The War On Drugs Come Home

Jimmy Fontaine

The War On Drugs Come Home

Jimmy Fontaine

Catching up with Adam Granduciel as his band prepares to celebrate A Drugcember To Remember

“All our best friends are here tonight. Thanks for coming to our rehearsal. This is not a show,” says Adam Granduciel with a giant grin and hair in his eyes, after finishing a rough but enthusiastic cover of the Waterboys’ “Strange Boat.” “I can’t stress that enough, this is not a show.”

The War On Drugs are, in fact, performing onstage in their hometown, but tonight is a loose, celebratory friends-and-family affair. As the band plays “Under The Pressure,” a young girl bops along in the balcony, surrounded by her beaming grandparents. Granduciel seems to know everyone here, and either hung out with them before the show or shouted them out from the stage. At one point he invites his friend Josh Newman onstage for an impromptu run through of the Slave Ambient cut “Brothers.” “Come on,” Granduciel beckons his old pal. “It’s just three chords.”

He’s in a cheery, celebratory mood — understandable, as he has a lot to be thankful for. Last year, the War On Drugs released Stereogum’s favorite album of the year, I Don’t Live Here Anymore, a portrait of a man, and a band, aiming for transcendence in a broken world. The band has spent much of this year back out on the road post-COVID, reviving the beloved concert experience documented on 2020’s LIVE DRUGS. And now the road has carried him back home for the holidays. (Granduciel is now based in Los Angeles.)

Since debuting in 2008 with Wagonwheel Blues, the War On Drugs have slowly established themselves as one of the greatest American bands of their generation. (They may even be the best, period. We’ll debate some other time.) Following their 2014 breakthrough Lost In The Dream, they’ve been on a steady uphill trajectory, scoring a Grammy for Best Rock Album for 2017’s A Deeper Understanding. When they finally returned with I Don’t Live Here Anymore, it was to frenzied anticipation from a larger fanbase than ever.

But they’ve never forgotten where they came from, and as one of the bands that helped bring the spotlight back to Philadelphia, the War On Drugs are eager to give back. Since 2018, they’ve been hosting their year-capping A Drugcember To Remember concert series. This year finds them playing three shows at Johnny Brenda’s, the bar-turned-restaurant-turned scene incubator where Granduciel figured out onstage what he wanted his band to be. It’s a much smaller room than they play these days, and while tonight’s non-show show is on the casual side, that part in “Strangest Thing” — where the chord changes just so and the heavens open up — hits just as hard as ever.

After a COVID-mandated two-year break, this run of shows will benefit the Fund For The School District Of Philadelphia, a nonprofit that raises and coordinates investments into the city’s public schools. There will also be an auction in January (sign up here to learn more) for items such as a Golden Ticket good for a pair of tickets to any headline show from the War On Drugs for the next five years, signed memorabilia from Philadelphia professional sports teams, signed instruments from the band and other artists, and more.

The holidays are a time to look back and look ahead, so I caught up with Granduciel before the onstage rehearsal. I’ve talked to him during each of the band’s album cycles and once went to the batting cages with them as part of an ongoing quest to play sports (a thing I don’t understand) with indie rock icons. He was in jovial spirits during our conversation, proud of his band for getting through a tough year that strained every touring operation. While he, uh, doesn’t live here anymore, it’s clear his heart never left.

Where did the idea for Drugcember come from?

ADAM GRANDUCIEL: We started in 2018. We had three shows in Philly in December. Originally, it wasn’t a charitable thing. We’d been giving a dollar for every ticket that whole year with the Plus One company.

So we did some research, and a friend of ours actually worked at the fund for the school district. We learned that, and we were like, “Oh, that’s great.” Because it’s a really transparent organization. So that was the first year that we were like, “Alright, let’s give all the money to this fund for the school district in Philadelphia.”

That first year, we did Brenda’s, Union Transfer, and Tower Theater. And then the next year we did two other ones, and it just turned into this thing. We missed it for two years, obviously. And then this year we wanted to do it the whole year, but we weren’t sure if we were gonna be able to. We had already played a bunch of shows in Philly. So we were like, well, we don’t want to do three huge shows. So we were like, let’s do three Johnny Brenda’s and just make it memorable and really hone in on the raising money part.

Because this is one of the venues where the band really got their start.

GRANDUCIEL: Kind of, yeah. The first couple shows we played were at the Khyber, which is no longer. But basically I lived a block from here for 15 years. Our world was Frankford, Johnny Brenda’s, Girard, this little three- or four-block radius.

Rachael Alberti

Do you still live here, or do you live in LA?

GRANDUCIEL: No, I live in LA.

