The War on Drugs' Adam Granduciel writes, then rewrites. He records, then deletes, destructing and reconstructing the empyrean Americana of his songs until they arrive at their proper architecture. For two years, Granduciel and the Philadelphia-based band worked on their third full-length, Lost in the Dream. Some songs were scrapped and redone two weeks before the album was due to the label, Secretly Canadian. Levels of sanity were up and down. Prolonged touring coupled with the end of a long-term relationship left Granduciel disconnected. Lyrics reflect isolation and anguish. Sonically, production on the album is pristine, sifting the sounds through an analog hourglass of tape echo. Vocally, Granduciel sings in tones of an astral Dylan, or Joe Walsh, with vocals being a product of the song. Guitars are layered, rising slowly out of sections like a waning crescent moon over the molars of the Cascade Range. Crisp licks are tagged, then effects pedals spread them out by osmosis into the lilac marble curve of an early evening sky. Should be nice floating over 10th and Pike. Granduciel spoke from Brooklyn, where he'd been helping his manager move and taking it easy for a few days.
Are you a sightseer?
Hell no. I like long walks and guitar stores. I did spend a day in Chelsea going to the galleries, and it was awesome. I'll do sightseeing stuff if it's with the right person. Mostly, it's walks and guitar shops for me, though. I'm enjoying this downtime and trying to look at my life in a different way right now.
Did you pick up any guitar toys?
No. I blew a speaker in my Vibratone and had to take it in to get fixed. There was a guitar I wanted to get, but it would have been super super irresponsible. A '66 Firebird just like the one I already have, but with mini-humbuckers in it. And it was really light. There was also this '71 Marshall 100-watt Super Lead.
You should go back to the store and get them both.
I know. Dude, I know.
Your guitar sound can be this big, distant, diffused thing with layers. I know it varies from song to song as you paint along, but how do you get to your sound? Are you exact in the science of it?
I wouldn't say I'm exact. I always try to have fun with it. I never think about what I'm trying to go for and I like to change it up. Takes are shaped by a mood—whatever I'm messing with at the moment. It might be a Jazzmaster through an AC-30 with this new chorus pedal I got. Sometimes, you know, it just sounds good. I'll arrive at a cool sound and then realize it'll sound cool on the bridge of a song, like "Under the Pressure." I try not to overthink things; I just try to go for it and play in the way that I play. I don't really write parts. I'll play along to the song, add something, then do another take. I love recording so much. I'm not consciously painting with guitar, but I'm doing a lot of different takes over the course of a number of months. I love hearing the song evolve. Sounds inform each other.
Live, I don't try to emulate the sounds on the record. I play with a pedal board and three amps. I did it one way on the record, and it arrived at a place, then I don't copy that—I reinterpret all those different parts live with one part. It's always evolving. It gives me room to play and experiment. There's not really so much thought as to why, I just try to keep my sounds and tones sounding fresh to me.
You're the opposite of the Edge from U2. I think he programs effects and settings for each song. So he just steps on a pedal or touches a button, and 30 presets are there.
That's exactly what I'm talking about. Now I'm surrounded by people, and everyone's trying to get me to get some true-bypass switcher where you can preset every song. I'm like, I don't think you understand, because you're a that-side-brained person. Part of it, for me, is not having it sound the same every time. Depending on where I am, or the sound of the room, or the stage, I don't want to hit the fuzz for that solo every time. Maybe I want to put a flanger on it. I have this pedal board at my feet, and I know it sounds cheesy, but my Les Paul and my Firebird and my pedals are an extension of me. I mean, the Edge is sweet, I love the Edge. But when you get involved in that whole world of trying to streamline everything, you start to lose a little inspiration. If I had the same fuckin' preset for "Ocean" every night, it would be the same thing every show. I'd hit one button, and seven pedals would turn on. But I'll be sort of dancing around, and step on the wrong pedal, and have to roll with it. I like those elements of chance and evolution. If I get tired of a pedal, I take it off and put another one on. With the presets, what, I gotta fucking upload something? I have to go to a server [laughs], or call some tech and ask, "Hey can you erase these presets in my setup?" That's stupid. It's cool if you're playing in a place and you can't have any sort of malfunctioning. I love Premier Guitar's Rig Rundown. They talk to people's guitar techs and sometimes the actual guitar player. You know who the best one is?
