A Long Talk With Adam Granduciel About The War On Drugs’ Latest Masterpiece, ‘A Deeper Understanding’

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Near the end of an hour-long conversation last month about his band’s extraordinary new album, A Deeper Understanding, Adam Granduciel of The War On Drugs vented about a subject near and dear to his heart: The minutia of recording epic rock songs.

“Did you watch The Defiant Ones?” Granduciel asked, a trace of annoyance rising in his voice. “You know, that thing on HBO about Jimmy Iovine? I watched the first part last night, but I was pissed off.”

What set off Granduciel about the documentary was a relatively minor detail that only a true rock geek would care about. During the making of 1978’s Darkness On The Edge Of Town, Bruce Springsteen spent weeks trying to get the right drum sound, a torturous process originally related by Iovine, the album’s engineer, in the 2010 documentary The Promise: The Making Of Darkness On The Edge Of Town. Over and over, Springsteen would say “stick!” whenever he heard Max Weinberg’s drumsticks hit his drum. Springsteen didn’t want to hear Weinberg’s sticks, he wanted that perfect Phil Spector “Wall Of Sound” boom he imagined in his head. For Springsteen, the boom was everything. No matter what, Springsteen would not stop until he got the boom that his album required.

In The Defiant Ones, however, the timeline is muddled. When Iovine retells the “stick!” story, it appears to occur during 1975’s Born To Run, the album that preceded Darkness.

“And I was like, fuck that,” Granduciel said. “You said it was for Darkness, and I got really upset. I turned it off.”

What might seem like trivia to most people is crucial to Granduciel, a man who, like Springsteen, has spent hundreds of hours in recording studios, laboring intensely over songs that in the final execution sound effortless and boundless. To Granduciel, the “stick!” story isn’t just an interesting anecdote, it’s a skeleton key for comprehending how the tediously analytical method of making records can result in a vital and emotional experience for the listener. A Deeper Understanding is dense with such expertly rendered flourishes — the gurgling drum machine in “Up All Night,” the sparkling slide guitar in “Holding On,” the frisky synth tone in “Nothing To Find” that’s reminiscent of countless AOR warhorses, the high-lonesome harmonica wail that sends “You Don’t Have To Go” into the stratosphere. Granduciel’s intention was to capture a seductive, intractable melancholy nestled “in the space between the beauty and the pain,” to quote “Strangest Thing,” a luminous highlight from A Deeper Understanding. And he achieved it by creating sounds bigger, brighter, and more powerful than anything The War On Drugs have previously committed to tape.

Granduciel phoned in the middle of July while driving a rented pickup truck from New York City to Philadelphia. Introspective and pensive by nature, he’s a sensitive conversationalist who appears to be aspiring toward personal happiness without quite achieving it just yet. But Granduciel does seem content with A Deeper Understanding, the band’s first album with Atlantic Records, which signed The War On Drugs in 2015. (An endorsement by none other than Jimmy Iovine no doubt raised the band’s profile in corporate circles.) Around the same time, Granduciel left his long-time home of Philadelphia for Brooklyn, and then re-located again for 15 months to Los Angeles to work on A Deeper Understanding, periodically flying out his band to work on tracks with Grammy-winning engineer Shawn Everett (Alabama Shakes, John Legend) as songs emerged from Granduciel’s constant, near-compulsive demoing.

Formed by Granduciel in 2005, The War On Drugs hit a new plateau of acclaim and success with 2014’s Lost In The Dream. The album re-calibrated 20th century classic rock for a 21st century audience, wedding anthemic synth-accented guitar anthems to intimate confessionals informed by contemporary alienation and anxiety. But even as the band’s audience grew exponentially, Granduciel stayed focused on further refining his approach to songwriting and record-making. He had an even more massive boom get out of his head.

