Search The Line of Best Fit
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Sometimes forwards is the only way back

27 October 2021, 18:00

The War on Drugs’ Adam Granduciel on his restless energy and the new ways of working that inspired new album I Don’t Live Here Anymore.

Blink and you’ll miss them, but amidst the whizzing trails of dust and freewheelin’, hair-in-the-wind exuberance that make up The War on Drugs’ dynamic universe are stumbling moments of hesitation, uncertainty and transition.

Crossroads to traverse, demons in doorways, the shedding of old skin. Often these are moments of melancholy that have long haunted the lyrics of the band’s ringleader, Adam Granduciel, however purging these classic rock songs that carry them may be.

But on the band’s fifth album, I Don’t Live Here Anymore, Granduciel seems to linger in these moments longer and face-on, colouring them with more detail than the formless, dream-like spaces they were on their 2017 Grammy-winning A Deeper Understanding. Take the chorus of the record’s title track, bolstered by backing vocals from Lucius: “Beating like a heart / I’m gonna walk through every doorway / I can’t stop / I need some time / I need control / I need your love.” If it sounds as though he’s learnt something, he has.

Every time The War on Drugs release a record, many are quick to note their ability to sound even more like themselves than the last, going against the grain of most rock bands today where longevity and sustained success involves a hefty level of compromise. (For all their comparisons to Bruce Springsteen, Dire Straits or Tom Petty, the band have never shied away from their influences; in 2019, Granduciel and his partner, the actor Krysten Ritter, had a baby boy. They named him Bruce.) But for the 42-year-old, this journey towards an ideal form is all part of the plan, and goes a long way to explain the restless spirit that fuels his creativity. “I don't want to be playing catch up with things like music,” he tells me over a call in the days leading up to the new album’s release. “I just wanna have songs that I feel really confident about.”

The ten songs that make up I Don’t Live Here Anymore are certainly ones to feel positive about, building on their stadium-filling sound – albeit with a little more 80s twinkle and glam – whilst tidying around the edges to make something neater and distilled. A good deal of this refinement has involved adapting along the way, trusting new processes and ditching old ones. Though gone the days of panic attacks and cabin fever may be, there’s every chance his resolute tendency to tinker would have produced a very different sounding record had a pandemic not forced a new way of working that prioritised spontaneity and made use of time that now had a new meaning, and was far more precious when they had it together.

All of this, though, is not to say that Granduciel has veered completely away from the impulsive, subconscious style of songwriting he is known for. “I would never complain about having too many people interested in our band,” he adds when I ask if he enjoys unpicking his work during press campaigns. “But to be real, it’s not like I ask myself all these questions that journalists ask. I come up with answers, but then I do ask myself the same questions the next day. So I do actually find that in the first month of doing press, I truly do learn a lot about the record and the context in which some of this stuff was written and what the overarching ‘thing’ is.”

BEST FIT: As for many artists recording over the last couple of years, the process has required a good amount of improvising. You began writing I Don’t Live Here Anymore way before the pandemic began, but maybe we could start by highlighting some of the differences to the process this time around.

ADAM GRANDUCIEL: The first six months were tough. We had been working so much on this record and then basically everything shut down. We were close to something, I mean it would have been a totally different record, but we were definitely deep on a lot of these songs. But then obviously we started living through this thing that we couldn't process properly, so for the first couple of months me and Shawn [Everett, producer] were doing everything over email, but it wasn't even remotely close to where it ended up being. It wasn't until we ended up getting together in person maybe six months later, in October of 2020, when I feel like the record turned a new corner – just being in the same room and working out a new idea.

Those six months before were very frustrating, because I could only do so much in my little room. We kind of had these big infrastructures built on these songs and sessions, and I wasn't really sure yet how to incorporate the remote aspect, you know? But when we ended up getting together and things made a little more sense, that's when I started sending stuff to the guys and was just giving them the ability to investigate on their own. Sending a couple sessions to Dave and being like, 'OK, well these three need some bass,' and whenever he had real time to work on it he would dedicate a lot of thought to it and send back all of these different ideas.