Do you miss it?

GRANDUCIEL: I do. Every time I come back here, it’s just things change around. I mean, you can spend your whole life wondering, looking at how things change. But I still love walking around this neighborhood. And yesterday I walked over to ReAnimator, just a little pocket to Fishtown, and it’s just my kind of place.

You’re originally from Dover, Massachusetts, and then you went to Pennsylvania for Dickinson College. But it seems Philadelphia is where you became the person, and the artist, that you are.

GRANDUCIEL: I would definitely say this little couple block radius, especially with music, it’s just where I met everybody that I developed a musical relationship with.

People I would meet at a barbecue who wanted to play in a band or jam on guitar, they lived a block away. I was like, “Oh, you live on 2nd Street.” So it was just our own little community. And there was a guitar shop that… used to be on 2nd Street but then he moved up to Fishtown.

It was just… I was growing musically into the city, and then everything around me was growing too. The neighborhood was slowly… people were slowly moving up here. More stuff was opening up here. So this place was just… because at first when Brenda’s opened there was no upstairs. And there wasn’t even a dining room, it was just basically half of the front room. Just a small bar, like any other small divey bar. And then eventually they opened up the restaurant, and then eventually they opened up here. And it was just a place we’d come to see shows, play pool, DJ, whatever, and drink beer. And we played a handful of shows here.

Philadelphia and Pennsylvania at large has had a really big year writ large. Obviously, John Fetterman/Dr. Oz was the big Senate race of the year. What was it like to see the world pay so much attention to Pennsylvania, even if you’re not currently in Pennsylvania?

GRANDUCIEL: I mean every election, too. It’s always Philly. It’s like that can sometimes determine an election. It’s just a city with a lot of heart and a lot of grit. They’re people that work hard.

It’s a really special city. It’s unlike any other city. I grew up outside of Boston, but as much as I love Massachusetts and where I grew up, Boston proper didn’t have a deep connection other than maybe the North End where my dad’s shop was. So Philly was a major city that I really threw myself into and really fell in love with and wanted to be a part of… not the musical community as much as just the neighborhood, and [tried] to understand what’s happening around me.

I had tickets to see you at Madison Square Garden in January. I was really psyched, but then not only was the omicron variant blowing up, but that weekend there was a cyclone-blizzard, and I couldn’t get out of New Jersey. And my wife pointed out it wasn’t safe and you tour all the time, so you know how it goes. But I was bummed.

So I figure a lot of your year was like that; you’re playing the biggest headlining shows of your career, in a time when touring is the most difficult it’s ever been. What was it like for you to navigate that?

GRANDUCIEL: Really challenging. When we went up in January, it was like everything you said. It was omicron, it was winter. No one had really toured post-COVID yet. So we were buying thousands of dollars worth of COVID tests and trying to figure out what we’re gonna do if someone gets COVID. Because touring, it’s not a business model of canceling a bunch of shows in a row.

Right, of course.

GRANDUCIEL: But then you’re faced with this new thing where it’s like, “Oh, well, this is different.” So you are just really day to day figuring it out, how can we keep this tour on the road? And we’re really lucky that we’re such a tight unit that you don’t have a bunch of people risking everything else. Everyone was in on it. As the year went on, you have to just accept… Like once the first two big headlining tours were over, like the US and Europe arena things, I think we were just so exhausted from the level of lockdowns. You go on tour for six weeks and it’s not like you can’t leave your hotel room, but no one’s going out to restaurants. No one’s going to bars. Having no friends backstage, which is fine, but it’s less about that and more just like the constant stress of like, “Oh, did I just get COVID from that guy coughing in the coffee shop? Should I not have gone to get a coffee?” It’s like these little things.

Does it get to you?

GRANDUCIEL: Well, it definitely did those first five months, because you’re like, “Am I the one that’s gonna derail this tour?” But like anything, you learn and you just figure out what’s realistic, and we really did a great job this year. We played a ton of shows and went all over the world and got better as a band and met cool bands, and it didn’t feel like — even in those first few months when we had such strict protocol, I don’t really think anybody felt like the tour was not worth doing. Even with all those restrictions, at the end of the day, it was like, go up on the stage and get better, play the songs, and that’s what everyone was there to do.

Now you just recently got nominated for Grammy again, for Best Rock Song, for “Harmonia’s Dream.”

GRANDUCIEL: I know. So sick.

Are you at the point where you’re like, “Yeah, we’re a Grammy-nominated band,” or does it still feel weird to you, coming from the underground?

