Interview: The War on Drugs on the Grateful Dead, Dads, & the Emotional Depth of ‘Sleepless in Seattle’
By Shannon Carlin
Adam Granduciel, the man behind The War on Drugs, is driving from Chicago to Nebraska. After that he’ll drive 21 hours straight to Colorado for a show at Denver’s Bluebird Theater. It’s not the most scenic ride. Actually, Granduciel’s quick to note it’s very, very boring. But, he doesn’t mind the trek, since at the end of the day he’ll get a chance to jump on stage with his six-piece band where they’ll “play their asses off.”
Last week, Granduciel dropped his third studio album, Lost in the Dream, which tackles the year he spent battling crippling anxiety that kept him from leaving the house. The singer said it’s not only his most honest album to date, but probably the most honest he’s ever been in his life. And his honesty seems to have paid off since the album’s earned rave reviews across the board and many of the shows on his band’s 26-date North American tour are already sold out.
While talking with Radio.com, Granduciel kept things just as honest, explaining that talking to him while he’s stuck in traffic might be the best time to chat, especially if you want to know his mixed feelings on the Grateful Dead.
Read our entire interview with Granduciel to see what else he had to say about reconnecting with his dad, why he doesn’t mind being called an “everyman” and which romantic comedies make him feel something. Hint: they usually star Tom Hanks.
Radio.com: Those who have written about Lost In The Dream definitely talk about the music, but a lot of the story is about your experience making the album. Were you surprised by the interest people took in you personally?
Adam Granduciel: I was prepared for it, I decided I wasn’t going to pretend it wasn’t about those things. They had an impact on the music. Sometimes it gets a little uncomfortable. But at the same time, it’s like, maybe, the first time ever in my life that I was open about something. I just decided, ‘Well if I’m going to write about it, I’m going to be as honest as I can be.’ Then I think people, not necessarily respect that, but it gives everything a little context. It would definitely be impossible to talk about [the album] without talking about that side of it. I’m not surprised by it, I brought it upon myself, but I’m not like embarrassed by it or like ashamed or anything. For the most part, I’m just happy that it’s out there and that people care. It’s connecting with people and that’s kind of what I wanted to do more of with this record.
You’ve been compared to Bruce Springsteen, saying that you have that same sort of everyman appeal with your lyrics. Is it a compliment to be considered an “everyman”?
It’s definitely awesome. I think that’s what you try to do, have stuff that’s personal, but not too insular. I’m not writing about factory life you know? It’s not really my reality. I think of the idea of the “everyman” as being anyone who wants to find a little bit of themselves in either what the songs sound like or what the band represents. Me and Dave [Hartley, War on Drugs' bassist] saw Springsteen last year or two years ago and he plays some b-side and like four 40 to 50-year-old dudes in front of us start hugging. It was probably a song they had a moment over, you know? It wasn’t necessarily what the song was about, but what the song represented. That takes time to achieve that as an artist. I don’t think that’s immediately what we set out to do, like, ‘Oh, we want to be more working class.’ We want to make music with our friends and others find connections in that.
You start the album with the over eight-minute song, “Under The Pressure,” which is definitely a bold move.
It was originally 12-minutes. It ended up being cut down to eight and a half. The last couple of weeks it was a pretty difficult to sequence it. I was going to do “Suffering” first. I was like, ‘Oh, I’ll be bold, put a slow jam first.’ And I was always being very obsessive. Then one day I was like, ‘I think “Under The Pressure” should be first.‘ And [Dave Hartley] was like, ‘I knew you’d see the light.’ I wasn’t ready to accept that the record was ready to be done, you know? It’s those moments where you think you’re so far away and you listen to it later to realize how close you were.
During the year you made this record you weren’t really leaving your house, but were watching movies. Is there a film you watched during this time that influenced the music or reminds you of the album?
I do remember there was one night where I really wanted to watch Sleepless in Seattle because I really wanted to see if I could have an emotional reaction to anything. And I felt like if I watched Sleepless in Seattle, maybe I would have this big release. I felt like I just needed to break down and cry. And I was like, the only thing that’s going to ever truly make me do that is Sleepless in Seattle or You’ve Got Mail. That’s a great movie. That’s a film. Or maybe the end of City Slickers. So, they’ve got Sleepless in Seattle f—ing On Demand. It’s like 4 in the morning and I was like waiting, but it wasn’t the release I thought. I already knew what happened.
