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Exit Interview

Exit Interview: The War on Drugs’ Frontman Adam Granduciel on Their Latest Album, Playing Live Again and That Time He Met Danzig

“I'm like, ‘Is that Danzig or is that the guy who's going to unlock our room?’ I didn't know. It was cool"
The War on Drugs
(Credit: Shawn Brackbill)

It’s certainly safe to say that 2021 was an unusual year for pretty much everyone. The rhythms of our new “normal” amid the pandemic began to feel more familiar, while the world itself remained in a state of incredible turmoil. For The War on Drugs frontman Adam Granduciel, 2021 felt especially unusual. After years and years of writing, recording, and refining, his group finally unveiled their long-anticipated fifth album I Don’t Live Here Anymore into a reality that little resembled the one that existed when they started the project.

The record itself is vintage War On Drugs. Massive guitar hooks meld into tidal waves of electronic synth sounds, all the while Granduciel’s voice floats in and out to wax poetic about the myriad changes life brings, and how you end up wherever it is you end up. For him, that could be a Bob Dylan concert, or perhaps a house set on Par 3 hole at a golf course as he alludes to on the final I Don’t Live Here Anymore cut, “Occasional Rain.”

Either way, it’s the kind of record that begs for repeated listening, if only for the exacting attention to detail that Granduciel and company demand throughout the recording process. It’s Gaucho-esque in its exactitude, and the whole 52-minute experience feels like a sonic ecosystem unlike anything else.

Recently, I had the chance to talk to Granduciel about the making of I Don’t Live Here Anymore. We also talked about The War on Drugs’ recent return to live performance, what he thought about the Beatles’ Get Back documentary, and also possibly running into Glenn Danzig during the band’s rehearsal sessions. But before we get to all that, Granduciel couldn’t help but notice a piece of concert artwork on my office wall…

The War on Drugs
(Credit: Shawn Brackbill)

Adam Granduciel: Sick Soundgarden poster.
SPIN: Oh, thanks! That was the Paramount in 2013.

Oh, Paramount in Seattle. Yeah, we played there. Cool. I first saw Soundgarden in ’94. It was one of my first concerts.
No shit? Really. Well, tell me about it. Let’s start there.
It was like the first leg of the Superunknown Tour. Tad was the opener. I’d been to shows, but I had never been to like that kind of rock concert, really. Like capital “R” Rock. Tad played, and then people kind of scatter a little bit. So, I went down to the floor. I was like, “Oh man, I got the best seats for Soundgarden, like standing 10 feet from the stage.” And then like, it started to get closer to the set time. I turned around and there was like a wall of people, all of a sudden. And then it started. They came, and the first song they played was,” Jesus Christ Pose.” Matt Cameron’s just going fucking nuts, and like strobes. And then it was just a mosh. I had never been to a show like that. I was just like in the front row center of like a Soundgarden show in ’94, and just got tossed around. And then I was like, it was kind of like when I played hockey. I was like, “I’m just going to go stand over here.” It was fucking awesome. I mean, it was still like one of the best fucking shows I’ve ever seen. It was awesome.

Fast-forwarding in time a bit, you put out a brand-new record this year I Don’t Live Here Anymore. Can you talk a bit about what that experience was like, and how your 2021 has been overall?
I mean, we finished it fairly early in the year. I mean it was like New Year came and we saw the finish line of the record. We did a lot of work between January and basically April. Early April, I think, we turned it in. And the rest of the year, up until release was just kind of being excited for it to come out. The band came out to L.A. A couple times. We did some kind of really intensive rehearsals, because we hadn’t seen each other in two years. We hadn’t really played music together in three, because we only did one show in 2019. All of 2019 was basically recording this record. So, we hadn’t played a show since December of ’18.

Wow! That’s a pretty big gap.
Well, we did one show in December ’19. So, it was just like kind of getting ready for this thing to come out, and kind of like putting the grease back on the amps and everything, and trying to remember how to like fall back into that zone that we had. Other than that, with music, it was just like obviously spending time at home with our kid.

So, when the band gets back together after so long apart, how long does it take to get the chemistry together?
They came out for the first time in July. None of this stuff on the record was like these six guys in the room. People in the band obviously played on the record a lot, but it wasn’t us as a live band set up, like writing together. It’s done in kind of a different way. So, we hadn’t performed any of this stuff as a band, as this band. The first day was a little rough, but by that evening, after we had some dinner and the sun went down — we’re in L.A. At SIR — it started like kind of gelling really quick. By day three, it was like gelling really quick. I would say by the end of that first trip, which is like 11 days of rehearsal, it was like, “Oh, man.” We passed the first three levels of this game. The next time they came out was end of September. By the end of that trip, it was like, “Oh man, we’re ready for a show.” You know? I mean, I would’ve thought that it takes a month of tour to really start gelling, but they were just out here again for promo. We did all the stuff. We played our first show. We did the Desert Daze Festival. And they were out here for about two weeks. We did rehearsals. And I was like, “We’re like as tight as we’ve arguably ever been.”

