2014’s critically acclaimed ‘Lost In The Dream’ catapulted The War On Drugs to the forefront of indie rock music off the back of a devoted fanbase swept up in the thrill of their expansive sound.
With their fourth studio album ‘A Deeper Understanding’ releasing last week, we sat down with head honcho Adam Granduciel to mull over what has certainly been a whirlwind few years for the Philadelphia natives.
A serene lounge near the summit of Warner Music’s West London office is the venue as Granduciel opens up about his expectations following the release of their previous album.
"Everyone around me was like ‘this is gonna do really well’ but I didn’t know what that meant and just hoped we could keep touring on it," he shrugs. "Obviously it reached a lot of people and it’s been an amazing gift but I didn’t finish it thinking that. I didn’t think I’d cracked a code – I don’t know what it feels like to think that you’re on to something. It all kept overlapping and falling into itself and opened a lot of doors for us. Playing huge places and getting better as a band."
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It all kept overlapping and falling into itself...
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The album did indeed do well – becoming Gold-certified in the UK, charting across the globe and finding itself on a plethora of album of the year lists. Slots in huge festivals and popular late-night talk shows followed, and the transition into heightened celebrity was one taken firmly in the band’s stride.
"It was pretty seamless," Adam snaps. "We were all prepared to play whatever got thrown at us. Each tour we did was a bigger jump but it never felt like it was too big. It never felt like we were out of place."
"Even when we were playing the main stage at Werchter festival in Belgium before the Offspring. It was like ‘oh this is huge but we’re on in the middle of the day so it’s not too stressful’. It’s not like a night time set but it’s still awesome that there’s 80,000 people there. Most of them didn’t know our music so there was an underdog-ness to it. But at the same time everyone just wanted to shred and rip – that’s what everyone was there for."
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The success of ‘Lost In The Dream’ caught the attention of Atlantic Records and the band were signed to a two-album deal in 2015. Much like the handling of their new-found fame, The War On Drugs were not overawed by the prospect of being signed to a major label.
"I feel like there is a common goal," he says. "We spent a lot of time building the band up, doing it our way, and it just feels like the label is excited to be a part of it in some way. They gave me total freedom to make this record but at the same time our guy (at the label) is a real music guy. He was really involved in keeping up with me and communicating with me about the recording."
"It was great – I felt like I was being entrusted with the keys to a really nice car or something. All of a sudden I was definitely making a record for a big label but I didn’t feel like I had to make ‘Lost In The Dream’ again and I didn’t feel like I had to make anything other than I would have anyway."
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They gave me total freedom to make this record...
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Any fears that the band might struggle under the weight of its own success have been unequivocally allayed, with ‘A Deeper Understanding’ basking in an overwhelmingly positive critical reception. But what would represent success this time around?
“To kind of finish somewhere we haven’t been before,” answers Granduciel. “I think the success is just ‘did we make a record we’re all psyched on?’ Can we maintain relationships together travelling? Are we gonna like playing this music every night? Are we gonna make the old songs better?"
And now that the record has finally been sent out into the wild, how does the Granduciel view the band’s latest effort?
"I didn’t listen to it for a month and a half after I mastered it but then I listened a couple weeks ago and was like ‘Oh this is sweet!’ I really like it. January through the end of April I was working on it every day, between New York and LA and it was this last flurry of inspiration. So when I listen I hear that. I hear the last four months of inspiration, of stripping all the songs away and adding all the final tweaks. It’s cool. It’s a little more polished and a little more rounded than the last record."
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I didn’t think I’d cracked a code – I don’t know what it feels like to think that you’re on to something.
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‘A Deeper Understanding’ looks set to cement The War On Drugs’ position among the finest rock bands of this era and the fact that this has been achieved via a hugely unconventional songwriting approach is testament to the quality of the group’s musicianship.
The new record picks up where the last left off, with over an hour of dense, layered soundscapes taking the listener on a sprawling, unravelling journey through the fears, hopes and realities of Granduciel & co.
Radio-friendly singles are not something the band strives for – at least not in the traditional sense. All but one of the ten songs on the album are over five and half minutes long and first single ‘Thinking of a Place’ comes in at more than double that. How did this style of songwriting come to characterise the War on Drugs?
"'Thinking Of A Place' was a tricky one because it wasn’t conceived as a song of that length," the singer argues. "I guess you just try to make sure that whatever framework you’re using, you say what you want to say - whether lyrically or with the music. Some songs I’ll add verses to or cut sections from if it feels like it’s going somewhere too jammy or without a specific feel. Thinking of a Place is long but it ebbs and flows in a real natural way. If we recorded that song today we couldn’t do it again though because everyone would be overplaying."
