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The Modesto Invasion 

The San Francisco rock scene is alive and well -- 90 miles from San Francisco

Wednesday, Jun 28 2000
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What they're finding are groups that have the time and resources to work on their music with fewer distractions. "In the formative years it was really easy for us because the rent is so cheap," says Dave Woody of Modesto's Fiver, which recently released its second album, Strings for Satellites, on Devil in the Woods. "We practice in my house -- my bedroom is my practice room. We have a policy of not playing past 8 o'clock, so when prime time starts and all the families sit down to watch their sitcoms, they don't have to be bothered."

That's what Kate Hyman, director of A&R at V2 Records, was hearing when she first came across Grandaddy's music. "It's very joyful, very careful, very introspective music, and you have the time and space to do that there," she says. "You have no distractions."

In 1997, Grandaddy released Under the Western Freeway, its first album for V2. Financing a tour was easier in Europe than in the U.S., so that's where the band focused most of its attention throughout 1998, on six runs through the Continent as record sales picked up steam and the band was invited to play the massive all-day festivals popular there.

In retrospect, the band feels it took on too much, playing shows whenever V2 asked them. "You're thinking, 'Whoa, this is a big deal,'" says Fairchild. "People are giving us accolades, free booze, and you're getting thrust into new situations. We were all still pretty level-headed -- nobody was coming home buying Porsches and shit on credit cards. But there was this really, really strange period where people started to realize the potential in Europe. [Freeway] had pretty much come out of nowhere -- for us and for them, the record people. Suddenly they thought, 'This could be bigger than we thought.' They wanted to juice every last ounce out of that."

When the band made it back to Modesto, it did nothing musical for the better part of six months. Lytle, who makes nearly all the band's creative decisions, "had no interest in music whatsoever. I just turned it off, turned the phones off. You've been introduced to a new world, and the best thing for you to do is maybe call and talk to somebody about it. But you realize you can't talk to them about it because it just can't be comprehended. You've moved into this other area, you're uprooted. Next thing you know, you're writing songs about being in a band and staying on a tour bus. Who the hell wants to hear that?"

Still, V2 was calling up regularly to inquire about the status of the next record, and Lytle was getting sick of it. So on one besotted night in Lytle's home studio, the band willfully recorded an album's worth of complete garbage and submitted it to the label brass as its new album. The move caused a minor uproar in V2's U.S. headquarters in New York City; Kate Hyman broke in on a meeting label president Richard Sanders had called to discuss the matter to tell him it was a prank.

"I started thinking, 'Something needs to be done here, because the anticipation is too much -- there has to be some way to trip that up a little bit,'" says Lytle. "A lot of people were putting money on the table and getting really serious about it. 'You know, the last album was cute and everything, but we really need to knock this one over the fence.' It was self-defense, you know?"

"Most people [at V2] were really cool about it," says Fairchild. "But some people were like, 'Now you guys are in the big leagues, you can't be doing that shit anymore. You can't be pranksters.'"

"Heh-heh," says Lytle.

Lytle bristles at the notion that The Sophtware Slump -- the actual album the band submitted after the prank made its point -- is any sort of concept album. But, as the title suggests, the record is interested in technology, and specifically how it relates to a rustic sort of humanity. The CD booklet is decorated with pictures of broken Macintosh keyboards crushed and abandoned in a dirt field. "Should never have left the crystal lake/ For areas where the trees are fake," Lytle sings on "The Crystal Lake." On "Broken Household Appliance National Forest," he posits a place where "meadows resemble showroom floors" and "stream banks are lined with vacuum bags." The dirgelike "Jed the Humanoid" tells the story of a singing and dancing robot made in a kitchen who explodes in a haze of alcoholism brought on by the fatal hubris of trying to sound like Beck.

Stories like that seem to vaguely mirror Grandaddy's own recollections of touring, which Fairchild and Lytle characterize as a liquor-soaked travail through a world they were unfamiliar with before. "Jed is a mechanical martyr with a message," says Lytle. "And his message is that alcohol and electronics do not mix."

Sophtware's themes of high-tech in the rural landscape actually do reflect a bit of some of the real changes taking place in Northern California. The San Joaquin Valley is one of California's fastest-growing population centers, and the area is struggling not only with a double-digit unemployment rate, a lack of high-tech industry, and its notorious meth trade (Modesto's fastest-growing occupation is registered nurse) but also Bay Area "equity refugees" who are moving into the region to take advantage of the cheap home prices, even if it means lengthy commutes into the city.

"There's certainly a lot of debate in the northern part of the San Joaquin Valley about the influence of Bay Area commuters," says Carol Whiteside, former mayor of Modesto and president of the Great Valley Association, a Central Valley think tank. About 10 percent of all residents in the greater Central Valley commute into the Bay Area to work, and a majority of new home sales in Modesto are to Bay Area commuters. "Many times, people who commute to long distances are too tired to participate in family activities, or participate in their communities," says Whiteside. "It leads to unhealthy neighborhoods."

About The Author

Mark Athitakis

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