Band on the Run

By

Adam Granduciel is flying down the highway in a rented Jeep Cherokee, A/C blasting to mask the 95-degree heat of Philadelphia in mid-July. The radio’s on, too, tuned to a similarly feverish chatter of news about dirty tricks and high crimes, but Granduciel isn’t paying attention. His band, the War on Drugs, is a month away from the release of its next album, and he’s keenly aware of the stakes. “I always feel like everything I do is my one shot,” the 38-year-old songwriter says. “If I have one song that’s shitty, then people are going to give up on the band.”

When Atlantic Records releases the War On Drugs’ A Deeper Understanding on August 25, it will cap one of the most remarkable transformations in recent music-biz memory. Five years ago, Granduciel was the gifted, shambolic leader of a mid-level indie band — the kind of artist who could look forward to a respectable career playing clubs and holding down day jobs. The third album he made with the War on Drugs, 2014’s Lost in the Dream, rewrote that future. Its songs were newly huge and heartfelt, full of frank confessions of existential angst and guitar solos that spiraled up to sweet psychedelic heaven. Lost in the Dream hit home with critics, who consistently cited it as one of that year’s best albums, and with Apple Music kingpin Jimmy Iovine, who pronounced the band “fantastic” and said that “they should be gigantic.” Tens of thousands of new fans agreed, flocking to see the War on Drugs in numbers that allowed the band to keep adding sold-out shows to a tour that ended up stretching on for nearly two years.

By early 2015, Granduciel was living in Williamsburg with his girlfriend, Jessica Jones star Krysten Ritter, having ditched the rundown North Philly house where he’d resided for more than a decade. After spending his late 20s and early 30s on the margins of American popular music, twisting the idioms of classic rock into strange new shapes, he woke up at the center of it all, with a major-label deal and paparazzi on his trail. It’s not hard to understand where he’s coming from when he explains his make-or-break mentality. “It’s a push and pull with your own confidence,” he says. “It fuels me, a little bit. But it would be nice to sometimes just accept things.”

He’s a candid, free-flowing talker, with wavy hair falling just past his shoulders and soulful eyes that make him look like Eddie Vedder as played by a young Elliott Gould. In this sense, among others, he fits the rock ’n’ roll messiah role that’s been projected onto him by some fans quite well. Yet Granduciel has never been comfortable with this idea of himself. “There’s a level of guitar-hero-ness that makes me bashful,” he tells me. “It’s obviously great to be respected. But there’s also an element of ‘I’m not that good.’”

Granduciel says he enjoys living in Brooklyn — “What’s not to like?” — but Philly, inevitably, feels more like home. Since finishing A Deeper Understanding this spring, he’s made frequent trips back to see the three bandmates who are still here (the other two live in Ohio and California), and to set up a new rehearsal and storage space for the group. “It looks like we’ve been there for 20 years, because there’s so much fucking shit in there already,” he says. “You’ll get a sense of my hoarding when you check it out.”

First, though, he has to track down a missing shipment of custom pedal boards. So Granduciel steers the Jeep far past the city limits, following the GPS to a labyrinthine FedEx depot that he proceeds to poke around for what feels like a minor eternity. “We’re really getting into the bowels of FedEx here,” he mutters.

He passes the time by counting backward through the history of the War on Drugs, before the fame, past their 2008 full-length debut and the early years “putzing around Philly playing gigs,” all the way back to the first informal demos. “15 years of this shit,” he says after thinking for a moment. “It should eventually be fun.”

As we pull into the package-pickup lot, I ask Granduciel to finish the thought: Is the life he’s chosen fun yet? “Yeah,” he says, and cracks a small grin. “It’s getting there.”

Photo: Shawn Brackbill

The runaway success of Lost in the Dream surprised everyone, especially the visionary who’d poured his entire soul into making the album. Granduciel vividly remembers his skepticism toward the early hints that his life was about to change. “Shows started selling out, and I was like, ‘It’s a fluke,’” he says over lunch. “I didn’t have any frame of reference for anything. And then the next summer, we’re playing to 70,000 people in Belgium.” He shakes his head. “It’s crazy.”

Granduciel is sitting across from me at the Plenty Cafe, a little exposed-brick spot in South Philly where the specials include a weekly happy-hour deal on a cheese and charcuterie plate. The surrounding neighborhood appears stuck in the awkward adolescence of a slow-acting gentrification cycle: Across the street is an upscale “wellness boutique,” next to a bodega that’s also a party supplies store. Down the block is a locked-room game called Escape the 1980s, which is an oddly apropos storefront to walk past on my way to talk with an artist whose music is often compared to bandana-era Bruce Springsteen and solo Don Henley.

