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The Modesto Invasion 

The San Francisco rock scene is alive and well -- 90 miles from San Francisco

Wednesday, Jun 28 2000
A few miles away from a spanking-new cineplex, a Starbucks, a Borders, and other trap- pings of mainstream exurbia, Charlie's Spirits is one of the biggest music venues in Modesto. Which is to say it's damn small, holding only about a hundred patrons.

In the twilight, just before Charlie's opens its doors for the evening, kids stand around the small, gravel parking lot, muttering among themselves and pulling on cigarettes. The occasional roar of a distant motorcycle punctuates the hush.

Jason Lytle sits by himself in his pickup truck with a camper shell attached, swigging a beer. Friends walk up to say hello, and Lytle steps out wearing a rumor of a sandy-blond beard, a worn pair of pants, a thin gingham shirt, and a dusty orange foam-and-mesh baseball cap plugging Bank of America's Versateller ATM. He chats idly with them for a few moments, and another car pulls into the lot. A young fan steps out and walks up to Lytle.

"Where are the rest of the rock stars?" she asks.

That's only half a joke, if it's a joke at all. Lytle is the lead singer and sole songwriter for Grandaddy, which on this spring evening is headlining Charlie's. The Modesto quintet hasn't yet graced the cover of any national music magazine. It claims no hit songs. It can't boast of record sales in seven figures; indeed, with two full-length albums in wide release, the band's barely squeaked its way into six.

But among a growing legion of critics and fans, Grandaddy has become the sort of rare band that promises to be more than last week's hype. Its second album, The Sophtware Slump, has found a lot of critics falling all over themselves to dub the rustic yet spaced-out album one of the year's best. The band's record label, V2, is pushing the group hard, and while it doesn't see the band as a breakout superstar act, it does see a wise long-term investment in a group that grows bigger and better with each successive album.

Getting this far for Grandaddy meant a lot of typical hard work -- nearly a decade of it. Not unimportantly, it also involved a lot of two-hour drives to San Francisco. Grandaddy has played the city so often it's the band's second home; last month, Cafe Du Nord hosted the record release party for The Sophtware Slump, and Friday the band takes a prized opening slot at the Warfield, one of the city's biggest indoor venues.

People like Jason Lytle start bands like Grandaddy to get the hell out of Modesto, which is nobody's idea of a rock 'n' roll mecca. Lytle himself calls the agricultural community a "shithole," especially as a magnet for musicians. Conventional wisdom dictates that Grandaddy should soon be packing up and moving to the big city to further its career and work more closely with the established record industry.

But Grandaddy's staying put for the same reason a lot of Northern California bands are passing up on the lure of San Francisco: It's too damn expensive.

San Francisco isn't much of a magnet for emerging bands these days, thanks to a rental market that's become prohibitive of a bohemian lifestyle, squeezed out arts groups and concert venues, and increasingly disassembled the infrastructure necessary to start a band and keep it going. Because the living is cheap and there's no need to pay exploitation rates to pencil in rehearsal time, a band from Modesto has time to get its act together and refine its music. Grandaddy is well received by San Francisco audiences, but there's no reason to move into town. Instead, musicians can drive in to take advantage of concert venues and recording studios. When another Modesto band, Fiver, decided to record its new album, it went to Black Eyed Pig studios in Polk Gulch. Fiver lead singer Dave Woody admits to a bit of culture shock seeing the neighborhood's steady stream of drunks, prostitutes, and other shady characters. "And all the while we're underground playing these sweet love songs," he says.

More than ever before, record labels large and small are starting to understand that music scenes aren't restricted to the city limits. While they still keep an eye on cities, talent scouts say, they're not finding vibrant scenes from which they can cherry-pick new bands. The best new talent, they say, resides in the suburbs, exurbs, and cow towns. Nearly a decade ago, the record industry was looking for the next Seattle. Now it's looking for the next middle of nowhere.

In other words, one of the best and most promising bands in San Francisco's music scene hails from a shithole.

In 1912, the city of Modesto held a public contest to come up with a slogan for its small but proud farming town. The winning entry was "Nobody's Got Modesto's Goat." Wisely, the town elders opted instead for the second-place finisher, the jingly couplet "Water, Wealth, Contentment, Health." That slogan graces an iron arch on the downtown corner of Ninth and I streets, not far from a strip of restaurants, stores, and a coffee shop that can make a latte just fine, thanks.

