The War on Drugs Gets Ready to Play the Big Rooms

My favorite song of 2014’s first quarter is from an album that’s still three weeks out from its release date. It’s called “An Ocean in Between the Waves,” and it’s the fourth track on Lost in the Dream, the third LP by Philadelphia band the War on Drugs. Formed in 2005 by Adam Granduciel and Kurt Vile (who exited the group to focus on his burgeoning solo career shortly after the release of WOD’s 2008 debut, Wagonwheel Blues), the War on Drugs mines the same stylistic territory as Vile, planting big hooks amid evocative swirls of atmospheric guitar and synth sounds that hark back to the glory days of ’80s heartland rock and British alt-pop. (Imagine the exact midpoint between Disintegration and Tunnel of Love, and you get the War on Drugs’ marvelous 2011 breakthrough, Slave Ambient.)

If Vile is the Tom Petty of this aesthetic, Granduciel is Mike Campbell — arguably more musically accomplished, but (for now) less famous. The Campbell comparison carries over to “Ocean,” which rides a surge of metronomic beats and murky keyboards to a climactic series of stunning guitar theatrics that recall all those excellent outro solos on Heartbreakers classics like “American Girl” and “Runnin’ Down a Dream.” It is the leanest and meanest song yet in the War on Drugs’ arsenal. Unlike the lush and carefully layered Slave Ambient, made by Granduciel when the War on Drugs was essentially a band in name only, “Ocean” sounds like it was bashed out by a true working unit honed into a hard-charging machine after a few years on the road.

Or so I thought. When I phoned Granduciel earlier this month and enthused about the “live in the studio” feel of “Ocean,” he informed me that I was (at best) half-right. It’s true the War on Drugs had become a “real” band during the extensive support tour for Ambient, and Granduciel wanted the new record to reflect that. But he wound up assembling both LPs basically the same way, by carefully combing over sounds, over and over again, fastidiously, like he was figuring out a puzzle.

“I wanted to do something that showcased what the band had become without necessarily giving up control of the recording,” he explained. “It’s not even a matter of micromanaging; it’s just, if you try to set up to make the record live in the studio, you’re going to have to give up a little bit of control somewhere. I feel like with this record, I wasn’t ready to do that yet.”

Granduciel and I spoke for an hour about Dream, which ushers in a new, ascendant period in the band’s trajectory. In the wake of Slave Ambient’s critical success, the War on Drugs is currently in the same position former tourmate the National was in at the time of 2007’s Boxer: still largely unknown outside of indie-rock circles, but poised to enter a wider consciousness thanks to an album that delivers smashingly well on the group’s buzz.

I came away from our conversation with two impressions: (1) Adam Granduciel loves to talk about the minutiae of making a record; and (2) Adam Granduciel is worn out by the minutiae of making a record. As a casual (though somewhat concerned) bystander, I couldn’t help but think that Dream’s March 18 release will finally put some healthy distance between the affable but intense Granduciel and an album that, for many months, dominated his life.

The relationship between Dream and its primary creator could be likened to a dysfunctional romantic relationship that’s fueled by love and emits highly toxic fumes. For more than a year, Granduciel was obsessed with Dream. He broke up with his girlfriend around the time he started writing and demoing tunes in August 2012. So, from the beginning, it was just him and this record living together in a big, empty, lonely house. When Granduciel wasn’t in the studio, he had nothing to do but ruminate on how to tweak, then revise, and then completely rework songs. He lost sleep over this album. He literally got sick over this album. Over time, he admits, he lost all perspective.

Take, for example, “An Ocean in Between the Waves.” It was among the most frustrating tracks for Granduciel to complete. “I started a demo of that song that was really beautiful, and really haunting, maybe 14 months ago,” he said. “Then we recorded it as a band, and I knew for months and months that it had gone off the rails, that it wasn’t the vibe of the song that I was searching for. But we just kept working on it. We mixed it, and I just couldn’t listen to it without physically getting sick. It made my head spin when I heard it.”

Finally, two weeks before Dream was supposed to be turned in to his record label on November 1, Granduciel scrapped all those months of work and went back to the demo. “I kept the drums from before, and that was really it,” he said. “I did the rest. It was really great. It was really cathartic to have a song wrap up that quickly.” He sounded both proud and exhausted.

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In a way, you could say that Lost in the Dream is like one of those “making of the music video” music videos. It’s a “making of the most important album of your life” album. For Granduciel, it was a period of overwhelming anxiety and deep depression, and you can hear that trauma on the record. Every “big” rock moment — like “Ocean,” the self-explanatory “Burning,” and the first single, “Red Eyes” — is shadowed by introspective songs like “Under the Pressure,” “Suffering,” and “Disappearing” that are all chilly guitar sputters, mournful piano chords, and long fade-outs suggesting a restless mind zoning out in an antidepressant haze.

Ultimately, it’s the chilly, mournful, fade-out-heavy tracks that define the mood of the record. Dream’s closest cousin is Wilco’s A Ghost Is Born, in how it vividly conveys the experience of feeling disconnected from other people, and even your own body, strictly via the sound and texture of the music. It’s not accurate to classify Dream as “depressing,” because it’s really not, particularly given the album’s hopeful second half. It’s more that it evokes the sensation of feeling depressed.

