The War on Drugs on “A Deeper Understanding”

A Softer Landing

Aug 23, 2017 Photography by Shawn Brackbill Issue #61 - Grizzly Bear
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It's a story that has now become inseparable from the music: The War on Drugs' Lost in the Dream was the account of Adam Granduciel sinking into depression and despair, struggling with the realization that the high of playing music every night with his friends had faded into the loneliness of everyday life. That album, arguably the most universally-acclaimed release of 2014, sent the band around the world several times, inspired more than a few think-pieces, and landed them on late-night TV. And all the while, Granduciel was writing. During the downtime between shows, during little breaks between legs of touring, during the times when other musicians turn their brains off and relaxhe was laying the foundation of the next War on Drugs album, making sure that he would be more or less ready to step off the tour bus and right into a rehearsal studio. "There is that part where it's like, 'After tour, we should not do much and just reflect,'" he admits, sounding suspicious of that sentiment. "But there's also this thing where everyone is loose and in tune with our instruments," he continues. "For me, it's better if I just keep going."

For the first time in his career, that meant leaving Philadelphia and the street he had lived on for the past 14 years and heading to Los Angeles in the spring of 2015 to write. The songs were already taking shapemost of them, at leastas Granduciel had been slavishly adding to a collection of demos that would soon swell to two dozen. Some he had been carrying for many months at that point, with the reflective mid-tempo rocker "Strangest Thing" dating back to the band's trip to Auckland, New Zealand in late 2014, and the electric piano balladry of "Knocked Down" having emerged during an informal rehearsal session in 2015. By the time he moved all of his gear to Los Angeles to work with engineer Shawn Everett (Perfume Genius, Grizzly Bear), the pieces were in place to make A Deeper Understanding. The band's fourth full-length release, the 10-song set was solely produced by Granduciel, with Everett offering his studio expertise.

In Everett, Granduciel has found a kindred spirit, a studio expert who could translate his ideas, such as when he explained that he wanted "a drum sound that was hovering horizontally above the drum set looking down." Sharing a mutual love of gear and an obsessive attention to detail, the two were joined by the rest of the band every five or six weeks for week-long sessions. Having his bandmates around helped him deal with his frustrations and self-doubt, but as much as he tried to keep the success of Lost in the Dream out of his mind, that album still loomed large in the back of his mind.

"I'd be lying if I said that that weren't times where I was not exactly trying to dissect the last record but was wondering if I was even on track at all [with this record]," Granduciel admits. "And I ended up going back to New York and working with Nicolas [Vernhes] who I worked with on the last record. The last record, I took it to him 80 percent done, maybe 60 percent done, and we had this two-week block of final adjustments and help me see the big picture. And at that time, that was all me. I just needed two weeks and one person's opinion who I trusted to help me tie it together. So in the spirit of 1978-through-1985 Bruce Springsteen, I was like, 'Well, if the fucking team works, you stick with the team.'"

But the team approach didn't work, at least not as quickly. After a month of working with Vernhes, Granduciel realized that the album wasn't particularly close to being finished. Several more rounds of revisions and bouncing back and forth between Brooklyn to Los Angeles followed, eventually ending with Granduciel scrambling around New York City with a hard-drive full of music, looking to book space at any studio that had an opening. By the time the album was finished, after a deliberate attempt to "rub it in some mud" to get some East Coast grit on it, Granduciel had a document no less compelling than the one that had preceded it. It might not have been an album consumed with post-tour depression, but it was no less conflicted and searching. To the extent that it is about anything specific, this was an album concerned with disconnection and identity, about trying to figure out what it means to grow older as someone who spends nearly all of his time lost inside his own head.

"I would definitely say that," Granduciel agrees when asked about the themes on the record. "Whether I feel like I nailed that is another thing, but I think that's what I was dealing with asking myself. I was telling someone the other day that [Springsteen's] The River boxed set came out around the same time that I moved to LA, and reading a lot of things about that record was an early inspiration for some of the writing. I felt some kinship with some of the characters that The Boss was writing about, just getting to a certain point in your life and wondering what's in store for you for the rest of your life and when are you going to walk through the door into another life?"

Those conflicted and confused themes run throughout the record, from the tortured suicide references on the album-opening "Up All Night" to the pleading and resignation of the album-closing "You Don't Have to Go." There are many songsmost of them, in factthat appear to be written from the inside of a break-up, with a narrator longing for human connection while also feeling threatened by it. These are songs that are pulled from the perspective of an artist torn in two directions, someone lost in the dream that fulfills his insatiable desire to create while simultaneously denying him the stability necessary to maintain deep and lasting relationships. (Granduciel's real-life relationship with his girlfriend, Jessica Jones actress Krysten Ritter, survived. In fact, the video concept for the album's second single, "Holding On," was hatched by her.) Three years after Lost in the Dream, none of that has changed.

"It's weird, because the last record just blew up," he says, "but I didn't feel any sort of accomplishment from that that I hadn't felt in the past. I didn't feel like I had finally been heard and that I could now relax and move on to another thing. I think it was just age and wondering 'What else?' I think I've been so consumed in this professional life. How long do you have to try and prove yourself? Are you going to do that your whole life? When are you going to learn to separate the two lives? Is it even two lives? I think I was feeling like I was at a certain point where I should be able to embrace other elements that maybe I'm supposed to embrace, but I felt myself all-consumed with the process of writing and recording another record."

To talk to Granduciel is to enter his obsession with him. When he talks about Lost in the Dream, he seems to be measuring its success largely in terms of how it allows the band to play larger venues, to afford him to pay more band members, to have the resources to make the kind of music he wants to make. For him, the writing-recording-touring cycle is not the price an artist pays to live the life of a musician, it is the life, itselfa dream, as it were. But as meticulous and obsessive as Granduciel is as a songwriter, there are still parts of his creative process that fall below his threshold of awareness.

"I remember at the end of the touring being like, 'How did every song of ours end up with a guitar solo at the end of it? I don't understand. I have to make sure I don't do that on our next record,'" he says with a laugh. "And then I listened to the record again, and there's a full-on guitar solo at the end of the first song. It's not every song, but there are definitely a couple tunes there where it ends with a solo. I guess that's our thing. In the '90s you had a quiet verse and a loud chorus. And in 2017, you end with a 10-minute solo," he says, audibly shrugging. "So fuck it."

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

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