For a few years at the beginning of the decade, Modesto, Calif.-based dystopian noise-pop group Grandaddy pretty much owned the indie-rock scene. Say what you will about the Wilcos, Built to Spills or Modest Mouses, but for those in the mood for some seriously pretty, sing-along downer music, there was no substitute.
Ultimately, the depression that fueled Grandaddy’s songs — which told tales of decaying urban infrastructure, malfunctioning robots and mental breakdowns — appears to have gotten the better of the band’s members. Reports of group infighting, substance abuse and financial disagreements began to emerge, and shortly before the release of the 2006 swan song Just Like the Fambly Cat, frontman Jason Lytle departed for Montana and dissolved the group. Not that there was much to dissolve; Lytle had been crafting and recording the group’s music almost entirely by himself, enlisting his mates strictly for touring. But by setting up shop in Bozeman — a Montana college town of less than 40,000 residents that sits nearly 5,000 feet in the air — Lytle emphatically signaled that he wanted to go at it alone.
Three years later, it’s clear that isolation looks good on him. His debut solo album, Yours Truly, the Commuter (Anti) — which was written and recorded at his home — has received excellent critical notice since being released in May. Speaking from a tour stop in Cincinnati, Lytle reports that he’s enjoying his solitude, although the brutal winters took some adjusting. “It was pretty rough my first year, but I’m OK with it now,” he says. “I get one of those weekday, bargain ski season passes and avoid the crowds.”
Unlike Modesto’s perennial sunshine, Bozeman’s climate gives him an excuse to bunker down and work on his music. “[Winter] is a good time for getting cabin fever,” he says. “I fell in love with this recording thing because it requires spending a lot of time, nerd-style, geeked out in the house with the headphones on, flipping the knobs.”
To hear Lytle tell it, that’s pretty much all he does when he’s not touring or exploring the surrounding mountains and camp spots. Like the albums he made with Grandaddy, Yours Truly, the Commuter merges computer-generated effects with traditional rock instrumentation, and its swirling soundscapes and contemplative, minor key melodies drop in and out of dark places. He characterizes the work’s unifying theme as one that's simultaneously “riding that line of nonreality and getting lost; embracing escapism but holding it together; pushing it and slightly losing it, but somehow managing to enjoy it.” Yet there's “less tension” in its tracks than in Grandaddy’s oeuvre, he says. “I was just happy to be making music. I was like a little kid playing with blocks, crayons and coloring books.”
While tracks like “It’s the Weekend” and “Brand New Sun” display streaks of optimism (“You should hold my hand/while everything blows away/and we’ll run to a brand new sun,” he sings on the latter), Yours Truly, The Commuter also features stories of near-suicidal despair like “Birds Encouraged Him” and “I Am Lost (And the Moment Cannot Last).” “My concerns have been confirmed,” he sings on the latter. “I am lost.”
Despite the work’s sometimes melancholy tone, Lytle insists he’s in a good place right now. He partly owes it to finally getting his touring business straight. Indie musicians depend on concert revenue for a substantial portion of their income, and Grandaddy was long bogged down by high overhead, an elaborate stage show and accounting mismanagement. This time around, he has pared things down and tours with a new four-piece that includes a Bozeman local, Rob Murdock, whom he met while skateboarding. “When I found out he played bass for this little Bozeman band, I kind of poached him,” Lytle explains.
More importantly, he shortened his act’s tours to make the cross-country musical voyages more bearable, and took control of the books. “There’s a lot more accountability,” he says. “I actually know what kind of money is going in and coming back. I’m [no longer] bent on the idea of brainlessly touring for ages and ages.
“The tour we’re doing right now, there’s a lot of skateboarding and camping and fucking around,” he adds, “so it’s a pretty good balance of fun and work. There’s definitely a different vibe.”
If it all sounds pretty lighthearted for a guy who once wrote a song about a robot named Jed who drank himself to death after his human creators stopped giving him attention, well, Lytle seems to be seeing the world in a more positive light these days. “It’s easy for me to say now, 'It’s a good day, a good week.' I have my dark clouds, but there’s just too much good stuff out there. There’s too many reasons to be happy,” he says. “When you live in this great country with all these opportunities — you don’t live in some fucking cave in Afghanistan — to bestow this self-inflicted, self-imposed [pain] upon yourself is too ridiculous.”
It seems, for Lytle, that snow and separation have somehow become a recipe for stability.
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