How the War on Drugs' 'Dream' Became an Indie-Rock Reality

Frontman Adam Granduciel on the making of the band's rich third LP 'Lost in the Dream'

war on drugs
Dusdin Condren
War on Drugs
By |

Adam Granduciel just circled back to his Philadelphia home after a two-mile walk, which is fitting. The singer-guitarist's past decade can be charted in terms of minor journeys and major arcs. During that time, he's gained increasing acclaim as the face, voice and primary songwriter of ethereal indie-rockers the War on Drugs.

Spring 2014's 27 must-hear albums

The band's latest, Lost in the Dream (Secretly Canadian), out March 18th, finds Granduciel's ever-solidifying lineup (featuring bassist David Hartley and multi-instrumentalist Robbie Bennett) tugging looser on the fabric of heartland rock teased out on 2008's Wagonwheel Blues and 2011's Slave Ambient. Granduciel's vocals, with their Dylan-esque elocution and Lindsey Buckingham-worthy yen, have grown more robust with lyrical heft.

"I wanted to write songs people could connect with on another level," he tells Rolling Stone, still short of breath from his long trek. "Instead of just the sonic landscape stuff of earlier albums, I wanted them to hear songs that they heard a part of themselves in or felt was a natural progression."

While standout epic "Red Eyes" demonstrates the group's steadfast grip on Tom Petty's restless rhythms, "Ocean Between the Waves" surprisingly brings to mind U.K. roots-rock innovators Dire Straits, and a bit of Avalon-era Roxy Music can be heard in the New Romantic bass and piano of "Disappearing."

"I didn't want to do things like I used to," continues Granduciel, "which was work on stuff a lot in the studio, then take it back to my house and put a bunch of half-baked ideas on it. I wanted it to always sound like it was getting better and better."

Granduciel's pursuit of the perfect sound (though asserting he's merely "searching for that thing where the song really excites me") began as a 13-year-old in his hometown of Dover, Massachusetts. "The first time I played electric guitar was a life-defining moment," he recalls. "I was like, 'This is the coolest fucking thing I've ever done in my life.' I was hooked." 

Granduicel never took a lesson, nor played in any bands. But by junior high, he'd logged endless hours jamming in friends' basements and had already undertaken interest in the recording process. His adolescence was mostly spent discovering influences including Nick Drake and getting "really into playing guitar and learning new chords and new tunings." At 22, the lifelong East Coaster and his 8-track recorder sojourned to Oakland, California, in search of inspiration. Granduciel didn’t meet his musical soulmates out west, but he did secure nighttime server shifts at a bistro, freeing up his days to hone the finer points of composing and mechanical tinkering.

"California was when I started obsessing over stuff," he acknowledges. "[I was] working at the restaurant and spending 95 percent of my time working on recordings in my bedroom and then going to work all night thinking about what I was working on that morning. That's when I was sowing the seed."

In 2003, Granduciel headed back east to Philadelphia, and after meeting kindred spirit Kurt Vile, that germ of ambition evolved into both Vile's outfit the Violators and the War on Drugs. Shortly after WOD's 2008 debut, Wagonwheel Blues, Vile amicably departed to focus on solo endeavors. (They remain good friends, and Granduciel still tours with the Violators when he can.) The three-year gaps between subsequent LPs spoke mostly to the unexpected stress of compartmentalizing life as a full-time musician. 

"It didn’t feel at any point that I could sit back like, 'Oh, this is great,'" Granduciel says. "I don't know if it was that all of a sudden, for the first time in 20 years of having jobs, that I had all this free time and no schedule, or if this was the real deal. But while making the record, it was the first time in my life I felt without any direction and without a real sense of peace as to what I was doing."

Where the dubious luxury of time paid dividends was in mixing Dream. This was the first album where Granduciel could tinker without splitting his attention between the studio and waiting tables. And that’s why, in his view, it represents his most complete set of songs to date.

"I was waiting for the magic in each song to reveal itself," he says. "It was cool to work on all the songs together, because decisions I could make for one song would inform another. [I was] working on the whole piece instead of, 'Let's just check this song off.'"

But as with all journeys, Lost had to identify its destination. "There were certain songs where even the next day, I would hear something I'd wish we could tweak," he admits. "But I’d be like, 'I don't wanna mess with the magic we had at midnight last night.'" Plus, Granduciel knows there's plenty of mileage left on his career, even if it means scaling back. 

"I’d really love to make a record like [Neil Young's] Tonight’s the Night," he muses. "Find a sweet old house, put [in] some pinballs and pool tables, party all day, and then at night, record from 11 to 4. It should be fun to do this."

x