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"I Love Recording!": A Conversation with Adam Granduciel from The War On Drugs

14 August 2008, 09:30

The War on Drugs‘ debut LP Wagonwheel Blues was released last month to quiet acclaim. We called it "…accomplished, mature, understated”; Pitchfork rhapsodised about its “enormous first impression”. From its woozily euphoric opening bars, the record carves out a path that links Springsteen’s bittersweet narratives to Eno’s textural noodling.

Main man Adam Granduciel’s voice has been compared, not sacrilegiously, to Dylan; he also carries the lion’s share of musical composition and execution, with support from Philadelphia man of mystery Kurt Vile (shimmering 12-string guitar as well as the usual six-string), Dave Hartley (bass), Kyle Lloyd and Charlie Hall (both drums). On the eve of their first European tour, we find Granduciel sweetly boffiny, scarily focused and as puppyishly excited about the dates.

So have you got a heavy schedule in Europe – every night a new country?
"Pretty much. We don’t have a day off at all. But that’s what I’ve wanted for a long time. It’s difficult to tour the States – we’ve never really had an opportunity to play every night for 10 nights. I can’t even imagine what it’s going to be like after, like, the third show. By the time we hit the UK things should be really tight. For a band like this, it’s the best thing in the world to stretch the songs out and play them every night – it’s like a dream."

You’re playing a nice mix of small venues and big festivals.
"Yeah, I like small places that sound good, but a lot of these songs sound great on a big stage, through big speakers. I guess on small stages the experimentation is a little more intimate. You can try to blow people’s minds in a different way."

Your live setup is pretty different from how you record. How does that work – how do you all come together?
"Playing live it’s a huge team effort. Everyone just brings their own thing to the table. I kind of let everybody do whatever they want. Everyone’s always really tasteful, they’re good musicians, so I always know it’s gonna be good. For this , it was mostly me recording a lot of it. But when we play live or go on tour, everyone just gets behind everything. Everyone gets behind the songs and loves them and plays them as if they’d played them on the record."

And you’re coming straight from opening for Spiritualized in the States.
"Yeah, we played with them last week. It was awesome."

I saw him last year in Barcelona, with a full gospel choir. It was amazing.
"Yeah, the last time I saw him was in 2001, at the Warfield in San Francisco. It was cool but I guess he was a little fucked up then. But this time in Philly they were so on form – he had a lot of energy and his voice was impeccable. It was really, really, really great to open for them. Plus, in high school I used to listen to Spaceman 3 all the time. So to open for Spiritualized – it was like, dude, yeah, I’ll open for Spiritualized!"

So did you jam with them?
"No. I wish we did. Maybe we’ll do that at Green Man. Maybe I’ll just hop on stage and do just that."

You totally should. That’s the best thing about festivals.
"I love that kind of stuff. I wish during The War on Drugs shows, more people would just hop on and start playing tambourine or whatever. I’m all about that kind of stuff."

Granduciel is a tireless one-man ideas factory. There are layers of hidden inspiration at work, from his artistic and photographic talents – he shrugs off the album’s cover photograph, a vintage Polaroid he took in northern Italy – to his long-ago attempt, with friends, to write a dictionary of esotericisms, whose entries ranged from “The Pacific Ocean” to “The White House” to Richard Nixon’s “The War on Drugs” and thus inspired the band’s name.

We realised we were out of our depth when we got onto the mechanics of music-making. Granduciel is no wilful innocent: he’s a craftsman with a ruthless perfectionist streak and avant-garde leanings. We share a nervous laugh about Angus MacLise, the original Velvet Underground drummer, who quit in protest at the indignity of being told to follow a time signature. “Yeah, I can see that,” Granduciel mused. “Maybe he lost out in the end. Or maybe he didn’t.”

For a band that’s so about improvisation and spontaneity, I’m a bit surprised you like being in the studio. So many bands hate it.
"Oh yeah, I love recording."

What do you enjoy about it?
"I’m really interested in the process of recording. I don’t think I’d enjoy going into the studio for two weeks to make an album, but I like recording at home and then transferring it, not so much on Pro Tools or computer or even just analogue, but transferring it and going into the studio and adding stuff on and taking stuff away. I use my tape machine almost as a synthesiser, collecting and recording tons of sounds onto tapes, and you have them on faders and you can play those faders through amplifiers.

I’m just really interested in how stuff gets down on tape and where songs can come out of. And exploring the ambient stuff in, like, a pop-rock song – how you use ambient sounds as instruments and textures."

