SLAVES TO THE RHYTHMS The War on Drugs

Adam Granduciel didn’t
just set out to paint his masterpiece – he succeeded.

 

BY STEVE KLINGE

 

Slave Ambient, the
second full-length from Philadelphia’s
The War On Drugs, is at least two albums in one. Heard one way, it’s an opaque,
textural work built on drones, loops and immeasurable layers of guitars both
acoustic and electric. Heard another, it’s an expansive, immersive set of road
songs and heartland anthems. There’s more than a little Dylan in leader Adam
Granduciel’s cadences and inflections, but there’s also a lot of Spacemen 3 and
Can and some Yankee Hotel Foxtrot-era
Wilco, and there are DNA affinities with Granduciel’s friend and erstwhile
bandmate Kurt Vile. It’s one of those records that can strike immediately but
that then keeps changing as one listens. It’s sharp and hazy, restless and
shimmering, dense and crystalline, all at once. It’s something special.

 

Slave Ambient‘s 46
minutes play as a nearly continuous suite; it’s criss-crossed with
instrumentals that form bridges between songs, and there’s an ebb-and-flow to
the listening experience. Songs echo one another lyrically and instrumentally,
so that the album – and Slave Ambient is
definitely meant to be heard as an album – creates its own coherent,
self-referential world. Although it doesn’t sound labored, it’s little surprise
that Granduciel and his bandmates spent years creating it.

 

“A lot of the stuff went through a lot of transformations;
we were all searching for the right spirit of each song,” says Granduciel,
between a pair of sold-out NYC shows the week of the record’s release. “I
wasn’t really obsessing over it, but I was taking my time because I had an idea
in my head of what I wanted it to be like.”

 

Granduciel built Slave
Ambient
from the bottom up, starting by accumulating drones and guitar
fragments that could be turned into loops. Songs grew from some of this work,
but the initial idea was to create a lot of available material to embed within
tracks. Friends and bandmates would end up jamming, and that could turn into a
usable layer, the “ambient” elements of the songs. The effort was intense but
disrupted: Granduciel would convene the band for short tours, or he would go on
the road with Kurt Vile as one of Vile’s Violators. Bassist Dave Hartley worked
on a solo album as Nightlands, too (last year’s excellent Forget The Mantra). At one point, Granduciel had an album ready for
his label, Secretly Canadian, but then withdrew it immediately because he
didn’t feel it was ready.

 

“I knew right when I turned it in that it wasn’t time yet.
So, I was like, let’s just wait,” says Granduciel. “It was a situation where
the final album did take a long time, but I wanted it to be something special,
and also it took awhile to develop some of the songs. I wanted to make sure all
the songs were strong. It wasn’t like we were unable to wrap our heads around
it. I think everyone understood that there was an idea there that was taking
time to gestate, to go through the necessary failures to the desired end.”

 

That desired end was something similar to Wagonwheel Blues, the Drugs’ 2008 debut,
but with more intent and artistic focus. Wagonwheel also used instrumental bridges and song reprises (as did the Drugs’ two
pre-album EPs, 2007’s Barrel of Batteries and 2010’s Future Weather), but
Granduciel says they were “almost incidental” and inadvertent. “It was almost
at first a lack of fully realized songwriting,” he says, of Wagonwheel‘s interludes. But the overall
effect, that sonic coherence, of Wagonwheel was something Granduciel wanted to repeat, although on a deeper level.

 

“I saw I wanted the next War on Drugs one to be similar to
that, kind of expansive, and I like the way on Wagonwheel everything worked off each other, with the reprises and
showing the process of recording a song, in a way,” he says. “And so for this
one, I like the fact that a lot of the songs actually echo each other in weird
melodic ways. They’re all kind of tied together in. It’s not like twelve
individual tracks; they all live together in this weird little family.”

