Persevering Through the Confusion: An Interview with The War on Drugs

The War on Drugs
Slave Ambient
Secretly Canadian

Releasing their first LP, Wagonwheel Blues, in 2008, the War on Drugs arrived with a fair amount of mystique. Part of this was because the band’s sound was an unusual — almost impossible — blend of classic rock elements with influences that seem diametrically opposed, like shoegaze and new wave. Somehow the War on Drugs were able to put a harmonica atop an onrush of guitar atmospherics and make it sound not only organic, but familiar. Sure, this had been done before (Beachwood Sparks, anyone?), but rarely to such impressive effect.

But part of their allure was also that Wagonwheel Blues sounded like an amazingly mature album for a debut, like the work of a band much deeper into its discography. And this is where the band’s backstory comes into play. The War on Drugs’ music sounded so realized because it was the product of two music aficionados with similarly diverse musical tastes; Adam Granduciel and Kurt Vile had been playing and writing music together for years before releasing it as the War on Drugs, so much so that their songs had lived and evolved a long time before seeing release on an album.

Vile eventually left the band to focus on his solo career, leaving many wondering how Granduciel would carry on the band without his creative partner. And when the War on Drugs released an EP, Future Weather, rather than an LP in 2010, some wondered if Granduciel’s inspiration had stalled out. Future Weather garnered critical praise all around, but was it a sign that Granduciel couldn’t quite finish another album that was equally impressive as the band’s debut?

Those worries were put to rest earlier this year when the War on Drugs released their second proper LP, Slave Ambient. Expanding on the band’s blend of classic rock instrumentation, folk-rock vocals, and textured atmosphere, the album serves as proof that Granduciel’s artistic vision is more focused now than ever. Comprised of 12 songs that both envelop and astonish, Slave Ambient is also an actual album, each song building upon the previous one, giving the overall work a satisfying arc.

As he speaks about creating music, Granduciel spills over with enthusiasm. At times, he sounds like a painter who, equally informed by impressionism and expressionism, meticulously creates delicate images, only to fling them down in a fit of inspiration. At other times he sounds like a scientist, obsessively formulating new ideas, testing them out, and then charting his findings to assess how to proceed. Somehow, his creative process sounds simultaneously spontaneous and obsessive, each tendency balancing out the other.

One thing is clear, however, when listening to Granduciel: the War on Drugs is not the typical band that creates music in the typical fashion. Rather than creating in the linear fashion of, say, writing lyrics and then putting them to music and then recording the songs in a studio, Granduciel works in a circular fashion, constantly reaching back to previous ideas and feeding them into new ones, only to reach back again to see where the process takes him. The methodology sounds absolutely maddening, but also positively fascinating. PopMatters recently spoke with Granduciel about his creative process, Slave Ambient, and what the future holds for the War on Drugs …

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A lot of Slave Ambient came from you working alone, experimenting with tones and sounds and seeing where they would go. Was that more difficult than starting with a chord progression or a drumbeat or something with more structure?

Yeah, it was. I mean, sometimes it was just, after a while, I was getting something that I really liked, but it was almost like I wasn’t working off a song that I had written on a guitar, so I didn’t know where it was going to go either, you know? I didn’t have it mapped out. It was like moving towards something. But like “Come to the City”, a lot of it was like stuff that maybe we’d have an informal recording session at home and then I’d just spend weeks and months sifting through the tape and spending hours dubbing it out and sampling and resampling and slowing it down. And sometimes I’d end up with like a track, like a rhythmic kind of pulse, but it had a lot of stuff on it already, but it was a two-track kind of pulse or groove that sounds good on the machine but it’s really like a million different things all put together. The difficulty was in persevering through the confusion of times where you’re like “Where is this going?” or “What else do I need?” So a lot of it was that I spend time just putting stuff on it, trying to find the song, then taking stuff away and adding more. Eventually, I’d start to see where the song could go and then it was easy. Then it was more gratifying once the song actually poked through, kind of like, “Oh, awesome!” and then you’d have the structure, you’d have the arrangement, and then you already have a lush sound thing kind of happening. And then you can kind of go and add some more conventional instruments, start with like piecing together guitars and keyboards and putting things in where you can kind of hear them most. Some of the stuff was written a little more with guitar, like “Brothers”, which is on Future Weather, and “Black Water Falls”. But it was kind of a mix of both.

You said before that you are interested in “how you use ambient sounds as instruments and textures”. That’s an intriguing idea: a sound being an instrument rather than the mere product of an instrument. A lot of people consider the studio an instrument, but sound in itself being an instrument is a novel idea. How does that idea guide how you create music?

