While 2014 was certainly a breakout year for Philly’s ambient rockers The War on Drugs, we’re proud to say that we were singing their praises years before they were topping virtually every single best of 2014 chart. Three years, to be exact. Now we’re not here to gloat, but rather to draw your attention – if you just so happen to be a new listener – to the Drugs’ fantastic catalog that pre-dates this year’s knockout, Lost in the Dream. From the vault, our December 2011 interview with TWOD frontman Adam Granduciel.
Listen to The War on Drugs and you’ll be thrust into a timeless sonic vortex.
The Drugs’ backbone is singer-songwriter Adam Granduciel, whose vocal drawl is reminiscent of rock patriarchs like Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen. The comparison ends there, however, as Granduciel’s songwriting takes a sharp turn away from Americana, charging full-speed ahead into a universe of glimmery atmospheric compositions full of layers and loops.
The War on Drugs’ most recent release, Slave Ambient, was tracked over a three-year period and presents the band as rock visionaries. The album meshes together 12 tracks swirling with euphoric instrumentation in a very calculated, cohesive manner.
Immediately following its August release, the album was the center of attention in music industry publications, garnering “best new music” praise from the characteristically choosy Pitchfork Magazine, as well as nods from The A.V. Club, New York Times and Spin.
The War on Drugs makes its first-ever visit to The Abbey Bar at Appalachian Brewing Co. in Harrisburg
this month. In advance, we phoned Granduciel at his home in Philly’s Fishtown neighborhood to find out just how he builds his songs and how living in Philadelphia has catered to the band’s unique sound.
Mike McMonagle: Has living in Philly influenced The War on Drugs’ sound?
Adam Granduciel: The biggest factor is that it’s pretty affordable here. I’ve been able to afford living in a fairly large house – and I’ve lived here in the same house for eight years now – and keep a studio and also rehearse here. That’s had a lot to do with the sound, because that’s given me the ability to stay focused on the music and spend as much time as I want in my home studio. I can keep tweaking something, or dedicate days and days to one little thing. That’s what, at the end of the day, the War on Drugs’ sound is – this bed of sound that’s been worked on a lot.
MM: So your songwriting is more of a building process?
AG: Yeah. On our first album [Wagonwheel Blues], I was writing songs on an acoustic guitar, then writing lyrics and refining them, and then recording. But around the end of that record, I got a little more into the way I did it on Slave Ambient – building stuff up from the ground. It’s a different approach – not starting with just an acoustic guitar and letting the vocals come naturally over time.
MM: How does that building process start now if not on the guitar?
AG: I’m attracted to rhythms. The drums are actually the most important part to me, although it probably comes across as an afterthought since they’re so simple sounding. But to me, it’s all about that movement. Most of the songs are started at home in my little studio by making drum samples. I’ll have some friends come over, and we’ll set up two drum sets with four or five mics in the room and play off each other and record it. Then I’ll grab a four-second part where we were really locked in and loop it in my sampler and mess it up a little bit with some effects. It’s an organic thing, not a pre-programmed drum machine loop. Then I’ll just dump that to tape for 10 minutes, and start writing a song on top of it.
“With the way that people listen to music now – especially with records making a comeback – it’s important that you have not only solid songs but also something that can be listened to as a whole.” – Adam Granduciel
MM: How do you know when a song is finished?
AG: The main thing is never being locked into any one song until you have an aha! moment and see where it’s going. From there, I can just kind of feel when it’s done. For a lot of the songs on the record, if you had told me they were finished, I would have said, “Well, there’s a lot more I could do on them.” I could still work on them, but I also had to let them go. I’ve spent a lot of time with a lot of these songs. For me, it’s all about listening to a song, and if I enjoy listening to it or it’s something unique, I just know it’s finished.
MM: What’s the longest you’ve worked on a single song?
AG: I had worked on “Baby Missiles” for two and a half years. Also, “Your Love Is Calling My Name” and “Come to the City” – they were started around 2009.
MM: The Future Weather EP seems like a very fitting bridge between Wagonwheel Blues and Slave Ambient. What prompted its release?
AG: I needed to get some things off my chest. When I was making that, I was also working on Slave Ambient, and there were songs I was still trying to figure out. After a year and a half or so, all I had finished was what ended up on Future Weather. I just wanted to put something out. Also, the songs worked well together. It’s actually my favorite War on Drugs release.
MM: Slave Ambient comes across as less of a “collection of songs” and more of an “album.”
AG: That’s something I’ve tried to do with all the releases – sequence them in a way that makes them flow like an album. With the way that people listen to music now – especially with records making a comeback – it’s important that you have not only solid songs but also something that can be listened to as a whole. Slave Ambient was worked on so much with so many different versions. The instrumental tracks – some people might consider that filler. But I put them on there to help sequence the record and to show people where some of the songs originated from, or where they could have gone.
MM: Have you ever had difficulties recreating your sound in a live setting?
AG: In the past, for sure. After the first record came out, it was really difficult because we hadn’t actually played the songs we recorded in a live setting. So we started touring on that first record without really being sure as to how to do it. Now, it’s a lot easier. With each show that we do, we’re closer and closer to the mood of the music, which I think is something that people have been attracted to.
The War on Drugs are currently on tour in New Zealand, Mexico and the UK. Follow the tour page for the band’s return to the Keystone State (which, we hope, will be sometime soon).