For Philly psych-folk group the War on Drugs, patience is the highest virtue. Frontman Adam Granduciel and a rotating cast of musicians — which at one time included Kurt Vile — began recording the group’s new album Slave Ambient soon after their 2008 debut Wagonwheel Blues. Since then, most tracks have gone through countless permutations and mixes, utilizing the band’s unorthodox approach of recording various bits and combining them into songs later on.
Recorded in Philly, Dallas and Asheville, North Carolina, Slave Ambient mixes swirling synths, chugging guitars and woozy melodies; it’s an album equally informed by Spiritualized, Springsteen and side two of David Bowie’s Low, fusing traditional Americana with Granduciel’s love of ’80s and ’90s British rock. Hive sat down with Granduciel, longtime bassist Dave Hartley and new drummer Steven Urgo to talk about the album and play an awkward game.
A lot of reviews and articles on the group say that you’re a “Blue-collar band,” and I still have no idea what that means.
Dave Hartley: [Laughs] In Philly, there’s something about the city where you just don’t want to be that cool. There are Philly hipsters, but I never felt that was the goal. There’s something about wanting to be more authentic. I’ve lived next to a bunch of plumbers and Phillies fans for seven years, and there’s some kind of gestation that seeps in. At first, you don’t understand them and the next thing, you know, you’re obsessed with the Phillies and you don’t want to be the hippest dude anymore. You just want to be a person that’s really into their craft. But yeah, “blue collar” is a lazy term, but at the same time, it’s better than being “dance-punk” or something.
Adam Granduciel: On my street, there are guys who have lived there for 50 years. This one guy moved, so now it’s like, “Who’s gonna be block captain?” I actually want to be block captain; the guy who just looks over the block. I’m next in line.
Has Philly had an influence on your sound?
AG: I’ve lived in the same big house with a little studio for eight years, and it’s also where we practice. Over the years, you get to experiment and grow, and it’s nice to be able to practice and play in your house and do whatever you want at loud volumes. Most of the stuff on the album started in my little studio, and that’d be harder to do in, say, New York.
There are a lot of different sounds on the album, from psychedelic folk to Krautrock to ambient. Was that the idea going in, or just a result of messing about in the studio?
AG: I like that because if I’m working on stuff and recording at home, for the most part, it’s building these weird synthscapes, and later doing something to it at my friend’s place. You never really know what song you’re working on until maybe a year-and-a-half later. On “Come to the City,” I had the crazy, kraut-styled sampled beat that came from all these home-recorded sources. I had it for a while, and would occasionally sing on top of it or put some synths down, but didn’t know what the final result would be.
I accepted the fact that I was incapable of doing something like Wagonwheel again. I remember the frame of mind I was in when I wrote [Wagonwheel opening track] “Arms Like Boulders” and I don’t want to be there again. I can’t write constructed songs and finish a track front to back in a day. This record was more building from the ground up and not knowing where it was going to go. Lyrically, it was a lot of improvisation and multiple takes, and building the song as you’re recording it. There’s a crazy library upstairs cataloging moments and sounds.
Wagonwheel Blues came out in 2008. Do the new songs go back that far?
AG: Even further. A song like “Blackwater Falls,” I wrote a long time ago in the early stages of the band. We played it in 2005/2006, and then never played it again. We did an east coast tour and ended up in Asheville, where we have tons of friends. I booked a day at Echo Mountain Studios but didn’t really remember the song, but everyone else remembered it from back in the day.
DH: It was weird because it was from a different era of the band. We thought that there weren’t any existing versions of the old recordings.
AG: I didn’t even know if I could remember the lyrics, but my friend had a random copy on his iPod.
There’s more of an emphasis now to release as much product as possible. Do you feel pressure to release more?
AG: I want to focus on albums that tell a story in themselves. It’s really that four years – that time between records – the traveling we’ve all done and playing and living, that’s all in the record. If you just go on the road and try to pump out records, you won’t know what they’re about.
The songs went through countless permutations and mixes. How do you know when a song is done?
DH: When it was physically pressed.
That’s a bit of a copout.
DH: But it’s totally true. If we hadn’t been on tour with Destroyer and if Secretly Canadian hadn’t been like, “Okay, it is done and mastered,” we’d still be working on it. There were things we probably all want to change. Eventually, the test press showed up and it’s like, “Okay, we’re done.”
AG: We went through a lot of times where the deadline was there and one time, I actually turned in a record. I sent them something, but then was like, “I need more time.”
Where does that come from? Are the songs just never finished in your head?
AG: Certain songs were definitely done. It was just a matter of listening to them and knowing when it actually makes you feel something.
DH: This was all up to Adam when the album was done. I listen to the record now and I don’t know what I played on it. I look at the liner notes and go, “Oh, I guess I’m on here somewhere.” We’ve been recording for years on it. We came back from a tour in 2008, and started recording. Then years went by, and we’re still recording. I didn’t know when it would be over.
So, let’s play a game: On the count of three, I want each person to yell out how much of a control freak Adam is on a scale from 1-10.
DH: Oh man, I’m gonna need some time to think about this.
One, two, three.
Steven Urgo: 5
SU: That’s a trick question though, because in some ways it’s complete laissez-faire and other ways …
DH: I don’t think Adam has ever told me a specific bass line to play but at the same time, there’s a definite degree of quality control. There’s no micro-management but there’s total macro-management.
Adam, why did you say two?
AG: What it is is you finally start playing with people where all the sensibilities work together in a great way. Eventually, you know that whatever’s Dave going to play, it’s going to be really good. It’s never taken out because it’s not good; only because it doesn’t add to it or isn’t needed. It’s just about trusting your friends.
After so many years of recording, how did you guys celebrate when the album was finished?
AG: Champagne, actually.
A blue-collar band from Philly doesn’t seem like the champagne type.
AG: Yeah, when me and [engineer] Jeff Ziegler finished, I brought a bottle to his house. I don’t know anything about champagne, but I used to work in restaurants. We finished the record that night and I was like, “Champagne time.” This idiot roommate had four friends over, so I poured all the champagne and I didn’t end up with any of it. But we’ll celebrate the actual release with steaks, potatoes and beers.