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Exclusive: The War on Drugs on Blooming Late and Finding a "Deeper Understanding"

On the eve of their new album, Adam Granduciel and Co. take stock of a new major-label recording career.

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Exclusive: The War on Drugs on Blooming Late and Finding a "Deeper Understanding"

Shortly after The War On Drugs signed with Atlantic Records and began work on their major-label debut, A Deeper Understanding, the album’s engineer, Shawn Everett, took a moment to point something out to bassist and founding member David Hartley: By the standards of the contemporary music industry, the band may as well have been working on recording a unicorn.

“He was just like, ‘Man, you know how weird this is, right?,’” Hartley says. “I was like, ‘What do you mean?’”

Everett replied: ”’You guys are all in your late 30s, this is your fifth record. You’ve been a band for over 10 years and you’re just now starting to become a huge band. You’re peaking now. This is normally the sort of twilight of a band’s career.”

In an age when new artists pray they can go viral with their internet hustle, The War on Drugs’ slow-burn approach seems practically anachronistic. But there’s always been something to their refracted, waved-out take on classic rock that marked them as a band just outside of time. Still, even though The War on Drugs in many ways feel like they’re not quite of this age, frontman Adam Granduciel always has his eyes on the clock.

Read Paste’s review of A Deeper Understanding.

When Granduciel calls from his Brooklyn home at 11 a.m. on a recent morning, the first thing I tell him is that he didn’t strike me as a morning person. “This jet lag is sweet,” he says, explaining that he just got back from a European promotional jaunt. “I’ve been getting up at like 6:30 a.m. I’ve got to cherish it before I go on tour and then I’ll be the opposite of a morning person.”

The Europe trip was the first time he’s seen the full weight of what a major label can do for a band’s visibility (Atlantic is owned by Warner Music Group). He appreciates that and all, but the thing he seems to value most about a major label is that it keeps him on task. While working on the band’s breakthrough 2014 album, Lost in the Dream, Granduciel’s obsessive sonic tinkering caused him to miss the deadline for handing the album in to his then-label, Secretly Canadian, by more than a year. He knew that wouldn’t fly with the new guys.

“The deadline is such a beautiful thing,” he says. “It was a little bit of like, ‘We really need to get it in or else.’ If I missed it, then it affects the tour, which affects my crew, which affects the band. It’s like I really had to live up to my end of the bargain and hand it in by the date. I did. It was great to have that deadline because I had to squeeze a lot of stuff into four months, which ended up being the last great flurry of inspiration and chaos.”

Lost in the Dream proved to be one of the most beloved albums of the decade, and the meticulously layered guitar reveries that Granduciel masterminded for it took The War on Drugs from a well-liked Philadelphia band to the sort that plays the sundown slot at Coachella and Bonnaroo. Now, with A Deeper Understanding set for release on Friday, the band is gearing up for the globe-trotting mayhem that accompanies a major global album release. (You can stream the album here now.)

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Anthony LaMarca, Dave Hartley, Robbie Bennett, Jon Natchez, Charlie Hall and Adam Granduciel of The War on Drugs.

Hartley is in the mountains of Oregon with his wife, enjoying some dwindling downtime. But even on vacation, he’s still got some promotional duties to take care of. It’s the sort of thing he’s learned to roll with since the release of Lost in the Dream. “I sort of knew it was going to be a lot bigger,” he says, referring to their previous album. “I thought the music just sort of spoke for itself and seemed to connect with people in this really broad way. But would I have thought that we would be selling out Radio City Music Hall? Maybe not to that degree, but I did believe in it really strongly.”

With its shimmering guitar sheen and Dylan-esque narrative flourishes, Lost in the Dream marked the cohesion of Granduciel’s songwriting and production chops with the band’s road-tested muscle. Granduciel wanted to keep the momentum going, so he booked time at studios while on tour to record demos and went about “stockpiling” ideas for songs.

“I always write in the studio. I don’t really sit down with an acoustic guitar and write a song,” he says. “I have to put ideas down and listen back and have them on my phone to see what’s really pulling at me.”

The recording process was divided between a full-group affair, where everyone figures out the structure of a song together, and Granduciel working to construct the tracks in private and then bringing people into play certain parts. “Sometimes I was inspired when I was just by myself for three weeks, and songs would come out that I’d track with a drum machine from the ground up,” he says. “I always thought that being too prepared, you’d relinquish some level of spontaneity. But you can always be really spontaneous regardless of how well you know something.”

“I always thought that being too prepared, you’d relinquish some level of spontaneity. But you can always be really spontaneous regardless of how well you know something.”

If having a deadline to keep him on track was one of the perks of signing to a major label, constant access to a studio was another. Granduciel, who is 38, decamped to Los Angeles to record the majority of the album. (L.A.’s not for him, by the way. “There’s so many great things, but I’m not really, like, a guy who’s going to go to the beach all the time or go hiking.”) For previous War on Drugs albums, like 2011’s Slave Ambient and their 2008 debut, Wagonwheel Blues, Granduciel would recruit whichever of his friends were available at the time—or whoever he thought could nail a particular song—to tour or record, and for a while that often included his friend Kurt Vile.