I think where a lot of the stuff came from is that it started as something else and then it was transformed into something that worked in the context of a song that I might have been working on. “Your Love Is Calling My Name” is a good example because I had the backbone of it and then I put like this really rough guitar down one day that modulates between two chords. And I knew that that wasn’t really the structure, but then I processed those guitars really heavily through something but then erased those guitars so that all you have is processed guitars. But then the chords that ending up being on top of that was totally different. So it was kind of like keeping all sorts of different ideas and making them all kind of live in the same little world. Just listening to the sounds, maybe like running stuff through a reverb tank and not keeping the original track, just keeping the sound of the tank pushing and pulling with the sounds. So it’s just kind of like experimenting with stuff. And happy accidents, too, is what a lot of that stuff is really coming from.

A lot of your songs lack a conventional structure; there are no verses or choruses or middle eights. And yet, somehow the songs have shape and structure and work their way into the listener’s brain. How do you create that sense of shape when you don’t make use of conventional song elements?

When I learning to write songs, I never really was interested in the chorus. I just always found these other things in a song [that I was interested in]. Also, the kind of idea that sometimes if you’re working on like four songs, sometimes four or five songs become one song. So keep the best elements from five songs you’ve written and they become one song. You kind of have these five different things happening — and you don’t necessarily have this chorus — but you have these four or five things that are special to you that maybe work as a hook or something that becomes memorable without trying to stick it in a chorus or bridge or something. To me, that’s the most natural. I love when things can repeat and you can make things slightly different each time and just react to the music and react to the recording. A lot of that with vocals, too. If I improvise vocals at an early stage of the song, I just kind of listen to the roll, and then I kind of have a little vocal hook. All of a sudden you’re like, “I don’t need to put a pause here. I don’t need a break.” It just kind of flows in its own natural way.

To what degree, then, does improvisation play a role in your songwriting process? On the one hand, it sounds like you’re very open to going with the flow. But then, on the other hand, you’ve got to be a bit obsessive to see where that takes you and then piece everything together.

For me personally, the amount of time I spent on the songs, as the songs were taking shape in the studio, I was always doing improvised or rough vocals every time. So like, every time I would do it, I would always remember or translate earlier takes I did into actual [new takes]. Or these phrases would jump out that I might think about. And then I’d just kind of have these phrases from every time that I would work on a song or every vocal take I did I would just remember the last one and kind of shape it over time into something. So by the end of the recording when everything was kind of done, or when I would go to do a real vocal, I had already been singing for like a year. And I had already been playing around with the song enough to where it was improvised but felt really natural at the same time, because I had kind of been living it for a while.

Your lyrics are often hard to decipher, but that’s almost irrelevant because they create a feel or impression. And there seems to be a unifying undercurrent in your lyrics, whether intentional or not, of searching for something bigger. Do you approach lyric writing the same way you approach creating music? Do you start with an image or impression or piece and see where it leads you?

There were a few songs where the vocals I used on the record were actually some of the earliest. Like “I Was There”. I recorded that song a couple of different times and the vocals on that version over and over but the ones I ended up keeping was the first, improvised take of it, just because there were some lines I had just to get an idea down. So I did that one and then over the next couple of weeks and months I did a bunch of others when I had written the lyrics out. But the first one always came back to me as the one that had the most effect. Just kind of the most mood to it; it felt really honest. And even though there’s times in that vocal where like, I wouldn’t say it’s gibberish, but there’s some stuff I had that I delivered well and there’s some stuff that wasn’t, but I was kind of fishing for it, in the moment. And even though I couldn’t write out the song because a lot of it was just sound, I just felt that that was the best vocal I could have done on it. It’s like that on a few other ones, too. Just kind of shifting through it and sometimes it sticks and sometimes it doesn’t, but I just keep moving forward to see what comes across as the most honest or the most true. Even if you don’t know the word is [in a lyric], it just kind of has a feeling to it.

Much has been made of the influence of classic rock on your music. Obviously, your voice is very reminiscent of Tom Petty’s, even the way you stretch a vowel with a drawl. But that’s juxtaposed against music that’s very different from classic rock. How else do those classic rock influences affect your music?

That’s a lot of the stuff that I was listening to as a kid. I definitely spent a lot of time singing along to Tom Petty songs, you know what I mean? Probably more than I ever sung along to any Sonic Youth songs, you know? But I think, a little bit comes from pretty standard song structure ideas and, like, pretty classic rock instrumentation, you know? I have this thing about classic rock recordings. I love, you know, a nice tight drum sound and pianos. I think the instrumentation of what we use [is influenced by classic rock]. But then also, the newer side of stuff I grew up on too.

As you mentioned before, a lot of the parts that go into your songs you spent a long time processing and looping and manipulating and shuffling them around. And, after a while, you stumble into a good part for a song. How do you recreate that live? Do you use prerecorded tracks?

