The War on Drugs – Adam Granduciel on Under the Radar’s #1 Album of 2014

The Art of Not Knowing

Dec 12, 2014 Photography by Luis Mora Web Exclusive
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Even if Lost in the Dream hadn't become The War on Drugs' breakthrough album, the story of its creation could have become the stuff of legend. The album was born of six months of isolated songwriting sessions in Adam Granduciel's Philadelphia home while the songwriter endured a nervous breakdown of sorts. He often retreated to his bedroom with paralyzing panic attacks. He obsessively and meticulously constructed the album layer by layer in the studio, keenly aware that almost any choice—a certain guitar texture here or a drum pattern there—could push the album in a completely different direction. Just what kind of album was he making? He didn't know. Would anyone care? It was impossible to say.

Almost as soon as the album was released, the answer became obvious: Lost in the Dream was destined to become 2014's most widely acclaimed release. Built out of meditative textures and slow-burning hooks, The War on Drugs' third full-length release connected with listeners in ways Granduciel never could have imagined, expanding his audience exponentially. It wasn't all good news—a widely publicized spat with Sun Kil Moon's Mark Kozelek put a damper on what should have been an overwhelmingly positive year for both artists—but few songwriters had a better year than Granduciel did. The man for whom making an album requires a kind of inspired delirium now knows that his listeners understand his madness. "I don't really want to know why [people like it] as much as they do," he admits. "I want to just go out and play it for them."

Matt Fink (Under the Radar): First of all, our writers have named Lost in the Dream our number one album of the year, and I'm sure it will be near the top of many other lists. What it's like to be the creator of such a unanimously acclaimed album?

Adam Granduciel: I don't know... it's weird. I guess it's kind of surreal. It feels good. It feels cool. It feels like it's a once-in-a-lifetime kind of thing. It doesn't really change any of my confidence as a songwriter or anything. It doesn't make me feel better than anybody. I'm just happy. My whole life, I've just tried to make music because I like doing it. I've never been too interested or knowledgeable in terms of the music business. I've gotten lucky in a lot of ways, and I like to think that I've just tried to keep making cool music and playing with the people I want to play with. Now I made an album that people really love, and that's an amazing, special thing. I'm grateful for it, and I'm excited to make new music and see where the band can go musically, to see what we can tap into and what feels right. Is it going to be a band playing in the studio? Or is it going to be a little more out there? Who knows?  It's not like every day I'm running around, holding up newspapers or something. I'm really flattered, and I'm trying to savor the moment.

In retrospect, was there any sort of moment when you started to realize that this record was connecting in a way the others hadn't?

Yeah, probably towards the beginning. After the record had come out, that first U.S. tour, when we were playing live we would hear certain responses to the beginnings of songs. And I was like, "Oh, wow. People actually know the song we're playing." Or people were excited for "[An] Ocean [in Between the Waves]." When they heard the drum machine, they were like, "I know what song this is and I'm fucking psyched." In a lot of scenarios, that has changed the way we play them, because you play off that dynamic energy in the crowd, and it affects the energy on stage. That was when I was like, "A lot of these songs that I might have called deeper cuts before the record came out are becoming people's favorites on the record." The beginning of "In Reverse" live—when I do this three-chord thing—people get excited. That stuff has been really cool, and when you hear those kinds of responses, it changes the way you present the music, and you can try things out and have fun with it. Obviously, I would hear that the album was selling better than our last record, and I would be excited about that, but musically it was from the live experience. There were a lot more people coming out than I expected, and they were prepared. They knew the music already.

What do you think it is about the record that is connecting with people in such a deep way?

I don't know. I just know the part I did, and [the album] out there now. I'm not really sure. I don't know if it's something I really want to dissect, because I was just trying to follow my instinct and go with my gut about the way certain songs should sound or be arranged, and I ended up with a record that I was proud of from a songwriting-production point of view, and then I tried to focus on performing the songs with my band and getting the right group of musicians and friends together to do it. I feel like that's all I can really do, and then it's just out there.

When you were writing it, did you have a sense that the album could be a breakthrough?

No. Not at all. I turned it in in the same way that I'd turned in the other ones, which is like, "Here you go! It's not done! I had so many problems with it that I hate it!" And I don't mean that I hate it, but I was too close to it. There were songs that I was definitely super psyched on and really proud of, but I wasn't sure if I needed one more song or whether "Under the Pressure" should be the first song. I could obsess over whether the snare in "Under the Pressure" was too loud or all these little things—I couldn't just step back and listen to it and enjoy it. I wasn't thinking commercially.

How long did it take until you had enough distance from the record to have some perspective on it?

I finished it in October, and I think it was February when I was in Amsterdam for a week-long press run. I listened to it on headphones one night in Amsterdam walking around, and I was high. There were things I hadn't really noticed before that I really liked. Then I played it for some friends when I got back. I got the test pressings in February, and I played it for a band that was recording in my studio, and they really wanted to hear it. And I was like, "Okay, I'll let you hear it, but I'm going to go upstairs." And I came down, and they loved it. I hadn't really played it for anybody but my band and label, and I hadn't put it onto the turntable and let it sink in for my friends. That was the first time I had a little more confidence in the fact that it was coming out in a month. I think I'll always be like that. I don't really see a world where I'm super psyched on the next thing. That's just the way it is.