The War on Drugs
(Credit: Shawn Brackbill)

So, I know when you’re rehearsing in a place like SIR, you have a job to do. You’re trying to work out the kinks of this music. But do you ever pinch yourself, and go like, “Man, Neil Young recorded fucking Tonight’s the Night here.”
Dude, I mean, yeah. We were in Studio Three, I think. But Studio One is that room. Kamasi Washington was rehearsing in that room.

Come on. Seriously?
They had their doors open. So, every day we’re like walking back and forth from my car to our room, and just hear them blasting through that room. I’d poke my head in. It’s such legend to me and the guys. And I’d ask one of the guys there [at SIR], “Hey, do you know like where the hole is that they bashed in the wall for [Young’s infamous producer] David Briggs to run the cable?”

That’d be my first question, definitely.
It’s awesome. You’re at SIR for a week, and every day there’s somebody else that you grew up listening to in another room, you know? Like one day Weezer was in a room. I was like, “Oh man.” Danzig was in Studio Two for a day or two.

Was he singing Elvis tunes?
That was the funny part. I saw him in the parking sheet, but I wasn’t sure what room he was in, and I didn’t know what he looked like at this point. Basically, everybody that works at SIR could also kind of be Glenn Danzig, because everyone’s wearing black. So, I’m like, “Is that Danzig or is that the guy who’s going to unlock our room?” I didn’t know. It was cool.

How did that first Desert Daze show go?
It was awesome. I mean, it was super loose. Crowd was great. A beautiful night. We played a lot of new songs, and couldn’t have asked for a better first show back. One song on the record called “Victim,” it’s the kind of song where like, you could spend a whole touring cycle just trying to soundcheck it, and be like, “Oh, it’s not ready to play live.” You know?

You’ll never do it, because you’re too inside of how are you going to pull this off. I threw it on the set list at the last minute, to just do it. We had rehearsed it a bunch, but it wasn’t really coming together. I just threw it on the setlist that night, and it was like the best thing, because we just played it live. It was like the ultimate icebreaker. And then we played it the next night at this promo thing we did. And now we’re excited to play it again, and not like, “Oh, how are we going to work?”

Going back a bit, what would you say you learned about your band, yourself, and the process of performing live from the making of the Live Drugs record? What were some things that when you got the opportunity to start playing live again, that you wanted to enact in the set, or inject into your performance?
A lot of that stuff was basically taken from October of 2018, towards the end of that cycle. It wasn’t really until we started diving into the mixes that heavily, where I started realizing that I wanted to make the Live Drugs feel like not a depressing end to something, but that it was really something that the six of us had grown into this real peak of these two records [Lost in the Dream and A Deeper Understanding].

I think because we were putting it together in the face of the early pandemic, I did have that sense of that finality of it. But it was a comforting thing. Things were getting canceled. And I was like, “Oh, yeah.” So this six-piece band two years ago, this is like an exclamation point on all those things we did. This was like our band at this time. So, then you can put an exclamation point on it, and move onto the next thing. Move on to this record and how we choose to interpret these songs, and who we bring into our community from now moving forward. Opening a new chapter, you know?

Well, in the next chapter you’re playing freaking Madison Square Garden. Have you ever seen a show at Madison Square Garden? What does that mean for you to play at that place?
I mean, most recently I saw Clapton there, because one of our techs, techs for Doyle Bramhall. So, he was like, “Oh, you should come to MSG.” This is like early 2018, maybe. I haven’t been there that many times, honestly. I might have seen R.E.M. there, in the ‘90s. But it also might have been Philly. But obviously, regardless, I mean, I just watched that No Nukes show, the Springsteen thing. And like, obviously it’s like the most iconic place to play a show or to have an event, you know what I mean?

All my favorite bootlegs were recorded at Madison Square Garden, sure.
So, when it was like, “We’re going to do a show there,” it was like, “Wow, that’s something special.” I know. I mean, it’s cheesy to say, but it’s true. You do pinch yourself. These things happen fast.

The War on Drugs
(Credit: Shawn Brackbill)

Have you watched the Beatles’ Get Back documentary yet?
Dude. It’s mind-blowing.

I was looking forward to that for a while. When we played the O2, at the end of 2018, my A&R guy, Steve, from Atlantic, brought his friend backstage who runs Apple Records. And he was like, “Yeah, Peter Jackson’s making a documentary.” He was like, “There’s like all 60 hours of footage.” I was like, “Is this guy fucking with me? That sounds like some hyperbole or something.” Then when I finally saw it last week…the fact that it was like no talking heads, no anime. It was just the footage, and the editing, and like the brilliant way of sometimes doing like the screen-in-screen stuff. Hearing those conversations with George, or with John and Paul, when they hid the mic in the plant, hearing a candid conversation between those two, I mean, I could talk about it for hours, but John, I think, was the biggest revelation for me.

