Interview: The War on Drugs
If Philadelphia’s The War on Drugs have proven anything over the course of their decade long career, it’s that there is no substitute for hard work. The band, led by Adam Granduciel, has gone through different iterations with Granduciel himself serving as the center of the circle. This is not to say that the other members are dispensable by any means; at its core the group succeeds by creating music that sounds like a bunch of friends playing together for the triumph of making something new.
The War on Drugs have only released two full length albums and three EPs, but there is a clear evolution sonically with each release. In 2010 they released the Future Weather EP, which was recorded by Granduciel in Philadelphia. The EP developed the group’s sound by adding more sonic textures, creating a new atmosphere that culminates in the albums epic closer, “The History of Plastic.”
In 2011 the band released their second full length album, Slave Ambient. It was the first album to feature the current lineup of David Hartley, Steven Urgo and Robbie Bennett. From start to finish, the album is a warm mixture of studio experimentation with wonderfully written songs that feel like personal anthems. Slave Ambient beautifully captures the feelings and anxieties of simply being alive. On “Brothers,” Granducial delivers perhaps some of the most honest, almost self-deprecating lyrics without the slightest bit of kitsch.
The band has often been compared to artist like Tom Petty, Bob Dylan, and The Boss, but whether or not these are fair assessments is ultimately up to the listener. As Granduciel puts it, “there are worse people to be compared to.” Slave Ambient is proof that The War on Drugs are much more then Americana revivalist’s.
The War on Drugs have been nominated for two Tri State Indie awards including “Album of the Year” and “Band of the Year.” I recently spoke to frontman Adam Granduciel about his music, favorite venues, and the Philadelphia music scene.
DH: Are you surprised that people still dub you as Americana revivalists even after Slave Ambient?
Adam Granduciel: Yeah, I think I was a little bit. I understood at the beginning with songs like “Arms Like Boulders,” but after Future Weathe and Slave Ambient I just didn’t really get it. I see echoes of [Tom] Petty and all the stuff that people talk about, but I don’t think its derivative of that stuff. At the same time I don’t really mind, I guess it’s why people call us a throwback band.
DH: Do you find it easy or hard to know when a song is done?
AG: Sometimes I do and sometimes I don’t. When I’m recording, I tend to indulge myself, I usually add a lot more to the recording then I know I’ll use. For instance on “It’s Your Destiny” I ended up having a ton of synths on it only because I wanted to hear what it sounded like even though I knew I probably wouldn’t keep them. A lot of the times I’ll try to take songs in different directions and then scale them back in the end. I usually find that the first version and first mix of a song is the one that I end up keeping.
DH: Did you intend to put “Brothers” and “Baby Missiles” on Slave Ambient?
AG: Not originally. With”Brothers,” I had recorded the Future Weather version and then we went on tour a few months after and we started playing it as a band, then while we were down south I booked a day at a studio and we decided to record it. We did most of the song live in the studio which is pretty much the version on Slave Ambient and then just overdubbed some guitars. I didn’t really think about it until it was done then I realized that it’s the same chords, same lyrics, but with a different performance it takes on a completely different meaning.
With “Baby Missiles” I wasn’t going to put it on the record, but a couple weeks before we were done I felt like I spent so much time recording and mixing the song that I just felt like it should be on the full-length. I didn’t really think people would care, maybe the 400 people who heard Future Weather, but I just felt like it should be on Slave Ambient.
DH: “Black Water Falls” is an older song of yours, what made you decide to put it on the album?
AG: Well it was an old song but the recording is new. We actually recorded it at the same time we did “Brothers” down in North Carolina. Robbie [Bennett] actually had a few demos I did in 2004 on his iPod and one of them was “Black Water Falls.” Obviously I remembered the song and we listened to it then a week later we went in the studio and we all learned it. After a couple takes everyone got it right. It’s one of those things that over time you develop library of songs that you wrote a long time ago but never really sounded right until the right people are playing on it.
DH: Can you talk about the cover of [the Greatful Dead's] “Touch of Grey” a little bit?
AG: “Touch of Grey,” came about after I heard it somewhere and just though it would be a fuckin’ great cover for the band to play. I wasn’t trying to have it be any sort of tongue and cheek thing like some people thought. I mean, once we started learning the song we realized it’s just a really great song. I’m excited that we got it together and got to play it.
DH: The music itself seems like it could lend itself to bigger rooms then you’re playing now, does the music seem to flourish in larger venues?
AG: I mean, when we started we were playing small rooms and over time we have gained opportunities to play larger rooms. Playing Union Transfer was awesome, and back touring with Destroyer we got the chance to play some bigger rooms. I think The War on Drugs music could benefit from bigger venues and more people. Each tour we have been playing, the rooms have gotten bigger, and it actually lends itself to more people staying throughout the whole show, which seems counterintuitive. It’s been cool to play different rooms and have the music dictate the vibe.
DH: Do you think Philly is on its way to establishing a big music scene?
AG: Yeah, I mean, it’s great to see bands from Philly getting out there in a big way. I mean, me and Kurt a couple years ago were playing at places like the Khyber, North Star Bar, and the Fire just playing shows wherever we could. There are just a lot of people from Philly putting out music and getting on the road. It’s great to see.
DH: Do you have a favorite piece of equipment for playing live?
AG: For a long time the Moogerfooger was my favorite piece, but I think now the guitar itself is probably my favorite because I have had a couple different ones that I’ve acquired over time. I really like playing through my Roland Space Echo. It’s one of the older ones. They make a new one that’s digital, but, for me, half the battle is that it looks fuckin’ cool sitting on my amp. I could buy a digital delay pedal, it does the same thing, I just like having it propped up on the old amp. The Space Echo itself is great because it has its own input volume so its like another gain stage on the guitar, so I can have all my other pedals hot and lower the gain on the Space Echo, but usually I have the Space Echo cranked so that when it hits the machine it saturates the tape more.
I love acquiring new gear and changing up the pedal board. I have a few new things but I won’t know how good they are until I use them every night on the road. It’s kind of weird to sit in my house with my pedal board — live it’s much more interactive. If I just sit in my house and play and step on pedals it doesn’t really do anything for me.