Adam Granduciel stares at his tea in contemplation, gathering his thoughts before he speaks. It’s a rare moment of silence from the enthusiastic, sometimes enigmatic frontman. Sitting at a secluded table at Northern Liberties’ North Third bar, Granduciel—the vocalist, guitarist and primary songwriter for The War on Drugs—is trying his damnedest to expound on his desire to create, as he sees it, night-time music on his band’s new record, Lost in the Dream; music that lends itself to late night drives and the thoughts that seemingly spring up from the prolonged sight of yellow highway lines. “I guess decisions I might have made [about the new album] at the end were informed by just being alone at night time. Days are much more half hour on the half hour,” he tells PW, “but at night ... it’s easier to just let that wash over you. During the hectic daytime, it just felt like everyone or everything is just pushing down on you.”
Lost in the Dream is a fitting album title, then—and not just because the 35-year-old Granduciel spent so much of this past year and a half writing music until the wee hours of the morning. He was also lost in his own sort of dream, spending his time driving around aimlessly, watching movies and listening to music. Rarely did he leave his Kensington house, except to venture to Whole Foods. There was a time, he recalls, when “I used to smoke more pot and stay at this bar late,” Granduciel says with a smile, referencing a time before the exhaust of being in a road-bound rock and roll band set in. “But the last year and a half, having not really toured for a year, I kind of became a little bit more domesticated. I know it sounds silly, but I really didn’t do anything.”
It’s odd to hear him say that, because he seems like a lively guy; sporting ripped jeans and an unruly mop of hair, he makes friendly banter with PW’s photographer, asking if she can edit out the stains on his white t-shirt. But, sure enough, Granduciel has his demons, and he’s perfectly comfortable discussing them. “I decided I’ve got to be open with these things. There’s no point in doing any of this if you’re not going to be open,” he says. “No point in making an album about those kinds of feelings if you’re not going to want to talk about them.”
But to get to Granduciel’s story, it’s important to first understand the band’s narrative: one of chance discovery, discovered identity and a lucky break or two.
The band formed in 2005, about two years after Granduciel migrated to Philadelphia from Massachusetts, where he grew up. There was no great motivation behind the move, he says—it was “kind of on a whim.” Shortly after relocating, he met Kurt Vile, a local guitarist who, like Granduciel, had a love of early Bob Dylan.
The two became fast friends. The camaraderie helped Granduciel—who’d been writing music since he was a teenager but was always too nervous to share it—to shed his skin, sonically speaking. “Kurt was so focused on what he wanted musically, and I was kind of in awe of that,” he says. “He was so sure about it. It was such an inspiration to be able to be like, ‘All right, it’s okay to follow your gut and make a song like this.’” The band name–which, much like the decision to move to Philly, was more of a “just because” decision than the result of a well-thought-out process–soon followed.
Once firmly established in a burgeoning Philadelphia indie rock scene, it wasn’t hard for Granduciel to poach more talent for The War on Drugs. “The nice thing about the band is that everyone, at one point, before they were in it, was a fan of it,” he says. He met bassist Dave Hartley because Hartley was good friends with Granduciel’s roommate: “[He] would come hang out. I was jamming out on the second floor in my room, and Dave was like, ‘Oh, man—what are you doing down there?’ Back then, because I was down for whatever, I was just like, ‘Yeah, you like that? Cool, you’re in the band now. You’ll play bass next show.’”
The same goes for on-and-off drummer Charlie Hall—who, as a father of two, simply can’t do the band on a full-time basis—and keyboardist Robbie Bennett. Other musicians have rotated in and out of the band over the years, mostly working with The War on Drugs situationally rather than in a long-term partnership. Granduciel speaks fondly of these mainstay band members, gushing over their ability: He proudly declares that Hartley is the “best bass player in the world” and refers to them collectively as “the dream team.”
It might come as surprise, then, to note that there wasn’t much of a band, per se, on The War on Drugs’ early work; most of the instrumentation on their 2008 debut album, Wagonwheel Blues, was done by Granduciel and Vile, with the other members existing more as a touring unit than a recording one. (That’s since changed; The War on Drugs has become a full-time band.)
Wagonwheel Blues, released on the indie label Secretly Canadian, was a critical, if not commercial, success. People soon started paying attention to The War on Drugs, partially due to early Internet buzz. It seemed the band’s unique blend of classic-rock fundamentals with swirling guitars and atmospheric keyboards had caught the indie world’s ear. They at once sounded both fresh and familiar, capable of evoking images of an American landscape both old and new.
Vile left the band in 2009, a departure not due to any rift in the band—as some music hounds speculated—but because he went on to pursue his own musical impulses, eventually finding critical and commercial fame as a lone act. “[His solo success] almost gets cheapened,” says Granduciel, in a rare moment of intensity. “People are always like, ‘Is Kurt on the new record?’ It’s not about that. We’re still friends. It’s how things happen. I feel like I go on the defensive a lot about it. Because I wish that side was talked about more than, ‘Oh, are you guys still friends?’ They turn it into a business thing.”
Now sans Vile, The War on Drugs’ EP Future Weather followed in 2010, while 2011 brought Slave Ambient and, with it, a greater degree of success. The album reached No. 27 on the Billboard Independent Albums chart. Pitchfork ranked it among the 50 best albums of that year. A slot at Bonnaroo soon followed, as did a memorable performance on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon.
Then a strange—or maybe not-so-strange—thing happened: Adam Granduciel got burned out.
“You know Raymond Carver’s Short Cuts?” Granduciel asks, comparing the author’s collection of short stories to the lyrical makeup of Lost in the Dream. “There’s not one dominating story line, but certain songs have a little image in mind, or colors, or a feeling, a time. Like a midnight vibe.”
To be sure, the characters who cryptically color the compositions of Lost in the Dream are in conflict. “Will you wait for the one that disappears?” Granduciel asks on the ambient and appropriately-titled “Disappearing,” sounding like an electro-charged heartland rock preacher. Another track, “Under the Pressure,” finds him confessing: “I’m only wading in the water/Just trying not to crack/Under the pressure.”
“It’s about putting those feelings to sound and putting it out there, letting them be for anybody,” he says. “[They’re] not song[s] about anything. It’s not like, ‘Oh, yeah, my dog died too,’” says Granduciel. “It’s just about feelings and thoughts.”
Still, it doesn’t take an enigmatologist to figure out who these songs are really about. Those internal stirrings didn’t emerge until after The War on Drugs wrapped up touring for Slave Ambient, although they may have been there all along, bubbling under Granduciel’s cool, laid-back demeanor. And they didn’t stem from a lack of creative juice; quite the opposite, actually. Due to early delays in the recording period for Lost in the Dream, Granduciel had a lot of time on his hands. Perhaps, looking back on it, too much time. He would spend days locked up in his house, writing material for the new album.
“I was working on it obsessively in my room, writing and listening a lot to what I had been working on. I kept going into this hole of self-doubt,” he says, speaking with deliberation. “The pressure wasn’t because I was writing those songs; I love making the music. It’s tricky when you’re in a room, and there’s a lot of people rallying around something. You feel like you’re still the only one who really knows exactly what it is that you want, but you also want to let people in.”
Granduciel began to worry about his band’s long-term goals, and questioned his ability to produce another batch of successful songs. “Touring ... is the fun part. And then when it’s all done, how do I find inspiration in nothingness?”
PW's Music Issue 2014