The War On Drugs on an unlikely rise to the top: “Music should be filled with wonder”

Adam Granduciel tells Rhys Buchanan about becoming one of the world’s biggest rock bands – without compromise – and how fatherhood defined new album ‘I Don’t Live Here Anymore’

The War On Drugs’ rise to the top has felt like a victory lap around the bases after the band hit two glorious home runs with 2014’s ‘Lost In The Dream’ and 2017’s ‘A Deeper Understanding’. Those albums brimmed with perfectly executed sky-scraping Americana that was always destined to fill the biggest arenas; in fulfilling that duty, they sealed their status as one of the biggest rock’n’roll forces of the 21st century.

The Philadelphia six-piece haven’t made any concessions to get here. Instead, their deeply spiritual sound has been born out of the hard work and obsessive artistry of their leader Adam Granduciel, a man who has never courted celebrity or been dragged into a world of ego that can easily overcome someone in his position. It’s simply his deep affection for the craft that’s spurred them to dizzying heights over the last 15 years.

Video calling NME from his home studio in LA, Granduciel lets out a modest smile when asked how it feels to have arrived at such a position on his own terms: “I feel like it takes a second to process everything that gets bigger. We’ll be on tour in Europe playing rock boxes, clubs or theatres and we’ll be like, ‘This is amazing’. Then we’ll have one or two of these massive arena shows. We have our comfortable areas but we’re growing into those big places… We’re trying to find ways to play the music in huge spaces but still be as loose as possible and do the records justice.”

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Does it surprise him that he’s got to this stage without becoming a celebrity? “The rooms don’t surprise me – I’m surprised that so many things have lined up in the way they have,” he admits. “None of this would have happened if the band we put together for ‘Lost In The Dream’ wasn’t the right band. I was fortunate we were able to craft a band of friends.”

The love and unity in The War On Drugs machine has been a core component to their success: “Everyone is just so courteous that we just function as this big organism. When you have that bond ,you’re able to go into these big rooms and feel like you’re meant to be there. Even from the first record, people always said, ‘I feel like I can hear these songs in stadiums’. I was like, ‘They’re just home-recorded songs!’ But somewhere along the line it became our reality.”

granduciel and indie stalwart Kurt Vile formed the group in 2008 (the latter left shortly after that year’s debut ‘Wagonwheel Blues’ to pursue his solo career). Almost a decade later, the band hit their arena-filling pinnacle as they rounded off their triumphant 2017 world tour, a lengthy run that made stops in Europe, Singapore and Australia. The following year, ‘A Deeper Understanding’ picked up a Grammy for Best Rock Album and, after they took a break, it’s no wonder the gang found themselves seeking space away from the noise to write once again.

“I was living in Brooklyn,” says Granduciel. “Dave (Hartley, bass) was in Philly and Anthony (LaMarca, guitar) was in Ohio. It was like, ‘Let’s get out of town. Let’s go to this studio I keep hearing about and work on some songs, just the three of us. It was a way to get away from the machine of the band.”

They retreated to Upstate New York to lay the foundations of the fifth studio album ‘I Don’t Live Here Anymore’. “Once you were up there you were in the middle of nowhere,” Granduciel explains, relaying an experience that sounds like the plot of The Shining: “You couldn’t walk anywhere; there was a snowstorm; we weren’t near a grocery store so we had some provisions. We just slept in the house, woke up, worked for 12 hours and went home, made some spaghetti or soup and did it all over again.”

Rather than inducing the maddening writers’ block that Jack Torrence faced at the Overlook Hotel, the solitude proved deeply rewarding for the band: “We came out of those five days with a bunch of different songs and great ideas. It was the most productive time we’ve ever had.”

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The experience was so pivotal that a candid snapshot of Granduciel stomping through the soft snow on route to the studio, coffee in hand, became the album’s cover – though his head’s out of frame. He explains the artwork came about by necessity as the pandemic hit soon after: “It wouldn’t have been real if I hired a photographer to come and shoot me in LA; it didn’t feel like that was the record. Then we stumbled upon this out of necessity; the only problem was I was smiling so we had to crop that out. I can look at that cover and get all of the information that is in the record, somehow.”

The War On Drugs have always had a gift of capturing all of life’s beauty and struggle in one soaring guitar solo or agonising vocal line. You only have to hear the motoring 2014 breakthrough anthem ‘Red Eyes’ or the hushed, sweeping tones of ‘Pain’ to see that Granduciel has done some soul searching during his 42 years – and the pandemic saw him turn inwards further: “When we reconvened mid-pandemic, we got very deep on it. I think part of it was trying to understand yourself in the context of humanity. At this point, I had a baby at home and we were working on the record. Those were the only things I had to focus on.”

