The War on Drugs had a big year last year. Marijuana legalization jokes aside, the band’s album, Lost in a Dream, made — or topped — more than a few critics’ lists. For an album that documented in song the emotional turmoil and torment that frontman/songwriter Adam Granduciel had been going through, that’s no small feat. There’s no “Shake It Off” here. Not even close. Instead, there are sweeping, swirling soundscapes that go on and on. There are deeply ruminative paeans to surveying and surviving the wreckage of a life in broad daylight. The album took a year to make. And, though that it’s now been out for that same span of months, the band — which also includes Dave Hartley, Robbie Bennett, Charlie Hall, Jon Natchez, and Anthony LaMarca — is still on the road supporting it with performances at Coachella, Sasquatch, Bonnaroo, and more carrying them through the next six months.
How did it feel for the record to make so many ‘Best of 2014’ lists… including mine?
It feels good. I think I can speak for myself — and some of the band, probably — that we find the process of ranking albums to be sort of a fool’s errand because it pre-supposes that you can quantify how good a record is. Some magazines do the ‘Best 50 Records of the Year’ and sometimes I just don’t think that 50 good records came out in a year. I don’t know about last year, but there have definitely been years where I was like, “Man, I can only think of five records that I really liked.” Some years are better than others. Maybe some years there are 100 great records.
But, having said that, it’s awesome that people love the record, so it’s cool. People connected with it and that’s great. We can’t complain. However they want to express that — through lists or ratings that have a decimal point in them or whatever — it’s awesome. [Laughs]
[Laughs] I do think, even though you can’t really quantify it, there’s something about albums that truthfully document a journey through darkness that resonate with people. Do you guys get a lot of fans relating their own stories of struggle or triumph?
Probably more so than anything, that’s been the phenomenon of the record, in my experience… just because we’re not your typical band that has a breakthrough record. We’re all in our late-30s-ish and have been around for a long time and we’re on a small label. And this is our… some people say third, but it’s really our fourth record because we had an EP that was almost a full-length. Everywhere we go, we have people — from kids to a lot of older people… we’ve had basketball players… all sorts of different demographics — saying that they had some kind of really intense emotional connection with it. I think that’s why people like it. And that’s pretty amazing.
It must be pretty satisfying, too, for Adam, having all of these people relating to something that was very personal to him.
Yeah, I think it’s probably a little overwhelming. It’s cool, too, when you make records for a long time — and we’ve all been doing this for a long time, both with the War on Drugs and we’ve all played in other projects — it can get reduced to something a bit formulaic when you’re looking to make that breakthrough. You have people saying, “Oh, you gotta do like this. You gotta make it a little bit poppy. You gotta have long hair. You gotta have short hair.” Everybody’s looking for what it is that’ll make you successful. And then you step back and say, “Actually, you just have to blow everybody’s fucking minds with an emotional experience.” Which is something… there’s no rule book on how to do that. So that’s cool. It totally levels the playing field.
In this day and age, it’s interesting that technology has brought us both closer together and further apart from each other. So that human connection people get with other people through the shared experience that is music… that’s a powerful thing.
Did you simply like the record or did it hit you in some deeper way that related to what you were going through?
I just love the artistry of the record. It wasn’t an emotional resonance, so much as just a deep appreciation for the art of it.
Cool. Awesome.
Does Adam bring the songs to you guys pretty well fleshed-out and knowing how he wants it all to go or do you each get to put your own stamp on things?
A little of both. It’s actually hard to say how much he knows about how the song is going to turn out when he brings it to us. Usually, he brings it to us and it’s kind of a couple chords and maybe some mumbly melodies. And then we just jam on them for a long time. On Lost in a Dream, we booked 10 days at this studio called Water Music in Hoboken, New Jersey. It’s a great studio. That’s when we brought a lot of those things to fruition.
I think a lot of the time, we’re just playing different things waiting for him to react in a certain way. It’s a little bit exploratory for all of us. I think he’s really good at knowing what he doesn’t want, a lot of the time, which means that it’s a lot of trial and error.
A bunch of mad scientists in the lab…
Yeah. It’s cool because I’ve been in a lot of bands over my life and Adam is completely in charge of the band. It’s 100 percent his thing. And that doesn’t mean he doesn’t grant us artistic liberties and freedom to do this and that. And it doesn’t mean we don’t contribute to the music. We just look to him to see what he likes. “Do you like this? Do you like this? Do you like this?” I’ve been in bands where the lead singer or the main songwriter has no fucking clue what they want. The boat tends to go in a circle when that happens.
It definitely seems like he’s a man of vision. And one of the ways that manifests, in my mind, is that half the tunes clock in at six minutes or more… sometimes way more. At any point in there, did anyone ever say, “Dude. These songs are great, but they’re looooong”?
Absolutely. Again, that’s sort of a testament to his vision or maybe his totalitarian regime. [Laughs] Because a lot of us were like, “You know, we love the song, but maybe it’s not a great idea to put an eight-and-a-half minute song as track one — two-and-a-half minutes of which are droning noise at the end.” We were definitely like, “Maybe don’t do that.” And he was just, “Fuck you guys. I’m doing it.” And it paid off, so… fuck us. [Laughs]
A couple of the guys in the band and a couple of other people — inner-circle consultants, I guess you could say — a lot of this record, more so than any other record, was made in spite of our suggestions. It’s almost like he thought, “Okay, nobody thinks I should be able to do this. I’m going to do it.” I think maybe the record would have been as effective if the songs were shortened, but it wouldn’t have been as audacious.

