Adam Granduciel of the War on Drugs on the band's history and Slave Ambient
The War On Drugs (due Sunday, October 30, at the hi-dive with Purling Hiss and Carter Tanton) started to take shape when Adam Granduciel moved back to the East Coast from Oakland to settle in Philadelphia. Once there, Granduciel began to play music with various people in the area, including Kurt Vile; Granduciel and Vile played in each other's projects, and sometimes Granduciel still tours with The Violators.
The mixture of pop songwriting and lush soundscaping has drawn immediate comparisons to multiple classic artists, but in the end, Granduciel has shed immediate influences from his core sound, and the band's latest release, Slave Ambient, would be difficult to distinctly classify much less pick apart looking for the musical roots of the songwriting. We recently had a chat with Granduciel about his history, his uneasy relationship with the band's visual representation and Slave Ambient.
The War On Drugs
Maryanne Louise Doman
Westword: You moved from Philadelphia from Oakland?
Adam Granduciel: Yeah, I guess so, but I wasn't from Oakland, but I was living out there before I moved to Philly.
What took you to Oakland?
Nothing, really. I'd just never been to California, so I thought I'd move there. I flew out there and shipped some things out and lived there for about two and a half years. I didn't play music with anyone. I wasn't too concerned with that. Just played a lot in my house and did some recording and stuff. Back then it was still about learning.
Did you play music before you went to Oakland?
Yeah, I've been playing since I was twelve. I started guitar when I was like thirteen. I had a friend whose dad had an electric guitar. In sixth grade or seventh grade I went over and played it and immediately I was super excited by the whole thing. I used to go over there all the time and play. Then a couple of months later, maybe a year later, my dad bought me an electric guitar.
Within two or three years, I just started playing and jamming with friends. Just learning my favorite songs at the time. You know, like '90s rock stuff and classic rock. Probably I went through the entire Siamese Dream tablature -- I could play the entire record at one point. I learned Neil Young songs, Bob Dylan songs and older songs. It wasn't until I moved to Philly that I had aspirations to maybe forming a band. I mean, I'd been doing recordings for three or four years at that point.
I guess I just didn't know enough about the music scene. I wasn't really a part of it. It was kind of an insular kind of thing to me. So I was devoting a ton of time to it, just not on a professional level. I just feel in with a group friends and people who were part of that scene and that put me a little closer to meeting people and eventually playing out and share the music a little more.
What got you to move to Philadelphia?
Same kind of thing. I was in Oakland, and I was fairly young, and a friend came out to visit me and ended up staying for four months. We got a little restless, and we bought two one way tickets on Amtrak from Oakland to Harrisburg, PA, and we were kind of like, "Yeah, let's do it." We had a lot of friends back east. It was the kind of thing where I wasn't really committed to anything at the time in Oakland or super involved in any sort of scene.
I was a free spirit, doing whatever I wanted to do. So I just ended up checking Philadelphia out. Flash forward a few months, not having any money to go anywhere else, I lived in a tiny apartment with three other people, and a year later, you're playing with people and it ends up haphazardly like that. It opened a lot of doors for me.
When you moved to Philadelphia, did you meet Kurt Vile pretty quickly?
Yeah, it was like five months after I got there. He had been working on his own music for a couple of years as well. I met him through my roommate at the time, and we just started playing together and messing around and doing a lot of recordings together and realized we had a kind of common thread in what we liked to play and the music we liked. We fell into it together in a way. I could have met him in one of three places, but I think it was at my house. But it could have been at The Fire in Philadelphia, where I went to see him play. He had an early version of The Violators. I thought he was a great guitar player and a cool singer. Cool dude.
Do you still live in that old house with the big back yard?
Yeah, I'm still living there. I'd love to make enough money so I can move out of it. Maybe this interview will help me do that! We'll sell a million tickets in Denver. Ten years ago, it was a lot more dangerous than it is now. A lot of stuff getting knocked down and a lot of new stuff getting built. I moved up there about eight years ago. It was pretty ramshackle, but I never felt that unsafe. People call it Fishtown, but it's truly South Kensington. It's on the west side of Frankfurt Avenue.
It's a cool part of town. Everyone in the band actually lives in that part of Philadelphia; we all live within ten blocks of each other. To be honest with you, I first moved up there because I got this Trinity house for six hundred dollars of month. Me and two friends got a house together, and I lived there for about a year, and I moved up the street to the house I live in now.
Over the last five years, a lot of stuff has gone in there. That's where Johnny Brenda's is there -- it's getting to the point of being a famous rock club in Philly. The Fire is there, and we played a lot of our early shows there. It's a cool place. It's not that cool, but it's one of those older clubs. There's also some bars there that have kind of been taken over by the youth of the neighborhood. I love my experience living in that house and that neighborhood, but you also get to a point where you want more tranquility in your life than you get in the neighborhood I live in.
