Any album that takes the better part of three-and-a-half years to make is quite an undertaking. Now think of such a project emanating from The War On Drugs, a band that is known for the intricacy of their arrangements and the depth and breadth of the songwriting. You’re probably imagining Coppola out in the jungle making Apocalypse Now with a bunch of madmen, or something akin to that.
But for Adam Granduciel, the mastermind behind this eagerly anticipated release, the process, with the accompanying rollercoaster of emotions, is becoming old hat. “You know like six years ago, if you’re making your second record, you might not be prepared for those ups and downs,” Granduciel says. “I’d been working on it for more than a year and then we started recording it as a band for real in May 2016. By the end of that summer I was really pumped by what we had done and what the songs were feeling like.”
“And then two months later, I was thinking that everything was ruined and that all the songs were awful and I had to scrap it all. You get used to that and, by the late winter, I was feeling like I was connecting with it again. There is always an up-and-down. Feeling the work you put in wasn’t enough or ‘I need to rethink everything’ or ‘I rethought it too much’ or ‘The sounds are a little weird’ or whatever. And I think that’s part of doing it. The more records you make, you get used to what happens when you’re making it. There is a process of writing and recording, and then there’s the process of emotional ups and downs of producing music.”
And so it was that Granduciel was able to withstand a coast-to-coast recording process, with sporadic band sessions interspersed with endless hours of individual work on the project, to eventually produce an album that’s worth all the anticipation that comes with it being the follow-up to the band’s breakthrough 2014 release Lost In The Dream. Titled A Deeper Understanding, the LP feels like an immediate classic, filled with sprawling, chameleonic songs that beckon the listener to lose themselves in these soundscapes and come out the other side enriched and enlightened.
As Granduciel explains, the effort spent to garner such profound results is its own reward. “I spent a lot of time on it,” he says. “Whatever process I need to go through to strip away layers and put new layers on, or add another guitar, that’s all fun for me. I just want to do something that sounds like someone really put a lot of time into it.”
Life After Lost
For those who might be new to The War On Drugs, a quick recap: Granduciel initially founded the band in Philadelphia with Kurt Vile, but Vile had projects of his own on his mind and didn’t stick around too long. An ever-changing lineup played on the collective’s first two albums, 2008’s Wagonwheel Blues and 2011’s Slave Ambient, each of which leaned towards a heartland rock type of sound. But 2014’s Lost In The Dream was a widescreen, epic kind of release, with tracks like “Red Eyes” and “Under The Pressure” finding an audience hungry for a more ambitious type of rock song than they were accustomed to hearing.
The commercial success of the previous album might have been daunting to some artists in terms of concern over what they would do for an encore, but Granduciel found that those concerns were alleviated by hard work. “I think there were times on tour when you’re playing songs every night that feel really big and powerful, especially because you’re getting a lot back from people and people are excited to hear a certain song and that song is taking shape,” he says. “So sometimes I was comparing myself to that. I was like, ‘Oh man, it’s going to be really hard to write a whole new set of songs.’ But you can’t really control any of that stuff. I realized the only thing I could really do was work.”
“So I’d rent a studio and I’d go write for a week and come out of it with a couple ideas and then kind of refine those ideas on the road by myself, or sometimes at a sound check. That’s all I could really control, how much I worked. By the time we finished the tour, I already had a bunch of different things I knew I could start working on. There was more of an anxiety based on how was I going to approach the next record, and it just falls into place if you don’t think about it too much. You just work and the things you like will come to you.”
Granduciel also found a kindred musical spirit in engineer Shawn Everett, whose work with Alabama Shakes had the feel that he was seeking for the new project. “When I was listening to that record, I was kind of mesmerized just by the sum of the sounds, and some of the space on there. I guess they had kind of cut their teeth as a live band; they had been on the circuit forever. Then they made a record that kind of reflected that,” he says. “So I guess my thought going in was: We’ve been on the road for a year and a half to two years. So how do I want to take the sound of the band up a level?”
In addition to deciding to bring Everett aboard, Granduciel also hit upon the idea of calling his band members (Dave Bennett on bass, Charlie Hall on drums, Robbie Bennett on keys, and Anthony LaMarca and Jon Natchez on a variety of instruments) into the sessions only for quick bursts of recording. “People sitting around for weeks on end as I go through the process to arrive at what I like, I feel it’s draining. I want to keep those moments of inspired focus that come when people come out for six, seven days at a time and they’re there to do one thing. I respect the time that people are giving me.”
