Indie

How The War On Drugs Became A Great Live Band

In his songs, Adam Granduciel presents himself as a man adrift — he’s out on the road, or standing in the rain, or floating in between the waves, or perhaps just lost in a dream. But on stage last week in St. Paul with his band, The War On Drugs, he cut an entirely different figure: He looked happy.

“It’s my birthday and I’m going to play a fucking Bob Seger song!” he goofily exclaimed at the first of two packed mid-week concerts at the Palace Theater. Granduciel then proceeded to tease “Night Moves,” the most heartland rock-y tune in the legendary heartland rocker’s catalog, before finally landing on a song that The War On Drugs had never played live before, the stately ballad “Against The Wind.”

It was a sentimental choice for the 43-year-old Granduciel, who mentioned that “Against The Wind” is a song he’s played frequently for his young son, Bruce. But it also had a perhaps subliminal thematic importance for a band dealing with the usual headaches (and a few unusual headaches) of playing live in the “sort of but not really” post-Covid era. Two weeks before the tour began in mid-January, they were forced to cancel two shows in Toronto due to Canadian indoor capacity restrictions. They also decided to send their support acts packing, in order to keep the tour party bubble as small as possible. But then a member of the party got sick anyway a few days into the tour, which required postponing gigs in Nashville and Atlanta.

And then there was the tour’s would-be crowning moment, a headlining show in late January at Madison Square Garden in New York City, a “we made it!” achievement for any band. But for The War On Drugs, it was accompanied by a fierce Nor’easter that swamped the East Coast in a blizzard the day of the concert.

As bassist Dave Hartley mused to me in a recent interview. “Going into that show I was like, is this tour snakebitten?”

By the time The War On Drugs reached the Midwest a few weeks later, any worries about being stuck on a cursed journey had seemingly abated. Having seen the band more than a half-dozen times over the course of a decade — and after digging deep into their bootlegs — I am confident in declaring that they have never played better than they are right now. The shows in St. Paul found them in an enviable sweet spot — the performances were focused and powerful, and the camaraderie between the band and the audience was funny and celebratory. Along with the “Against The Wind” bust out, the birthday show was distinguished by a pizza being delivered to Adam on stage, which he then gifted to the band’s lighting director. That was after an epic balloon drop during the set’s cathartic high point, “Under The Pressure.” It all felt simultaneously tight and loose.

In the band’s press photos, Granduciel typically is seen brooding by himself, a signifier of the solitary manner in which he has assembled most War On Drugs albums. But for their latest LP, 2021’s I Don’t Live Here Anymore, they projected more of a group identity as Granduciel behind the scenes also sought to make the writing and recording process more collaborative. And that has translated big time to the communal vibe of the current tour. Like The E Street Band, each member of The War On Drugs now has a recognizable persona — Hartley is the stoic consigliere situated to Granduciel’s immediate right, drummer Charlie Hall is the kimono-clad showman, keyboardist Robbie Bennett is the swaying creator of synth-y moods, multi-instrumentalists Anthony LaMarca and Jon Natchez are the invaluable utility fielders, and new touring musician Eliza Hardy Jones is the Patti Scialfa figure.

“There’s something about seeing us where it’s like, ‘Oh, this stuff gets a little bit more fully realized in the live environment,'” Granduciel told me. “It was like one day all of a sudden we were a good live band.”

If Granduciel sounds somewhat surprised by this development — I would call them a great live band, by the way — it’s only because he’s aware of the band’s history before their 2014 breakthrough, Lost In The Dream. For many fans, the history of The War On Drugs starts with their third album, which is also when the current lineup first came together as a live unit. But the story of how they got there is long and rife with dramatic twists and turns that for years seemed to portend all but certain failure.

“I don’t think people realize how strange our trajectory is, where each record has been incrementally a little bit better and a little bit bigger than the last one,” said Hartley, the band’s only other charter member. “Most people think that all of a sudden we came out of nowhere. That’s not really how it went at all.”

Formed in 2005 a few years after Granduciel moved to Philadelphia, The War On Drugs didn’t start out making heart-tugging, widescreen anthems that evoke the surging emotionalism of stadium rock. Initially, it was “a purely freaked out art show” featuring Granduciel and his good friend Kurt Vile doing a noisy and deconstructionist take on AOR, Hartley said. “We were playing basements, and it was just very experimental in the early days.”

Granduciel and Hartley have been reflecting lately on those early days in light of how dramatically their fortunes have changed in the past decade. Yes, mounting a tour during a lingering pandemic is a challenge. But it’s nothing compared with one of their first tours in the late aughts, when they were invited to open some dates in the upper Midwest for a noise-punk band from Brooklyn who subsequently broke up the day before the tour was supposed to start. The clubs said The War On Drugs could play, but they wouldn’t get paid.

“We still fucking went!” Hartley said. “It was me and Kurt and Adam. We piled in Adam’s Volvo. And as we’re driving pieces of the Volvo started falling off.”

The tour only got worse from there. They had to pick up a drummer in every city; one night, they couldn’t find anyone so Hartley played drums. “The whole tour was a trainwreck,” he said. “Really fucked up shows, nobody came, we lost money. The Volvo was spewing out fumes. The catalytic converter literally fell off as we were pulling back into Philly.”

“We had no real concept,” Granduciel admits. “I didn’t have any confidence. I was kind of driving a ship with my eyes closed.”

In those years, a semi-stable lineup of Granduciel, Vile, and Hartley was augmented by a revolving cast of support musicians. One of those people was the affable Hall, who didn’t become the permanent drummer until the Lost In The Dream era.