Just as Lost In The Dream built on the breakthroughs of 2011’s excellent but meandering Slave Ambient, A Deeper Understanding represents a new pinnacle for Granduciel’s unique, modernist/traditionalist take on American rock and roll. This necessitated greater clarity — the sprawling, ambient soundscapes that functioned as segues between songs on previous War On Drugs albums have been excised on A Deeper Understanding, putting the focus more than ever on Granduciel’s melodies and weary vocals. But Granduciel remains infinitely more comfortable with technology than the average heartland rocker.

While The War On Drugs is typically classified as a straight-forward, meat-and-potatoes rock band, Granduciel’s songs move with an electronic pulse, with synthesizers and drum machines organically integrated with surging guitars, a sonic trademark that’s closer to Empire Burlesque than Blonde On Blonde. Listening to A Deeper Understanding, it’s as if a mad genius spent years studying “When The Night Comes Falling From The Sky” and finally found a way to make it sound amazing.

Blessed with the cachet (and budget) of a major label, The War On Drugs recorded A Deeper Understanding in some of the most famous studios in the world, including United Recorders in LA and Electric Lady in New York City, a dream come true for a gear-head like Granduciel. You can hear the extra care on the record: Whereas Slave Ambient and Lost In The Dream felt like homages to arena rock, A Deeper Understanding is actual arena rock, with a depth of sound and feeling that’s akin to the ’70s and ’80s rock classics that Granduciel has pored endlessly over.

I imagine that the chance to work in so many great studios must’ve given you a real “kid in a candy store” feeling. But at any point was it ever intimidating or weird to work in those historic rooms?

It wasn’t weird, it was cool. I’m such a fan boy with all that stuff, where records are recorded, what they were using, I’ll go into a tangent later about it, but that Darkness On The Edge of Town documentary that came out a couple years ago, that was like heaven, because I didn’t know they had fucking footage.

The first place we worked besides my place and Shawn’s place is this other place called Boulevard. My friend Clay owns Boulevard on Hollywood Boulevard, and that used to be the Producer’s Workshop in the ’70s. They did parts of The Wall there. They did Aja there. It used to be connected to the mastering lab, which is where they mastered Rumours, and all these records in the ’70s. Now, the mastering lab is the Museum Of Death, which is pretty funny.

We did a lot of work over at EastWest, and we mixed a lot of it in their Studio Five. You can work there for 15 hours, and the assistants are some of the best assistants around. The work flow’s incredible. You never have to even think about where you are, because if you need a coffee someone gets it for you. Not on some rock star shit, but just more like, you get so much shit done. The focus is the work, and obviously having a studio bill helps that, because you’re in this great place, so you feel like you can’t be dicking around.

Foo Fighters had Studio A locked down for four months. Me and Shawn were working on an early version of “Holding On,” and I remember Grohl was outside our studio, and we were cranking. One of the assistants was like, ‘Oh yeah, Grohl’s outside having a smoke. He said it sounds sweet.’ I was like, ‘Oh, that’s why you come here. So that you can turn it up to 200 db and then you hear that some dude you love and respect says it sounds sweet.’ I was like, ‘Cool, I think it sounds sweet, too.’

When you decided to sign to Atlantic, was that the main draw for you, the opportunity to make a record like this where you’d have a bigger budget, and could work in those kinds of studios?

I think the biggest draw for me was that I had the freedom to make a record the way I wanted. The other half was, why not try a major label? We have a great A&R guy [Steve Ralbovsky] who’s been around for some pretty awesome stuff in his life, and I’m honored to be a part of that kind of conversation. There wasn’t anything that didn’t feel right about it. I didn’t really think that we were being forced to really give anything up. I just felt like so many things have happened to the band that I never even expected, and I want to experience different levels of this process.

I know from talking with you in the past that you love playing big spaces. Do you hope that being on a label like Atlantic can help facilitate moving onto that next level where The War On Drugs could play arenas someday?

I guess so, yeah. They definitely could kick it into gear, if they want. I think we’re in a good spot, because I’d feel strange if we were a band where this is our first record, and then we’re playing arenas with nine or ten songs in our catalogue. If there’s a song that gets pushed over the edge to where that many more people get into it, we could do a 16-minute “Under The Pressure.” That’s pretty sweet, you know?

