Pop Culture

Grandaddy on How Patti Page, Long Bike Rides, Pedal Steel, and More Inspired His New Album ‘Blu Wav’

The title of Grandaddy‘s new album, Blu Wav, refers to the blend of bluegrass and new wave that Jason Lytle was shooting for while making it. The misspelling/pun is Grandaddy tradition, but it could also be a winking acknowledgment that this is Lytle’s attempt at achieving this sort of genre fusion, which might not be exactly how you’d describe the end result – “an actual country music record,” according to press materials, a quote that feels insanely out of context without the qualifying “in its own Grandaddy way.” The follow-up to 2017’s Last Place was written and produced by Lytle, who drapes the songs – many of them ballads or slow waltzes – in tons of pedal steel (performed by Max Hart), its sweetness balanced by off-kilter electronics, over a foundation of acoustic guitars, piano, and lush vocal harmonies. The sound of Blu Wav feels both old-timey and timeless, if not futuristic, and its warmth is almost as pervasive as the melancholy. If a song title like ‘You’re Going to Be Fine and I’m Going to Hell’ makes it seem like Lytle is treating bouts of heartbreak and depression with a dose of humour, there’s no mistaking the haunting vulnerability of songs like ‘On a Train or Bus’ and ‘Ducky, Boris and Dart’. It’s a ride worth sticking to, all summed up in the first lyrics of early single ‘Cabin in My Mind’: “Well, it’s a long and lonely road/ But there’s a safe and loving glow.”

We caught up with Jason Lytle to talk about some of the inspirations behind Blu Wav, including a Patti Page song, pedal steel, long bike rides, and more.

Tennessee Waltz by Patti Page

The song is cited in the press bio as an inception point record and its country leanings. It says you just heard it on the radio one day. What was going through your mind at the time?

Sometimes it’s just the circumstances or the conditions when you hear something; you can listen to something staring at a screen in your room, and then you get it out in the real world, go for a walk, and it just hits you in a different way. I’m a big proponent of that. A lot of times, I’m problem-solving when I’m working on music, and I just I get so tied up and clamped up sitting in front of the gear and in front of the screen that I’m like, “I gotta get out of here.” I’ll go for a bike ride or a hike or whatever, and all of a sudden, these answers start arriving, the doors start opening. In this case, I was on a road trip. I used to do a lot of driving, a lot of getting from where I was going to where I needed to go – there was a lot of open roads, open highways out in the desert. That song came on, and I’d probably actually heard it a number of times in the past, but for some reason I was just like, “Holy shit, what’s going on here?”

It was something about the sweetness of it, and it was something about – who knows what it was that was making it hit me the way that it hit me. It could have even been the lighting that I was taking in as I was driving, or just the freedom of driving and being out on the open road. It could have been a number of things, the intersection of all these things. But I remember this seed of intrigue got planted. It was something about the simplicity of the song, and I’m a big fan of 3/4 or 6/8, waltz time music. It’s a very natural time signature for me. You have a lot of time to mentally riff on these ideas as you’re driving these long distances, and I just started getting intrigued by the idea of making my own version of this sort of music. It set me on the path for thinking there might be something here. I know it meant a lot because it because I carried that for years; I didn’t get right on it.

I was wondering if this ties into the next inspiration you’ve listed, which is “looking for a certain genre on Spotify and not finding it because it doesnt exist.

I know that I’ve heard this kind of slower, sweeter kind of waltz, dancing kind of bluegrass, but whatever phrases or keywords you’re supposed to use in order to locate that stuff, I just I wasn’t able to do it. And that’s where the impatience probably came into play. It probably wasn’t too long after that, I was just like, “Well, fuck it, I’m just gonna make it myself.” Because the version that I heard in my mind was a little bit more interesting, I think. It became intriguing to me to add some dense synthesizers – the combination of the dense synthesizers and the pedal steel alone was really intriguing to me. Since then, I’ve actually I’ve gone on to discover that this does exist. There are ambient pedal steel mixes that you can find on Spotify, and that’s led me into some interesting directions. But I wasn’t aware of that stuff until I was done making this record.

