Interview: The War on Drugs

June 03, 2011

On August 16th, The War on Drugs will release Slave Ambient, their latest album of hazy, slack (but somehow still epic) rock jams. It's a formula the band has down—a sort of blue collar Philadelphia update of classic rock tropes set against a constant ambient thrum. It's a beautiful record that worms its way into your brain before you even realize it. We spoke to Adam Granduciel about ambient music and the importance of place while he was touring in Belgium far from his Philadelphia home. Listen to "Baby Missles," the first single from Slave Ambient, right here, and catch the band on any of the tour dates listed at the end of the post.

War on Drugs has always had a lot of ambient passages. Where does that come from?I think when I started getting really into home recording is when I got a little more interested in that stuff. It’s a just a whole approach. A lot of that just comes from stuff that I’ll end up just building and building at home. So it ends up with really intense textures. I get a lot of enjoyment out of recording as well. So I always find a way to mix some of that in with a song. Or some of that stuff becomes the backbone of the song if it's rhythmic.

It also makes for a pretty cohesive record. There's a general hum under almost every song. Yeah that’s actually where the title came from. Because I had a bunch of tapes, like slave tapes, you know, when you have multiple machines. And I’d have certain tapes that were just all the ambient stuff, so I’d just fly them in behind. Like slave them to the other machine, behind other songs.

So you'd record the ambient stuff separately and then weave it in later? Not always. A lot of it would take it's own shape, but sometimes I would randomly fly it to other song ideas I had. And either re-sample stuff from there or think about it in a different way.

There's always been an underlying blue-collar working man narrative through all the War on Drugs records. Is that the background you come from? I’ve lived in the same house in Fishtown, which is now pretty up and coming. But I’ve lived there about nine years now. When I moved, there wasn’t anything going on, that neighborhood was real shitty, really kind of backwoods. It's kind of like a run-down house. I think that kind of mentality, just working a lot and also trying to do music—just trying to find time to do both.

So War on Drugs is pretty tied to a Philadelphia-centric identity. Do you think the band could exist if you'd never lived there? I don’t think so, no. Because so many things set the stage for where future albums will go too. The kind of stuff I’ve learned, the people I’ve met, actually really the place I’ve lived has been a huge part of it. I’ve had my studio there. In my house, we had the freedom to experiment all the time. We didn’t have any noise issues with neighbors or anything. So we could always just learn what it sounds like to run everything through amps or just all sorts of experiments. You don’t even realize at the moment that you’re learning, you’re just kind of playing around. Playing music all the time… I think that definitely had a huge impact on the sound.

Can you ever see yourself leaving that house? Oh yeah, I have to move. My girlfriend’s going to break up with me if I don’t. It’s a three-story house, it’s really big and it’s fairly run down. But I also have this huge backyard, which is obviously strange for a city. Its maybe 100 feet long by 25-30 feet wide. When I moved in it was pretty much a landfill, but over the years I’ve cleaned it out. I have an awesome English garden back there. So usually in the winter time, when the house is super freezing and drafty and the bills are pretty high I’m like “I gotta get out.” But then in summer, when I’m in the backyard and its gorgeous I always have this vision of buying the house and building a studio in it. It’s also pretty cheap, so I’d end up moving into a smaller place for more dough. And have to get a practice space and all that bullshit. But yeah I think the house itself has had a huge impact on the band and the recordings. Just having the freedom to do whatever with no time constraints.

In previous interviews you've cited Bob Dylan's Blonde on Blonde as a strong influence because you like how you can hear the mistakes on it. It feels more human. I think you've carried that over onto your own band. Yeah that’s actually my favorite thing about the new record. Even when I turned it in there were still some things that I thought I’d missed the boat on. Like certain songs—and that’s not even really a matter of mistakes—but I do like that on the new record there are a lot of things that were done in the moment that could probably be redone to sound clearer. I always end up sticking with the versions that have the most feel rather than the ones that might’ve made more sense with like an extended bridge or some shit like that. And the thing I love about it is that there are a lot of mistakes on it and there are imperfections about it.