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For this record I had a lot more material going into it...
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Much like 'Thinking Of A Place', the album as a whole ebbs and flows in its intensity and its delicateness, expertly blending its more contemplative and subtle moments with the raucous crescendos and Springsteen-esque anthemic choruses that the War on Drugs have well and truly made their own.
"For this record I had a lot more material going into it," he reveals. "I had 22 working songs at one point. In the past I had like 11 songs and 10 made the record because I couldn’t finish the last one. On this one there’s more composed guitar stuff. It’s less in the moment than previous records because I’d lived with the songs for long enough so that every time we play it it’s like ‘this is the guitar part!’ And it’s cool because we never really had songs like that before – and now there’s three or four."
"I wasn’t trying to do anything sonically different – maybe at the beginning I thought I was going to – but then you end up just trying to be inspired by the stuff you’re working with and trying to be excited when you hear it coming out of the speakers."
"The main difference was working with Shawn Everett," he continues. "I wanted to work with a new engineer and he was this well-known wonderkid. He can really do anything you want. He’s super efficient. He’s been working in the studio so long that he gets everything up and running so quickly. I thought the first night would be spent just setting up mics and stuff but we ended up getting finished takes for two songs."
"There was some wrestling between us in terms of the ‘modern-ness’ on some songs. Where I thought it sounds a little too ‘huge’ and just something I wasn’t comfortable with so we would try to find a sweet spot."
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We would try to find a sweet spot.
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The make-up of The War On Drugs has changed considerably over time, with the current count at six members and a further six no longer part of the crew. It’s the collision of ideas and influences that arise from the interactions of a group as diverse as theirs that has come to define the Philly band. But Granduciel, as the driving force behind the group, ties everything together.
It’s been that way all along but each time it gets a little more collaborative. The more focused and prepared I am, the better everyone else is gonna be. This record I had more stuff demoed and the guys would come and help make those demos. So when it came to recording the songs for real the band really knew the songs and could be their best selves.
"In the past with this band it has always been very ‘first impression’," the songwriter insists. "So someone might not want to re-do a bassline because it’s the first one I played. But there’s no magic in music. There’s nothing you can’t undo. If you erase that bass part and do it again it’s probably going to be better. And sometimes you have to break down the band rules a bit. Jon (Nachez) plays Saxophone, so if you record live while on tour he’s going to show up with his sax, but maybe you don’t want him to always play the saxophone – and I don’t think he wants to."
If you start setting up like you’re going to play a live show and you record an album then no one is going to crack any sort of code they hadn’t thought of before.
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There’s no magic in music. There’s nothing you can’t undo.
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The War On Drugs’ recent success may have come as a surprise to some but it was, in a sense, foreshadowed by the success of former close collaborator Kurt Vile, whose solo work has established him as one of contemporary rock’s most recognisable figures.
The two leading men shared a productive partnership in the burgeoning years of their music careers but have since drifted apart to carve out their own paths.
"I probably couldn’t have imagined we would both have had this success," he muses. "We don’t communicate as much as we did a couple years ago but there isn’t any bad blood or anything. We were making music together from 2004-2011. I stopped playing with him in 2011 when 'Slave Ambient' came out."
"At the time it was really hard because I was super protective of my role in the band. I’d been in his band for a long time and was, in my own mind, the glue of it, and it was tough for me to think that I wasn’t going to be able tour with him for the foreseeable future because I had 'Slave Ambient' coming out."
"Working with him was a really special time, at least in my life," Adam reveals. "Whenever we do talk it’s like ‘Yeah we should jam!’ and hopefully we do. We still have the same group of friends but I’m not in Philly as much and sometimes we’ll come through town and try to meet up but it doesn’t work out."
With ‘A Deeper Understanding’, The War On Drugs have created an album that looks set to propel them onto even greater heights still. Among the accolades and high-profile appearances that are no doubt headed their way, where do the band see themselves in a year’s time?
"It’s real lucky to have the kind of family surrounding the band that I have; the band itself, the crew, the whole thing is a kind of Rolling Thunder family thing. I don’t see us being any place I don’t expect – I don’t think we’ll be opening the VMAs or we’ll be bursting out of a giant pineapple on stage or something. We’ll probably be in the same place as we are right now – and that’s perfect."
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Words: Michael Stevenson
'A Deeper Understanding' is out now.
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