The War On Drugs' creative lynchpin Adam Granduciel tells Steve Bell about yearning for simpler times.
The War On Drugs frontman Adam Granduciel is enjoying some well-earned downtime in his adopted hometown of LA, soaking up an all-too-rare window of time with his family when he catches up with The Music.
His beloved indie rock outfit has just endured a busy couple of months navigating the North American and European summer festival circuits, so he’s catching up on some rest and relaxation before getting back on the horse for the band’s long-awaited Australian return in December. That was the plan, at any rate.
“My son just turned four a couple of days ago, and we had a party, and I think the party - in terms of me planning the party and doing all the work - took more out of me than two years of touring does,” he laughs. “I was exhausted the next day in a way that I wasn’t when we headline big festivals, I was whooped.”
The impending run of headlining shows will be The War On Drugs’ fourth visit to Australian shores, but their status is far different these days than when they first made the trek back in 2012 to play the Harvest Festival.
Despite having two strong albums under their belts at the time they were still assigned an early slot on a side-stage, this still being a couple of years before their Grammy-winning third album Lost In The Dream (2014) kicked down the doors and introduced The War On Drugs to a vast new audience.
“We had an amazing time on that first trip, I was just looking at photos from it recently,” Granduciel reflects. “Back then, it was before Lost In The Dream, so it was sort of like we couldn’t even believe we were over there; it was just like a dream. We did the Harvest tour, and I remember Beck played; great times.
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“But that album was a real game-changer. I think when you’re in it, you say things like, ‘Oh, I don’t know man, I’m just trying to make the next record, you know?’, but I feel like now it’s been ten years since that record came out basically and I’m just grateful that we got to experience something like that. It just felt like this organic process where we had this album and people really liked the music I guess, and it kind of just grew.
“I was able to surround myself with this great band - I wanted a big band anyway - and it was a great group of people to grow into the sound with, obviously it’s the same line-up. So it’s been really sort of special, and it’s never really been lost on me, although there’s a time when you don’t really want to acknowledge it. But I’ve reached the point where I’m ready to, and now I still feel that there’s so many things that I want to do.”
The evolution of The War On Drugs’ sound over time has been slow but steady, the aesthetic slightly more lush and expansive with each release without ever seeming like too much of a jump at any juncture.
Their most recent album I Don’t Live Here Anymore (2021) is the culmination of that progression to date, and while Granduciel still admits to being a perfectionist at heart he also longs creatively for the more innocent days when his band was still on the rise.
“I’m trying to get back to that more simple early approach we had, I feel like you lose it somewhere along the line,” he says. “I mean, you sign to a major label, and it just all happens so fast, and then all of a sudden you’re making expensive records, and you kind of forget - it’s amazing how quickly you forget something that you never thought about.
“I was just recently listening to all of the Lost In A Dream sessions because I was trying to put some stuff together and I was, like, ‘Oh yeah, I never cared at all about the kick and snare and how they sounded’, but then somewhere along the line with the last two records you’re suddenly spending days on a snare drum and the kick sound.
“It made me ponder, ‘I never cared about that stuff before; why do we get so caught up in all of that now? Why do these records take so long to make?’ There was basically all of these rough mixes from July of 2013, and they were not at all where we ended up. Then literally three weeks later I was mixing [Lost In The Dream] with Nicholas [Vernhes - engineer] in Brooklyn, and we finished it.
“So basically in three-and-a-half weeks, it went from kind of a record and not really fully tracked, to three weeks later, it was done. And now it’s like three-and-a-half weeks later I might get an email about when we can work on the first track.
“Despite having nothing at the time it was such an easier time, so I’m trying to get back to remembering what it’s like to make something very simple. Those first three records were essentially very simple albums, and somewhere along the line, you find yourself making it increasingly more difficult than it needs to be.
“But that’s also part of the journey. The last two records, I’m super-proud of, and I think they’re great - well, I think one of them’s great, the other one not so much - but it was the intense process of making them that I’m still grateful to have had, and it helped the band in a number of ways, but I’m definitely excited about getting back to a different way of making records.”
Just for the record, which of the last two albums - A Deeper Understanding (2017) and I Don’t Live Here Anymore - does the singer think doesn’t shape up?
“I’ve never been really satisfied with A Deeper Understanding,” Granduciel admits. “It’s nothing major - just a couple of things on there that I feel I could change - but it was also that I have fond memories of certain times making that record, but it was also very difficult in a couple of ways. That’s fine, every record has that story.”
Amidst all this talk of The War On Drugs’ early albums being “very simple”, it’s important to remember that even the first couple of records - Wagonwheel Blues (2008) and Slave Ambient (2011) - contained subtle embellishments such as sampled found sounds, drones and ambient loops, so from a musical standpoint Granduciel was clearly ambitious from the outset.
“Yeah, there was so much discovery in those days,” he smiles. “I always felt like I was learning, almost like I was a fly on the wall learning how to do music. Even with Lost In The Dream, I had some songs that I worked on, and then we mixed them really quickly, but somebody was there - the right person at the right time - in Nicholas to bring it up on the boards and make the tweaks to help it sound amazing. We did it together in a month, and he did an amazing job.
“But then on the next record, everyone assumes that you know what you’re doing, and you’re like, ‘No, no, no, I never knew what I was doing! I still don’t know what I’m doing!’ And that kinda thing really happens, when people assume that you’re in the driver’s seat all the time, when I’ve always enjoyed doing what I have to do and then having people that are there to help bring it all together.
“But, the last two records working with Shawn [Everett - co-producer] were such a good time, and I’m sure I’ll look back on those in five years and think what an amazing experience that was. So yeah, it’s always just in a state of flux. I’m ready to approach the record-making differently, but I still love doing it, for sure.”