That's kind of the thing -- you kind of live in the dumps for a long time trying to just do your thing and hopefully you can move up to something a little more comfortable or a little more relaxing at least. I play it off like it's a shithole, but it's not truly a shithole. It's also the kind of thing where I owe so much back rent, so that I don't really pay rent anymore.
But at the same time, the landlord doesn't care. Well he cares, but he's not going to do anything about it. He's not going to fix the ceiling, and I'm not going to pay him. I've had a home studio there in some capacity and it's afforded me a certain freedom to do what I want to achieve.
For your new album, Slave Ambient, I saw all these comparisons to Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen, maybe vocally, but not really.
It doesn't. I agree, it's kind of lazy journalism, I think.
Do you use a lot of synthesizers on that record, or is it more of a keyboard thing?
Not a ton. I mean, I used a few. Mostly the same one. It's mostly string synthesizers -- modular, monophonic synthesizers. I definitely used a lot of keyboards and I did a lot of processing through synthesizers or synthesized kinds of things.
Some of background sounds and some of the tracks are straight ahead instrumentals with atmosphere. I think I read somewhere that you used a tape recording to create ambient sounds?
The instrumental stuff is kind of like a history of me working on a lot of the other songs on the record. The original versions of those songs were early mixes I would do where I was trying to figure the song out. Then they ended up having a special thing to them so when I was putting the record together, I included some of these random little mixes I did because it shows the chronology of the record.
Because they reference other songs in a way, and I thought it was important in tying the record together. Melodic themes happen that aren't obvious. There isn't one way those things are achieved. Some stuff was form a cassette, some were form ProTools, others were from a tape machine. Sometimes listening to the instrumentals there's a windswept sound.
There were some comparisons to My Bloody Valentine as well, and I didn't agree with that either.
A lot of that stuff is like...People hear an organ, and they assume it's Bruce Springsteen. They hear an electric guitar, and they're like, "My Bloody Valentine!" People like that don't even listen to music. That's fine. Not everyone who writes about you is going to be a fan of your music. It's not worth nitpicking. A lot of that stuff gets regurgitated, so it's like, "Did that person actually sit back and think, 'What does that song sound like?'" But that doesn't bother me.
People, I guess, relate to the music how they relate to it.
Did you make the video for "Baby Missiles" or did you have it made?
The label actually had that made by video people. That was my Super 8 footage, but I didn't have input on the video, really, other than sending them Super 8 reels.
Yeah, some of that imagery looks like what you might expect to see in a Boards of Canada album.
Yeah, some of those weird psychedelic images. I think they did a pretty good job with it. I'm not really into that kind of thing. I'm really picky about stuff like videos or even pictures of the band, but at the same time, I don't really know what it is I want; I just know what I don't want. Sometimes, I think, it's difficult to work with me on stuff, because I'll just go, "Eh...I don't like it." They ask what I can change, and I go, "I don't know, I don't even care."
I don't know what an awesome [video] for The War On Drugs would be or the best band photo. To me it's bigger than taking a photo of what the band means to me or what the music represents to me. It's more than doing the whole doing a decent music video and decent press photo, but at the same time, I don't know how to arrive at what I'm feeling about that.
Obviously in writing the music, your end goal was not to have a great picture or a great video.
Right, it's like, "Oh, you like these videos?" "No, I hate them." "What do you like?" "I don't know." But the video is cool. It's kind of a shame, because the title of the song is kind of named after my girlfriend. It's not about her, but it's for her. It's her song. The girl in the video is not my girlfriend; she was a friend of mine ten years ago. I sent them what I thought was one reel of Super 8 footage, but there were actually two reels on the data disc I had. They came back with the first rough of the video, and I was like, "Whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa!"
First of all I didn't know I had this reel developed and second of all, I definitely don't want it used in the video. They were like, "Oh no, it's cool, man; it looks great!" "Yeah, you're not listening. I don't want you to use this." It's kind of like a private home video. Do you know what I mean? And they kind of just went ahead and used it without really listening to what I was saying. So I was kind of put off by that, because it wasn't something I was really willing to share with the masses.
The other reel I was giving them was when I was traveling across country on Amtrak and I had my Super 8, and I had all this awesome footage, and they used a little bit of it. But for the most part they used the picture of the girl, and I was upset about that. But it's a good video, and I'm not harboring any real anger toward them. It's just one of those things. My girlfriend was obviously a little upset because, "Who's this person?"
There's a video for "Come to the City"? Urban Outfitters were involved with that? Was that something you felt similarly about?