Do you think that mindset keeps you a perfectionist in the studio?

No...maybe a little bit. The word "perfectionist" is weird, but it's about searching for the right mood, less about trying to keep all the edges clean and more making sure the heart of the song is what you envisioned it to be. But I think that probably has a lot to do with not being able to love it at all stages. I have confidence in the song when I'm working on something. I know what it is that is resonating with me in the moment and why I like it. That's usually what I'm chasing. I'm chasing that I know there's something in there that I want to tap into, but I haven't revealed it yet. So it's kind of a search. I guess there is a little bit of confidence, knowing that there's something there that I really like.

From what I've read about your process, it sounds very meticulous, with lots of addition and subtraction. Is it obvious to you when a song is completed?

I tend to mix the record at the end, and I don't work on something and then mix it. I'm not like, "I have one song done," and then there are 10 others to record. For this last record, in mixing there were so many drastic changes that were done that when I listened to it and we fine-tuned it, it was so far removed from where it was when we started mixing it that I was content with it. I really like it. Because it was so different, I was like "Oh, wow. I never envisioned it like this. Let's keep it." "In Reverse" didn't always have the long ambient intro. A lot of those synths were already in there, but there were already guitars and drums. I just muted everything except the keyboards and a few other textural things, and it was a big, open sound. It felt like a beach, like, "Oh, this is beautiful." From there we arranged it to have these things come in here and there. I couldn't have written a song like that. In mixing is where that song was born. It was kind of the same aesthetically for "Eyes to the Wind" being so close and intimate and tight. It's still epic, but it's sparse. There was a lot recorded on that song. I loved it, so obviously I just wanted to sit there and put guitars on it all day long, and then harmonica and organ. In mixing, we stripped a lot of it away until it just sounded like a band in a room. I didn't really originally envision it like that, but aesthetically it was so far away from what we started with, and I was so inspired by it when we played it back that I was like "This is the direction. We'll just make a few tweaks and it will be done."

It's truly those moments where it becomes something I didn't expect that I'm most excited about a song. It's not like there's a certain sound in my head that I'm chasing that I can't pinpoint. It's more that I'm chasing those moments where the song takes a right turn into somewhere where you're like, "Oh, I've been working on this song for a year. I've put all this stuff on it. Now I have enough paint that I can chip away at it." It's really fun for me to do that. That's probably the most enjoyable thing for me—to mix. Especially nowadays, with modern technology, you can really change the way that something is arranged.

At what point in the process did you start to get a sense of the kind of record you had made? After the mixing process?

Yeah, it was probably after mixing, because the first song we mixed was "Suffering." The second song we mixed was "Under the Pressure." Then "Eyes to the Wind" and "In Reverse." Those were the first four. So I didn't mix "In Reverse" knowing it would be the last song. Then I took three weeks off, and I finished the tracking on a few other songs, and we spent two weeks finishing the mixes. After that, I spent another three weeks working on a new version of "Ocean in Between the Waves," and me and Jeff Zeigler—he didn't mix the full record, but he engineered and co-produced it with me—I went back to Jeff's studio and we mixed "Disappearing" and retracked "Ocean Between the Waves" in four days or something. Then it was done. The whole mixing process took six-and-a-half weeks. I guess it was maybe when I started sequencing the record that I saw the arc of it or the possibilities in the songs. But there was a nice coherence in the mixes, where it was just a matter of figuring out where the songs could go to put the album together.

Was there an a-ha moment when it started to make sense and you saw how those pieces were going to line up?

I can't remember. I remember having so many ideas about the sequence, and then one day I just figured it out. I really like the sequence of the record; I think it's really good. And I was looking at it more from an aesthetic song point of view—how the record moves and feels—than about emotional trajectory. What's interesting is that a lot of the people I talk to about the sequence, they feel the first half is darker and then it really opens up emotionally. That's cool, because I didn't think about it like that. I was thinking more about the way it sounded when you sat down to listen to it, like how the songs flow. The end of "Oceans" stopping abruptly, that was inspired by John Lennon's "Remember," where it just ends with that reverb tank crashing, or whatever it is. That was my inspiration, but I didn't know it was going to go right into "Disappearing" until later, and I sequenced it like that, and it was a sweet segueway. Little moments like that, they kind of revealed themselves in weird ways. So when I sequenced it and lived with the sequence, that's when I knew this worked for these songs. I'm happy with how it all came together. I didn't leave the mixing process with 10 finished songs—I had seven done and "Oceans" was mixed, but I didn't like it, so I re-recorded it. Then I still had a few others to mix. It wasn't like I left the studio in New York with 10 finished songs. I think the fact that I was still finishing the record and recording some songs helped me see what I wanted to do with those last songs.

It sounds like this record could have been significantly different with just a few small tweaks.