I should also add that I went into this album with that imaginary genre in my mind, and that set me off in the right direction, but other powers that are beyond me were pulling me here and there throughout the course of making the album. It’s almost presumptuous for me to say, “Hey, I decided I was gonna come up with this genre, and I successfully pulled it off.” Because I don’t think I did. I think that I tried, but also, a whole lifetime of listening to music and being influenced by other stuff and having certain default directions that I go while I’m working on things – that came into play as well. The album ended up becoming what it needed to become, but having that direction in the beginning, the focus of something that I was shooting for, was a good place to start. It ended up allowing me to arrive upon an album that had a certain feel to it; whether or not that sounded exactly like what I was after in the beginning is a whole other matter.

There’s a lot there about consuming and trying to classify music while making it, but you mentioned impatience – I’m curious how much that feeling, when you’re working on something of your own, drives inspiration for you, or whether you need to be in a different headspace to resolve things creatively.

Well, there’s there’s a very practical element that exists: I just don’t like sitting in front of a computer. I would rather be outside, I would rather be engaged in the world, I would rather be immersed in the outdoors. Even running errands, just doing normal shit. I feel like when it’s time to work, I want it to happen fast. And I also feel, by it happening fast, that I’m not overthinking things. Even when I was younger and I had a higher capacity for spending obscene amounts of time working on things, I would work in these bursts; they were these really bright, intense, concentrated periods of work. And then I’d be exhausted, and I’d stop; I’d take a break for a week or whatever. I’d wear myself out. Something happens when I work like that that that doesn’t happen when I just have time to lazily mull over ideas for extended amounts of time and overintellectualize things or discuss things – I’m not a big a discusser, a big overanalyzer [laughs]. I’m usually grabbing ideas, grabbing little nuggets and holding on to them, and when it’s time to work on them, I psych myself up and work really intensely for an amount of time that seems like a sensible amount of time, and then I stop and I take a break. I feel like that has been my method for capturing any kind of magic, something that I can’t quite put words to or call a certain something.

I feel like I’m lucky that I can still do that, because I feel like a lot of my favorite artists over time, you could just see that they lost the plot and it’s because too many other people got involved. Too many other voices, too many other people were chiming in, too many other people. And I still work the same way. I don’t have any pressure from anyone to do it in any different sort of way, so I guard that. I very much protect the way that I work, and I try to keep it the same way. In terms of honesty and purity or capturing the essence of certain things, that’s my way of doing it, so I’d rather not change that method of working.

Would you say you’re more mindful now about reaching that point of exhaustion and needing to step back?

Yeah, I’ve definitely gotten a little bit more responsible. And I have certain realistic factors, like my ears are shot, so if I work for too long, for too many days in a row, I have really bad tinnitus, and the more I work, the more fatigue my ears get. My ears always ring as it is, they’re ringing 24 hours a day – one ear is a lot worse than the other, but it amps that up big time. I’m falling apart, basically [laughs]. So I have to be smarter about things.

Long Bike Rides

How long ago did you pick that up as a habit? What’s your relationship with it been like?

In a lot of the bios, it mentions the fact that I was heavily involved in skateboarding. I was aspiring to do something with it when I was younger, like I was sponsored and skated contests. It was a huge part of my life; it’s still a big part of my life. But I had this pretty major, catastrophic knee injury, so I started riding bikes a lot to rehab my right knee. I realized that I had a pretty rich history riding bikes when I was a kid, so I started connecting with it on this whole other level. For a lot of people, it ends up being their first experience with freedom: getting on a bike, leaving the house and being on your own, having the wind rush through your hair, being able to extend your distances. It started clicking on all these other different levels, so I stuck with it.

Eventually, it took the forefront; skateboarding kind of took a back seat. Even to the point where Granddaddy would go on tour and I would bring a bike with me, just for the exercise element of it. But also, when you get into a city – it’s pretty funny, you can always see the band people wandering around, but they never wander any more than two or three blocks from the venue. It’s kind of pathetic, actually. I always wanted to see a little bit more of where I was, so that enabled that to happen. I’d look at the map and go, “Okay, great, there’s a trail along this river” or whatever, and then I would get home, and all the PTSD that came along with being on tour – getting on the bike would allow me to kind of flush all that stuff out and get healthy again.

