Through The Haze: The Struggles, Visions, And Revelations Of The War On Drugs
Soon, you will be familiar with Adam Granduciel’s home. You don’t realize this yet, but you will see it. And, actually, you might have seen part of it already: It’s there on the cover of the new War On Drugs record Lost In The Dream. Granduciel stands in front of a window, daylight seeping in from the outside and framing him from above, little psychedelic colors drifting up from the bottom of the photo. The cumulative effect is caught somewhere between the artificial-aging of an Instagram filter, the actual aging of a vintage photograph, and the sort of alternate/heightened reality that defined the artwork for the album’s predecessors, the Future Weather EP and Slave Ambient. But the image is Adam in his home in the present tense. Just with the abstractions of memory creeping through the edges.
Later, Granduciel will show me images of the gatefold for the new record, each one a photo of the house he rents in Philadelphia’s Fishtown neighborhood. Having lived here for the better part of a decade, Granduciel feels a particular attachment. “I just love the place and wanted to commemorate it,” he explains. Fittingly, this first floor has a charming disarray to it. A French poster for Neil Young’s Rust Never Sleeps peers down from above a small upright piano. That yellow paint visible in the Lost In The Dream cover cracks and peals elsewhere in the room, and a light fixture hangs unfinished from a small hole in the ceiling. Several guitars lie in different corners, seemingly in varying states of functionality. “I pay, like, no rent, and I don’t ask the landlord to fix anything, because I know he won’t anyway,” Granduciel jokes as he moves through it all frenetically but efficiently, fastening the metal buttons of a second plaid shirt over the plaid shirt he’s already wearing while quickly tending to his many pets, including an asthmatic cat named “Bobby Jean” after the Bruce Springsteen song.
Up until late last year, this was where a lot of the War On Drugs activity occurred. From a New York perspective, the first floor alone feels luxuriantly spacious, one of its three rooms the size of some people’s whole apartment in any given spot in Manhattan. As late as last November, though, these rooms had felt claustrophobic, packed tight with most of the band’s touring and recording equipment. They used to rehearse here, standing between the two living rooms wherever each could fit amongst the stacks of amps and road cases. Granduciel still does much of his writing and initial recording by himself in these spaces.
Granduciel is a thoroughly down-to-earth guy, and you wouldn’t necessarily guess that he’s approaching the release of the highly anticipated follow-up to his band’s beloved breakthrough. There’s little sense of anxiety about the album, and no sense of entitlement or burgeoning rockstar-isms. With an hour or so to kill until the rest of the War On Drugs members will be ready to meet up at the group’s new-ish, nearby rehearsal space, Granduciel decides to take a detour to his neighborhood bar. We walk over on sidewalks almost entirely covered in a bubbling sheet of ice before cutting through an alley that opens up to reveal the wall pictured on the front of Granduciel’s friend (and War On Drugs co-founder) Kurt Vile’s 2013 LP Wakin On A Pretty Daze. “There’s Kurt’s mural,” Granduciel says matter-of-factly, gesturing with one hand up at his friend’s name emblazoned on the building side without actually averting his head to look at it.
While in the bar, an old co-worker approaches him to say hello. “Are you still playing music?” he asks. “Yeah, it’s going well,” Granduciel says. “Traveling a lot.”
Granduciel’s originally from Dover, MA, but he’s called Philadelphia his home for about a decade now. You don’t get the sense that he’d have it any other way. You don’t get the sense that, despite being the main force behind a band of increasing indie-fame, his daily life has changed in any significant fashion. He spends a lot of his life on the road touring, but he still seems of these streets. Each has a firm grasp on the other.
The War On Drugs’ new rehearsal space is in an old building flanked by warehouses and distribution centers in a fairly industrial stretch of Philly, about a two-minute drive from Granduciel’s house. A band can be heard jamming up on the second floor as we approach, and Granduciel explains that whatever company owns the building has a tendency of fostering good relationships with bands that could make use of a cheap space in which to practice. “Dr. Dog” is still one of the options on the buzzer, though that Philly-bred band hasn’t rented any space here for some time. The War On Drugs’ corner is downstairs, in an unfinished and unheated basement. Rugs cover portions of a floor made of what appear to be heavy wooden beams, and half the room is actually all raw concrete and debris, with a dip that drops you down to an unfinished floor. It’s blocked off by tapestries, one of which is a white sheet with splotches of color mimicking those of the Slave Ambient cover.
