Eyes to the Wind:
The War On Drugs Dream a Little Dream
If you ever plan to expand your horizons westward, consider yourself obligated to visit one of the three branches of the California music emporium Amoeba Records. It’s a mandatory pilgrimage, a vinyl collector’s wet dream. Musicians of note often drop in to its Hollywood location, peruse the racks, drop some cash and discuss their purchases in a video series dubbed “What’s in my Bag?” (Past episodes feature Gary Numan, Joe Boyd, Bradford Cox and Paul Weller, and all are archived on amoeba.com).
The War on Drugs made an obligatory pitstop at Amoeba in 2012, the same year ?uestlove joined them on Jimmy Fallon’s soundstage for “Baby Missiles,” one of the best tracks on their fantastic 2011 outing Slave Ambient. Between bassist Dave Hartley, drummer Steven Urgo and singer, guitarist and songwriter Adam Granduciel, they made an impressive and eclectic haul: Carl Wilson, Bob Newhart, Liquid Liquid, the Jeremiah Johnson soundtrack, and an Harmonia LP perfect for walk-on music at their concerts.
Apart from the four Waterboys albums he scored, Granduciel made off with another long-coveted find: a copy of Simon and Garfunkel’s Old Friends collection for their tour van. “I’ve been looking for this for a long time,” he enthused, eyeing it lovingly. “What else can you say about them? They’re the best.”
Then again, that was two years ago. “I like Simon and Garfunkel, but I’m starting to not like it as much as I was when I bought that record at Amoeba,” Granduciel sighs at a Philadelphia café. As luck would have it, that’s exactly what’s playing as he digs into an avocado, soy-chicken and roasted mushroom salad. “It’s fine. It’s great. It’s classic. It just annoys me a little bit.”
These days, it’s a different side of Simon and Garfunkel Granduciel identifies with, specifically the incomprehensible studio tirade Art Garfunkel unleashed and that someone surreptitiously taped between takes sometime in the late ‘70s or early ‘80s. “He’s just sitting there talking into the microphone with reverb on it, talking about how he doesn’t like the song that they’re doing: ‘Distaste for the song is what I feel.’ He just keeps rambling about nothing. That’s the part of Simon and Garfunkel that I’m relating to right now. That one rant.”
It’s a miracle that Garfunkel’s engineer didn’t kick down the door to the vocal booth and beat the living shit out of him on the spot. (Granduciel plays it safe by supplying his own engineer whenever possible.) While he has yet to experience a meltdown of such a colossal scale, he does have his own inner Garfunkel to deal with. He is as much a rock as he is an island, and the War on Drugs, for the muso Granduciel, is a consuming passion. Just below the surface of the bright melodies and energetic rhythms in the sculpted guitar-pop perfection Granduciel so meticulously crafts, a steady current of unease pulsates. It’s apparent from the very beginning of the War on Drugs’ third full-length, Lost in the Dream (Secretly Canadian), on the moody opener “Under the Pressure,” when Granduciel speak-sings, like a young Dylan, of “hiding in the back, loosening my grip, just trying not to crack.” The song’s mounting tension breaks when the cacophony of piano chords, synths, guitars and dubs suddenly bottoms out, leaving the drums alone in their stark presence. Every enthusiastic “ha!,” every impassioned ”whew!” and every harmonica blast is undercut by a pinprick of angst.
“The first half of last year, I was freaking out about a lot of different things,” Granduciel remembers. “So I tried to construct a little bit of that paranoia, a little bit of that sadness.”
How best to cope with it? “Therapy,” he says. “I started seeing a therapist. I fuckin’ love it!” It’s a guarantee that the world be a better place if more people had their heads examined on a regular basis, and Granduciel finds badly needed perspective and clarity of purpose whenever he does.
“I feel like, for a long time, I just didn’t look inside at all,” admits Granduciel. “I think that’s kind of what the record is about – finally taking that journey to the inside.”