Close. You should totally watch it—Eric Johnson. His pedal board is something, like, a 20-year-old would have. It's a piece of plywood with like four pedals Velcro'd on it, wires going everywhere. Then he's got two tape echoes on the floor. So it's sort of bush league. But it does what he wants it to do. And he's sitting there with a Strat and he's playing, and it sounds ridiculously good, and he's the most down to earth dude. I watched it and then he became my new favorite guitar player. But then you watch the one with Billy Corgan, and he's got every single one of his vintage amps cloned in a six-inch-by-six-inch rack space that he can emulate live via a MIDI switch. But it's like, dude, you're just playing guitar. The difference between your two Super Leads doesn't matter. It's a bit excessive to me. I love Guitar World, don't get me wrong. Maybe I'll have a true-bypass MIDI switcher one day. But I think you have to be careful if you go that route; you can forget why it's fun to have a bunch of pedals. It'll sound different, sometimes it's blown out, sometimes it's weird, and it keeps you on your toes and keeps you pushing it.
Your album is called Lost in the Dream—what's the last dream you remember?
I had one last night, but I don't think I should talk about it. I have all sorts of weird dreams, but I tend to not usually remember them. I remember the one from last night because it involved a friend. It can be tricky to tell people dreams, because then they'll think, "Well what does it mean?" If you're running away from something in a dream, then it means you're running away from something in real life. But I don't know.
Have you ever had Dolly Parton appear in a dream?
I don't think I have, no. Hopefully someday I can.
You had a job as a property manager. What was the worst part of that job?
Cleaning up after fraternity people. The parents would take them shopping for food in January. They'd stock the fridge with eggs and yogurt and meat, but the kids would live off pizza and beer. Then, when the lease was up in June, we'd open the fridge, and it would just be crawling with maggots.
In "Red Eyes," what does the line "Ride that heat wherever it goes" have to do with? Do you arrive at lyrics the same way you arrive at a guitar sound?
That song I'd had for so long—I had that melody and I'd been singing it for a year. I was working on the song more than the words, building it up and changing it around. We finally tracked the basic tracks. Six months later, I finally went to do a vocal take on it for the first time. I just stood at the mic and let it out, kind of improvising. As I would do the takes, I molded it. I had phrases I wanted to say and sounds I wanted to hear, and was I working on the consonants. I'd listen back and change things. Four hours later, I had the take. Things were coming out of me off the top. It's not about any specific thing, or message, or story, but when I sing it, it becomes something bigger. It was more about sounds. Not to cop out on what it means, that's sort of how I've always done things. Months later, I did actually rewrite and rerecord it, but it didn't sound as good. It just wasn't like that first time when I was finally expressing that song the way I'd heard it in my head for eight months. The feeling of it is more important than what I'm actually singing.
I hear "ride that heat," and 10 different things come to mind. I don't exactly know what they are, though, besides trains and sex.
That's the thing. There are lines I've written for songs, but I'm not a writer. If I actually sat down with a blank piece of paper to write lyrics, I could never do it. But when I'm at the microphone and kind of go with the moment, it's different. I have the song brewing in my head for weeks or months then let something happen. Same thing with "Lost in the Dream"—that first line, "Lost in the dream or just the silence of the moment." I could never have written that. It came out of me.
You're playing Mitch Easter's 12-string on your album. Did he apply any of that early R.E.M. feel/approach to your sound? Did any Peter Buck come out in your playing?
We were doing overdubs, and I wanted to put electric 12-string on a song. We were in North Carolina, which is where his studio is. I played it through an AC-30 just like Peter Buck would have. As a kid, those early R.E.M. albums are some of the first albums I got into—Murmur, then later ones, Green and Eponymous.
What's some music out of Philadelphia that we should be listening to?
Tin Horses are really good. Purling Hiss. Three Man Cannon. Steve Gunn is great. Kurt Vile. There's a guy in my band, Dave Hartley, who has a band called Nightlands that is seriously good. I've been gone so much it's hard to keep my finger on the pulse.
What are you going to do for the rest of the day in Brooklyn?
I'm supposed to go back to Philly. Eventually I need to resume my real life. But right now, ice cream sounds good, maybe some coffee, too. I might go buy that '71 Super Lead. It's hand-wired. There's a '61 Jazzmaster in there, too, but you're gonna also pay New York prices, which I don't want to do. I'd rather go to Seattle and get something from the Trading Musician. I love that place.