With this new simplified approach to writing for album number six seemingly consolidated, Granduciel admits that it’s nonetheless coming together slowly (in no small part due to the band’s recent touring commitments).
“I’ve been accumulating some stuff,” he offers. “I prefer to write at home because I like to write stuff on the piano. There’s something about the instrument; I just seem to come up with better stuff when I’m sitting at the piano. So unless I start demanding a piano in my hotel room, it tends to happen at home.
“My relationship to songwriting is basically the same, I haven’t figured out a secret shortcut. You can go to the studio every day and work on a small idea, but I just feel like sometimes those things just happen where you play something very quickly and you don’t see it coming.
“My thing is that I really like to react, I like to react to things. As a guitar player, I like to build up a song with the keyboards, the drums and some strummed guitars, but I like to as a lead player hear the sort of culmination of that, like I’m in the room with this band that I just built and react to what I’m hearing.
“You can’t write and react at the same time, so I try to just make stuff that’s exciting enough - maybe vocally or maybe rhythmically - which makes it exciting enough where I want to work on it to the point that I see where I can go with the guitar.
“It can sometimes be a long process, but that’s what I’ve learned. Even with the vocals - or any aspect of it really - I just like to react really quickly to what I’m hearing. But you need to have a good framework.
“I used to think that the first take was the best - it was almost like being prepared was ‘not cool’ or something - but now I realise that if you’re prepared and you take the band in, the first take is going to be great… if you’re prepared. And that’s when you can sometimes react when you’re not thinking at all, and that tends to be the best stuff.
“But I’ve never figured out a trick. It sounds cliche, but my routine is just like waking up, playing piano, playing guitar, watching TV, playing guitar… The TV is constantly on mute, and I just have my demos playing constantly on the speaker, so I just play guitar over it all day long and see what I can hear that I haven’t heard before.”
A renowned music geek during his formative years in Philadelphia, does Granduciel still feel as passionate about or as connected to music as he did when he was younger?
“You know, I think about that all the time,” he reflects. “The way I felt about music 15 years ago… I do feel as passionate about it now. It’s weird, it’s amazing that music’s become my career, but I still do love it.
“I’m still passionate about writing music, but in terms of being a music fan, I don’t feel like I’m as hungry as I was to scour for things I haven’t heard before. But I don’t know how much of that is me, and how much is about the way that we listen to music now and how much I really enjoy that part of it. Sometimes I find myself going back to the well more than I find myself digging.
“Also I have a different life these days being a father and all, and it’s just not the same anymore as much as I want it to be. I want to be on the scene - I want to be part of a scene and be out and about more than I am - but I’m not, and that’s just the way it is.”
While Australian fans haven’t been privy to seeing The War On Drugs in the flesh since their last sojourn in 2018, in the interim, they were treated to the band’s first-ever concert document in Live Drugs (2020).
While a live album can never fully substitute for the visceral reality of the actual live experience, Live Drugs did act as a handy reminder of just how strong The War on Drugs have become in the live realm, a fact Granduciel himself admits only coming to terms with surprisingly recently.
“Before COVID, I used to always worry that everybody there was just laughing at us,” he recalls. “It was just something to push against, I guess. The feeling that even though there were a lot of people there, that you still had to, like, prove yourself.
“I still have that sort of burning, but after COVID, I just realised that if people are there, they want to be there. It’s not just about being outside or in a crowd or anything, I just think that people value their time differently now.
“So when we play our own show - our headlining show - with our fans, it always feels like our people. They want us to play for a long time, they want us to play this, they want us to play that, they want to hear this outro - I think people are really connected to the show.
“Also kind of one thing that Live Drugs did, was that you know the version of Under The Pressure and how people chanted? That was just at the one show in England that happened, and I was, like, ‘We’ve gotta find what that show was because we gotta put it on Live Drugs!’
“It kinda gives context to it, and I feel like now that’s something that people have started doing all the time. It happened frequently on this last tour cycle, I assume because people heard it on Live Drugs, and now it’s a thing.
“But it’s kinda cool. Live records are a really cool way to let people in because it gives all of your songs a context. Like the intro that you write on the road that wasn’t on a record, becomes like half of a side of a new live record - it puts your show in a different context.
“And I feel like we have a very special fanbase. We don’t fit on every festival stage, but I think that the fans who want to see us play are super passionate and genuine and it makes everything worth it. It’s really exciting, it’s really cool to keep touring and getting back to the places we’ve been and have more people coming and different kinds of people. It feels like it’s still growing in the best way. They want to see us do our thing, and it’s great.”
The band’s expansion certainly rings true on a local level, with the impending Australian trip finding them playing far bigger stages than on previous visits.
“We’ve had to grow into it obviously, but we love it,” Granduciel beams of playing to bigger crowds. “We’ve got a great team onstage with us making sure that everything works, it’s great. It’s like people really want to see us. It’s cool when occasionally we play a small room, but I think that people like to see us on those big outside stages, at night-time - we’re just one of those bands, and it’s pretty cool to be handed that opportunity.”
The War On Drugs will tour Australia this December. Tickets are available via the Live Nation Australia website.
SYDNEY OPERA HOUSE FORECOURT, SYDNEY MONDAY 4 DECEMBER – SOLD OUT
SYDNEY OPERA HOUSE FORECOURT, SYDNEY TUESDAY 5 DECEMBER – NEW SHOW
SIDNEY MYER MUSIC BOWL, MELBOURNE THURSDAY 7 DECEMBER
RIVERSTAGE, BRISBANE SATURDAY 9 DECEMBER
KINGS PARK AND BOTANIC GARDEN, PERTH MONDAY 11 DECEMBER