GRANDUCIEL: It still feels weird for sure, especially for Best Rock Song because I remember the song, how many times…I basically changed the entire song like three days before we finished it. We went through it and I was like, “That’s not right. Can you fix this?” And then a year and a half later it’s nominated. We’re like, “Oh, that’s so crazy.”

Well, that makes sense, based on what you’ve told me in the past.

GRANDUCIEL: Cause you’re tweaking it in the moment, because you’re like, “I know there’s something special about this song. I just want to make sure you do it justice.” And then two years later, it’s like Best Rock Song.

Speaking of constantly tweaking, you recently finally released “Oceans Of Darkness,” which has been a kind of a bootleg among your fans for a while from your live shows, and which you first played on late night TV. When did you finally accept that song was ready to go? ‘Cause it’s a completely different version from the version you played on Fallon. (The version seen in 2020 on The Tonight Show was performed via Zoom to promote the release of LIVE DRUGS.)

GRANDUCIEL: That night I wrote it, I was in the studio with (producer Shawn Everett) and we recorded it that night, like super quick. And I was like, “Oh, this is gonna be the track two on the album.” So when we did Fallon and everyone was still in isolation and everything, I was inspired by when Pearl Jam played on SNL, and the first song they played was one you’ve never heard. It was when they played “Not For You,” which had not come out yet. I was like, “We should play a song no one’s ever heard.”

Rachael Alberti

It’s been more than a since Slave Ambient, which was when your band really began to kick in earnest in a way, and we’re getting closer to that decade of Lost In The Dream than I’m comfortable with, time being what it is. That was the album that really changed everything for you. How do you feel looking back on the last decade or so of the band, how the band’s grown and you’ve grown?

GRANDUCIEL: Definitely, every album we’ve made, I’m happy with, and I feel like I’m always surprised by our trajectory, but I always still also feel like there’s a lot more cool records to make. But we grew this band like… I finished Lost In The Dream and I didn’t know what the next thing was.

It’s like we put this bigger band together because I was like, well, I really want to have a big sound. I wasn’t sure in what capacity that record would be received. We had done a tour with Destroyer a couple of years prior. I was like, man, I want to have a sound like that. Like I had seven people, eight people in the band. Like it’d be cool to have [Jon Natchez] play sax, and we met [multi-instrumentalist Anthony LaMarca], and then he obviously could do everything so beautifully. And then we started touring, and like it kind of all of a sudden started, like, gelling. The live band was getting really good at playing with each other.

At the same time, people were listening to the record. So it was giving us a lot of momentum. The six of us weren’t kicking around Philly, like, trying to make it happen. We’ve been able to put this thing together that just keeps kind of growing, and we get along great. I mean, that’s what I’m most happy about is just the community within the band, our relationship and how that grows with our crew and our extended team and family.

I just want to always surround myself with people I liked and that I thought were good people. And that’s kind of what we have, and that’s kind of like what the DrugCember thing is. We just wanted to do some good and get people in a room that want to see us at Johnny Brenda’s. Like, it’s not going to be the show you’ll see at the Met or MSG, but it’s the band that plays big rooms in a small room for charity and let’s have some fun and it gives us an excuse to come back and hang out in Fishtown and…

See your friends.

GRANDUCIEL: It’s not about the band. It’s about being a part of something.

Is that something you have to fight to hold on to? You see in the music industry, some people get lost in their own egos. They get lost, they get distracted by the wrong thing. It seems like you really try to keep it grounded.

GRANDUCIEL: I mean, I think it just comes naturally to all of us that like, I mean, I don’t live here…

Anymore!

GRANDUCIEL: I know. I made the record called that.

Sorry.

GRANDUCIEL: I can’t say it. So I have to say things like, well, I don’t currently live here, but…

I couldn’t help myself.

GRANDUCIEL: This is where I just have so many great memories here and real deep friendships, even if we don’t all live here, our lives are centered around this place.

You’re still a Philadelphia band at heart.

GRANDUCIEL: 100%. And it’s just really important to me that that stays a part of our thing. Even if three out of seven people live here.

So we talked about the last decade. What’s your vision or hope for the next decade of the War On Drugs?

GRANDUCIEL: I wouldn’t have been able to predict this decade a decade ago. But if I feel connected to music and making it, then I’ll make it.

I don’t really think we’ve ever done much that’s felt forced or felt like we needed to do something. I’ve been really determined for 15 years to be creative and try to make music I liked. And you got to make it for yourself. You got to make music you like. Philly’s where I learned how to use a tape machine and learned how to record by myself. And so if I can keep doing that, then that’s what I’m planning on trying to do.

A Drugcember To Remember continues tonight and tomorrow at Johnny Brenda’s. All shows are sold out.

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