That last element is one in a series of ways you can tell the band is settling in and making a home here. Besides the preponderance of their gear, they’ve started adding personal touches. When we walk in — after having run into keyboardist Robbie Bennett outside — Dave Hartley, the band’s bassist, has just completed hanging some shelves on the wall, atop which he’s placed an almost empty bottle of Crown Royal and an almost full bottle of Heaven Hill. There’s what appears to be an old benchseat from a van, still complete with seatbelts, repurposed as a couch, under which there’s a cardboard box full of empty Yuengling bottles. Hanging about the room are paper lanterns, which provide light along with a range of old lamps. Along with the bear pelt hanging above the keyboards, these seem like relics acquired long ago and left over from Granduciel’s day job in property management, before the band was his full-time concern.
Satisfied with his shelf job, Hartley has helped himself to a beer and begun playing with some synth pads, attempting to figure out how they’re going to replicate the stuttering drum-machine beat of one of the new songs, “Disappearing,” in a live setting. In the process, he makes a comment about how adding some delay to the snare for “Red Eyes” might be a good move. Around this time, Charlie Hall, who has only recently become the band’s full-time drummer, arrives.
Given the sort of music they make, you might expect the War On Drugs to appear as a group of ragged, mystic, Americana troubadours. In which case, you’ll be disappointed. Hartley, with his close-cropped hair and plastic-rimmed glasses, looks more tech start-up than psych-rock. Bennett used to sport a massive beard and shaggy hair, but now goes clean-shaven and clean-cut, his soft-spoken demeanor sounding more “reserved, normal guy” than “far-seeing stoner.” The oldest of the group, Hall is actually a father and basically looks the part of a somewhat trendy parent, entering with a bright orange knit hat contrasting with his brown saddle shoes and camel sweater.
But even as the individual members of the War On Drugs might not stick out on the street, as soon as they plug in, that otherworldly quality of their music is there, even in this basement. Over the course of two hours, the band runs through the entirety of Lost In The Dream, save the instrumental ambient track “The Haunting Idle.” The textural interplay of Bennett’s synths and Granduciel’s guitar throbs off the cold concrete walls. With an impressive array of pedals in front of him, each solo Granduciel provides morphs into an ever-denser squalor that seems distantly reminiscent of blues-rock guitar, just spoken in an entirely new tongue.
There’s a looseness tonight. Aside from premiering some of the new ones in Australia late last year — “Under The Pressure,” “Red Eyes,” “Eyes To The Wind,” and “Burning” — this week marks the first time the group is playing much of this material together. The following day, Granduciel will explain to me the difference in bringing these songs to life compared to their material in the past. Where a Slave Ambient track like “Your Love Is Calling My Name” required them to adhere a programmed, Motorik pulse, much of the Lost In The Dream material is more organic. With less loop-based structures to contend with than when reproducing Slave Ambient material live, the band is able to stretch out, almost every song getting some sort of extended coda. Maybe it’s partially because these are four friends warming up to new music in a basement rehearsal space, but many of the songs are rawer and jammier than they appear on the new record. After powerful, somewhat amped-up renditions of some of the album’s mellower tracks (“Eyes To The Wind,” “In Reverse”), everyone nods and smiles.
A lot of Lost In The Dream has the sound of a band playing live in the studio together, which never actually occurs in the War On Drugs’ recording process. To see them gather together in these early, dismal February days is to see them familiarizing themselves with the new record in a more intimate way — the way in which they’ll have to live with this material on the road for the next year or two. And you can see the mixture of satisfaction and excitement on their faces to have finally arrived at this point after an arduous and lengthy recording process. When Granduciel’s voice jumps in intensity in “Burning,” or when Hall’s drum-roll arrives a minute and change into “Red Eyes” and inspires the sort of sharp dynamic jump rarely heard on the band’s studio recordings, the band’s eagerness to bring the record out into the world is palpable.
In these initial rehearsals, there are still things they’re trying to figure out, too. “Do we want to do ‘Disappearing’?” Hartley asks, and it’s the first time they pause for more than a moment. “We can try,” Granduciel says hesitantly, scratching his head. On the record, the track is an airily romantic thing, not exactly like a long-lost ’80s synth ballad, but the sort of thing people who remember those songs from their childhoods might write. A present shot through with memory and the past. It makes sense that Hartley was pondering how to replicate the drum sound in “Disappearing” when we first arrived; it’s one of the Lost In The Dream songs that will be hardest to properly perform. But even with their misgivings, it comes off well. The studio track has a prominent low end, but it’s comprised of Hartley playing single notes augmented by a phase effect, and then an actual bass figure played on an ARP 2600. In this setting Hartley plays a fuller bassline while Hall appropriates a mechanical kick-drum-and-shaker pattern, which he only breaks out of to go into a mid-tempo, pseudo-dance beat during the song’s harmonica break. The result is a more soulful reading of the song, with almost R&B undertones.