But every idea he sent back was something he was very committed to, unlike when you throw somebody in the room when they fly out to record with you, and you're like, 'Go do some stuff.’ But when you're in your own space, you can just get into the groove that you need to get into. Same with Anthony. He'd send back a beautiful guitar part that he mic'd up a certain way six times, or make mini orchestras with a nylon string guitar, and this is the stuff that we wouldn't waste time with at some expensive studio; you're not actually letting someone be creative, you're just going through the motions.

So the remote recording thing for us was really great. I'd much rather record somebody in their element who's really invested in that moment on cheaper gear than someone who's just throwing paint at a wall with some expensive tube mic. So giving up that level of control was really fun, actually. I don't think there's anything that's gonna replace people getting into a room and working out a song as a band, and having moments of spontaneity and a guitar solo and an arrangement, but a lot of important, album-changing stuff came out of the remote process, and just letting people do it their own way and in their own time, without me breathing down their back through the glass, you know?

What were some of the 'fuck yeah' moments that happened as a result of this new way of working?

Well, the drums on "Harmonia's Dream", "Old Skin" and "Wasted", those were all done remotely. Those songs were developing but I couldn't sing to them yet; the drums that were on all three of those songs were, well, there was just something missing. The songs were progressing past where the drums were. So in both instances I sent them to my friend Pat [Berkery, drums and percussion] in Philly, and we still had our rehearsal space at the time, so it had all of our gear and all these mics and recording equipment. So it was basically a studio, but we hadn't set it up. So my friend Nick [Krill], a Philly engineer who worked with us in the demo process, camped out there with Pat and they did "Harmonia's Dream" and "Wasted" and just got really spirited performances out of Pat. He was going through some personal stuff that day, and coupled with the pandemic, and playing drums as his ultimate release in life, he just gave all of himself that day and it shows.

The ultimate remote part was before the pandemic, but I sent Robbie [Bennett, multi-instrumentalist] the demo of "I Don't Live Here Anymore" and he sent back the arpeggiated guitar hook. Again, that's something he comes up with one night, goes to bed and then wakes up thinking about, goes downstairs and refines it. It's a real thing.

I don't want to overlabour the value of being signed to a major label, or take away any credit from A Deeper Understanding, but there's no denying that signing to Atlantic took the band to another level, and perhaps opened you up to a new audience who were ripe to connect with you but may have otherwise been out of touch. Did it feel that significant at the time?

At the time, no. It felt like things were happening very fast because of Lost In The Dream, and we were keeping up with it – we didn't feel out of place. I had put together that six-piece band before that record came out, just because I wanted to have a big sound around me. I was like, if this record tanks and this is our last main big tour then I want to have this big band. So things started happening really quickly, but we were armed with our current band; when a show gets moved from Shepherd's Bush to The Roundhouse or something, and then to another bigger place, it was like, ‘Let's do it, we're ready!’

So it felt like our audience was growing exponentially every month because we were playing all the time. I don't know if I really knew what it meant to be on a major or what that would do for us, but at the time it did feel like an amazing opportunity. It's afforded us two records that I'm really proud of, and I got to work with Shawn Everett, which is a life-changing creative partnership.

Did you feel more pressure this time round as a result of the significance the last album had?

Honestly, I didn't really ever feel pressure in that sense. I felt pressure to not have to play catch-up with the songs. I needed to make sure I was working, because if I just fuck off and go on tour and then come home and don't do anything I'm gonna be rushing. I don't like to rush, you know? So I wanted to make sure while we were on tour in 2018 that I was writing and working and demoing. But I felt a pressure to stay constantly creative. It wasn't stressful or pressured, it was just trying to stay motivated and inspired and excited by the material we were working on, and trying to find a new way to arrive at it.

Speaking of arrival, there is a propelling motion to your music, not just sonically, but your lyrics have always centred on a forward direction. That could be explicit, for example on the new album there are lines like, "Sometimes forwards is the only way back," or simply it could be the concept of a destination – "Thinking of a Place." I think it's why lots of people feel catharsis from your music, but I wanted to delve into your perception of it, and how conscious this decision to use motion as a focal point is as a writer.

