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Published: 2012/07/21
by Sam Davis

Digressions with The War on Drugs

Lots of the songs slip into these extended jam segments. Is that something that was structured or are those just live jams recorded to tape?

Yeah, usually we record it and you just keep going. I would always let the tape go and let the drum machine go for, instead of three minutes, say seven minutes. So then when you’re recording at the end you always get into these jams. They’re not live, but it is, in a way, improvisational.

Do you translate that to the live setting?

Oh yeah. Even more. When we’re in our element…five beers deep, you know, sweating…

Do you record your live performances?

We just opened a page on This guy that works in North Carolina at The Cat’s Cradle…we played there and then he kept e-mailing me constantly asking if we would set up an archive page. Over time we’re going to upload more.

Are you a fan of improvisational bands such as the Grateful Dead?

I used to like the Grateful Dead. I like the Wolf era…’74 through ’77 or something, that’s my era. I was never the Pigpen guy, I didn’t get into the Pigpen years too much. I guess Julian is kind of like the Pigpen—our buddy Julian who did merch and was the most intense tour manager on the last tour. He actually came up with the name for the band.

What’s the story behind that?

Actually, Julian was writing a dictionary when we lived in California. He got about 10 pages in defining all sorts of strange words. He was just defining words like “Pacific Ocean” then he started defining “The War on Drugs” and I was like “that would be an awesome name for a band.” This is around the year 2000, 2001 and it just kind of stuck. When we started playing as a band I guess I called it that. Some people were like “we don’t want to play in a band called The War on Drugs.”

Your music often slips into Kraut-y territory, especially with the droning outros and motorik drum beats…is that something that you intentionally incorporated into the sound?

Well, I guess in the recordings that was always something…I mean, I love them…but I always like the sound—the nice tight drums. But until Steven started playing…he’s the only one who’s played like that…just real tight, with a hi-hat. And he loves them too. It’s just a lot easier to groove on a really tight beat than a galloping kind of…so yeah, it’s definitely something we incorporate.

What was the reason for the time between Wagonwheel and Slave ?

It just took a long time because it’s not the type of band that…I mean the few times we have gone into the studio for, like, a day we got great results. I guess it really comes down to the fact that a) the songs weren’t written, and b) just the way the songs come about. They’re not written just guy and a guitar—sometimes they are—but most of them were kind of built from the ground up. Sometimes I’d have an idea how to play a song on the piano or something, but I don’t want to record a song with a piano…personal reasons. So then I had an idea for a song and I’ll be fucking around with the tape machine and a month later I’ll have this crazy propulsive beat and usually there’s a tone behind it…usually I’m locked into a specific key.

So do you prepare the songs and samples and then bring them into the studio?

Usually I start it at home and then I’ll transfer the tapes. Once it’s in the computers then we can work on it in any studio. So then some of the ideas I had on a basic piano song I’ll start working with those melodies from the ground up in these intense sound songs. So the song starts as you would normally write a song—come up with some ideas and melodies—but then just try to make them into something that feels new or genuine or something.

I think a lot of the record, it would sound good, it would sound cool, but it didn’t sound genuine—it wasn’t the sound of the band. So sometimes you just have to be patient and keep working on it, or maybe the problem is that you kept working on it. That’s usually what we wound find. You’d be like “oh, the first version we did three years ago was better.” So we’d use that. But sometimes you have to go through that to realize that. So it took a while. Also, we also play in other bands and tour around. Dave has his own band called Nightlands and I play in Kurt [Vile’s] band and Steven has a band called Speed Skating and Robbie has a band.

Why was Kurt Vile less a part of this album?

It was pretty much a situation where when we met, we weren’t talking about starting a band or anything. We just met as people who had both moved back into Philly. And so, we started playing together, we had a lot of similar interests and started playing guitars together a lot. Then a few months later I’d go over to his house and record and he’d come over to my house and record—we weren’t recording a record, we were just fucking around making crazy noises and looping guitars. I brokered a synth for him. He found it in this random place, so we picked it up, split it and we worked with that.

So then over time as we became better friends I’d play on all of his stuff and then I’d have a song and he’d come over and play on it. But it was never a kind of thing like we started a band together or anything. When the first record came out and we started getting offers to tour a lot, it was kind of situation where it was like “Cool, dude. Well, you’re gonna do great but I’ve got my own thing.” It was never like, “Alright, what do we gotta do to keep him in it.”

He just naturally had his own thing. He did one tour with us—one tour in Europe. And to be honest with you, it wouldn’t be the same band if it was like that. It’s just one of those things where in a way, for the longevity of the band and my own personal sanity, it was better to not have to feel that you’re taking away from somebody else’s thing. We still collaborate all the time. He played on two songs on the new record and I play on all his records. It’s not like he’s living in the hills of L.A. He just comes over, I put a mic on the amp…

What is Slave Ambient?

Well, originally the title was a working title for a song. I had this collection of loops and it was a way of me cataloging in my head when I would use this long loop I had—I’d use it in different demos and I call it “Slave” or “Original Slave.” I knew I wanted some of those songs to all flow together. It’s this really long 13 minute noise drone that goes behind “Your Love Is Calling My Name,” “The Animator” and “Come to the City.” So it was just a working title. It’s just a really thick wall of tone. That was probably just a couple of synthesizers layered and sampled—just a two second clip—then fed through a bunch of other shit. I mean, it probably went through 50 transformations.

How would you describe your sound?

Probably classic rock through a broken speaker. But, not really. It’s like classic rock fed through a broken digital 80s reverb unit, going in mono with the left side going through a speaker with a clipped wire and the right side frying out.

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