The War on Drugs: 'Music is about going town to town with your guitar’
The move to a major label hasn’t clipped the indie darlings’ wings or shortened their solos
Adam Granduciel: Photograph: Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images
A number of things may have changed for Adam Granduciel and his band over the last few years, but chauffeur-driven limos still don’t factor into his day-to-day experience. When he answers the phone, the War on Drugs frontman is driving a rental car through New York “like a madman”. “I just almost got pulled over by a cop because I forgot you’re not allowed make a right on a red in New York,” he explains with a chuckle. “Whoops.”
A number of perilous turns and “the worst parallel parking job in the history of man” later, the War on Drugs frontman is ready to talk shop – most notably about their fourth album, A Deeper Understanding. To make a clumsy driving analogy, the Massachusetts native’s career changed lanes with his last album, 2014’s Lost in the Dream. Before its release, The War on Drugs were a highly respected indie-rock band whose profile was slowly but steadily building since their 2008 debut Wagonwheel Blues. After it, they were making the top spot on Album of the Year lists and being hailed as one of the last great American rock bands. Music mogul Jimmy Iovine famously declared that they “should be gigantic” and the album was officially the most critically acclaimed of 2014.
“I guess doing it for so long, part of it was kind of like ... rewarding, you know?” says Granduciel. “And then part of it was kind of a blur because we were working so much. I guess I always went out of my way to not think about it too much, because if I thought about it and really soaked it in, I thought that I would not give the due credit to the music and the time it takes to get into it. But it definitely changed the profile of the band and it’s been a great blessing; we grew so much as a band and as friends, and we grew as a band musically, so we were able to go into this record, and I was able to make it with the guys, in a way that made us all comfortable.”
That album’s success was particularly poignant given that much of it was written about the anxiety and depression Granduciel experienced coming off the back of the touring cycle for their previous album, Slave Ambient. This time around, he put several safeguards in place for his mental and emotional wellbeing.
“It was more about coming off the schedule; I just needed to focus my life and my priorities into working, and being in control of my musical destiny,” he says. “Just trying to work a lot, and not try to overthink how I was gonna make a record. I just needed to find a place to work and get cracking on new material, and exercise the part of my brain that gets a lot of joy out of doing that.”
One of the biggest changes in the camp was the band signing to a major label, Atlantic Records, for a two-album deal, having released their previous three albums on Secretly Canadian. Fans concerned about The War on Drugs’ penchant for the epic being reined in for a more commercial sound need not worry, however; as evidenced by the 11-minute-long Thinking of a Place, their wings (nor extended solos) have not been clipped. The album’s accompanying press release talks about creating an album as a body of work, and Granduciel – who also produced the album – talks passionately about songs taking up to a year to craft.
“I didn’t know what a major label experience was going to be like,” he says. “I didn’t even know what an indie label experience is like. When I got into this thing, I wasn’t really that adept with independent rock culture. I kind of learned, by doing, how to communicate with your label when you’re making a record, how to finish a record, et cetera. So going into this, all I wanted to make sure was that when this thing goes into the studio, we’re making the music that we wanna make. As long as I’m not gonna be forced to work with anybody, or forced to have so-and-so sing on my song, or something ... if I can control the music and the art, then cool – everything else is gonna be a learning experience. So far, it’s been a really awesome, memorable experience, in the same way that releasing my first record with Secretly Canadian was. I felt like I’d kind of transcended my own expectations of myself, in the same way that I did 10 years ago. So it’s cool. It’s exciting.”
Moving to LA
There is certainly a sense of positivity and optimism in the music, if not on the lyric sheet; Nothing to Find is a joyful, air-punching midpoint of the album, while Up All Night kicks things off with a dreamy snap. Considering he’s called it his attempt at an “LA record”, having recorded it mostly in that city, you might expect a sprawling, sunshine-imbued collection of songs – but that wasn’t necessarily his intention.
“You just get older, and things just change – for better or for worse, I guess,” he suggests. “After the touring for [Lost in the Dream], it was unexpected to move to Los Angeles – but I’m really happy that I ended up out there with my girlfriend [actor Krysten Ritter], because I couldn’t go through that time with myself and then go back and live in the same place that I had in Philadelphia. I think I needed to make a break from the last seven, eight, nine, 10 years of my life, just for my own reasons. You can get easily stuck in a rut. I don’t know if the record is optimistic, but I wanted to write about things that weren’t just about myself. I guess I was trying to be a little more outward and I was trying to write a different record than the one before. But at the same time, I wanted to feel comfortable and I wanted to write whatever was coming to me.”
As for the future? Granduciel recently made an interesting observation about his ambitions for The War on Drugs, citing a self-sufficient band like Wilco as a potential model to aim for in the future.
“I said that because Wilco’s a band that I’ve followed like, forever, and I’ve kind of grown up with in a way – and I’d just seen them the night before, in Philly,” he explains. “But I don’t really have any grand ambitions. I never did. I don’t want or need to play stadiums, but if things got to that point, I think it would be a really wild kind of experience. For us, we’ve always just focused on the present; make the record we wanna make, go out and find a way to play it live, and just keep playing shows. Go back to the cities you love to play and hopefully hit some new places along the way; just build your fanbase, make the music you wanna make, and everything else kind of falls into place. At the end of the day, music is about going town to town with your guitar. There might be 50 guitars now, or something, or a truckload of gear,” he laughs, “but it’s still the same kind of idea – like folk music, or something. Just going to spread the word, go play the music for the people. That’s kind of all we aspire to do.”
- A Deeper Understanding is released on August 25th