Q&A: The War on Drugs

The War on Drugs: Future Weather EPThe War on Drugs: Future Weather EP (Secretly Canadian, 10/26/10)

The War on Drugs: “Comin’ Through”

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Though it won’t be the top result in a typical Internet search, Philadelphia-based The War on Drugs is definitely taking the title of America’s longest-running, most counter-productive conflict and making it its own. Aside from the very specific cultural reference and obvious inclination toward psychedelia, “The War on Drugs” is a vague band name — referentially devoid of musical context. That’s exactly why singer-songwriter Adam Granduciel was first attracted to the name when he came up with it years ago, drinking wine with a friend in Oakland, California.

Almost 10 years later, Granduciel and The War on Drugs use a discordant miasma of oblong and tangled tape-loops, anxious drum beats, gnarled knots of guitar riffs, and a dissociative lyrical narrative to speak to forgotten, lovelorn have-nots. The trio has undergone various lineup tweaks, including the subtraction of band co-founder Kurt Vile to his solo project, but it has continued to successively build upon its uncanny sound with each new release.

On its most recent release, Future Weather, the group’s sound moves away from the classic-rock influences to more ambient landscapes where Granduciel can better articulate the lachrymose environment that surrounds him. Yet, through the course of the album, The War on Drugs ultimately ends up in the same rustic dust storm of a musical illusion that it started in: translating the hum of a busy train station, crafting nomadic anthems for vagabond romantics with enough self-awareness and ambition to stave off desperation.

In advance of a North American tour with Destroyer, Granduciel recently took some time to answer a few questions about The War on Drugs, its “Americana” sound, and how it’s really just a kind of jam band.

From the live shows that I’ve seen, there seems to be a somewhat raw or spontaneous musical aesthetic rather than a polished one. Does that play a factor in how you prepare for live shows? Do you like to work out songs in a live setting as a way of making each show different from the last?

I don’t know which shows you saw because, really, it probably went one of two ways — the other way being legendarily sloppy, yet hopefully somewhat inspiring. We don’t really over-rehearse, though — just jam the songs for a few days before a tour, and things usually come together pretty quickly. After our practices for this tour, I’m really, really excited for the growth that we’ll see on this Destroyer tour.

How has the band changed/evolved over the years as you’ve changed lineups? Is your creative and/or recording process still pretty much unchanged?

If anything, I think the songs have become a lot more personal in scope on Future Weather and the new LP I’m finishing up now. There hasn’t been an album where I’ve played everything myself — that would be silly — but the songwriting and song-shaping through recording has become somewhat of a solo adventure.

Obviously, Dave [Hartley] plays bass on 99% because he’s awesome at bass; Mike [Zanghi] plays some of the drums…with some friends adding their vibes along the way. At this point, though, the actual recording process is pretty out there — just in the sense that it takes me a long time to finish or be satisfied with one song — always shaping, re-sampling, re-shaping, re-writing lyrics, not necessarily until it’s right or sounds best, but until it makes you feel something. I think I’m the only one who can tell when it’s a “War On Drugs” song.

I haven’t seen all that many bands labeled as purveyors of an “Americana” sound, but I’ve seen it frequently in reference to your music. How does that description make you feel? Do you think the music you play is particularly American?

Well, it’s no less or no more American than anything else. A lot of our favorite bands are not American — Spacemen 3, The Rolling Stones, David Bowie — but I think it’s American music because this is where we’re from, where we live, the place we’ve digested decades of music in our lives. We have a far-reaching understanding of our country, its small towns and freeways, back roads and rivers, etc. I don’t know that much about any other country.

How do you usually go about writing your lyrics? Do you first lay out lyrical groundwork for a song and have the music follow, or is it an entirely organic process?

Usually, the best things happen when I do multiple scratch vocals — make it up as I go along, free thinking, etc. Amazingly, there are always some gems in there, or words/gibberish that sound like other words. Then I go through and write rough lyrics from those, and then usually do one or two more takes with those changes in mind, and let it fly. “Brothers,” from Future Weather, was totally improvised, and then I went over it one more time.

You can actually hear the improvised vocal in there with the acoustic, but a lot of the lyrics stayed the same — just cleaned ’em up a bit. After a while, I start seeing themes developing in certain songs, and it’s great, but I never set out to write about anything in particular. I don’t have the discipline to do that either!

I understand you’re a baseball fan. When you were in Chicago for Pitchfork last year, you had a chance to take in a Cubs game at Wrigley Field. How was that for you?

I had been wanting to go to Wrigley since I was a kid, so that was a real treat, plus we got to go on the field, which was incredible. I grew up in Massachusetts and I’d see games at Fenway, so obviously going to Wrigley meant a lot as a baseball fan. Too bad about the Cubs, though; it’s a tough division. I’d love to see them get it soon. I thought Lou Piniella would pull it off, but…you know. Chicago is definitely a baseball town, which is great; baseball towns have great energy in the spring and summer — nothin’ like the energy outside a ballpark on a Saturday afternoon game in Chicago, Philly, Boston, or New York.

Let’s talk about the actual “war on drugs” a bit. Are you a decriminalization kind of guy, or do you support all-out legalization?

Ehh, let’s not get crazy. I don’t think that all drugs should be legal — too many freaks runnin’ around, but grass, yeah, sure.

Have you ever been arrested or charged for any drug-related offenses?

No. Well, not since I was really, really young. Long story…

How often do you have fans trying to get you stoned while you’re out tour?

Never. We usually have to leave the same night, and driving under the influence in my new van is a big no-no.

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