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Q & A: Grandaddy’s Jason Lytle is Living “Below the Radio”

By: Jessica Grose

There is an art to making the perfect mix tape. A well-designed compilation can inspire the deepest emotions, which is why they’re often used as tools for wooing. The best mix tape I ever received began with a Grandaddy song, A.M. 180, off of their first full-length, Under the Western Freeway. The song made me feel invincible, especially when lead singer Jason Lytle sings, “We’ll diffuse bombs / and walk marathons/ and take on whatever together,” against what sounds like circus music.

Lytle knows a few things about the importance of mix tape construction. His latest project Below the Radio is a mix CD of some of his favorite, somewhat obscure tracks from lesser-known artists like Beulah and Earlimart.Lytle also includes indie strongholds like Pavement and Beck on Below the Radio, with Grandaddy contributing a new original composition, “Nature Anthem,” as the final track.In an exclusive interview, asked Jason about mix tapes, manatees, and Modesto, California, Grandaddy’s hometown and sometime-inspiration.

SPIN: Why did you decide to release this as a mix CD, as opposed to releasing “Nature Anthem” as a single or EP?

Jason Lytle: My manager contacted me about it. I’ve seen other [mix CDs] released before, and it’s pretty hard to figure out what your all-time favorite songs are. I wanted to choose some newer songs. Once it was presented to me as a possibility, I went where I would have gone if I were just making it for myself, like years ago when I was making real mix tapes. The single [“Nature Anthem”] sort of stood alone, so it got put on-it’s not like anything else I’ve done.

SPIN: Mix tapes are generally such personal endeavors; they’re made with someone specific in mind, or with a general theme or purpose. Do these songs have connections to each other?

Lytle: I’m kind of stuck on this whole “timeless” thing with any musical endeavor. I like it when something has shelf life. So whether I’m working on set lists or my own CD, it has to be something I’m comfortable with listening to from beginning to end and something I wanted to listen to for a long time. When I’m making records, I don’t go in with any intentional [ideas for] cohesion, it just happens by accident. That’s the X factor; you can’t predict that.

SPIN: Have you made a lot of mix tapes in your day? Any ones stick out?

Lytle: The best ones just sort of disappeared. They become obsolete once you’ve handed them off. There’s the heat-of-the-moment factor when you’re making it. I’ve strayed due to various impulses when making them. I usually try to make sure that it’s in some way, at least according to me, somewhat reflective of myself.

SPIN: I have the song “Stockholm Syndrome” by Yo La Tengo on a mix I made when I was really depressed and heartbroken. Now every time I hear that song, it brings me back to that place. Do any of these songs have specific meaning to you? Do they evoke certain times or events in your life?

Lytle: I’m glad you used that example. I might glamorize this to a degree, but I’ve always had this sort of wandering, drifting, sad cowboy sort of thing. It’s either because I’m messing up in relationships, or I’m messing up trying to keep myself together. There’s a Pavement song called “Motion Suggests” on the album that puts me in that frame of mind again. It’s sad and kind of pathetic, but I’m embracing that whole concept. Any time I really feel on top of the world, that song brings me back down, but in a grounding sort of way.

SPIN: This compilation is called “Below the Radio.” Why do you think these songs are beneath the radar? Do you want them to stay that way?

Lytle: I literally imagined a radio and visualized these songs not coming out of the speakers but from underneath the speakers. There was a time in the seventies when you could turn on the radio and just hear something and say, “What the hell was that?” I think I’m just sort of being nostalgic about the days when radio was a lot more adventurous. You could really turn on the radio and be surprised [by what you might hear], but it almost never happens anymore.

SPIN: In the past, your songs have often been about technology, and how technology distances humans from nature. It’s even shown up in the sounds that you sample – from birds chirping and children clapping to engines revving. It seems that the songs on this mix tape are leaning more towards nature. Your song on the compilation is even called “Nature Anthem.” Were the nature associations a conscious choice?

Lytle: It wasn’t intentional, but I’m always pleased when someone makes a pretty good song and they manage to pull it off without relying too heavily on the ten most heavily used rock-cliché subject matters. It just so happens that there is a lot to work with in the outdoors, and not in a hippy-dippy way.

SPIN: On your website, you have links to endangered species. Does Grandaddy have an environmental message?

Lytle: Not in any of these sort of nagging, dogmatic ways. I just find that humans are predictable and stupid and animals and nature are a lot more magical to me. I’m just interested in magic, and not the silly humans.

SPIN: Northern California seems to play heavily into your songs. You’re from Modesto, you record in Modesto, and a lot of your songs deal with issues germane to San Francisco and its environs. Why do you think your location has affected you so much?

Lytle: I think I’m just really sensitive to the world. I really feel like I spend a lot of time “turned off,” and when I’m on, I’m really soaking all this stuff up and a lot of times it’s really unintentional. I’m more comfortable creating images of what I know, and if I can mess it up and give it an interesting twist, that’s just part of it.

SPIN: What might you do differently next time?

Lytle: My only regret for this compilation is that they’re all mid-tempo songs. I do listen to faster, high-energy stuff. Whenever I contemplated it, the faster stuff just didn’t flow that well. If I get a chance to make another mix tape it will be my face-blazing speed metal compilation.

SPIN: What are you working on now?

Lytle: I’m in the middle of a big fucking mess right now–I’m in full bore recording mode. I woke up at 3:30 in the morning and my head was just spinning with songs. I’m looking at 15 songs right now and there’s just parts all over the place. As soon as I get off the phone I’m going to record the vocal part for song 14. “Nature Anthem” was a one-off. I’ll probably not do anything like that again. I can’t even begin to describe the new album. It’s going to be a big fucking mess, but a well-produced mess.