Modesto, California, is quite possibly the country's most fucked-up place. A beautiful seventeen-year-old girl, Marisa, once showed it to me. Over the course of one day in Modesto, we witnessed a fistfight between two of her friends and talked to another who'd just had her house burglarized. There were drugs involved, so my perspective may have been skewed, but I felt certain that every person I met wanted to kick my ass.
On first glance, Modesto itself looks like a paradise: year-round sunshine and big, green lawns for everybody. Modesto is horribly polluted, however. Its creek water shines with agricultural chemicals and its unfortunate location in California's Central Valley traps the smog from both San Francisco and Los Angeles, creating otherworldly sunsets marked by purples, greens and blues. They're beautiful if you forget about the nasty substances that make them look that way.
Grandaddy's music sounds as gorgeous as a poisoned sunset; you can tell Modesto is their home. The members of the five-piece rock band trudge on in this sprawling agricultural town of about 200,000, and the town is reflected in their music; dreamy Sigur Rós instrumentals mix with despairing-yet-hopeful Yo La Tengo wordplay. Grandaddy's 2000 album, The Sophtware Slump, includes a eulogy to a robot named Jed who was created out of spare parts lying around the kitchen and abandoned out of disinterest; he eventually drank himself to death. Sumday, their latest LP, continues the theme of appreciating the beauty within the ugly through songs such as "Saddest Vacant Lot in All the World," "El Caminos in the West" and "O.K. With My Decay," all of which bring the dystopian reality of Modesto into focus.
Things didn't work out between Marisa and me. It may have had something to do with the Green Day/Blink-182 generational divide, but more likely I just wasn't as thuggish as the guys Marisa usually liked. I haven't been back.
Jason Lytle, Grandaddy's lead singer and songwriter, didn't plan on sticking around Modesto for this long either. He left town at nineteen to pursue a professional skateboarding career but came back four years later after a knee injury ended his career. Some of his old friends had moved on, but too many of them hadn't.
"Modesto has all these people living there who're confused," says Lytle, speaking with a heavy cold from the band's tour bus outside of Austin, Texas. "A lot of people reach a point in their lives where they need to move on, but that can be a scary thing. I always use the example of a sheepdog stuck in an apartment: They need to work, they need to be doing productive things, and if they don't they just start gnawing on the furniture, gnawing at their own limbs and shriveling up."
Now, these sheepdogs are Lytle's friends (full-bearded drummer Aaron Burtch even looks like one). With Sophtware cementing their critical-darling status and the loyalty of a legion of more-sensitive-than-a-skinned-knee fans, Grandaddy earns their living the artistic way. Meanwhile, the band's pals back in Modesto bring home paychecks as construction workers or electricians. This is hard for Lytle to accept.
"It's pretty funny how much certain musicians get away with, just because they're artist types and they're 'fragile.' I just grew up working lots and lots of regular shitty jobs, and I just realized that that's real life."
Lytle seems ashamed of his sensitive, poetic side, as if he thinks his true destiny was to grow up to be a Modesto burnout. Despite his arguable status as the indie-rock king of the early '00s, the term "indie rock" itself makes Lytle want to retch. "I guess it's necessary for record stores to categorize the albums, but it's not very cool. I hate it when people limit themselves by thinking they're too intelligent or 'too cool for school' to hang out with people that are not in that clique."
Unlike the burnouts who stayed in Modesto, for Lytle it hasn't been the town's tainted water but rather the health stresses of touring that are leading most toward his decay. "I like fresh air, peace and quiet, I like to get exercise. I don't like to be in smoky fucking clubs with music blaring and people spilling drinks all over you."
So maybe Lytle chose the wrong career. But he says he's going to ride it out.
"We've come this far, I'd like to take a good solid crack at selling some records, to see through this thing that we've put so much of ourselves into, and still maintain the level of integrity that we've managed to," Lytle says.
Sadness and despair are a central part of the Grandaddy body of work which serves, for better or worse, as the support-group soundtrack for thousands of college-educated, slightly despaired armchair philosophers. Ironically, Lytle refuses to believe that he is one of these people. He seems to think he was born to be a skateboarder or a construction worker.
To that end, Lytle quotes like "Every day I feel guilty that I'm in a band" get irritating, like Matt Damon's character in Good Will Hunting, a math genius who claims to prefer drinking with his Irish-trash homeys. Put-on humility is never pretty, but perhaps what's really at issue here is my own jealousy. I've already lost out to the Modesto thugs once; Marisa could have run off with this skinny, sensitive, Catcher in the Rye-aficionado if she'd wanted to, but she chose to stick it out with them. And now Lytle's doing the same thing.
That's okay, just as long as he keeps touring, keeps making albums and keeps expressing his decay so eloquently. He hints, though, that he'll be giving all that up in the not too distant future as well:
"I think I want to become a park ranger. I would like to go to Big Sur, to go cross country skiing in Yosemite."
We indie-rockers may seem an unthreatening bunch, Jason, but I'm warning you: If you quit music, watch your back. We'll watch you from afar until one day when, having backpacked high up into the mountains, you think you're alone with Mother Nature and your peaches-and-cream instant oatmeal. And then, POW!, out of nowhere we will jump, hundreds of us, armed with keyboards, guitars, amps and those cut-out paper birds you always have at your concerts, and we will make you play for us, right there in the snow, to help us go on, to help us feel okay about our own decay.