There’s one challenge left for the night. Depending on how you look at it, Lost In The Dream has two centerpieces bracketing the actual middle track (which is “Disappearing”). On one hand you have the emotionally bare “Eyes To The Wind” and on the other you have the seven-minute epic “An Ocean In Between The Waves.” Both are highlights, but the latter is one of the best songs Granduciel has written. (It’s too early to tell still, but it may actually be the best.) The build of this song on the recording is impeccable — a very, very gradual cresting towards a subtle catharsis. It’s such a rewarding listening experience, and the band’s hesitance in playing it is understandable; “Ocean” relies upon the sort of incremental build that can be hard to pull off in a loud concert venue. They almost get it tonight, though. By the time they’re out on tour, it will probably be the show-stopper.
After the rehearsal, everyone unwinds at a Mexican place called Loco Pez. Over an assortment of Mexican beers and margaritas and tacos, the band talks of many things, and the importance of the dynamic between these particular four people becomes evident.
Hartley has been in the band the longest, and sits beside Granduciel as a sort of confidant. They became friends when they both worked in property management, going around collecting junk people had left behind in apartments, or helping tenants with random problems. “I think I joined [the War On Drugs] after the first show,” he recounts. Back then, they toured as a three-piece: Hartley, Granduciel, and Kurt Vile. “It was without a doubt the most fucked up tour of my life,” he remembers. Some nights, Hartley would have to take over drum duties (“I’m a poor man’s drummer at best”). Others, they’d hire local drummers, which proved tricky considering much of the material from the band’s debut, Wagonwheel Blues, required the inclusion of loops and samples. The nadir of this approach came at a Chicago show when they wound up hiring a guy who showed up without sticks, was deaf in one ear, and got bombed before the performance. After a disastrous set — which had been attended by people from their label Secretly Canadian as well as writers from prominent music publications — Vile, Granduciel, and Hartley got equally bombed to cope with the frustration. “I don’t think we even looked at the guy,” Hartley says.
Much as Slave Ambient presented a radical step forward and a cohering of the ideas and sounds gestured towards on Wagonwheel Blues, the War On Drugs would soon mature into a more functional outfit. Vile departed to pursue his solo career, but the void was filled by Bennett on keys, whose addition allowed the band to recreate the intricate soundscapes of Slave Ambient in concert. “I feel like when Robbie came into the fold it really gelled. Robbie is capable of so much, he brings so much sonically,” Hall says. Hall was always a friend of the band, having met Granduciel years ago at jury duty, when they were both playing in other bands. Since then, he’s contributed sporadically, but his responsibilities in Philadelphia — he remained a high school teacher of history and music until the past few years — kept him from becoming a full touring member until recently. He now maintains a day job coordinating Big Brothers & Sisters programs with local schools, and describes his co-workers as treating him like their own local celebrity when the band’s on Letterman one night and then he shows up for work the next day. Bennett, too, kept his day job doing “website stuff” for a vacation company. His employers, apparently, have always been slightly less bemused by his jetting off for tours of this or that country. “When I cut my hair and shaved my beard, they paid me twice as much and put me in charge of ten people,” he says with a smirk that hints they’d also said “Finally.”
Another thing that’s noticeable about the group is that most of them skew older than one might expect. Slave Ambient garnered the sort of buzz usually reserved for upstart twenty-somethings, but the core members of the War On Drugs were all already past 30. At the time, they toured with a drummer a good deal younger than the rest of them. “All of us understand what we want. None of us are playing music to hook up with girls or get fucked up. We’re just doing it because it’s what we do,” Bennett says. With Bennett, Granduciel, and Hartley in or nearing their mid-30s and Hall turning 40 during this spring’s tour, they have the air of veterans already.
While it may have been a convoluted path to this point and while none of them necessarily live like rock stars, Granduciel is convinced this was the lineup that was always meant to be, asserting that with Hall now totally on board the band sounds better — more of a gang, one that knows how to play with each other — than they ever did before. He talks excitedly of bringing this group on the road in addition to the two extra instrumentalists (adding sax and secondary guitar and synths when needed). You get the sense he feels his band is better than it’s ever been, now that he’s got just the right arrangement of friends ready to play material that feels written for the road.
This is perhaps the strangest and most specific element of the War On Drugs dynamic: Each member is considered integral, but it is also still pretty much entirely Granduciel’s project. He writes all the material alone. He records a lot of it himself, too, and then brings in the other members as needed. The next night, he tells me of his decision to put himself on the cover. “This wasn’t a band record. This was a solo record. I knew that. They’ve all been solo records,” he explains. In the same breath, he talks of the possibility of he, Bennett, Hartley, and Hall recording an album in the studio together, and the idea of having their Joshua Tree cover then. When they’ve earned their “band” moment. Even so, in this “solo” phase, he needs them by his side. “It wouldn’t be what it is if it was just me asking friends to play on a record. They know they’re part of the band, but they also know I am who I am.”
