The War on Drugs: Dream World

Michael Tedder

By Michael Tedder

on 03.10.14 in Features

“One more round,” Adam Granduciel yells, hand in the air. He steps back into the batting cage and, just like the last few times, most of the balls he hits go straight up to the top of the net. I’m not entirely sure how one “wins” at a batting cage, but I’m fairly certain that’s not it.

The cage in question, Philadelphia’s Everybody Hits, has been, at various times in its history, a silent-movie theater, a dirty-movie theater and a popular location for wedding receptions. Looking at the wooden floors, I doubt they’ve been cleaned since the silent-movie era. There’s a distressed wall completely covered with baseball cards and two pinball machines in the back, though only the 1983 Sega Championship Pinball game has both flippers. A few neighborhood kids are running around, one of whom grabs my tape recorder mid-interview to ask me what it is. An iPod is pumping out a Pavement playlist, and a True Value sign hangs on the right wall.

I’ve come to Everybody Hits to watch the War on Drugs hit a few balls, and to get some insight into the making of their third album Lost in the Dream, a monumental testament to the enduring power of American rock and roll, and the infinite possibilities for mutation contained therein. Granduciel’s anxious guitar layering, widescreen psychedelic melodies and lyrical fragments give you only part of the story, while hinting at a world’s worth.

Granduciel has been an unfailingly generous host. He popped the top on my Stella before I could reach for my bottle opener. Heck, he bought the six-pack, even though the rules posted right next to the cage read “No One Assumed Under The Influence Of Drugs Or Alcohol Will Be Allowed To Participate.” But considering the owner is his neighbor and a massive fan of the band, it’s safe to say no one was too concerned. He chit-chatted with me about why he first moved from Oakland to Philadelphia (It was for a lady; it didn’t work out), and he insisted that I take a few swings myself, even getting the rest of the group to cheer me on. I hit maybe three balls total.

Photo by Lisa Schaffer for WS

Photo by Lisa Schaffer for WS

I’m just visiting this evening, and there’s the sense that that’s always the case for Granduciel. Though he tends to favor waved-out, Technicolor press photos that make him look like a visitor from the astral plane, with his long hair, jean jacket and round, boyish face, in person, he comes off like Jimmy Fallon impersonating David Gilmour. Part of him is happy to be here, the other part is in another universe entirely. He’s clearly one of the best hangs you could ask for, but every time I try to sit him down for a talk, he opts to take another swing or to watch his bandmates play.

“I’m like Michael Jordan!” he screams after sinking another ball into the net. I know almost nothing about sports, but I do know that Jordan was widely believed to be a better basketball player than he was a baseball player.

Though the War on Drugs sound like a band that would collectively fail a piss test and would be more at home under the bleachers than on the field, they’re actually all sports fans. Granduciel played baseball growing up and quit right around the time the other kids started getting good. David Hartley, the group’s longtime bassist, has a basketball blog and writes about the sport for Impose. (I should also point out here that he also writes for the Talkhouse, a website I edit.) Wearing a T-shirt with the phrase “Bill Graham Crackers,” he either agreed with my theory that sports only exist so that heterosexual men have a way to communicate with one another, or was kind enough to humor me.

“I was alienated from sports for a long time because I was totally into music. When I turned 30, I just admitted, ‘I really like basketball,’” Hartley says. “I can like basketball and laugh at the shitty, materialistic, homophobic elements of it and take it for what it is.”

Hartley met Granduciel shortly after the latter first arrived in Philadelphia, when they worked together “for a slumlord” delivering mail and cleaning out abandoned frat houses. “These kids were totally rich and spoiled and would leave everything behind. Drum sets, PAs, TVs, couches, pornography, drugs, books,” Hartley says. “I’d always just take the books to this local bookstore.”

Granduciel was born in Mason, a small town in Massachusetts, and would travel to Boston as a teenager to hit the cool CD stores and catch Dinosaur Jr. shows. He studied art history and photography at Dickinson, and moved to Oakland, California, after graduating, where he proceeded to not do much of anything before he met the young lady he’d follow to Philly. That didn’t go as planned as far as the romantic partner situation went, but it was still a smashing success in that it finally got him out of the house.

“I just knew I wanted to play music, obviously, but I wanted to be more outward and meet more people to play with,” he says, after his final at-bat. He won’t quite own up to being a hermit, but says that after dropping out of sports, he spent most of his adolescence obsessing over music. “I definitely preferred to stay home and play guitar and learn my favorite songs and solo on top of them and record…not even songs, just record ideas on a cassette player.” As a bonus, Philadelphia is cheap enough that “you can focus on music 80 percent of the time instead of 40 percent of the time like in bigger cities.”

Photo by Lisa Schaffer for WS

Photo by Lisa Schaffer for WS

Granduciel knew Hartley played bass, and invited him to play, joining a loose collective of local musicians that included Kurt Vile on guitar. Vile would later leave to pursue a solo career, but the two still play on each other’s albums when scheduling permits. (Dream is the first War on Drugs album not to feature a guest spot from Vile.) Granduciel’s early recordings earned him a deal with Secretly Canadian (a few of them were eventually released on the free EP Barrel of Batteries), which had an immediate impact on his approach. “It forced me to be more active,” he says. A loose initial line-up of the War on Drugs made its debut on 2008′s Wagonwheel Blues, a collection of sepia-toned Springsteen mash notes, and solidified on 2011′s Slave Ambient, when keyboard/piano/guitar player Robbie Bennett joined for the recording and drummer Charlie Hall for the subsequent tour.