Yeah, a certain restlessness has always been at the heart of my creative life. Even before I took music really seriously on this level, I loved travelling and being on the road, finding new experiences and meeting new and crazy people. I feel like that was central to my life for a period there, right before I moved to Philly, right before I decided that I wanted to pursue some sort of creative existence with music. It didn't mean I wanted to have a band signed to a label, it just meant I wanted to be a part of a creative life with music. So I think that idea of restlessness and all that stuff was just the main spark in my life when I entered this orbit, and I think I've been drawing inspiration from that concept since. Now we're on the road but it's a different kind of travel, and then you're on the road again, and maybe as that has become the norm, you still yearn for a specific, romantic kind of directionless life. You know what I mean?

Well, physical movement aside, on A Deeper Understanding there was a lot of liminal imagery – night and day, dreams and awakening. Did you come at I Don't Live Here Anymore from a similar viewpoint? On the face of it it seems to be about growing and being mindful of transitions, but it does somhow feel different to the last album.

Yeah, I hope so. Every time I'm trying to be better at writing, and write more concise material. The way I've been crafting these records, the process is different each time. I couldn't make another Slave Ambient without holding up in my house for two years doing nothing except experimenting on my tape machine; that's the only way to make that kind of record. The only way to make A Deeper Understanding was to have my own studio for sixteen months and throw all the paint at the wall. And with this one, because life had become a little different and we were expecting a kid, and then had the baby in July 2019, I guess time was just different, and the concept of time and my focus was heightened. So when I would have a studio session for a week, I would have a really clear idea of what I wanted to do musically. That doesn't mean that every decision you make is the final take, but I would have a clear idea of what was wrong with a song, and how we were going to get to the heart of it. I don't think I've really ever had that sort of focus before because I never had to.

If you work on something for two years, "I Don't Wanna Wait", for example, I was always doing new vocals, always like, 'Let me do that second verse again,' and I would get a different melody idea or phrasing and would change the lyrics. Then three months later we'd return to it and I'd have a better idea. I was always rewriting stuff, so I think it always reflected things I was going through at that moment. Even in "Occasional Rain", which was basically the first song I wrote for this record, we recorded a version of it before we even started making the record. We recorded a demo of it, and I had everything in that song except a bunch of the lyrics, and at the end of recording the album I found that demo and I was like, oh shit. It having a context on the record as being the last song kinda helped me finish it, and helped me see the song for what it could be. So just trying to tune in to what I felt was important and what I was going through – frustration, time, hope, loss and everything, and incorporate it into music I had already been working on.

As you said, your songwriting is driven by a restlessness, but obviously in lockdown it was the opposite of that: stasis. How did you find inspiration in that state? You mentioned having your son, Bruce; I suppose that is a kind of journey of its own?

Yeah, I think there was a certain hope that came from having this wonderful experience amid everything else. There was also a period of time when he was gone, because he was with his mum who was working somewhere, so I was away from him for a couple of weeks. He was gone and I was in the studio with Shawn for those three weeks, so I felt this heightened creative but nostalgic kind of thing, because it was the first time I hadn't been around him. I was definitely channelling what I was feeling into those songs then. You look around and there was so much happening that whole year. So much negativitiy, positivity, fucking fear, everything. It was impossible to not have it creep in.

But at the same time having a young baby who was growing up day by day was a beautiful thing and grounded me, more so than getting consumed by the sadness.

You've said you wanted the arrangements to be more "deliberate" on this album. Can you explain that a little?

I think in a sense of having a beginning, middle and end. I could look at songs from our back catalogue and be proud of all that, for sure, but there are songs on this record that I just feel like are a more realised version of things I've been trying to do. We wrote "I Don't Wanna Wait" in one key, in F, then I kinda went back and rewrote it in a different key and with a key change, and it felt really concise as this tight, pop thing. It doesn't really sound like other pop-rock songs but it is basically pop from the way it flows. The song "Victim" I feel like was a song we were trying to write for ten years, it had this hypnotic drone and these three chords and pick loops, but it never had a beginning, middle and end.

