FIRST PUBLISHED IN THE SKINNY
There was a lovely documentary that aired on BBC4 a few years back telling the story of the music that soundtracked Southern California during the late 60s and early 70s. In one scene, Glenn Frey of the Eagles remembers how he’d be wakened every morning to the sound of Jackson Browne sat at the piano downstairs. “He would play one verse, then play it again, and again, and again. Twenty times in a row, till he had it exactly the way he wanted. Then he’d move on to the next verse. Again, 20 times. It went on for hours… I don’t know how many days we listened to this same process before it suddenly hit us!”
It’s unsurprising to hear that Adam Granduciel, the lead man of Philadelphia band the War on Drugs, has seen this same documentary. Nor is it a shock when he calls back the final line of Frey’s story: “‘Ah, so that’s how you write a song!’ That documentary is hilarious!” Granduciel is a disciple of the classics: a musician and a songwriter who has been irrevocably shaped by the golden sounds of that era, right through those of the 1970s and 80s. Barely a review goes by without some mention of Dylan or of Springsteen or Young; not a spin of one of the War on Drugs’ three superb records passes without the listener recalling one of the three.
But it’s also hard to escape the suspicion that Granduciel himself would like nothing more than to sit at his piano all day playing music, albeit to a different end than Browne. “I love sitting down at the piano in the morning writing songs and picking up melodies,” he tells The Skinny from the Philadelphia house that has been his home for more than a decade. “For a while there, I would get up in the morning, make coffee and sit there for hours and play piano, sometimes pressing record, sometimes not.” Rarely, though, would he leave his piano with a finished piece.
Unlike Jackson Browne’s portable and hummable classics, Granduciel composes collages of sound: songs within songs, melodies upon melodies; pieces so sprawling that it’s often impossible to pinpoint an epicentre (tip: it’s much more fun not to try). From debut record Wagonwheel Blues, through Future Weather EP and Slave Ambient, up to new album Lost in the Dream, the band’s sound has been growing more textural, the layers denser and the edges a little more blurry. But, paradoxically, the War on Drugs’ sound has become more and more refined.
Lost in the Dream is marvellous. A product of Granduciel’s vision and obsessions, and of his Faustian pursuit of the right sound. “I was always such a fan of the classic artist: the obsessed, modernist painter or the guy who couldn’t leave his work alone,” he says. “Music was the one thing that as I kept getting older, I was getting more obsessed with… with recording, with getting better. That’s the one thing I do have that unbridled passion for. It’s fun for me to go on these journeys with the songs. People joke that I’m a perfectionist, but when you work at something for a year and start to see the songs take shape, then you start making drastic changes… ok, like mute all the drums, then the song reveals itself a whole new way, that’s really fun for me. All of a sudden you can turn it on its head, make last minute decisions. It’s obsessive for me in that I don’t wanna put it to bed… it’s not that I can’t. I wanna see how far this can go, what else you can do to make it that much more special.”
“I WAS ALWAYS SUCH A FAN OF THE CLASSIC ARTIST: THE OBSESSED, MODERNIST PAINTER OR THE GUY WHO COULDN’T LEAVE HIS WORK ALONE” – ADAM GRANDUCIEL
For the new record, Granduciel recorded demos of each of the tracks on tape in his home studio, a place which he speaks of in a reverent tone. The song Suffering he wrote on a Fender Rhodes piano and drum machine before taking it to the band and working on it for a few weeks. Eventually, he realised that he preferred the demo and took it in its primitive form. “I can do things in the comfort of my own home the way I want to do it and get the mood right for these songs, find the mood or work on a song till really late,” he explains.
It would be logical to paint a Spector-esque image of Granduciel the perfectionist. Indeed, it’s easy to imagine the man haunched over a mixing desk, listening to the same snare drum beat all night long while everyone else around him sleeps, such is his boyish love for the studio and for sonic doodling. But he says that he’s learnt to draw a line. He no longer records religiously. “I used to,” he says. “I used to smoke a lot more pot, I used to have all my stuff in my bedroom.” But over the past 18 months, the rising profile of the band, the demands of touring and the desire to produce another record have all helped him acquire some level of professionalism. Even if it is by default.
“I used to do everything in my house,” he says. “But now we have a rehearsal space. At this stage in the game we can’t be preparing for a big tour and rehearsing in my house… every time I touch the microphone I get shocked.”
The house with a big yard holds happy memories for Granduciel. He moved from Oakland, California to Philadelphia in 2003 but being “not overly social,” he doesn’t credit the city at large with having major influence over his music. It was more a case of the music scene beginning to gravitate around his home. He thinks it was in his house that he met Kurt Vile, one-time War on Drugs member and still one of Granduciel’s best friends, and most of his other collaborators.
“When me and Kurt met, this is where we would play and record all the time back in the day, where our bands would rehearse. It’s this weird institution among my circle of musical friends. They’re like: ‘let’s go to Adam’s because all the gear’s there.’ There’s a sense of home here… it’s affordable and there’s a freedom to really not be anything but yourself. Music can be your number one thing, I don’t need four jobs just to pay for my apartment. That’s been a big influence. I guess being in the same house in this neighbourhood which is always changing, being a part of my little weird city community, rather than the music community, is a little strange. I always joke that I’m my block captain. My neighbour takes in my trash can and I take in his, I give him a ride…”
There’s no clock-watching during a chat with Adam Granduciel. He gives the impression that he’d happily chew the fat all day, particularly if it happens to involve music. We talk Townes Van Zandt, who, unlike Granduciel, had something approaching a phobia of recording studios. “Townes probably got so much enjoyment out of playing his songs in a room, on a porch or in bars,” he offers. “He didn’t need to put it… in a capsule. Being a little bit of an introvert, the recorded material is where I get to sit on my couch with my best friends and play them my songs.” We discuss his favourite producers. “Really all the greats: Bob Johnstone of Columbia, Tom Wilson (Dylan, the Velvets)… who produced the Roxy Music records? Eno?”
It’s hard to reconcile the enthusiastic voice on the phone with his own admissions of depression, loneliness and paranoia. Equally, while the War on Drugs’ records are moody, they’re never maudlin. Some of the themes are dark, but they’re delivered in a way that suggests light at the end of whatever tunnel their creator may have been facing into, be it in the form of a joyous whoop, the crack of a snare or the exhilarating key change on a synth. Bill Callahan once sung, in his inimitable deadpan drawl: “Dress sexy at my funeral.” The same sentiment exists on Lost in the Dream. It would be impossible to avoid the dark clouds, but why not skewer them with rainbows?
“I really enjoy pop music and darker records that are rock and roll rather than sombre,” Granduciel says. “Tonight’s the Night, which is so dark, has classic rock and roll elements to it. When I’m writing songs I’m never thinking about the mood… it’s always there. I don’t really write sad musical things, brooding things. But I like the landscape of these large songs and feel that I can step out a little more and express whatever I’m feeling, hoping that it’s not too personal, that it’s still relatable, and that I’m not the only person that can feel that way. That helps the songs be a little more uplifting. I always love a good keyboard hook. I’m playing along with a song – say Red Eyes – and, oh! there it is! I knew it was there somewhere! This is exactly what I wanted that song to be, that’s what makes me happy, this is a great rock and roll number, not over-thinking it, just going for it. As long as I still get joy out of making albums, I’ll feel like I’m moving forward.”