We don’t necessarily use tracks, but I do have a sampler; we have two samplers. A long time ago we used to use backing tracks, which was kind of a bad idea because then you become a slave to the arrangement at the time. Pretty much what I would do now is like, I would just sample like, kind of the main pulse in “Come to the City”. I would just sample that so we’d have that going and our drummer plays along to it, but it doesn’t really change so you can still take the song where you want, you know? And as long as he can hear it, [it works]. Because we used to play it without [the pulse] but it’s so integral; there’s so much tone in there. It really just moves the whole song. We play the chords over it and it always there in the background, pushing away. For this tour, the band now definitely pays more attention to the song first. So a lot of it is just kind of done in the moment rather than put onto a sampler or sampled onto the keyboard. Mostly just the drum machine stuff. Robbie [Bennett, the keyboard player] uses some of the same effects that I used on the record, so there’s definitely a lot of similar sounds. It’s cool because it’s a little more focused on the songs themselves and with a fair amount of texturing and experimentation. It’s a little more rocking than the record and then you can go home and put the record on and hear some of the other textures that we’re not doing live. The way the band is now is definitely the closest we’ve gotten to, in my mind, [the recordings]. It’s nice to be able to go out and play and respect the actual song and then also kind of take it in a different direction.

It sounds like the process of creating Slave Ambient, then, was very different from how most bands approach creating an album, like it was largely a solitary process where you painstakingly pieced together the album. Was that how it was — just you, obsessively layering each element of each song?

I started a lot of it at home and then I would take it to my friend Jeff’s studio in Philly. We have the same tape machine so I could just put tapes in his machine. And he has more of a full-fledged studio so that I could transfer it onto the computer. You know, we did all the vocals at Jeff’s and a lot of the guitars and his house is where a lot of the backbones of the songs would come from, like the stuff that would take a long time. I’d just kind of go between the two places. I would do pianos at my house and then bring it over Jeff’s. I kept carrying these tapes back and forth. We did some stuff down in North Carolina, Asheville, in a studio.

Did you play all of the instruments on the album?

I played drums on some of the songs. But mostly I did all of the guitars, probably like 80% of the keyboards, all the textural processing and all that stuff, me and Jeff did. And then Dave [Hartley] played bass on most of the stuff and the acoustic guitar on some songs and Robbie played piano on a few songs. And some of my other friends would come in and play on certain stuff. It was a pretty loose [process of] recording. It’s usually, like, I’d have a couple of ideas and invite a friend over and be like, “Hey, put some ideas down on this thing.” And usually someone would see something that I hadn’t thought of and pull the song a different way.

Both of your LPs sound like products of a band much deeper into its career than just a couple of albums. That’s such an unlikely feat — to put out two consecutive albums that are so different from one another and also so perfectly realized. How have you pulled that off? Is it because you are constantly reaching back to older material and reworking it into a new context?

Part of the thing with the first record, Wagonwheel Blues, is that it was a combination of a couple of years of me and Kurt [Vile] playing together a lot. That record came out in 2008 but for four years it was this really close musical thing where we played songs together. All the stuff we recorded for the War on Drugs around then had been around a lot longer than you would assume. We worked really hard on it and it was just really an intense musical time where like you’re doing it so much that it became really natural. On that record, even though we were pretty new — like it was the first War on Drugs record — but everything dates back five years. Not so much the recording but the chemistry. And it’s similar with Future Weather in the sense that, even though I did Future Weather mostly myself, that’s something I had worked on [a long time]. That’s actually my favorite War on Drugs record, the Future Weather EP. I just love it. Again, it’s like a family of songs, songs that kind of all came about in the same period, that were all started and worked on together over time and then they ended up on the same record. I spent a lot of time sequencing it and mixing it and I’m always thinking of the sequence and the record as a whole.

You’re currently touring and, aside from a few breaks, will be touring all the way up until Christmas. What are your plans after the shows and holidays?

After this tour, we have most of November off and then we’re doing a small tour in December and then we have half of December off and most of January. So I think I’m probably going to stay at home and work on some new stuff. There’s a lot of stuff I started at the very end, when I finished Slave Ambient because I was in the last-minute panic, like “Oh, we need more songs.” So I would just start stuff almost to get away from the stuff I was working on. So I want to kind of come back to that because a lot of it sounded really good at the time. So I think maybe work on some music. It’d be cool to do a record where I was able to kind of demo the songs and end up with some recordings and then learn them as a band and then record them. That’s kind of what happened with “Brothers”. I did the version on Future Weather and we started playing it on this little tour we did and then I booked a day in the studio in North Carolina when we were on tour and we recorded it in like an hour-and-a-half. And it definitely has that feel to it and then we fleshed it out later with overdubs. So it’d be cool to try to do [new songs] as a band. Just get some ideas at home and let those recordings exist and then maybe try to redo some of the recordings live as a band and make them sound a lot bigger than they can end up sounding in the house. Definitely work on some music and then record. Then maybe go back on the road in March and April.

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