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The War on Drugs Uncover the Infinite

Frontman Adam Granduciel talks fatherhood, finding a new home base on the West Coast, and his new album, ‘I Don’t Live Here Anymore’

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Adam Granduciel used to rent a 1,300-square-foot former science classroom in a school in South Philadelphia that was repurposed into a mixed-use building. Before that he lived and worked out of a run-down three-story house in the city’s South Kensington neighborhood that he shared with a shifting group of roommates and a collection of cats. In these spaces, his group the War on Drugs could jam and experiment as they, unexpectedly, became one of the biggest, most respected rock bands in the United States. But it’s been a while since Granduciel lived in Philadelphia.

In 2015, he moved to Los Angeles, and it wasn’t until this past March that he found a spot in Burbank that he decided might be the right place to turn into a new headquarters. To start, he hired this musician-carpenter he kind of knew to paint the building and install air conditioning. Three weeks later, he realized the guy had basically taken it upon himself to demolish the entire interior. Granduciel found himself in the middle of a warehouse renovation that he wasn’t prepared for. Then the work dragged on for months. “I can’t even start talking about it without my blood pressure going up,” Granduciel says, looking out the building’s front windows.

L.A. is filled with storied recording studios like EastWest, United, Sunset Sound, Sound City, and the recently closed Vox. Granduciel, 42, has logged long hours inside many of them. For him, one of the charms of living in Southern California is all the old-school technicians who are still kicking around. He’s become friends with Charlie Bolois, who’s known as the go-to repairman for Studer tape machines and built home studios for legends like Tom Petty and Jeff Lynne back in the day. “I just love that about L.A., it’s like, you’re never without expertise,” Granduciel says. “So of course I find the one guy that’s never worked at a fucking studio in his life. It’s fucking backwards. Built it right by the fucking airport. But what are you going to do?”

The Burbank space is finally usable, but not fully operational. It’s currently filled with colorful rugs and tapestries, giant flight cases stenciled with his band’s name, and a framed R.E.M. poster from the 1980s. Eventually, Granduciel hopes to utilize it for writing and demoing new music. Earlier on this September day, an electrician got everything ready for the arrival of more than a dozen people who were about to fly in so they could start preparing for the release of the War on Drugs’ fifth studio album, I Don’t Live Here Anymore, and subsequent tour. The record is the group’s first collection of new songs since 2017’s A Deeper Understanding. That album, the group’s first for Atlantic Records, broke the top 10 of the Billboard 200 chart and won a Grammy for Best Rock Album, beating acts including Metallica and Queens of the Stone Age.

Like the War on Drugs’ previous work, I Don’t Live Here Anymore is constructed with a reverence to the glossy moments of rock ’n’ roll’s past while staying a little frayed around the edges. The passage of time has always been of interest to Granduciel, and I Don’t Live Here Anymore feels especially fixated on remembering, returning, and thinking back to what once was. Or more accurately, it feels fixated on misremembering relationships, returning to lost moments, and thinking about how everything fades and we eventually become unrecognizable to those who made us who we are. The War on Drugs specialize in a hazy nostalgia. Is Granduciel singing about decades ago? Last year? Last month? It’s unclear. What’s important is the heartaches and transitions you must go through to become a new person. Though there are certain words that Granduciel often returns to in his lyrics (river, rain, pain), the most important one might be change.

The band recorded much of I Don’t Live Here Anymore, out Friday, at professional studios in Los Angeles and New York before the pandemic. Even before lockdown, logistics often got complicated since the six current members are spread around the country. Granduciel and saxophonist John Natchez live in L.A.’s San Fernando Valley; bassist Dave Hartley, who’s been with Granduciel almost since the band’s very beginning in 2005, is in Asheville, North Carolina; guitarist Anthony LaMarca is in Youngstown, Ohio; drummer Charlie Hall remained in Philadelphia; while keyboardist Robbie Bennett is in South Jersey.

This current lineup solidified around 2014 during the tour for the breakout album Lost in the Dream, but Granduciel has always been the gravitational center of the War on Drugs. Still, he’s not looking for his bandmates to simply execute his vision. “While it is ultimately Adam’s thing, in the studio it’s a good feeling of collaboration,” LaMarca says. “If Adam has you come play on a record, he’s not going to be like, ‘Here’s this part, here’s what I want you to do.’ It’s usually, ‘Cool, go do your thing.’ He wants you to do what only you can do.”