So how did you pick all of this up? It’s a far cry from sitting in your bedroom with a guitar.
"It mostly came about in the last year, when I got a really big 24-channel board with tons of EQ. It had the ability to hook up effects to each track, and that really turned me on to the idea of live mixing, and just kind of recording and seeing. Just because you’re recording a guitar it doesn’t mean it ever has to be in the mix, you know?"

That’s got to be one of the joys of creating music – that you end up with something completely different from what you expected.
"Exactly, that’s the best. Even if you think a song is great, sometimes you have to just abandon it to what works and is fresh. Like, “Arms Like Boulders” and “Taking the Farm” were from pretty much the same session. But with “Arms Like Boulders”, right before I mastered it, I did a new mix of it right off the original tape machine we recorded it on, so it’s a little more raw. And “Needle In Your Eye” – there were, I don’t know, 12 different versions of that song that I tried to do, and they were all totally different from the version that ended up on the record.

"One night I had my tape machine going and I just put those organs down over this loop, and it was like, “Fuck yeah, this is it!” The next day I did the drums and the vocals and it was done. I had been looking for that version, but I didn’t know it existed until I found it haphazardly. And I mastered the record in, like, five days, so I didn’t have time to pick it apart. I just let it be. And it’s kind of raw, the way it should sound.

"So I liked how, in the last three or four months, I was kind of rushed. Not rushed, but…it was like planting a flower. I’d dug the hole and put the flower in and I just needed to put the dirt around the edges, you know what I mean?"

Um, yeah.
"Is that a good one? I’m known for my shitty analogies, my completely worthless analogies. But I think that one works pretty well. Sometimes my friends will be like…"

How can you write these great lyrics and yet…
"Yeah. They’ll be like, “What are you talking about?” Ha ha!"

Brian Eno once said his music was “a drift away from narrative and towards landscape”. The critic Alex Ross took it further, saying ambient music is “filtered through new ways of seeing and hearing that relate to the technology of speed. the experience of driving in a car across empty desert, the layered repetitions in the music mirroring the changes that the eye perceives – road signs flashing by, a mountain range shifting on the horizon, a pedal point of asphalt underneath.”

The War on Drugs are unmistakably about restlessness: the wide-open spaces of the American west, the sunny optimism and world-weary wisdom of the brave pioneer. Granduciel – East Coast-born; West Coast-raised – landed in Philadelphia after hopping onto a cross-country train on a whim. “I was kind of searching,” he says. “I just felt like I needed a change. I was doing a lot of stuff in my bedroom in California – I thought I needed to get myself out there a little more. Some of the newer songs are about trying to get back on that road. ‘Needle in Your Eye’ is kind of about that – like, ‘I’ve got to get out of here somehow.’”

Let’s talk about your record collection. What’s been particularly important to you in your life?
"Growing up, I listened to a lot of Roy Orbison. I was never interested in indie rock so much. I grew up on all the classic stuff that my mom listened to, or that my friends in my small town listened to. Blonde on Blonde is one of my favourite records, obviously. There’s a lot of mistakes in that album. I like hearing that, minor little flubs and stuff. It makes it real human. And when I grew up I got into the Velvet Underground, a lot. But Orbison was always one that from an early age, from like 8 or 9, I would hear it in the car, on my mom’s cassette. His voice would just… crush you, you know?"

You were so lucky! I got Genesis in the car.
"Yeah, I had some Genesis too, in the car. To be honest, the first CD I ever purchased with my own money was Phil Collins’ …But Seriously. I was probably 9."

Haha! That’s a good one. What’s the last CD you’ve purchased?
"Well, I was up in Maine recently and I got some nice jazz records, some Ornette Coleman live free jazz albums."

Not the Golden Circle ones? Those are some of my favourite albums ever.
"No, it’s the free jazz ones, the double quartet. With him and Eric Dolphy. The LP is awesome – you open it up and inside is a huge Jackson Pollock painting. I had read a book about the engineer who engineered all the Atlantic records, and that story blew my mind. It was three microphones, so Eric Dolphy and Ornette Coleman are sharing a microphone, and the bass players are sharing a microphone, and the drummers are sharing a mic. And they were jamming, and at the end of the tape they were still going, so they did a really quick tape transfer to another tape machine, and on the LP, the first side of the LP is one tape machine, and the second side is the second tape machine, with only, like, two or three seconds missing.

"So it’s a really great milestone in the history of recording. Tom Dowd was the engineer – he was the Atlantic engineer for 20 or 30 years. So I was like, “I have to have that,” because that’s what I’m all about. The process of recording and trying to learn from mistakes – just make’em better and make’em timeless."

The War on Drugs play at Green Man Festival and other UK dates throughout August.

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