But after playing what Hartley estimates was more than 275 shows in support of Lost in the Dream, the group—which now includes keyboardist Robbie Bennett, drummer Charlie Hall and multi-instrumentalists Anthony LaMarca and Jon Natchez—cohered into a stable six-man unit. And though Granduciel still brought in outside musicians and recorded plenty by himself, this is the most band-driven album The War On Drugs have ever made. To accomplish this, the very laid-back-sounding bandleader had to become a taskmaster.

“I’d spend weeks being in the studio by myself, thinking, ‘I miss my friends,’” Granducial says. “Then they’d come out to L.A. and we didn’t do anything other than go to the studio all day. If someone was like, ‘Oh, we should go out to dinner,’ I’d be like, ‘Yeah, we got to be back at the studio. We got to work.’”

When the band members would fly back home, Granduciel would continue overdubbing, sculpting and fine-tuning everything along with Everett, which was just fine with him. “I love working 14 hours a day and just getting deep, deep, deep into it,” he says. “So does Adam. I just watched a documentary about David Lynch and he describes ‘the art life,’ which is basically just sitting in a room and making art all day long and drinking coffee. That’s what Adam does and that’s what I do, so it was my dream job.”

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Granduciel was born in Mason, Mass., and studied art history and photography at Dickinson College in southern Pennsylvania. He met Hartley shortly after moving to Philadelphia, when both had a job cleaning frat houses. Though members have come and gone, Hartley has been the one constant. He was there when the band was playing what Granduciel calls “terrible shows,” when their intricate sound couldn’t get airborne. (“We just didn’t know how to convey the music yet.”) And he was there when the band went to Europe for an early support slot that was canceled as soon as they arrived. “We were stranded in Europe for nine days, and we lost tens of thousands of dollars,” Granduciel says. “He stuck with me through that. He’s always been there for everything.”

One of his goals with A Deeper Understanding was to reward that loyalty with an album that would let Hartley (as well as everyone else) shine, where the individual elements stood out just a bit more from the band’s previous wall-of-sound approach. Says Granduciel, “It was important to me that I made a record that Dave could really stand behind and feel like he was really a part of, because he’s been in the band so long. He’s such a ridiculously great, consistent, melodic bass player. He’s not an afterthought that it could be anybody playing bass in these songs, and it’s more about cinematic quality or something. No, it’s actually more about there’s only one guy that could play the bass like that.”

Lost in the Dream came from an “anxious, depressed” time in Granduciel’s life, when he “couldn’t get out of my head” and he often didn’t leave the house. Though it is still the product of an obsessive workhorse, A Deeper Understanding has an overall lighter, looser feel to it; lead-off track “Up All Night” even has the refrain “Go out into the world.”

“You do get sucked into politics of being in a band or following up a record like that,” he says. “But you have to remember the music you love. It wasn’t like I felt like I had to write another ‘Red Eyes,’” he says, referencing Dream’s popular single. “I wouldn’t want Neil Young to do two ‘Tonight’s the Night.’”

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Granduciel onstage at Coachella in 2014.

A Deeper Understanding is soaring and intricate, but there’s no instantly grabbing three-minute play for radio, though Granduciel did help edit down “Holding On” to single length. While he was sad to leave his longtime home of Secretly Canadian (“they plucked me out of that time of my life where I wasn’t really asking for much”), he says he didn’t have any trepidation about entering the major leagues. “We’ve been a band for a long time and we’ve built up a great fan base, and I didn’t think that I was really compromising anything. Because as long as I have complete control over the records and how I made them and what the cover is, then I’d be happy.”

So far it’s been a smooth transition. He knew he’d found the right home when he told his A&R guy that he edited down the original 14-minute long version of “Thinking of a Place.”

“The guys at the label were like, ‘Oh that’s a bummer. We loved the 14-minute one. There was some cool moments in that solo.’ I was like, ‘I edited it because I wanted something different, but that’s cool that you like that.’”

At this point, The War on Drugs have been around long enough that they’ve gotten most of the rock ‘n’ roll debauchery out of their system, Granduciel says, and they’re just focused on the work. That’s just one of the many benefits of being a late bloomer.

“I guess that was one of the coolest things about being signed to a major label at being at this point in our career, it’s like they completely knew what they were getting,” Hartley says. “We’re already very established. Our sound is very established. The way we make records is established. Everything about the band is what it’s going to be.”

It’s also very clear what it’s not going to be. “I think if we turned in an album that had a bunch of three-minute verse, chorus, verse, chorus, bridge, chorus, pop songs on it, that would be so out-of-character for us. It’s just not what we’re going to do,” he says. “We just have to do what we do, and what we do is seven-minute jammers.”

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