Sincerely Ambient: An Interview With The War On Drugs

Charles Ubaghs speaks to The War On Drugs' Adam Granduciel about his band's latest album Slave Ambient, musical lineages and why the new record might or might not be a 'drugs record'

Folk or roots music is one of those misunderstood terms that gets tossed around more easily and quickly then a jelly hand grenade with the pin pulled. The lazy, the bearded, the traditionalists and the Mumfords have, over the past few decades, narrowed folk’s remit down and turned it from a music of the present into an object of the past, one whose core benchmark now rests almost solely on the ability to replicate the sounds of past giants of the genre. It’s validation via death. It’s authenticity via trumped up pantomime. Instead of a machine for killing fascists, we now get a machine to enjoy a nice cup of tea while eating in the park with our new Cath Kidston picnic set.

True folk music knows its past but also lives in the very real present. Guthrie and Dylan understood this. True folk is also not limited by crippling notions of form or even genre staples like an acoustic guitar. Ween, who by playing at various points in their career the kind of gauche, AM radio, working class, bar band music you hear pumping from every car in middle America have proven themselves to be a folk band in its purest, most unromantic form. More obvious torchbearers of living, breathing folk include Wilco, Grizzly Bear, Kurt Vile and The War On Drugs.

The War On Drugs is a band from Philadelphia. First formed in 2005, the band initially consisted of leader Adam Granduciel and Kurt Vile, with various friends lending a hand where needed. 2008 saw the release of debut Wagonwheel Blues, a swirling fugue of a psychedelic roots record that took in everything from Springsteen, Dylan and Petty to Eno’s ambient works, Sonic Youth’s squall and a dash of NEU’s motorik groove. The result was an album filled with proper Americana that truly felt like it lived and breathed in the 21st century, instead of some beardy, check shirt adorned past.

Vile left the band post touring the album and Graduciel decided to join his friend as one of Vile’s Violators. It’s been a few years but Graduciel and The War on Drugs are back with a new line-up and a new LP, Slave Ambient. Picking up where Wagonwheel Blues left off, Slave Ambient once again dives into the vibrant present with a potent mix of staunch Americana overtones, layers of atonal loops and soft drones. It’s proved to be one of the year’s finer releases and a mighty, slightly stoned two fingers to the Mumfords of the world. the Quietus fired off a few questions via email to Graduciel to ask about how it came together.

It’s been a few years since your debut, Wagonwheel Blues. Why the wait?

Adam Granduciel: Well, lots of touring for myself with the Drugs and also with Kurt and the Violators, Dave [Hartley, current War on Drugs member] made the Nightlands record which he toured on, and also the recording was really intricate and time consuming and we really explored every possible option for a song and then some. I wasn’t too concerned with the timeframe though, because if you’re putting something out just to appease your fans, you’re really just shortchanging them if you don’t feel in your heart that it’s ready yet.   


Did you find yourself missing playing the War on Drugs songs during that time?

AG: Not really, no. I mean, I’d be thinking about my songs all the time and listening to demos or whatever, but it’s also important for me to play as much as I can and grow as a guitar player and travel, and take it all in. Taking so much time recording also gave me the ability to let the songs grow and develop their own identity as I and others grew musically.

Americana runs rampant through your music, which is something that lots of other bands have embraced over the years. Yet instead of trying to simply ape the classics, you seem hell bent on smudging its edges through ambience, tape loops etc. Why? What’s pushing you to do it? 

AG: I think the easiest answer is that I love writing songs, and I also love to just zone out, that’s really the best way to describe it. I love tinkering with my tape machine and making loops off the board and messing it up… Sometimes I’m not actually working on a specific song, just building sounds that can be shaped into songs later. Playing piano, maybe along to some drum loops I’ve made, picking out melodies, scribbling down some words, then I’ll continue to mess with the sounds more and eventually just write the song as it develops sonically, instead of just layering on top of a rather basic recording of it. I mean, I could’ve written ‘Come to the City’ with an acoustic but it would’ve sounded like John Mellencamp, which is fine because I love the ‘Cougs’, but I always try to push my recordings into a different territory.

