In Conversation: Jason Lytle (Grandaddy) and Zack Mykula (PUP)

The Canadian band’s drummer chats with an indie legend.

Earlier this year, Canadian punk band PUP released a cover of Grandaddy’s indie-rock classic “A.M. 180” on an EP called This Place Sucks Ass. PUP’s fandom started with drummer Zack Mykula, so we figured it would make sense for him to chat with Lytle to mark the epic reissue Grandaddy’s year-2000 epic The Sophtware Slump. The new collection features all-new recordings that Lytle made of Sophtware’s song played on piano. It’s out now.
—Josh Modell, executive editor

Jason Lytle: So let’s get the basics out of the way. Where are you at, man?

Zack Mykula: I’m probably in the ebb of depression rather than the flow. So it’s, you know, up and down.

Jason: I’m here at my piano, should I play some really sad music?

Zack: I was going through the record before, so that really put me in the mood to have a chipper conversation. But it’s awesome to get to talk to you. And I’m sorry that my band gave you the drummer.

Jason: Just erase that fucking thought right now, because the drummer’s the best. I will not adhere to that misconception. If for some reason we end up running out of things to talk about, I started off as a drummer, and probably like 65 percent of all Grandaddy songs that were recorded I played the drums on. But I tried to keep it very mysterious. I was hoping people would think that the song just sort of fell out of the sky. But I’m a drummer, so we can talk drums at some point if you want.

Zack: My first instrument was piano, but I’m by no means proficient. But it’s definitely a good way to get a handle on both the melodic and rhythmic side. And I’m not totally out of tune when I sing, so I guess that helps.

Jason: I’m super grateful that I started off playing the drums. It was especially useful if you like making crappy little demos and stuff, and you just need to get some stuff down. I feel sorry for those people not able to play the drums who can’t get a demo going, because they can’t even just lay down the simple drum track just to start fleshing out an idea.

Zack: If I try to write my own songs, I start self-flagellating for being out of time if I’m playing guitar. So as someone who is neurotic, that’s a bit of the double-edged sword. I don’t want to come off as unhappy that I’m just a drummer—I think it’s my favorite thing to do. And I think there’s a lot it can add motifically and even, not to get too high on my role, but melodically.

Jason: There’s definitely very musical drummers. I mean, there’s some that are just obvious fuckin’ cavemen, I mean just like “ooga booga.” Those are the ones that all the drummer jokes get made about. Do you know the band Blonde Redhead? They’re one of my favorite bands. Their drummer is amazing, but he’s also obviously doing a lot of programming as well. But it’s primarily acoustic drums. I’ve been a big fan of the musical drummer. You can tell when there’s a lot more going on than just, like, “Bum, bum, bum, bum, bum, bum, bum, bum, bum.”

Zack: The drummers that I’m more drawn to are the ones who are able to hide. There’s a bit of mystique to how complicated their parts are and it’s not so in your face. Not to say there isn’t room for somebody like Neil Peart, but there’s also subtlety. And then when someone asks you about the part, it’s like, “Oh, it’s not actually that simple.” I like a considered drum part.

Jason: The thing that was always fascinating to me is: How can you keep that guy with not that high of an IQ out in the crowd just, like, nodding his head steadily but still keep your own self engaged, messing around with the time signatures and stuff? I thought Metallica was always pretty good about that; I was a huge Metallica fan growing up as a kid.

Zack: I feel like they nailed it in a way that so few can do now. I don’t always succeed, but I try to make my bars so that whoever is listening to it can identify where the beat is no matter what the meter is. So that’s hard when it gets down to 16th notes or 8th notes. It’s going to start getting tripped up. But there is something to zeroing in and putting weight on the 16th notes, if that’s what the time is in, or there’s something to zooming out and making the whole bar of seven, the emphasis on the one only on the one of the seven.

Jason: It’s a noble cause. And delivering the music shouldn’t be a fucking chore, and it shouldn’t be just like, “Oh God, I’ve really got to do this now.” There needs to be an effortless quality to it that actually makes them want to come back to it. There’s subversive ways of pulling that off.

Zack: I don’t want to alienate people. We have the luxury of if the time signature is not being easily translated to something powerful to a normal ear, then we just thrash. And it’s the part in the song where people just start throwing elbows, so that works too. So that’s our ace in the hole, I guess.

Jason: It’s a really cool combination of being challenged just enough. It’s like when listeners get challenged to a certain degree, those are the albums that take a little bit more time. And that’s cool, but I also fuckin’ love Green Day. Sometimes I just want to be punched in the face with music, but I feel like you guys have a pretty good combination between being challenged just enough, or just being punched in the face enough.

Zack: I’ve listened to Sophtware Slump so many times, and it’s because my partner, Julia, is obsessed with you guys. That’s how I heard about you. There’s an especially soft spot, because a lot of our weekends are spent, we just get tanked in the kitchen drinking whiskey and listening to just insanely loud music, whether it’s Soundgarden or…

Jason: I hope you’ve got cool neighbors. “Black Hole Sun”?