He’s right. The other three members of the War On Drugs are visibly passionate about the band, but that’s a passion that inevitably goes in the direction of helping Granduciel achieve his vision. Hartley was a fan of Granduciel’s music before he joined the band. Bennett adds his own feel to the synth and piano parts, but also asserts that it doesn’t sound totally like the War On Drugs if Granduciel doesn’t play some synths, too. Hall talks of Granduciel as if he’s a proud uncle, pinpointing little moments on Lost In The Dream that impressed and surprised him. Thinking back to the quiet confidence with which he ran the rehearsal, or the way he sort of slumped in the corner of the booth at Loco Pez but still managed to hold court, telling hilarious old tour stories, Hall’s admiration of his bandmate is completely relatable. Granduciel has a magnetism to him that’s amplified by the knowledge of what sort of music he’s capable of, the knowledge that the more magnanimous facets of his personality are grounded in genuine talent and aren’t just friendliness fireworks. “He’s just one of those people,” Hall says matter-of-factly, with the implicit suggestion that “those people” comprise a very short list.
Miner Street Recordings is hidden in plain sight on a corner in Fishtown. There is no big sign, no windows looking in to give you a hint that there’s a studio tucked inside a house on the corner. Just two doors, one behind a locked gate, the other a heavy metal thing that always gets jammed. On the latter, there’s a little piece of black tape, with words written in marker: “This Is Miner Street.”
It’s the morning after rehearsal, and time for Granduciel to clock in some hours working on the War On Drugs’ cover of “Touch Of Grey” for the Grateful Dead compilation that the National is curating. Granduciel is in the habit of producing his own stuff. When working on a War On Drugs album he’ll record demos at home before bringing them into the studio, and then he’ll add layer upon layer before sifting through it all like a puzzle, using a studio’s engineer as his technical aide and guide until they arrive at a mix and arrangement he likes. The work for “Touch Of Grey” is a bit different — over the course of the day, Bennett and Hartley will come by and contribute tracks, and Hartley and Granduciel’s girlfriends will stop in to hang out. According to Granduciel, it’s an uncommon practice for them. Usually, the War On Drugs studio experience is not a collaborative one.
Still, there’s no question that Granduciel is in charge today. As a self-avowed gearhead, Granduciel understands a lot of the technology of the studio, but still seems to trust a gut feeling when it comes to his process of recording and arranging. After having the engineer — Jonathan Low, who has also worked with the National and Sharon Van Etten, among others — play back what they have so far, Granduciel already has a set of notes and plans. The track sounds as if, in the first session, they’d recorded a bunch of different synths and guitar parts, just throwing everything up with plans to hew away later. He immediately dismisses a guitar solo and some synth lines that don’t quite fit, and then he starts dictating what’s next. “I want to do a harmonica on this song. Make it really sound like us.” “The snare sounds a little too Wilburys.” “The looped drums are cool, but it needs more of a human element. Let’s do a shaker or tambourine.” They’ll get to the vocals later; throughout the day, they use Granduciel’s scratch vocal as a placeholder, a particularly nasally performance that Hartley amusedly and affectionately refers to as Granduciel “going Full Dylan.”
Even though today’s task is recording a cover, the process exposes the methods that might go into crafting a War On Drugs song. One of the key phrases Granduciel utters is “Everything’s on all the time, we need some shaping.” As Low isolates and quiets tracks, the different elements of what had seemed a relatively straightforward reading of “Touch Of Grey” reveal themselves. There’s one guitar solo — admittedly, the one Granduciel axes rather quickly — that when isolated sounds nothing at all like “Touch Of Grey.” It’s heavily processed, a slow, sad, strange, and sort of formless thing. Think of it as the lead part if there was a such thing as a shoegaze power ballad. When the synth tracks get singled out they sound like their own standalone ambient songs, and there’s the surprising realization that the density in a Drugs song like, say, “Come To The City,” could potentially be built up in the same way, a patchwork of little pieces that shouldn’t fit together but manage to congeal into the songs we know and love. At one point Low mutes almost everything and starts tweaking a percussion tone, which results in an off-kilter drum machine sound and distant synth echoes, like the soundboard’s haunted and gurgling. “That’s what we should send in,” Bennett jokes. “We’ll say we boiled the song down to its purest essence.”