The seat of Stanislaus County, Modesto is the state's largest producer of almonds and apricots, and second largest of chickens, though it can boast of a few local cultural products too. The late country legend Rose Maddox started her career there, as the "Okie migration" of the Great Depression drove a lot of farming families -- and their music -- into California's Central Valley. George Lucas was born and raised in Modesto; his American Graffiti, the quintessential movie tribute to rock 'n' roll and cruising, is set on its streets.

In the middle of downtown Modesto, Grandaddy's Jason Lytle and Jim Fairchild are sitting in a local Mexican restaurant that plays skateboarding videos on its monitors and seems to have Jimmy Buffett's "Margaritaville" on endless repeat. It's a 10-minute drive from Fairchild's home, a two-bedroom, $600-a-month house that he shares. Lytle describes the restaurant as "a bit upscale." Lunch for three, including drinks, comes to less than 40 bucks.

Lytle started his Modesto band literally by accident. In 1991, he was 20 years old and moving up the ranks of the skateboard circuit when he injured his knee and was forced to retire from skateboarding. "I'd finally gotten to the point where I'd befriended the people that I looked up to, all the people who I considered my heroes in all the magazines," he says. "I was finally skating at contests with them and hanging out with them. That was a big step. I was just ... I was on my way up."

So, Lytle took a job in hazardous materials treatment, driving storage tanks around the San Joaquin Valley. He spent his extra money on instruments and recording equipment, and started a band. "I don't think I'd ever even attempted to write a song," he says. "It was really kind of a handoff. The skateboarding stopped, and I became addicted to having to be creative and having to get this stuff out. I had this energy that needed to go somewhere. It was a pretty ungraceful segue."

Originally a trio featuring guitarist/ singer/songwriter/producer Lytle, bassist Kevin Garcia, and drummer Aaron Burtch, all housemates (guitarist Jim Fairchild and keyboardist Tim Dryden would join later), the group recorded a handful of demos. The band got gigs at Modesto bars, coffee shops, and skate parks, but also trekked into San Francisco, where the larger audiences were. In 1994 one of Lytle's favorite bands, Giant Sand, was playing at Slim's in San Francisco, and he handed a tape to that band's frontman, Howe Gelb. The recording, Gelb has often recalled, didn't leave the tape deck of his truck for months as he toured the country. What he was listening to was a unique merging of Neil Young country-folk punctuated by Lytle's fascination with the weird sounds produced by his stockpile of keyboards and sequencers. The result, which has become only more refined over the years, captures an open-aired folk mentality, spaced-out synthesizer pop (Lytle's an unapologetic ELO fan), and rock 'n' roll so lush and angular it avoids the style's usual clichés.

Gelb in turn passed the music on to his Woodstock, N.Y.-based manager, Kate Hyman, without mentioning who the band was -- just that some bearded kid from the middle of nowhere had made the tape. Once Hyman wrested a name from Gelb, happy accidents fell into place. She flew out to Modesto and spent a week at Lytle's home near a walnut farm, crashing on his couch. Grandaddy already had a deal with a small Seattle-based label, Will Records, but Hyman wanted to work with Lytle to handle the band's publishing -- not to work as a manager telling the group when and how to make records (proudly, the band does all that itself), but to deal with the dirty work of royalties, licensing songs, and so forth. Not a profitable move to start with for Hyman, but she could see the band growing.

"[Lytle] was focused on his music," says Hyman. "There isn't anything else to do there, except manufacture crystal meth and pick nuts. I wasn't in the least surprised that a good band could come from there." Shortly after Hyman and the band built a friendship, the British billionaire Richard Branson got in touch with Hyman. Branson, who'd been in the music business since starting Virgin Records in the mid-'70s, was starting a new record label called V2, and wanted her to come on board.

She said yes -- on the condition that V2 sign Grandaddy.

