The War on Drugs - Adam Granduciel on Recording “A Deeper Understanding”

Irons in the Fire

Aug 24, 2017 Issue #61 - Grizzly Bear Photography by Dustin Condren Bookmark and Share


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When The War on Drugs' Lost in the Dream became arguably the most widely-acclaimed album of 2014, it was easy to be happy for Adam Granduciel. Here was a true indie rock lifer, a guy who had bounced around the margins of the indie scene for over a decade with limited success, and he had created the rare album that cut through our fragmented musical culture to become a genuine cultural moment. So how does a 35-year-old singer/songwriter follow-up the album he had probably spent his life dreaming about making? If you're Granduciel, you waste no time. You write and rehearse songs while on tour so you can start planning your next album as soon as the last gig is over. You move from your home in Philadelphia, where you've made all of your albums, to refine your recording techniques with super-producer Shawn Everett. You write two dozen songs and whittle them down to A Deeper Understanding, a laser-focused set of songs that explore themes of loss and loneliness while expanding your sonic palette. Here, Granduciel explains his insatiable creative drive, how he struggled with living up to the success of his previous work, and how he has learned to simply sit back and appreciate his new albumat least until the rest of the world hears it. [Note: These are extra portions of our interview with Adam Granduciel, quotes that didn't make it into our main print article on The War on Drugs.] 

Matt Fink (Under the Radar): So you jumped into the songwriting process as soon as touring for Lost in the Dream ended, correct?

Adam Granduciel: Pretty much. I needed to make sure I had a place to work when I was living in LA. I had already been writing a lot of songs on the road, and I had written some stuff in this downtime at the end of 2014. I had demoed a bunch of stuff, and then we picked back up in the spring of that year, we were playing some of it in soundcheck, and then we recorded some of them. After about a month or a month and a half of being at home, once I had a place that I could work and put all of my shit, I just started composing every day and trying to write stuff that I hadn't been already working on and build up stuff the way that I've always done it. We were touring so much and we'd be gone for a week or two weeks, three weeks, and then home for three weeks. So when I'd be home for those weeks, I'd just try to write a lot and work on stuff and I always felt like I had things brewing. And when you're in a tour mode, and everyone is clicking, and all of the songs you are playing are second nature, the idea of having a new song that you can dial in as a band is really tempting.

Was there a sense that you wanted to carry on the momentum from the last record?

Yeah, a little bit. I wanted to keep my brain moving. It's just one of those things. I love recording music, and I also know these things take a lot of time. If you're getting off the road, even if you start another record and work fairly slowly, it's still going to be two or three years before you're on the road again. This is what I do, and at the same time, this is how me and my friends make our living. I wouldn't want to just disappear. We want to be able to spend the time to make a record and then go back out however long we need to.

Was there a point in the writing where you realized what kind of album you were making?

I think that moment is maybe a week from now. I'm 100 percent serious. I listened to the master for the first time yesterday. I was in the room when I was mastering it, obviously, and I mixed it with Shawn [Everett]. But after that I can't walk around and listen to it, because if it's still in the realm of having not been delivered yet, then it will drive me a little crazy. Not like in some weird perfectionist way, but it was such an intense final couple weeksmonths, really. There was a time where I had to take a couple weeks off from the record for...not bad health things, but I had some shit that I had to deal with. And then when I came back from it, I was not reborn but I had this whole new energy that I could dedicate to the record, so I was almost making up for lost time the last five months of doing it.

Do you have a sense of how this album is different from the previous one?

Not really. Obviously, fidelity-wise it's a little different. I'm not really sure how it's different yet, other than I'm older and have more experience doing what I'm doing. Technical stuff aside, I'm not really able to think about it that way. It's different because I made this one four years after that last one. I guess the easy answer would be that it's more confident. But I don't know that it's more confident. I wouldn't necessarily say that. Maybe it's not more confident. Maybe it's more self-conscious.

I know the story of the last album is that you were struggling with depression and anxiety following the end of the Slave Ambient tour, and this influenced the writing of Lost in the Dream. What was your headspace while making this album?

Well, I was in a pretty good headspace. I was in work mode. I was going to the studio every day, working on songs. I had more songs for this record than I've ever had for any record in the past. By the time we started with Shawn in late June of 2016, I had 23 or 24 working songs, like stuff that I had actually started recording. So I was writing a lot of stuff, and I was working a lot. I was going to the studio every day, and that afforded me a good headspace. I'm best when I have a place I know I can go to work and do my thing, and so, like anything, there are weeks or days at a time where I'm sitting with ProTools going through hours of old recordings or uploading my phone ideas onto my computers. But I feel like it all eventually adds up to something. But at the moment, you're like, "What the fuck am I even doing?" There did come a time where I was feeling very disconnected from the music in a way that I had my whole life as someone that was recording his own music that pretty much happens on the same street in Philadelphia. I lived in two different houses on the same street for 14 years, and before then I did music, but I didn't record the way that I ended up getting into. I developed my process in those two houses. So this was the first time where I was out of that element, and I wasn't in a more professional studio, but I was in a more professional environment, emotionally and maybe physically. And then there came a time where I was a little nostalgic for that old headspace.  

