The War on Drugs: Journey Towards Clarity

Paula Mejia braves a blizzard to step into Adam Granduciel's dreams.


Perhaps you’ve had this fantasy before. If not, indulge me for a second. Imagine the promise of an unknown road unfolding, open, your hair wind-swept across sun-pecked cheeks. The dirt kicks up in red dust clouds under your car tires. Time has materialized beneath your fingers. You grip the steering wheel swallowing doubt, thinking in overdrive. There’s nowhere to turn but onward, nothing surging through your body but purpose.

Our nationalism is entwined with an inevitable transience. Weathered, classic American records – Blood on the Tracks, Born in the USA – paint the road as a revelatory space, a place diverging into forks and swerving into unforeseen inclines. These songwriters channeled our wrestling with identity, through the invocation of the plateaus and the plains, the snowy peaks and the prickliness of desert cacti. People are born to run, squealed The Boss. Tom Petty championed running down dreams, going wherever they lead. But careful – ahead lie those simple twists of fate, warned the bard Bob Dylan as he wheezed down Highway 61.

“On a drive I’m taking back roads,” sings The War on Drugs’ Adam Granduciel on the band’s “Burning”. He continues: “High against where the river’s flowing, I didn’t think our love had grown.” The mastermind instrumentalist and vocalist behind Philadelphia’s most promising band swerved into the recesses of abyss while chasing clarity on the band’s exceptional third studio record, Lost in the Dreams. Granduciel fluctuated between unfamiliar extremes for the past year while writing and recording, plumbing the depths of uncertainty with song.

Granduciel didn’t just brave but fully embraced an emotional territory rife with alternating states of being. This tumultuous duality both catalyzed and molded the celestial soundscapes marking Lost in the Dream. Granduciel is open about the internal turmoil that prefaced the development of this record, but not in a self-effacing way. Instead of trying to mask these feelings, he attempts to weave them into a conversation that many Americans attempt to understand on a daily basis. Granduciel does so often during ours.

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“I’m not trying to make a point, but it was a big part of the album. I’m not ashamed of it; it’s not a unique experience. A quarter of the country experiences these kinds of feelings,” he says, referring to the intense loneliness, isolation, and paranoia that informed the record. Lost in the Dream isn’t autobiographical per se, but the songs all loop back to grappling through some moment of conflict. Isolation is a barreling force on this record, an emotion instrumental to its narrative arc. Poignant psychedelic undertones of Lost in the Dream emerge in spurts, channeling disorientation.

Fittingly, within our lonely pursuit of the abstract American Dream (whatever that even means), the image of the rugged human emerged. Romancing the country road stems perhaps not so much from a deep unhappiness but a palpable dissatisfaction. Something engrained in our DNA instructs us that if we just traverse several hundred more miles past our comfort zone, we’ll peel back the sky and find that shapeless, satisfying thing: understanding. This has become embedded in our canon of culture and is the central narrative of a generous handful of our most beloved records, charting, with hums and strums, how it feels to lose oneself completely and then get found.

The band’s shimmering feat fearlessly embarks on that frightening pursuit, grappling with repressed emotions and discovering oneself in the process. The record utilizes invocations of weathered change, referencing the unpredictable role of nature, and in turn, the unpredictability of how we engage with ourselves and with others. Throughout the swooning tune “Eyes to the Wind” Granduciel alludes to natural disaster mimicking the weight of change within our souls. “Burning” shivers with a different sort of reconciliation, the pain of leaving a past lover behind through the lonesome back roads of an aimless drive. Lost in the Dream sees a protagonist wrestling with elements both within and outside of his physicality. It’s a riveting account bred of ingenious vision and masterful production.

Lost in the Dream is quite arguably the strongest rock album released in 2014. The mystique of this sharp yet turbulent record is enhanced by how it also carves the rockers into a curious middle ground — poised for the mainstream acclaim they’ve long been working towards by finely crafting a record that still rewards the cautious audiophiles and the record collectors.

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Instrumentally, The War on Drugs has been regaled for the hazy atmospherics, melded with the New Age synth crawl and sleepy guitar lines on their last record, 2011’s Slave Ambient. These woozy instrumentals and gauzy textures paint a parallel world swathed in subdued orange curls and radiant green swirls, the golden tones of Granduciel’s house depicted on the record’s cover and throughout its sleeve. Yet shadows reside there, too.

The drowsy images painted through kaleidoscopic instrumentals suggest that the band is working towards or through a dream. Thing is, Adam Granduciel is not a dreamer. Dreams don’t hold Granduciel, and neither do the realistic terror nightmares.