His becoming a father since the last album also had a profound impact in shaping this record, but also proved a distraction from Granduciel’s unrelenting creative drive: “When my son was born, it was definitely a break. I’m so used to writing that I felt like I needed to find those moments. When he was really young, I’d go down to my studio at night for like 30 minutes and put something down just to do something. As he got older, working on the record while watching him explore music was a joy.”

He stops to give us a guided tour of his home studio: a vast collection of analogue synths and guitars. “Watching my son twist knobs, plug stuff in, play synths or harmonica – it made me realise that this was something I was passing down,” he says. “It reminded me that at any level the music should be filled with wonder. I was filled with that myself trying to get to the heart of a song on this record. When you find it, it excites you and you can’t stop thinking about it.”

Such personal milestones have ultimately made the album one of the band’s most optimistic releases to date, but there’s always that element of finding your way in life and realising it’s OK to slip up along the way. Says Granduciel: “I think there’s an affirmation almost in understanding you’re not perfect. Nobody is. you understand that you may be flawed, but you also understand what is true and important and at the end of the day only certain things really matter.”

It’s a source of inspiration his own enduring hero Bruce Springsteen mastered so well; that burning hunger, longing and finding your place in the world – and it’s no coincidence that Granduciel called his own son Bruce. Through the five-album journey so far, his heroes have always been held close. When he speaks about the impact of The Boss, the inner-fandom that led him to adopt methods of the formula so well snap into focus: “I feel like there’s a moment in your life where you tap into something; you might be deeply inspired by a very small part of their life.

“There was a period where that late ‘70s Springsteen work ethic just chimed with me: [he was] fronting a band and trying to get to the heart of his songs and not really understanding his music yet, but he knew he was searching for a sound. You can use these moments that lined up with your life and you can get traction off them for years. It’s the same with Dylan or Young: [there are] moments of their career that probably feel like a blip to them, but you just happen to intersect with that in a certain time in your own life, and you keep going back to the well.”

“People always said, ‘I can hear these songs in stadiums’. I was like, ‘They’re just home-recorded songs!’” – Adam Granduciel

Now, though, Granduciel is at the point where he can influence chart-topping icons in his own right. In an interview for his first NME cover, Geordie soft-rocker Sam Fender cited the band as a huge influence when making his second chart-topping second album ‘Seventeen Going Under’. Both share a deep love of The Boss, but has he heard of the North Shields sensation?

“I know him for sure!” says Granduciel. “Our saxophone player knows them really well. I remember he said, ‘I’m playing on this kid Sam’s record – he’s a big fan of our band; he’s coming to the show.’ So I knew his name and then I would see him on the cover of some crazy British magazine. I’m like, ‘Oh my god – this guy is like a phenomenon’. We’ve never communicated but it’s so cool any time you see a guy writing songs from his heart and ripping a guitar.

“We’re inspired by a million artists that we see. We grew up going to shows, seeing all these killer bands, then you end up playing a show with them or you end up meeting them and it’s all part of it. It’s about being inspired by the other things that are happening. To see he’s at Number One, that’s great, man.”

Adam Granduciel of The War on Drugs live in London in 2018. Credit: Getty

The road to the top has been a long one, but Granduciel wouldn’t change the War On Drugs’ journey for anything, even though he’s been public about battling crippling anxiety around their breakthrough in 2014. Looking back, was that moment bittersweet?

He pauses for thought, and eventually replies: “I think that’s maybe one of the best gifts I could have been given, in some weird way. I wasn’t a young boy – I was in my 30s – but I was experiencing something for the first time that I hadn’t really had to before. Not for one second would I ever think that moment was tainted, because it was defined by what I was experiencing. As you learn more about it, you have ways of managing it and understanding it more.”

The band will take to the biggest stages of their career on their 2022 tour, including a headline show at New York’s infamous Madison Square Garden in January. It’s poetic they’ll be gracing the hallowed turf that has hosted rock’n’roll institutions such as Led Zeppelin, The Rolling Stones and Springsteen himself. Perhaps more notably, the Midtown Manhattan venue is a stone’s throw from the bars and rooms that Granduciel and the band slogged back in 2007, playing – he puts it –  “really awful shows”.

“Sam Fender? It’s so cool any time you see a guy writing songs from his heart and ripping a guitar” – Adam Granduciel

Granduciel goes starry-eyed before acknowledging the seismic achievement that lies in wait: “I couldn’t have imagined playing Madison Square Garden. I remember playing so many shows in New York trying to figure out how to play live. The whole thing is crazy.”

As it has done throughout our chat, modesty and practicality soon win over: “It’s just one of those things – it’s just the next step; it’s about finding that way in. I would be happy to play any other place, too, but that’s obviously a really special moment. It’s part of the process.”

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