Addicted to the War on Drugs

With Slave Ambient, 
Americana and sonic experimentation.

By Elliott Sharp
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 0 | Posted Aug. 17, 2011

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The War on Drugs

Photo by Jeff Fusco

Adam Granduciel’s a rock ’n’ roll multitasker. His time’s split between his band, the War On Drugs, and Kurt Vile & the Violators, for whom he’s played guitar since the beginning. He knows the road.

“I’ve spent a lot of time in a van the past five years,” Granduciel recalls while puffing a cigarette outside Fishtown’s Lola Bean Cafe. “On the last Drugs tour, we did 16,500 miles in six weeks ... It was intense.”

This week he’s back in Philly after a five-week tour with the Violators, but not for long. The Drugs tour starts Thursday night at Johnny Brenda’s, and in the next 11 weeks they’ll hit more than 50 U.S. and European cities. This hometown kick-off’s also a record release party for their sophomore LP, Slave Ambient , which dropped on Tuesday.

Like the best American rock music, this road-bent and wandering spirit is expressed in Drugs’ music. Their 2009 debut, Wagonwheel Blues , summoned images of migrant workers and vagabonds, and told stories of hard travelin’ and livin’ on the run.

This rambling spirit returns on Slave Ambient, and as with Wagonwheel, many critics are throwing around the phrase “road music.” Given its propulsive rhythms and joyous highway vibes, along with Adam’s nonstop touring, it makes sense. But there’s more to Slave Ambient than restless rootlessness, something Granduciel calls “the other side of Drugs.”

Jeff Zeigler, who’s worked with Kurt Vile, Pattern Is Movement, Clockcleaner and many other Philly bands, produced Slave Ambient at his studio, Uniform Recordings. One goal was to clearly articulate this “other side,” namely the hypnotic drones and loops that underlie the new songs. 

“These aspects have been overlooked by people working on Adam’s songs,” Zeigler says. “They were misconceived as incidental or it was misunderstood how the drones worked in the context of traditional rock. They’re meant to take the songs into far dreamier territory, adding a surreal depth where you can really get lost.” 

An avid home-recorder for more than a decade, Granduciel has amassed countless hours of soundscapes and tones. The title for one such drone he’d returned to for the past four years was “Slave Ambient,” which ultimately became the album title.

The drone runs through the middle of the album with the triple-punch combo of “Your Love Is Calling My Name,” “The Animator,” and “Come to the City.” It delicately flutters at first and then expands, sonically evolving into a robust foundation for the instrumentation. The lush soundscape’s liberated on “The Animator,” where its colorful textures meet a reverb-soaked sax, and then it reconnects with the band on “Come to the City.”

This isn’t traditional road-rock. The “other side of Drugs” is an experimental one that builds more on Krautrock bands like Neu and Tangerine Dream than Dylan or Springsteen. But it’s finding the perfect balance between these two tendencies—Americana/rock songwriting and sonic experimentation—while also expressing a unique voice that Drugs have realized on Slave Ambient .

“I love sitting at home and making beautiful soundscapes,” Granduciel says, “but I also enjoy writing songs. Finding ways to meld the two is cool, and when it works, I think it works fairly well. It’s all about admitting you’re part of a lineage but also finding ways to separate yourself that feel genuine.”

The War on Drugs perform Thurs., Aug. 18, 8pm. $12. With Caveman + Tin Horses. 
Johnny Brenda’s, 1201 N. Frankford Ave. 215.739.9684.

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