Obsession, though, almost did.

Talking in between sips of muddy French press coffee, Adam Granduciel is both at ease and perpetually itched. A tattered flannel shirt covers a yellow v-neck shirt, worn Levi’s underneath. Disheveled shoulder-length wisps of hair fall across his shoulders and face, down-to-earth and personable. He puffs from a new e-cig promising a “cowboy” scent. It smells vaguely like the West.

“Am I doing this right?” he asks, as the package enclosing the vaporized tobacco rested upon the stoop when I arrived. I am sitting in a creaky wooden chair in Granduciel’s living room. A shit-kicked-in pair of cowboy boots wait perched by the door, a rocking chair poised in a corner. Three portly cats — two of which belong to Granduciel’s girlfriend — slink around the living room, curling their poofy tails into armrests. The radiator clangs occasionally without warning. The last of the wind-swept snowstorm flurries flutter at the back door, like an eye drifting in and out of consciousness.

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Steve Gunn’s Time Off LP hums and clicks softly from the turntable. He selected the record, yet the unhurried pace seems almost out of sync with Granduciel’s mind. I say this because even when he’s not technically working on a record, Adam Granduciel is working. He scratches his head vigorously while talking and walking, constantly thinking and overthinking. Driving, he listens to his own music, mapping out the technicalities that can be improved and letting what worked sink in. When he speaks of music it’s not about sounds, but elements, things like precision, mechanics, and dynamics. In casual conversation, he speaks like a meticulous lab scientist of the school of musical self-empowerment.

The bass tones of his voice echo through the bottom half of the house, a cavernous set of spaces cluttered with artifacts. I count one, two, three books about Bob Dylan scattered downstairs, including one solely dedicated to Zimmerman’s studio sessions, and bookending copies of Jack Kerouac’s Dharma Bums and Herman Hesse’s Steppenwolf. All of them works of wanderers, fellow calloused men seeking out their own forms of spirituality. A shredded denim shirt hangs on a lone hook.

Nestled right in the intersection of Fishtown and Lower Kensington neighborhoods in Philadelphia, Granduciel’s home is too a place of diverging extremities. I am swept with a sense that the little blue house is simultaneously a space of comfort and claustrophobia. It’s the place where Granduciel worked himself into the ground for the past year while writing, scrapping, overthinking, and conceptualizing Lost in the Dream. Hence, the consistent need for relocation.

“Once I would get out of Philadelphia – realistically, when I got out of this house – I started to feel a little lighter, because that was closer to working on the music, a little more at ease in my body.”

Granduciel’s voice on the record, half plea and half-premonition, has been often likened to his heroes’. You certainly hear Bob Dylan’s singular intonation steeped into the tight grooves of Lost in the Dream‘s nine-minute opener, “Under the Pressure”, the earnestness of Neil Young’s croons on the washed-out “Disappearing”, a compact songwriting ethos echoing the bouncy Brit-pop spirit of Dire Straits. When asked if the inevitable comparisons grow irksome, he shrugs. “I learned so much from those people. The albums that I studied, rock mythology, I’m interested in studio recordings. The lore is just as inspiring as the music to me.”

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Lost in the Dream was recorded in half a dozen places, from Nashville to New York, peeling apart the mythology of the studio process in the process. “As good as it is to work in the studio, I also just wanted to be in the studios that I had heard about,” he muses. “It has great history, great vibes, and the other side of me was needing to get out of here, get out of town for a week, work on this record, and make it a part of everyone’s life that week.”

His mannerisms are reflective of a kind of suspicion, perhaps of stagnancy. Certainly complacency. Throughout our conversation he fidgets in his chair, picks at his nails, rarely makes eye contact with his speaker. Still, he speaks openly of his experiences, is frank about his opinions, and displays a shadowy optimism toward the future.

As a band, The War on Drugs is wedged directly between the mainstream and the underground. Still, they very much belong in the low-key supportive arts community that exists within Philadelphia. But this is perhaps the first time that new material from The War on Drugs has been impatiently awaited. The band doesn’t produce music all that often; the guys only release one studio LP every several years. Their last record, Slave Ambient, came out three years ago (a lifetime, it feels like), and their previous raw debut, Wagonwheel Blues, emerged from a free five-song set in 2008. Nearly 10 or so years of gradual song and world-building later, the stakes have been built high and quickly.

