The War on Drugs Uncover the Infinite
Adam Granduciel used to rent a 1,300-square-foot former science classroom in a school in South Philadelphia that was repurposed into a mixed-use building. Before that he lived and worked out of a rundown, three-story house in the city’s South Kensington neighborhood that he shared with a shifting group of roommates and a collection of cats. In these spaces, his group the War on Drugs could jam and experiment as they, unexpectedly, became one of the biggest, most respected rock bands in the United States. But it’s been a while since Granduciel lived in Philadelphia.
In 2015, he moved to Los Angeles, and it wasn’t until this past March that he found a spot in Burbank that he decided might be the right place to turn into a new headquarters. To start, he hired this musician-carpenter he kind of knew to paint the building and install air conditioning. Three weeks later, he realized the guy had basically taken it upon himself to demolish the entire interior. Granduciel found himself in the middle of a warehouse renovation that he wasn’t prepared for. Then the work dragged on for months. “I can’t even start talking about it without my blood pressure going up,” Granduciel says, looking out the building’s front windows.
L.A. is filled with storied recording studios like EastWest, United, Sunset Sound, Sound City, and the recently closed Vox. Granduciel, 42, has logged long hours inside many of them. For him, one of the charms of living in Southern California is all the old-school technicians who are still kicking around. He’s become friends with Charlie Bolois, who’s known as the go-to repairman for Studer tape machines and built home studios for legends like Tom Petty and Jeff Lynne back in the day. “I just love that about L.A., it’s like, you’re never without expertise,” Granduciel says. “So of course I find the one guy that’s never worked at a fucking studio in his life. It’s fucking backwards. Built it right by the fucking airport. But what are you going to do?”
The Burbank space is finally usable, but not fully operational. It’s currently filled with colorful rugs and tapestries, giant flight cases stenciled with his band’s name, and a framed R.E.M. poster from the 1980s. Eventually, Granduciel hopes to utilize it for writing and demoing new music. Earlier on this September day, an electrician got everything ready for the arrival of more than a dozen people who were about to fly in so they could start preparing for the release of the War on Drugs’ fifth studio album, I Don’t Live Here Anymore, and subsequent tour. The record is the group’s first collection of new songs since 2017’s A Deeper Understanding. That album, the group’s first for Atlantic Records, broke the top 10 of the Billboard 200 chart and won a Grammy for Best Rock Album, beating acts including Metallica and Queens of the Stone Age.
Like the War on Drugs’ previous work, I Don’t Live Here Anymore is constructed with a reverence to the glossy moments of rock ’n’ roll’s past while staying a little frayed around the edges. The passage of time has always been of interest to Granduciel, and I Don’t Live Here Anymore feels especially fixated on remembering, returning, and thinking back to what once was. Or more accurately, it feels fixated on misremembering relationships, returning to lost moments, and thinking about how everything fades and we eventually become unrecognizable to those who made us who we are. The War on Drugs specialize in a hazy nostalgia. Is Granduciel singing about decades ago? Last year? Last month? It’s unclear. What’s important is the heartaches and transitions you must go through to become a new person. Though there are certain words that Granduciel often returns to in his lyrics (river, rain, pain), the most important one might be change.
The band recorded much of I Don’t Live Here Anymore, out Friday, at professional studios in Los Angeles and New York before the pandemic. Even before lockdown, logistics often got complicated since the six current members are spread around the country. Granduciel and saxophonist John Natchez live in L.A.’s San Fernando Valley; bassist Dave Hartley, who’s been with Granduciel almost since the band’s very beginning in 2005, is in Asheville, North Carolina; guitarist Anthony LaMarca is in Youngstown, Ohio; drummer Charlie Hall remained in Philadelphia; while keyboardist Robbie Bennett is in South Jersey.
This current lineup solidified around 2014 during the tour for the breakout album Lost in the Dream, but Granduciel has always been the gravitational center of the War on Drugs. Still, he’s not looking for his bandmates to simply execute his vision. “While it is ultimately Adam’s thing, in the studio it’s a good feeling of collaboration,” LaMarca says. “If Adam has you come play on a record, he’s not going to be like, ‘Here’s this part, here’s what I want you to do.’ It’s usually, ‘Cool, go do your thing.’ He wants you to do what only you can do.”
LaMarca describes himself as having a “supportive role in the group” and says he’s under no illusion that he should be the guy ripping guitar solos on stage. All of the other members maintain their own bands or music-related endeavors. That said, being in the War on Drugs has influenced these separate projects. “You spend enough time playing with anybody, their musical sensibilities rub off on you,” LaMarca says. “I’m not somebody who’s naturally like, ‘Turn the amp all the way up,’ but every once in a while I’m like, ‘No, turn the amp all the way up. See what happens.’ That’s something I’ve gotten from Adam, maybe let the wheels fall off a little bit and see where that takes you.”
Granduciel says he’s “petrified of droplets,” but members of the War on Drugs did manage to safely gather together a few times in various combinations during the era of social distancing to work on the album. But since they all have home studios in various forms, they could also work on the material individually. “There’s something to be said for sending something to somebody and giving them the time to explore the song on their own,” Granduciel says. “What’s better, having somebody fly out and having 20 minutes to play something in front of a $20,000 microphone or sending them something and giving them a week to play it in front of a $100 microphone?”
As much reverence Granduciel has for those classic studios and the classic albums that were made inside of them, he also thinks that they have limitations besides the cost of booking. “Sometimes you go to the big places and they’re good for accommodating six, seven people at a time,” he says. “Everyone’s headphones work and the mics work and you can record 60 channels at once, but they’re not the best for, like, a deep flow.”
It is this deep flow, a feeling that Granduciel himself finds difficult to articulate, that he is searching for when recording albums. Though he’s gained a reputation over the years as a studio obsessive, he’s not a perfectionist. He won’t subject a player to hundreds of takes in order to get what he hears in his head out of someone else’s body, and sometimes he’ll end up using his initial scratch vocals of a song, even after rerecording them many times over. His obsession is in finding the artistic possibilities: exploring all the tones and opening and shutting every single door. It’s a potentially unending process of uncovering. Maybe Granduciel inadvertently best described his method in a line from “Taking the Farm,” a song off the group’s 2008 debut: “digging for diamonds at the bottom of the sea.”
“He’s known for his, like, dad-rock driving anthems and his guitar solos and road imagery and stuff like that, but his real special power is his process and actual abandonment of norms,” says Ben Swanson, cofounder of Secretly Canadian, the Bloomington, Indiana–based indie label that released the first three War on Drugs albums.
Granduciel found a coconspirator in Shawn Everett, who mixed A Deeper Understanding and is Granduciel’s coproducer on I Don’t Live Here Anymore. Granduciel sought him out after reading about the “extreme studio techniques” Everett says he used as the engineer on Alabama Shakes’ 2015 album Sound & Color, which earned Everett a Grammy. Everett was already a fan of the War on Drugs before the two first met for breakfast and says he still considers 2014’s “Red Eyes” one of the best rock songs of the past 30 years.
Beyond the mutual respect, the two share a philosophical approach toward making music. “There’s an infinite amount of ideas hanging out around us in the world,” Everett says. “For us to narrow it down to being one idea that you have to stay on is kind of a bummer. There’s so many ways we could cook this. If we tried 30 or 40 of them, we maybe could find something…
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