record-store gig in April, Lytle hid behind another trucker hat, delicately strummed his acoustic, warbled a sweet tune about repainting the moon, and displayed precious little in the way of bedside manner. Elaborately frail.
So Fambly Cat‘s inner secrets shan’t be revealed, though it’s tempting to project its various expressions of fear, confusion, wistful nostalgia, and aimless roaming — “Where I’m Anymore,” a gorgeous, loping stroll through shiftless suburbia with a chorus of “Meow/meow meow meow,” is probably the best example — onto Lytle’s post-Grandaddy future. He moved to Montana, where he now takes epic bike rides, occasionally auctions off weird detritus (a Liberace biography, say) on eBay, and enthuses about this tour’s stripped-down nature — just him, a good buddy as occasional sideman-accompanist, and the dude who’ll serve as opening act piled in a Chevy Suburban, with plenty of days off for sightseeing and skateboarding. Lytle’s frank that this is essentially a business compromise, a bit of Fambly Cat promotion so his label, V2, will help hawk a retrospective Grandaddy DVD he’s cooking up for down the road. Maybe he won’t regale us with jokes, but these shows sound fun, built on an idea Lytle’d toyed with back in his full-band days: “Kinda like set up a worktable right in the middle and put instruments on it, and play and walk around and decide what instruments you’re gonna use for that song,” he says.
This is, alas, as graceful as our discussion gets. The mysterious cutoff occurs just as I’m plowing through an anecdote about seeing Tell Me Do You Miss Me, a Tribeca Film Fest — screened documentary on the NYC indie-rock band Luna, a wistful look at their mostly peaceful final tour. Afterward the band stood up and took questions from the audience; many fans openly wondered why Luna had never gotten super-famous. As one guy openly speculated that maybe Luna’s songs were way too long, you could clearly hear frontman Dean Wareham’s jaw clenching as he imagined ripping a theater seat out of the floor and chucking it at the guy’s head 20 feet away. Bands like this are not made for mass fame. Too insular, too delicate. They enrapture you on an individual basis, obsessions of quality, not quantity. That’s how Grandaddy got to me, leaving me decisively unobjective and (as you may have guessed) probably inarticulate. After the phone line goes dead, my interview tape ends with a full minute of my dumb ass going “Hello? Hello?” in increasingly desperate 10-second intervals, with only a clicking phone line and tape hiss to answer me, my lonely lament of adoration swallowed by uncaring technology. A perfect Grandaddy moment.
Jason Lytle plays Joe’s Pub Saturday at 7 and Monday at 9:30, $20, joespub.com.