Now, we're usually not ones to gossip, but we're starting to think there's a definite love connection going on between Philly and our little city. (See: the Admiral, Floating Action, Brian McGee, Telepath, uhmmm … Lenny's Sub Shop). Go ahead and add Adam Granduciel to the list.
"I try to make it down to Asheville at least once a year," The War on Drugs frontman says from his home studio. "I love it down there. Whenever I drive through I always just want to leave Philly and move down to North Carolina and buy a farm or something."
While that might just be pillow talk, it's an image well-suited for the band's psychedelic take on Americana. One part freewheelin' Bruce Springsteen, one part My Bloody Valentine, The War on Drugs's songs are a chugging rush of organs, distorted harmonicas and Granduciel's reverb-drenched hoots, all rattling 'n' rolling amid sprawling soundscapes of tape delays and roiling guitars. It's a sound rooted as much in jammy experimentation as it is in Dylan-esque folk.
"I love the vocal improvisation thing," says Granduciel, who rarely ever writes out his lyrics before hitting the record button. "I just find that the stuff that happens when you're in the moment of figuring out the tune is usually the best stuff, just feeling the emotions of the tune."
For most songwriters, that'd be a recipe for disaster. But Granduciel has the ability to toss off gems like an African dictator. Take this one from "Arms Like Boulders" off their 2008 debut, Wagonwheel Blues: "And your god is only a catapult / Waiting for the right time to let you go / Into the unknown just to watch you / Hold your breath."
"I have so many lines in my head, that it just seems to work in the moment," he says. "Maybe there's a line or two of semi-gibberish, but for the most part there's something about it that's pretty raw and true. And there's something really special about those deliveries when you're just making it up. If I listen back to it and try to take notes on the vocals and go back and redo it, it never really sounds the same."
It was that spirit for experimentation that, back in 2003, drew together the elements of what would become The War on Drugs. That's when Massachusettes-born Granduciel moved to Philly and met fellow songwriter Kurt Vile at a party. After bonding over drinks and Dylan, the two began collaborating together in the crumbling house that Granduciel and his girlfriend rent in North Philly.
“From 2003 to 2007," he says, "before we had our own albums coming out all the time," (Vile has his own band, Kurt Vile & the Violators, for which Granduciel plays guitar) "we did a lot of music together in my house. Just learning how to record and learning how to play together. For a while we did everything on little digital machines, and then I bought the tape machine a couple years ago, and it opened up a whole new world in terms of composing and being really interactive with the recordings."
Their demo eventually caught the ear of Indiana label Secretly Canadian, who released Wagonwheel Blues. The debut garnered a lot of buzz thanks to its exhilarating, Americana-meets-shoegaze sound, landing them spots on NPR and a few Record-of-the-Year lists as well as tours across the U.S. and Europe. Now honed down to a (Vile-less) three-piece, the band has just finished a new EP (Future Weather) and is about to start work on its second full-length, slated for early next spring.
And like the records before it, most of the new album will be recorded in Granduciel's house. Over the years, he's slowly converted the rental into his own ramshackle, private studio, filled with everything from amps and analog pedals to tape delays and his well-used tape machine.
But his prized possession, naturally, is from right here in Asheville: a Moogfooger ring modulator pedal.
"It's the best piece of equipment I've ever bought," he says. "It's all over the new stuff. You can get real nice tremolos on it, Spaceman 3-style vibratos."
A trip to the Moog headquarters is one of the first things on Granduciel's list when the band rolls into town for Tuesday night's show. Last time the band was here — playing at Harvest Records' Transfigurations Festival — they had a chance to swing by the factory and get a tour.
"Afterward they let us hang out in a little room and play with all the gear for, like, two hours. It was awesome," he says. "I'll probably end up buying a couple more pedals."
And who knows, this time around Granduciel just might follow though on his pillow talk and decide to buy that farm. Let's start the wooing, Asheville.
— Miles Britton is an Asheville-based freelance writer.
who: The War on Drugs, with Kovacs & The Polar Bear
what: Shoegazing, Springsteen-esque Americana
where: The Grey Eagle
when: Tuesday, Sept. 14 (9 p.m. $8. thegreyeagle.com)