Despite boasting a recording career that now reaches into its second decade, Adam Granduciel – frontman and creative spark behind Philadelphia based The War On Drugs – is rarely described as prolific. The germination of his records feels imbued with a sense similar to the manner in which their hypnotic qualities manifest themselves to the listener – slowly unfurling their expansive, freeway-tuned momentum with engrossing textures and a light-footed feel of escapism.
Those already converted to his wondrous spin on the grinding narratives of blue-collar America will be savvy to his individual ability to refract the iconic tropes of the Americana giants that he comes frequently compared to (Dylan, Springsteen, Petty) with a gleeful experimental streak and love of ambient and drone atmospheres. But even to those aware of Granduciel’s quiet status of one of our most treasured contemporary folk musicians, today’s announcement of the band’s latest full length, Lost In The Dream, will come as a pleasant surprise. With him in a parking lot waiting for Vietnamese soup, and us in the dusky throes of a London suburb, we caught up with the warm, candid frontman for an exclusive, in-depth conversation about the genesis of his most sonically assured record to date, its step towards a grander, more “classic” feel, and how the darkest period of his life led to the creation of an album that deserves all the attention the spotlight can throw at it next year.
So it’s been a couple of years since we last heard from you. What’s changed in your world since then?
Well, we’ve just finished the record. I guess for the first time in a while we haven’t really been playing, or travelling too much. Everything kind of slowed down this year. It was definitely a big change – to have been travelling so much, and then all of sudden to not be moving at all. To be just focusing on making a record kind of changed the whole way I saw music. It was a different, intense year. But we’ve made a record I’m really proud of, and a record that kind of came out of a lot of that confusion, and unhappiness, and depression. We’ll see what happens next. It wasn’t something that was nice to go through, but it was nice to start feeling a little better at the end of the day, and also have a thing that you’re proud of. A little memento of that time in your life.
What sort of things were you going through?
A lot of it was just a perfect storm of having been moving hard for so long, and all of a sudden it coming to a grinding halt. I was putting a lot of pressure on myself, and I didn’t feel like the same person for a while, for a good portion of the year, though I still got a great joy out of making the record. I guess I just got really close to the music, and got really anxious about a lot of stuff. It’s hard to explain – I’m not trying to make it like a byline, or a focus. But it was such a big part of my year, being totally inside my head. Having been travelling so much, and being with your friends the whole time, and touring the whole time, and then living alone – it was just a ton of time to suddenly reflect on myself, and life, and after a while I just started getting lost in my thoughts. I’m not trying to make it like a “thing”, or a “press piece”, but when people ask me, I have to be honest – it was a weird year. You spend a lot of time thinking that when you get to a certain level everything will be amazing, and then I found myself at that level, and thinking – “I’m a fucking mess”.
How did those feelings affect you musically?
I was writing a lot of music, but I wasn’t working in the same way as I was on Slave Ambient – doing a lot of stuff in my home studio, and getting all weird with samplers and tape loops. That part of me – I just couldn’t do it. I wasn’t even trying to do it. I wasn’t in the comfort of my home studio too much. I dismantled it for this record, and went to other places – the time between sessions, I’d be at home, playing a lot of guitar, but wasn’t really recording. It was a weird hole – I wasn’t really leaving my room. All my recording gear was on the first floor, and I live on the third floor. I just wasn’t going to the first floor…
I learned a lot from doing it this way. I want to get back into getting weird at home, but I couldn’t get any more lost in my head then I already was. The whole time I wanted to make this kind of record, and finally a couple of days ago I was able to step back a little bit, and it’s kind of exactly what I wanted to do. It was just really difficult getting there.
What was the kind of record you wanted to make?
Just to not reinvent anything. When the first record came out, I had done a lot of that myself or with random friends, and then we had this live band that was able to interpret those songs to the live experience. After two years of touring, it was like – the way we’re playing this song isn’t exactly how it was recorded, but these guys who’ve been in the band for two years have reinterpreted in their own way. I wanted to take that idea and put that knowingly into the recording this time. I wanted it to be a full band record. The War On Drugs that people have come to know, as a rocking touring band. I wanted that sound, without sacrificing my desire to go in a play a lot of the keyboards and do all the guitars, you know. So to make a full band record that sounded like a full band record, but wasn’t a full band record. I was trying to think of things with a different scope. Even though we didn’t record live with a band at all, I definitely wanted songs that had full band arrangements, bigger sounding songs – but also trying to piecemeal them, recording wise, the way I always like to do it, with a lot of trial and error.
I hear the record and hear these big, classic American records – late period Dylan, especially Time Out of Mind.
