Barren, Broken-Down, and Beautiful

Modesto band Grandaddy returns with a unique take on modern American life.

Jason Lytle, the chief creative force behind space-rockers Grandaddy, is a sonic painter of landscapes, a vivid creator of fully realized vistas and carefully crafted scenery.

But instead of evoking lush green fields or ice-capped mountains, Lytle’s words and music trigger images of barren, windswept trees, dessicated arroyos, and overgrown, unkempt meadows. He is the indie rock Renoir for unsightly, inland panoramas, an artistic penchant that he fostered while growing up in Modesto. An industrial city in the Central Valley surrounded by vast, bucolic farmlands, Modesto is an oft-overlooked metropolis that lacks the glitz, glamour, and culture associated with most of California’s coastal communities.

“I have spent many years trying to explain Modesto to people all over the world,” Lytle says. “There is something kind of twisted and dark and broken [about Modesto], but in many ways, there is something beautiful and romantic about it. That has rubbed off on my music in a big way.”

Grandaddy’s latest album, Last Place, brims with snapshots of Modesto’s beguiling environs. Lytle says when he’s writing music, he’s not focused on emulating a particular genre or musical era, but instead seeks to create places. These craggy locales, brought to life through song by Lytle, have roads with dead ends (“Brush with the Wild”), trees wasting away on the freeway (“Evermore”), and dried-out creeks (“A Lost Machine”).

Much of Grandaddy’s music is  populated with Lytle’s other favorite obsession: obsolete technology. Since forming in 1992, Grandaddy’s songs have touched upon the dissociative and isolating effects of society’s obsession with and dependence on the latest high-tech gadgets and how casually people discard them once they’ve outlived their usefulness.

It’s not revelatory subject matter — bands like Unknown Mortal Orchestra have explored our debilitating dependence on technology — but it is an interesting message coming from Grandaddy, a band famous for using electronic equipment to create synthetic, otherworldly sounds.  

“I’m certainly not a Luddite, and I really try and stay up-to-date in terms of technology, especially in the music recording industry,” Lytle says. “I think technology can be a beautiful thing when it uplifts mankind. I just don’t like it when people only use it as a path of least resistance — like, ‘How will this allow me to be lazier, and more dim-witted?’ ”

Lytle seems to be constantly wrestling with the juxtaposing impacts of technology, and that’s reflected in the band’s sound. Sparse numbers built with traditional, acoustic instruments intermingle with soaring synthesizers and robotic manipulations.

“I have always been fascinated with that contrast,” he says. “I want to see how you can combine these natural and synthetic-sounding elements in a setting that seems organic.”

During their heyday in the late ’90s and early ’00s, the five-member group never quite received the recognition — or monetary windfall — it deserved. (And earlier this week, they dealt with the unexpected loss of bass player and founding member Kevin Garcia, who died of a stroke on Tuesday at the age of 41. As a result, Grandaddy has cancelled the rest of its tour, including its Thursday, May 11 show at the Regency Ballroom.)

 Albums like Under the Western Freeway, The Sophtware Slump, and Sumday drew rave reviews from publications and rank among some of the most beloved indie rock albums of that era. But Lytle walked away from Grandaddy in 2006, citing the economic strains of the band. (As its primary songwriter and leader, he was essentially responsible for the financial wellbeing of all the group’s members.)

He moved  to Montana and then Portland, but returned to his hometown to finish the recording of Last Place, a move he says felt both symbolic and meaningful.

The fact that the album was finished at all came as a bit of a surprise. When the group went on hiatus following the release of Just Like the Fambly Cat, many assumed Lytle would pursue a solo career or spend more time doing production (he recently produced Band of Horses’ album, Why Are You OK.) But Lytle returned to both Grandaddy and Modesto in the past year, because of an “itch.”

“I felt like I had more songs left in me,” says Lytle, who is under contract with 30th Century Records to record one more album with Grandaddy. “But really, it was this insistent encouragement of Grandaddy fans. There was just this critical mass of people who wanted us to make more music.”

It is likely that those fans saw a champion in Lytle — someone to provide a voice for individuals living in the margins. The Strokes of the world might sing about gritty urban street life and Fleet Foxes might wax nostalgic about beautiful prairie fields, but Grandaddy has another calling, one that involves representing the vast, neglected lands in between.

has cancelled its show at 8 p.m., Thursday, May 11, at Regency Ballroom. 

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