LaMarca describes himself as having a “supportive role in the group” and says he’s under no illusion that he should be the guy ripping guitar solos on stage. All of the other members maintain their own bands or music-related endeavors. That said, being in the War on Drugs has influenced these separate projects. “You spend enough time playing with anybody, their musical sensibilities rub off on you,” LaMarca says. “I’m not somebody who’s naturally like, ‘Turn the amp all the way up,’ but every once in a while I’m like, ‘No, turn the amp all the way up. See what happens.’ That’s something I’ve gotten from Adam, maybe let the wheels fall off a little bit and see where that takes you.”

Further separated during the pandemic, the members of the War on Drugs could work on the material individually in their various home studios. “There’s something to be said for sending something to somebody and giving them the time to explore the song on their own,” Granduciel says. “What’s better, having somebody fly out and having 20 minutes to play something in front of a $20,000 microphone or sending them something and giving them a week to play it in front of a $100 microphone?”

As much reverence Granduciel has for those classic studios and the classic albums that were made inside of them, he also thinks that they have limitations besides the cost of booking. “Sometimes you go to the big places and they’re good for accommodating six, seven people at a time,” he says. “Everyone’s headphones work and the mics work and you can record 60 channels at once, but they’re not the best for, like, a deep flow.”

It is this deep flow, a feeling that Granduciel himself finds difficult to articulate, that he is searching for when recording albums. Though he’s gained a reputation over the years as a studio obsessive, he’s not a perfectionist. He won’t subject a player to hundreds of takes in order to get what he hears in his head out of someone else’s body, and sometimes he’ll end up using his initial scratch vocals of a song, even after rerecording them many times over. His obsession is in finding the artistic possibilities: exploring all the tones and opening and shutting every single door. It’s a potentially unending process of uncovering. Maybe Granduciel inadvertently best described his method in a line from “Taking the Farm,” a song off the group’s 2008 debut: “digging for diamonds at the bottom of the sea.”

“He’s known for his, like, dad-rock driving anthems and his guitar solos and road imagery and stuff like that, but his real special power is his process and actual abandonment of norms,” says Ben Swanson, cofounder of Secretly Canadian, the Bloomington, Indiana–based indie label that released the first three War on Drugs albums.

Granduciel found a coconspirator in Shawn Everett, who mixed A Deeper Understanding and is Granduciel’s coproducer on I Don’t Live Here Anymore. Granduciel sought him out after reading about the “extreme studio techniques” Everett says he used as the engineer on Alabama Shakes’ 2015 album Sound & Color, which earned Everett a Grammy. Everett was already a fan of the War on Drugs before the two first met for breakfast and says he still considers 2014’s “Red Eyes” one of the best rock songs of the past 30 years.

Beyond the mutual respect, the two share a philosophical approach toward making music. “There’s an infinite amount of ideas hanging out around us in the world,” Everett says. “For us to narrow it down to being one idea that you have to stay on is kind of a bummer. There’s so many ways we could cook this. If we tried 30 or 40 of them, we maybe could find something that truly is spectacular as opposed to just being, like, good.”

To try to explain how his pursuit of a deep flow manifests itself, Granduciel describes the process of making “Old Skin,” a track on the new album that blossoms from broken-down ballad to defiant call for renewal. “I loved that song, but I knew that the version we had going was, like, so fucking boring,” he says. “I made a demo earlier that year of it, and it sounded like Jesus and Mary Chain. It was really cool. It was really scrappy.” He had the band flesh it out and was convinced that something was there, he just needed to find a way to unlock the unknown dimensions within it. In the meantime, they worked on the drums that originally ran through it for about a year. Then one day, he and Everett were at Studio B in Sound City, the same room where Neil Young made After the Gold Rush. They put “Old Skin” up on the big mixing console and started muting parts, eliminating everything Granduciel didn’t like about it, which was basically everything. Then the right arrangement revealed itself to him. He added a piano and didn’t have the drums kick in until halfway through, and the ideas came to him quickly until the song soon arrived at its final form.

Granduciel admits that it can be “kind of defeating” to discard material that they’ve spent so much time working on, but he recognizes that it is crucial to his process of creative discovery. Everett compares their approach to what astronomers do. “You could spend the rest of your career looking at one inch of the sky and you’d just be finding things forever,” he says. “I felt [I Don’t Live Here Anymore] was a little bit like that. Let’s look at this galaxy even closer. And this time, we found some planets or something.”

Granduciel was raised in Dover, Massachusetts, a wealthy town west of Boston. Granduciel’s given last name is Granofsky; his adopted stage name comes from a translation that his French teacher made as a joke, breaking down its syllables: “Gran-of-sky” to “Gran-du-ciel.” For high school, he graduated from the nearby Roxbuy Latin, a private, nearly 400-year-old institution that typically serves as a feeder to the Ivy Leagues and that his father also attended. Granduciel struggled academically and spent hours in his room teaching himself to play guitar. He went to Dickinson, a small liberal arts college in Pennsylvania, where he studied art history and developed a love of photography, particularly Polaroids. But even the office jobs that might have been open to him didn’t seem appealing. “If you’re artistic where I’m from in Massachusetts, maybe you go into advertising,” he says.