No, it was a little different thing. They heard an advance copy of the record and they were into it. They said they wanted to make a video for it and I wasn't sure about it. But at the same time, it doesn't matter if it comes from me. Bottom line is that I want to get the music to as many people as possible, and if that is a vehicle for doing that, then that's great. And I think they did a good job on it. I got to pick the director after they sent me a few links. I think Peter Brandt did a good job on it and I like it.
You play a number of instruments. Do you compose on all of them too?
In a way. My main thing is guitar. I don't tend to be a drummer or a piano player but I can fiddle around on those things. Drum-wise, I'm really particular about drums. Which is probably why they're so basic on the record. I can usually play what it is I want it to sound like.
But I've written songs on piano or maybe had a song on guitar and on the piano I might have picked out a melody that may have been the main melody of the song. I wrote "Baby Missile" on a keyboard. A lot of composing happens in production too. I do stuff at home with tape machines and sounds. But mainly I'd say it usually starts with guitar. Usually it starts at my house and then it ends up in other people's studios going back and forth between tapes and the computer and stuff like that.
When you're performing this stuff live, because it seems like such a lush album, and I know you can be lush with a minimal set-up if you want, are you able to execute it all or do you use samples when you play live?
The only samplers we have, I have one sampler with ambient sounds on it. Nothing that's time based. For a few songs I have some of the drum machines programmed into another sampler that even our drummer plays to. We're not playing to any tracks, so it's not like we have to change at a certain time. The drum machine's a big part of some of that stuff, and it replaces the movement by an acoustic guitar. It's not really for time-keeping purposes.
The ambient stuff on my sampler, some of which isn't on the record, for a live experience, I've had it on my sampler for a long time. Robbie Bennett plays a Wurlitzer, electric piano and keyboards, synths and guitar. He's a genius. He has an awesome world over there. I play guitar and sampler and Dave Hartley plays bass and trumpet on a few songs. It's not as layered as the album but I think the special moments on the record we get, you know what I mean?
Someone asked me in an interview recently, "Do you do experiments with songs and take them other places?" I was kind of like, "I wish I could say we do but to be honest I kind of already did that when I was recording the record." The songs went through so many transformations that I kind of already arrived at a version that I don't even know where I could take it.
They're expansive but compact in their arrangements. A few songs stretch out here and there but most of it is stretching out little jam sections. We do "Your Love is Calling My Name," "Animator" and "Come to the City," live like it is on the record, all going into each other. It's pretty awesome. I think the special moments on the record, little things here and there, we do it live.
The live thing doesn't have to be like the album.
Exactly. For me I think what's important is that maybe someone will enjoy the record and come and see us live and see a different approach to it and then go home and enjoy the record for a new reason. Sometimes we rock it more than people expect or it's more subdued than people expect. But some songs we've toured enough where we capture the essence of the songs and find out what's special about them. "Brothers," on the record, is rocking and big, so it's a little more tame than that. Robbie plays the Wurlitzer and it's a different version but it's the same song, you know?
Is "The Animator" a reference to anything in particular?
It's actually a reference to one of the keyboards I was using. There's a setting there. It's an old Italian synthesizer and it has this thing called The Animator on it. In essence it's a built-in flanger on the keyboard. But you can also run audio into it and you can press the button and it says "Animator." There are two sliders, and you can also tap into this EQ section. It's an interesting sound, and I used it a lot on the record. It's kind of a reference to that. And I love the way the title sounds.
There are two main sounds on the record, The Animator from that keyboard and this other piece of gear that I process a lot of the stuff through. It was an Eventide H3000 Rack Harmonizer. I would use a couple of the echo settings and there's a super fluttery thing that you can do and run guitars through and just keep the effected one instead of the real guitars. It didn't sound like a guitar; it sounded like a guitar being processed through a thing and erasing the entire guitar take and keeping the totally wet sound.
We also do a lot of spatial things with that. Like moving stuff to the far left and right and detuning one side a tiny bit. "The Animator" is like six different mixes of "The Animator" processed through the Eventide and different things and overlaid on top of each other. It's cool. I like that idea. And in the computer you can make sure there are no phasing issues. So you can always start from the same exact start point and just keep doing the mix on top of it and do a few tweaks so all of a sudden the same echo will go to both sides. You get pretty crazy with it.
[The synthesizer with The Animator on it] is called a Siel. Arp bought the circuit and made it into the Arp Quartet but it doesn't have the animator. But there's another one, the Sequential Circuits Prelude that has essentially the same keyboard as the Siel. So there are three keyboards in that family. I don't know if the Sequential Circuits on it, but I think it does. Arp's definitely doesn't. That's what's cool about the Siel--I'd run a bunch of stuff into it and use The Animator on there.
On "Best Night" I had three guitars at home then I brought them over to Jeff Zeigler's and ran them all through "The Animator." It's really kind of lush. If I had one of those synthesizers, I'd probably use it live and run stuff through it.
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