A Deeper Understanding – The War on Drugs interview
As US indie-rockers The War On Drugs release their first major-label album, A Deeper Understanding, Josh Gardner sits down with band leader Adam Granduciel to talk Kate Bush records, obsessive production and the importance of vinyl in keeping the album alive in 2017…
When we sit down to chat with Adam Granduciel in the comfortable surroundings of the Warner Music offices in London, the first thing we notice are his shoes. To his ankles, he’s every bit the hip indie-rocker you’d expect – unkempt shoulder-length hair, well-worn band T-shirt, ripped jeans… but the outfit is capped not by some Chucks or DMs, but with some battered running shoes you certainly won’t see too many frontmen sporting across town in Hoxton or Shoreditch. As we chat to the 38-year-old songwriter, however, it becomes clear that there’s no incongruity at all. Granduciel is thoughtful and engaging throughout the hour we spend in his company, but it’s apparent he’s not preoccupied with following the crowd or doing what’s expected of him – he does what he wants and what makes him happy, and doesn’t worry about anything else.
It’s something that’s instantly clear on listening to his band’s latest album, A Deeper Understanding – their first
since signing a major-label deal with Atlantic on the back of the critical and commercial success of 2014’s Lost In The Dream. ‘Deeper’ is accurate – the album has been gestating for the best part of three years, with Granduciel diving further than ever into the lush, dense sound that made Lost In The Dream so arresting. (Read our full review here).
Since the amicable departure of his friend Kurt Vile in 2008, TWOD has been firmly his project – he’s the driving force and creative fulcrum of a band that has often had a revolving cast of supporting musicians around him. However, while you’d have expected that Granduciel’s decision to move from the band’s Philadelphia base to Los Angeles would’ve served only to create more of an individual album, the exhaustive touring beforehand ended up spawning a record that is perhaps Adam’s most collaborative yet. A large part of this was the way the band ended up writing material on the road, something that gave him a rare window to focus his bandmates without distraction.
“It’s the only time that you get to have band practice every day for two hours. There’s nowhere anyone needs to be!” he chuckles. “We’re a thousand miles from home – no-one’s got to run out. So it’s really the best time to write and get ideas going. You can really be more focused, get a lot of stuff done.”
If the road provided some rare uninterrupted time to lay the bedrock for a number of songs, when Adam got off tour and moved out to the West Coast, he was back to writing on his own. The familiarity focused him in a way, but the lack of a sounding board quickly became apparent.
“I was a little bit more physically isolated, rather than just emotionally!” he recalls. “I couldn’t call up my friends… I ended up meeting some cool people out there and I’m happy that I spent some time there. But I couldn’t call up my buddies and go have a beer, or I couldn’t go hang out on the weekends, or involve myself in their lives in the way that I want to.”
It wasn’t just the lack of a social escape, either – being based several thousand miles from his bandmates created unique time pressure when, every six weeks, drummer Charlie Hall, bassist Dave Hartley and keyboardist Robbie Bennett would join him in LA to work for a week at a time.
“We had to find a time that worked and then I had to fly everyone out, and get them an Airbnb. And then it was like, super focused! Seven days of music. I knew I only had them for a week, and I wanted to squeeze everything into that week – rehearsal, writing, friendship, barbecues… so we did it all at the studio!” – Adam Granduciel
Adam wasn’t totally alone in LA, however. His partner in crime was producer Shawn Everett (Alabama Shakes, Weezer), who enabled Adam’s quest to immerse himself in the recording process more than ever.
“I think one of the things with Shawn was really getting a full-spectrum recording,” he elaborates. “All of a sudden, I was like, ‘I don’t think I used to think about the kick drum as obsessively on the last record’. Because now I’m actually hearing it in the music, it has to be perfect. And if I’m hearing it this much, it has to be doing something that’s in time with the inflections of the vocal… I think, with this one, everything feeds into each other, so certain songs I had written and demo’d before we recorded them, and I’d sent them to everyone and they’d all played on the demo. Which meant by the time we got to the first day with Shawn, we’d already recorded this song three times, so people were familiar with the song. It wasn’t a case where I would say, ‘Oh hey, I have this song – you should put bass on it… and here’s the chorus’. It wasn’t that first impression.”
