The War on Drugs frontman Adam Granduciel talks to JOHN MEAGHER about the band’s slow rise to the top, taking his father on tour and why he regrets not showcasing their latest album in Ireland sooner
The benefits to being in a critically adored, globetrotting, Grammy-winning band have been exhaustively chronicled, but it’s probably fair to say that getting to take your octogenarian father on the adventure of a lifetime isn’t one of them.
For Adam Granduciel, frontman and chief songwriter of The War on Drugs, the band’s hard-earned success means that his 85-year-old dad gets to live like a young man again, and travel all over the US, touring with his son and getting to bask in the glory of being with the band.
“It’s been great,” he says, chatting on the phone while driving through the streets of his newly adopted home of Los Angeles, “and he really likes the guys in the band. But for me, being able to spend time with my father on the road, and for him to see us in concert so often has been one of the really lovely and unexpected aspects of all of this.”
Granduciel Snr wasn’t always a fan of The War on Drugs.
“He hadn’t much interest in rock music, especially when we were starting out, but as we started to get better known — and better at what we were doing — he took an interest and really got into it — and some of those musicians that people say we sound like.” Names like Bruce Springsteen and Tom Petty have been bandied about for several years now and that’s mainly because The War on Drugs do a brilliant line in heartland rock. There’s much more to their sound than that, not least a thrilling psychedelic strain, but theirs is deeply personal, affecting music that sounds like it could only have been made by American musicians.
In an age where rock seems to have been pushed out of the limelight, they’re a reminder of how compelling the best guitar music can be and their last two albums, Lost in the Dream (2014) and A Deeper Understanding (2017) are among the finest rock albums of the decade. The latter was this critic’s best album of last year.
But their rise to the top was a long time coming. Their story began in 2003 when Granduciel moved to Philadelphia and met another aspiring musician, Kurt Vile. They formed an instant bond and quickly set about recording songs together. But their early live shows, the frontman says with a chuckle, would not have impressed audiences.
“When it came to playing live,” he says, “we just weren’t very good. I can look back now and see that and, to be honest, I knew it at the time, too. But when your confidence grows and you play more and more shows, and bigger shows, you start getting better and better to the point where you go, ‘You know what? We’re actually good at this’.”
After a promising debut and a handful of EPs, Vile quit to pursue music outside the band — and his solo work has enjoyed considerable critical acclaim. The loss of such a pivotal member could have hampered the growth of many bands, but it seems to have galvanised Granduciel. The second full-length The War on Drugs album, Slave Ambient (2011), captivated the attention of many, including The National who used one of its key tracks, ‘Brothers’, as the intro music on their Trouble Will Find Me tour.
But it wasn’t until Lost in the Dream that The War on Drugs moved on to the next level. “We were proud of the work we had done on that album but had no idea that it would have a connection with so many people,” he says. “I still can’t tell you why it has resonated so much, that and A Deeper Understanding, too.”
The latter album has been their most acclaimed of all and won the Grammy for Best Rock Album. “Is there any musician who doesn’t dream about such an accolade when they start their band?”
He believes that a slow, steady build is ultimately healthier that instant success. “We’re certainly old enough now to take it in our strides,” the 39-year-old says. “And it’s a good thing for other bands to see. It’s not just about making a first great album. You can develop in a more old-fashioned way. That’s how I like it.”
Granduciel has spoken in the past about being crippled by anxiety and panic attacks, including when it came to playing live shows, and it’s difficult not to suspect that many of their most celebrated tracks, such as ‘Under the Pressure’ and ‘Pain’ are concerned with his fight to manage that anxiety.
“I put a lot of myself into my songs, but not everything,” he says. “And I like to write about characters and situations they might find themselves in. It’s 50-50, I guess.”
Much of that anxiety stemmed from touring Slave Ambient relentlessly and then feeling disorientated when coming off the road. A split with a girlfriend at the time didn’t help, either, but today Granduciel says he has become accustomed to the demands of being away from family and friends for long periods.
The War on Drugs have been on the road almost constantly since A Deeper Understanding came out last August and they’re set to headline the Bulmers Forbidden Fruit festival