Specifically, witnessing the “Touch Of Grey” process is telling in how it defines how things have changed since Slave Ambient. At different points in the day, there are glimpses at how the band might’ve treated this cover in 2011. But today Granduciel feels “We need some shaping,” and so they set about trimming things out, carefully calibrating which tracks come in where. “The song is so nice and pretty and it’s kind of up our alley, but it doesn’t need to be this ambient wall the whole time,” he says during his discussions with Low. There’s still a bounty of sounds and textures, but they’re measured out in doses so that instead of a continuous surge of gorgeously effects-altered sounds, there’s a repeated process of build-up then strip-back-down occurring in the song itself.
Though he’s most often thought of as a guitar player, Granduciel usually starts composing at the piano. Sometimes he’ll begin with an ambient texture and work melodies into it rather than on top of it; the piano riff that opens “Under The Pressure” developed that way. Many, if not all, of the new songs started as home recordings Granduciel would later transfer to Pro Tools — “Red Eyes,” “Lost In The Dream,” and “Suffering” all began life as demos built on Rhodes, vocals, and drum machine. The process deviated slightly from Slave Ambient, when there would be more of a back and forth between constructing tracks in the studio, then retreating home to overdub like crazy, and then bringing it back to the studio once more. “Essentially I was going back to square one, then you’re at square ten, and then you’re back to square four. I didn’t want to do that with this record,” Granduciel explains.
After a intricate process of building songs up just to tear them down for Lost In The Dream, what stands out about the new record is the importance of small details in the music of the War On Drugs. This has always been a quality of Granduciel’s work: Even in his most immediate songs, it takes a few listens to be able to tease out the richness of the layers. But where Slave Ambient was overwhelming as an atmosphere, Lost In The Dream has been sculpted in a way that allows specific moments to pop. It’s easier to pinpoint the little touches that give you chills.
When “Red Eyes” was released last December, the sudden drumroll, yelp, and general euphoria that occurs at the 1:48 mark was a late-breaking contender for my favorite musical moment of 2013. And it turns out that Lost In The Dream is littered with those kinds of moments. In an uncharacteristically direct and unadorned vocal on “Eyes To The Wind,” it’s the power in Granduciel’s delivery as he sings “I’m just a bit run down here at the moment.” The more I’ve listened to the album, the way the piano, slide guitar, and drums come in out of murky atmosphere on “Under The Pressure” has become one of my favorite album openers, period. Everything changes when, halfway through a verse in “Burning,” Granduciel suddenly starts harmonizing with himself, subtly upping the intensity of the song. And, of course, there’s the slow-burn rise of “An Ocean In Between The Waves” arriving at a climax of Granduciel’s voice becoming subsumed in — appropriately — waves of guitar and synth.
The fact that these moments are so easy to single out is the mark of how the War On Drugs have learned to maneuver differently. Granduciel knows when to amplify or scale back when he needs to, and the result is not quite as lush as Slave Ambient, but a more dynamic listening experience than either it or Wagonwheel Blues. To arrive at the final product, Granduciel underwent a year of revising, then revising again, then enlisting the help of engineers to construct the whole thing properly. That vocal part in “Eyes To The Wind” was originally distant and coated in reverb; now it’s way up in the mix and as dry and earthy as anything Granduciel’s put to tape, bare enough to match the sentiments of the song. The power of closing song “In Reverse” is located in how it drifts from an abstract, scene-setting three minutes; originally there was a prominent acoustic guitar and drum machine throughout the whole song, which Granduciel made the decision to mute late in the game. “Burning” remains one of the more layered songs on Lost In The Dream, but the impact of moments like that doubled vocal were lost in the original, more over the top mix.
The most severe of these was “An Ocean In Between The Waves,” which Granduciel spent a year working on only to scrap it and re-record it in the span of a few days, very close to the date on which the album was due to the record label. “It was all just hyped,” Granduciel remembers. “Big drum sound, super blown out. The other version isn’t as dynamic. It doesn’t have that ending. It falls apart into a bunch of noise.” After the long process to finish the song, everyone thought he was insane to be starting over. But this seems to be the process that works best for Granduciel. Demo at home, craft it in the studio, then turn around and use a finished recording as, in turn, a demo for the actual song. When he started over he knew where every detail was supposed to go, what each moment of the song should do. It was his way of working into the essence of the song.
On this day in the studio, that same method plays out on a smaller scale with “Touch Of Grey” until it’s ten at night, and Granduciel, Low, and myself are the only ones who remain at Miner Street. Granduciel sits on a couch, running through two or three new vocal tracks. Afterwards, he’s satisfied with the day’s work, ready to go get some food. It’s a sense of completion he seems to rarely, even now, feel of his own work. “It’s hard having this obsession with songs,” he says, reflecting on his process of de- and re-constructing songs repeatedly. “Their potential is always going to be more than you can get in the moment. I always want to know how far it can go.”
