The War on Drugs: Driving Music for the American Dreamscape
Gear fiend Adam Granduciel talks about classic song structures and how ethereal sonics guided the creation of Lost in the Dream.
Back in 2012, Adam Granduciel—who writes songs under the name the War on Drugs—hunkered down in his Philadelphia home studio to begin work on a new album. Though Granduciel was still spinning from the touring merry-go-round on the heels of 2011’s critically lauded Slave Ambient LP, the new songs—at least in skeletal form—came easily.
But the long break from the road also gave Granduciel time to second-guess his work, and the second-guessing begat anxiety over how to bring the new songs to life. After months in this intense, exhausting, and often emotionally fraught creative cycle, the singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist emerged with Lost in the Dream, a simultaneously dusty and atmospheric album that, ultimately, found Granduciel restoring many songs to their simplest architecture and fleshing them out with the help of his bandmates—Dave Hartley (bass and guitar), Robbie Bennett (keyboards), and Pat Berkery and Charlie Hall (drums).
Lost in the Dream book-ends a decade of road work, studio solitude, and sonic alchemy for the War on Drugs. The band started in 2003, when Granduciel and fellow Philadelphia songwriter/guitarist Kurt Vile started writing and playing together. Supported by a rotating cast of musicians, the band made a name playing in Philadelphia clubs and in nearby New York City. A full-length debut, Wagonwheel Blues, came in 2008—the same year Vile stepped out to work as a solo artist. But the band’s breakthrough came with 2011’s Slave Ambient, an LP where Granduciel’s synthesis of heartland and space rock beautifully coalesced into a signature sound.
Adam Granduciel’s equal love for songs and studio atmospherics leads critics to liken the band’s work to Tom Petty shot through a shoegaze filter, but that doesn’t adequately describe Granduciel’s aesthetic. He has a deep respect for and a canonical understanding of American music, as well as an intense curiosity about song arrangement, effects pedals, analog recording gear, and the possibilities of studios large and small. He connects these dots in his own way, creating evocative soundscapes within deceptively simple structures that conjure vivid short films for the ear.
We recently spoke to Granduciel his guitar and recording gear, the process behind his music, and his special tour souvenirs.
Let’s start off talking a bit about your formative musical experiences.
When I was in sixth or seventh grade, I had this friend named Jeff. His dad was a “blues lawyer” who played guitar on the weekends and made his son learn drums so he’d have someone to jam with. I went over to his house and got such a taste for the guitar. But it took months for me to convince my parents to buy me an electric. When they finally relented, they wanted to try to find something cheap. Luckily, I got the coolest guitar I’d ever seen—a 1963 Harmony Bobkat—for $89. This was in 1991, and I still have that guitar, although I’ve had it rewired.
In any case, soon Jeff and I had a band. We’d play every weekend. By the time I got to high school I was jamming with kids after school. We did a lot of pop-rock covers—we learned all of the songs off of R.E.M.’s Monster, which was sweet because that’s when I first got to use a tremolo pedal. At the same time, I got into exploring the extended sounds that a guitar can produce, like how to make controlled feedback. I was mystified by the Sonic Youth records, with all their weird sounds. But as I experimented on the guitar, I figured out how to create my own nonstandard effects.
You’re a big Bob Dylan fan. Is there a particular era of his career that inspired you most?
Over the years it’s definitely changed. When I was in my early 20s, I was super into Dylan’s mid-’60s stuff, like Highway 61 Revisited and Blonde on Blonde. I loved Mike Bloomfield’s approach. Later, when I was going through my first lovesick-breakup thing, I got into Blood on the Tracks. The last couple of years, I’ve been listening a lot to Time Out of Mind and Oh Mercy, along with the whole Rolling Thunder [Revue] period. Rolling Thunder seemed like a different kind of thing, a huge band with a bunch of friends just jamming—and a weird combination of musicians at that, like Joan Baez and Mick Ronson.
Has Bloomfield’s playing influenced yours?
I just admire his style. He always just went for it. He wasn’t the fastest player and was by no means a virtuoso. He just played a few notes here and there, with a ton of emotion. And I love his sound. He was one of the first players to put a humbucker in a Tele to get this gritty but beautiful tone. There’s something so raw about it, too. A lot of the recordings captured the first or maybe second time he had played a song. It’s often so clear that he’s kind of feeling his way through a tune, but he’s doing his own thing and really laying in with such great timing and conviction.
You, Kurt Vile, and a few other Philadelphia musicians have worked together in modular ways—kind of mixing and matching with each other. How do you think that’s affected each other’s music?
