Grandaddy seems to have gotten more notice after it broke up than it ever did while it was still breathing. Hailing from Modesto, California, an agricultural city turned (sub)urban, the band grew to blend organic rock with promising futuristic technologic spacey-ness on such albums as Under the Western Freeway (1997), the brilliant Sophtware Slump (2000) and Sumday (2003). But leader Jason Lytle(Artists Choice Below the Radio)’s curious experimentation with such natural/unnatural concepts on “Broken Household Appliance National Forest” had turned to urban-sprawling discontent by 2005’s Excerpts from the Diary of Todd
Zilla(Excerpts from the Diary of Todd-Zilla) EP (see “Fuck the Valley Fudge”). The love/hate wonder of the modernization of his hometown, which seemed to be his muse, had slowly become final. It wasn’t interesting anymore. It had become, through “progress,” like any other town. That fate was shared by the band itself.
Left with this, Lytle did the only thing he could: reflect. Thus, Just Like the Fambly Cat(Just Like the Fambly Cat). So, he is now off to Montana, but not before drifting around on a solo tour.
But what about the other Grandaddies? An end is nothing more, or less, than a new beginning. Music, for most of us, is an escape. For members of bands, it’s one at which they can make a living. Through talking with Aaron Burtch, Grandaddy’s drummer, artist and founding member, I realized that life’s transitions, whether we like them or not, are inescapable.
Prefixmag.com: What have you been up to since Grandaddy split? Are there any more musical ventures that you’ve been a part of or will be a part of?
Aaron Burtch: Well, it’s been a pretty strange time period. Since the band broke up, my marriage ended and I’ m now a full-time single parent of my fifteen-year-old daughter. So, the priorities have obviously changed a bit. Long-term touring’s pretty much out now. And she needs to stay here and go to school with her friends, so we’re not moving to L.A. or Portland or any of the other cities where things happen. Right now, I work for a landscape contractor. I’m not playing a whole lot of music. I’ve been doing some freelance art jobs for smaller bands, and that’s been taking up most of my free time.
A couple months ago I played some shows with Jason. It was fun, but I knew it wasn’t going to be a regular thing. There’s some friends of mine in a town up the road called Oakdale who play old-timey country music, and I’m going to play a little with them — mostly just filling in for their drummer when he can’t make shows. But I’d really like to play in some way with my buddy Joel Morales from Dios (Malos)(Dios Malos). We’ve talked about it for a long time, and maybe sometime we’ll do something about it. Right now, if I play, I just want to play with friends.
Landscaping has always seemed to exist in that happy medium between a shitty minimum-wage/food-service job and a real cubicle-like job. Is this true? Do you think that that is someway connected to your musical career?
In the summer, I think the last thing that kind of work is is a "happy medium" of anything. It’s just hard, sweaty work. I guess a parallel is that landscaping is creative as far as construction trades go. There is a certain sculptural element to it, but I’ve never likened it to whatever it was I did in the music world.
I do it because one of my friends is a landscape contractor, and he offered the job and training. I spent a lot of my life in the band, and realistically, there’s not much that I can take from that and transfer to my next phase of life. I’m not a kid anymore, and I’m pretty much starting from scratch. I don’t really have time to go to some school and catch up on occupational skills. I just need to work and provide a life for my daughter.
In a recent interview, it seemed apparent that drugs played a significant role in Grandaddy, perhaps leading to its demise. Negative affects aside, when are you most comfortable doing drugs?
I like to drink alcohol. I’m comfortable drinking beer or whiskey quite often, and it is an effective way to leave your cares behind for a while. Maybe too effective.
You’ve done a lot of the artwork connected to Grandaddy, as well as your own for skateboards and places such as Tiny Showcase. What role does such work play in your life?
It’s always been like a journal for me. Sometimes it’s coded, so only I know what it refers to, but almost always, art or whatever it is that I do is just this process that lets me get stuff out of my head. Sometimes I make sad things funny, and it helps me deal with stuff. That’s all. I never felt I had big things to say or express, just little things that probably only matter to me.