“This is the first time I was aware there was an expectation, and I was afraid of failing,” he reveals. “I really wanted to deliver what people wanted from another War on Drugs album. I didn’t even know what that was for a while. But I was just trying to do the best I could, trust my gut.”

There’s something downright instinctual about Lost in the Dream – the discovery, yes, also the burgeoning trust the protagonist places in himself, but also the realization along the way that it’s okay to fail as part of the process. As for the music itself, Granduciel speaks enthusiastically about the role of his band wound within the sparkling numbers on Lost in the Dream. The War on Drugs live band is still an amorphous being, consistently shaped by a loose style of rock music flexible to natural transgressions and evolutions unforeseen. Although Granduciel wrote the majority of the record, the band’s strengths are pivotal to individual songs’ execution.

“As the song would grow, I wanted it to be right up their alley when I asked them to play. For ‘Under the Pressure’, I pictured it being up our drummer Charlie [Hall’s] alley, really tight and Roxy Music or something, tripped out. I knew Robbie [Bennett] would play a great piano piece on ‘Eyes to the Wind’.”

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The band’s previous record, the lushly textured Slave Ambient, decidedly made Granduciel’s brainchild into an actualized band. The process of writing and recording Slave Ambient, by comparison to the production of Lost in the Dream, markedly differed in both its scope and methodology. “Slave Ambient was a lot more fun to make. It was us figuring out a style in some weird way, loving recording and music and playing and touring all the time, and being really immersed in the music,” he says. “We were fleshing these ideas, making these cool landscapes. I wasn’t sure where they were going, but we had like six or seven months to allow them to gestate into a song.”

After touring extensively for Slave Ambient, along with performances in the touring band for fellow friend and long-haired Philadelphia bard Kurt Vile, Granduciel sat down to exclusively map out Lost in the Dream, shutting out almost everything else in the process. Where Slave Ambient mapped the longitudes of a band building dynamics and learning to trust itself, Lost in the Dream documents latitudes within a single person.

“There was nothing on the horizon, that as I started getting more into the record and spending all my time here. My personal life…” he drawls, allowing his voice to trail off for a few seconds. “I won’t say it was in tatters, but in transition – I was going through a breakup but I wasn’t distraught about it; it was just a different kind of separation.”

Much of what informed the expansive recording process of Lost in the Dream is a specific, holistic studio sound that Granduciel describes as the “illusion of a live band.” He set out focused, intent on making the recording experience more professional, while still producing highly personal art, illusory in its tone and expanding volumes. The vision evolved into almost a delusion the more he delved into the minutiae of the record. Because lucky for him (or not) he has a watchmaker’s precision and attention to detail.

Slave Ambient…that was a record I obsessed over, but not like this one. The last few months of this record were, you know, not being able to sleep, thinking of every little detail of the record, not having any faith and ability to just put it out there as with Slave Ambient,” he confides.

He continues: “It didn’t ruin my life or put me into the hospital, but it really affected my life in a really profound manner for a year. And continues to.” The longer I listen to Granduciel speak on the agents, demons, and shadows invoked while creating what would eventually be Lost in the Dream, I realize it is less an album and more a cosmic thing Granduciel must expel from his system, an exorcism of sorts. His relationship to music is that of the pharmakon – the Greek word denoting an entity that is both the poison and the antidote.

Our individual relationship to music isn’t always a positive one, nor is it meant to always be. A certain riff can inexplicably extract a repression, a chord change spurs within us a redefinition of a memory we hadn’t been able to previously contextualize. When we listen, we’re also seeking perhaps a justification, a redefinition, and mostly, a form of truth within ourselves.

Perhaps this is why Lost in the Dream resounds so profoundly for the listener; through this protagonist we are made to feel the pangs of isolation. Even the most barreling Brit-pop rhythms in the record’s most melodic tunes, “An Ocean Beneath the Waves” among them, wrestle shadows with bare hands. Cast back into the darkness, if only for a moment, the stale light emerging in numbers like “In Reverse” is akin to finding the switch for a bulb that’s been dim for some time.

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Adam Granofsky was born in Dover, Massachussetts, in 1980. As the middle child in the hierarchy of kids, he mentions that the intermediary state allowed him to “perhaps be a little more weird.” Not in the misfit kind of way — just that it allowed the young man’s fixation with music and its inner mechanics to manifest completely. When I ask him about the first CD he bought, he replies: “Phil Collins’ But Seriously. This was about 1988, I was about nine or 10. I heard him on the radio and loved that keyboard line. Couldn’t get enough of it. So I bought it.”