Do you think you get tunnel vision and lose a sense of yourself while working?

Well, I don't know if I lose sense of myself, but it's definitely an all-consuming thing. I bring it home with me, and it puts me in a great mood or a shitty mood. It affects my ability to listen to music recreationally. When you're starting a new record, the last memory you have of making records is from when you were way deep inside the making of the last one. It's like, "How do I get to that spot again on this one? It's going to take a long time." And then you work every day until you end up in the this place where you are the master of every single second on the record, where you know exactly what's going on and all the moments you have to choose from. And there's always the desire to record new songs or scrap this or scrap that or record this again, but I do respect the deadlines that I say I'll deliver. I just try to get inside of it for six months pretty heavy, so I know that I've gone as far as I can go.

Was there one particular moment when you realized that album was breaking through?

I guess there's that thing where you're not sure if the music is reaching a certain level or if more people are there to see you. A couple of festivals we played in Europe where all of a sudden we were playing at 6:00 and everyone was coming to see us play, I was like, "That's fucking interesting." Whether they knew any of the music or any of the records, that was exciting, like the name of the band was getting a little more popular or the record is getting out there. But once we found ourselves a year and a half into the record cycle and were playing places we never played before and to a lot of people who were psyched on the record. That's when I was like, "Wow. A lot of people heard this record." That was a beautiful thing.

Do you have an understanding of why that album connected in a different way with listeners?

I don't really know. It could be anything. That's for them to hold onto. I think once I start trying to figure that out is probably the end of the line. [Laughs] To say "Follow your gut" is kind of cheap, but you keep trying to do what makes you happy, and as long as the music is satisfying the part of me that wants to make music, that's all I can really do.

Did the success of Lost in the Dream loom over this one in any sense?

I'm not going to lie and say that didn't cross my mind. You always want to make a better record than the last time, but you don't want to dissect what it was about that that was special, because it's different for every person. Someone might say, "I loved it because you were using ProTools HD, and I could hear that you were using input monitoring." You can never know. There is no answer, but it does loom large, especially with the modern cycle of album rollouts and touring and everything. You're like, "Oh, well, now there are all these people who are my close friends, but they also make a living from the band, so we've got to do this and that." But you have to block a lot of that stuff out after a while and take the song that you need to take and go down whatever road you need to. There was a time when I wasn't chasing the last record, but I was chasing a formula. I was in a new city. I wasn't sure of my surroundings. I was like, "I've got to put a little east coast on this record. I have to rub it in some mud," which we did. In the moment, it was frustrating, but I needed that time by myself to run around New York with a hard-drive. I put the word out. "You know who to call when someone has a studio booking. If someone cancels, I'm there." I went to Electric Lady and I was at Strange Weather in Brooklyn. More and more ideas. For some reason, I was a lot more focused than I had been for a couple months. You just chase a moment a little bit.

It sounds like you caught it.

Well, I caught something.

I can imagine how difficult it is to follow up an album like Lost in the Dream. If it's too similar, people will say you're being too conservative and repeating yourself. If it's too different, people will say you wandered too far from what they liked in the first place. This new record seems to strike the perfect balance.

Oh, that's cool. It's crazy that I actually have a Johnny Marr story, but before the last one came out we were doing shows in Australia, and I had just turned the record in a few months before, and then it wasn't going to come out for four months. And we played an outdoor festival and we got to meet him for five minutes, and he was like, "This is the fun time, right? Before everyone knows the record." And I didn't realize it until now, like, "Oh, that's what he means." It's the one time you have to have it finished and have the insanity of finishing it be over, and you get to listen to it with only your impression of it, without any outside press or anything. And you get to have your few months with it. It might sound cheesy, but I know what he means. I think I'm in that moment now where I'm listening to it for the first time on headphones when I'm walking around. I go, "Okay, cool. I would have tweaked that, but it's kind of cool. I would have backed off that." But I can listen to it and be happy with it.

[Note: This article originally appeared in the digital version (for tablets and smart phones) of Under the Radar's Summer 2017 Issue (July/August/September 2017), which is out now. This is its debut online.]

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