The War on Drugs' new album, A Deeper Understanding, is being hailed as one of the best rock LPs of the year. It's a surprise hit for the band, which spent years as indie-rock heroes before signing with Atlantic in 2015.
Here, frontman Adam Granduciel shares the sounds behind his psych-rock opus.
In late 2015, Granduciel moved from Philly to L.A., where he rediscovered the music of local legend Warren Zevon. On long drives to the studio, Granduciel constantly played 1978's "Accidentally Like a Martyr", a diary of post-relationship loneliness. He cites Zevon's simple but profound lines, like "The hurt gets worse and the heart gets harder", as "something that I'll try to achieve forever". Granduciel had that song in mind while writing "You Don't Have to Go", also about heartbreak. "I just had to sing and not be too worried about it being too revealing. It felt naked."
Granduciel calls Springsteen a big influence, from his lyrics to his work ethic. Last year, Granduciel went through a Ghost of Tom Joad phase, falling in love with narratives like "Highway 29", about an affair that turns violent. "It feels like he spent forever on every song," he says. "He's working on telling stories. It just made me want to keep pushing."
Before hitting the studio, Granduciel read Phill Brown's Are We Still Rolling? which breaks down the tireless sessions for British New Wavers Talk Talk's classics, 1988's Spirit of Eden and 1991's Laughing Stock. That group's trial-and-error methods in the studio encouraged Granduciel to take risks like playing a harmonica through a Leslie speaker. "We were following the spirit of a band like that, which had made a name for themselves with their obsessive kind of perfection."
"My favourite modern-day band," Granduciel says. He credits Wilco's 2002 documentary, I Am Trying to Break Your Heart, with inspiring him to be a musician. On A Deeper Understanding, the frontman specifically wanted to channel Jeff Tweedy's dissonant guitar solos, which added new dimensions to otherwise quiet songs like 2004's "Hell Is Chrome". "I like that there aren't necessarily any wrong notes," says Granduciel. "You just find that one note and if you hold it long enough, it'll actually end up being the right note."
Granduciel calls the Bad Seeds' latest album, Skeleton Tree, a "work of art". "It sounded like they arrived at sounds a lot easier, maybe in a more communal way," he says. "It reminded me that music can be intense and personal, but it can also be just fun." The album pushed Granduciel to layer sounds differently, like adding vibraphones behind heavy guitars on the album opener, "Up All Night". "It's fun to throw a bunch of sounds down and sift through it and make something really beautiful."
The guitarist is a big fan of 1986's EVOL, the album that merged Sonic Youth's arty tendencies with more commercial melodies. Granduciel points to "Shadow of a Doubt", which includes percussive, atonal twin-guitar interplay between Thurston Moore and Lee Ranaldo. "You can do anything with the electric guitar," he says. "It can be a beautiful synth wash, it can be melodic or it can be angry. 'Shadow of a Doubt' does all those things for me."