That’s some of my favourite shit. All I’ve been listening to for the last year would be late period Dylan, Time of the Last Persecution by Bill Fay…
And more than ever, the blurring haze of your production style, and the stream of experimentation that runs through your songwriting feels more hardwired than ever into your sound – embellishing a more classic, heartland feel, rather than existing alongside it. Would you agree?
I guess I wanted it to still be sonically lush, but not just lush by using a sampler. I didn’t want layer after layer to make it sound lush, I wanted it to be lush in its instrumentation and its arrangements. I realised when I was driving back to Massachusetts for Thanksgiving that each song has a two minute ending, and just kind of keeps going. I just wanted them to be expansive in a different way to before – in a band and arrangement sense, rather than a sonic, textural sense. It just felt natural when we were working on the music to think of it as a little bigger than just loops, and stuff like that.
For a record that was made in so many different places (from New Jersey to Nashville), where do you feel the best place to listen to the record is?
I realised last week that it’s definitely driving, by yourself, at night, alone in your car. I guess a lot of records are good that way, but this one’s a good night-time driving one if possible. You don’t have to be by yourself! I know it’s hard driving in London, so maybe at night, on the tube with headphones or something.
A lot of your critical reception has focused on the relationship between older musicians, and your modern spin on their oeuvre. How do you see the relationship between the music you make and the big American songwriters that you’re compared to?
Something else I learned this year is that in my own personal standards, I tend to set the bar pretty high for myself. When we were doing some basic tracking of drum sounds, I was trying to get this sound in my head – a crack, or a thud – and kind of being a little obsessive about the sounds we were getting. And a lot of the time, not getting them. It’s fine – trying to get them is half the battle. You’ve always got your next record. I definitely knew when stuff just felt right. Part of it is that I just have too high standards for myself, where I won’t ever really be happy with something, which is a shame, because I want to be able to know when it’s right. I just get so much from listening to the classics, and I’ve listened to them for so long, there’s just nothing in my life that really stacks up to them. When I go headfirst into making a record, those are my touchstones. I just want to make stuff that when I listen to it makes me feel the same way sometimes.
This record was the first record you’ve made that’s really come with an element of public expectation and anticipation around it. Did that have an affect on its genesis for you?
I think that was the main thing that was making me really excited, and also that was really putting me over the top in terms of the pressure I was putting on myself. It was the first time where the only thing I had to do was make this record. Before, I had a bunch of day jobs – you work your day jobs, then you party, and then on the weekend you record with your friends. People love our band, and those are the people that this record is for, the people who’ve supported us – I just wanted to make everyone feel happy and proud of this music. I never wanted it to feel like a solo project – the band is a huge part of everything – but this record just has a huge part of me in it too. There’s a certain amount of gratitude in what it means to be able to make a record on this scale. Growing up loving music, you never think you’ll have the ability and the budget to take a year off and make a classic record. I thought I could play it safe, or make something that I’m proud of for the rest of my life.
I’ve heard you say in interviews before that you feel that there’s some records that you only appreciate when you get older, and that you appreciate different parts of classic records with time. How do you feel that getting older has affected your music?
Having spent a lot of time recording, for the last fifteen or sixteen years, there’s that feeling that, when you start something as a demo, or after a long day in the studio – the feeling that you can’t stop listening to your song. Like you burn a CD of it, and you just listen to it over and over. And you go home, and back in your car, and listen to it another five times. If everything else changes – your responsibilities or your style – that’s the feeling I hope to never lose. That one night where those two songs you work on come really quick, and you can’t get that mood out of your head. Even as you get older and see things change, and not having the energy to stay up till six and tweak things out – the thing I’ll always be searching for is that moment where the song just has a tone to it, and feels of a moment. I demoed everything, and didn’t want to just build on that like before, so there was a lot of chasing the mood of a song, and get to the heart of what it made me think of. We’d be really far along with something, and I’d just say – ‘it doesn’t have that midnight vibe. It doesn’t sound like midnight yet’. With getting older, it’s not about obsessing over the small things so much, and still loving the process, and just looking at the big picture of what it means to make music for an audience, and also for yourself. Making it personal, but also something that you feel you owe your fans.
Did it mean you were trying to push different boundaries with this wider perspective?
I feel that I wasn’t feeling super experimental, I guess. I didn’t even feel that I wanted to start with a drum machine like I had for years, or build up a song – all the time I’d be building it up along the way, building up these tones and sounds into a song. Not to be living and breathing the recordings every second of the day, and trying to live a life outside the prospect of making a record, which was something I was really failing about. It’s why I was going a little nuts – I wanted to have something in my life outside of the record, but I didn’t. I’d gone through a break up, and it all came to a head at once – whilst making the record being like - “oh, there’s more to life than this stupid record I’m making” – but at that time, there wasn’t really anything more to my life. At the time, I was obsessing over it in a totally different way. It was more an internal struggle than walking round with my latest loop on my iPod. I used to just walk around Philly for hours listening to this three second synth loops I’d made. I’d say “I’ve got twenty minutes of it forwards, and twenty minutes of it backwards!”. Now it’s more like 14 minute song sketches.
