After driving 100 miles east through the sweltering July heat of California's San Joaquin Valley to speak with Jason Lytle, this was just what I didn't need. I was parked on the char-broiled asphalt surrounding the mystical confluence of a Jack In The Box and a KFC, just outside Modesto. "You'll have to call me once you get that far, so I can tell you where to go next," the former Grandaddy guru had said, mysteriously. I dial his number only to get the dreaded "service not available" message, instead. Twenty more attempts and I'm beginning to think this might turn into an epic wild-goose chase.
With only a few options available, I finally manage to track down Lytle in an anonymous rehearsal hall, and we disappear over the horizon, heading straight toward the elm tree-dotted shade of old Modesto. With a half glass of Chardonnay in front of him in a quiet little wine bar with the AC running, Lytle begins to unload his thoughts about his exemplary second solo release for Anti, Department Of Disappearance. After a sticky-shirt afternoon, it feels like wallowing in a pristine mountain lake high up in California's Trinity Alps to wash away all the trail dust.
Jason Lytle is a master at the disappearing art of titling his songs, with "Chopin Drives Truck To The Dump" as a prime example. "Any chance to get away with a little ridiculousness is always fun for me," he says (that's Lytle, not Chopin, who's been dead for a while). Lytle's shimmering piano fragment of the famed composer's "Nocturne in E Flat" is accompanied by what he calls "shitty cassette punk rock drums. The chance to jam with one of my favorite 19th century musicians proved irresistible," he says. The brief track also feeds Lytle's fascination with the county dump. "I guarantee nobody on that dumb Kardashian show has ever been to the dump," he says.
With a lab full of burbling beakers, flasks and test tubes, Lytle's records may have permanently one-upped Stereolab for best employing the sound of chemical experimentation. "I have a lot of gear, from conventional and traditional to super-fucked and broken. And once those sounds get into the computer, it opens a whole other realm of 'tweakery,'" says this occasionally mad scientist, who revels in being "the wizard behind the curtain."
Since Lytle's former Modesto hometown is only a short drive from California's historic Gold Rush country, one might think the dream-like "Hangtown" refers to the sourdoughs' name for Placerville, the El Dorado county seat where lawbreakers were strung up, 150 years ago. Lytle insists, instead, this piece details "a hanging, told from the perspective of the tree the guy ends up swinging from, after everybody's gone home." This surrealistic portrait of the Old West is more Jim Jarmusch's Dead Man, than Mark Twain's Jumping Frog Of Calaveras County. "Years ago, I did write a song while I was in Placerville," reveals Lytle, "but I'll give this one to Bannack, Montana."
He may be kidding, he may be not, but this lifelong studio-rat suggests that the eccentric drum sound in the intro to the album's title song, "Department Of Disappearance," was achieved my miking a "metal critter trap" used to catch a rogue muskrat who took up residence under his van, parked in front of his current Bozeman, Mont. home. Since no animals were harmed in the making of this album, Lytle released the persistent rodent into the woods, ten miles down the road. With its telling refrain ("Crapped-out Captain America/It's sad that animals laugh at us") sung in Lytle's instantly identifiable haunted croak, the background vocals to "Young Saints" seem to be done by someone entirely foreign to his sessions. "Not so," says the knob-twiddler, cryptically. "All done with smoke and mirrors."
"Get Up And Go" is another example of Lytle's marvelous slight-of-hand. On the surface, it appears to be a life-affirming "you can do it" pat on the back, as unexpected in this man's music as the broad grin on the face of Marlon Brando at the end of The Wild One. "Or perhaps it's the uneasiness of someone hearing me talk 'baby-talk' to my Pomeranian," offers Lytle. He hedges his bet by adding: "I still think there's something pretty wonderful about sneaking a super-encouraging message into an easily digestible medium like pop music."
The obvious permanent home for some of Lytle's best work should be on the large silver screen. On "Last Problem Of The Alps" he labored long and hard to create, "a violent and howling blizzard on a dark and rocky mountain top in sub-zero temps. And when I close my eyes, that's exactly what I see."
One of Disappearance's unforgettable high points, "Your Final Setting Sun," is soaked in the indelible ink of "film noir." Its hypnotically dangerous vibe, says Lytle, comes from "the raw and unflinching writings of Cormac McCarthy, whose sun-bleached, tough-as-nails characters have a 'this could be you' feeling. It's the one song on the album that had a film playing along in my head as I was writing it. The chorus came to me while I was driving down a deserted Montana road into a beautiful and spooky sunset."
The achingly gorgeous "Somewhere There's A Someone" is too naked a post-love affair break-up song to be taken any other way. "If something is gnawing away at you, it's probably a good thing to confront it," says Lytle. "There may have been more desperation, a need for self-healing, when I started writing songs." At this point, he confesses, he has no choice. "It's something that's required of me, something I have to do."
Lytle is well aware that music as subtle as his sometimes takes a while to burst into flame, something like a peat fire smoldering underground for weeks before igniting. "It's almost like some kind of torture for me to make albums like this—the slow burner," he says. He compares the songs on Department Of Disappearance to a roomful of "strange, brilliant autistic kids with very peculiar social skills. But there are a few conventional, good-looking ones who go out and shake hands and get the good jobs. Then they come home and help take care of the other weird, wonderful ones." He concludes: "Perhaps I will figure it all out someday, but for now I'm OK with it still being one big, elusive journey."