Maybe you needed to watch something else.
Yeah, you know, Must Love Dogs is another one that does it for me. What’s that one with Owen Wilson, with the dog and Jennifer Aniston?
Oh, Marley & Me?
Marley & Me, See I should have went right to Marley & Me. That would have got me. To be honest with you, I’m not really a big, like I like movies but I basically just listed my top five favorite movies with you right now. Not really, but pretty much. Besides, Dances With Wolves, Goodfellas, Field of Dreams, I’d even go with Contact. Billy Budd. Shout out to my dad there. But yeah, to feel, that’s the effect of movies.
Since you brought your dad up, does he come to your shows?
He actually comes to a lot of the shows. He’s not someone I like play a rough mix for, you know what I mean? He’ll think the amperage is too overbearing. But for a long time, he was probably pretty confused to why this was such a huge part of my life, but now he comes out to the shows. He’s like 82 years old and he’s always f—–g there to the bitter end. I feel like it’s been a rebirth in the father, son kind of understanding, which is a cool thing. We have had a lot of hard times over the years. It’s the thing that you thought was driving you apart that eventually brings you closest.
Lost In The Dream marks the first time where you didn’t have a day job and could focus solely on recording. Do you now consider music your job?
Definitely the last four months I do. For sure. It’s a weird job, and I wish I could fire myself. But I can’t. My goal is to find a 15 years younger Jewish kid to mentor. And maybe I’ll just tour manage. Or become a guitar tech.
It does feel like a job, a great job. But you never really set out in some weird way to make a career out of it. You just kind of keep doing your thing and then over time it becomes that. I think everyone feels pretty humbled and blessed. Each tour, from 2007 to 2010, people have been more than happy to come to the shows. For us, it was like, ‘Whoa this is amazing. Like 40 to 45 people in Denver, that’s crazy, we’ve never even played in Denver before!’ You know? Now we’re like, ‘Holy s–t, 1, 400 in Chicago? That’s nuts.’ So I hope even if we’re playing to as much as 6,000 that we’re like, ‘This is crazy.’ I hope it never gets like you know, ‘Where’s my mineral water!’ ‘Where’s my copy of Marley & Me!”
I read you’re covering “Touch of Grey” for the Grateful Dead compilation the National are doing. Why did you choose that song?
In December of 2011, when we did this tour and it was just one of those songs I heard and was like, this would be an awesome song for the band. At the time, the band we had, we were four-piece, it made perfect sense. That was around the same time…I did this interview with Aaron Dessner of The National and he told me, they were going to curate a Dead compilation. And I said, we actually do ‘Touch of Grey.’ It’s a song that’s perfectly up the band’s alley. It’s just hard to tap back into that little magic we had when we did it for the first time. I guess the reason why we picked it is because it kind of has a lot of War on Drugs elements to it. It’s just like, you know, the chord voicing and the general vibe of it. We still have to finish it. I started it before the tour, but then we’ve been so busy. But it’s cool, it’s a little different. But I do need to finish it so thanks for reminding me.
We actually interviewed Matt Berninger and he talked about closeted Grateful Dead fans in the indie rock world. Do you consider yourself to be in this category?
I’m not in the closet. But I’m also not dancing on the bar with dollars in my pants. I like a bunch of Grateful Dead songs. I love the Jerry Garcia Band, that whole era with all the Dylan covers, that s–t’s great. If I never hear “Dark Star” again, I’ll be totally f—ing happy. I don’t really care about tapes. I never did. It’s a whole thing now with tapes. Like people trading tapes again, like in mp3 form. I grew up in Massachusetts too so I grew up in that kind of culture. Like in New England, Grateful Dead/Phish/tape trading culture’s very big so I was exposed to that pretty early. But it’s amusing now when I’m like 35 and people are like, ‘Do you have Phish Cal Expo?’ Like, ‘No, get out of my way.’