Digressions with The War on Drugs
Chances are, by now, you’ve heard of rapidly rising Philadelphia-based psych-rockers The War on Drugs. Combining the vocal approaches of American heroes like Dylan and Springsteen with post-punk guitar lines and krautrock-inspired motorik drum lines, the Drugs’ sound is a unique collage with many noticeable reference points. Many of these elements come from frontman and guitarist Adam Granduciel’s home recording techniques, which incorporate collages of a different sort, including prerecorded samples and ambient loops which run beneath the central tracks.
This recording process began shortly after Granduciel moved to Philadelphia in 2003, where he connected with local area musicians including Kurt Vile. After playing bass in a band called The Capital Years, the guitarist formed his own group and put out a debut EP for Secretly Canadian in 2007. The impressive Wagonwheel Blues followed in 2008, which paved the way for the heady sounds heard on Slave Ambient, regarded by many as one of the top albums of 2011. Shortly before its release, and subsequent critical acclaim, we had a chance to meet up with the Drugs in a New York pizza shop to chat about the group’s inception and their cosmic psych-rock sound.
When did you guys first start playing as a band?
I guess 2005, about three years before Wagonwheel came out. People write about this thing called demo EP—I’ve never seen it, I don’t remember making it, I have no idea…
When did you first have the idea to start War on Drugs and what was your approach going into it?
It wasn’t like starting a band out of nowhere. The intention wasn’t to start a band or have a definite kind of band in mind—I had just been making recordings for a couple of years. Then I moved to Philly and started meeting people to play with and we started playing out on recordings that already existed. When we first started we never recorded them, it was kind of just a learning process.
What was the lineup like in the beginning?
We had a rotating cast of people and it kind of lingered there for about five or six years—different lineups, two drummers, no drummer, one drummer…Then the first tour as the four piece was in March and April when we played with Destroyer.
So is this a cemented lineup at this point?
It’s definitely the best it’s ever been, it’s the most musical in terms of treating the recordings in a similar vein [when we perform them] live.
When you were making these recordings in the early stages of WoD, did you have plans to eventually release them?
I knew I wanted to do something with them, I just didn’t know anything about it—I still don’t.
Were you playing in any other bands?
I played in my friends band called the Capital Years. I was playing guitar. I went on tour with them to play bass—they needed someone to play bass and I was like “I’ll do it. I want to tour…I work a shitty job.” And then after that their bass player came back so I just kept playing guitar for another year.
Where along the line did you and Kurt hook up?
2003. I guess, 2003.
Were you two collaborating on the songs together or was it more individual?
I guess collaborate, but not really. Like anything…not really writing…I mean, we wouldn’t, like, sit down and write a song. It was always my songs and then you just bounce ideas off your friends.
In terms of your approach to recording, many of the songs on the new album have an underlying ambient track that appears throughout the record. How did you develop this recording style and what inspired it?
With the sampler you mean?
That whole thing came about…I think when Secretly Canadian was going to put out the first album, I had done everything up until that point on a digital 8-track—which was this “in the box” kind of thing. Then I got a small recording budget so I bought a tape machine. I didn’t know how to use it…I mean, it’s really easy to use—it only took about two weeks to really learn. But that whole thing of having the machine and the board and tangible patching kind of opened my eyes to sampling right off the tape…you know, doing stuff and then keep sampling it and resampling it and dubbing it out—fucking with it. I guess the difference between programming a drum machine and making something into a percussive, drum sounding track that you can build on top of and layer more and take away and add more. I got into more of that approach around 2008.
What’s your musical background like? Were your parents musical?
No. My daddy played piano, but, I mean, not well. I never actually heard him play. They were just supportive people and they got me playing when I was younger…13 or 14.
Who were some of your early influences?
Early influences…probably Phil Collins, Roy Orbison. The first cassette I ever bought was Phil Collins, the one with the song about the homeless children on it, “Another Day in Paradise.” I’m always a sucker for a good keyboard riff.
What about some of your more contemporary influences that you’ve incorporated into the War on Drugs sound?
I guess it never…some people have bands where they’ll sit around and eat pizza and be like: “I wanna be a mix between Neu! and The Velvet Underground,” and someone else will be like “no, we should be like Neu! and The [13th Floor] Elevators,” like it’s a preplanned thing or something. The band is just about working on good songwriting…and then there’s the other world of experimenting and crazy sounds. I guess the point is to not make it sound middle of the road.
How do you approach the songwriting? Is it music first or lyrics first…?
It really changes. I mean, usually the lyrics on [ Slave Ambient ] are pretty much totally improvised, but over a long period of time. So as you’re working on the song you do a bunch of different vocals as you’re restructuring the song, and you’re always improvising stuff. Then at the end you kind of have a palette for when I do the final vocal.
But some of them, like on the [ Future Weather ] EP we did that song “Brothers.” That was like, Dave [Hartley] came over one afternoon and we were going to record but we didn’t really know. So we set up a drum set and recorded it right there…Dave played drums, I played guitar. That came about really quickly. So because that came about really quickly, we recorded it as a live band for the new record. Some of the other stuff just took a long time to…it wasn’t even like a long time to perfect…just a long time to figure out where the song was going to go.
So somewhat of an improvisational approach to writing?
I think so, yeah. Kind of just structuring it as you go for certain songs. Some songs happen super naturally, real fast.