“Ever since Lost in the Dream, I’ve wanted to find a way to get back to the Slave Ambient way of working, which is a little bit more experimental.”
Photo-Illustration: Vulture; Photo by Gus Stewart/Redferns
“We won’t be alienating any Vulture readers with peak tech talk?” Adam Granduciel is hinting at where he’d like our conversation to go. The War on Drugs front person also knows that not everyone is obsessed with MIDI routing and CC numbers and hard-to-find ’90s Japanese Boss pedals. But if there’s any artist you want to hear talk nerdy, it’s the one studio head whom Mick Jagger trusted to salvage a decades-old, Jimmy Page–featuring Goats Head Soup B side.
Granduciel is calling from the road after picking up supplies at Home Depot (“fucking liquid nails”) for building his new rehearsal and studio space in Burbank, California. The War on Drugs will always be associated with Philadelphia — Granduciel founded the band there with Kurt Vile, who left after their 2008 debut LP Wagonwheel Blues to kick-start his solo career — but Granduciel is further establishing roots in L.A., with a lived-in space that he compares to the Wilco Loft. (In a recent Vanity Fair profile, Granduciel confessed that Sam Jones’s 2002 documentary I Am Trying to Break Your Heart, which mostly takes place in the Wilco Loft, helped inspire him to take music more seriously.) Indeed, our conversation quickly veered toward gear and songwriting, prompting a somewhat-guarded Granduciel to turn giddy talking about his love for the late Atlantic legend Tom Dowd, how he would like to reimagine his early songs, and the small details that fans will pick up on the band’s lean new LP, I Don’t Live Here Anymore.
For an artist who’s been compared to classic rock since Wagonwheel Blues — a 2008 interview noted that all the Springsteen comparisons were already getting old — Granduciel has finally made a War on Drugs album tailor-made for Madison Square Garden. It doesn’t have the element of surprise that turned Lost in the Dream into the downer breakthrough that defined a slice of 21st-century indie-rock (it’s the rare guitar record that placed in Pitchfork’s 200 best albums of the 2010s list), or A Deeper Understanding into the major-label jump that justified its Best Rock Album Grammy. There are no instrumentals or 11-minute-long spacey meditations like “Thinking of a Place.” Instead, the keyboard-heavy I Don’t Live Here Anymore is the sound of Granduciel enjoying his success and doubling down on what works: guitars that sound like the clouds of your memories, and beautifully vague lyrics that can mean everything and anything; those crossovers; and frightening attention to detail and studio craft in making a glossy coastal impression of heartland rock. (And for those who think the War on Drugs is still silly dad rock, the title track name-checks Bob Dylan without irony; “I Don’t Wanna Wait” has a beginning so similar to Phil Collins’s “In the Air Tonight” that it comes across as a bit.) I Don’t Live Here Anymore might be Granduciel’s best collection of songs yet — or at least a successful attempt at making a traditional stadium-rock album.
Probably “Victim.” I was so into my tape machine and my little Tascam 16-channel recording console, looking at pedals, getting crazy sounds and loops, and learning how to make tape loops — or failing at it, more realistically. That’s a pretty fully realized version of a process of recording that I was really obsessed with in 2008, in a way that if you played me “Occasional Rain” in 2002, I would have been like, “Oh wow, what a great song,” when I was learning how to write songs — and failing.
“Victim” is like a hypersuccessful way of doing what I was really interested in doing all the way through Slave Ambient, which was recording at home and working on my one-inch tape machine and trying to find cool ways of arriving at sounds and do these things that didn’t sound like a keyboard or a guitar. Just drones, loops, and playing with tape speed. I guess ever since Lost in the Dream, I’ve wanted to find a way to get back to the Slave Ambient way of working, which is a little bit more experimental. Not the sound of the record, but in terms of the writing and the arriving at the material.
On the new record, on the title track, we basically sent every single piece of audio through a JC-120 Jazz Chorus amp. Everything got re-amped through a Roland Jazz Chorus.
That’s basically what me and Shawn [Everett] do, for years on end. Our joke is that we just run stuff through stuff. If you look at basically every huge band from the ’80s, they’re surrounded by Roland Jazz Choruses. I have two of those amps. I love them. So I’m looking at that amp and listening to the song. I’m like, “Dude, we should just re-amp some stuff to the Jazz Chorus.” That’s the kind of stuff I’ve always been into. It’s the spirit; knowing the history of recording, and knowing about gear, and studios, and how certain records were made.
On the last record, when we were working on the song “Holding On,” I had this idea for the end, where the vocal goes down, down, down, down, down, like octaves. And we ended up running it through an AMS delay, changing the pitch each time. It’s because we learned that from Bowie. It was like, “Oh, that’s what they did on ‘Low’ — we should do that here!” Without knowing that, I would have just sung it as an octave each time. It’s using the technology that inspires you or reminds you of a certain song. You can be like, “Oh, yeah. I love that. How’d they do that?” and then you’re like, “Let’s try that same thing.” The goal on the records we make is trying to get the sound of the band to get to one singular sound on a song. Instead of bass, drums, guitar over here, piano — it’s supposed to sound like one moving kind of blob.