The happy result was that Adam ended up focusing less on his densely layered guitar parts from the outset, and instead he allowed the other members of the band a chance to shine.
“It ended up being what I thought I wanted it to be a couple of years ago, which is a bass record. I wanted to highlight how great a player he is and how important he’s been to the band.” – Adam Granduciel
“I played a lot more piano on this record than on other records, and it’s less conceived at home – it’s a little bit more… not ‘organic’, but the songs are thought about in a band context. Instead of, like, drum machine and then droning guitar, which was the way I used to write. This way, I was writing a little bit more thinking of the whole band – the sound of it live, and how we could shape the sound of this band we’ve made.”
One of the key facets of The War On Drugs’ sound is the dense layers that combine to form a euphoric cacophony of guitars, bass, keys, drums and samples.
A Deeper Understanding sees Adam exploring ethereal soundscapes more than ever, and we can’t help but wonder how he manages to keep that lush wash of sound while avoiding things descending into a mess of ideas. “Yeah, that’s the thing – always leaving some space,” he reflects. “But the problem is that I get so into recording that I spend six, seven, eight months on the same song. And I have all these different melodies going on in the song, and you want to highlight each of them. So it’s trying to sculpt this thing where, if you put everything in, it would just be a wash, so you’re trying to paint this picture, but keep all your favourite elements in.”
Adam’s journey to creating these detailed compositions began in much humbler circumstances – a CD player and Nirvana.
“I listened to music on the way to school, but it wasn’t like ‘a big thing’ until In Utero, which was also coupled with getting my first CD Discman. I never had a Walkman, so it was like, all of a sudden, I could have it whenever I wanted. That was the moment that I was all-in, and I was into buying music and listening to music 24 hours a day.” – Adam Granduciel
CDs might have brought music into focus, but fittingly, it was vinyl that allowed him to properly explore music and develop the vocabulary that still informs him today.
“My parents didn’t have a record collection, but my mom did – at my grandmother’s house,” says Adam. “I remember when I found that, it blew my mind, because there wasn’t much in the house. But then, when I saw her collection, I was like: ‘Oh, I didn’t know this person existed’. It was every Beatles record, every Stones record, every great record from 1964 to 1972, y’know? What we had in the house was a CD player, and my dad listened to music, recreationally – but not pop music. So he had records, but they were in the garage, unused. Classic records – Harry Belafonte, stuff like that, big-band records, Benny Goodman… So yeah, my mom’s record collection really opened the gates of classic rock – Clapton, Cream, Beatles… everything.
“Then, eventually, I got into Pink Floyd, and revisited the classics that my brother had turned me on to – REM and Neil Young. I think Neil Young around that time was doing all that stuff with Pearl Jam. So then I got into him and went down that road.” – Adam Granduciel
“I grew up in Boston, and we had great radio. I remember a lot of songs growing up that maybe I didn’t love in the same way that I do now – like [Bruce Springsteen’s] The River. The River was on the radio in Boston all the time. I knew it was Bruce, but I didn’t have a love for that song like I do now – because I’m older!”
Adam on the highlights of his record collection, fun with 45s and being a terrible negotiator…
“I still buy lots of records,” Adam enthuses when we ask him about his vinyl collection. “It’s been tough with moving around a lot. I had all my records in a storage unit for a while – I’ve kind of been living between New York and Los Angeles, so I don’t bring my records with me. But, I have certain records, like Neil Young’s Silver & Gold from 2001. I’ve lost the CD, but whenever I go home, I always make sure I still have that and nobody’s borrowed it or anything. Then there’s the first Burning Spear record, which I always put on when I’m back with my collection. I’m not a completist – I don’t have that collector’s nature. Some of my friends are intense collectors – real deep music heads – and they have very intense collections. But it’s not ever really been my thing. I’m always looking for certain things, or copies of things I don’t have.