One thing that film captures so beautifully is just the mundanity of sitting in a rehearsal room, just waiting. Like that “Get Back” part where Paul is just messing around on bass, waiting for inspiration to strike. And then it does, and everyone clicks in. Have you ever had moments like that?
Yeah. When you’re in the studio, and you’re starting down some road, and you’re like, “We’re not really going where I thought we were going on this.” Then six, seven hours later, you crack into something else that you didn’t expect, because of how you’re set up. One thing informs the next thing. And then it just happens, you know? You’ve been working on a song for months, and you’re like, “It needs a chorus.” And in that very moment, you write the chorus, without even thinking. That’s happened a few times. When you’re in that room, with that energy and the five people are there, it just falls into place.

I wasn’t planning to ask you specific song questions about the record, but “I Don’t Wanna Wait” is my favorite track, and I’m genuinely really curious how it came together.
That one I wrote on a piano. I had bits and pieces of it. I had the chorus, melody, the vocal melody, and the vocal; the words. I had like the mood of the intro. We got together, myself, [bassist] Dave [Hartley], and [guitarist] Anthony [LaMarca], about a month later when we started to record this record in upstate New York. We sat in a circle, and I showed them that. About an hour later, they had basically helped me work out like the first half of the song. We had done the whole song. We spent a couple days overdubbing. We had all these cool synth tones, and it was really cool. Anthony had come up with that really great drum hook, like all those drum fills and with the open high-hat. I was like, “Oh, there’s a really cool song here.” But I was like, “Something’s not right with it. And I went home and I worked on it the whole year.

Were there any other tracks where you stumbled into happy accidents like that?
There’s always great things like that. Like, at Electric Lady [Studios] in New York, our first day, we were there. We were trying to make some tape loops. [Co-Producer] Shawn [Everett] wanted to make tape loops for “Victim.” And then [Radiohead producer] Nigel Godrich walked in, because my good friend Mike Block, who plays guitar all over the record, he’s friends with Mike.

So, Nigel was in town. He stopped by Electric Lady to see Mike. I had never met Nigel, but we had our mutual friend Mike in common. So, it was like seeing a friend, and we were chatting briefly. And Shawn is obviously a huge fan of Nigel. He’s the legend. I think we said, “Oh yeah, we’re trying to do some tape loops.” And [Nigel] said something to the effect of like, “Oh, you can’t do them on that machine, that Studer machine.” And it was almost like a challenge, you know what I mean? I think Shawn took it as a challenge, because we spent about six hours trying to figure out. You basically have to trick the machine into thinking it’s not broken, you know? Because those machines are made so that if the motor thinks it’s fucked, it’ll shut down.

So, Shawn figured out a way to do it, six, seven hours later. And we were making these awesome like 30-foot tape loops for “Victim,” that ended up like as a drum track. A lot of these things that are happening are all just from this one tape loop. But it was cool. Obviously, it wasn’t like an antagonizing thing. Shawn was like, “No, I think you can do it, if you just trick the machine.” And so, we figured out a way to kind of do it, and it turned out to be something about that song that made it what it was; this hypnotic kind of like this off little loop.

So, you have this record in the can. You’re about to go out on tour. How long before you start writing new music? Or have you already started writing new music? Or is that something where you’re just like, “I can’t even think about that right now?”
I honestly can’t even think about it. Sometimes I worry. I’m like, I haven’t really written anything. But, it’s just not there yet. It’s like, I’m just processing. I’d never want to rush it. And I like to be overly prepared, but I feel like when I feel inspired to start writing, then I will. I’m trying to put together this new kind of, not like a pro studio, but a place I can finally have all my equipment, and the band can rehearse, and we can maybe feel like a clubhouse. Like we can get together, and work here for a week, and write material, and jam, and record everything, and be on our own clock. This record, it’s our fifth record. I’m going to make another one. I don’t know when I’ll make it, or what it’ll sound like.

I guess my last question is, what are you most excited for, looking forward going into in 2022?
I mean, honestly, touring. It’s got to be the main thing. I mean, just to be out there playing every night, doing the thing that we do. Everyone’s got really used to being at home, which we love. It’s been a blessing. But we just can’t wait to just get out there and do this thing that we love to do. We’re good at kind of the traveling, and the hanging out, and the getting better and being inspired. But that’s, I mean, touring and trying to also savor the moments where I’m home, where I get to see my son grow up, and hopefully he can come out and be on the road with us in some capacity. And to connect with old friends, outside, of course. We’ve got to keep our bubble going.

When we were rehearsing for Desert Daze, we rehearsed the set at one point. We were like, “All right, let’s just do the 80-minute set.” We were fucking exhausted after it. And you kind of forget. When you tour, or when you’re doing it all the time, you play two and a half hours, and you don’t even think about it. You come off stage, you’re like, “Oh, that was awesome.” And you’re tired, but you don’t think about being tired. We did what is normally a short set for us, and we were whooped. And I was like, “All right, we’ve got to get our fucking endurance back.” It’s tough. You know, you’re singing up there, you’re moving. It’s like, we’ve been kind of sitting around for two and a half years, three years. So, that takes some getting used to. But it’s like anything, the muscle comes back pretty quick.