One of the most impressive tricks Granduciel pulled off with Lost in the Dream — and one that he appears likely to take even further with A Deeper Understanding — is seizing those passé sounds and making them incontrovertibly, quantifiably cool again. “Red Eyes,” the yearning synth-and-guitar anthem that became Lost in the Dream’s biggest single, has been streamed 47 million times on Spotify (or about 12 million more times than Bruce’s “Hungry Heart”); the first track released from the new album, the gorgeous, 11-minute ballad “Thinking of a Place,” has over 3 million.

In today’s music industry, where rock’s commercial future is increasingly unclear, numbers like those, and the tight connection to fans’ hearts they imply, make the War on Drugs a hot commodity working within a genre that is usually in short supply of hot commodities. Steve Ralbovsky, the veteran A&R macher who signed the band to Atlantic in the spring of 2015, recalls being struck by how many young people he saw in the crowds on the Lost in the Dream tour. “This was a band with a vintage musical vocabulary, appealing to kids who hadn’t grown up with their own version of that,” says Ralbovsky, who has played a key role in the rise of Next Big Rock Things from Talking Heads to the Strokes. “For my colleagues at Atlantic, it was a pretty instant [decision]. It doesn’t take sharp people to size it up. All you’ve gotta do is go to a show.”

Guitarist Anthony LaMarca, who joined the War on Drugs as a full-time member in 2014 — rounding out the lineup of Granduciel, bassist Dave Hartley, keyboardist Robbie Bennett, drummer Charlie Hall, and saxophonist Jon Natchez — talks about the Lost in the Dream tour in similarly glowing terms. “It’s what everyone who plays in bands dreams of,” LaMarca says. “Even at the end, we were like, ‘Maybe we should book some more shows. I don’t want to go home.’ It was this perfect tour.”

But nothing is ever quite that simple for Granduciel, who spent much of the promotional cycle for Lost in the Dream speaking honestly about the intense anxiety and depression he experienced during the making of that album. In his darkest hour, circa 2013, he was gripped by panic nearly every day. “I was so paranoid to eat chicken for two or three years — I thought I was going to eat one piece and die of salmonella,” he tells me between bites of his Caprese sandwich. “I couldn’t continue living like that.”

A months-long course of cognitive therapy helped rein in the worst of Granduciel’s anxiety before the release of Lost in the Dream, but the subsequent tour presented new threats to his peace of mind. High points — like the pair of sold-out dates the band nailed at London’s 4,900-capacity Brixton Academy in February 2015 — could also trigger spiraling terror. “Playing in front of a lot of people, all of a sudden I’d be like, ‘What if, right now, I went insane? What if I started saying the worst possible things you could say, and then my career would be over?’” he says. “The whole show, it would cycle through my head.”

In the last weeks of 2015, as his bandmates went back to their lives, Granduciel took only a short break before heading to Los Angeles to work on the next War on Drugs album. It was a lonely period; he briefly tried seeing a new therapist, but stopped after what he describes as “a shitty experience.” In the end, he says, being thousands of miles from his bandmates was a good thing for the record: “Feeling completely isolated and a little lost was a big source of inspiration.”

In time, he invited the others out to L.A. for a series of week-long sessions. And last summer, the full band gathered for a month of focused recording with in-demand engineer Shawn Everett, who has helped shape high-profile releases by Weezer and Alabama Shakes. As they recorded, Granduciel continued working on his own, adding and subtracting and adjusting to match the music in his head. “There are parts that I played on that I’m astonished by,” LaMarca says, “just because of how many changes some of these songs went through.”

The result is an album that sounds even bigger, and quite possibly better, than Lost in the Dream. The underlying structures are familiar, but the details on A Deeper Understanding — the choruses, the solos, the watercolor synth washes — build up and crash down with a confidence that feels new. The songs are sleek and polished when they need to be (“Nothing to Find” is so Born in the U.S.A., you expect Courteney Cox to come dancing out of your speakers), and intimate when that’s the right move, like on “Knocked Down,” a weary lament that Granduciel, Hartley, and LaMarca recorded by themselves late one night. There’s nothing remotely half-assed about any of it. More than once after meeting Granduciel, I found myself humming a riff I was sure I’d known for years, only to realize eventually that it came from A Deeper Understanding.