The boy’s older brother proved a formative influence as well. “He always got me into stuff, you know, like Neil Young and R.E.M. and Jimi Hendrix. Even if he didn’t immediately love it, he had it, and got me into it.”

Granduciel isn’t actually his last name. One might imagine that the shift from Granofsky was a conscious decision. But at venue-turned-bar Johnny Brenda’s, he explains that “Granduciel” isn’t a moniker, but rather a mispronunciation that gestated into the possibility of a shifted identity. He ultimately accepted it. Over eggplant parmigiana, Granduciel describes how the moniker arose from a French teacher who repurposed his last name into a French reinterpretation. “Gran of sky,” he says, breaking it up into syllables. “Into Granduciel.” Literally translated, his last name means “big sky.” Fitting for someone possessing limitless ambition.

“I lusted after electric guitars the first year or two before I actually had one. I’ve always been into like, talking to someone else about electric guitars. Whoever would fuckin’ listen. I would go to the guitar shop and just look. Later I’d call them and say like, ‘Yeah, do you have a Fender Stratocaster that’s green?’ and they’d be like, ‘Adam, why do you call here all the time? Why don’t you just buy something?’ I didn’t have any money – I was 13,” he grins, remembering. What he ended up getting as his first guitar? A classic ’63 Harmony Bobkat, which he continues to use on tours.

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Granduciel has resided in Philadelphia for the past 10 years, now tethered by the loose cast of characters that comprise its tight-knit creative community. Before moving out to Philadelphia – he had one close friend here, but had never visited before – Granduciel had been residing in California, the gold rush state that birthed the poignant surf-pop of The Beach Boys. Yet the sunshine and expanse of the state proved to be incredibly isolating for Granduciel, who explains that he used to work at a restaurant, go home, and make music privately. He felt enclosed, unable to share his work with anyone, and would create music alone in his room for hours.

“I didn’t want to necessarily start a band, but I wanted to go somewhere and meet more people doing what I’m doing,” he says. “I knew somebody living in Philly, so I moved cross-country.”

After living in Boston for a few months, he went out to Philadelphia in January of 2003. Everything suddenly began to unfold in its own way. In the first few months, he met friends of friends who shared a similar fascination with recording processes and instrumental precision. He met Kurt Vile through his roommate, who had worked with Vile at Philadelphia Brewing Company. The two began jamming and became fast friends.

“Soon I had an awesome, small little group of music friends. I didn’t set out to move to Philly for any reason,” he says. “I wanted to involve more people in what I was doing musically and hopefully, in turn, get involved in other peoples’ stuff, go about it another way. Not just being in my room, smoking weed, and making guitar textures.”

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Granduciel spends a lot of time thinking about both texture and space. The taut acoustic grooves of “Eyes to the Wind” and the melodies cross-stitching “Red Eyes” are constructed for a certain kind of arena. The basement show and living room setup isn’t prepared for The War on Drugs’ instrumental and physical sprawl. The self-professed gearhead travels with his full band and swathes of equipment, requiring a specific space for these sounds to be replicated from his head unto the monitors.

As we’re walking to Johnny Brenda’s, he stops to check out a trailer, musing whether it would be appropriate for the forthcoming War on Drugs tour. Outside the venue, blissed Bay Area psychedelic heads Sleepy Sun are smoking a cigarette. Granduciel stops, chats gear. The boys invite him to their performance that night at Brenda’s, to which he enthusiastically commits. Speaking about the technicalities of music and the elements involved in production is when Granduciel is on. Here he is gesturing, whirring, finding an irreplaceable joy in just the mere thought of process.

war on drugs cathy poulton 4 The War on Drugs: Journey Towards ClarityMidway through our conversation, Granduciel answers a call. It’s from a friend assisting with the merchandise and accounting logistics of The War on Drugs’ forthcoming North American tour in support of the new record. In addition to assembling practically every moving part of the Lost in the Dream recording and touring process, he casually mentions that he forgoes hiring someone in lieu of doing most of his own band’s tour managing and logistical planning himself.

“I’m bored. I like to be in control, maybe more than I should be. Getting the merch ordered, figuring out hotels, trailer, gear. Trying to get cases for everything.”

Granduciel’s activism in the booking, recording, mixing, and mastering processes could be seen through a do-it-yourself ethos. But I suspect Granduciel is one of those people incapable of entrusting others with something so delicate; not because it will lose clarity, necessarily, but because he knows he’ll do it the way it should be done.

