Having released third album Lost In The Dream in March, Philadelphia’s The War On Drugs have enjoyed a growing level of respect and affection from audiences – and this weekend’s (17-20 July) will play Latitude Festival. The record was created alone by the band’s leader Adam Granduciel (centre), who made the album during while suffering from depression that grew has he struggled to cope with life off the road and in a state of emotional turbulence caused by relationship issues. Somewhat in contrast to that climate of creation, the resulting record was a big, uplifting and resonating experience. Now out the other side, Granduciel explains how it came together.
How the devil are you?
I’m good. I’m in New York, we did the David Letterman show last night, so woke-up in Brooklyn and now I’m just walking around. I’ve got to go to the studio for an hour to do something, then I’m going to look at some amplifiers and then drive back to Philly.
Sounds like your perfect day?
The best possible day ever!
How was Letterman?
It’s always a weird thing, it’s such a whirlwind. The show is not on live but you have to perform as if it is. In between the last guest and you, you have two minutes to set up! I’m not even sure my valve amps were on by the time we started playing – they were only at 20 percent! We played and I thought it was awful and was really embarrassed. Then we watched it back and it was actually good. It was cool.
Any good guests on with you?
Halle Berry! I saw her getting out the elevator before she was going on and Ithought, ‘Oh my god, that’s a fucking movie star!’, you know what I mean?
So you’re now moving into the orbit of movie stars. It’s not been a bad year so far as you’ve just done Glastonbury, the band are back for Latitude this week and there’s a lot of love around for your last album. Everything seems to be moving in the right direction for you at the moment.
At the moment, yeah…
You don’t sound convinced?
I’m not skeptical, it’s weird. I just try to take it as it comes. It’s all awesome. I’m not one for the whole, the shoe has to drop or anything. People are responding well to the music and the band are getting better with each show, they’re a great group of guys. It seems to be working pretty well. So yeah, it’s definitely exciting. I don’t take it for granted!
Is it strange to take in? Lost In The Dream did come from quite a dark place for you after all…
Not really, no. It’s not weird, it’s exciting and it changes the music for me in a live sense too. It’s not like I understand 100 percent of the music entirely, that music came out of a really intense time emotionally but also creatively. Not everything in the moment was preconceived, so it’s nice to for me too to stand back, perform it every night and get new things out of the songs. I keep exploring it. It’s not like there was this message that I had to deliver, I too get to investigate the song. I learn more about myself and where the songs came from. The response to the record has been almost more cathartic than the making of it, just in terms of playing the songs every night, hearing them change, getting new things out of the lyrics for myself. It’s been great.
Is there anything that’s surprised you?
In Reverse is one song that’s surprises me I wrote it! It’s one of those things that came about from mixing and arranging. At the last minute I started changing the song around. Now it’s a unified piece I can’t believe I fucking put this together! I really can’t. It’s awesome. It gives me hope for my future musical endeavours. It was a last minute visualisation of the song in terms of the arrangement, so to perform it now as if that’s how I wrote is pretty funny, but amazing too.
“It’s important to me when I make music that I go on a journey literally and figuratively with the songs”
It’s good you can have that kind of relationship with the record. There must be a fear that when a song comes from a dark place its creator will always be drawn back there when they perform it?
It depends on what kind of place that is. For mine, where I was, was about trying to figure things out and put myself out there. Trying to look at yourself in a different way and not feel that everything you do is wrong. I don’t feel I’m going back to something I don’t want to revisit. It wasn’t a death or something like that, it came out of self discovery in some weird way and having a rough go of it for a little while.
One of the record’s strongest qualities is how big and bright it is. You wouldn’t necessarily guess at your struggles just from listening to it. Was it a conscious effort to avoid doing something too claustrophic and to keep things open?
Yeah. I love intimate music but I don’t think it’s what I excel at. When those moments click in the studio it’s always when the song becomes bigger. When I start reacting to a song, there’s a big keyboard hook I’ve come up with or a big melody. I like conceiving and writing bigger songs. Intimate things are some of my favourite stuff, like Nick Drake or [Bob Dylan's] Blood On The Tracks, but that’s not necessarily the music I enjoy making or I want to make with the band. I like the idea of a big rock band, but I also like the idea of being able to write from the heart and write in that intimate way but think about the illusion of a big powerful band playing in a room. I wasn’t trying to write anything big, it’s just what happens for me naturally.
You don’t do small!
I would love to be able to write a solo acoustic record. Right now it’s the music for the band that I feel so overwhelmed by and I’m excited to create!
Still by the law of rock’n’roll clichés you’ll do the ‘intimate’ album at some point right?
Oh yeah, totally! [laughs]
From listening in Britain, you’ve made a very evocative record which seems to conjure into the minds eye American landscapes. Is that what you had in mind or are we just dreaming from the other side of the pond?
That’s definitely something!
You moved around a lot while recording the album, visiting different studios, so you saw a lot of American landscapes. Why the peripatetic sessions?
The appeal now is to build your own studio, but then I have to remember that I really love having an idea for a song, creating a demo and then taking the band and driving to my favourite studios in North Carolina and working on it for a week. There’s something about getting in the car, putting some demos on the stereo and driving and thinking about it that enthuses the music. I would have demos at home and studio time booked for a month away. So in my house, when I was working on ideas, it felt like I was putting them all into a jar or something. I was saving the jar to open in North Carolina! If I just walked downstairs and recorded all the time I’d lose a little bit of that magic of being excited about an idea. It’s important to me that when I make music that I go on a journey literally and figuratively with the songs – so you’re hearing something with that landscape – it’s exciting to have them change over the course of a year and also take a trip too. There are amazing studios everywhere with great magic. I love being in different studios, seeing what gear that have and who else recorded there. There’s a lot of magic in that stuff and I like tapping into it. I like to take studio tours when we’re on the road! Some of the my favourite rock’n’roll moments were created in these awesome windowless rooms! It’s inspring.
“It’s not like I understand 100 percent of the music entirely, it came out of a really intense time emotionally but also creatively… I keep exploring it”
Is your fear that if you just use your laptop at home recording will become mundane? There’s no sense of adventure?
Yeah and I like that adventure. Now you can have an idea and I can play it into my phone and upload it. But I like the idea of thinking about it for a couple of weeks. I wanted it to be done right. Instead of having some little idea and sticking it on the record, it can change in your mind before you commit to it.
You’re heading back to the UK for Latitude next week, are you enjoying the outdoor gig?
I really like playing in clubs, but we’re getting good at outside. It’s great. More people are coming to see us so personally I do wish I could play the festival a little more. I’ve never been an ‘entertainer’ really, so I want to try step out a little bit. I do love playing outside, it’s tricky but it is fun. It’s a blast off set. You play all the songs you love and give the audience a few treats. It’s great. The thing with Europe is festivals are huge, people love them. People save up a lot of money to go these things so you have to respect that. If people come to see us play you want to give them a good show and have the music sound great. I like being part of it.
Finally, your album hasn’t been out long, but have you thought about what you’ll do next yet?
Ah yeah. I always think about it. I get excited working on new stuff and writing new songs. I think it’s important not to forget how the music makes me feel when I’m making it. Just because the six-piece band has turned into something powerful, I don’t necessarily want to go in the studio and make a live record, I need to do it the way I do it. Maybe incorporate more people, find that balance between keeping control of the recordings but also ultilising the band in a new way for me. The first step is to find some downtime when I can focus and make some music. Put the ideas that I’ve been having while I’ve been travelling down, start demoing and start getting some sparks flying. But I get excited. I don’t fear it, I want to make new music and have that develop.
Paul Stokes @Stokesie