Rock Lit is where Hive discusses the intersection of literature and music.
Jason Lytle, former frontman of Grandaddy, recently unveiled his fourth solo album, Dept. of Disappearance. It draws its inspirations from a variety of sources, but one of the more notable influences is Lytle’s interest in author Cormac McCarthy. Although the musician drew from the novelist’s aesthetic for album cut “Your Final Setting Sun,” Lytle is actually more fascinated by a very specific genre of writing — survival narratives — which has, in less apparent ways, also made it into his songwriting.
Lytle, who has crafted several collections of emotive, meaningful songs since the breakup of Grandaddy in 2005, recently relocated from California to Montana, where he’s nurtured his love for the outdoors. Specifically, surviving in the outdoors, a topic that he’s both keen to read about and artfully incorporate into his music. Here Lytle discusses his history with reading, the specific genre of books he’s now obsessed with and why McCarthy’s imagery is so compelling to him.
What was your experience with books like as a kid?
My mom was an avid reader and watching her example I could see that she needed reading for her own sanity. It was always hectic and crazy around the house for various reasons. She always had a book and she was pretty clear in passing along to me how important it is to read. I think I was always a pretty introverted kid to begin with – my escape was putting on headphones and listening to music. At a certain my mom went out of her way to express how important it was to read and that there was this whole other world that does exist.
What sort of books did you gravitate toward as you grew up?
I liked reading stories about real people. I liked hearing real adventures that took place. Either non-fiction or diaries or memories. I was thrilled when I knew there was a true story connected with whatever it was that I was reading.
Does that idea of a true or personal story feel connected to your songwriting at all?
It was always more interesting to me. Even to this day in order for me to really be in love with a particular musician or songwriter I need a pretty good backstory. I like the full package. I think at some point when you’re done reading a work of fiction you’re like, “That was so awesome, I want to go further with it in my own mind” but it just ends there because it’s fiction. But if you knew it was coming from a real place and a real person and these are real things that happened you can keep living the story.
Is there anyone in particular you feel has a really compelling backstory?
I’m just to a point now where I collect books in a specific genre. After dabbling with some fiction and then some nonfiction and biographies I found that I kept coming back to memoirs about mountain expeditions, polar expeditions, exploration stuff. It’s more a genre that a specific writer and there’s no shortage of them out there. You just have to search them out. Some of them can get pretty obscure, like people escaping prison camps and having to cross 2,000-3,000 miles across multiple mountain ranges. A lot of those guys, especially in the early 1900s, were scientists and doctors, and their writing was really eloquent. They were such good writers on top of the fact that they were explorers and adventurous souls.
What do you like about this type of book?
I find them very inspiring. I like hearing tales of people getting to the point where they just can’t take any more and then they have to start drawing from these reserves we all have within us but it takes extraordinary circumstances to bring them out.
Is there one book you could recommend to get someone into this genre?
There’s one pretty incredible one called The Long Walk by Sławomir Rawicz. It’s pretty ridiculous and inspiring and incredible. A total page-turner.
Has this idea of survival made its way into your music?
I think at the heart of a lot of these stories is a pure image of the human condition and I’m really going for purity a lot of times. I’m using all of these instruments but most of what I’m doing is dictated by emotion or feeling. I’m trying to create feelings. I have this idea of where the song needs to go and in order to get there I have to create these feelings in the songs. I spend a lot of time trying to tap into that and I spend a lot of time outdoors in the backcountry pushing the limits. That resets my brain a lot of times. That’s a big part of why I moved to Montana.
Can you explain your reference to Cormac McCarthy on “Your Final Setting Sun”?
I really love all that sort of broody, dusty, ‘70s, Clint Eastwood-era, Western stuff. I’m a big sucker for all that. I think the majority of the books that Cormac wrote he was dealing with that sort of barren environment and those sort of characters. They’re usually loners, they’re usually operating outside of the law. I’ve read all of his books and a few of them a number of times. It’s so visual and his ability to paint pictures with the way that he writes blows away most writers I’ve ever encountered.
Is that visual aspect important to you in writing?
Yeah. It’s like these little fireworks go off in your brain and make these images that weren’t there before. You have all these fireworks of these incredible little images just as a result of someone laying out a story and their amazing descriptive abilities. That’s usually what I’m shooting for when I write songs.
Dept. of Disappearance is out now via Anti-.