And then it only seems to have accumulated. I started getting more into endurance events. I was curious to see what I was capable of, for the the fitness aspect of it,  but I also find that something kind of takes over when I’m riding these super long distances. There’s something very meditative about it. And I like the pushing the boundaries of the body sort of thing as well, which I’m learning isn’t a very common nerdy musician thing. I have a very small group of people that I can share this with who also play music [laughs].

Even last weekend, I just I did a 103 mile ride. It took all day, but it was also super enjoyable and I saw tons of crazy shit along the way. And I listen to music, I listen to podcasts, so it’s a great way for me to catch up on listening to things and stay active at the same time and take in my environment. It checks a lot of boxes for me.

Is being in that meditative space, having this practice, something that also intersects with creativity or inspiration in a way that’s different from driving or riding a train or bus?

Even the night before, for me it’s a lot of fun studying the map, connecting the dots, like, “Can I even do that?” Usually that’s what I know I’m onto something good, when I’m like, “Can I even do that?” You know that phrase imposter syndrome –  constantly judging one’s own sense of self-worth – I definitely suffer from some imposter syndrome. I can go a lot deeper with it, but it’s something that I’ve always carried around. And for me to semi-regularly do this sort of stuff, to start off on a journey and not even know if I can pull the thing off, and then to do so, to kind of do it with good form and with grace and not be completely wiped out and and demoralized or too traumatized when the thing is done – that is confidence-building, and the sort of confidence-building that I respond to. So the more of that that I have coming in, that actually carries over into me working on music. The more that I experience endurance in these other parts of my life, the more carries over into working on music.

If you could count the amount of times you just want to give up – in this case, hit save, turn off the computer, and fucking walk away – but it’s like, you gotta stick with it. You gotta chase down this idea. It’s constant, continual problem-solving. Like, “How do I not give up on this jigsaw puzzle?” You know how daunting of a prospect that can be, looking at a thousand-piece jigsaw puzzle, like, “God, I know this can come together. I know there’s an answer here. I just have to stick with it.” Endurance has a lot to do with that – I’m gonna go into old man rant mode here, but there’s something about the way the modern world is evolving, it’s moving away from that. It’s a little scary, and it’s a little sad, how justifiable it is for people just to give up on stuff a little bit more easily than maybe in the olden days.

When talking to artists, especially young artists, there’s always this implicit narrative of, “When did you discover your confidence?” Or, “When did you start taking this seriously?” When really, that enduring question, “Can I even do that?” – there’s some doubt there along with the confidence, and following it can be a motivating thing, because it doesn’t really go away.

It’s interesting, too – it may have something to do with more of an extended perception, because I don’t think it goes away with, like, “Oh, great, I stuck with that.” I think I need it from multiple sources. I need it from multiple, real – this is gonna sound crazy, but songwriting, I’ve regarded it as almost embarrassing. I need to be careful here, but I couldn’t call myself an artist for forever – there’s almost something not honorable or artsy fartsy about it. There’s something too precious, especially with people who are elevated and billionaires, and they’re so looked up to for these weird, artificial reasons. There’s something that’s always been kind of embarrassing to me about that, so for me to find inspiration, and for me to hone in on ways of finding the importance of endurance, has to exist in ways other than music.

I’m super grateful that I ended up here, because for me it’s been great to have found an artistic outlet that allows me to deal with my demons and figure things out; and the satisfaction I get from creating things, working with sounds, and then to share that with people, the stories within the songs – that has all been amazing. But there’s also something very delicate and precious about it that is just the opposite of like an auto mechanic or a woodworker or blacksmith. For some reason, I consider those more honorable endeavors or tasks. Those are my own hangups, and part of that may have to do with the fact that I grew up very blue collar. I’d find myself in situations where I wasn’t able to have these sort of conversations with my friends because my friends did stuff that was way different from what I did. You would come back from tour and it was almost like coming back from, you know, being in the military service or being overseas, and I had no one to share my stories with other than my other band members. Maybe it’s because we lived in Modesto and we were just an oddity. I picked a weird line of work, and somehow it worked out, but there’s something slightly alienating about it as well.