He runs upstairs to chat, the steps creaking and sighing under his boots. While he’s away, he invites me to thumb through the hundreds of records in his living room. I take the opportunity to uncover what these big sounds are, the ones that turn the precise gears in Granduciel’s mind. Bob Dylan records in piles, of course. Towards the front lies a collection of Nick Drake tracks I’d not heard before, Ronnie Hawkins and other rockabilly icons. Television’s Marquee Moon. I slide garage-psych sizzlers Thee Oh Sees’ skittering The Master’s Bedroom Is Worth Spending a Night In out of the sleeve. Blowing some fluff off the needle, I put on side A.

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Earlier in our conversation, I asked Granduciel about the role of dreams within his life. He was quick to mention that he barely remembers his dreams, nightmares are rare, and he is disinterested in them. He sits for a moment, thinking. “Maybe I’m frightened by the possibilities.”

Given this dismissal, I’m taken by the enormous, feathered dream catcher my peripheral vision snags. The piece is woven into the rightmost corner of the living room, pushed toward a windowsill. Maybe that’s where Adam Granduciel’s lost dreams go. But he’s not concerned, at least not outwardly. He tells me that when he does remember these subconscious wanderings the experience is often fraught. In the past year he mentions that the images had been surfacing more than usual, his mind wrought by stress and figures from his past.

“Even through adolescence, I had the same kinds of dreams,” he shares, “feeling isolated or that things were about to change, you know.”

Perhaps it doesn’t mean anything concrete, but the dream catcher is an artifact of Lost in the Dream. The journey brims with symbols of the America we know and distantly remember, intrinsic to our experience here. This includes the travelin’ man archetypal protagonist of “The Ocean Between the Waves”, the stranger living with us in “Eyes to the Wind”, the grand parade where “In Reverse” is set. The difference is that Granduciel isn’t running out to the road to flee; he confronts his shadows head on, inside his house, and out on the road. And like that rusty highway sign on Highway 61 or Route 66, the roads of change curve everywhere in Lost in the Dream, an album cresting on serious transition. An enthusiast of the road himself, Granduciel is visibly anxious for touring and stepping back from the record for a while within the live sphere.

“As you’re driving to New York, there’s this exit, 7A, on the turnpike. The sign is like, classic green, but also super old, washed, and faded in this really beautiful way,” he says, his voice trailing off into a distant elsewhere. “I always look forward to seeing that sign when I drive there.”

The real venture now that this record is complete won’t just be towards headlining stages and sold-out shows, of which The War on Drugs have several already. Over the next few months – and probably until The War on Drugs record and next release an LP — Granduciel is eager to continue extending and fleshing these songs out on the road.

“The emotions and issues I uncovered are just larger issues about my life in general,” he explains. “So I’m grateful in some weird way to have had my eyes opened to a new way of thinking.”

The time for this record to emerge couldn’t be more important. Atmospherics aside, the swelling beauty of Lost in the Dream firmly lodged underneath your skin, it’s an astute and responsive conversation speaking to our contemporary confusion. The best kind of rock music speaks to us at eye level, forgoing the pedestal stage it could be standing upon if it wanted to. The Here and the Now is frightening and unsure enough, lending itself to constant reinterpretations and musings amidst that terrifying worry we all think about: What is my place here? What is the next step, and is it the right one? Lost in the Dream encounters these questions, wrestling past self-doubt to find clarity and, ultimately, fulfillment, a process that takes half a life to recognize and an entire lifetime to understand. Lost in the Dream is Adam Granduciel’s lifeline, charted onto a weathered hand as he continues to forge a path forward.

“Hopefully I can find happiness or inspiration in the day-to-day, goings on of music and literature again without being so consumed by fear and failure and expectations and timing,” he says.

The clock has rolled on past six o’clock. Philadelphia’s skyline pokes through the papaya sunset as we exit Johnny Brenda’s. “Oh,” he remarks, stopping, “would you look at that.”

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His stare lingers for a second. In this instance, I wonder if he looks out ahead — upon the skyscrapers studding his city, upon his world — and feels a sense of peace or urgency. Possibly both. Given how this record has contextualized our individual place within the confinements and possibilities of urban space, then the openness of the road, it’s almost a study of the spacial through mapping out emotional development. He walks me to the train, where we part ways. From the window seat The City of Brotherly Love fades out in front of me like credits rolling off a screen. With its promises and problems alike, I can see the propulsion that keeps The War on Drugs leaning forward, headfirst, gesturing past the foreign roads.

Photography by Cathy Poulton