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The War on Drugs: High-Speed Introspection

Mike Greenhaus | August 30, 2017
Adam Granduciel can pinpoint the exact moment Deadheads started showing up at his concerts. It was December 2011 and The War on Drugs, his indie-leaning psychedelic-rock band, had routed through the Midwest. Granduciel happened to be walking through a Kohl’s in Lawrence, Kan., when he heard “Touch of Grey,” the Grateful Dead’s shiny late-‘80s comeback anthem and lone Top-10 single, playing above the aisles. The track’s chime-y guitar riff hit Granduciel in just the right way and reminded him of the high-speed headphone music his band specializes in.

“I’d never heard the song in that context,” Granduciel says more than five years later on a gorgeous spring day. “I was like, ‘This is a sweet tune—those chords are right up my alley.’ So we learned it in the back of a van and I half-assed the lyrics one night in Indianapolis. It ended up on the internet and my friends from high school started texting me—‘Dude, great ‘Touch of Grey.’” The next night in Chicago, there were seven or eight full-on Deadheads there.”

In certain respects, the unexpected viral buzz was the closest thing The War on Drugs have had to an “overnight hit” since the 38-year-old singerguitarist started sharing his songs with a select group of his Philadelphia friends just over a decade ago. Granduciel—whose sound has long been described as Tom Petty fronting the Dead—laughs at the roundabout circumstances that finally turned a new subset of fans on to his main-stage-size recording project and, eventually, led to his inclusion on Aaron and Bryce Dessner’s Day of the Dead compilation. But he does have a little bit of buyer’s remorse: “I’m happy we ended up with ‘Touch of Grey,’ but I wish we could have changed our song to ‘Black Peter’ or ‘Sugaree.’”

It’s late May, and Granduciel is wandering around his adopted Brooklyn neighborhood as he gears up to drop The War on Drugs’ fourth full-length album, A Deeper Understanding, in August via Atlantic. The LP is also The War on Drugs’ major label debut. The tall, long-haired musician—who once described himself as a natural introvert who feels more comfortable in the studio than onstage—has been thinking a good deal about how his personal, introspective stories have gradually reached larger, and wider, audiences. As he prepares to enter his 40s and watches his friends start to plant roots, he’s also particularly sensitive to his social circle’s gradual changes. “It was like, ‘I opened my eyes, and my life had changed.’ A lot of that seeped into my songwriting,” he admits.

Granduciel relocated back East a few months ago after spending a number of years in Los Angeles to be close with his girlfriend, actress Krysten Ritter, and also maintains a studio and rehearsal space in his old Philadelphia stomping grounds. (“No, the first borough,” he quips in response to the popular “Sixth Borough” descriptor used to market the city’s close proximity to New York.) The celebrity relationship unexpectedly landed Granduciel in the gossip columns a few times but—though a combination of skyrocketing real estate prices and a few brutal winters has helped shift the indie-rock world’s epicenter from New York to LA—Brooklyn shouldn’t worry about losing him anytime soon.

“Moving back couldn’t have come soon enough for me— I’m an East Coast guy,” he says with sense of tough, Northeast pride. “My whole family is in Massachusetts; my second family is in Philly. When I went on tour, I had all my stuff in storage and just started living with my girlfriend. LA does a lot of things really awesome, but I didn’t take advantage of that stuff.”

Like most bands of their ilk, The War on Drugs have logged in countless hours on the road, getting a bird’s-eye view of various cities around the world, but never truly connecting with their surroundings. Granduciel estimates he’s played LA 30 times in the past decade and, after living in the City of Angels for a few years, he enjoys being able to now know the distance between a club in Echo Park and, say, a favorite brunch spot. But his community ultimately drove him home. “I missed my friends and my neighborhood camaraderie—being my block captain. My band and I are so close, and I’ll get texts all the time—they’d come out to work, but when they would leave or when I was by myself in the studio, I’d yearn for that feeling of ‘Let’s go meet up at the bar and talk about the demos.’”