Probably would have made the marketing team a bit more comfortable.
That’s for sure.
Now, as you guys head into year two with this thing, how much do you tour behind each release? And, when you’re playing live, do the songs keep true to the album versions or do you really go for it?
Well, part of the evolution is just us getting better as a band. We’re better now than we’ve ever been, by a lot, which is pretty exciting. That’s also because the band, in its infancy, was kind of an art-rock smorgasbord that had rotating members. We’d just get drunk on stage and jam and turn our amps up to comical levels. It was more of a statement than anything. But we’ve just matured into grown-ass men and we try really hard to — I wouldn’t say “please the audience” because I think we do it on our own terms — but we certainly want to blow people’s minds as we play the songs.
There are certain songs we play pretty spot-on to the record, like “Suffering” or “Lost in a Dream.” But there are others ones… like “Eyes to the Wind” has turned into this really epic thing. On the record, it’s kind of this intimate little moment. Live, now, it’s become a much, much bigger and broader in scope moment. It’s cool. The band is turning into something we’ve never been before. And, yeah, we’re touring a whole lot — more than we ever have. And that’s because the band is taking off so we want to. It’s exciting.
Some lead singers and songwriters aren’t cut out for this shit. I can think of a bunch that I won’t name…
[Laughs] No. We’re not going to start a new feud here!
No feuds! No feuds! Had enough feuds for one album cycle! [Laughs] But I can think of some guys who aren’t cut out for it — some of whom admit it and some of whom don’t admit it. And Adam, I think, is completely cut out for it… more so than I am, actually. More so than most of our touring company, but we have a nice crew, a nice band. Everybody’s pretty much road dogs. We’ll party a little bit, but we’re all out there obsessed with making the show better. Nobody’s trying to meet chicks or party every night. It’s really pretty pure, in the sense that we’re trying to just take the show to a new level every single night. That’s what’s fun about it. I think, as soon as we lose that, we’ll probably tour a whole lot less. We’re not doing it for the money!
Ha! Have you been road-testing new tunes at all? Or do those stay in the pocket until it’s time to make the next record?
For the first time, we’ve been jamming on new tunes in soundcheck. We have a long soundcheck every night and we started using these fancy in-ear monitors, and they allow you to spend a whole lot less time dealing with bullshit and more time playing music. So now we have a lot more time to play. I think maybe it will be a little bit more of a collaborative record this time around. You never know. Adam’s brought in maybe five songs and we just started jamming on them. They sound great. We’re playing Ventura between the two Coachellas and, right after the last Coachella, we’re going to a studio in L.A. and record with our eyes on the next record.
So, 10 years on and the line-up has undergone quite a few personnel changes, aside from you and Adam. Is the roster-as-is going to stick for a while?
I think so, actually. It feels really good. We have a really, really good band. It’s totally the right mix of the types of players. I’ll have moments when I’ll look around, flabbergasted at the musicality that we have in the band. I would say that the four most mind-blowing multi-instrumentalists I’ve ever known in my life are in the band. We have a horn player who can play every single wind instrument there is — flutes, clarinets, oboes, trumpets, brass… everything — as well as bass and drums. We have a utility guy who plays guitar and keyboards, but his first instrument is actually drums. So we have these great players, but they are all really restrained, which is a big thing. I’m sure you can probably tell that from the record. It’s not a very in-your-face record. It kind of invites you to listen a little bit deeper. Who knows? Life happens and there may be some ripples in the band. Or we may add another person. But it feels really good, so I hope so. I hope we keep it as the six-piece it is now… at least through the next album. I would love that.

How do you think the band would have evolved if Kurt [Vile] hadn’t skipped out?
I can’t really say because it felt completely inevitable when he left. It didn’t surprise me. It almost felt like he was never really, fully in it.
Well, he’s said that his intention was always to do his own thing.
Yeah. Yeah. That’s totally true. He’s a very confident, headstrong guy and he was always really confident in his own music. It didn’t even surprise me at all when he left. Having said that, in some parallel universe, if he had stayed in the band, I think… who knows? The band would have either combusted and broken up and I’d be working at Jo-Ann Fabrics right now or the discography of Kurt and the Drugs would be this unholy beast. We’d have seven or eight records to our name and we’d be playing stadiums right now. Who knows? [Laughs]
[Laughs] Well, speaking of longevity… How important are side projects to a band’s sanity and longevity? You have your projects with Nightlands and Sharon Van Etten. And I’m guessing the other guys moonlight, as well.
In my case, it’s extraordinarily important just because, in the Drugs, I have a really small, important role which is to just shred the bass and be the best bass player in the world. Or, at least, try. And I relish that. I relish the simplicity of the task. But, my favorite thing to do is sing, actually. And I love to write music and sing to, like, the Beach Boys. And I love Brazilian music and things that don’t really have any place in the War on Drugs universe. I also really love being in a great American rock ‘n’ roll band that finds its roots in American music. So, it’s cool.
It’s all about the balance. I think pretty much everybody in the band would probably say the same thing. Everybody’s got their own projects and interests. Our drummer, Charlie, he and I have a choir that we have been singing in for almost 10 years now. That’s about as far away from the War on Drugs as you can get. [Laughs] And it’s something we really value and we’ll always sing in this choir of dudes. So, to answer your question, they serve each other. When I have my Nightlands thing, I’ll do that for a while. Then I’ll be like, “Man, I miss just being a gear in this giant machine.” And I’ll go back to it and that’ll be fun. But it’ll make me miss being the figurehead of a band.
Feeding all sides…