The phrase “Mars is a dust bowl”

A lot of times, when I’m starting a new project or an album, I have a notebook and it’s just a lot of stream of thought, giving myself guidance; little mantras, little words of wisdom, quotes from people or just ideas, things that will keep me in check. The sci-fi element of Mars and the Dust Bowl being about as old-timey and dirty and country-like as I can conjure up in my own mind – somehow combining those two, I saw a bit of a sci-fi element happening with this album as well. I think I was trying to get that across a bit in the synthesizer, electronic element, I thought that would give it just enough of a twist to help counter the elements of the lap steel and the occasional mandolin and acoustic guitar.

Did that phrase precede your general idea of what the record would sound like?

Yeah, I’m usually trying to build up as much of this stuff as I can, and this stuff helps me get excited about it, too. If I’m too rudderless at the beginning, I need focus, I need direction. As a matter of fact, the sequence of the album was pretty intact from the very beginning, and that gives me focus. If a certain song is sounding too much like this, that’s going to dictate – this checks and balances system of what the next song is going to sound like. Because I’m still adhering to what is sadly becoming an extinct idea, which is viewing it all as an album, the album as a whole having a good flow to it. I don’t like the fact that that’s going away, but from what I hear, that seems to be going away. The concept of an album having the beginning of it, this journey that exists, and coming to an end – I love that. I’ll never go away from that.

Even with that as the goal, it’s interesting how much of it starts with these disorganized notes or observations that you have to then glue onto a singular vision.

I’m actually looking at – I have my cheat sheet here, I’ve made a folder, and all the songs have individual notes and scraps kind of taped together. Like this one says, “Vocals never forceful, annoyed, or cynical. Going for sweet, innocent, kind, sentimental, and calm. Even if it gets rough and dark in subject matter, keep it sweet.” I’m just giving myself advice, and it’s usually because I know that throughout the working process I’m going to hit all these roadblocks, so in order to refocus I go back to all these notes that I wrote myself when I was in another frame of mind. It’s almost role-playing, having multiple versions of myself working on the album at the same time.

Why was keeping things sweet important to you?

Because I feel like that’s what I was hearing when that occurred, hearing that Patti Page song. I feel like that’s what was coming across, almost in an old-fashioned kind of way. If you spend any time on the internet sorting through comments about current events, people have just gotten so mean and cynical and snarky and just rude and terrible [laughs]. This old-fashioned concept of just being polite and pleasant and sweet to one another, I think I was just feeling some of that of that. If I’m gonna attempt to make this sort of music, the thing that’s really going to drive it home, even if it is whiny, self-analytical subject matter – I gotta try to keep it sweet and simple. I’m not even sure if I adhered to that, but that was definitely one of the guidelines I gave myself at the beginning.

Pedal steel

I’m curious if it started with wanting to incorporate it into one song, or if you had the idea early on of it being there across the album.

First off, I find it hilarious that there hasn’t been one note of pedal steel that ever existed on a Granddaddy album. So it’s like, go big or go home. But I knew it was going to be a crucial element, and it was a little stressful, too, because I didn’t actually know anybody personally who played pedal steel. I got a couple of recommendations from friends, and I was slowly profiling people in the process. One of the recommendations, I reached out to him, and it was key for me that he understood what I was after. In a nice, lighthearted way, I explained to him what I was going for, emphasizing the fact that I wasn’t making a country-sounding record here, and I was trying to find the sweet spot, messing with genres a little bit here. And he was up for it.

We did the first one remotely, and that went well. But then I realized I did such an extended amount of editing, and I was left to my own devices to the point where I realized it was going to work a lot better if we’re in the same room together. He was on tour with Melissa Etheridge, of all people, and he had a day off in the Los Angeles area. He was nice enough to meet me on that day off, and we recorded most of the parts that ended up on the album together, with lots of in-depth discussion before each pass for each song. That was best best-case scenario for me. I did have a pretty active hand in the editing as well, but I had such great stuff to sort through that it was an enjoyable process. And then it was getting the sound right; there’s a lot of different ways that the pedal steel could have been presented, so just giving it enough dreaminess and just enough down-to-earthness as well.

In a statement about ‘Long as I’m Not the One’, you said you struggled with the arrangement being “too folky and/or too country.” Was that a challenge you ran into with other tracks as well?

