Over the course of three albums and almost 10 years, Philadelphia’s the War on Drugs have been mining a unique and entrancing brand of hazy, psychedelia-laced Americana.
In their earliest days, the band was centered around guitarists, singers and songwriters Adam Granduciel and Kurt Vile. Following the release of their 2008 full-length debut, Wagonwheel Blues, Vile left to pursue a solo career, and the War on Drugs has since served primarily as a vehicle for Granduciel’s sprawling, atmospheric songs and emotive guitar excursions.
The band’s most recent effort, Lost in the Dream, which Granduciel tinkered with for close to two years before releasing, has emerged as one of the most celebrated rock records of 2014, receiving almost unanimous praise from critics and debuting in the Top 30 on the Billboard 200.
Following a performance in Boulder, Colorado, the 35-year-old Granduciel checked in with Guitar World to discuss his music, his gear and the War on Drugs’ incredible year.
GUITAR WORLD: You’ve been on the road for a while in support of Lost in the Dream. How does the live performance experience compare to the studio for you?
For me they’re two entirely different things, but I love both. You have to have the head space for both. I love playing guitar every night, and to be at this point where it’s like, the songs are done and I’m happy with the way they are on record, and I get to hear them be reinterpreted by the live band? That’s kind of the icing on the cake. It’s the best.
Then, when it’s time to go in and make a record I get really into that process, too. I don’t try to bang it out in two weeks. I try to really get inside of it and make something that’s really special. I also have to think about how to use the live band in a studio setting, which is a tricky thing for me. Because you record the songs and then you go on tour for a year, and after that the natural thing to do is to be like, “Oh, let’s all go into the studio together.” But that can end up not necessarily being like how you think it would be. So I really like both things. I like working on the records the way I want to work on them, and then having the band breathe new life into the songs on the road.
Many of the songs on the album—“An Ocean in Between the Waves,” “Under the Pressure”—have extended instrumental sections built into the studio arrangements. But in concert you stretch them out even further.
Do you tend to improvise those moments onstage?
Yes, but a lot of that, it takes months to get there. The record has these little guitar hooks here and there that are built-in, and I’ll stick to some of that stuff. But having played the songs 150 to 200 times now, I’m starting to get into territory that’s not on the record, and that I’m kind of happy isn’t on the record.
When we started touring, a song like “Under the Pressure” didn’t sound as big as it does now. It took some time to figure out. Because everyone’s kind of meandering inside those chords. It took a while to gel. “Ocean,” too. When a record first comes out you try to stay pretty close to what’s there. Onstage I was trying to figure out what the solo was. Because I didn’t write it. I just kind of played it in the moment, and a lot of that stuff is improvised. And then you listen to it and it’s like, Oh, man, what’s that little lick? What’d I do? So you spend a few weeks trying to nail and then you realize, “Oh, let me just do what I’m feeling tonight…” And sometimes I hit a bum note, but I don’t mind. I kind of like hitting some bum notes here and there. Because you’re just kind of going for it.
Who were some of the guys that influenced your lead style?
When I was a kid I was definitely into Neil Young. I knew of him through my brother, who would play, like, Harvest Moon and Unplugged, and I really liked it. But I think I got turned onto his other side through Pearl Jam. Because it was the early 90s and for kids my age Pearl Jam was everywhere. I would see them playing together and it was like, “Oh, I didn’t know that guy also did this!”
Also Jimi Hendrix. I mean, I don’t sound like Hendrix, but when you’re 13 and getting into guitar, having your mind blown by Hendrix definitely helps a lot. Then as I got older I started getting into Mike Bloomfield. I loved his playing on the Dylan records. And then I got into Sonic Youth, which was just so wild and different.
People tend to reference classic rock guys like Bruce Springsteen and Tom Petty when they talk or write about your music. Do you hear those sounds as much as others claim to hear them?
Maybe not as much as people talk about it. But they definitely are touchstones for me. With Springsteen it’s tricky—I’m a fan for sure, but it’s a different kind of fandom. I’m interested in what his record do to me, and the energy that’s on display in those records. I also sometimes use them as touchstones for their production. The Petty thing, I don’t hear it as much. I love Tom Petty the way a lot of people love him. He’s got so many amazing songs, and you know them by heart. They’re classics. So I guess they’ve just always been a part of my life. But I don’t know, maybe it’s a vocal thing with him as far as the comparisons.
In general, though, those classic-rock touchstones people talk about I think show up in my general approach to making music, and what it means to me to be a songwriter. That’s mostly what I get from those guys.
To me, at least, one of the hallmarks of your writing style is that, while the instrumentation can be dense, there’s also a lot of space in the arrangements. Is this by design?
I like for things to have a lot of space. And while there’s a lot going on, I also don’t want them to be shrouded in 50 guitars and tons of reverb. I like that kind of classic-type sound. A lot of my favorite albums were tracked live, with a four-piece band. I love the way those albums sound, but I want to make records that sound like that in the way I like to make stuff. So I like open space. I like things to be dense, but without feeling overwhelming. I like there to be some dynamics, which I think is something I’m trying to get better at with each album.
That said, the way your music is produced, the instruments can often tend to blend together. Keyboards, guitars, even the vocals, due to the way they sit lower in the mix, become a wash of sound.
I think a lot of that also has to do with spending a good amount of time with the songs in my head, and working on them for a long time. So certain little melodies from the guitar end up becoming a little bit of a vocal melody or a keyboard part. Or you have a little bit of a vocal melody that winds up being mirrored on guitar. These things start intertwining over the course of an album. And I kind of like how at the end of the day it all ends up blending.
The writing and recording processes are, for you, generally solitary endeavors.
What about that way of working appeals to you?
