Woozy keyboards and spacey guitars dominate The War On Drugs latest effort, Slave Ambient. It’s an engaging, fluid listen that effortlessly melds Bruce Springsteen’s earthy songcraft with Spiritualized’s intricate atmospherics. Songwriter Adam Granduciel, 32, has been making records for years, but this much-lauded LP is a real breakthrough, garnering both greater critical acclaim and larger crowds than prior releases. Granduciel, whose band plays on Sunday at Rock & Roll Hotel, spoke with Arts Desk about the journey so far.
Washington City Paper: How long have you been making music?
Adam Granduciel: The first War on Drugs record was the first real record I made. Age 19 or 20 is when I started getting into recording on a smaller scale—it was at home, on digital 8 tracks or cassette 4 tracks. I started playing guitar at 14, I was playing all the time and I started writing at 16 or 17, and later I started trying to record it. The first tour I ever went on was in 2004. I went on a month-long U.S. tour with another band. That was my first tour, and it was like so exhausting—-it felt like it was two years or something. Now for me a month is easy, it doesn’t even phase me.
Ever since I started playing, I always took it really seriously. For a long time, it was a really personal thing—-a hobby in a way. I wrote and recorded, and it’s not that I didn’t have ambition, I just wasn’t ready at that point to take the next step. Around the time I moved to Philly in ‘03, I started falling into a group of people who played in local bands and brought me out of my shell of a bedroom. I started playing with other people and playing live a lot more.
WCP: When did you go full time?
AG: In my mind, probably four or five years ago. Realistically, I don’t know if I’m quite there yet. Full-time in terms of always working on it, it was probably when I was 20 or 21 that it was my main thing in life. Even when I was working a job all day long, I was thinking of songs all day long, playing all the time, staying up until three or four in the morning recording and going back to work in the morning, just doing that all the time.
WCP: Was there a moment where the band really came together—-where your vision really began to crystallize?
AG: [It was] around 2005 or 2006, after Kurt [Vile] and myself had been playing together for a few years, when the first incarnation of The War on Drugs live experience had come together, I had a surge of creative vision. I had been doing music for a while, taking what I’d been doing in the bedroom and taking it out into a live experience. Everyone was getting better at what they played, and it took another jump for me. I was making recordings and obsessing over those, playing a show and obsessing over the show and thinking how can it be better and can I pull this off. I think that’s when I began thinking of the songs on a bigger level.
WCP: What exactly is the band’s relationship with Kurt Vile?
AG: He was around when the first record came out. It was always my band, but he was like the other guy consistently in the band. We always worked on a lot of stuff together. I worked on a lot of his stuff, and he helped with some of my stuff. He wasn’t able to do a lot of touring because he was doing his own stuff seriously.
WCP: Does he still have any input in what you do? Do you ever trade ideas?
AG: He played guitar on a track [on Slave Ambient], but we never really swapped demos. We’re just like a thing to anchor off of. If he was working in the studio and I was there, I’d help him see a vision. The same goes for The War on Drugs; he’d come over and be a part of the experience and just help a song come to fruition like anyone else in the band.
WCP: You guys do seem to share a few aesthetic similarities, particularly with your attention to atmosphere. Do you two draw a lot from the same well, musically?
AG: I think a lot of that comes from the stuff we started doing together when we started playing together. We had a shared interest in certain things. We came to a certain working process where the ambiance was at the forefront on some level. Also, we had records we liked and bands we played with early on.
WCP: Do you feel like you hit your stride with the newest LP, or is it just another record in a progression?
AG: I think it’s a pretty good representation of what the past couple years have been. The year after [debut LP Wagonwheel Blues], I was working on it, but I wasn’t really, truly working on it—-I was just sort of doing it at home. I think it shows a step forward for me in terms of composition and structure. I don’t think I could make another record like this one, but I think I learned some techniques that I’ll take into another direction for the next one. I don’t think I hit my stride because I don’t want to keep making the same record, I don’t want to make another ambient rock record…but definitely, it could only be made by someone who spent that much time loving the sounds and the songs he was working on. I’m definitely super proud of it how it came together and that it did come together. For a while, I couldn’t wrap my head around certain parts of it, or finish things, or I was running out of money, so I’m proud it came out. I definitely learned a lot in making it.
All The War on Drugs records have been made without a live band in place. The first was kind of just myself and Kurt. Future Weather was like I had friends coming over and recording parts here and there, and eventually I mixed most of Future Weather at my house with some frustration, and Slave Ambient was kind of the same thing. Now we’ve done so much touring since March, it’s gonna be great to showcase that on the next record. I think a lot of the recording techniques I used, now I can apply to a live band in a live setting. Now it’ll be great to have the songs and learn them beforehand in a certain way together.
WCP: As a listener, compared to even the EP that came out before it, Slave Ambient seems to be more of a complete statement—-or at least a more singular listening experience. It all sort of melds together. Was that planned?
