Q&A With The War on Drugs

Plenty of artists get compared to Bob Dylan, and plenty get compared to My Bloody Valentine, but few get compared to both, much less manage not to wither under the comparison.

Philadelphia band The War on Drugs have been making spacey, shambling music that values a certain free-roaming feeling in both the vocals and the guitar tones for several years now. But for their new Slave Ambient, they made one of the most acclaimed albums of the year by turning their free-floating waves of guitar bliss into hooks that land hard without losing their essential open-ended feel.

The band is in town for two shows this weekend, one an opening gig for The National at the gigantic Beacon Theatre, and a headlining gig at the more intimate Bowery Ballroom; they should have no problem filling both with blissful sound.

Nonstop Sound recently caught up with the band's frontman and main songwriter Adam Granduciel to talk about the making of Ambient, his relationship with fellow Philly Kurt Vile and having the opening band slot.

Nonstop Sound: You’ve talked before about how important a sense of freedom is to your music. How does that translate onstage? How much do you try to resemble the album?

Adam Granduciel: "I think for the most part, the way we approach that is to bring the mood of the song across and the mood of the collection of songs. We’ll sometimes take it out a little longer than normal, and once you get comfortable from playing it a lot, everyone walks in to the same mindset. We don’t worry so much about the number of layers on each song, but we’re able to bring the mood and feeling of each specific song across, which I think is what people are attracted to. A lot of times on recordings, there’s a certain feeling…"

NS: Yeah, that murky feeling you guys have.

AG: "A lot of that we do live, and now the instrumentation is set up to really do that in a live setting, with piano and keyboard and guitars and some samplers."

NS: How much will a particular song change night after night?

AG: "I wish I could say we take the song into drastically different directions, but we really don’t. The whole process of recording the record was already doing that. I took out the arrangements, tweaked every song so many times and we arrived at a collection of songs that felt the way that they do. So I think the extent to which we’ll change things is the amount of time we’ll do certain things. There’s still a lot of freedom with me with the guitar playing, so every night approaching the guitar a little differently than I had the night before. But we always stick to the songs, it would be difficult for you to not know what song we are playing if you’re familiar with the music. But the sonics of some parts will be pretty different."

NS: At the same time, a lot of critics said this was the most focused thing you guys have done yet. Was that a goal, to tighten things up?

AG: "Yeah, I think just in general. The first album was a collection of recordings, and some of it was fairly old stuff that I had maybe three or four years before that record even came out. And then even for that first record there wasn’t a live band in place that worked on the record together. So for this one, I think it was just a culmination of how you grow as a songwriter and in my case, a home recordist in three or four years time, I think it just naturally got tighter because I had a better idea of how to do stuff, I think the arranging, I took it up a notch because that’s what we had all been doing for ten years was working on music. It was definitely more conceived as a whole piece rather than doing recordings and putting them together and sequencing them. It definitely shows, there’s a cohesiveness and a tightness to all the songs."

NS: Has there ever been a problem where you’ve been working on a song for so long that you just don’t want to hear it anymore and you just want to give up?

AG: "Yeah, a lot of the songs like 'Your Love Is Calling My Name' and 'Baby Missles,' there were moments when I was like 'I don’t even know what this is,' and then I would put it aside for weeks and then come back to it and just not obsess over it as much and just waiting for that moment…a lot of times it just has to do with how you’re hearing it, you haven’t really sat down and really tackled it yet, you might just be fiddling around with it."

NS:  You’ve had some turnover in the band. To what extent is The War on Drugs a solid collection of people versus you and whoever feels like playing with you at the moment?

AG: "None of the records have ever been made with a cohesive live band in place, but after we finished this record and went on tour in March with Destroyer and then the record came out, it’s been the same line-up. So, I think it’s tying in to the future something that will be more of a live band recording a record. Because on record I’ll play some of the piano stuff, and I’m not a great piano player but in the moment it sounds cool. Then Robbie (Bennett) who plays piano in the band now, he’s a fantastic player. So I think working as a band in the future to write material, and without taking away the production side of it, which I think will always be my thing. So I’m psyched to think of future records with a really cohesive live band who have traveled and played and have adapted their sensibilities to certain things I did on the record. I think the way I place things will be played with someone with a little more confidence."

NS: Kurt Vile was in the band in the beginning of the band, and you guys have remained friends.

AG: "Yeah, I did a short tour with him last week. We played Philly and Webster Hall."

NS: He’s on the album a little bit, right?

AG: "Yeah, he plays guitar on the first song and on another song."

NS: How did you come to that arrangement where he’s not in the band but you guys play back and forth with each other?

AG: "It’s just friendship. I think we both understand the difference between making music and touring music. Before we had released records we were just close friends and had recorded a lot of music together and had played on each other’s songs and shared a lot of stuff together. Then the other side of it comes in where you have to start touring on albums, and not everybody can devote a lot of time to touring and their own music. It’s just one of those things when I was home, working on this album I had just gotten back from touring with him for two months. And then I had a break so I was finishing up Slave Ambient, it was a natural thing for me to call him and say 'hey dude, I’m at the studio. Want to come over and listen to these tunes and play guitar on something?' Live it’s not possible, I can’t tour with him every show and he’s not in the band in a live context."

NS: So you’re opening for The National at Beacon Theatre. Do you have a lot of experience  playing a big place for people who might not know who you are?

AG: "We’ve done that a lot. It hasn’t been until August of this year that we’ve headlined anything. For me especially, the beauty of this band is the music sounds amazing in a big place. It sounds great in really intimate places too, but with a really big room with a lot of people, I think that’s where people will understand it. It’s always nice to open too, because people aren’t familiar with you, but you know you can go out there and do what you do and it’ll sound awesome and you’ll definitely get some new fans. Some people miss you or miss the first five songs, but that’s fine. Just go out there and do what you do."

NS: Do you ever regret giving your band a name that’s really hard to Google?

AG: "Um, not really, no. Because if you think about it, if you hear about our band and want to Google it, and you don’t have the foresight to put the word “band” next to it, that’s your own problem." 

(The War on Drugs will The Bowery Ballroom on Sunday, Dec. 11 and play with The National at  Beacon Theatre on Monday, Dec. 12)

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