“Sometimes there were four of us. Sometimes there were eight of us,” he said of the early days. “You weren’t entirely sure who was going to be at the gig when you showed up.”

The band’s career path was so haphazard in the late aughts and early 2010s that it’s probably overly generous to call it a “career path.” And yet amid the chaos, there was an important evolution taking place. What started as a dirty, lo-fi revisionist take on classic rock was slowly moving toward an extension of that tradition. Hartley noticed it initially with Granduciel’s guitar playing, which would ultimately become one of the band’s sonic signatures. “In the very beginning he played acoustic through an amp generally,” he recalled. “At some point he started playing electric. I remember literally being like, ‘Whoa, he’s soloing all the time now. When did this happen?'”

Another turning point occurred in 2008 at the La Route du Rock festival in France, around the time of The War On Drugs’ debut album, Wagonwheel Blues. The band was under-rehearsed and barely recognized. But something magic happened when they were suddenly thrust into a wide open space in front of a large audience. The music could finally swell to proper size.

“Even before we knew how to present live music, it didn’t feel like it was a house or basement-type show,” Granduciel said. “It always felt like we needed space.”

If there is a specific moment when the modern version of The War On Drugs was born, it was a six-week trek across the United States in support of Destroyer in the spring of 2011. Dan Bejar invited them to open in spite of their second album, Slave Ambient, not being scheduled for release until that August. But that’s not the only reason why playing these shows might have seemed at the time like a bad idea. There was also the matter of the tour starting in Bejar’s hometown of Vancouver, a city located about 4,800 miles from Philadelphia.

“If we would have had proper management, somebody would’ve said, ‘No, you’re not going to do that tour,'” Granduciel said. “But we didn’t. So, I was like, ‘Yeah, let’s do it.'”

Destroyer had just released one of their most acclaimed and popular albums, Kaputt. To pull off that album’s lush, 1980s-inspired sound, the lineup swelled to eight musicians. I never made the connection until Granduciel mentioned this tour, but the current lineup of The War On Drugs has a lot in common with Kaputt-era Destroyer, down to the prominent use of atmospheric saxophone wails to complement romantic, synth-driven soundscapes.

Not that The War On Drugs sounded at all like that in 2011. I saw them for the first time on this tour at a bar in Madison, Wis., with about 20 other people who arrived about an hour before Destroyer was set to perform. (I had been a War On Drugs fan ever since hearing “Arms Like A Boulders” a few years earlier on a local college radio station.) Touring as a four-piece that now included Bennett on keyboards and guitar, they were in the midst of their “primal” era, in which they played harder and louder and with more improvisations.

“There would be a lot of long jams,” Bennett said. “Holding a groove for a really long time. I think doing that helps you gel as a band.”

For Granduciel, the challenge was “how can we make these albums that were done with loops and sampling and resampling sound like a band?” Every gig was a process of trial and error with the goal of reinventing The War On Drugs in real time. There was also the aspirational aspect of seeing a more successful and organized band like Destroyer function on the road.

“Opening for Destroyer every night, they have this big band, and this big sound,” he said. “And they were in a bus, which to us seemed like, ‘Oh, man, I doubt we’ll ever be in a bus. But what if we are?'”

When it came time to tour behind Lost In The Dream, Granduciel insisted on making his own kind of “big sound,” even if he was reasonably sure it would break him financially. This is when Hall, LaMarca, and Natchez entered the picture. “It was just like, ‘If this is my last tour with this band, before it starts hemorrhaging money, I really want to have a six-piece band.”

And the rest, as they say, is history. Though The War On Drugs continue to grow in significant ways. The lack of confidence that Granduciel copped to early on has been replaced by the bravado of road-tested veterans. I was sad to miss the MSG show — the weather conspired against taking a flight to New York — but reports from friends and colleagues suggest that it was a triumph under trying circumstances. In St. Paul, the grandness of the performances — which on both nights extended to more than two and a half hours — evidenced a band hitting a new peak. If you can, see them now.

Of the new songs, the MVP is “Harmonia’s Dream,” which has been stretched to about 12 minutes thanks to an extended, Kraftwerk-like prologue that sets up a crowd-pleasing explosion of sound. I also loved hearing “Slow Ghost,” a great mid-tempo number reminiscent of Tom Petty’s Hard Promises period that was inexplicably left off of I Don’t Live Here Anymore. Hartley singled out the “Darkness On The Edge Of Town energy” of “Wasted” as a personal highlight, as well as the “fucking sick” funk of “Victim” and the undeniable title track. (“I see a lot of cellphones pop out when we play that song,” he said.) There’s also room for improvement — the instrumental fade-out on “Change” seems ripe for greater musical exploration down the road. (“I don’t feel like we’ve totally cracked that one yet,” Hartley admitted.)

On the second night in St. Paul, Granduciel solicited requests from the crowd and responded by leading the band into “Coming Through,” a rarity from 2010’s Future Weather EP. The last time I heard them play it was at that show in Madison, Wis. with Destroyer. Both the times and the band have changed so much since then.

For all of the many valleys The War On Drugs have traversed, Granduciel seemed to enjoy riding their current peak. After playfully teasing the riff from “Night Moves” throughout the night — some city is bound to get the whole song on this tour — he called back to a line from the previous night’s “Against The Wind”

“Let the cowboys ride!” he exclaimed with an infectious smirk. And with that, The War On Drugs walked off stage and headed off to the next city.

The War On Drugs is a Warner Music artist. Uproxx is an independent subsidiary of Warner Music Group.

×