What The War On Drugs arrived at in the end is an album that slows down the tempo a bit and leaves more open terrain on the record, especially on gorgeous tracks like “Strangest Thing” and the moving album-closer “You Don’t Have To Go.” “I guess that’s just where the stuff was for me at the time,” Granduciel says about the feel of the album. “Writing alone a lot of the time or on the piano or having a different palette of instruments kind of lends itself to a little bit more contemplative stuff. I wanted to have a little bit more space in some of the songs.”
That doesn’t mean that the album is all ballads, all the time. A Deeper Understanding also makes room for some thrilling up-tempo, head-rush songs like “Holding On” and “Nothing To Find.” “They’re fast but they’re intricate,” Granduciel says of these tracks. “What I kind of like about making songs like that is not just the power, the speed and the energy, but also that fine line of trying to keep everything moving as one. Like weaving in between each other, keyboard lines become guitar lines: You can have a lot of fun with fast songs like that, just recording them and producing them.”
And fans of Granduciel’s guitar work will be happy to know that there’s plenty of soloing on the record, with many of these parts producing an elegiac feel that fits the nature of the tracks. “Because I really worked hard on a lot of the songs, a lot of the guitar parts were a little bit more composed,” he says. “Like I knew that this was going to be the part. In the past, it was always like step on the fuzz and wail. I wanted there to be those parts where you could almost play air guitar to the notes.”
The relatively slower tempos and sparser arrangements also shine a spotlight on the lyrics, which sound, over the course of the record, like someone wanting to tell a special person all about their experiences and everything they’ve learned, only to find that person no longer near enough to hear those things. Granduciel says that these fascinating conversations are a byproduct of his writing process and can be viewed several ways. “As a writer there are things I want to try to talk about. I’ve never been comfortable trying to filter them through characters or maybe I’m not disciplined enough to have an exact idea of what I want to write about and then write about that. I think I’ve learned a lot about myself making this record, about where my life was at. Sometimes the two people talking is usually a lot of self-reflection. The main thing for me is I ended up learning a lot more about where I was, and about what I was writing about while I was slaving over lyrics, and trying to find the heart of some of the songs.”
All of which played into the album title. “My connection to music and making music with my friends and the band, the public nature of my relationship to music, and also my relationship to myself, trying to figure out how it all tied together; some of these questions, they never go away,” he says. “So you try to reconcile parts of your life, parts of your past with how you’re living. As I kept working on this record and having the highs and lows of making something that I cared about, I just felt like the whole time I was digging at it. I don’t know if I was obsessed with the music, or obsessed with finding something more out about myself, or if I was obsessed with just working. I just felt like when I had that title floating around for a couple months, and I decided at the last minute that would be the title, it just made sense when I thought about all the songs, and making a record, and putting yourself out there like that, what I’m trying to get out of that.”
Understanding and Understating
While he sometimes gets the reputation as a tortured-artist type, Granduciel doesn’t take himself nearly as seriously as he takes his music. For example, he pokes fun at his penchant for elongated songs. “After I turned it in, I was like, Jesus, dude, it’s f’in like 65 minutes,” he says incredulously. “We did an album playback in London. I was there and they had all the employees in this office there and they were going to play the whole record. It was like an hour and five minutes. They could’ve been like, ‘Man, I don’t get a lot of days off. I could’ve gone shopping with my wife for this hour. I was like, ‘Man, sorry it’s so long.’”
He also sees the album as a counterpart to Under The Pressure in a lot of ways, but don’t go asking him to muse on where it stands in the War On Drugs catalog, especially since the future is uncertain. “May be this will be like, ‘Oh, it was the last record before it was all jazz, before he started trying to play the trumpet or something,’” Granduciel jokes.
What the immediate future holds are accolades for this wonderful album. A Deeper Understanding represents the kind of immersive experience that true music fans crave, and The War On Drugs is quickly moving to the top of the list of purveyors of such experiences.
For Adam Granduciel, however, the music he makes is just a way to try and, well, understand it all. “You live your life and you go to work and go home and all these things pop up. And then you try to write about them and make them make sense to you.”