Photo: Shawn Brackbill
The War On Drugs: Adam Granduciel On New Album, Guitar & Tom Petty
Music is inextricably tied to location. From the Bakersfield sound and Seattle grunge to New York hardcore punk and West Coast rap, a city and its culture can shape a scene. For psychedelic-rock band The War On Drugs, the soulful and experimental musical mecca of Philadelphia has been home since their formation in 2005.
So when it came time for frontman Adam Granduciel to start creating what would become the band's fourth studio album, A Deeper Understanding, the choice to record in Los Angeles was truly a musical one. Rock albums by Granduciel's heroes, including Neil Young and Warren Zevon, captured a different sentiment that drew him in and ultimately helped shape the band's most inventive album to date, which Rolling Stone described as "an abstract-expressionist mural of synth-pop and heartland rock colored by bruised optimism and some of [Granduciel's] most generous, incandescent guitar ever."
We sat down with Granduciel recently at Recording Academy headquarters to talk about L.A.'s influence on A Deeper Understanding, how he likes to see the world on tour, what he'd ask Jimmy Iovine, and his parting thoughts on the loss of Tom Petty.
A Deeper Understanding's sonic layers are lush and mesmerizing but the songs they're built on are crafty, beautiful and dark. What was the biggest difference in the songwriting process between this album and 2013's Lost In The Dream?
I just wanted to be more prepared on my end so that if I was writing more and demoing stuff more, I could present [ideas] to the band and the spontaneity in the recording could be of a different sort.
I rented out my own studio in Los Angeles and tried to go every day, whether it [was] writing on the piano or guitar or work on demos. I started eight months before [while] on the road. I just ended up having more songs than I ever had in the past.
There's so much guitar candy on this record. What were the specific guitar influences for this album?
We did this benefit where Neil Young played as well. He was playing his classic Gretsch White Falcon guitar with the Bigsby [tremolo]. We were watching the dress rehearsal from the side stage. I was actually sitting on his amp rig and watching him rehearse. He was just going off with [the] bar. I was like, "Oh, it's so expressive." I have the same guitar but mine didn't have the bar. After that show, I put the Bigsby on that Gretsch of mine. Then, two nights later, we recorded three songs that are on the record. A lot of the inspiration [came] from that expressive quality of that Bigsby but I was [also] just thinking about all my favorite players, whether it was Neil or Mike Campbell — guys that use that bar and just try to find another way to connect with the guitar.
Speaking of Neil Young, in a Pitchfork interview you name-checked him and Warren Zevon for making "L.A. records." What effect do you think recording in L.A. had on A Deeper Understanding?
Well, I think a few things. First, I would always think of an L.A. record as "sunny" or something, but then I started thinking, "Well, my favorite records that were made here are dark and sad and lonely." I never really lived here before, so I didn't really think I understood. I think from an East Coast point of view, you'd be like, "Oh, a California record's a sunny record." It's like you spend three hours in the studio because the rest of the time you must be at the beach.
[But] the cool thing was that, unlike any other city, there [are] all these places in L.A. There are so many resources for a recording musician, like studios of all levels, you know? [There are] so many world-class studios, but I would never have been able to have rented the place that I rented out anywhere else. It was just this mid-level studio that is pretty much a stand-alone building on the East side with a really great mic collection, Pro Tools and two rooms. It wasn't fancy, but it was perfect for what I needed. I was able to bring my own stuff in. The ability to work every day was a big part of L.A.'s effect on my process and the band coming out from Philly once a month.
You have a fan in Jimmy Iovine. Have you met the man before? What would you ask him if you could?
Actually, I have, but in the moment I wasn't prepared to ask him anything. I guess I'm just a huge fan of all the records he made in the 70's. … Now, he's [a] larger-than-life figure but back then he was just like a kid who loved music and was probably just like all of us — trying to find out how to make a record. There's no formula for it. I guess I [would ask him about working with] Bruce [Springsteen] making Darkness [On The Edge Of Town].
You're on the road now, going across the U.S. and then heading to Europe. When you get to a town, what do you like to do to get a sense of the culture?
I like going out to find a local coffee shop. It's embarrassing to admit that I have an app called Beanhunter, which tells me the closest single-origin coffee I can get. Last tour, I really got into the whole sub-culture. I had the hand grinder and the single origin — then the Aeropress [coffee maker] and the scale.
I also love trying to find an awesome guitar shop because I just like to go in and play guitar for an hour or two. [And] record stores. Now, we actually have a backstage record player we tour with in its own case, so it makes buying records on the road a little easier because you actually can be like, "Oh, I want something to pump me up for tonight's show," or "tomorrow when we load in, I want to chill out to this."
One last question: We lost the great Tom Petty recently. How important was he to you as a songwriter and as an artist?
[He's] one of my favorites. ... He had a catalog of hits before I was of age. Then, when I was in my teens, Wildflowers came out [in 1994] — maybe to some it was like a new kind of Tom Petty, but it hit me so intensely when that record came out. It was like a reintroduction to a lot of different kinds of music for me. His band was so important to him. The Heartbreakers were what you imagine being in a band would be like — best buddies and great players and guys who took it all really seriously.
As he grew older, his material was just as relevant and just as exciting and the band's just as killer. … It seems surreal that there's no more Tom Petty, in person. It's true that the music lives on because [with] a guy like that, [there are] centuries of information there.