When we last spoke in early 2014, before the release of Lost In The Dream, I had guessed incorrectly that the album was largely recorded live. I know you don’t like to work that way, though you’re even better at approximating that “live in the room” energy on A Deeper Understanding. Why do you prefer layering sounds rather than capturing the band actually playing together?

Every time you get everyone in the room it’s like you’re recording 28 things at once instead of just focusing on one sound. And then you’re like, ‘Oh, that was cool, but this guy had a really great take, [and] this guy didn’t.’ You always just end up with like something that’s cool, but never of a certain spirit. I just love twisting all these layers together and spending a year working [on it]. I mean, I don’t spend a year on it because I’m compelled to, I spend a year on it because I like it. That’s part of the fun for me. That’s part of getting to the mood of the music, or tying all the songs together into a record.

I approach the band — the live band in terms of six people — as the entity that will then go out and reinterpret the recorded music. I don’t really have any intentions of trying to get the live band in a room. I don’t really think that’s a very special thing that happens in the studio. We haven’t done that before. We’ve been more like the perfect combination of guys that have to reinterpret the recorded material.

You just talked about how you enjoyed making A Deeper Understanding, and it made me think about the making of Lost In The Dream, which by your own account was not an enjoyable experience. What was different this time?

When I say ‘fun,’ I mean making music is fun and uncovering those moments is fun. Having a small idea, working on it, maybe not recording it, and then one night just deciding to push record and then two hours later you have the bones of this new song and you’re like, ‘Oh man, I’m so happy I pushed record.’ That’s the most fun there is. I feel like with Lost In The Dream, I just wasn’t putting myself in positions of doing that. I’d taken myself out of the home studio vibe, and I was on a lot of other peoples’ schedules, coupled with my own inability to set any sort of structure for myself. I was just spiraling a lot.

This time, I just knew that I need to always be working. There’s always times — especially with this record, maybe even more than the others — where you’re really low and you just feel like you’re not making your best stuff, or that it’s not really coming out the way you think it should, or the big picture’s being missed. But what I learned this time, is that if you do it enough, you just get used to that feeling. I know that in six months, I’ll probably be somewhere else completely different with the record.

Lost In The Dream was informed by your anxiety and depression during the making of the record. A Deeper Understanding, lyrically and sonically, suggests that you’ve come out of a personal fog. And yet there are references to insomnia, paranoia, and dislocation throughout the songs. What sort of headspace were you in at the time of creating this music?

I feel like as we start performing the songs more, I get a better sense of where I was at. I think what I was trying to write about was just a certain isolation I was feeling. I wasn’t making music in the same house I had been making music in, and I didn’t get any sort of greater sense of success or accomplishment from whatever success [Lost In The Dream] gave the band. The only thing I really wanted to focus on was making even better music, that I felt was better for me.

I was just having a hard time knowing if I was on the right track, or if I really knew what I wanted to write about, or what my connection to music was. There’s things that are left over in your life that just because you’re making a record at a different time of your life, doesn’t mean that things that you have found comfort writing about in the past go away. I was just confused about living all the way on the other side of the country from my band, my family, and what I was hoping to gain from any sort of isolation that I was giving myself.

There’s things in my life that would pop up in the writing. Just about getting older and my relationship to music, and relationship to other choices in my life that I’ve decided to not pursue. As you get older, how are you a part of that other story that other people are starting live through? I remember when I started writing, that’s right when that River [boxed set] came out. I remember hearing all these interviews, and it was just Bruce writing about how he was 30, 29, 28 when he was writing that. I was nine years older, but it was just an inspiration. I was like, just write. Try to write songs about whatever it is you’re going through in your life. And what are other people going through in their lives?

In a lot of your songs, there’s this recurring theme where you’re chasing something that you can’t ever seem to reach. It’s there in some of my favorite War On Drugs tracks: “Black Water Falls,” “An Ocean Between The Waves,” as well as “Nothing To Find” and “You Don’t Have To Go” from the new record. What exactly are you chasing?