Granduciel didn’t find his way to Philadelphia immediately. After college, he briefly lived out in California. During his time there, he acquired a digital 8-track recorder and began to record songs by himself. Inspired by the open tunings of Nick Drake and of Bob Dylan’s alternate Blood On The Tracks sessions, he composed a lot of instrumental guitar music, experimenting with overdubbing himself. He’d start with some chords, then drop some spaced-out slide guitar all over it. He worked alone, writing little pieces in his bedroom.
After a detour to Boston and an abandoned plan to move to New York, Granduciel wound up in Philly. It wasn’t totally random, but it was sort of happenstance. He had a friend who was moving there, so it made more sense than continuing to crash at his parents’ place outside Boston, and he’d identified it as the sort of city where you could live as a musician. Moving to Philly was a choice made for the explicit purpose of being able to focus on music, and being able to play it with people. After trying to write material more in the vein of ’60s pop, Granduciel decided it wasn’t the right approach and began to move towards the War On Drugs sound. He was offered a record deal off the strength of songs such as “Arms Like Boulders” and “Taking The Farm.” With his small advance, he bought a tape machine and began to learn how to build the thick mix of textures, overdubs, and loops that define many War On Drugs songs. “‘Needle In Your Eye [#16],’ ‘Show Me The Coast,’ all that stuff is me in my home studio learning a new way to approach things sonically,” he says. “The second half of Wagonwheel is an intro to Slave Ambient, in a way.”
Slave Ambient — that’s where this gets important.
Granduciel will tell you that Philly has been crucial to the music he makes, but he’ll locate that in the people he knows, the community he’s become a part of. He will identify the physical landscape of the place as less of an influence. But I’ve lived in Pennsylvania most of my life, and was surprised to find that Granduciel hadn’t. Where others have understood the War On Drugs as something of a laid-back classicist rock band, they’ve always struck me as something much sadder and more esoteric than such a moniker would suggest. I have spent the last few years in buses and cars repeatedly etching their way through patterns across Pennsylvanian countrysides, past dilapidated buildings and forgotten towns. Nowhere-America kind of things. And, for most of it, I’ve listened to the War On Drugs.
Pennsylvania has an inescapable in-betweenness to it. Each of its borders touches or at least grasps at something else — the Midwest, the beginnings of the South, the Northeastern elitism of being “not too far” from New York City, the sort-of but-not-really relation to New England. Growing up in such a state gives you the sense of living in a place that’s everyone else’s temporary station. It should be a place to pass through. And when you do pass through, you’ll see echoes of the past that got left behind here. You’ll see the battered facades of old stone buildings built back when our towns were rich off the railroad. You’ll see old coal towns stultified in the face of a present that might begrudgingly let them tag along, but has no real place for them.
The past weighs on Philadelphia, too. Its landscape is pock-marked — buildings a few hundred years old dot its streets, some pristine and housing trendy bars, others ancient and dingy. Empty, overgrown lots and foreboding, maybe abandoned factory and warehouse entrances will intrude even on streets lined with expensive condos. Like much of the rest of Pennsylvania, you catch glimpses of some past manufacturing and industrial power, but it doesn’t seem quite legible to you anymore. To pass by decrepit remnants like the Divine Lorraine Hotel or the Port Richmond Generating Station is to encounter the stubborn mythology of the past forcing itself into your daily life. They are falling, post-industrial temples of fallen things.
The War On Drugs sound like they were born here. They exist in a tradition of music — folk by way of classic rock — that comes directly out of America’s industrial past. But the way they play it is of the present. Familiar folk and roots forms and images get infused with ghosts of an unlived past, rendered spectral through reverb and effects-laden guitars and the elliptical nature of loops. This blossomed on Slave Ambient, a record where classic imagery and lines like “I’ve been ramblin'” or “Lookin’ out/ past the rubble,” are delivered in a folk-rock cadence, but over churning, spacey soundscapes. In the ever-intensifying guitars of “Come To The City” or the charge of “Your Love Is Calling My Name,” you hear that desperation, that sense of standing around looking at the country’s post-industrial skeleton around you.
Slave Ambient and the Future Weather EP are intercut with ambient segues, often twisted alterations on elements of past songs, or songs you will hear later on the record. They are like lost tales bubbling up from the surface, re-contextualized. That inevitable stampede of “Your Love Is Calling My Name” collapses headlong into the abstraction of “The Animator,” a two-minute collection of drones, all disembodied guitars and saxophone keens that build the themes for the following “Come To The City.” That latter song’s emphatic march returns soon after in “City Reprise #12,” now swallowed up in an aqueous bed of sound. But it’s still there. Someone else’s idea of the past. A recurrence.