After college, he lived in Oakland for a year without much of a plan before heading to Philadelphia. At the massive rug maker and seller Woven Legends, he worked the phones all day, selling wholesale. Then he got a job at University City Housing, a real estate company that specializes in renting and maintaining off-campus options for students. At the end of the school year he would scavenge bikes, P.A. systems, and all sorts of stuff the tenants left behind. More importantly, he started befriending other musicians kicking around the city. He became close with Kurt Vile, another long-haired songwriter with a distinctive guitar-playing approach and an appreciation for denim jackets. Granduciel became a member of his band, the Violators, and Vile played in the early, evolving lineups of the War on Drugs. For shows it might be a full band, or just Granduciel and Vile and a sampler, or the two of them, the sampler, and Hartley banging on a floor tom.

Though it may have seemed scrappy and hopeless to outsiders, Granduciel felt like he was finally living the life he wanted to. “I was looking through all these old hard drives, like pre-phone, to see how many digital photos actually backed up,” he says. “I maybe have, like, 50 photos from between 2003 and 2009. All these photos I’ve been looking at, it’s pictures of me and Kurt playing in my room, or our little recording setup, or us playing a show at the Khyber [Pass Pub] or something. I just remember being so happy to just be creative. It wasn’t like I was fucking young either. I was in my mid-20s. I had responsibilities and everything, but it was the first time that I felt like I was being artistic.”

When he recorded his songs “Arms like Boulders” and “Taking the Farm” at a friend’s studio, it wasn’t with the intention of getting signed, he just wanted to have the experience of recording songs he wrote. He professes he was clueless about record labels and indie culture in general. “I wouldn’t [have] even known who to send them to if I even wanted to,” Granduciel says.

Jason McNeely, a coworker at UCH, did know. A member of the band Windsor for the Derby, which put music out on Secretly Canadian, he passed some War on Drugs music to Ben Swanson. The short collection, which was later released as the Barrel of Batteries EP, wormed its way into constant rotation on Swanson’s car stereo. “In some ways [Granduciel] was a little bit, or maybe a lot, half-baked, but showed a lot of promise,” Swanson says. “Through the fuzz you could kind of see directionally which way he was going with it. And that was really exciting to me.”

Ahead of the June 2008 release of the band’s debut album, Wagonwheel Blues, Swanson burned 200 CD-R copies and passed them out to concert promoters and other people he thought might be receptive during that spring’s South by Southwest music conference. “I’ve never done that before, and I’ve never done it since,” he says.

Wagonwheel Blues amassed a minor following of enthusiastic fans, but was largely ignored. Swanson recalls that after the band played a show in Bloomington toward the end of the album’s touring cycle, he was talking to Granduciel in his kitchen. Granduciel had been doing some shifts at a friend’s coffee shop and said that he was considering the overtures that had been made to sell the shop to him. He continued on with music and recorded 2011’s Slave Ambient, the first of the group’s albums to receive the vocal critical adoration that has since followed them. “The end of making that record was where it started feeling like not that it was a career, but that I had a little bit more responsibility on me to decide how seriously I was going to take it,” Granduciel says.

In the lore around Lost in the Dream, the making of the album is portrayed as torturous. In a story for Pitchfork from that time, there are descriptions of periods when Granduciel was nearly reclusive, immobilized by depression (which he says he’s long contended with), paranoia, and panic attacks. As an indication of his emotional state, these are the album’s gerund song titles: “Suffering,” “Disappearing” and “Burning.” Despite the difficulty in recording Lost in the Dream, it was obvious to everyone how good it was. It’s somber yet soulful, with moments of cathartic release, and it felt like Granduciel had finally grasped the sound he’d been chasing. The band toured for two years in support of it, returning to the same cities to play bigger and bigger venues on each visit. “If we had time off, it became assumed, don’t count on that actually being off,” says LaMarca. “We might book another tour, because we can.”

For the follow-up, A Deeper Understanding, the War on Drugs signed with Atlantic Records through Steve Ralbovsky, the A&R known for his work with acts including the Strokes, Kings of Leon, and My Morning Jacket. They’d become further anointed by the mainstream music industry (in 2015, Jimmy Iovine notoriously told Billboard, “[T]hey should be gigantic”). But the group’s fans weren’t just aging rock lifers holding onto their guitar straps with dear life. Most of the songs from Lost in the Dream and A Deeper Understanding have streaming numbers in the eight digits. Even as Coachella and other music festivals deemphasized traditional bands, the War on Drugs’ name only got bigger on the posters.