I interviewed Kurt , and it felt like he was going through a similar thing in making his last record – this need to have something outside the music. For him, the perspective was family, and children. Does it feel like your perspective is a negative one, where his seemed more outwards positive?
For me, after spending so many years not really taking a look around, I came home to find there wasn’t really anything else there. There wasn’t anyone to share this life with, it was more like – “what else do I have? What else is there right now? I’m supposed to be making this record but what am I making this thing about? What am I about? Who’s this record for? What else in my life is there to write about?”. And then you go through a lot of self doubt – about what is the point of going through this pain only for this record – but at the end of the day I think that was the idea. I wanted the music to reflect something bigger than just the music. The record wasn’t there for the music’s sake, it was there for something bigger. I can see Kurt’s point of view – we talk about this all the time. He’s really fortunate that he’s got this family to share this life with. And to him, he’s so close to music in general, and his own music exists with the idea of sharing it with people, that to not have a family to round it out would be awful. It was just trying to find that thing that would light the spark for me.
What was that turning point?
It was probably not till a few days ago – when I listened to it and didn’t hear everything I thought was wrong with it, and just listened to it for what it was. But really the entire time, I’d been second guessing it. It was really difficult for me to step back from it. I was in a similar frame of mind for the whole thing – I was pretty down and out, feeling ways I’ve never felt in my life before, and a level of depression I’d never really experienced. When we were mixing in New York, being unable to really make a decision, and just a general basket case. I was pretty much sober the whole year too, so it wasn’t even chemically induced. I guess the turning point earlier in the year was where I realised that if I was going to be dealing with these things, I needed to at least carry on with the music, as hard as it might have been. I had demoed a lot of these songs before I started going off the deep end, and yet the songs feel to me as if they were written while going off the deep end. But I realised at this one point, where we had like a week of basic tracking booked, that I just had to fucking buck up, and find a way to put a smile on my face to get this record started.
Did you ever worry you’d never finish it?
I definitely did, I thought I was either just going to have a total breakdown, or that all the songs were just shitty and that I’d have to scrap it, and start it over, and take a break. But luckily there were these little moments where a song would pique my interest, and I made it through somehow. A lot of great people helped see it through, and see the light, and step back sometimes to see it for what it was, and just enjoy it.
Were the record’s core lyrical themes consequences of this? What were you trying to portray?
I was mostly dealing with total loneliness, paranoia, and total isolation. Those were the things I felt I kept coming back to.
When I first heard lines like, “Lost in the dream, or just the silence of the moment”, they struck me in a more positive light, as the possibility of escapism, rather than reflecting crushing statis. Do they, and all the references to disappearing, reflect more of a withdrawal than this escapism to you?
That’s crazy – lines like that just came from the heat of the moment, and seemed like a great start to the song. I never know the way my mind works – when I sit down with a pad of paper, I don’t know what the hell comes out. But stuff like that never does. I changed a lot of lines but always knew that would be the first line. I’d never thought about it that way either – just walking around dreaming, rather than paying attention – but I like when I get to blow my own mind as well. It’s the best part.
I think there’s that one line – “Will you wait for the one who disappears?” – about being really close to someone, but knowing that you’re a loose cannon emotionally, and that you can’t really commit to being there in the moment, or any sort of relationship, whether it’s emotional, physical – any sort of connection with anybody. “Eyes to the Wind”, which is probably my favourite on the record, is trying to be more sentimental in its delivery, was written over a couple of months when I was feeling pretty sentimental at the beginning, and then at the end feeling completely alone and scared, and not really knowing why I was feeling this way. The level of loneliness I was feeling was new to me.
It’s always struck me how you plot developing identities through the idea of journeys, and that you learn more about yourself by moving. What have you learned from this journey?
I’m thankful to have learned the power of love and friendship, and that those things don’t really ever die unless you kill it. Those things are pretty powerful in themselves – the journey of a friendship or a romantic relationship – how people can be very much out of your life, but very much in your life, or how you can still be closer than ever without ever being together. “Burning” is almost like a journey of finding out each others’ pain.
Without there being clear lines to things, or defined, these are the kind of things you can count on. Friendship is just as important as romance. The power of friends, and what love can get you through – it sounds a little cheesy when I say it, but that was kind of the idea. Just living it – feeling totally alone, but knowing that there can be people there with you as you go on a dark journey. You don’t have to be alone.
Lost In The Dream is released on 17 March 2014 via Secretly Canadian.