Zack: She definitely goes in for the deeper cuts, but she loves Superunknown. But Sophtware Slump and Last Place and Western Freeway are the records I play a lot, extremely loud.

Jason:  I’m glad you’ve heard Last Place.

Zack: The songs are incredible on that, equally on The Sophtware Slump and Freeway. So the piano renditions, is that how you originally presented the songs on Sophtware Slump, or did you rearrange them for this?

Jason: Some of them I’d been playing on piano already, but I definitely didn’t start like that. I was so paranoid about people thinking it was just going to be boring. If you notice, things got shortened. Nothing got extended, I promise you that. But certain sections got tightened up a little bit. I don’t want to say “zeroing in on the essence of the song,” but just… I’m such a fan of production and sound and gear, and that was a lot of the fun that I was having with the original album, The Sophtware Slump. So you do away with that, it’s just like… You don’t want to sit and listen to somebody pound away on a C chord for fuckin’ 30 seconds. Things got shortened for practical purposes.

Zack: It strips it to the essentials. And piano just automatically, as an instrument, and particularly in these cases, it’s just making everything a bit more lamenting. The song’s already tinged, or fully involved in sadness, but it makes it more lamenting, which is interesting.

Jason: Way less foreplay.

Zack: “Hewlett’s Daughter” has a bit more of a sort of Dr. John-ish jaunt to it almost.

Jason: That was the only one that I decided to go a little out of my comfort zone. I could never recreate that. There was a lot of improv happening. I was just like, “All right, that was a good take I guess,” you know? I only did one or two versions of it. It was the only one that was a little bouncy and weird, and that’s about as improv-y as Jason gets right there, see.

Zack: So are you guys more into, like, “Let’s get it in the first or second take” type people, or is it like, “Let’s really nail it down and try to do takes until it feels exactly the way it should”?

Jason: I pretty much played most of the instruments on all the albums. But Aaron Burtch, the drummer, a good friend—it became very clear that he was way better at certain things than I was. I was always a better sort of off-the-cuff. But there’s a lot of moments in Grandaddy songs with crazy fills, and they’re very tied in with riffs. That was the stuff that I came up with. Aaron, he was very solid. He was just, like, timekeeper, but also he trusted me wholeheartedly. And so we’d go into the studio and we would just work together. I’ve gotten to the position of producing other bands, and there’s this whole weird mind fuck that exists. There’s different approaches. I’m not a great communicator. I did not grow up in a touchy-feely world. Sometimes I’m just like, “Get the fuck out of the way, I’ll do it myself.” And you do not want to do that.

Zack: It sounds a little bit like a generational thing. I wasn’t on that super touchy-feely world, but also I know there’s nobody that can tell me I suck better than I’m good telling myself I suck.

Jason: Nobody can pull you out of that. But obviously therapy would help, and there’s all these ways of kind of talking about things, and making them… getting them out of your head and out into the world. And I believe in that stuff a lot, but I see what you’re saying. I guess all that matters is that we got through it, and we got the takes.

Zack: Now there’s the beautiful world of Pro Tools. So if I’m half of a 64th note off of a kick drum in line with the bass, I can go to the producer and be like, “Can you just nudge that a tiny bit, so I don’t pull the rest of my hair out for the rest of my life?” And I think by-and-large I end up getting the takes.

Jason: I have a weird feeling that there’s going to be this renaissance of music where all of a sudden imperfections are going to become… I’m already starting to see it. I think there’s going to become an art form to mistakes. I grew up with skateboarding, and there was an art to sloppiness. We’ve already proven that we could fix everything, and there was this world that existed before being able to fix everything. We can’t expect people to become like all those old session players; those guys were fucking machines, and they’d just been playing everything perfectly since they’re 3 years old up until the point where they’re fuckin’ 60 years old.I think that may be a bygone era. And actually one of my favorite bands on the planet is ELO, Electric Light Orchestra.

Zack: Yeah, he’s a fucking maniac.

Jason: He has some quote somewhere like, “You have no idea what it takes to make things sound natural.” There’s an art form to making things sound sort of relaxed and crappy and natural. And everything is a fucking grid, and everything is cut and pasted and blah, blah, blah. I have no problem with it, but at some point it’s a matter of taste. It’s like you kind of have to keep it so it’s still believable and kind of scrappy, you know?

Zack: I completely agree, and just to save my credibility, we don’t grid anything. If it’s an egregious thing, it’s like lining up hits where they should be lined up. Especially if we’re landing at the top of the section and we want it to be as heavy as possible, making sure that lines up. I love ELO, and I’ve always been impressed by how obsessive Jeff Lynne is, especially at recreating his own sounds. And then you, like, listen to records by Judas Priest, and these guys played this, they physically played this, to a beat, and there’s something about that standard that makes me very self-conscious. I get that all of these Pro Tools, these grids, to protect me. But am I actually good, because I need that protection? There’s an added layer of neurosis.