What is your view of the music industry today? How has your view changed since Grandaddy started?
Well, it’s a different world now. When we first signed to V2 and started doing bigger tours, we were pretty excited and wide-eyed. For the first few years, our crew at V2 was pretty tight. It was still when labels really didn’t think twice about spending loads of money on stupid shit, and it was fun for us. I think as much as we could, we really trusted the people we worked with, and everyone involved had pretty high hopes. But when the industry took a dive, a lot of the people we trusted and had developed working relationships with left. And when the bigwigs realized we would never sell loads of records, we became a fairly low priority. It wasn’t really a surprise, but it wasn’t great for band morale, either.
Now, I really have nothing at all to do with any of that stuff. I don’t really keep in contact with label people or management, just a few of the old-timers at the label. I couldn’t even get copies of the new record. Just a couple weeks ago I finally got a little package, and they sent me five copies, which was a little insulting.
I read that you were one of the few band members that Jason worked with on this last album. What have the other members been up to? Is it fair to say that the band dissolved before the recording of Fambly Cat?
Yeah, the band was done before we recorded anything. It was awkward and a really non-communicative time for the band, which has resulted in some amount of weirdness. It is a strange feeling to dedicate your life to something for a long time and to suddenly have it just be completely gone. I haven’t felt like I’ve completely dealt with it all yet. I still feel like I should have been somewhat involved or at least in the loop with the last record cycle, but I’m not and, yeah, it feels a little bit shitty. But now everybody’s just out doing their thing, I guess. Jim [Fairchild, guitarist] has played in Earlimart(http://www.prefixmag.com/reviews/cds/E/Earlimart/Treble-and-Tremble/1054) and Modest Mouse(http://www.prefixmag.com/reviews/cds/M/Modest-Mouse/Good-News-for-People-Who-Like-Bad-News/656), and he just recorded his own album. Tim [Dryden, keyboardist] works for a seed company, and Kevin [Garcia, bassist] cooks food and has fun. I think he wants to be a motorcycle mechanic, and he builds and works on bikes all the time.
What happened between Sumday and Fambly Cat?
As a band, not much happened. Jason wrote a bunch of songs and demoed them. I worked a lot, learned the songs Jason wrote, toured a little with the Radar Bros.(http://www.prefixmag.com/reviews/cds/R/Radar-Bros/The-Fallen-Leaf-Pages/1576) and Peter Walker(http://www.prefixmag.com/reviews/cds/P/Peter-Walker/Young-Gravity/2367) and tore my rotator cuff for the second time in three years. Jim made the move to L.A. and started on what he’s doing now. Actually, he’s in the process of moving from L.A. to Chicago.
Even during the recording process last year, I really had no clear idea on what was going to be happening with the band.
You’ ve always made it clear that after each album, the future of the band was questionable. Grandaddy seemed to always be growing up and moving on. J’aime Tambeur(http://www.prefixmag.com/features/U/The-Unicorns/35) recently quit Islands(http://www.prefixmag.com/reviews/cds/I/Islands/Return-to-the-Sea/2093), saying he didn’t need to be in a band anymore. What are some other things that you’ve moved on from since you guys first got together?
I don’t know. I’m pretty consistent and dedicated to the things I believe in, so I don’t switch around and "move on" every couple years. The things I’ve moved on from were more affected by circumstance than a choice I made.
I’ m not asking you to speak for Mr. Lytle, but one of the reasons he gave for the band’s breakup was monetary. For you, was it a question of sustainability, or did you just get tired of not having much money?
You need money to live. We four band members were living on a ridiculously small amount of money. It’s impossible to live like that. I’m sure there were ways that we could have made better money, but we didn’t make good decisions, and the people paid to make the decisions for us didn’t have any luck getting cash into our pockets. I think Jason really just got tired and even resentful of money being an issue.
