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The War On Drugs: Headphones On the Highway

by Bill Murphy on May 29, 2014

Adam Granduciel is in the midst of doing one of his favorite things. We’re on a gear-hunting mission at Retrofret, a vintage guitar shop tucked away in the Gowanus section of Brooklyn, and he’s about to take a 50-year-old Magnatone tube amplifier for a test drive. “Have you seen Neil Young’s Magnatone rig?” he asks, eyes lit up. “It’s massive!” He scrolls through a set of photos on his phone and brings up a shot of a towering cabinet full of speakers that dwarfs the roadie standing next to it.

Granduciel pulls down a pristine mid-‘70s Fender Stratocaster from the row of guitars hanging above him, plugs in and settles his lanky six-foot frame into the tiny folding chair in front of the amp. As the Magnatone’s distinctive liquefied vibrato kicks in, he strums a progression of creamy chords that shimmer through the room like a gently undulating wave of rainbow-colored sound. The War on Drugs’ brand of alt-cosmic, road-trip boogie—a multi layered, echo-drenched, guitar-driven style with an Americana streak that draws liberally from the sacred marrows of Dylan, Springsteen and Petty—all originates in the quiet, contemplative noodling of the band’s frontman and lead songwriter. Granduciel and bassist Dave Hartley are visiting from their home base of Philadelphia, where they’ve been cooling their heels in preparation for a three-month tour that will take them across the U.S. and Europe, including sold-out stops at West Hollywood’s legendary Troubadour and the Austin Psych Fest. For Granduciel, the advance buzz is sweet vindication for all of the time that he and the band have spent together in the trenches since releasing 2011’s critically lauded Slave Ambient. Not only have they gelled with keyboardist Robbie Bennett and, of late, drummer Charlie Hall—into a well-oiled road machine, but with their Secretly Canadian release, Lost in the Dream, they’ve just delivered what Granduciel considers to be a creative breakthrough, and their first true “full-band” album. It is the “future rock classic” album—heady, heartfelt and free-spirited—that Granduciel has always wanted to make.

“I knew that I wasn’t gonna do this the same way as Slave Ambient,” Granduciel says. “I did most of that at home by myself, working on a tape machine and experimenting with it, then I’d transfer the tapes to Pro Tools, make a rough mix and dump it back to tape, and then overdub and transfer again—it went on like that. The process was great, but I just didn’t want to do that again.”

Instead, Granduciel started out by keeping to his usual experimental regimen, constantly building and tweaking song demos, but with the intention of turning the band loose in multiple studio sessions to make what he calls “an awesome-sounding hi-fi record.” And the description is spot-on: There’s an inescapable presence to songs like the soulful “Eyes to the Wind,” with its artful synth-washed textures, Bennett’s anchoring piano line and Granduciel’s confident lead vocal, urgent and up-front in the mix. “Red Eyes,” leaked in December, surges ahead on a motorik-style beat as it gradually spreads apart in an expansive wave of sound, recalling the rising tide of Springsteen’s “Dancing in the Dark.” In so many ways, Lost in the Dream is best enjoyed in the car, at night, cruising along a lonely highway.

“With the headphones on,” Granduciel interjects with a laugh. “Personally though, I just wanted to write bigger and better songs. They all started as demos, but the record turned into trying to showcase everyone’s ability to do what they do and still have a lot of fun in the studio and get deep into sounds. We’ve developed into a pretty close-knit group of musical friends over the years, and I didn’t really want to stray too far from that. It wasn’t like we had been traveling and playing any of these songs live, but I think more than anything, the touring just made everybody better.”

It comes through in the performances, which sizzle with the intensity of a band that’s playing live together in one room—and yet, as it turns out, this is the operative illusion of Lost in the Dream because nearly the entire album was built up from demos and overdubs.

The fact that it sounds so seamless, so dynamic and vibrant, is as much a feat of expert mixing (and the dauntless work of engineer and secret weapon Jeff Zeigler, whose Uniform Recording in Philly has become almost a second home to the band) as it is the ability of the musicians— especially the core trio of Granduciel, Hartley and Bennett—to tap directly into the spirit of the moment.

Those moments flow into the dream-like ambience of the album like eddies in a surging river. On the aptly titled “An Ocean in Between the Waves,” Hartley lays down a persistent, groove-pushing bassline over a drum-machine beat as guitars and keyboards, soaked in flange effects or rushed through spinning Leslie speakers, swirl in the background. When the real drums kick in, the song palpably shifts into another gear as Granduciel sings, “Feel the way that the wild wind blows through the room, like a nail down through the heart that just don’t beat the same anymore...” Halfway through the song, he takes a blistering and beautifully phrased guitar solo, cranking the heat up another notch. At more than seven minutes, it’s pure rock bliss by way of a meticulously drawn-out catharsis.

“When I first recorded the demo for that, it had a really dark, midnight vibe to it,” Granduciel remembers. “Then, we worked on it for about eight months, and it just flew off the rails. I knew it was wrong, but we just kept working at it. And maybe two weeks before the record was due, we pretty much went back and re-recorded it from scratch, essentially on top of the demo, in four days and got right to the heart of the song. To be fair, the guitar solo was actually from the original take, so I was able to fly it in, but almost everything else was at the last minute, trying to get this midnight feel that had been lost. It turned out to be a lot of people’s favorite song on the record, which is really cool.”

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