The War on Drugs vs. Sharon Van Etten | Under the Radar | Music Blog for the Indie Music Magazine
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The War on Drugs vs. Sharon Van Etten

The Road from Here to There

Sep 16, 2014 The War on Drugs Photography by Sharon Van Etten photos by Shervin Lainez | The War on Drugs photos by Luis Mora Bookmark and Share

It’s hard not to be a third wheel when listening in on a conversation between Sharon Van Etten and The War on Drugs’ Adam Granduciel. Having met while Van Etten was recording 2010’s Epic in a Philadelphia studio near Granduciel’s house, the two songwriters share not only a friendship and a mutual admiration of each other’s work, but also a set of memories collected while touring together in 2012. Listen to them get lost in inside jokes and references to their shared communitythat mutual friend whose wife had a baby, that time Granduciel set off fireworks in St. Louisand it starts to make sense why Granduciel would write his acclaimed Lost in the Dream about the feelings of depression he faced as he tried to adjust to life off the road. In fact, one gets the impression that their shared story has only begun, as Van Etten invited Granduciel to contribute to her fourth album, Are We There, and the two acts will appear on the same bill at several summer festivals. Today, having just returned from a Toronto radio performance after sleeping only two hours the night before, Granduciel is tired but buzzing on coffee, ready to ask Van Etten some interview questions but more excited to reconnect.

Adam Granduciel: I was freaking out about this interview for a few days, and I was trying to make little notes in my phone about questions. And the reason why I wanted to talk to you, when [Under the Radar] asked me, was because there are a lot of similarities in the ways that we approach the way we present our music.

Sharon Van Etten: Part of why I was excited about this interview was that we could talk and catch up for a minute.

Adam: I know. I’ve been listening to your album a lot on this tour.

Sharon: Oh… really?

Adam: On my headphones and on my phone, just playing it for the guys in the band. Everyone loves it.

Sharon: It’s kind of a bummer.

Adam: It should be. What do you mean?

Sharon: It’s some of the heaviest stuff that I’ve ever done. The vibe, lyrically, is really heavy. I mean, I’m still proud of it…

Adam: You should be really proud of it. I don’t know how heavy it is. It probably feels heavy, but when you listen to it, it’s not only your story. It’s everything, and you hear it and it feels like the kind of great songwriting that transcends all of that. It’s not Sharon’s dark world; it’s those feelings put into beautiful music. You listen to it and you don’t feel bad for that person, and you don’t feel strange or like you’re listening in on a conversation you shouldn’t be hearing. It’s really just the best kind of music like that. I don’t want to call it sad, but it’s intense, heartfelt, real music. To me, it comes across as beautiful and more than heavy, just bold. I go through phases of my favorite songs, but “I Know”that’s definitely my favorite song on the record. I heard that song, and I knew, because you and I are probably pretty similar piano players, exactly how to play it. It’s all these sweet white keys, and it’s so beautiful. Knowing that you chose to play it yourself even though someone could probably play it differently, that was just the way the song had to be, with you playing it. And I heard those chords, and I knew those chords, just because they’re the only chords I can play, too. And there’s a little flub, and it’s so beautiful. I’m really happy to hear that you are proud of it, because it’s hard to have a little bit of foresight.

Sharon: Everyone was feeling comfortable.

Adam: Who played the guitar part on “Break Me”? On the chorus?

Sharon: That was Doug [Keith]. On the high part, right?

Adam: Yeah, the high arpeggio’ed part. Love that. It just lifts the whole song. That’s awesome, because it’s really natural and pretty.

Sharon: If you know Doug, he has this really big pedal board. I know nothing about pedals, but he constantly tried different things and different combinations of the pedals. I was really hesitant to give people too much direction at first, because I wanted them to mess around with the song and find the sounds, but when I heard something I liked I was like, “There. Go with that sound, and then play something.” But I’m not good at technical stuff. I don’t know how to describe things, but I can hear something and be more direct. You’re pretty good with gear and talking about technical stuff. When we’re both off the road, I want to get you to tell me about gear.

Adam: Oh, gosh. Just tap my phone for a week and hack into half my emails. Both worlds are fun. I get a little burned out on gear, but I know it’s all about the song and the spirit of the song. I try not to get too bogged down. It’s fun to get into a big studio for a week and have the best mics at your disposal, because it obviously sounds super good when you do it that way, but I don’t have any grand visions of building myself any huge studio. I like having a little workspace in my house with a few pieces of gear, where you can quickly capture the idea when you’re working on something that sounds fresh. Even if I’m at my house, and I’ll invite Dave [Hartley, bassist] and Robbie [Bennett, keyboardist] over, and I’ll be like, “Yeah, I’m thinking of some piano on this. I’m not really sure what, but just go at it.” And then they’ll play something that was sweet that I would never have done, and we’ll expand on it. That’s a little like what I experienced with you that one day [in the studio].