Jason: I don’t know if it’s a matter of good or not. At the end of the day, I think the most important thing is to not distract the listening, and then that’s where nudging things comes in handy. Just fuckin’ be inspired, blow it out, do the performance, and then just go through and find the parts that might stand out in a bad way. And that’s the goal so you start the song, end the song, and you didn’t think about shit. You just got taken on an awesome journey. Whatever it takes to get that point, nudge away with everything.

Zack: Our first record we did with Dave Schiffman. One of our simpler songs is pretty straight, like a pop-funky, banger type song. And Dave’s like, “I can hear you thinking. Play it to the point where it feels like it’s almost going off the rails,” and that’s all he really needed to say. It’s by no means perfect, but that’s exactly as a song should live. If it’s a live band in the room, some people really like to just go for a take, and if they don’t get it in two takes, they’re not getting it, that’s it. Are you familiar with the songwriter Jeff Rosenstock? He’s awesome, and he has a similar affinity for sense of production, I would say, hopefully without too much presumption, to you.

Jason: No.

Zack: And it’s like exactly that, where they go for takes, it’s got to be messy, but the energy and the representation of that song is the most important thing to the recording. And especially when he’s just really going for it, and he’s like, “Let’s play the song 10 bpm faster than it should be, and then let’s just go nuts.” And I think it just has such a power in terms of just presenting a song as a songwriter. So I hope you’re right, I hope we return to that spontaneity. And I think some people are already doing it, which I think you said. But I’m sure somebody will find a way to pervert it, like planned incompetence. But Jeff’s great, he’s pretty wild. And he’s one of my favorite songwriters.

Jason: Is he Canadian?

Zack: No, he’s from New York, he lives in LA now. Fancy LA type.

Jason: I hope people say that about me when they find out I was from the LA area. I’m tucked in next to some mountains in the LA area. I don’t say that I live in LA. There’s some nice outdoor areas out here. I’m a big fan of trails and dirt and the outdoors and stuff.

Zack: I’m very much a cabin in the woods type guy. So when touring was possible, we would often do little excursions. There’s some amazing waterfalls in the middle of California that we try to hit.

Jason: Last year I had probably one of the funnest touring experiences I’ve ever had. I helped produce and co-write this album for this guy from northern England. [Malojian—ed.] The album turned out really great. It got all these great reviews, like Mojo, Uncut, whatever. I’m tooting my own horn here, but I had to go over there and help mix it. So we were like, oh, because I’m going over there, we may as well fucking do a little tour thing. So we played all these venues, most of them were in Ireland. It was so fun. I set aside all these little stops, on these beautiful sort of rolling hills, and I like to run, I like to hike and stuff. So we had all these quality pit stops along the way. I was just like, “Goddamn, man, for somebody who’s fuckin’ not in line with the concept of touring, I could keep doing this. Because this is pretty good.” So we did that, and that kind of warmed me up to the idea of actually playing piano shows. But for obvious reasons, we’re going to do an online performance thing in about a month.

Zack: People ask us, “What are your tips for starting a band?” Literally today we had that question, and it’s like, “This really is not the best time to even write a record. Who knows what’s going to happen?” And then I definitely feel there’s a big guilt of feeling burnt out — some people don’t even get to do this. But I do miss touring, I think there is a bit of a chaos to it. That’s what burnt me out and made me extremely upset sometimes. It’s like, there’s a bit of bad chaos kind of added a variety, just enough variety to my life that it kept me further away from the edge.

Jason: I got divorced a number of years back, but the girl that I was with who I’m actually still really good friends with now, we were girlfriend and boyfriend for probably 10 years, even before we got married. And I am 100% convinced that the only reason we stayed together that long is because I was touring so many weeks out of the month. The “goodbyes” were always amazing, the “welcome homes” were always amazing. But as soon as I was home for, like, anything over a week-and-a-half to two weeks, that’s when things started, like… getting confusing. But it is the program that we got into, and somehow it kept us together 10 years. I grew up in a broken family, and things were always sort of floating and in flux. So somehow it worked for me. Somehow it’s easier to love someone from afar.

Zack: Yeah. I grew up in a similar broken home type situation. And there is something to a bit of chaos that helps. I don’t know if distance necessarily is the thing, but it keeps relationships fresh in a way, where as a neurotic person, as soon as you’re comfortable you get into a kind of complacency that lets you think too much. You go on tour with your band mates, and after two months you’re like, “This cannot possibly be my life for the next two years. I can’t do this.” It’s all about navigating and finding a balance in each situation. But I think there is definitely an affinity for chaos that comes from having a really fucked background growing up.

Jason: We’ve got good therapy shit going on now.

Zack: Yeah. Are we being timed?

Jason: Have we crossed the finish line yet? [Laughs.]

(Photo Credit: left, Aaron Farley; right, Vanessa Heins)

PUP is a punk band from Toronto. Their latest album, Morbid Stuff, was released April 2019 via Rise Records and Little Dipper.

(Photo Credit: Vanessa Heins)