War on Drugs win this round
For the band’s latest album, frontman and songwriter Adam Granduciel drew inspiration from heroes such as Dylan and Springsteen to create an ambitious mix of classic and experimental rock
Adam Granduciel: “I was shaking during the mixing. People around me thought I was going crazy.”
Adam Granduciel puts a lot of pressure on himself. The musician invested so much in Lost in the Dream, a sprawling rock album hailed as one of the year’s best, that it almost became his undoing.
It wasn’t just a case of making the third War On Drugs album his finest. Granduciel wanted to emulate his heroes (Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan, Neil Young) while creating for others the same comfort and connection he took from his favourite records. But as the deadline loomed, the 35-year-old felt like he was falling apart.
“There were some really dark times where I couldn’t communicate or thought I might have to check myself in somewhere,” he says. “During mixing, I was on the verge of a nervous breakdown. I don’t even know why. I was holding myself to a pretty high standard but it wasn’t like I was getting flak from the label or like I was in debt for $300,000. I was just wrapping up this record and losing my fucking mind over it.”
After touring the band’s second album, Slave Ambient, for 16 months, Granduciel returned home to Philadelphia at the end of 2012 only to feel disconnected and paranoid. He went through a relationship break-up, suffered panic attacks and, for the first time, took a lengthy rest from performing. Until then, he believed that if his career could just progress to a certain point, he’d find fulfilment. Now that he’d got there, Granduciel felt like a mess.
“Everything came to a halt,” he says. “I found myself alone in this house I’ve lived in for 11 years, starting to go a little crazy over the writing of the record and wondering, ‘Is this even making me happy anymore? What am I getting out of this? All it’s doing is isolating me from my friends and family and making me second-guess everything.’”
Most of 2013 was spent developing demos alone, late into the night, as Granduciel tried to resolve these questions through music. You can see it in the song titles: Under Pressure, Red Eyes, Suffering, Disappearing – and in the lyrics too. “Like a train in reverse down a dark road, carrying the whole load,” he sings on Eyes to the Wind, “just rattling the whole way home.” But the longer Granduciel kept at it, the more he sensed an opportunity to create something worthwhile.
“Personally, I learned how shitty things can get. I never experienced certain levels of depression before. That changed the whole way I see my life and everyone else’s around me too. It made me want to connect with people on a different level and put myself out there more. Music has helped me get through some things and I know it’s done the same for others, so at some point a light bulb went off where I thought, ‘Maybe I am supposed to do music, you know? Maybe this is my higher calling.’”
Granduciel had never really stopped to appreciate where life had taken him. Career breakthroughs always felt like flukes he had stumbled into, his momentum spurred by self-doubt. “I spent the last 15 years of my life thinking everything I did was just lucky happenstance and never gave myself enough credit to know that it’s not,” he says. “So I think with this record I decided I was going to put a little more faith in myself and just go for it.”
Lyrically, Lost in the Dream is about that vulnerable phase between the end of old relationships and the beginning of new ones, a time when the support of loved ones can help balance out a fear of the unknown. But Granduciel envisioned the music as something a little more complicated. It takes the gloss and grandeur of 1980s-era Tom Petty and Dire Straits, floods that sound with swells of dark psychedelia, then keeps it rooted via the “motorik” throb of Krautrock.
Trying to pull that off nearly drove Granduciel to despair. He corralled his friends, the best musicians he knows, into studios out of town so they could dedicate themselves to the album without distraction. Months were spent trying to nail the right takes while geekishly drawing from specific reference points: the piano arrangement on One of Us Must Know (Sooner or Later), from Dylan’s Blonde On Blonde, for instance, or the saxophone parts on Springsteen’s Jungleland.
As the material came together, Granduciel would take recordings on long, late-night drives until he felt the songs sounded “like midnight”. But he was convinced that if he didn’t exhaust every possibility in the arrangements, if he didn’t maximise every song’s potential, he’d be selling himself short – even if that meant re-recording a song from scratch at the last minute.
“The excitement of it was overpowering,” he says. “But time was running out and anxiety started manifesting in different ways. I was shaking during the mixing. People around me thought I was going crazy. There was static on some songs and no one believed me. I’d say, ‘You don’t hear that?’ and they’d be like, ‘Dude . . .’ You just get so into the songs that it becomes a part of you.”
There’s little doubt that Granduciel’s single- mindedness paid off. Lost in the Dream expertly feeds into the continuum of rock, proving that old sounds can still feel fresh. The album manages to be both accessible and experimental, the richness of detail giving it a “lived-in” quality that underlines how much Granduciel has developed as an artist. But that painstaking progression helped him grow personally too.
“I’m at a point in my life where I’ve realised, ‘This is totally what you’re supposed to be doing. Just accept it and go for it. It’s okay to compare yourself to the records you grew up on. You don’t have to feel bad about trying to make something epic.’ That whole process has opened my eyes to the greater scope of everything.” yyy Lost in the Dream is out now. The War On Drugs play Vicar Street, Dublin, on Thursday