I think his band performs a good deal of songs about robots. And even though I try to make it clear that I like songs about robots -- in particular, Grandaddy songs about robots -- the band's guitarist disputes my theory at the outset.
"Are there really that many robot songs?" he asks. It's a nice way of saying there are not that many robot songs.
But in fact, there's almost an entire album's worth on the Modesto, California, group's dazzling and operatic 2000 release, The Sophtware Slump, including the unlikely humanity tale "Jed the Humanoid."
In the song, Grandaddy introduces us to an A.I. prototype loved by its inventors until their successes lead them to neglect their creation. Convinced they've learned all they can from Jed, the scientists move on to more advanced experiments, only to find that their invention has one harrowing lesson left for them.
Jed had found our booze and drank every drop, songwriter Jason Lytle sings over gloomy piano and synthesizer. He fizzled and popped/He rattled and knocked/And finally he just stopped."
Like many artists in the iPod age, Grandaddy ponders the emotional expenses humans pay for their technological advancements. But rather than indicting the actual technology, the group puts soul into the software and heart into the hard drives. In Grandaddy's world, there are no Terminators, Lawnmower Men, Borgs, Matrixes or touch-screen voting machines -- just lonely, forgotten robots driven to suicide.
OK, so Fairchild grants me that "Jed" is a robot song (the title character of which makes another, somehow more melancholy appearance in "Jed's Other Poem (Beautiful Ground)" later during The Sophtware Slump). With enough needling, he'd probably grant me the whole album, considering its visions of appliance graveyards and, well, the damned title itself. But Fairchild puts the stop at last year's Sumday.
Point taken. Unlike its sprawling predecessor, Sumday consists of twelve tight, polished pop songs spun through Lytle's bleep-and-whir production. It's as much about Man vs. Nature as it is about anything.
On "The Group Who Couldn't Say," for instance, Lytle waxes about four cubicle-shackled coworkers who lose their shit when sent on an "outdoor day" vacation for selling the most product.
Daryle couldn't talk at all, Lytle sings. He wondered how the trees had grown to be so tall/He calculated the height and width and density, for insurance purposes."
Lytle's soft voice is compassionate, even if his words occasionally hint at condescension. Like the best writers, Lytle wants you to sympathize with his characters, even those whose existences seem maddeningly empty. Like, say, robots.
You ache when Sumday's "Stray Dog and the Chocolate Shake" reports that the supervisor guy turns off the factory lights so the robots have to work in the dark. It's a throwaway line in a song about, among other things, suburban kids doing cookies in a parking lot, a Krylon-wielding farmer and a limousine driver with "magic hair." But it's a beautiful throwaway line, one of the best on a lyrical record that Fairchild calls Lytle's most personal.
It makes sense that after three critically praised albums (including the band's masterful 1997 debut, Under the Western Freeway), Lytle feels comfortable opening up. As a narrator, he presents himself as a fragile figure praying to avoid calamity, as in the gorgeously sustained "Lost on Yer Merry Way," when he yearns to make it back home alive, no explosions, no crashes, no fights. Lytle takes the Jed role himself as he sings of being on standby, out of order or sort of unaligned/Powered down for redesign.
Fairchild says that's one of the songs I've misinterpreted as equating humans with robots.
It's at this point in our conversation that I foolishly proceed with my planned questions. These involve the 1980s sitcom Small Wonder, starring a child actress as the robot daughter of an otherwise banal TV family. Fairchild never saw the show.
So I tell him about Vicki, the little girl robot with a monotone voice equal parts creepy and sweet. I tell him about Vicki's narcissistic robot doppelganger, Vanessa, who likes rock music and suspects that humans taste good. I do not tell him that I think his band should rescue the sitcom's story from Internet obscurity and make it Grandaddy's Jesus Christ Superstar.
Fairchild graciously endures my rant. Then the subject fizzles like a whiskey-fed Jed.
Grandaddy has toured three times to support Sumday, and Fairchild hints that after playing opening act to New Jersey emo-poppers Saves the Day this go-around, what comes next for the band may sound like nothing it has done before. Which perhaps means a departure from the Frigidaires-have-feelings-too model.
"Sumday may have completed a certain thought process, the idea that the band was striving for all these years," he says.
That might be unsettling news to Grandaddy fans who've found that thought process both entertaining and explorative. But new thought process or not, there's no reason to believe that Lytle and company will disappoint next time. Even if Vicki remains in the closet.