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The War On Drugs on process, patience, and 'Slave Ambient'

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BY IAN POWER

No one can say Adam Granduciel isn't a hard worker. Co-founder and frontman of the steeped-in-fuzz Philly rock outfit the War On Drugs, Granduciel has been tirelessly toiling away at the bands' sophomore record for the last three years, all the while touring and gigging in promotion of their 2008 debut, Wagonwheel Blues.

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With Slave Ambient, the pay-off is big. Released August 16th on Secretly Canadian, Ambient is an album layered and textured with a sweeping depth of sound that somehow skirts a contradictory line between grandiose and intimate, fluid and meticulous, effortless and intentional. Granduciels wailing whine, his yips and yells from Wagonwheel carry over, as do the locomotive rhythms and thrumming guitars. But with Ambient there's an electric feeling of stepping forward into a dead sprint--Granduciel's restless lyrics sound like a man ready for the move, as does the about-to-burst energy with which songs bleed into one another, the din and hum of two years of recordings rolling in the background. Gimme Noise spoke with Adam Granduciel about the process of writing and recording Slave Ambient, and about his first 8-track recorder...

Adam Granduciel: The first one I bought was a Boss 8-Track Digital, a DR-8. Then later, I bought a 16-track 1" tape machine, and that's what I've used for pretty much all the records since. When Secretly Canadian wanted to put out Wagonwheel Blues, only half of it was done really, and so I signed a deal and they gave me a little bit of a recording budget, so I bought the 16-track. The second half of Wagonwheel is kind of the process that's at the forefront of the new record: me starting from home and then overdubbing on top of it and sculpting from that.

So you begin stuff at home, on tape, and work out the broad strokes?

Yeah--unless it's already a fully realized song like "Brothers." "Brothers" appeared on the Future Weather EP. It was a version with just me and Dave Hartley doing it really quickly at my house one afternoon and just kind of making it up. He played this really simple drum beat, and then later that night I just put the chords down and we started recording it as a live band. When we were on a small tour, last summer, I booked a day in North Carolina at a studio and we did a live version of it. You know, I overdubbed on top of it later, but we cut most of it live because we'd been playing it. But for the stuff that wasn't fully realized, I start most of it at home. On "Best Night," the first song on Slave Ambient, I just made this drum loop and I had the song written on piano, so I put some of those guitars down and then I took it over to the studio and we put the drums down and we processed in the guitars and did vocals and sort of fleshed it out.

So it's a mix of you coming up with an idea and recording pieces of it and the band gigging it out to work with that idea?

When I'm working on stuff at home, I wouldn't even be sure of what I was working on. With "Your Love Is Calling My Name," from the new record, there's a backbone to that song that was this intense process of getting stuff down and then writing on top of it. That song went through a lot of different changes, structurally and arrangement-wise.

Future Weather has an earlier version of the song "Baby Missiles" on it too. Is the Future Weather EP a bridge that helped work out some of the ideas that would later be on the new album?

With Future Weather, I was working on all these songs, some songs that are on the new record like, "Your Love Is Calling My Name," "Come To the City." But it just wasn't making sense. I couldn't wrap my head around all of it. Because I'd spent so much time working on "Baby Missiles," and "Comin' Through," and all the other ones for the new record, I decided to release the Future Weather album with those songs because they worked together, and it was a great little mini-record. I think I knew from the start that I wanted the next LP to be what it ended up being, so I was being cohesive and super-conscious of all the songs and everything being perfect. Well, not perfect but everything had to feel right. If you're working on a song for two and a half years, you're always kind of making small adjustments as you go, you know? So when you finally have your "aha!" moment and you see what the song is supposed to be, then you can start being like "Oh shit! Now we can take this and they can go into each other," you know? Then you work on that for a week, how that's going to happen.

As far as order goes, do you think that Slave Ambient has a story arc to it as an album? Is there a narrative?

I don't know if it's a narrative. I think that I probably have a greater concept of where those songs fall on the record because I'm so close to them. For instance, "Blackwater," the last song, it's actually a pretty old song, I don't honestly know "what that's about," but I know it's the last song. You know? There's definitely no conscious narrative throughout the whole thing, but I think it's telling the story, for me at least, about the making of the album and the process of the band growing.

The band has gone through some changes since Wagonwheel Blues, right?

Yes and no. Even before Wagonwheel came out, for a year-and-a-half there wasn't really any sort of live band. There was a live band between 2005 and 2007 where we used to play around Philly quite often, and there was myself, Kurt [Vile], and two drummers. Dave played bass, but a lot of other early stuff I never really recorded. We just played a lot, and then I was at home kind of working on my recordings. We were being a live band, but not really being a 'band' because we weren't recording as a band.

Then, when the first record came out, we put it out and there was some hype about it, and we started playing live shows, but there wasn't really a live band--it was kind of stripped down. We were playing up north and people were coming to see us, but we didn't know how to play the songs. Now, over time, I've figured out ways to play it live. All that stuff started to make sense, and now we've got the right group of people together that can replicate the song, give them the identity they have on the record, but play it live too.

You and Kurt Vile both seem to love throwing these instrumental segue tracks in between the songs with vocals.

Some of it is segue, but it's also just breathing room. It's nice to have a little bit of time to breathe on a record. A lot of the interludes all kind of reference an earlier song on the record, or a different way I was approaching the track a few years before... mixes of a song that I felt just kind of worked in there in some way. The record could have just been nine songs, but I like to sequence it so that there's some tense songs and then a little room to breathe, or something else to focus on.

Do you think that your approach to songwriting has changed with Slave Ambient?

Definitely. With Wagonwheel I would sit down and actually write the words, write 10 verses for a song and then whittle it down to three. This time, because I was working on the songs for so long, I'd always be putting vocals down, a lot of the time improvising. Then whenever I'd be listening back to the mixes, I'd accumulate in my mind all these little gems I'd come up with. So then, when I was finally ready to put some vocals down on a song, I kind of already had it written in my head.

I just watched the video for "Come To The City" produced by Urban Outfitters. Do you think that the Urban Outfitters video and in-store album stream has been a boost for you guys?

Yeah, I think a lot more people probably got turned on to the music or the band from it. Urban Outfitters is actually based in Philly, and one of the guys who does all the music stuff has been a fan for a long time. He was like, "we wanna do a video for you, and we wanna have the album stream." At first I was like, "eh, I don't know." But then I thought about it, and at the end of the day, you just want to get the music out to as many people as possible. It came out really good and they have a huge audience so even if five percent of those people buy the record, or hear it, or get into it, it'll be a good thing.

THE WAR ON DRUGS play with Caveman and Ocean Cats on SUNDAY, AUGUST 28, at the 7th ST. ENTRY. 18+. $12. 8 p.m.


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