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The War on Drugs’ music doesn’t have set guitar parts per se, says mastermind Adam Granduciel. He approaches guitar playing with sonic effects, interplay, and expression at the forefront. Photo by Colin McLaughlin
How would you describe this approach?
Some people work on pre-composed parts or riffs, but both Kurt and I approach the guitar with a lot of freedom to do what we want within the chord structures. It’s been cool to hear how this idea has worked its way onto each other’s albums—not just in the guitar parts, but in other instruments and in the overall production.
What can you tell us about the approach as it pertains to guitar?
It’s having a bag of tricks—not only little licks, but different tones that come from effects pedals—and using those to play from the soul. It’s about interplay, too. When I play with Kurt, we often echo little ideas—like a hint of melodic variation on a basic D chord—and this helps us navigate the maze of sound created by the effects pedals. Again, there’s so much freedom in having no real parts.
The War on Drugs is both a solo and an ensemble project. How does that work?
It’s not a 100 percent democratic process. Instead, I kind of direct the players. It’s like, “Robbie, I know you can play a great piano part in this section.” One reason that the band works so well together is that we’re all great friends—everyone truly loves the songs and is completely invested in them. Together, we work to make something big and beautiful.
What’s your creative process like and how has it evolved over the years?
Back in the day, I just sat down with an acoustic guitar and a pad of paper. I would have 90 percent of a song done before going into the studio and recording it with a band. Now, a lot happens in my home studio. I might start with a drum machine and a couple of guitar chords, then get lost in my playing and record it. Two months later, it’s the groundwork for a song. After that, the song further evolves—I’ll hear little melodies popping in and out and do more and more guitar takes.
How do you know when a song is complete?
It just feels done, not just on its own but in the context of a record. I tend to work on everything together. I never have a song mixed and completed months before the rest of the songs on an album. When everything starts to feel connected, that’s when my work is through.
You’ve been labeled a perfectionist. Do you agree with that characterization?
For the most part, I’m not trying to perfect anything. I’m pretty good about taking care of tiny details, but also knowing when to step away and leave things alone. If we mix a song at 1 a.m., whatever magic is in the air at that hour is on the song. It wouldn’t really work to go back a few days later and edit it—especially working half-analog and half-digital, like I do. There might be a part where, for example, the bass could’ve been a little louder, but I’ll decide to just let it be.
What’s your home studio like?
I’ve got a nice, 1", 16-track tape machine and a 24-channel board. I just bought an API Lunchbox [modular studio processor], and I’ve got two really nice preamps, one really nice compressor, a few pieces of rack gear, and—most important—all of my amps, guitars, pedals, drum machines, and keyboards. So it’s mostly instruments and less recording-gear-centric. It’s all about how I can get the best sounds out of these old pieces without really overthinking things. I got into using preamps just to make sure that, when I record something at home, it’s usable in a professional studio. I don’t want an engineer to be, like, “This sounds like a really inspired part, but we can’t use it because you’re clipping your shitty preamp.” The tape machine is sweet, too, because it adds another possibility for experimentation. I can slow things up or speed them down to create a really interesting bed for a song. I haven’t really found a comfort level in using Pro Tools for song development yet. Plus, I really enjoy the whole process of cleaning the machine’s heads and putting the tapes on in preparation for recording.