 

 

 


The War on Drugs – Baby Missiles by edin2sun

 

 

Ambient is even
more unified than Wagonwheel, and the
songs are more consistent. The creative process was intuitive and unstructured,
at least at first. Granduciel spent a lot of time accumulating fragments and
loops – guitar filigrees, rhythmic fragments, tones and drones – and they ended
up forming the bedrock of a song. Rather than having the textures flow behind a
song, the song fit on top of the textures. The balance between the two is often
equal: foreground and background meet in a wall of sound, especially on the
anthemic set pieces “Your Love Is Calling My Name” and “Come To The City” and
on the Neu!-like motorik instrumental “Original Slave.” But although he used
the loops to create the songs, sometimes he removed them from the final version
of a song.

 

“I think it’s key that it’s never a situation where there’s
a song and there’s these things flowing in behind it,” Granduciel explains.
“The songs are written from the ground up. I wouldn’t actually know what song I
was working on for a couple months, just working in the home studio, fucking
with sounds. Then maybe over time I would develop a little sample that was
percussive or obviously the backbone of a song, and then I would start adding
over the top of it and playing with ideas. And then sometimes I’d use those
ideas or maybe try it without all the loops and drones. I’d just try to do a
song in different ways and see what worked best. ‘Come To The City’ was like
that. It has that really intense beat in the background. I did it in a few different
ways, like in a stripped down guitar / drums way; I just kept trying to sort
through all of them and find the right balance. I think that’s what we were
looking for.”

 

The “we” in the Drugs has fluctuated drastically. Much has
been made of Kurt Vile’s one-time membership in the band, often as if Vile
swore off the Drugs to start a solo career. It’s more a case of a pair of
friends sharing ideas and working together for years, and then each devoting
himself primarily to his own project. Vile still plays on the new record,
although not as extensively as he did on Wagonwheel;
Granduciel plays on Vile’s Smoke Ring For
My Halo
and tours with Kurt when he can.

 

“The musical relationship that me and him have had over the
years, and the music we’ve made together, I think it’s a really great story in
a way,” says Granduciel. “Sometimes I feel that it’s a really great story
that’s been cheapened consistently, but that’s to be expected nowadays. It’s
not even giving him enough credit really, saying that we started the band
quote-unquote and that he left and had a solo career. That’s cheapening his
work. Because at the end of the day, we made a lot of music together for four
years, five years before anyone knew who my band was or where his music was. We
just did a lot of stuff together because we loved it and learned a lot from
each other. Everyone searches for that one person who when you play together
it’s like a really magical thing. I feel like we have that. That’s why I never
stopped playing in the Violators, because the guitar relationship that me and
him have is really a great thing.”

 

Granduciel gets frustrated by the misconceptions of their
history and their friendship. He calls it “the Kurt thing.”

 

“I just feel like that it’s reduced to that we don’t even talk
anymore, like, Are you guys still buddies? Come on, dude, do your research.
I’ve been on tour with him.; it’s still happening. He didn’t quit the band and
start a solo career. It was two friends helping each other out with their
recordings, before we had record deals or people ever came to see us when we
played. I would say, Dude, I got this song, and he would play this awesome
guitar part on top of it. And he’d be like, I’ve got this tune, and I’d play on
top of it. I don’t know if people want that classic rock story of people
quitting and going solo, but it’s lazy work, over the years. But it’s become
fact in a way. You can’t really go around commenting on people’s blogs. You
just got to let it live.”

 

Vile’s work isn’t as sonically dense as is Granduciel’s
Drugs stuff, and Vile has a stronger slacker element (hence his recent
partnership with J. Mascis). But listening to a song such as Vile’s “Jesus
Fever” with its trebly guitar interplay, it’s easy to hear the affinities.

 

One can also hear connections in Hartley’s Nightlands work:
although Mantra is a purely solo
work, it’s densely layered and artfully constructed.

 

“I’d say the Nightlands stuff is probably influenced and
informed by what Adam does, but through the eyes of someone who listens to a lot
of ELO and the Beach Boys and Squeeze and shit like that,” says Hartley.

 

Currently, Hartley has the longest tenure in the War on
Drugs, having played on a few Wagonwheel tracks. Keyboard player Robbie Bennett and drummer Steven Urgo contributed to
the record and are in the touring band. But Granduciel is the mastermind.

