Adam Granduciel of the War on Drugs on the band's history and Slave Ambient

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Graham Tolbert
The War On Drugs
The War On Drugs (due Sunday, October 30, at the hi-dive with Purling Hiss and Carter Tanton) started to take shape when Adam Granduciel moved back to the East Coast from Oakland to settle in Philadelphia. Once there, Granduciel began to play music with various people in the area, including Kurt Vile; Granduciel and Vile played in each other's projects, and sometimes Granduciel still tours with The Violators.

The mixture of pop songwriting and lush soundscaping has drawn immediate comparisons to multiple classic artists, but in the end, Granduciel has shed immediate influences from his core sound, and the band's latest release, Slave Ambient, would be difficult to distinctly classify much less pick apart looking for the musical roots of the songwriting. We recently had a chat with Granduciel about his history, his uneasy relationship with the band's visual representation and Slave Ambient.

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Maryanne Louise Doman
The War On Drugs

Westword: You moved from Philadelphia from Oakland?

Adam Granduciel: Yeah, I guess so, but I wasn't from Oakland, but I was living out there before I moved to Philly.

What took you to Oakland?

Nothing, really. I'd just never been to California, so I thought I'd move there. I flew out there and shipped some things out and lived there for about two and a half years. I didn't play music with anyone. I wasn't too concerned with that. Just played a lot in my house and did some recording and stuff. Back then it was still about learning.

Did you play music before you went to Oakland?

Yeah, I've been playing since I was twelve. I started guitar when I was like thirteen. I had a friend whose dad had an electric guitar. In sixth grade or seventh grade I went over and played it and immediately I was super excited by the whole thing. I used to go over there all the time and play. Then a couple of months later, maybe a year later, my dad bought me an electric guitar.

Within two or three years, I just started playing and jamming with friends. Just learning my favorite songs at the time. You know, like '90s rock stuff and classic rock. Probably I went through the entire Siamese Dream tablature -- I could play the entire record at one point. I learned Neil Young songs, Bob Dylan songs and older songs. It wasn't until I moved to Philly that I had aspirations to maybe forming a band. I mean, I'd been doing recordings for three or four years at that point.

I guess I just didn't know enough about the music scene. I wasn't really a part of it. It was kind of an insular kind of thing to me. So I was devoting a ton of time to it, just not on a professional level. I just feel in with a group friends and people who were part of that scene and that put me a little closer to meeting people and eventually playing out and share the music a little more.

What got you to move to Philadelphia?

Same kind of thing. I was in Oakland, and I was fairly young, and a friend came out to visit me and ended up staying for four months. We got a little restless, and we bought two one way tickets on Amtrak from Oakland to Harrisburg, PA, and we were kind of like, "Yeah, let's do it." We had a lot of friends back east. It was the kind of thing where I wasn't really committed to anything at the time in Oakland or super involved in any sort of scene.

I was a free spirit, doing whatever I wanted to do. So I just ended up checking Philadelphia out. Flash forward a few months, not having any money to go anywhere else, I lived in a tiny apartment with three other people, and a year later, you're playing with people and it ends up haphazardly like that. It opened a lot of doors for me.

When you moved to Philadelphia, did you meet Kurt Vile pretty quickly?

Yeah, it was like five months after I got there. He had been working on his own music for a couple of years as well. I met him through my roommate at the time, and we just started playing together and messing around and doing a lot of recordings together and realized we had a kind of common thread in what we liked to play and the music we liked. We fell into it together in a way. I could have met him in one of three places, but I think it was at my house. But it could have been at The Fire in Philadelphia, where I went to see him play. He had an early version of The Violators. I thought he was a great guitar player and a cool singer. Cool dude.

Do you still live in that old house with the big back yard?

Yeah, I'm still living there. I'd love to make enough money so I can move out of it. Maybe this interview will help me do that! We'll sell a million tickets in Denver. Ten years ago, it was a lot more dangerous than it is now. A lot of stuff getting knocked down and a lot of new stuff getting built. I moved up there about eight years ago. It was pretty ramshackle, but I never felt that unsafe. People call it Fishtown, but it's truly South Kensington. It's on the west side of Frankfurt Avenue.

It's a cool part of town. Everyone in the band actually lives in that part of Philadelphia; we all live within ten blocks of each other. To be honest with you, I first moved up there because I got this Trinity house for six hundred dollars of month. Me and two friends got a house together, and I lived there for about a year, and I moved up the street to the house I live in now.

Over the last five years, a lot of stuff has gone in there. That's where Johnny Brenda's is there -- it's getting to the point of being a famous rock club in Philly. The Fire is there, and we played a lot of our early shows there. It's a cool place. It's not that cool, but it's one of those older clubs. There's also some bars there that have kind of been taken over by the youth of the neighborhood. I love my experience living in that house and that neighborhood, but you also get to a point where you want more tranquility in your life than you get in the neighborhood I live in.

That's kind of the thing -- you kind of live in the dumps for a long time trying to just do your thing and hopefully you can move up to something a little more comfortable or a little more relaxing at least. I play it off like it's a shithole, but it's not truly a shithole. It's also the kind of thing where I owe so much back rent, so that I don't really pay rent anymore.

But at the same time, the landlord doesn't care. Well he cares, but he's not going to do anything about it. He's not going to fix the ceiling, and I'm not going to pay him. I've had a home studio there in some capacity and it's afforded me a certain freedom to do what I want to achieve.

For your new album, Slave Ambient, I saw all these comparisons to Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen, maybe vocally, but not really.

It doesn't. I agree, it's kind of lazy journalism, I think.

Do you use a lot of synthesizers on that record, or is it more of a keyboard thing?

Not a ton. I mean, I used a few. Mostly the same one. It's mostly string synthesizers -- modular, monophonic synthesizers. I definitely used a lot of keyboards and I did a lot of processing through synthesizers or synthesized kinds of things.

Some of background sounds and some of the tracks are straight ahead instrumentals with atmosphere. I think I read somewhere that you used a tape recording to create ambient sounds?

The instrumental stuff is kind of like a history of me working on a lot of the other songs on the record. The original versions of those songs were early mixes I would do where I was trying to figure the song out. Then they ended up having a special thing to them so when I was putting the record together, I included some of these random little mixes I did because it shows the chronology of the record.

Because they reference other songs in a way, and I thought it was important in tying the record together. Melodic themes happen that aren't obvious. There isn't one way those things are achieved. Some stuff was form a cassette, some were form ProTools, others were from a tape machine. Sometimes listening to the instrumentals there's a windswept sound.

There were some comparisons to My Bloody Valentine as well, and I didn't agree with that either.

A lot of that stuff is like...People hear an organ, and they assume it's Bruce Springsteen. They hear an electric guitar, and they're like, "My Bloody Valentine!" People like that don't even listen to music. That's fine. Not everyone who writes about you is going to be a fan of your music. It's not worth nitpicking. A lot of that stuff gets regurgitated, so it's like, "Did that person actually sit back and think, 'What does that song sound like?'" But that doesn't bother me.

People, I guess, relate to the music how they relate to it.

Exactly.

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