The making of I Don’t Live Here Anymore may not have been as excruciating or debilitating as previous efforts, but it wasn’t without its struggles. “Certain songs, I’m always chasing something,” Granduciel says. “None of them come easy.”

“It’s agonizing, but that does not mean it’s not fun,” Everett says of the yearslong process of recording a War on Drugs album. “If you’re trying to make something you both really love, it can be kind of agonizing, just because you’re trying to break something open that doesn’t necessarily want to be broken open. So you just keep hammering at it, and maybe that could make you go insane, but if both parties are into the idea of possibly going a little bit insane to get something to crack open, then it’s fine, because you’re both on the same page.”

The War on Drugs’ albums are usually compared to the music that rock stars whose careers survived (and who survived survived) the 1970s made once they reached the ’80s. It was when the synths came in and the sonics turned crystalline. Bruce Springsteen, Dire Straits, Don Henley, and Tom Petty are often evoked. Granduciel was just a kid during that decade and music was rarely part of his home life. “I didn’t grow up with MTV, so I heard those songs in passing,” he says. “I don’t remember watching the videos over and over. I remember hearing them in the ether, or something.”

Granduciel has never shied away or pushed back on these comparisons. The most consistent name that gets tied to his music is Bob Dylan, most likely because of the prenatural weariness in his voice. On I Don’t Live Here Anymore’s title track, Granduciel fully leans into the comparison to the point that Rolling Stone called it, “Dylan fan-fiction.” He quotes and makes allusions to songs including “Shelter from the Storm” and “It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding).” As he reminisces over a failed love affair he even makes an overt reference to old weirdo himself on the lines, “Like when we went to see Bob Dylan / We danced to ‘Desolation Row.’” (This low-key may be the funniest War on Drugs lyric of all time, considering that “Desolation Row” is an 11-minute track with 10 verses that begins with the words, “They’re selling postcards of the hanging.”)

Dylan is also known for exploring the possibilities within his songs, constantly reinventing them during concerts to the point that they’re sometimes unrecognizable to fans. The War on Drugs don’t usually push the limits of their compositions in the live setting. Not that Granduciel hasn’t contemplated it. “Sometimes on tour, we’re in sound check and I’m always trying to get the guys to think outside the box,” he says. “You want them to be Bob Dylan’s band, but the reality is I don’t know how to take it somewhere else either.”

He also realizes that people come to War on Drugs concerts with far different expectations. “Dylan, there’s no guitar solo you want to hear,” Granduciel says. “He could play ‘Desolation Row’ a million ways, as long as you get your line, as long as you can sing along in some capacity. When you hear him play the harmonica, it’s like, ‘Oh, there’s the guy doing the thing.’ The way that they come to see us, if I play the solo from ‘Thinking of a Place’ or, like, John’s sax in ‘[Eyes to the] Wind,’ they want to see that. That’s cool. I’m fine with that.”

Granduciel began reconsidering whether to do as much touring after his partner, the actress Krysten Ritter, gave birth to their son in the summer of 2019. They named him Bruce, partially after Springsteen, partially because they wanted a name you don’t hear much anymore, and partially because he was such a big newborn. “All the nurses were like, ‘Oh my God, he’s such a bruiser,’” says Granduciel.

Much of I Don’t Live Here Anymore is influenced by the feelings that come from being a new father and Granduciel’s changing perspective on his relationship with his own dad, who’s now in his late 80s and has embraced his son’s music career after long not understanding it. Granduciel didn’t even know if he liked children until he had one himself, but now it’s illuminated a perspective on life that was once buried in darkness. “Having that really strong foundation now in my life with having a kid, it’s not like you don’t have time to think about, like, existential dread, but it doesn’t weigh as heavy,” says Granduciel. “You have this beautiful thing.”

In the closing verse from “Change” on the new album, Granduciel sings, “Maybe I was born too late for this lonely freedom fight / Maybe I was born in the wrong way / Maybe born on the wrong day.” Though his music is often compared to artifacts from the past, he says he doesn’t feel like he’s living in the wrong era. He does offer that there is a feeling of displacement that runs through some of his songs, but he’s not even sure that’s the right word for it. “Just the idea of feeling fairly alone and maybe curious,” he says.

Now that he’s older, a man with a family and a far more successful musician than he could have ever imagined during those early days in Philadelphia, does he still feel alone? “Sometimes, and sometimes no,” he answers. “You go through your whole life without ever really figuring it out.”

Eric Ducker is a writer and editor in Los Angeles.

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