 

“There’s no question that it’s his baby, and he was the only
one who really knew what the big picture was. We were all instruments of his
vision,” says Hartley. “It’s weird. I feel like the War on Drugs is really
collaborative in the sense that we’re constantly jamming with each other, and
listening and layering. But it’s not collaborative in that there’s not a lot of
discussion about it. There was never like a powwow, like we should go for this
kind of vibe. It just sort of happened, by years of repetition.”

 

The recording process was so attenuated, with players coming
to Granduciel’s home studio to jam and add ideas which, according to
Granduciel, would sometimes “totally change the direction of the song.” But
ultimately Granduciel and co-producer Jeff Zeigler constructed the songs from
all the formal and informal sessions. Because the process was so extended and
improvisatory, even the players sometimes have trouble hearing themselves in
the final product.

 

“I could look at the credits and know where I’m credited,
but if I didn’t have that, I would listen to it and say, I don’t know if that’s
me or what because there were so many things recorded,” says Hartley.
“Especially on things like ‘Baby Missiles’ and ‘Come To The City’ and some of
the really really dense ones like ‘Your Love Is Calling My Name’-which has
become my favorite track – I don’t know, I listen to that stuff, and I know I’m
on there somewhere but I couldn’t tell. That’s the cool thing about the
density: it’s really dense but it’s not busy, if that makes sense.”

 

Rather than layers playing off busy layers, Slave Ambient flows, with those layers
working wave-like together – maybe it’s a wave of sound rather than a wall? – and
details like the slightly out-of-phase double-track vocals on “Brothers” or the
shifting guitars sounds in the Dylanesque ballad “Black Water Falls” adding
depth, even if they’re not noticeable on a casual first listen. Songs weren’t
really finished until the whole album was finished. Some albums feel get there
coherence from an intense burst of work – they were recorded in a few days, and
that focus produced an aesthetically related set of songs – but in this case,
everything slowly accrued at the same pace.

 

“I don’t know that anybody could have dealt with working on
it all the time with me,” says Granduciel. “A song we started two and a half
years ago, over time we were always adding to it, remixing it. I was always
adding to new songs and old songs; so
if I was working on a new song, putting some guitars down, I was like, oh man,
this tone we got is fucking great, let’s go back to ‘I Was There’ and put a
track down with this sound on that. I was always going back to them and making
little adjustments and adding to the record.”

 

No wonder the album took a long time to finish. A couple
factors converged to finally get it done. Granduciel knew he was going to be
touring with Kurt Vile in the summer, and the War on Drugs scheduled a tour
opening for Destroyer for the spring, so they needed to finish the album by
March. Co-producer Jeff Zeigler, who’d also co-produced Wagonwheel with Granduciel and Vile, was crucial in the final
stages, says Granduciel.

 

“He did some recording of it over the years, but the last
six to eight months when I was super-confused, he was like, Dude, let’s finish
this record.  I know it’s close. So, we
worked on it pretty much from September through March, we just buckled down and
finished.”

 

And finishing meant not only completing the recording of
individual songs but connecting the dots between them.

 

 


The War on Drugs – Come to the City by yvynyl

 

 

“Some cool stuff happened at the very end when we were
putting it all together,” says Granduciel. “I had ‘Your Love Is Calling My
Name’ and ‘Come To The City’, and then ‘The Animator’ that goes in between them
was just something I was working on, but it was going to go behind ‘Come To The
City’ because it was in the same key. And I just kind of off-set it and made it
its own thing and went, Oh sweet, we can link these three songs together. Then
we looked at the whole twelve-minute thing and went through and made it so it
didn’t seem like it was just three segues. It wasn’t a sequencing thing like
where they were all done and we just cross-faded. We saw the possibility, and
then approached the whole thing as if we were working on one song, which was
awesome.”

 

And that resulted in the awesomeness of Slave Ambient as a whole.

 

“It’s great that it’s reaching a lot of people and that
people are coming out to see us. It’s exciting for me and I think it’s exciting
for the other guys. Maybe year ago the record was in a strange place, but now
it’s out and to see people responding to it, it’s great, it’s awesome.”

 

The War On Drugs are
currently on tour in Europe. The U.S. tour
resumes again in mid-October. View dates at the official website.

 

 

[Photo Credit: Graham Tolbert]

 

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