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The seat of Stanislaus County, Modesto is the state's largest producer of almonds and apricots, and second largest of chickens, though it can boast of a few local cultural products too. The late country legend Rose Maddox started her career there, as the "Okie migration" of the Great Depression drove a lot of farming families -- and their music -- into California's Central Valley. George Lucas was born and raised in Modesto; his American Graffiti, the quintessential movie tribute to rock 'n' roll and cruising, is set on its streets.
In the middle of downtown Modesto, Grandaddy's Jason Lytle and Jim Fairchild are sitting in a local Mexican restaurant that plays skateboarding videos on its monitors and seems to have Jimmy Buffett's "Margaritaville" on endless repeat. It's a 10-minute drive from Fairchild's home, a two-bedroom, $600-a-month house that he shares. Lytle describes the restaurant as "a bit upscale." Lunch for three, including drinks, comes to less than 40 bucks.
Lytle started his Modesto band literally by accident. In 1991, he was 20 years old and moving up the ranks of the skateboard circuit when he injured his knee and was forced to retire from skateboarding. "I'd finally gotten to the point where I'd befriended the people that I looked up to, all the people who I considered my heroes in all the magazines," he says. "I was finally skating at contests with them and hanging out with them. That was a big step. I was just ... I was on my way up."
So, Lytle took a job in hazardous materials treatment, driving storage tanks around the San Joaquin Valley. He spent his extra money on instruments and recording equipment, and started a band. "I don't think I'd ever even attempted to write a song," he says. "It was really kind of a handoff. The skateboarding stopped, and I became addicted to having to be creative and having to get this stuff out. I had this energy that needed to go somewhere. It was a pretty ungraceful segue."
Originally a trio featuring guitarist/ singer/songwriter/producer Lytle, bassist Kevin Garcia, and drummer Aaron Burtch, all housemates (guitarist Jim Fairchild and keyboardist Tim Dryden would join later), the group recorded a handful of demos. The band got gigs at Modesto bars, coffee shops, and skate parks, but also trekked into San Francisco, where the larger audiences were. In 1994 one of Lytle's favorite bands, Giant Sand, was playing at Slim's in San Francisco, and he handed a tape to that band's frontman, Howe Gelb. The recording, Gelb has often recalled, didn't leave the tape deck of his truck for months as he toured the country. What he was listening to was a unique merging of Neil Young country-folk punctuated by Lytle's fascination with the weird sounds produced by his stockpile of keyboards and sequencers. The result, which has become only more refined over the years, captures an open-aired folk mentality, spaced-out synthesizer pop (Lytle's an unapologetic ELO fan), and rock 'n' roll so lush and angular it avoids the style's usual clichés.
Gelb in turn passed the music on to his Woodstock, N.Y.-based manager, Kate Hyman, without mentioning who the band was -- just that some bearded kid from the middle of nowhere had made the tape. Once Hyman wrested a name from Gelb, happy accidents fell into place. She flew out to Modesto and spent a week at Lytle's home near a walnut farm, crashing on his couch. Grandaddy already had a deal with a small Seattle-based label, Will Records, but Hyman wanted to work with Lytle to handle the band's publishing -- not to work as a manager telling the group when and how to make records (proudly, the band does all that itself), but to deal with the dirty work of royalties, licensing songs, and so forth. Not a profitable move to start with for Hyman, but she could see the band growing.
"[Lytle] was focused on his music," says Hyman. "There isn't anything else to do there, except manufacture crystal meth and pick nuts. I wasn't in the least surprised that a good band could come from there." Shortly after Hyman and the band built a friendship, the British billionaire Richard Branson got in touch with Hyman. Branson, who'd been in the music business since starting Virgin Records in the mid-'70s, was starting a new record label called V2, and wanted her to come on board.
She said yes -- on the condition that V2 sign Grandaddy.
In its own way, the band had become a part of the San Francisco scene. While much of the touring the band has done since signing with V2 has been in Europe, it's played San Francisco venues on a regular basis, clubs like Bottom of the Hill, Great American Music Hall, and Cafe Du Nord, and taking a slot at last year's esteemed local Noise Pop Festival. Lytle's reputation as a producer has led him to work with similar bands from the outskirts like Rodriguez and Fiver, whose first album he recorded.
The tape of that album, Eventually Something Cool Will Happen, made its way to Mike Cloward, who runs Albany's Devil in the Woods, himself born in Modesto and raised in the Central Valley. Somewhat unintentionally, that label has actually become one conduit of local support for up-and-coming Central Valley bands, releasing records from Fresno's Earlimart, and later this summer, Modesto's American Holidays. And, Cloward notes, a lot of the demo tapes crossing his desk these days are from Central Valley bands as well. "Being a band from a small town isn't hard anymore," he says. "Before, you might as well have been on Mars. With the Internet, and with people being able to communicate better, it's closing the gaps." Another local label, Future Farmer, was founded two years ago by Visalia natives Jeff Klindt and Dennis Mitchell to support groups from the outskirts, releasing records by musicians hailing from everywhere from San Luis Obispo to Placerville. The latter town near the Sierra Nevada mountains is where Rusty Miller lives, singing and playing guitar for Jackpot, one of Future Farmer's more successful acts. "You get more of the 'who cares' quality in a town that doesn't have a big music scene," he says. "In a city, people are looking for a perfect image."