Do you feel like people have problems when trying to place you on a musical shelf? You’re clearly in love with the likes of Dylan and Springsteen, yet you also clearly love Sonic Youth and the more experimental end of the musical spectrum.

AG: Yeah for sure… I guess the best place to file a Drugs record would be in a random part of the ‘rock/pop’ aisle, just slipped in behind something else — without its own section, just placed maybe near the Stones, ‘cause you’d also find Roxy Music there, and a bit further you’d find Neil Young and Simon/Garfunkel, and a bit before you’d be sifting through the Spectrum reissues… Just slipped in there for someone to innocently find.

Is Slave Ambient a drugs record, then? Are you hoping people will spend their time lighting up and zoning in and out of your music? It would mirror a lot of what you said above about how you go about writing and building your songs.

AG: Haha, well when I say a ‘Drugs record’ that’s my way of trying to turn this band into the Dead. Hopefully it catches on. But yeah, I mean it’s not the purpose of the record… You can definitely smoke a jay and zone out to it, but you can also sit on a blanket by a river and read, it works well like that too.

Do you think the mashing up of influences means you’re generally better received in Europe?

AG: Well I don’t know if that’s why but folks in the UK definitely have a fuckin’ rich history of contemporary rock music, so if they dig it, then I’m flattered. Also, i think it’s less of a mash-up and more of a pretty sincere songwriting and recording process. 

I don’t think there’s any doubt about the sincerity of your songwriting and the recording process, you can hear it on the album. But like you said, you’re trying to push your recordings into a different directions and those directions might be difficult for traditionalists who prefer to hear the classic (I’m talking about the Dylan, Young etc.) influences to accept. Are you ever concerned you’re making things harder for yourself than they might have to be?

AG: I’m not really too concerned with appeasing any sort of genre or fitting into a category. There will always be people who hear where it comes from and like where it’s taken… Others won’t. That’s fine. That’s art. I’m proud of the extent to which myself and the band take these songs, and the patience needed to arrive at something like this…


But if someone was to say that you take the old and make it sound new, would that be a fair assessment of your music?

AG: No because first of all I wouldn’t consider Desire or The River or other touchstones from the ‘70s old at all. That’s just lazy if people say that. Plus Dylan, the Boss, Petty… Those guys are still making records. They’re not dead and gone. They’re still relevant. I’m making music inspired by a lot of people but I’m making it in the 21st century with a different frame of reference.

What other influences creep into The War on Drugs? I’ve read you’re into photography but what about novelists or filmmakers? It’s hard to listen to your music and not assume you’ve read some of the big American novels.

AG: My favorite American author is Raymond Carver. He’s somebody I’ve enjoyed since high school. Also Don Delillo… But I’m more of a short story guy. Godfather II remains my favorite American film.

How are things with Kurt, are you guys still friendly?

AG: Yeah, of course. I just got off tour with him and the Violators. He played on a few Slave Ambient songs and I played on Smoke Ring. There was never, despite what lazy journalists have assumed, any sort of falling out or resentment.

Has your songwriting process changed at all since the line-up change?

AG: Not really… They were always my songs and at the end of the day my decision on how they would go, but I’d be nuts to say that someone like Kurt didn’t bring his own vibe to some of them. I think at the end of the day it’s just about surrounding yourself with people whose playing you trust and respect. Robbie and Dave didn’t play a ton on the first record, but what they contributed to Slave Ambient was totally irreplaceable and special.

Finally, and here’s the big existential question, what’s the aim? Why should we keep paying attention to you and The War on Drugs?

AG: I’m not begging! Haha, no, but you know, all I want to do is continue to keep growing as a writer, producer, engineer and growing within the band. Hopefully in 5 or 10 years we’ll still be making awesome music and testing our boundaries and enjoying ourselves as friends and players. Hopefully good music will prevail…

Slave Ambient is out now on Secretly Canadian

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