Music News

Who's Your Grandaddy?

In northern Ontario, spring's warming wind is making possible a pleasure cruise on one of the province's countless lakes. It's particularly enjoyable for Grandaddy guitarist Jim Fairchild, happily cracking open a can of beer while the rest of his bandmates finish filming a video for "El Caminos in the West," from this Modesto, California, band's fourth album, Sumday. The tale of a vacation gone awry, the video also includes a gaggle of girls playing dopplegänger versions of the Grandaddies, sailing their way to worldwide acclaim.

Fairchild doesn't seem certain who's going to see this video, exactly, though he claims it's the sixth one the band has produced in its ten-year career. Operating just beneath conventional radar screens, Grandaddy boasts scads of unrealized potential that could well blossom with Sumday, the band's most concise collection of tidy, in-and-out songs to date.

"This time for certain, it was pretty necessary to take the path of least resistance," Fairchild offers. "Certain people talk in really florid language, and they end up losing the essence of what they're trying to get across. You can use three or four words and arrive at the same sentiment. That was the idea this time. We knew that it had to be stripped-down. It had to be the most precise version of Grandaddy."

The initial version of Grandaddy cast leader/singer/producer Jason Lytle, bassist Kevin Garcia, and drummer Aaron Burtch as born lo-fi dudes. A Pretty Mess by This One Band, their 1996 debut, earned the slacker/skate punk/mall rats Pavement comparisons aplenty. Lytle fancied himself a poet, grafting laptop metaphors onto hayloft stories with a novelist's flair. Under the Western Freeway (1997) forwarded this approach while jettisoning the fried-out fidelity and adding Fairchild and keyboardist Tim Dryden as well as a toy chest of sonic experiments. Lytle shaped songs, notably "Summer Here Kids" and "A.M. 180," into classic-rock phantoms floating around a mini-Moog test bench. Guitars and keyboards trade off tonalities and swap alternating phrases, blending and bending until each instrument is completely reorganized.

"You'd be surprised," Fairchild says. "A lot of it is very specifically sculpted versions of digital stuff that gets through a system of boxes and wires and try to manipulate the sound. You have to guess where the sound came from. It's palatable but not immediately recognizable."

That penchant for oddity and memorably winding melodies won 2000's The Sophtware Slump praise from the most main of streams (Time magazine loved it), but Grandaddy's eccentricity ran almost too rampant. Most critics don't agree, but most of Slump sprawled aimlessly, dissipating the promise of evocative titles like "Broken Household Appliance National Forest" and "Miner at the Dial-a-View." Somehow, the band's good fortune perennially finds it supporting acts it can wipe the floor with, from hapless indie-rockers (Snowpony) to Velveeta-esque singer-songwriters (Grandaddy's first visit south of Orlando is under the wing of Pete Yorn).

"People have said that about every band we've ever opened for," Fairchild acknowledges. "It's still not fair, but [Yorn's] a real nice guy, and our record's not out yet." (Sumday will be available June 10.) "We always have luminaries telling us how good they think we are, and every magazine in the world seems to think so, but..."

Eighty miles south of Sacramento lies the flat, featureless agricultural town of Modesto, currently the strongest slat in California's crate of craziness, thanks to the Scott and Laci Peterson case and, before that, the follies of Gary Condit. It's a place where, explains Fairchild, "if you're a skateboarder and a musician, that only provides you with so many options in terms of your pool of potential friendships." Those friends always ended up skating together and getting drunk together and playing music together, until Lytle remarked, "We need an additional set of hands to manipulate a six-stringed instrument." Fairchild became a Grandaddy that day. "There's something in Modesto's water," he laughs. "Actually, I think it's probably something in the methamphetamine. Crank is huge where we come from. You have to be really committed if you want to do anything good there."

Bridging the crevasse between the Deep South art-school psychedelia of Olivia Tremor Control and the dry desert paranoia of Giant Sand, Sumday's creaky-sweet songs manage to sound trippy and down-to-earth all at once. "The Go in the Go for It" follows Lytle's weary falsetto through a thicket of consumer-grade keyboard trills and '80s synth toots. "El Caminos" could be a California beach-towel commercial, spilling out sandy good times in the sun. "Saddest Vacant Lot in the World" hides calliope keyboards behind a lonesome lead piano, which takes center stage all the way through Sumday's penultimate "The Warming Sun" (one of only two songs extending past four minutes) and its triumphant closer, "The Final Push to the Sum."

"Jason wrote about 30 or 35 songs for this record," Fairchild says, adding that the rest will be parceled out on various EPs over the next year. He's not afraid to blast the band's old indie label, Will Records, for releasing an unauthorized collection of older B-sides last year called Concrete Dunes: "That was a record that should have never been released, and Will Records needs to fuck off. They better hope they never run into us, and I'm totally serious about that."

Bad feelings will no doubt fade once the Daddies dock the boat and prepare the grill for their traditional late-afternoon barbecue. In a business sense, Grandaddy's partnership with V2 Records is working out perfectly; Fairchild doesn't have to do anything but drink a beer on a boat, pose for a camera now and then, play music, and tour. The records sell or they don't, but that's of no concern to him. "I don't know shit about that stuff, and I don't want to know shit about that stuff," he says. "I guess everything is finally falling into place, but the alchemy that happens behind the scenes -- that I don't know anything about."

Fairchild won't let those worries bother him for long; Grandaddy doesn't live in the past either. Expect the band to concentrate almost exclusively on new songs during its current shows. Recently, while working up a set list with Lytle, Fairchild allowed his mind to wander until it eventually stumbled upon three Sophtware Slump tunes, all integral to the band's last tour. Discovering that "I had completely forgotten about them -- as songs -- at all," the skewed verses and weird faux-horn honks and lyrics about robots or crazy hair or humanoids slowly came back to him. "And I thought, 'Wow! Those are pretty good!'"

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Jeff Stratton
Contact: Jeff Stratton