The TC 1210 Spatial Expander Flanger. It’s a classic rack Flanger that I bought from a studio that was closing in Brooklyn. Everything basically goes through it. I was just like, All right, I’ll record all this great stuff and go home and spend a weekend running it all directly.
My other favorite piece was probably this Boss Digital Dimension pedal — it’s a pink ’80s or ’90s Japanese Boss pedal. It’s not the Dimension C. It’s a very digital chorus, but there’s something about it that I prefer to the ones that are emulating more of an analog thing. I used it on all these keyboards on the title track. It’s the kind of glassy, bright sound that you might associate with ’80s pop music. Obviously, my music doesn’t sound necessarily like that, but I like the sheen that gear gives. I’m always trying to get that kind of hyperglossy sheen on certain things — on keyboards especially.
I would say the key of D. I can tune my guitar to open D. I did that a lot on the record.
I hate E major. I hate it.
My least favorite chord to play on guitar is an A major chord. I still don’t know how to play it. It’s like you got to play these three strings with these three fingers. Someone’s like, “The chords are G and D” — I’m like “Yah! Yah!” — and they’re like, “and A.” I’m like, “Fuck.” I just hate playing A. But I like capoing the second fret and playing A with G. If I’m playing an A, it usually means that I have to also play a fucking E, which is just the worst. And then you gotta make sure your low E string is perfect. Ugh. It’s a drag. I’d rather just capo it up two [frets] and play D and G. That’s a little froufrou for some people, but I hate A. Anytime I have to play an A chord, I’m bummed.
We’ve only rehearsed the new album for about 10 days. I won’t throw those songs under the bus yet, although I do think that some of the new ones are probably the hardest yet to play.
My answer is “Taking the Farm.” That fucking song. It’s just one of those things. We used to try and play it, and then we gave up. It’s too far gone to ever truly be able to play it.
We still play “Arms Like Boulders” all the time. And those songs from Wagonwheel Blues are really important to me, and the way that the band reinterprets that stuff from that long ago is really great. It’s so cool that a song that’s old for me is one that we can play in 2021.
I think people are sometimes bummed that we didn’t put anything from Slave Ambient on LIVE DRUGS. I wanted to save it because I wasn’t sure — I guess I could have put “Come to the City.” We did mix a version of “Come to the City,” but like any record, it was tough to find out where you put it sometimes.
Considering there are only maybe three proper songs on that record, “Buenos Aires Beach.” I would say “Arms Like Boulders” because it just feels like when I sing it now, even when I was singing it in 2017, 2018, and 2019, the political climate in this country … I remember writing it when I was very young — 21, maybe 22. It was around the Iraq War, 2003. But it was just one of those things fueled by being young and feeling like no one can speak for you. It’s a generational thing. You’re pointing the finger at politicians and all that shit. It was like a finger-pointing song in the spirit of the Dylan stuff that I was obsessed with.
But as I got older, “Buenos Aires Beach.” It’s sentimental because it’s a fine song. But when I was singing “Arms Like Boulders,” in 2017, 2018, and 2019, it felt like I could still dig into it as well as I could have when I sang it when I was 24. I can sing it better now. I understand the song now. And I understand the guy that wrote it more now. It almost aged better with time. I’m really proud of it because I wrote it when I was pretty new to songwriting.
“Comin’ Through.” I mean, it’s awesome, but it’s a moment in time. It’s a reflection of our life as a band in that little moment. It delivered at the time. It was what I considered our best song and everything. Now I don’t even think about it. When I think about playing a show, it doesn’t even occur to me that we would ever play that. When we try to play that song, it doesn’t feel real. It feels like, Eh, that song is not something that this band can reimagine. It’s like karaoke. It’s good to be able to know when that’s happening.
We’re talking about birthday-party karaoke, or Friday night? You’re not in your own private room with your friends, [but] with other people you don’t know? You’re exposing yourself? You’re essentially trying to tell people your essence, right? Because the song you sing in front of your friends in the side room is not the same as what you sing at 12:30 a.m. at [Bloomington, Indiana’s] The Bishop.
“Burning.” That’s what my 90-year-old dad would say if he was out at karaoke. That’s his favorite song. I feel like that one would be cool because people love when the high harmony comes in. It’s got that beat, that [Rod Stewart’s] “Young Turks” vibe. And you can do your best dance move along to the riff. It’s got everything you need for karaoke.
“Baby Missiles” reminds me of a specific time, a fruitful time in Philly, in my house. It sounds like the drums recorded in my bedroom. I had just ripped up all the carpets.
If Architectural Digest ever wanted to do an article on a true dump, then I would give it a three-day interview about that house. It’s the most fucked-up place I’ve ever lived. It also gave back so much. The drums were just in this super live-sounding bedroom, and the colors of that song … I think of that specific time in Philly where me and my friends worked all the time and had a lot of fun and really kind of lived it.
I’ve never really read a review. I wouldn’t even know where to look.
From a musician, maybe when someone looks at my pedalboard and says, “… Do you know how to use all that stuff?”
… play the show for me so I could play keyboards.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
A guitar capo is a tool that you can clamp onto the fingerboard at any specific fret. This shortens the length of the strings’ vibrations and affects your tuning, and it allows you to play the same chords in different shapes.