Grandaddy has always sung of the importance of place, a thing a lot of bands don’t particularly discuss. The Diary of Todd Zilla seems to be about Lytle’s unhappiness with the development of Modesto, but urban sprawl, perhaps, gives you business. Are the lyrics only Jason’s thoughts?
Well, I struggle with that every day. I chose to start working in landscaping because it seemed like a livable option. I just don’t like being indoors that much. But sometimes you are just in the current and you have to float or sink. I feel like that’s sort of where I am right now. I like the act of landscaping enough, but we’re always working in these new neighborhoods with big, garish houses that sit on land that until very recently was farmland. I don’t like the sprawl here. It has effectively killed much of the charm this area had. Overdevelopment is the reason our area is so tense, crowded and dirty, and in a way I’m on the bad-guy’s team now.
I remember driving three hours to see you guys open for Saves the Day and thinking, What the fuck? Opening? What the fuck?
Well, we were "co-headliners" and switched who would play last every night. But in a lot of ways, that tour was actually a lot of fun. We skated some rad skate parks; I remember some really good bike rides; I got to tour with my boys in Dios (Malos) and, actually, all the bands on that tour were cool, fun people. We all got along well and had big barbecues a couple times a week. But business-wise, it was bad for both of our bands. It was too much of a stretch for the ticket buyers, and there was no musical or audience crossover going on. It was completely polarized. It was a bad decision made by people who probably should have known better. But there were good moments, for sure.
Grandaddy always seemed to straddle the fence between skater rock and experimentation. How did the band members view themselves? Did they view themselves?
I always felt we were kinda punk-rock in a very pure sense. The records were weird and DIY and they always had some classic punk elements, even though Jason never claimed to be a big punk-rock fan. We were really insular because we didn’t have much in common with the other indie-rock bands we met. We were just dirty skateboarders who really believed in what we were doing and didn’t give much thought to scenes and hip towns and being cool and all that. And we hated being predictable. So I guess that’s kind of punk.
Have you ever played drums outdoors, by yourself, where no one could hear you?
While I have carried my drums up a small mountain to play, it was with the other guys in the band, so I have to say, sadly, no.
Who have you been listening to of late? Watching? Making? Or, who is doing things you appreciate?
I’ve been preaching about the band Home since about 1995. They are absolutely my favorite functioning band in the world. Also I love Dios (Malos), the Fruit Bats(http://www.prefixmag.com/reviews/cds/F/Fruit-Bats/Spelled-In-Bones/1585), Virgil Shaw, Howe Gelb(http://www.prefixmag.com/reviews/cds/H/Howe-Gelb/Sno-Angel-Like-You/2059), Viva Voce, Sparklehorse, Neko Case(http://www.prefixmag.com/reviews/cds/N/Neko-Case/Fox-Confessor-Brings-the-Flood/2026), Bright Eyes(Im Wide Awake Its Morning Digital Ash in a Digital Urn), Ween, Electric Soft Parade — just good, well thought-out, creatively recorded, no-bullshit music. And I like it on the sentimental side. But if you could check my iPod and see what I play the most, it’s probably ’60s and ’70s country music. I’m mostly a Merle Haggard guy.
Right now I’m watching as many Clint Eastwood movies as I can — even the shitty ones. I almost had to leave my own house during Every Which Way but Loose. It was a horrible movie. Even the biggest Clint Eastwood fans have to draw the line on that one. But I like his western movies the best, especially the Sergio Leone trilogy. I suppose I never really grew out of wanting to be a cowboy. I read a lot of Larry McMurtry books and I imagine that I can sort of identify with the way people used to live back then. The harshness and uncertainty of life, the hard travels — it appeals to me in a pretty deep way.
But some friends and I have a little art club at my house occasionally. We all try to make fun stuff for each other to look at. I guess that’s my new favorite thing. Sitting around, drinking beer, listening to music and just making pictures.