Sharon: But it was so fun just seeing you go to town. You had so many ideas. “No, no, I want to do it again. I have another idea and another idea.” It was like you could change it every single time, and that would leave you with more options, which was awesome. But at the same time I was like, “Wow. Is this what he does when he works on a record?” That’s something I can’t do. I get overwhelmed with choices. How do you do that in the studio? You do that with everything, and you’re really specific with the sounds that you want for guitars and drums and whatever, on top of the actual parts. How long would you say that it took you to pare down the songs that you wanted on the last one?

Adam: Probably five or six months.

Sharon: Oh, my God.

Adam: But it was fun. You have this little idea that you started, and you see it change into something bigger. Usually, in mixing is where it’s going to get more reductive. Even in mixing I was doing a lot of recording, because that’s when a song really starts to sound…not like I envisioned, but it starts to take on this personality and sounds better because you’re mixing it. And it’s like, “What this needs here is this little piano part,” or, “Let me go recut the vocals.” I just love adding on to stuff. I love being like, “Let’s put a sweet organ on this,” and even if it only works for a few seconds, I try to hear those moments. In those rough mixes, as well, like “Oh, that one part that does that sweet little thing, let’s keep that.” And it becomes, over time, this bed of all these different ideas. But it can get exhausting, if there’s no direction there. If I was just aimlessly overdubbing at my house without the help of Jeff [Zeigler, engineer] guiding me through the process and editing and helping me expand on certain ideas or letting me know when something was goodI definitely need that person to guide me and help me with the process.

Sharon: Otherwise you’d be banging your head against the wall? Or you’d just not stop?

Adam: I’d probably just pile it on and not really have the ability to sift through it. It’s not really even sifting through, it’s more like listening more and balancing sounds out. It’s fun, but it can get exhausting for sure. This last record, it was fun but it was fun in retrospect. In the moment, there was a lot of time I wasn’t sure, really until mixing, where things were heading. There were just a lot of ideas on things. I feel like that’s a constant thing. Certain decisions I made in mixing, I always think, “Oh, man. That was a gift from the heavens.” I don’t know if I really envisioned that. I just did something on a whim, and it ended up becoming a really important part of the song or the record, in general.

Sharon: And you’ve been a part of my records now.

Adam: I know! I was actually blown away when I listened to your record by how much you kept.

Sharon: Oh, cool. I was like, “I should send him the songs and make sure it’s okay. Do people want approval here? I don’t know how this works?”

Adam: Do you have a favorite song on your record? I have a favorite on mine, so you must.

Sharon: I kind of like “I Love You But I’m Lost,” because it was just piano and drums.

Adam: I love that song. Are you going to have them bring out a green piano for those songs?

Sharon: I don’t know yet. The keyboard we have has weighted keys, but I don’t know if it would be worth it to get a piano for every show just to do those two ballads, just to make it a little more special. I wouldn’t even know what that entails.

Adam: You’d have to be ready for them to black out the stage and put a spotlight on you.

Sharon: I’d have a Billy Joel moment or something.

Adam: Have they ever done that to you?

Sharon: No. Have they done that to you?

Adam: We played “Buenos Aires Beach” from Wagonwheel Blues, and we’d been doing it just off the cuff, where I just do the first part by myself and then the band comes in. But the other night, the light guy decided to black out the stage and do a single spotlight on me during that, and I almost wanted to stop the song in the middle and go, “Could you not do that?” I was so uncomfortable, and then the band kicked in and the lights came on. I was like, “I’ve got to make a note to never have them do that ever again.”

Sharon: Having a piano ballad, I’d kind of set myself up to that.

Adam: Well, I love those ballads. It has been cool on this [The War on Drugs] tour to see the audience, how they’re invested in it, too. They’re super respectful and psyched. Obviously, you get some talkers, but they’re part of the band in some weird way as well.

Sharon: You have dancers now! People are freaking out. I was trying to get footage of this one guy that was totally freaking out at your show.

Adam: It was probably my 82-year-old father. He loves it. For so long, it was such a mystery to him why I connected so heavily to listening to music from a young age. Now I think he can read about it and see how people like it, and I think that has changed it all. It’s not like he didn’t care before, but he didn’t understand.

Sharon: It’s a weird thing to do [to make music].

Adam: It is, especially for someone from that generation. But now he’s super psyched and coming to Europe and emailing me about interviews that I do. At first I was like, “You need to stop reading all these interviews,” but he does, and it’s cool. And it’s nice, because for so long we didn’t have anything to talk about ever. We didn’t connect on anything for so long, so now is this nice time where we’re having a shared experience.

Sharon: Aww. That’s great.

Adam: Well, this was fun.

Sharon: Yeah. It was nice talking to you, Adam. I miss you and I’m proud of you.

Adam: Well, we’ll be seeing each other a lot this year.

Sharon: Just know that we’re all thinking about you guys out here, and we’re looking forward to seeing you again. And any time you need someone to talk to just call. I’ll be around.

[Note: This article first appeared in Under the Radar’s June/July print issue (Issue 50).]


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