It sounds, in other words, like a major American rock band using a hefty recording budget to swing for the fences. But Granduciel remains wary of comparisons to earlier standard-bearers of this ilk, even when they’re meant as compliments. “I love Bruce Springsteen, but I don’t want to be any sort of 21st-century version of the E Street Band,” he says. “We aren’t at that stage of our chemistry yet.”

We’re in the Jeep now, winding through back streets in South Philly after picking up Granduciel’s pedal boards. Someone on the radio is reporting breathlessly on Senate Republicans’ efforts to deny health care to millions of Americans. The War on Drugs couldn’t tune out the drumbeat of political news while they were making A Deeper Understanding throughout 2016, anymore than fans will be able to when they listen. “There were times when I tried to connect the record to what was going on in America,” Granduciel says. “I thought, ‘Maybe it feels like we’re losing a piece of ourselves.’”

Ultimately, though, he’d rather not attach a thesis to the album, in part because he feels there are limits to what an act like the War on Drugs can contribute to today’s debates. “I don’t think there’s any need for my band to write a 2017 version of ‘[The Lonesome Death of] Hattie Carroll,’” Granduciel says. “Even on the biggest platforms, NBC News or CNN, who are they really convincing? Nobody. I guess the way to be active, from my point of view, is just to write about your own life.”

Maybe that’s a cop-out, and maybe he has a point: Promotional campaigns built around vague, well-intentioned political stances can end up misfiring. Either way, he’s already itching to guide the War on Drugs back into weirder waters after A Deeper Understanding runs its course. “For whatever reason, people have latched onto the band, and I’m psyched about that,” he says. “But I always want to keep experimenting, and I’m sure the departure is imminent. I like to think there’ll be some people who come along.”

The second we step into the band’s new space, Granduciel seems happier and more relaxed. It’s a next-level music-geek clubhouse, with 1,800 square feet of floor covered by dozens of guitars, keyboards, drum kits, and amps; two full-size pinball machines; a large expressionist painting by his old friend Kurt Vile; and deluxe box-set editions of the first six Led Zeppelin albums, among many other examples of what happens when a moderate pack rat grows up to be a successful musician.

As he unpacks the banged-up metal cases containing the pedal boards, he tells me about his childhood. Born Adam Granofsky in a Boston suburb, he was raised by parents who put a premium on education. As a teen, he attended nearby Roxbury Latin, an elite all-boys school founded in the 1640s. (A French-language pun by a teacher there, translating “Gran-of-sky” as “Gran-du-ciel,” inspired the stage name he’s used ever since.) But unlike his academically inclined siblings, he struggled to keep up with his classes, due to what he now suspects was undiagnosed dyslexia. “I never understood why they sent me there,” he says. “I didn’t have any interest in anything other than learning the Siamese Dream songbook.”

A trip back to Massachusetts to see his family this summer got him thinking about the arc of his father’s journey. Mark Granofsky, 85, is a first-generation American striver, a child of Russian Jewish immigrants who worked his way into some of this country’s most privileged institutions — doing a stint of his own at Roxbury Latin in the late 1940s, followed by two degrees from Harvard. Granduciel has come to see his father’s efforts to set him on a similar trajectory as an act of kindness. “I think it was about passing something on,” he says. “It wasn’t as domineering as I’d thought my whole life. It’s amazing how you go home for one quick chill sesh, and you think about your life in a completely different way after that.”

Only in the last three years has Granduciel felt like his dad is starting to understand what he does. “He went out and bought a bunch of records that people compare us to,” he says. “He’s like, ‘You’re better than this Tom Petty guy!’”

We’ve been hanging out for nearly four hours when Granduciel asks, unprompted, if I’m married or have children. When I say yes, he peppers me with more questions about fatherhood: “Is it stressful? Is it scary?”

He and Ritter are in a good place, he says, but are not currently thinking about marriage. (“Tough subject. It’s not something I’m thinking about. She’s not thinking about it either.”) And when I ask if he wants kids down the line, he seems unsure how to answer. “I’m kind of a selfish guy when it comes to my time and space. And being prone to fear and anxiety, oh my god.”

The pedals are arranged on the floor now. Granduciel kneels and busies himself with wires and knobs, looking like he’s exactly where he wants to be.

“So I don’t know,” he adds after a while. “It’s not in the near future. But in my heart, I do.” He dusts off his black jeans as he stands up. “That’s the next frontier as a songwriter, right? Living all levels of life.”

The Unexpected Rise of America’s Next Great Rock Band