“On the last tour, especially in Europe, the thing that I got into most was 45s. It’s so much easier to travel with them. You can go to the shop and find some of your favourite songs on 45, and then you just put them in your bag and go home with them. Some I have hanging up in my studio. But it’s: ‘Oh, Tangled Up In Blue 45…’ – it’s such a cool little keepsake, and it’s much easier to transport.
“Recently, I went to the WFMU Record Fair in New York. I was there for like two hours – I’m not on my knees – but I got some cool stuff. I got Kate Bush, The Sensual World, which I actually named my record after! She has a song called Deeper Understanding – I heard that song maybe a year ago and it totally twisted me up, and then it made its way into one of the lyrics. I also got the Sonic Youth Diamond Sea 12″ with the edit on one side, and a copy of Springsteen’s Lucky Town. I bought the Sonic Youth and it was like $25. So he had this copy of Lucky Town and I was like, ‘What do you say, you wanna throw that in for free?’. He was French, and he was like, [deadpans] ‘That’s a $50 record’. And I was like, ‘Well, I don’t think it’s a $50 record…’ Maybe it is, but I’m not a good haggler at all and I was all, ‘I’m so sorry!’ and paid $50…”
Adam’s interest in vinyl goes back almost as far, but in the dark days of the 90s, when records were regarded by many as a dead format, his collection started almost by accident.
“I was 18 when I started getting into it – I had a cheap record player and I started to buy records. The first record I bought was the third Pearl Jam record. It wasn’t like it is now. It was almost like it was just something other than a CD – ‘Oh, it’s coming out on this other thing – I’ve got to get it! This antiquated fuckin’ thing!’” – Adam Granduciel
Given his long appreciation of the art of the long-player, it’s no surprise that The War On Drugs have always been an ‘album band’, and it’s something that the vinyl revolution has enabled him to luxuriate in – creating records that are physical products to be enjoyed as a whole, from the tracklisting to the album art and liner notes.
“Something I’ve been focused on from the beginning is that I’m not really capable of writing ‘singles’,” he says. “I always try to think of how everything relates to the other songs I’ve written and this theme, taken as a whole, one piece. It’s cool there’s an attention on the record now. There’s so much attention on Spotify, which is awesome, but they’re like: ‘Think of your record cover – you have a million people [gestures to his iPhone] shrinking it down and saying what does it look like?’.
“Well, what does the ‘White Album’ look like shrunken down, y’know what I mean? I get that it’s a necessity, but it’s not new! When you got the Columbia House [once-popular US mail-order music club] CD catalogue, you’d pick one, and the covers were this big [holds his thumb and finger up with a tiny gap between them] – so it’s not the first time we’ve seen album art that small. But it’s cool also that there’s a real interest in it, and I can spend a lot of time on the gatefold, and the cover, and the liner notes… the quality of the paper. Those things, they matter to me, and I know they matter to other people, too.”
With the long, occasionally torturous gestation of A Deeper Understanding now over, Adam can look back and appreciate what he’s learned along the way. “They’re all hard to make – there’s no rule to recording. It’s really just an exercise in restraint and learning to judge your own instincts, y’know?” he insists. “The number of times we recorded something live at the beginning of the process – like kind of conceived of the song in the room – and then spent about six months going into different directions with it, only to come back to the original take! It was all here, so start here instead of thinking: ‘Oh, we need to re-cut the drums’ – it’s all in that moment, everyone playing in the room. If there’s one thing I would have learned, it’s everyone playing in the room is usually going to be the best take – but sometimes you have to go away from that to realise that.”
With the record in the can, however, he’s already looking forward to the release of sharing those songs in a live setting, and seeing how they develop on the road. “I love being in the studio. But I just love working,” he explains. “I love going to the studio and slogging away, coming home, ‘Aw, man, nothing happened today’, – but then, one day, you’re like, ‘I got this great thing…’ and then you’re buzzing all week with this idea. And then live, you’ve done all the hard work, so you just get to reinterpret and have fun with it. You’ve already made the decisions, so you get to go in there and muck it up a little bit, and live this thing you worked really hard on.”