A Deeper Understanding arrives three years after The War on Drugs’ breakthrough Lost in the Dream. While it’s common for The War on Drugs to have a lag between releases due to their painstaking recording process and packed tour itinerary, the wait felt particularly long since A Deeper Understanding is their first release since segueing from club darlings with a dedicated fan base to harbingers of the “new psychedelia.” Granduciel has historically been his own biggest critic, and now he also has to deal with the expectations of a built-in fan base.

“A lot of things were in the periphery after the last record,” he admits. “The whole operation stayed really close, but it just becomes a bigger thing, and then you come to make a record and there are more people involved. I had to make sure that I was working in a manner that I felt comfortable working in—and that we were prepared to play the places we were playing.”

The War on Drugs technically formed in 2005, but the ensemble’s early years often felt more like a blur of friendly collaborations and songwriting sessions than notches on a concrete timeline. After years of being primarily known for hip-hop and electronic music, Philadelphia started nurturing a tight-knit lo-fi scene around the start of the 21st century, particularly in the city’s Fishtown neighborhood. Granduciel, who grew up in Dover, Mass., moved to Philly in 2003 and quickly fell into a circle of fellow obsessive artists like now-renowned guitarist Kurt Vile, who was an early ally and War on Drugs co-pilot, while working various odd jobs. He describes himself as the classic bedroom recording artist who was always writing songs but too shy to share those stories with the world. “When Adam entered a talent contest with some guys in high school, he was too nervous to even face the crowd,” says Dave Hartley, who has served as The War on Drugs’ bassist since 2005 and also fronts his own project, Nightlands. “He had his back to the audience and his head down playing his guitar.”

Yet since The War on Drugs’ earliest days, Granduciel was able to harness that angst and use it to connect with his crowd. “Even when he was less of a ‘frontman,’ Adam was always a compelling performer,” the bassist notes. “An audience senses fear, but it also senses authenticity. And he always had a really rare sincerity and authenticity, whether he was just singing and not talking, talking to the audience, or having a bad show and a subsequent meltdown. The crowd always rallied to his side; they just loved him instinctively.”

Vile was the first member of the Fishtown collective to hit it big on a national level and left The War on Drugs after their 2008 debut, Wagonwheel Blues. (However, he did contribute to that release’s 2011 follow-up, Slave Ambient, and the two artists shared drummer Mike Zanghi for a while.) Some early articles that didn’t quite get his scene incubator energy cited Granduciel—who also clocked in time in Vile’s group—as something of a splinter act, but The War on Drugs started gaining traction as well. Their artsy, guitar-driven mixture of punk-angst and psychedelia was a natural extension of the art-winger DIY scene that had started to emerge a few hours away in Brooklyn and Queens as a reaction to an increasingly mainstream indie-rock movement.

Granduciel acknowledges his own connection to the jam world, which had a profound impact on a generation of future musicians in the late ‘90s. “It’s a big part of growing up in the Northeast,” he says pridefully, also citing his lifelong friend Jeff Aldridge, who he credits with turning him on to playing music in middle school and who, he points out, remained part of the Disco Biscuits’ community that was developing nearby. “I wasn’t super into ‘the scene’ in high school, mostly because I was pretty antisocial. I didn’t really do anything; I didn’t go to dances, but I did go see Phish at the Boston Garden on New Year’s Eve going into 1997. It’s one of those classic shows—I’d never been to a concert like that before and my mind was completely blown.”

He had a parallel journey with the Dead’s music too, finding inspiration in their various periods at different points in his own musical awakening. “I got into the ‘75- ‘80 era, when Jerry picked Wolf back up, though I never got too heavy into the Pigpen era. But when you get older you realize: Phil’s out of his fucking mind.” Long before that fateful big-box store trip, The War on Drugs also had a direct connection to the Dead’s history when they used the tape machine from Anthem of the Sun on Wagonwheel Blues.

