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The War on Drugs' Hypnotic, Sonic Assault

Aug. 24, 2011
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For Adam Granduciel of Philadelphia's The War on Drugs, zoning out and playing music are essential to life. Luckily for him, he's been able to combine both into his band's hypnotic, multilayered blend of intricate rock 'n' roll.

His secret in achieving this sound lies in hours of tinkering with material he records from various instruments using tape machines and other studio tricks and building them up from there. Like a mad scientist, Granduciel molds, stretches and loops these random sounds until they start to reveal melodies and, in turn, offer the start of a new song. This certainly is evident on his band's sophomore release, Slave Ambient.

"The new album was a lot of experimenting at home, building up sounds from the ground up and writing songs as certain sounds or samples start to develop," Granduciel says. "A lot of it went through a lot of different changes. I started it at home and it would be one way and [then I would] take it over to my friend's house and all of a sudden we would put some drums on it. Once you had a really solid backbone of the songs—and this goes for a number of songs—you can experiment a lot with the feel of it."

Granduciel adds that the band's mood each day certainly affected the direction the sounds took. "You think about it in a lot of different ways," he says. "That's the part that got confusing as you have a million different ideas going on in your head. You just have to accept the fact that you're searching."

This long process, which could require months to complete a song, could test anybody's patience, but he knew it'd eventually turn into something.

"The main thing I've learned is you have to be really patient," Granduciel says. "I definitely have gotten lost in it a few times, but I wasn't rushed. It wasn't that I had a song and had to build it up from bottom up. I was building it and wasn't sure what I was going to do on top of it yet. That gave me time to tweak and manipulate whatever it was that I was working on until it sounded like something great, and then I would start tinkering with melodies and record how I wanted to structure the song."

When the band began in 2005, he was using either a digital 8-track or cassette player. But once he got a tape machine, everything became clearer as to how to better use these studio tricks.

"I had a lot of tricks and stuff already," Granduciel says. "But when I got the tape machine, it all kind of made sense into an interactive process for me that I was able to see things happen in real time and had a lot of time to fuck around with stuff and make crazy sounds, and sometimes they'd stick. It was a natural process for me."

While the process of just creating the music for the songs is a long one, Granduciel isn't about to let the lyrics be an afterthought. In fact, he's said that his songwriting is the glue that holds everything together. With strong, passionate and sometimes personal lyrics, his writing adds even more depth to the songs.

"When I sit around and listen to these loops that I've made, there are certain melodies or parts that aren't necessarily in there that I hear, and that's where songwriting on top of that comes from," Granduciel says.

While the songs may shift through genres, Granduciel adds that they don't attempt to sound like anyone else.

"We get these people who are like, 'How do you mix Bruce Springsteen and ambience?' or something, and it's stupid," Granduciel says. "It's not about mixing styles, it's about having fun with music. I really enjoy hanging out at my house and zoning out; that's really what it's about."

That's an attitude he shares with close friend and singer-songwriter Kurt Vile, who has played in The War on Drugs (Granduciel also played in Vile's band).

Recreating these elaborate songs live would be a rather difficult task, so Granduciel and his band mates find different ways to present the songs.

"We definitely rock out a little bit, and I have some tricks to getting some of the sounds in," Granduciel says. "For the most part it's emulating the feel of the song rather than the recording. It's not about recreating all the songs; it's about getting to the heart of the song as best you can. It's not the same thing, but the mood of the songs is still there."

The War on Drugs plays Saturday, Aug. 27, at Club Garibaldi with Caveman and Surgeons in Heat.


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