A rock band from Philadelphia with the songwriting brio of Tom Petty and the musical sensibilities of Sonic Youth, a love of vintage recording equipment and a passion for synths, loops and samplers, The War on Drugs are a three-piece of contradictions, wr
SOME of us are old enough to remember the War on Drugs. Not the band – they’ve only been together a couple of years, and our short-term memory hasn’t completely gone yet. No, we’re talking about the so-called War on Drugs instigated by the US government to, er, crack down on potsmoking, coke-snorting, glue-sniffing, commie, pinko hippies.
Adam Granduciel was only a whippersnapper in his native Philadelphia when the War on Drugs was in full swing during the 1980s, so he probably wasn’t too concerned about any threat to his civil liberties. These days, the War on Drugs has morphed into the War on Terror, but Granduciel has resurrected the name for his band, a psychedelic, rootsy combo that conjures up the spirit of such 1980s acts as Sonic Youth, The Replacements and Tom Petty.
“With the name The War on Drugs, I always thought I could record different kinds of music under that name,” explains Granduciel. “I didn’t feel it could be pigeonholed. Whether we recorded a stripped-down album, or an instrumental album, the name could always work. Ever since I first heard it, there was something about it that appealed to me.”
Ironically, the music on The War On Drugs’ debut album, Wagonwheel Blues, is the perfect soundtrack for rolling up. Granduciel’s songwriting evokes the wide expanses of the American frontier, but also the tripped-out sound of the West Coast coupled with the kind of loose attitude that can only come from living in the city of funk and soul.
In true Philly style, the band evolved naturally, says Granduciel, moving smoothly through a number of line-up changes before settling into its guitar groove. “We were just shaking things up, playing around in clubs,” he recalls. “But the whole time, regardless of the live line-up, I was working on a lot of songs and doing recordings, and by early last year I had a good, solid band together.”
Wagonwheel Blues sounds like a quintessentially southern album, but it’s informed by a deeply experimental approach to classic American rock and country, and an old-fash- ioned jamming mentality that sees many of the songs break out into long, psychedelic guitar wig-outs.
Such tunes as Arms Like Boulders, Taking the Farm and Reverse the Charges didn’t simply emerge fully formed from the rehearsal room, says Granduciel; they’re the result of many recording sessions and live shows where ideas and riffs would get tossed around until they began to take song shape.
“Yeah, I think it definitely evolved, like the songwriting has evolved too – maybe I’d write it at home on an acoustic, and then I’d bring it in and we’d get a different feel to it live. And when we went to friends’ studios to record – they were still home studios, but you could turn the amps up real loud and experiment a lot more – a lot of that stuff kind of started to happen.”
One element there from the beginning, however, was Granduciel’s ringing voice, which bears more than a passing resemblance to the sharp, saw-blade tones of Tom Petty. For Granduciel, there’s no dichotomy between his passion for Sonic Youth and the hardcore bands of Washington DC and his admiration for an all-American rock hero such as Petty.
“I feel an affinity with both. Growing up, I listened to Sonic Youth all the time, and