Appropriately, Lost in the Dream took a journey of its own when Granduciel shuttled the budding album and its players from his kitchen to Mitch Easter’s Fidelitorium. For a gearhead as committed as Granduciel, it may as well have been heaven.
“Anybody in the town knows that you’re there for the studio,“ he says. “They latch onto that pretty quick: ‘Oh, you’re here for Mitch? We love Mitch!’ Even in the feed stores. I’m obviously not there to buy chicken feed. I’m there to buy tonic water for my vodka.”
As anyone who’s ever recorded at the Fidelitorium knows, visiting bands have free reign over the place, and Granduciel discovered many thrilling treasures there. “I went up to this second-floor area looking for a microphone or something, and there was a bunch of two-inch tapes with ‘R.E.M.’ written on the sides. I was like, ‘You’ve gotta be shitting me!’” Unsurprisingly, he casts the same critical eye on other artists’ work that he does on his own. “Those drums, they’re awesome, but they’re so dated in that early-R.E.M. way,” he ponders. “I would just love to tighten up the drum sound a little bit.”
It’s been a while since anyone has come up with a decent power ballad, and “Red Eyes,” all rich, dark piano chords and ARP string synths, is the best one Bruce Springsteen never wrote. Best of all, it features Easter’s own Hagstrom 12-string.
“I asked the head engineer, ‘Do you think we could borrow one of Mitch’s Rickenbackers?’” Granduciel says. ”The next morning in the lounge, where I was sleeping on the couch, there was a note that said his Rickenbacker was in the shop, but I should try this Hagstrom. He must have crept in while I was sleeping, which is even creepier. It’s the nicest-sounding electric 12-string I’ve ever played.”
Like every other guitar he takes up, Granduciel makes that Hagstrom talk like nobody’s business. It doesn’t just talk, either – it shouts, it… it hollers. (He’s similarly adept at the slide guitar, Wurlitzer, Fender Rhodes and assorted other keyboards and noisemakers.) Granduciel, who’s blunt and matter-of-fact about pretty much everything, maintains tight control over every note of every song and makes no apologies for capricious decisions like pulling a track at the last minute and re-recording it, as he did with “An Ocean In Between the Waves.”
“Something about it was wrong and I needed to get to the heart of the matter,” he contemplates. “Everyone was like ‘Dude, you’re crazy. The record’s done! I was like, ‘Dude, you don’t know what you’re talking about. I’m the boss. Follow my lead.’ I knew exactly what I needed it to sound like from the first minute we re-recorded it. I’ve grown to trust this weird obsessive part of me that feels compelled to keep pushing songs.”
If one descriptor suits Granduciel and the War on Drugs to perfection, it’s obsessive, and he instills the most epic of trust in its players (who, at one time, included Kurt Vile; Granduciel conversely rode the freak train for four of Vile’s albums). Johnny Natchez, a childhood friend of Granduciel’s older brother who joined St. Vincent and David Byrne on their Love This Giant tour, brought mellifluous baritone sax to “Under the Pressure” and “Eyes to the Wind.”
“The musical performance aspect wasn’t difficult at all because I have such faith in my friends as players,” Granduciel explains. “It was mostly the journey of watching it grow, and then becoming anxious about it. That was the hard part.”
“Eyes to the Wind” manifested as an especially surprising and satisfying high-water mark. “I love it. Love that song! I can’t believe I wrote it,” Granduciel enthuses. “I woke up one morning and wrote the music to it in three minutes.”
The track illustrates the kinds of leaps of faith he’s more willing and able to take. “Without me consciously writing about it, I think that’s what a lot of the songs are about,” he says. “Getting a little bent out of shape all the time but trying to power through it some way.”
For all of its frayed nerves, tension and fluctuating moods, Lost in the Dream is a powerful batch of songs rooted in an all-American soul and a steel heart, and is sure to cement the War on Drugs’ rightful place in the canon of Nature’s most perfect bands. Thanks to Granduciel, it is, musically speaking anyway, always sunny in Philadelphia.
Photo by Dusdin Condren.