Thousands of talented rock bands in this country aren't getting their proper due. But it seemed almost bizarre how under-recognized the War on Drugs was until this year.
The Philadelphia group's 2008 Secretly Canadian debut, Wagonwheel Blues, was a high-flying road trip through American heartland rock. On the follow-up, 2010's Future Weather EP, the band adorned its Dylan-Springsteen-Petty-inflected jams with increasingly cloudy layers. But it took Slave Ambient, released this summer, for the War on Drugs to finally break through. The record is a winning balance of swirling, turbulent haze and tight, tough songwriting — artful and cohesive enough for the critics, melodic and accessible enough for casual fans.
The group played to a modest Riot Room audience earlier this year; expect a crowd on Tuesday at the Jackpot Music Hall. The Pitch recently spoke with frontman Adam Granduciel as the band navigated the Blue Ridge Mountains en route to a show in North Carolina.
The Pitch: I saw you guys in New York a few years back, and it was just three of you up there with a lot of backing tracks. Is it the same setup these days?
Granduciel: It's four of us now. We don't do so much backing tracks, but for the songs where there's a drum machine on the record, we'll use one. I think it can add a certain something to certain songs. But they're never programmed to where they lock us in or anything. It's more like it adds what percussion would add — like a hi-hat or a shaker. But, yeah, we're definitely done with the days of having all the backing tracks behind us. Those were also the days when I was playing with a blown-out amplifier that I never thought was loud enough. A year later, somebody was like, "You know, all four speakers are completely blown."
How much do you think about vocals? The Dylan comparisons are kind of obvious, but are there other vocalists you're inspired by?
I always loved Roy Orbison's voice. And, you know, I grew up singing along to classic rock radio in my car. I guess, over the years, after playing a lot of guitar and learning to record and stuff, I eventually just got to the point where I've figured out the way to sing that makes me feel the most honest and natural. But, yeah, definitely Dylan is a guy who I went through an intense phase with. When I was 20, 21, me and my friends would just sit around and talk about Dylan all day — the inflection of his voice, when certain words were spoken or when they were sang.
Is there a lame Dylan era you're into? Like the Christian phase, maybe?
I mean, I really like Street Legal. I tried listening to Knocked Out Loaded the other day, but I just can't get into that.
What about the Lanois-produced records? I feel like I hear some Daniel Lanois in the War on Drugs' sound.
Yeah, I think Oh Mercy is fucking great. Lanois is kind of an interesting guy to me. He's sort of — I have this feeling that people sort of make fun of him behind his back? You know, he's this super-musical guy. He does the whole recording control-room thing where everybody's in the same room. It just seems like he's one of those guys who gets really, really into the music he's producing, which is also probably why he's kind of legendarily hard to work with. But, yeah, Time Out of Mind, too, that's one of my favorite Dylan records. The production is beautiful, the guitar tones are great — Lanois played a lot of those guitar parts, too, and it's some really inspired playing. Or like, with U2, The Joshua Tree — that's a majorly beautiful album. Those early records he did with them are great.
How are the crowds on the tour so far? I imagine you got a nice bump from that Pitchfork "Best New Music" a few months back.
Yeah, once that review came out, the shows started to get pretty packed. But that's awesome because it makes everyone play a lot better. When we know the shows are going to be well-attended, we definitely take it more seriously and try to be professional about it. And we've been playing longer sets, too, which has been great. In Europe we were sometimes going for two hours. Lately, we've been playing an hour and 30 minutes, an hour and 45 minutes, just burning through every song we have, playing everything we've got.