Most definitely. It's weird to think about it, but that's just how it is. It could have been a totally different record. Those tweaks are what makes it special to me. When I played "In Reverse" for my friends, they were confused, only because the vocals were louder. I was happy that the vocals were upfront, not because I felt like I had something to say but because that's not really how War on Drugs records were mixed in the past. When I worked with Nicholas [Vernhes], it was the first time I worked with somebody who was a pro and also really put all of himself into the album. He'd listen to the songs and be like, "Let's turn this vocal up. This is a beautiful song." So when I heard it like that, it was so far removed from the way we worked on War on Drugs records that I loved it even more. But when I played it for my friends—like "Eyes to the Wind"—I think they were a little confused, because it didn't sound like The War on Drugs that people in Philadelphia would have ever thought of. It had a little more echo and was a little more out there. It took someone else's perspective to breathe some new life into it, which I'm really grateful for.

Nicholas and Jeff deserve a lot of credit for putting as much effort into it and helping me navigate through a million different scenarios. Then, when I was mixing with Nicholas, a common theme is "Let's get rid of that guitar," and people will say, "But it sounds so good." Well, everything sounds good. We've spent a year recording it in fucking hi-fi studios; everything is going to sound great. But he was like, "Cool!" He just muted it and went in that direction. There was no, "I don't know. I miss the drums at the beginning..." He just wanted to reshape the whole tune, and it was nice to work like that, with no looking back. Those are the moments that are the best on the record, where it opens up and feels like a fresh kind of idea.

Since you were taking these kinds of risks on this record did you ever feel people wouldn't get it?

Not really, no. At the end of the day, it's still a rock record. I don't really think any of our records are weird, but it may not be as "indie rock" as our last record. I liked it. It did what I was setting out to do. I loved the songs, and I liked the way the mixes turned out. So I wasn't worried about if it was too far removed from what people thought about the band or that people wouldn't get it. At the end of the day, it is a pretty straightforward rock and roll album.

Was it cathartic to make this record?

No, no. I can't even say it's cathartic to look back on making the record. It was a difficult record to make for me, and it ended up exceeding expectations that I had. And it ended up opening up a lot of doors for the band and ended up opening a lot of doors emotionally. My band and I were always friends, but now we're so much closer. This record propelled us all over the world and we're paying our rent better and we're traveling on a bus—all because of this record. It was definitely a hard record to make, and we're all really grateful for what it has done, but making the record didn't help me deal with anything emotionally. If anything, it helped reveal inconsistencies within myself that I needed to spend some time figuring out. That's the part I'm grateful for—what the record did for me as a person in opening me up more than I had been my whole life. Even though I don't think the songs are autobiographical, maybe the idea that they are is what connects with people. I think that's true for all of the music and songwriters that I've loved, the idea that it may not be about the guy singing it, but he sure as hell makes it sound like it is. I think that's what people respond to. They find a common thread.

So much of the writing about this record focuses on how this record is so deeply personal. Do you agree with that?

I think it's definitely personal, but I'm not a very diligent writer in the sense that I don't have books and books of alternate lyrics for this record. Every song, for the most part, I'd have a verse written on a piece of paper somewhere and a melody that I already knew. And when it came time to work on vocals for it, it was a mix of improvisation and self-editing. So it was being in the moment and writing it as I was doing it. It's not like I sat down and tried to write about this situation or about a person. I would sometimes just start with a weird image in my mind, almost like a painting I would see for certain songs that wasn't 100 percent clear, but I could see the idea of what the song made me feel like, and then it would take anywhere from a couple hours.

"Eyes to the Wind," I did the demo of that song in like 10 minutes in my house, with just melody, guitar, drum machine, and a few words here and there that were stream of consciousness. And then we started tracking the song, and there was a scratch vocal from when we tracked it, and we spent months tracking it with the scratch vocal. Then one night in North Carolina I was like, "Okay, Jeff, I'm going to try to do the vocals for 'Eyes to the Wind,'" and I maybe had five percent of the lyrics figured out. There were a lot of things that sounded like words, but they were more sounds. I knew certain verses should end like this, but I never had words. Then I just sat there for 30 minutes and wrote a few ideas and turned the mic on. Four hours later, I'd do a verse and then something would fall out of my mouth, and I'd be like, "Well, that was cool." So I'd self-edit on tape, rather than just sit there with a pad. That's kind of the way I've always done it, but this time I paid more attention to it. Similar with "In Reverse." They're personal, but they're also so quickly realized that I didn't sit with lyrics long enough to make them overly personal. They're sung with that first-person [perspective], with the idea of me talking about me to someone else. They're very conversational, like talking to somebody. But, thematically, I think they were things that I was feeling inside.

This was such a positive year, and then the Mark Kozelek thing happened in the middle of it. Do you have any perspective on what that was all about?

I don't know. I can't even talk about it honestly without seeing some idiotic sound bite that is taken out of context. I want to talk about it, but anything I say is just fodder. I just don't even want to see another stupid thing taken out of context. I'm just not going to do it anymore. I can't even say something off the cuff, because I know it will end up somewhere. Whatever. I could tell you off the record, but I don't want to feed into anything. I could be open about it. I'm not upset at all. So I just prefer not to say anything about it.

www.thewarondrugs.net

 

 



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