The War on Drugs’ early releases possessed a murky charm, yet Granduciel always had an ear for great hooks and his Dylan-esque vocal delivery had a classic rock-and-roll reverence that set him apart from many of his peers. For his first few years with The War on Drugs, he played acoustic guitar through an amp or two. Hartley remembers a European tour when Granduciel plugged in and showed off his ability to shred. “One show specifically, in Brighton, U.K. in probably 2009 or so, I realized: ‘Holy shit, he basically just solos the entire time now,’” Hartley explains. “Once that evolution happened, we were off to the races because, in my estimation, he’s the greatest guitar player in the world. Not technically, but no one can match his expressiveness and use of tone—his playing is always so interesting, so emotional. It communicates so much.”

The War on Drugs’ big break came while on the road supporting Lost in the Dream. That album married Granduciel’s lyrical discussions—which touched on his struggles with anxiety and depression—with the treadmill energy of ‘80s Bruce Springsteen. A critically acclaimed, blogger-favorite, the LP also nodded to Granduciel’s varied interests in space-rock soundscapes, shoegazing fuzz and the guitar heroics of Neil Young’s Crazy Horse period. It spawned five singles: “Red Eyes,” “Under the Pressure,” “Burning,” “Eyes to the Wind” and “An Ocean in Between the Waves,” which helped form the bedrock of the band’s increasingly fierce live show. They also scored spots on the upper lines of festivals around the world, headlined Radio City Music Hall and landed on television programs ranging from The Tonight Show to The Ellen DeGeneres Show. While The War on Drugs’ lineup shifted a bit during those blurry years on the road, they eventually settled on a steady live band consisting of Granduciel, Hartley, keyboardist Robbie Bennett, drummer Charlie Hall, and multi-instrumentalists Anthony LaMarca and Jon Natchez.

However, their crossover success wasn’t all luck and word of mouth. Granduciel had actually started working on his singing, fine-tuning his voice into a communicative instrument that maintained his authentic rasp. As his melodies grew more complex, he discovered new, challenging registers that flipped ‘70s rock tropes on their heads.

Hartley first noticed that Granduciel’s voice had sharpened into an instrument on par with his guitar prowess around the time The War on Drugs leader quit smoking. “He’s never going to be the kind of frontman who runs around the stage and gets the audience to clap along or any of that crap,” he says. “He doesn’t come into the audience’s world to communicate with them, he creates an intimate and compelling world of his own onstage and allows the audience to transport themselves into that world alongside him.”

Granduciel began crafting A Deeper Understanding while he was still promoting—or “dealing with,” in his parlance— Lost in the Dream. In between tours, he’d carve out time to demo songs whenever he had a free moment; Granduciel rented a studio with a piano and Pro Tools for three months in Brooklyn and spent some time at home in Philly workshopping ideas. While in LA, he also brought his band into the studio for some loose sessions that produced “Knocked Down” and a few other ideas.

After The War on Drugs wrapped up their North American outing, Granduciel also started looking for a more formal LA clubhouse. He eventually settled on a space in Atwater Village and, by December 2015, the singer/guitarist was clocking in every day—writing, working on demos or finishing tracks he’d started on the road. The rest of The War on Drugs started flying in every five or six weeks for informal jams and writing sessions. Finally, they brought in engineer Shawn Everett to help them get over the finish line. The group was particularly drawn to his work on Alabama Shakes’ wild second album, Sound & Color and Granduciel emailed Everett blindly through his “rinky, dinky Geocities website” to gage his interest in working with The War on Drugs.

They laid down the final tracks at various LA spaces before Granduciel, ever the auteur, took stock of what he’d collected over the previous year. He says that the process may sound anxiety-inducing—and it was—but the sessions still had a new, creative energy.

“I’d never met anyone who loves being in the studio more than me before Shawn,” Granduciel says with a laugh. “I’ll go 27 hours straight; he’ll go 28. We ended up arriving at a sound over 9-10 months. He’s a really malleable engineer and it was a great partnership.” After the rest of the band returned home and Everett started working on other projects, Granduciel put the final touches on their tracks in his new studio space. “It was nice not to be beholden to a hard drive,” he says. “It’s crazy how much that can be a source of anxiety.”