Lost In The Dream is a hazier album than Slave Ambient. It sounds more lived-in. Rather than the cycles and echoes that function as marking posts in the occasional impenetrability of Slave Ambient, the borders between things have dissolved on Lost In The Dream. Again and again, songs bleed out into the horizon. “Under The Pressure” and “Disappearing” drift off into atmospherics, where “In Reverse” drifts in from the same. Eschewing the segue structure this time around, Granduciel lets the music work in and out of the abstractions within the span of a single song. The lone ambient exercise, “The Haunting Idle,” functions as an extended intro for “Burning” much in the same way that “The Animator” does for “Come To The City.” Over it all, he delivers the same sort of classic Americana lines he did throughout Slave Ambient. He’s a “travelin’ man/ been working everyday” in “An Ocean Between The Waves”; in “Eyes To The Wind” he’s “Like a train in reverse down a dark road/ carrying the whole load/ just rattlin’ the whole way home.”
This at once makes Lost In The Dream a more naturalistic and a more idiosyncratic listening experience. The ethereal and the human, forms abstract and concrete, are collapsed together into singular pieces. Rather than another album built around memories seeping in between tracks, Lost In The Dream is a record composed of songs that echo themselves. That distant whine that dominates the feet-won’t-touch-the-ground beginning of “In Reverse” is actually there throughout the song, calmly lacerating the track even as it becomes an increasingly standard mid-tempo, meditative rocker. The structure of “Under The Pressure” continually peaks and disintegrates; the first time is about a few minutes in, with a sax-dominated breakdown. It at first seems the engine behind an immaculate instrumental build and a more emphatic verse from Granduciel. Then, the second time the track breaks down, those horns gutturally sputter out and melt away into the slow ebb of sounds that “Under The Pressure” rides out on. These are songs telling ghost stories of themselves, to themselves.
From a Pennsylvanian perspective, it’s these qualities that have always made the War On Drugs’ music feel more tragic, more moving, than I’ve heard others describe it. This stuff is the sound of living in the sort of forgotten place that’s defined by the remnants it holds of an era a hundred years gone. It’s the sound of driving around Philly, encountering the burnt out and dilapidated reminders of a city you live on top of as much as within. They are the sound of the present with the past not necessarily overshadowing it, but haunting its edges so you can’t ever quite shake the sensation.
This, essentially, is what I would argue makes the War On Drugs so special. They take something old and formulaic and usually quite traditional-leaning musically, and they tweak it ever so slightly. Just enough that it suggests new, unexplored worlds as much as it does the dead ones. This, in a nutshell, is also what I would argue makes new Americana music worthwhile in a 2014 that’s ever more distant from the classic Americana culture that roots music was derived from. It has to go beyond just keeping a tradition alive. What the War On Drugs did with Slave Ambient and Lost In The Dream is take an old language and use it to talk about the contemporary world, a contemporary world that’s often comprised of only faded visages of the world in which that old language was the lingua franca. The stretched out, twilit haze of “An Ocean In Between The Waves,” or “Red Eyes,” or “Eyes To The Wind” — that’s the sound for a long busride through Pennsylvania in its indomitably grey-skied winters. Like those rogue colors finding their way up from the bottom of the Lost In The Dream cover, they’re the phantom elements necessary to flesh out our understanding of our present, of our place.
Soon, you will be familiar with Adam Granduciel’s home. Maybe it hid from you in the willed miasma of Slave Ambient. But you will hear it here, hanging in the dust and cracks of Lost In The Dream.
Driving around Philly, Granduciel starts to tell his story. This is what it takes, some time for the layers to peel back and the narrative to drift out from within. This is his element, sitting behind the wheel over the course of the day — errands back and forth between the studio and his house, and now, on our way to a gastropub in Northern Liberties — driving through his city. The tour van is full of little pieces of his life. A cardboard box sits between the two front seats, holding a mess of CDs (including Daydream Nation and Led Zeppelin’s Presence), a few books (a 33 1/3 on Tusk, a Lester Bangs collection), a black Ray Bans case, an old polaroid camera. On the seat behind us is a teal Danelectro baritone guitar, which Granduciel used a lot when recording Kurt Vile’s Childish Prodigy album instead of a bass. (He played, in some capacity, on each of Vile’s records besides the last one.) These are the surroundings Granduciel is comfortable in, and this is where he’ll tell you about his fears and dreams and what a terrible year 2013 was.