In its own way, the band had become a part of the San Francisco scene. While much of the touring the band has done since signing with V2 has been in Europe, it's played San Francisco venues on a regular basis, clubs like Bottom of the Hill, Great American Music Hall, and Cafe Du Nord, and taking a slot at last year's esteemed local Noise Pop Festival. Lytle's reputation as a producer has led him to work with similar bands from the outskirts like Rodriguez and Fiver, whose first album he recorded.

The tape of that album, Eventually Something Cool Will Happen, made its way to Mike Cloward, who runs Albany's Devil in the Woods, himself born in Modesto and raised in the Central Valley. Somewhat unintentionally, that label has actually become one conduit of local support for up-and-coming Central Valley bands, releasing records from Fresno's Earlimart, and later this summer, Modesto's American Holidays. And, Cloward notes, a lot of the demo tapes crossing his desk these days are from Central Valley bands as well. "Being a band from a small town isn't hard anymore," he says. "Before, you might as well have been on Mars. With the Internet, and with people being able to communicate better, it's closing the gaps." Another local label, Future Farmer, was founded two years ago by Visalia natives Jeff Klindt and Dennis Mitchell to support groups from the outskirts, releasing records by musicians hailing from everywhere from San Luis Obispo to Placerville. The latter town near the Sierra Nevada mountains is where Rusty Miller lives, singing and playing guitar for Jackpot, one of Future Farmer's more successful acts. "You get more of the 'who cares' quality in a town that doesn't have a big music scene," he says. "In a city, people are looking for a perfect image."

Lytle credits some of Grandaddy's success to the sympathy the group has received from San Francisco audiences. "It's the one metropolitan city that we know better than any other city," he says. "And after all the traveling that I've done, I still know it's my favorite metropolitan city. As a band, I think it's pretty important, because everybody seems to know where Modesto is. They know the sort of pathetic situation we're in the midst of, and how we're trying to counter that, in our own way."

What "pathetic situation"? Lytle's eyes widen into an isn't-it-obvious stare. "Modesto," he says. "Facing adversity. An aspiring band would be completely out of their fucking mind to move here. No record stores. No radio stations. No venues. It's just not band-oriented."

In late April, a $75,000 study was commissioned to look at the state of the arts in San Francisco. Results won't be available until September, but the study stems from a stack of anecdotal evidence that shows the city's cultural life to be asphyxiating. As the Bay Area's high-tech boom has inflated rents and converted arts buildings and music venues into office space, San Francisco's music scene has become as much a culture of complaint as a culture of art. When the Wall Street Journal visited the city in the spring looking for the heart of San Francisco music, it found cover bands playing to packed houses and original artists struggling to find gigs and attention.

That's not to say that San Francisco is a wasteland musically -- it's still a stop for major touring acts and boasts a music-savvy culture. And it's a city rich with rock history, from the psychedelic days of the late '60s to the punk rock explosion in the late '70s to the punk-pop explosion marked by bands like Green Day in the early '90s. But since that moment, the larger music industry has stopped looking to San Francisco as a breeding ground for new talent. Employees in "artists and repertoire" (A&R) departments of record labels, the people who are charged with finding new talent to sign, don't see much of a point.

"I don't think it really stands on the radar all that much," says Ben Lazar, A&R director for the New York-based College Music Journal, which tracks college radio airplay and hosts festivals to introduce new bands to the industry. "In the past three to five years, with all the dot-com people and all the money coming in, the city's become more expensive to live in. It's harder for bands to afford to devote their time to their music completely.

"For interesting music to bloom, you gotta find cheap rent. San Francisco is no longer a place where that can really happen."

Lazar points to the Bay Area's latest success stories, multiplatinum-selling acts like San Francisco's Third Eye Blind and San Jose's Smash Mouth, as examples that you can still find appealing bands in cities, but not musical communities. "None of those bands were ones that galvanize a scene, or that have other bands coalescing around them," he says.

