Depending on how sunny your outlook is, you’d imagine that the opening stages of the making of The War on Drugs’ fourth album would have either been imbued with the sort of confidence that genuine success brings or fraught with the knowledge that a particularly challenging mountain needed to be climbed all over again. After all, ‘Lost in the Dream’, the band’s 2014 breakthrough LP, was a resounding critical and commercial triumph, troubling many an end-of-year list and being certified gold here in the UK. As was well-documented, though, the process of making it was a thoroughly turbulent one, a stop-start affair over the course of two years in Adam Granduciel’s adopted hometown of Philadelphia that saw the frontman grapple constantly with depression and anxiety.
By the time he got to work on ‘A Deeper Understanding’, the casual observer would have assumed he was on top of the world; he’d just wrapped up an extensive world tour that largely involved not half-full clubs but packed-out theatres, and he decamped not to Philadelphia but to Los Angeles, in order to live with his famous girlfriend. “It’s easy to look back on the making of a record and say that there’s always ups and downs,” he explains over the phone from a tour stop in Minneapolis. “But nothing about the reception to ‘Lost in the Dream’ meant I felt any more confident in my abilities. You still have all the same questions - have I gone too far? Why am I fucking with this? What am I searching for at the end of this rainbow?”
At the very least, though, what Granduciel was afforded was the ability to rent out his own studio space, which he could kit out to his own needs, and duly avoid the sort of procrastination and delay that drew out the sessions for the last album. Instead, he’d log some serious hours in the proverbial office, both alone in the initial stages and then - later - with his bandmates, who would fly out from Philadelphia for a week at a time. In recalling that time, Granduciel invokes one of his heroes, Neil Young.
“There was a part of me thinking about ‘Tonight’s the Night’,” he laughs, “that thing of the guys alone in the hangout room recording it. We kind of did that in a way, but more in the conceiving of the songs. When the guys came out to LA, it felt significant, because they’d all taken flights and found places to stay, so for six or seven days, we’d be working thirteen or fourteen hours a day. And, you know, having fun too; jamming, listening to demos, listening to records, ordering dinner and drinking beer. But it was all a part of the main goal to work on new songs, and ultimately the record. Living in LA made that kind of working lifestyle possible, because it wasn’t a drag for the guys to come out here; it was excuse for them to enjoy the sun, drive into the mountains, have a great time.”
“What am I searching for at the end of this rainbow?”
‘A Deeper Understanding’ feels like the heralding of a new dawn for The War on Drugs, for myriad reasons - and not least because it’s seen them make the jump from indie to major label, signing with Atlantic Records in a deal that clearly did not involve the concession of any creative control, given that the first single released was the eleven-minute ‘Thinking of a Place’ (for the record, Granduciel insists that it was Atlantic’s idea to lead with that track). Given that he’s no stranger to the usual roadblocks thrown up by the industry, it’s clear that his experience with his new colleagues at Atlantic won him over early on.
“Our A&R guy at Atlantic, he was coming out to our shows for a couple of years, and so he knows a ton about the band,” Granduciel explains. “He’d remember all of our stuff. I’d show him ‘Up All Night’, and then months later I’d be struggling with it, and he’d nudge me back in the direction of it. A lot of my favourite songwriters have legendary relationships with their record labels; they didn’t just hand in what they thought the bosses wanted. There’s a stigma about major labels, but these guys are fans of music - that’s why they’re in the business. You should want to pick their brains, you know? I was psyched to make a record for those guys.”
He’s continuing to move through the gears as he negotiates life as the standard-bearer for “the classic rock of tomorrow”, to quote a radio station boss from Philly who championed the band early on, learning about his songs and himself all the time.
“You don’t really know what the album means to you until months after you’re done,” he muses. “These songs, I’m finding as we play them, are a lot more complex than they lent themselves to be, and yet there’s parts here and there that are just beautiful in their simplicity, and I wish I could have known that about them when I was making them - it would have saved me a lot of headaches. That’s what makes them beautiful, though; I think I’ll always have to struggle to make something that’s worthwhile.”
‘A Deeper Understanding’ is available now via Atlantic. The War on Drugs play six UK dates from November 9th.
Photos: Phil Smithies.
Taken from the November 2017 issue of DIY, out now. Read online or subscribe below.