In certain ways, The War on Drugs vacillates between being a solo project and true band. Granduciel remains the group’s primary creative force and mouthpiece in the studio, but his live ensemble has become an increasingly collaborative unit. When it came time to craft A Deeper Understanding, Granduciel was more open to involving the members of his touring band. He started by sending out a batch of 22 working demos, then boiled them down to 14 ready-to-record songs. They mixed 12 tunes and ended up including 10 on the record. “In the past, it was always like, ‘Here are the 10 songs for the record. Hope they’re good, that’s all I got.’”

The meat of the album was recorded live too. “Thinking of a Place,” “Pain,” “Clean Living” and “Holding On,” in particular, retain the concert energy that has catapulted The War on Drugs from art spaces to marquee stages like Coachella in recent years. Then, he touched them up with some overdubs.

“This is the first record where you can hear all of our personalities coming through in the music,” Hartley adds. “We’ve played so many shows over the years. Adam recognized that it’d be a shame not to document that musical chemistry we’ve developed.”

“There are politics involved in having a fully committed touring band when you start making a record,” Granduciel adds. “You set up the way the band works, and then you go on the road for two years. I still wanted to adhere to what I’d always done—whatever was best for the moment, my inspiration—but there was a bit more rehearsal involved. And some of the songs I had written were recorded on the spot. Dave’s always been an incredible, underrated bass player, but in the classic style of War on Drugs records, we’re always too concerned with the moment to make sure that the bass is really dialed in. I wanted to showcase that more on this record.”

The final product is the group’s biggest sounding and most expansive LP. It’s atmospheric and egoless, but also grounded and heartfelt. Lead single “Holding On” builds on the roller-coaster thrill of their signature songs while the 11-minute “Thinking of a Place” is a dreamy, multifaceted groove-rock nugget that will likely grow into a showstopper. Lyrically, the album also digs deep into Granduciel’s psyche; “Strangest Thing,” at times, embraces the pensive sadness A Deeper Understanding’s title alludes to.

“That idea of coming off the road and that part of people’s lives where things are really rapidly changing,” Granduciel says, “I was trying to figure out my place in my own life and my place in my friends’ lives and there was definitely a certain nostalgia for my life in Philadelphia.” He says that he was listening to The Ties That Bind box set while working on the album and found inspiration in Bruce Springsteen’s own “Saturn’s return” questions while he was making The River.

“It’s that idea of looking at your friends growing up, becoming true adults, wondering when that’ll happen for you and when you’ll become the person you want to be—when you get to reveal yourself,” he says. “You get so wrapped up in everything—the professional life, the day-to-dayness of keeping everything together. You gotta be something more, but, at the same time, I’m obsessed with working on music. So it’s that thing where you’re supposed to want something, but you feel this burning where it’s like, ‘Maybe this is just my thing.’”

Granduciel has also been inspired by Dylan’s live approach and now feels that his songs only truly reveal themselves onstage. He can be less precious with them in concert and, one day, he can see The War on Drugs expanding in size to flesh out new sounds and sonic spaces under those hot stage lights. A Deeper Understanding may be more of an exclamation mark during a gradual build than a “Touch of Grey” boomerang back, but it’s likely the record that will introduce the Philadelphia-bred outfit to a new, open-eared audience. And while the guitarist didn’t try for a particularly different sound, he’s excited to ride his current buzz wherever it takes him.

“You never grow out of looking back, thinking of yourself in a specific time— that’s something you keep learning as you get older,” he sums up. “As cheesy as it may sound, you try to make the most of your time in a specific moment of inspiration. It’s still really hard for me to express myself, but that’s what I wanted to address, and I hope I got to the heart of it. This is just a conversation that I’ll be having with the music for maybe a couple of years. But that’s why we put a cap on a set of songs and say their done. Eventually you’re like, ‘Well, this is just what I was talking about at this point in my life.’”