That’s an enjoyable challenge for me. Anytime I got into that situation. I felt like that’s what I was supposed to be doing. I was supposed to be cramming these seemingly incongruent elements together and somehow making it work. That was the challenge that I accepted at the beginning of this project. Even identifying that, it’s like, “This is maybe going to start sounding a little too twangy and hokey, so how can I make it weird?” I like that checks and balances system of trying to make things work that might not look right on paper, but somehow it’s working as you listen to it.

A work schedule dictated by the weather

My most used function on my phone is probably still Weather. I don’t know why, I just like to be outside so much. It’s not even a cop-out – even when I’m working on stuff, my working capacity for working on music is not limitless and it’s only going to exist within a certain window of time, so if I can fit that around the weather, that’s a day well spent. At summertime, it gets pretty gnarly here, and even at the beginning of this album, I had everything set up out in the garage, and I could only work from about 8:00 in the morning until 10:00 or 11:00, and then it got so unbearably hot in there. At some point, my computer actually fried the power supply because it was so hot out there, I had to take it to get it repaired.

Actually, this is hilarious – look at this right here [points to the cover of the notebook]. This was the deadline for the album: August 1, 2022. So I realized I wasn’t making the progress I needed to be making, and it was because my time was so limited with my setup out in the garage, but that made the most sense the way the house is set up here. So I tore everything down, which was no small undertaking, and I relocated everything into my bedroom, about three feet away from my bed. My bedroom actually ended up becoming the main overdub studio location for the second half of the album. In that case, the weather didn’t end up being such a factor in terms of comfort, but I still like to be outside as much as I can. There’s something natural about that too, it’s just the way animals function. And taking naps at certain sensible times, that’s what animals do, and I’ve been known to do that as well [laughs]. It makes a lot of sense to me, working with the weather.

It’s almost a cliche, but were you conscious of the weather affecting the mood or tone of the songs, in a way that became apparent when you were revisiting them?

It’s almost a problem how influenced I am by the weather. Right now, I live in a pretty sunny environment. The days per year of sunshine here is way up there in terms of cities, and I love it. I don’t take one pleasant day for granted. I lived in a state here, in Portland, Oregon, I was there for reasons – I was trying to make other people happy other than myself, and it was fucking miserable. I was going through a divorce. It was rainy and cold and wet and moldy. I don’t recommend going through a divorce in wet, rainy, and cold Portland, Oregon. I got stuck there, and all I could do was escape. And now I’m here [in California], and I’m happier. It’s like night and day. It’s a little bit more expensive, but it’s worth it in terms of retaining one’s sanity.

There will be maybe two crappy rainy, cloudy days here, and I feel it so deeply. When my gear was still out in the garage, I was a little worried because there was thunder, and the rain was so loud that I thought it was going to creep into the microphones. It didn’t really, but it ended up picking up all these thunderstorms, which is pretty cool. There’s a song on the album called ‘East Yosemite’, and there’s one line in it where I mention something about the sound of crashing waterfalls or something like that. [The line is: “If they knew I slept next to their famous waterfall/ Glad to rest where I can’t text or accept any calls/ Though that wall of sound would drown it all out thankfully/ Deep in the interior of East Yosemite”]. If you listen to the background of that, there’s these real low rumbles, and it was these distant thunderstorms that were happening. I was super excited to catch that on the recording, and then I looped it towards the very end. I have this breathing sound of my voice and the thunderstorm is on loop. I think half the time I don’t know how it’s affecting me, and it probably affects my relationship with other people, but weather – man, I’m definitely tied into it.

Mount Baldy, California

The only reason I mentioned that is because I was on a hike, I was doing a little miniature snow mountaineering trip, and I still hadn’t had the lyrics for the first track, ‘Blu Wav’. Within twenty minutes to what ended up being this all-day adventure, all those lyrics started coming to me on that hike. As it turns out, it was also at the same time, it was big news at the time – there was a British actor by the name of Julian Sands, who I guess also dabbled in mountaineering, and he got lost up there in the snow and died. He had gone missing from January to June, and eventually they found his remains when the snow was cleared, but that was around that time. I don’t even know why I wanted to mention that, but it was a little spooky, knowing that he was up there, lost somewhere in that vicinity at the time that I was coming up with these lyrics, hiking up that same trail.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.

Grandaddy’s Blu Wav is out now via Dangerbird Records.

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