I’m not really sure. I feel like a lot of it is just to shed all the shit that can hold you back, and find a way to be the happiest version of yourself. That’s something I feel like doesn’t always come easy to me, and it starts to affect a lot of different levels of your life. The search for a sense of knowing who exactly you are — not necessarily what you’re here for, but just a greater sense of self. Just a life that is yours to live.

Because of the way you work — which is really this intense, obsessive search for the “right” sounds — it seems like you could theoretically work on the same album forever, just layering sounds on top of sounds. And yet A Deeper Understanding sounds spacious and a little less cluttered than your past records. I know you worked hard on it, but it doesn’t sound like you worked hard on it. Was achieving that sort of clarity a goal for you?

I was thinking about that recently, because I feel like as the band got a little better on the last tour, we started having moments in our set where there was a lot of space. Maybe it was one guitar thing I was playing that was echoing around the room. I feel like that was something that I hadn’t really had on any of the albums. It was like, there always had to be something. There always had to be a lot of fucking sound. I guess the idea of having more space and room in songs was appealing. I understood how to do it more. I wasn’t so concerned with needing to fill up every moment.

I know you like “Strangest Thing” — that’s what I mean, just thinking of space in the first two minutes of the song. It’s like milliseconds of silence with the kick drum, where there’s silence in where the kick drum falls, and all these little things that have to wind up in the right melodic way.

The kick drum sound is amazing in “Strangest Thing.” It reminds me of the kick-drum thump in “Something In The Night.” And that song builds so beautifully to that breathtaking guitar solo at the end. You know which solo I’m talking about? [hums second guitar solo from “Strangest Thing”]

[Laughs] That little solo, and the first one, it’s born out of spontaneity, then you keep refining it. When it comes to record it, you have a part, instead of just like, ‘Oh, this is where I step on the distortion and it’ll change every time.’ That and parts of “Pain,” it’s a little bit more composed than maybe just painting broadly with the guitar.

Guitar solos are obviously not fashionable right now, but they are crucial on this record. A lot of the emotional payoffs come from you stepping out of a song and just shredding.

All the best solos on the record, in my opinion, were parts where we were recording live and I didn’t think that I’d be keeping the live solos. And then, as time went on, I’d feel like, ‘Oh, that live guitar is actually really good.’ If I went back and overdubbed the “Thinking Of A Place” solo, I probably would’ve over-thought it, and there wouldn’t have been all those weird little off notes. I was just in that moment playing with [drummer] Charlie [Hall] and [bassist] Dave [Hartley], thinking that I was probably gonna overdub the guitar.

It almost seems bold to put out a record in 2017 with this many guitar solos. It certainly separates A Deeper Understanding from other albums, even rock albums.

I don’t know. I never think about the band’s relationship to other bands or, like, music culture. I know that there’s a thing with the band where there’s a level of guitar-ness. Whether or not I’m comfortable with that or whether I feel like I’m not playing the same solo every time I pick up a guitar, I’m aware that it’s a thing. But that’s cool. From my perspective, I want guitars on the record, because I want to become better and stretch outside whatever I’m used to doing. You want to grow.

You spoke earlier about searching for a greater sense of self. Do you feel like you understand yourself better now?

Yeah, I feel like I understand what I’m trying to say or what I’m going through.

Are you in a good place?

I’m in a much better place than I was in the second half of 2013, for sure. Originally, I was so overcome with fear, that it kind of got the best of me. But once I understood what that anxiety was and how to manage it, it made it that much more bearable. It wasn’t easy, and it’s not easy for anybody. I try to keep myself really occupied, and I stay on top of trying to stay focused. I’m not gonna say I’m happy or grounded, but I am staying on top of that.

A Deeper Understanding is out this Friday, 8/25 via Atlantic Records. Get it here or stream it for 24 hours via the band’s website.