How can I make use of processes that I enjoy, trial and error, but find a more interesting and poppy way? I always love songs that are basically the same progression but that have all these different melodies and movements on top of that same chord, so you're like, 'Oh, the song never really changed chords, they've just found a way to give it different sections'. So I think that’s what I required out of myself this time: have fun sonically but try to write a more coherent number and push yourself to have an arc, instead of just a feeling, a six-minute feeling.

I suppose in a way that was a similar thought process with the LIVE DRUGS album. You were looking back at many years of live performances, the curation for that must have been pretty rewarding given the context?

Yeah, the year before the pandemic we had basically 85% mixed it already. I wanted to start mixing the live stuff because if we just waited until we were ready to put something out, it would have been too daunting, we wouldn't remember anything. So we started with whatever we remembered, and we mixed it and had some fun with it. Then once April or May of the pandemic came around, the fact that all the live shows were being cancelled, there was a nostalgia and I wanted to give something to our fans and contribute something to this dark time, so I was like, why don't we just do this live record now? So we went full on into it, and it kind of gave it a context. Our tour was cancelled, so it did feel like living in that world and then listening to this live stuff, it felt like the end of something, you know? Like, whatever this band was at the end of 2018 playing arenas, that's the end of something. Even if we go back and play the same places, it's not gonna be the same. This was our life for five or six years, this is what we built, and it just felt like the end of something.

So moving into this tour, I'm thinking about it like that too, and I feel like LIVE DRUGS was an opportunity to put an exclamation point on that era and some of the things we were learning as a band, and where we had taken some songs, and letting it be that. And if we change course a little bit, there's a precedent for it, you know?

Speaking of changing courses, I think as depressing as the last year has been for many people, it's also given people a kick up the ass to reassess what they're doing with their life and maybe get back on track to things that they care about. Success for the band came relatively later in life for you, compared to the average age of most bands today. Was this something you struggled with? Were there times along the way you thought about packing it for a more traditional life? It must be very gratifying that you did keep at it...

When I turned in Lost In The Dream, I was prepared to kinda just see where that went and then re-evaluate after. It wasn't that I thought I wouldn't make music again, but it was the end of my deal with Secretly Canadian, and we were out on the road, but we hadn't crossed over. I don't mean crossed over commercially, but internally. It was just a totally different time, and I definitely thought, 'Well, we'll see where we go'. I don't know if I had thought about starting another career per se, but I definitely had assumed that I would go back to the restaurant or open my own coffee shop or something.

But yeah there were plenty of times. I never expected to be able to make a living from music, so I've always been prepared to work another job or do whatever you need to do. I had to be able to make my rent but also have a job where I had freedom so that I could work on my music at night and rehearse. So I always feel fortunate that I have been with the guys that have kept pushing us to get up there. There's also a world where Lost in the Dream comes out and no one in the band wants to go on tour, so we don't, you know? So it's a collective effort.

At least from an outsider's perspective, it seems like the Philadelphia music scene has been getting increased attention in the last few years. Kurt Vile keeps going from strength to strength, the emo-y bedroom folk sounds of Alex G have become more popular, and of course Mare of Easttown put a spotlight on bands like Mannequin Pussy and Japanese Breakfast. You've not lived there for a while now, as the new record’s title reminds us, but is this something you've noticed at all? Has it made you feel homesick?

I'll always feel homesick for Philly. It's a city with such a great identity, unlike any other place I've ever lived. So I'm always nostalgic for that, and it's always awesome when you hear people say, 'Man Philly's got such a cool scene right now,’ I'm like, 'Dude, fucking fifteen years now!' Not even talking about myself. There's been amazing music coming out of Philly since the day I moved there in 2003. We didn't really have a scene when we were there, we kinda operated on the outside a little bit, because it was just different. But Alex G, for example, we asked him to do a tour in Europe and it was so much fun, and we became great friends with his bandmates. It's a really great community inter-band-wise. People move there and have an idea of what they want to do, and it's a city that gives back to you.

I've not lived there in about eight years, but it obviously infused with the band in some way; I wonder when we will no longer be associated with Philly and that will be a sad day for the band, because it's given us so much. I hope that one day I'll be able to return to it, because it offers so much to musicians and everybody else.

I Don't Live Here Anymore is released on 29 October via Atlantic
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