“2011 is really where I started taking my role a lot more seriously,” Granduciel says. “If I was going to surround myself with the best possible players, then I could write the best possible stuff.” Though there’s an essential looseness that defines the War on Drugs, Granduciel’s songwriting has graduated from shaggy to interstellar as his line-ups have (more or less) cohered. “Ambient was more of a solo recording, and this one is more of a band record,” he explains, then rethinks it. “It’s more of an illusion of a band record, but it’s still less of me piecing things together. It’s more me arranging and being like, ‘Let’s try something different.’”

Granduciel plays guitar, piano, drums, keyboards and various other instruments, and produced Dream himself. He acted as a musical director as much as a traditional frontman, bringing in a series of guest musicians and extra drummers to help realize his vision. “There’s like four different drummers on it,” says Hall. “I think the way Adam writes, oftentimes, he writes with people in mind like, ‘So-and-so would sound great on this.’ I think he has a great ability to find people’s strengths and tailor songs towards them. But he could do it all alone if he wanted to.”

Robbie Bennett is a classically-trained pianist and fan of the band since Wagonwheel Blues. “I would sit down and write down all the lyrics to all the songs and sit and play them at the piano and sing them myself.” The creation process of Lost in the Dream was so freeform that he is uncertain where, exactly, he is on the final product. “I don’t know, the album’s so condensed,” he says. “There are so many people doing so many things. It’s one of those things that’s hard to figure out, because we’ve all have played the parts maybe 400 different times, sometimes after a few beers. Sometimes you don’t remember.”

Photo by Lisa Schaffer for WS

Photo by Lisa Schaffer for WS

The liner notes credit 11 guest musicians in addition to the group’s four main members, including sax and lap steel guitar players and Jeff Zeigler, the album’s engineer, on “pitch transposer.” Granduciel estimates that each finished song has “probably 70 tracks. Which, by today’s standards, is pretty normal,” though at one point each song probably had more than a hundred overdubs before he decided to start peeling back. “I really like putting it on then taking a ton away and hearing it a new way and then adding more textures, then rewriting the lyrics and remixing it 50 times,” he says. “Finding things to dawdle with on the way.”

All that swaddling was worth it. “Under the Pressure” comes on with a canyon of echo, before a ringing piano line, inspired by Tim Hecker, cuts through the cloud and pulls you in. Granduciel still has the Dylan-worthy wheeze and jones for delay pedals, but Lost in the Dream shows how much he’s grown as a songwriter and sound sculptor since Wagonwheel. It has a scope reminiscent of Spiritualized or U2 circa The Unforgettable Fire; there’s an entire galaxy of sound to get lost in. And maybe someone was: at times, the album crackles with an unease that no amount of overdubbing can conceal. Towards the end of our talk, I tell Granduciel that when listening to “An Ocean in Between the Waves,” a cavernous ballad shot through with shards of feedback, I get the image of someone doing their best to cut through a wall of sound and make themselves heard — like the music is trying to smother a feeling that won’t go away. It doesn’t hurt that the song hinges on the line “How can I be free?”

He admits there’s truth to this reading, so I go on to tell him that, throughout the album, I get the impression of a person who’s building their own world to escape things they don’t want to deal with in this one. While listening to it on the train to Philadelphia, I began to write down lyrical fragments that jumped out: “lost in my head,” “hiding,” “rundown,” “pull you back in.” When Granduciel sees what I’ve written, he makes the sort of face that a person makes when they know they shouldn’t frown. Then he’s quiet for a bit.

“It was just a weird time,” he says. “First time this is what I had to do, you know? Just sit and make a record, learn how to be at peace and just enjoy life for what it is,” he says. He gestures toward my notebook. “It’s funny to see those words written down, because there is a theme. Totally. I wasn’t thinking about writing about any of that stuff, it’s just…that’s what was coming out.” He started writing lyrics thick with images of isolation, and then life started to imitate art.

“I wrote a lot before we were finished touring, so I hadn’t started feeling like I was flipping out yet. From February to March I really started going to this weird place where I wasn’t leaving the house…just kind of hanging out,” he says, slowly. “It’s weird that they would reveal themselves later on.”

Photo by Lisa Schaffer for WS

Photo by Lisa Schaffer for WS

He clearly doesn’t like talking about this particular period, but does allow “I felt very disconnected from myself and even my friends. I was just a mixture of an introvert and a homebody I guess,” he says. I asked him if he was suffocating under the pressure to follow up on the praise for Slave Ambient, and to solidify his band’s stature, but he’s quick to stress that’s not the kind of pressure he was under. “I was having hard time just being chill, taking it as it comes. Putting the pressure on myself to…not even make something great,” he says. “I just wanted to get inside and see what was in there. Which I guess can be a scary thing.”

There’s an irony here you don’t have to squint too hard to detect: Granduciel pushes himself to the brink — and beyond — to make sure his carefully-layered tapestries of guitar are perfectly textured and precisely arranged, and then he uses them to smother his lyrics, so that the clarity of meaning remains just out of reach. He projects a long-hair, go-with-the-flow vibe, but then he also re-recorded “An Ocean in Between the Waves,” Dream‘s emotional centerpiece, from scratch two days before the album’s final deadline, and swapped out a different mix of “Under the Pressure” for sonic details that he admits that no one else but him would catch.

Our conversation wraps up shortly after chatting some more about the Philadelphia music scene, and we shake hands. “You got a lot out of me,” he says with a sheepish grin. I don’t think that’s necessarily true, and I find it a little odd that he thinks it is. I leave to catch my train, and Adam leaves, perhaps to be by himself, perhaps not.

Listening to Dream on the train ride home, I zero in on the end of “Under the Pressure,” the part where Granduciel sings “Hiding in the back/ loosening my grip/ I’m only wading in the water/ just trying not to crack.” It’s covered in layers of treat keyboards and guitars, but it’s there. He’s doing the best he can. That’s just going to have to be good enough for now.

Photo by Lisa Schaffer for WS

Photo by Lisa Schaffer for WS