For me, I’m not the kind of guy who comes up with stuff by sitting down with an acoustic guitar and working on a song. It just kind of comes. It comes in those times when I set my stuff up late at night, or I hop on a Rhodes [piano] or something. I just start building a song up. I start thinking less about the chords in the song and more about the mood of the song. So it’s easier for me to build a song up from almost nothing and then watch it expand.
Like, “Under the Pressure” is basically just two chords, but it wasn’t written by just playing those two chords over and over and singing on top of it. It started small, and then over the course of months and months it became a bigger song. At first it was just a cool drum-machine beat I had, and then I was playing these two chords on the electric guitar one night and it sounded nice, the way I had it coming through two amps. And I just kept laying things down from there. You start hearing some melodies, you put some real drums on it, some pianos. Then some hooks, and then it starts becoming a lot bigger.
So that’s the way I’ve worked in the past. Now, I’m working on stuff here and there, and we’ll jam a few things at soundcheck to try and get some ideas flowing. Then when we’re off the road I’ll probably retreat for a while and do the same thing I’ve done before. I might involve the full band a little earlier in the process than I have in the past, but with the same idea in mind that you can keep adding and changing things. Because it’s usually less about sound and more about feel. And, nowadays, if you have a drum machine or a click in there you can always keep swapping things in and out, which is nice.
Because of this process that you’re describing, the line tends to blur for people as to whether the War on Drugs is a band or whether the War on Drugs is just you. Do you feel that line is blurry?
Yeah, I do. I like to think it’s a band, because live it wouldn’t sound like it sounds without the guys I play with. But over the years in the studio I’ve used different people on songs because it’s always been kind of loose as to what the band is. I have a lot of friends who are great drummers so I’d be like, “You’d be perfect for this song.”
Or I would do a lot of the keyboards and piano on the records just because I came up with the part. But I think part of what makes the War on Drugs a band is that everyone is very open to that process. Everyone gets it, and no one feels threatened by it. I think that’s what makes it special. So it is kind of my thing, and the records maybe sound like they do because of that. But when I think of who plays on these songs I definitely think of it as a band. And with each album I think we’re becoming more of a band. Hopefully with the next record it will be even more of a full band approach as far as the performance of it.
Can you talk a bit about the gear you’re using?
Absolutely! On the road right now I have a white Strat—a ‘56 American reissue. And, actually, just yesterday we were in Asheville I found an exact color match in a 1982 Japanese 12-string Strat. It’s so sick, and it plays so sweet. I went into this guitar store in town to pick up some strings for a friend and I saw this white 12-string. I was like, “You gotta be shitting me!” I had to get it. So I have the Strat, and then I also have a ‘62 Jazzmaster reissue that Fender sent me. I wasn’t in love with it at first but then I put a Mastery bridge on it and I really enjoy playing it. It’s really clean and bright. I also have my ‘81 Les Paul Deluxe, which I love a lot.
You don’t see too many people playing those Deluxe models.
Yeah. I don’t know why more people don’t play them. They’re fairly light, especially for Les Pauls. And the mini-humbuckers are so clean. Real open-sounding. I love that guitar. It’s kind of its own thing. I also have a [Gretsch] White Falcon with Filter’Tron pickups, which is awesome. And a ’65 non-reverse Firebird. I love that guitar so much, but I don’t play it that much in the set because it’s such a different beast. The neck is longer so it feels like I’m playing a baseball bat. But I use it all the time in the studio. That and the Deluxe were the main guitars on the record. I also still my first guitar—a ‘63 Harmony Bobkat that my dad bought for me for, like, $90 in 1992. I used that a lot on the record as well. It’s such a sweet guitar.
How about amps?
Onstage behind the drum riser I have two Hiwatts—a ‘72 Hiwatt 100 going through a 2x15 cabinet, and then next to it a custom 50-watt going through a Matchless 2x12 open-back cab. And those are running in stereo. I used to have them behind me but it got too loud. I ended up not hearing the rest of the band as well. So now right behind me I have a Vox AC30 that I kind of monitor through. Just so I feel something. I also have a [Fender] Princeton on the drum riser, powering a Vibratone [Leslie speaker].
How about pedals?
I have a bunch of stuff, and I swap things in and out. I have one of those Custom Audio Electronic Bradshaw boards, and right now, I have two main fuzz pedals on it. One is a JHS Bun Runner, which is awesome. It has a fuzz on the left side and a Tonebender on the right, and you can kind of cascade in between the two. The other is a Wren and Cuff Tall Font Russian. I also have a couple distortion pedals on there, including a Mountainking Electronics and a Blackstone overdrive. Then there’s an Electro-Harmonix Stereo Memory Man, a Moog Minifooger tremolo, an MXR Flanger. This thing called the [Auralux] King Trem, which like a Uni-Vibe. I also have a clean boost that was built into the board by Bradshaw. A lot of fun stuff.
You’ve been on tour consistently since the release of Lost in the Dream, and you still have a lot of road work ahead of you. The album’s popularity only seems to be growing. Are you surprised at how well it’s been received?
I’m totally surprised, and I’m grateful. I’m also exhausted. But I’m definitely excited to keep touring and playing and seeing it grow. I’m fascinated by the crowds and also how the crowds are changing. You see your fan base develop and it’s like, “Oh, wow, our fans are nice people!” [laughs] People are attentive and they’re into the songs and they’re singing along. That’s really satisfying.
Also, the opportunity to play to more people each night helps the band just get better and better. We have the ability to keep changing how we approach playing together onstage. If we’re playing bigger rooms we can kind of spread out, we can have more gear with us. That helps us reach those higher levels and get a little more musical.
Any opportunity to have more gear onstage is always a good thing.
Tell me about it. [laughs] Totally.