"I can't really think of anything recently that's come of the San Francisco Bay Area proper that's excited me," says Ben Goldman of Sony/550 Music. But if San Francisco isn't a hotbed, it's worth noting that A&R people are hard-pressed to name where the exciting national scene is. Industry watchers say we're in an era of the demise of cities and the advent of regional scenes, and that new acts are often found in places once written off as cow towns. The proof is on the pop charts, powered today not just in terms of teen acts like Britney Spears, 'N Sync, and the Backstreet Boys, who to varying extents came out of Walt Disney World's song-and-dance machinery, but also rock acts like Florida's Limp Bizkit and Creed, the Southwest's spate of so-called stoner rock bands, and hard rock acts like Iowa's Slipknot, and, closer to home, Papa Roach from Vacaville. The band recently cracked the top 20 of Billboard's album charts with its first major label album, Infest.

"We're representing Northern California," says Papa Roach lead singer Coby Dick. "We started out playing parties, teen centers, and community centers, then ventured out to Sacramento and Berkeley; we played the Berkeley Square before it got shut down [in 1996]. Overall, we're from Northern California. From San Jose to Petaluma, Northern California is our home."

Statements like that challenge the received wisdom about the San Francisco music scene, which is that groups have to move in from the suburbs to make it, and that the Central Valley is a world apart from the Bay Area. When the San Francisco Chronicle listed its 100 best Bay Area bands late last year, the editor's note said flatly: "We ruled out the Central Valley, and bands such as Cake and Pavement, because no matter how hard it tries, the Central Valley isn't the Bay Area." But the Central Valley isn't trying to be the Bay Area -- its bands are using San Francisco audiences and resources as springboards, while staying away from the city proper. Many of the leading lights of the local rock scene are, in fact, imported from as far out as Placerville on Bay Area labels like Future Farmer or Devil in the Woods. The change isn't limited just to rock; a scene toward the end of Greg Harrison's film Groove shows a young DJ at the close of a San Francisco warehouse rave telling one of his idols, "If you're ever in Fresno, I do a weekly there. It's rockin'." Supporting the local music scene, as provincial Bay Area clubgoers are so often told to do, frequently means supporting an act that was willing to drive two hours both ways to its gig.

Ironically enough, part of the reason for the shift comes thanks to the Bay Area's booming Internet business of download- able music, which allows record labels to widen their searches. New technology, says Goldman, "allows the industry to look outside the standard cities. You'll find, if you look inside the little cow towns, that they're pockets of great music. ... I don't think it's anything on San Francisco so much. People are expanding their territories. Bands that wouldn't have been noticed before can have record people come out to see them." Leigh Lust, A&R director at Elektra Records, notes that there are now full-time staffers at record labels listening to MP3s of up-and-coming bands, with little attention paid to where they're from or what musical community surrounds them.

What they're finding are groups that have the time and resources to work on their music with fewer distractions. "In the formative years it was really easy for us because the rent is so cheap," says Dave Woody of Modesto's Fiver, which recently released its second album, Strings for Satellites, on Devil in the Woods. "We practice in my house -- my bedroom is my practice room. We have a policy of not playing past 8 o'clock, so when prime time starts and all the families sit down to watch their sitcoms, they don't have to be bothered."

That's what Kate Hyman, director of A&R at V2 Records, was hearing when she first came across Grandaddy's music. "It's very joyful, very careful, very introspective music, and you have the time and space to do that there," she says. "You have no distractions."

In 1997, Grandaddy released Under the Western Freeway, its first album for V2. Financing a tour was easier in Europe than in the U.S., so that's where the band focused most of its attention throughout 1998, on six runs through the Continent as record sales picked up steam and the band was invited to play the massive all-day festivals popular there.

In retrospect, the band feels it took on too much, playing shows whenever V2 asked them. "You're thinking, 'Whoa, this is a big deal,'" says Fairchild. "People are giving us accolades, free booze, and you're getting thrust into new situations. We were all still pretty level-headed -- nobody was coming home buying Porsches and shit on credit cards. But there was this really, really strange period where people started to realize the potential in Europe. [Freeway] had pretty much come out of nowhere -- for us and for them, the record people. Suddenly they thought, 'This could be bigger than we thought.' They wanted to juice every last ounce out of that."

When the band made it back to Modesto, it did nothing musical for the better part of six months. Lytle, who makes nearly all the band's creative decisions, "had no interest in music whatsoever. I just turned it off, turned the phones off. You've been introduced to a new world, and the best thing for you to do is maybe call and talk to somebody about it. But you realize you can't talk to them about it because it just can't be comprehended. You've moved into this other area, you're uprooted. Next thing you know, you're writing songs about being in a band and staying on a tour bus. Who the hell wants to hear that?"