Granduciel is still sorting out whether that was intentional. “I like to make music that is pretty musically uplifting,” he told me at one point. “I don’t know if I know how to make dark music.” And yet he acknowledged that his state of mind played a big part in filling the emotional space of the record, and that this state of mind could be aptly described as “dark.”

“I wasn’t trying to make it autobiographical as much as I was just trying to put song and tone and words together in a way that I felt was expressing the way I was feeling,” he said.

Before Dream, Granduciel saw himself as a “carefree kind of dude.” But now he believes he always had latent depressive tendencies, it’s just that his life had been hurtling forward too quickly for him to notice. After moving back to Philadelphia in the early aughts and finding a musical soulmate in Vile, who pitched in on Granduciel’s projects and recruited Granduciel to play guitar in his band, the Violators, there was rarely a time in the past decade when he wasn’t on the road or recording music.

“My twenties were, in the best ways possible, a total fucking blur,” Granduciel said. “I traveled the U.S. probably like 47 times in 10 years. Just constantly going and going and going, doing music at home, being up all night, working on music all weekend, and going to work all week, going on tour, then coming home, and then going on tour with Kurt for a month, coming home, and then doing it all over again. All of a sudden, it was like, no more. All of a sudden you’re like, ‘Oh my god, I’m 34. Now I have to make a new record.’”

Coming up with material wasn’t a problem. Throughout the late summer and fall of 2012, Granduciel worked on songs he was excited to plug into a new War on Drugs LP. But scheduling conflicts with the other band members slowed the recording process, and since the band wasn’t touring, Granduciel had a lot of time — more time than was used to — between sessions to let his mind wander.

“I started going off the rails a little bit in my own head, getting a little too sucked in,” he said. “I learned a lot about anxiety and depression and how you probably have it your whole life, but you never really know it. Then eventually it starts to make your life smaller and smaller and smaller.”

Granduciel’s anxiousness created a vicious circle during the making of Lost in the Dream. Overthinking every detail caused him to constantly second-guess himself, which only increased his anxiety, which only made him second-guess himself more intensely. Just as with “An Ocean in Between the Waves,” a lot of songs cycled through several variations before circling back to one of Granduciel’s initial ideas. “‘Suffering’ went through four or five different incarnations, and then I ended up just going back to the original demo I recorded, which was a drum machine and a Rhodes piano, and we ended up building on top of that,” he said.

Perhaps Dream’s most beautiful number, “Eyes to the Wind” came together as the album was being mixed. On the record, “Wind” is a briskly strummed mini epic with a sighing horn section and a gorgeously melancholic piano part. It sounds like a deep cut from All Things Must Pass. At the mixing board, Granduciel couldn’t bring himself to provide the clarity the track needed. His ears were fried and he was desperate for a fresh perspective. “I lost sight of how personal it had become after a while, just because I was so immersed in every aspect of making the record,” he recalled.

It was suggested that Granduciel’s vocals be brought up in the mix, just to make the song’s sentiments more discernible. “I’m just a bit run down here at the moment,” he sings. “And I’m alone here, living in darkness.” On paper, it plainly states the particulars of Granduciel’s life at the time. But in the context of the song, the lyric is elevated to a state of grace. “I just kind of stripped a lot of that shit away and heard it for what it was,” he said.

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Lest I make Lost in the Dream seem like too much of a downer, let’s return to the “barnstorming rock and roll surge” portion of the record. The album’s timing seems fortuitous: With Arcade Fire stuck in a deep dive of quasi-ironic rock-star posturing and stultifying dance rhythms, there’s suddenly a dearth of the kind of stirring, earnest anthems Lost in the Dream has in rich supply. (If you’re looking for a true follow-up to The Suburbs, this is it.) I would bet on it to expand the War on Drugs’ audience because Dream demands to be heard — to blossom, even — in large rooms.

This is a “large room” kind of band. I’ve seen the War on Drugs twice — the first time in a half-empty bar in Madison, Wisconsin, four months before Slave Ambient came out, and the second eight months later at Manhattan’s Beacon Theatre, opening for the National. The second time was vastly superior. Now, you could say the second show benefited from the War on Drugs playing dozens of concerts in the interim. Granduciel himself said he had to learn how to be a front man on that tour. After regarding the War on Drugs for so long as a studio-bound entity, he felt at first like he was covering his own songs in concert.

“I had to learn to connect with my songs like other people were,” he said. “I didn’t take myself seriously. I loved doing it, but I didn’t think anyone would care, or anything would ever come of it. It all kind of fell into my lap. I had to grow in the face of all that.”

I remember being wowed at the Beacon show by how the band filled that cavernous space with so much sound. Lost in the Dream is similarly outfitted with outsize sonic freight. It yearns to be spread as far and wide as possible. Granduciel, for one, is looking forward to initiating that spread, especially since it means living outside of his own head again.

“I’m just excited to get back to playing every night and hearing everything start to take on a life of its own,” he said, sounding more like his old “carefree dude” self. “The eight hours in a van I can live without, but I’m sure when I’m driving from Pittsburgh to Chicago, I’ll be like, ‘This is what I miss.’”

Filed Under: Music, The War on Drugs, Kurt Vile, Ambient Slave, Lost in the dream, steven hyden, The National

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Steven Hyden is a staff writer at Grantland.

Archive @ Steven_Hyden