When Kurt and I met, we were both heavily into working independently, with our little digital 8-tracks, obsessing over the music in solitude. It was great to meet a partner in crime, always pushing, complimenting, and critiquing me—and to have a person instead of a machine to play music with. Now it’s fun to go on tour with Kurt in the Violators, to dig in while taking a backseat role. And we’ve really developed kind of a shared approach to the guitar.
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.
TWOD's Adam Granduciel contorts the tone of his 1976 Gibson Les Paul Deluxe by manually tweaking the knobs of his stomps during a show earlier this year at Portland’s Wonder Ballroom. Photo by Colin McLaughlin
You’re known to be a real gear aficionado—talk about your guitars.
I’ve got a ’76 Les Paul Deluxe that I love. It’s really light—lighter even than a Telecaster, and I don’t know exactly why. I do know that it plays really nice and sounds so good with those mini humbuckers. I bought it in 2012 when I quit smoking while on tour for Slave Ambient, since I figured I’d be saving money by not buying cigarettes.
The first nice guitar I ever bought was when I was on tour with Thurston Moore, in the summer of 2011. I was at Old Town Music, in Portland, when I saw a ’65 non-reverse Firebird. It wasn’t museum-quality—the body was sanded, it was stained dark, and it had Lollar P-90s. At one point, someone decided to put banjo tuners on the guitar and enlarged three of the holes on the headstock, but then decided against it and filled the holes back in. But I loved the guitar so I bought it.
Right now I’m really into the Les Paul and use the Firebird as a backup. But I’d love to find a second Deluxe for a backup, so that I can use the Firebird more as its own thing. I’d also love to find a sweet Jazzmaster, maybe a Japanese-made one from the ’90s, that I can put replacement pickups into and really have fun with. I borrowed one from a friend and used it all over the record, but I’ve never found another that I both like and can afford. I’m getting a Mexican Tele from a friend. It’s got really nice hardware—Seymour Duncan pickups and a Bigsby. It’ll be fun to have and add a new flavor to my music.
I’ve also got a really cool Ampeg by Burns of London guitar. You can see it on the back cover of the new album. It kind of looks like a Strat, and it’s got a really cool sound—very bright and Telecaster-like. I also have a few random acoustics, like an old Silvertone archtop that I recently got at a shop when I was on tour—like Neil Young used to do. It’s so cool to pick up these kinds of souvenirs on the road, because then they’re associated with good memories of this time and the people I’ve made music with. And I’d much rather have a 1960s Silvertone that I found for $200 than a new pedal that anyone can buy.
What about pedals?
First in my chain is a custom fuzz—it’s silicon-based, with two knobs that I turn all the way up. I just struck up a relationship with Wren and Cuff to make me a knockoff Big Muff that will go after my volume pedal as a second fuzz, to take things a notch louder. I’ve got a couple of MXR Flangers, the old ones, and a HardWire RV-7 stereo reverb. I love analog tape delays, but for live use I don’t need analog. A little digital delay with the mix low and the feedback high works well for getting trails and letting the notes fly around a little. Plus, unlike an old unit, the HardWire is so durable.
I’ve got an old Electro-Harmonix Stereo Memory Man, too. I mostly use this just as a chorus pedal. The two different outs go to different pedals and different amps, so it sounds less chorus-y, like the Cure, but really wide. The Memory Man is pretty fragile, and it worries me to take it on the road, but it turns my whole sound into this whole other thing: darker, more distorted, and just awesome. I also have a Moogerfooger tremolo pedal, a Wren and Cuff Phat Phuk germanium boost, and at the end of the chain, an Ibanez Echo Shifter if I want to create washes.
The War on Drugs’ full live performance on Seattle’s KEXP offers an intimate look at Adam Granduciel’s epic approach to guitar and songcraft.
I have a ton of other stuff too—older gear I don’t use on tour—but I don’t know if the older pedals can hold up on the road. Their input jacks might go out, and their power gets weird. Plus, I want to keep my rig reasonably sized for flying and playing in Europe. On the other hand, traveling in America is a little easier, so maybe I’ll be able to bring along things like my old Electro-Harmonix Stereo Pulsar, this awesome tremolo pedal.
I have a 1994 Vox AC30 and a ’70s Fender Bassman 50 head that runs into a Marshall 2x12 cab. The Marshall started life as a 50-watt JMP combo. I found it for $500, which would have been a great deal, but then I saw that the amplifier had been ripped out and it was just an open-back cabinet. But it sounds so great with the Bassman. I used a Leslie speaker a lot on the record, but I didn’t want to go down the wormhole of taking it on the road, so I just bought a Fender Vibratone from Main Drag Music in Brooklyn. I use this with a second Bassman and its own cabinet, kicking the Vibratone into a fast setting whenever it’s appropriate.