It's funny that you say that, because the first time I listened to the record, it felt the most clear, and, for lack of a better word, clean. I could hear all the separate parts. But now I'm thinking—are you the type of guy that likes to get everything done in one take? Ideally, yeah. For the songs we do as a live band, it’s usually the first take. Then we’ll do a second take but usually we wont even listen to it. The version of “Brothers” that’s on there, that was just one take. The last song on there, “Black Water Falls,” no one had heard that song. It’s a really old War on Drugs song. Actually one of the first ones the band ever played. We were at this studio in North Carolina, we only had one day booked. We did “Brothers” and then later that night we had two more hours and I just started playing it. We were all isolated, I think we did two takes of that and kept the second take. But that was only like the second time anyone had played the song. Which is awesome. I’m so happy I recorded it. It’s a really old song but it's kind of nice to breathe new life into it.

Does it feel weird to revisit stuff that is so old? Yeah it does actually, especially if you look at the lyrics. Because, back then, I would spend a lot more time writing lyrics, like finishing and reworking. Now I don’t even do any of that. I have a big book of stuff, and I just kind of go with the moment. I usually do three or four vocal takes, like off the cuff with a couple guides. Then listen back and see parts I like and then maybe do a final one. But the version of “I Was There” that’s kind of what I’m talking about, that was like, Maybe I'll just do a quick vocal take just to get an idea of what to do on this. And that was the one that ended up staying. It just had so much feel even though there’s some mild gibberish in there. There were a couple lines I had already written and it was delivered fairly honestly so I just kept it instead of going back and trying to do a vocal without any gibberish.

Even though you're approaching your vocals more loosely, there still seems to be an overarching theme in your records. Yeah I think you’re probably right. I don’t necessarily know what it is, really. I guess I work on songs so long that they’re all really special to me in a way. I’m really close to them. I guess I just know what each song makes me feel. They’re also done over periods of time where a lot of those themes—friendship, love, or whatever, living where you live—all that stuff tends to simmer for a long time and come out in the music.

Thu. Aug. 18 -- Philadelphia, PA @ Johnny Brenda's
Fri. Aug. 19 -- Brooklyn, NY @ Cameo Gallery
Sat. Aug. 20 -- New York, NY @ Mercury Lounge
Sun. Aug. 21 -- Boston, MA @ Brighton Music Hall
Tue. Aug. 23 -- Montreal, QC @ Casa Del Popolo
Wed. Aug. 24 -- Toronto, ON @ TBD
Thu. Aug. 25 -- Ann Arbor, MI @ Blind Pig
Fri. Aug. 26 -- Chicago, IL @ Schuba's
Sat. Aug. 27 -- Milwaukee, WI @ Club Garibaldi
Sun. Aug. 28 -- Minneapolis, MN @ 7th Street Entry
Tue. Aug. 30 -- St. Louis, MO @ Billiken Club at St. Louis University
Wed. Aug. 31 -- Lexington, KY @ Cosmic Charlie’s
Thu. Sep. 1 -- Pittsburgh, PA @ Club Cafe
Fri. Sep. 2 -- Washington, DC @ Red Palace
Thu. Sep. 8 -- Lisbon, Portugal @ Terraza Hotel Regency
Fri. Sep. 9 -- San Sebastian, Spain @ Club Victoria Eugenia
Sun. Sep. 11 -- Amsterdam, Netherlands @ Paradiso w/ Megafaun
Mon. Sep. 12 -- Tilburg, Netherlands @ Incubate Festival w/ Megafaun
Tue. Sep. 13 -- London, UK @ Lexington
Wed. Sep. 14 -- Leeds, UK @ Brudenell Social Club
Thu. Sep. 15 -- Sheffield, UK @ Drowned In Sound presents at The Harley
Fri. Sep. 16 -- Brighton, UK @ Green Door Store
Sat. Sep. 17 -- Brussels, Belgium @ AB club
Tue. Sep. 20 -- Copenhagen, Denmark @ Loppen
Wed. Sep. 21 -- Stockholm, Sweden @ Lilla Hotelbaren
Thu. Sep. 22 -- Malmo, Sweden @ Debaser
Fri. Oct. 14 -- Pensacola, FL @ DeLuna Festival

Interview: The War on Drugs