The writing of Lost In The Dream dates back to 2012, but it was 2013 when Granduciel was in the thick of it. And reacting to a whole slew of circumstances, he had a hard time. In the beginning of the year, he developed health anxieties, and he made a series of extreme life decisions — he stopped drinking, he stopped eating meat, he broke up with his girlfriend of four years, and then proceeded to not socialize for much of the year. For the first time, he didn’t feel young anymore, and he became plagued by questions: “What do I want out of my life. Will I have a family? Do I want to? Am I ready to be a father? Am I ready to not travel? Am I ready to not work on music six days a week obsessively?” In response, he threw himself deeper into the process of writing and recording.
Looming over much of it was an anxiety about himself as an artist. Granduciel now found himself in an unexpected position. “I moved to Philly to make music, but I didn’t know what that meant,” he says. There had been no concerted search for a record label; that just happened. Wagonwheel Blues and Slave Ambient, albums that garnered “You’ve gotta check out this band” and “This band is an important topic” levels of buzz respectively, felt distant to Granduciel. He worked on them, liked them, but didn’t feel connected to them anymore. In his mind, Slave Ambient was something he got lucky on, somehow a fluke, and now he had to prove himself.
“I didn’t feel like I was contributing to the canon in the way that I wanted to,” he reflects. “I stumbled upon finishing Slave Ambient. I wasn’t really saying anything.” After years of constant touring and writing, he hit that point of no longer recognizing himself. The process of making Lost In The Dream was one of making a more personal album while not having much of a grasp on his own personal life. He was nervous, having frequent panic attacks. Beset by sleep problems and anxiety, he has little memory of the mixing process, a phase he refers to as “obsessive insanity.” It was defined as much by his fixation on the process as it was on his lack of clarity, his inability to focus. He could barely have a conversation. In the end, he expresses surprise that they even wound up completing the album, let alone that they wound up with a finished product he’s so proud of.
Granduciel reiterates that he’s not a perfectionist in the way of someone who has been called a perfectionist more than a few times. Or, perhaps, in the way of someone who’s now telling himself he isn’t a perfectionist because he can’t possibly make another album the way he made this one. He feels some need to control the process of bringing these songs into the world, of exacting his vision just so. Which makes total sense. But he’s also questioning how and whether he can keep doing this. “I need to find a balance in my life,” he says. “I need to find out what makes me really happy.”
Right now, at least, things are working. There’s been some payoff to the struggle. Now that Lost In The Dream is done and approaching release, Granduciel has a sense of release, even if he has still to satisfy his own questions and ambitions. He’s happy with the group that now comprises the War On Drugs, and he’s happy with the finished recordings he eventually arrived at. He calls Lost In The Dream the “pursuit” of that more personal investment into his music — “the pursuit of trying to find out what the purpose is and think about your life in the context of the bigger picture and your friends’ life and how it all intertwines.”
Right around the corner, questions still await him. After Lost In The Dream, his contract is up, and that could be it. He’s at that age, that pivot point where you’re no longer young and not yet middle-aged and settled, where he has to make a decision about what he wants his life to look like. He knows he loves playing music, but he doesn’t know if it will continue to make him happy. He doesn’t know if he wants to continue that endless loop of bouncing around the world. As he ages, he doesn’t find himself picking up his guitar as much, or constantly recording melodies into his phone anymore. After going from dream to hobby to occupation, music became “something else” for Granduciel last year — just another specter to be dealt with, along with all the other questions, as he ages. “It frightens me, too,” he says distantly. “What’ll happen when everyone lives their life, moves on. Everything will be re-defined. I’m still figuring it out.”
Soon the van pulls away and Adam Granduciel disappears back into the shadows of Philadelphia from which he and his music emerged. Two days later I’ll pull away, too, driving those same highways through the Pennsylvanian countryside that the War On Drugs have soundtracked dozens of times before. This time, Lost In The Dream will be playing, and the personal struggles with mortality that Granduciel poured into this music will take on a larger life. They will seem, somehow, bigger than him or me or you, and his music will gradually become of and for this landscape. The music, like each collapsing farmhouse or desolate coal breaker on this drive, will be simultaneously ephemeral and immortal. The story of the man who wrote it just one thing mingling with countless others that eerily make their way in and out of each guitar drone and soundscape. Distantly, I might think about going to see some of those abandoned buildings in my hometown while they still stand, and at the same time I’ll know I probably never will. As I drive along and listen, I might lose focus, and get lost in some sort of dream myself. Either way, the result is the same. Things will linger.
Photos by Cory Smith/Stereogum.
Lost In The Dream is out 3/18 via Secretly Canadian.