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.