Still, V2 was calling up regularly to inquire about the status of the next record, and Lytle was getting sick of it. So on one besotted night in Lytle's home studio, the band willfully recorded an album's worth of complete garbage and submitted it to the label brass as its new album. The move caused a minor uproar in V2's U.S. headquarters in New York City; Kate Hyman broke in on a meeting label president Richard Sanders had called to discuss the matter to tell him it was a prank.

"I started thinking, 'Something needs to be done here, because the anticipation is too much -- there has to be some way to trip that up a little bit,'" says Lytle. "A lot of people were putting money on the table and getting really serious about it. 'You know, the last album was cute and everything, but we really need to knock this one over the fence.' It was self-defense, you know?"

"Most people [at V2] were really cool about it," says Fairchild. "But some people were like, 'Now you guys are in the big leagues, you can't be doing that shit anymore. You can't be pranksters.'"

"Heh-heh," says Lytle.

Lytle bristles at the notion that The Sophtware Slump -- the actual album the band submitted after the prank made its point -- is any sort of concept album. But, as the title suggests, the record is interested in technology, and specifically how it relates to a rustic sort of humanity. The CD booklet is decorated with pictures of broken Macintosh keyboards crushed and abandoned in a dirt field. "Should never have left the crystal lake/ For areas where the trees are fake," Lytle sings on "The Crystal Lake." On "Broken Household Appliance National Forest," he posits a place where "meadows resemble showroom floors" and "stream banks are lined with vacuum bags." The dirgelike "Jed the Humanoid" tells the story of a singing and dancing robot made in a kitchen who explodes in a haze of alcoholism brought on by the fatal hubris of trying to sound like Beck.

Stories like that seem to vaguely mirror Grandaddy's own recollections of touring, which Fairchild and Lytle characterize as a liquor-soaked travail through a world they were unfamiliar with before. "Jed is a mechanical martyr with a message," says Lytle. "And his message is that alcohol and electronics do not mix."

Sophtware's themes of high-tech in the rural landscape actually do reflect a bit of some of the real changes taking place in Northern California. The San Joaquin Valley is one of California's fastest-growing population centers, and the area is struggling not only with a double-digit unemployment rate, a lack of high-tech industry, and its notorious meth trade (Modesto's fastest-growing occupation is registered nurse) but also Bay Area "equity refugees" who are moving into the region to take advantage of the cheap home prices, even if it means lengthy commutes into the city.

"There's certainly a lot of debate in the northern part of the San Joaquin Valley about the influence of Bay Area commuters," says Carol Whiteside, former mayor of Modesto and president of the Great Valley Association, a Central Valley think tank. About 10 percent of all residents in the greater Central Valley commute into the Bay Area to work, and a majority of new home sales in Modesto are to Bay Area commuters. "Many times, people who commute to long distances are too tired to participate in family activities, or participate in their communities," says Whiteside. "It leads to unhealthy neighborhoods."

In the meantime, the region is beginning to recognize the importance of supporting home-grown artists to bolster its communities, as Modesto is in the planning stages of creating a regional performing arts center. As more industry moves within the Central Valley city limits, the area can arguably be poised to become a cultural center in its own right.

Whether San Francisco will remain one is increasingly an open question. Ian Brennan, who's worked as a San Francisco-based concert promoter and producer for young bands in the Bay Area, isn't surprised. "The whole bohemian thing has been driven from the coast, which is where that sort of thing traditionally happens," he says. "I think people are going to have to go inland."

As for San Francisco, he argues, "they're creating a suburb in a city. Housing tracts look a lot to me like live-work lofts. So they're vertical instead of horizontal. Big deal."

Grandaddy plays Friday, June 30, at 8 p.m. with Yo La Tengo and Lois at the Warfield, 982 Market (at Taylor), S.F. Tickets are $17.50; call 775-7722.

Additional Links:

Charlie's Spirits (the club mentioned in the story's opening):


Future Farmer Recordings:

Devil in the Woods:

Great Valley Association:

About The Author

Mark Athitakis


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