Megabyte music: Grandaddy gives Silicon Valley a beating heart

By Mark Guarino

It’s easy to spot Jim Fairchild in the band Grandaddy. Of the five members, he’s the only one not sporting a beard.    

That odd kind of anonymity is the signature of the California psychedelic pop band, currently experiencing the widest exposure it’s had in its three-album career, on the trail of the recent breakthrough success of the Flaming Lips (taking nearly 20 years to achieve) and the Welsh band Super Furry Animals, who they’ll tour with come fall.    

Like them both, Grandaddy uses its eccentricities as its strengths. Without a star frontman as their focus, the band’s three warm-sounding albums are free to explore more conceptual themes such as the purpose and effect of technology and the lonely world of artificial intelligence. The spacious arrangements, soaring melodies and playful production techniques highlight “Sumday” (V2), their newest. The songs humanize the quiet desperation of robot life and are set in a dreamworld under wide open spaces and the countrified accents of a western landscape.   

No surprise then, that the band lives and makes music in Modesto, Ca., once a rural farm town a half hour east of San Francisco that has since been devoured by Silicon Valley sprawl. Fairchild, whose father works at a cardboard box factory and whose grandfather was a third generation farmer raising peaches, almonds and grapes, said Grandaddy’s perspective comes from witnessing the clash of cultures and values over the last decade.  

“Where we come from, it’s easy to see how fitful or uncomfortable technology and rapid growth has made people’s lives,” he said. The influx of well-heeled newcomers isn’t the only group that affected change. Fairchild said it was more interesting to watch how Modesto itself tried to adapt culturally but could “never get it right.”   

To capture the feel of modern day isolation, Grandaddy created a studio inside the stock, cookie-cutter suburban house of songwriter and singer Jason Lytle. The band had returned to Modesto after touring a year and a half and spent six months assembling the studio and figuring out what to do next. The songs the band choose to record were much shorter and more concise than what they’d done before, resulting in a record that is their most accessible.   

Strangely enough, it was not music but a love of skateboarding that brought the band together in 1992. “If you live in a town like Modesto, skateboard, are a musician and like to drink beer, that immediately stratifies who you become friends with,” Fairchild said. Lytle was a sponsored amateur, a level before turning professional and he ended up meeting drummer Aaron Burtsch who worked at a local skateboard park and bassist Kevin Garcia who hung out there. Fairchild, 29, who plays guitar, met up with the band in 1995.    

Once Lytle suffered a torn knee ligament, his skateboarding career ended and he committed to the band full-time. Given its roots, Grandaddy’s sound is nothing like what today is associated with skateboard culture. “If I were at a ramp listening to our records, I wouldn’t be as excited as if I were listening to Bad Brains or early Metallica,” he admitted.   

Once they got going, the band turned prolific, releasing early EPs before signing to indie label Will Records in 1996. Four year later, they released the critically-acclaimed album “The Sophtware Slump” on V2, home of the White Stripes and Moby. Feeling anxious after signing to a major label, the band initially submitted a fake record to “shake things up” before handing them the real thing a week later. Full of “really bad drunken locker room humor,” the fake album pushed the panic button at the new label. “A lot of people missed the joke, I think,” Fairchild admitted. “We thought we were going to get dropped for sure.”   

(The album will see the light of day on the band’s internet-only label Sweat of the Alps.)    Beginning with the tour for the “The Sophtware Slump,” Grandaddy accompanies its live set with major multi-media including visuals to give the music narrative. “I think it’s important because we’re not doing high kicks and none of us are flying around in trapezes,” Fairchild said. “Id’ love to bring a taco truck along and park it in front of clubs, too.”  

Faced with an endless road of touring ahead of them, they were given an unexpected scare in late May when Fairchild tripped and slid under the band’s 18-wheel truck that was carrying their gear. One of the truck’s wheels missed his head by two inches and he suffered only muscle damage and a missed show. “I feel tremendously fortunate for being alive,” he said. “I was very lucky.”

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