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The War On Drugs: Headphones On the Highway

by Bill Murphy on May 29, 2014

Lost in the Dream opens with “Under The Pressure”—a slow-cooking rocker flecked with spacey synth filigrees that recall Brian Eno in his late-‘70s heyday. At least three or four different guitar parts— layered and at times interlocked, with varying degrees of mutated effects— accentuate and build on the song’s deep- orbit trance state, as Granduciel cuts through the ether and sings, “When it all breaks down and we’re runaways standing in the wake of our pain, will we stare straight into nothin’ and call it all the same?” For many of his lyrics, Granduciel gets pegged for being semi-autobiographical— much like Dylan, one of his idols—but in this case, he insists the charge doesn’t stick. “It’s not like I was actually feeling

‘Under The Pressure,’” he says, smiling. “Eventually I would be stressed about making the album, but not at the time! It’s funny, because I started the demos for that song, and ‘Lost in the Dream,’ ‘Suffering’— really almost every one—between August and December 2012. We were still on the road, but we were just doing random weekends or festivals, and it wasn’t until February of last year, when we were gonna start recording the album, that I started to get a little stressed by the whole thing. So those song titles dictated the mood of the record, but in reality, they were written and conceived during what I thought was a pretty happy time. It is autobiographical, I guess, but it’s weird how that worked out.”

And yet for all of the changes that Granduciel rode through to make Lost in the Dream, he was always able to find sanctuary in the studio. The album was tracked in multiple rooms, including Brian McTear’s Miner Street/Cycle Sound Recordings in Philly and Water Music in Hoboken, N.J., but as Granduciel tells it, the sessions at Echo Mountain—a converted church in Asheville, N.C. that has hosted everyone from T Bone Burnett to Angel Olsen and Zac Brown Band—were especially relaxed. “We were never really searching for any specific sound,” he explains. “It was really just a matter of getting out of town. We’re also total studio gearheads, and I had a budget, so I wasn’t gonna go out and buy a Honda and then spend the rest on the record, you know? I love being in studios, and I love going to Echo Mountain for the Neve [console] or the Fairchilds [compressors]—totally unimportant, but it is fun. Mainly it was just nice to pile in the van and go to North Carolina for the week, cook dinner, make some music and have fun. You know, you sit in your room all day, working on rough mixes and waiting for that week to come when you actually have time booked, so when we finally made it down there, the ideas that were coming out in the moment were sounding great. Those were some pretty low- key sessions with a lot of spirit.”

As they look ahead to three months on the road with a long- awaited new album in their collective hip pocket, The War on Drugs are right where they want to be—honed and ready. “I’m really excited to get out there and play,” Hartley says, “because it almost feels like it’s the first time we’re a band. Adam and I have been playing together for seven years or so, but everybody who’s in the band now is really invested, and put a piece of themselves on the record, so they’re not gonna go out and play something that’s not in the spirit of the music. It’s interesting because in the studio, Adam keeps us on a short leash; he knows what he doesn’t want you to do. I think I prefer having very clear guidelines like that—but live, the leash is just as long as it can be, you know? We can get real exploratory and take some risks, which is a lot of fun.”

“I think that’s the exciting thing,” Granduciel says in agreement. “I know the recordings are special to people, and they have a mood to them, but with each record, the band has been just good enough to back it up. I feel like this time, it’s the dream band for us. Like having Charlie Hall on board— really all of us on board—and now we get to play the best batch of songs yet. Even when we do the older stuff...I mean, we played ‘Comin’ Through’ [from Future Weather, 2010] in Australia in December, and it was like, ‘Woo!’ It’s awesome, because it’s all spirit.”

For Granduciel, getting up on stage seems akin to being sprung from jail. It’s a hard- won payoff for all the late nights, meticulous tinkering sessions and near-obsessive playbacks that took him deep into another headspace for nearly a solid year. “The whole time I was working on this record, I was trying to figure out if music was making me happy at all. I’m still trying to figure that out. But it wouldn’t be what it is with anybody else playing on it, and live, it wouldn’t be fun for me to play with any other people. Everyone gets to do their thing—kind of like Pete Carroll with the Seahawks,” he laughs. “If you’re a freak, be a freak, you know? We’re all old friends, and everyone has these weird little idiosyncrasies, but it’s not like anyone ever has to keep it in check. I feel like the band allowed me to go on a journey in recording these songs, in all their various states, and that means a lot.”

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