AG: It was definitely intentional in the sense that I spent a lot of time toward the end putting everything together. I was definitely approaching every song independently, with the exception of the ones that run into each other, like “The Animator” and “The City.” I wanted it to feel like a whole sort of experience. I wanted to do that on all the records, but I had a breakthrough with the sequencing, and I figured out some other ways to tie it together. A lot of the instrumentals I liked the way it sounded…a lot of those I put on there was like one quick moment in time where I put something on something else and it sounded really good but ended up not going in that direction. I wanted to put that on there to show where the songs came from or could have gone. A lot of the songs went through so many different versions and approaches.
At the end of the day, I wanted it to feel like a journey of the making of it in a way. I get attached to these little moments that might not be full-fledged songs, but they have a certain quality to them that I don’t want to just be a demo or something. For me, I think everything is worth putting on a record.
WCP: It sounds like the recording sessions were really piecemeal. Was it difficult to make coherent?
AG: Not really. Nothing was really pieced together. I was working from the same set of tracks. Over the course of time, I was able to constantly remove things or erase things or constantly move forward with a certain idea. I’d work on it at home or at [producer Jeff Zeigler’s] for a little bit, or I’d find myself in North Carolina and work on it there. I’d listen to it a lot and I’d add something, and then I’d book another week at Jeff’s.
For me, it’s OK to spend a week in a studio and maybe only come out with two tracks that you really enjoy. What’s the best for me is the process of arriving to something great. Even if you spend $5,000 at a studio in a week, that doesn’t mean you have to keep everything. It has a lot to do with drums. Even though they’re really basic sounding, the drums are a huge part [of The War on Drugs]. Finding the right drum sound or the right rhythm or the right approach…usually, that was the one thing that would hold me up at the end.
WCP: There’s an interesting amount of ’80s-era synth washes—-I’m thinking U2’s Unforgettable Fire, Springsteen’s Born in the USA, Billy Joel’s We Didn’t Start the Fire—-but the album feels much, much looser than any of those records. Were those touch points at all? Was it conscious?
AG: That just kind of happened. I like that stuff. The thing about Born in The USA I love the most is probably the keyboards, you know Danny Federici’s keyboards on there. I’m not into ’80s synth-pop, but I love the idea of having synth hooks in a song. When I’m working on a song, I’ll think this needs a keyboard somewhere, so I’ll just be fiddling around and find a melody I like but I’ll never try and embellish it too much. The difference is mine will just fit into the general mix of things, but it’s not a fist-pumping keyboard coda. I don’t make too much of a point of it being a hook.
For me, it’s just having little identifiable moments, whether it’s a synth for one part or a guitar for another part. As I’m recording the song, I’m slowly finding these parts, and they aren’t written beforehand. I’m just finding these little places they’ll fall. I like the idea of little melodic things that tie a song together… but Unforgettable Fire, I love all that early U2 stuff for sure. I listened to it a lot as a kid for sure.
WCP: How old are you now?
WCP: Is it odd to achieve so much acclaim at this point in your life?
AG: To be honest, I never expected anything. I expected to play music my whole life and record, I didn’t expect to go up a notch. It’s cool because I would’ve been doing it anyway. It’s awesome. It’s great because we’ve all been doing it a long time because we love doing it. This band has gone through a lot of shitty moments over the years where it would’ve been easy to just say we can’t afford to tour anymore, but everyone’s stuck with it.
For me, as the leader of the band, it’s been good to see bandmates like Dave Hartley and Robbie Bennett who just stick with you and understand the vision and respect the music and enjoy playing it. Everyone has high hopes, and to finally see more people coming out and enjoying it… It doesn’t validate anything, it’s just a good thing. It feels good to hear people connecting to the music and the records, and that’s the thing that doesn’t come around too often: people just liking the music and not just getting behind a new band. People connect to some of the songs and the general atmosphere of the records and the songs. It’s a lot easier for the band now to respect that. We focus on playing the songs and every night taking them to another place. [It’s] tighter than it’s ever been from a live perspective, so it’s exciting. We were going to be doing it anyway, but it’s nice to have the ability to travel whenever we want and have people come out. We can get better and look to the future.
WCP: In a live setting, do you try to replicate the album or embellish it?
AG: We try to embellish. I don’t think I’m able to take the songs to any new crazy direction—-I think some bands take songs to somewhere new to where it’s almost unrecognizable. For me, it took such a long time to arrive at the arrangements and the songs, so I feel like I already went through that. It’s definitely a little more rock ‘n’ roll, and a little louder. I wouldn’t say it’s jammier, but we try and take those parts of the record that are spacious and layered, and even though I’m not looping any guitars, we try and arrive at the same general feeling. Nothing becomes unrecognizable and we don’t jam stuff out too much, but there are times that are a little more rock and roll.
There are no backing tracks, we just play with a drum machine on some parts. We’ve been able to replicate a lot of the sounds on the record by buying a couple pieces of equipment. Everybody in the band played on certain parts of the record, but now everyone’s adapting their sensibilities to what’s already recorded, which is great. It’s like, they’re playing parts a little better than I played them, but still with a lot of feeling.
The War on Drugs plays The Rock & Roll Hotel on Sunday at 8 p.m. $14. Photo by Darshana Borah.