fb-pixel Skip to main content

War on Drugs’ Adam Granduciel sweats every detail in pursuit of perfection

Adam Granduciel at his Philadelphia rehearsal space.Corey Perrine for The Boston Globe

An album’s liner notes typically offer little more than reference material of greater or lesser usefulness: personnel, production credits, often song lyrics. But the War on Drugs’ fourth album, “A Deeper Understanding,” goes further, telling two stories if you know where to look for them. The first can be found in the way that the word “synthesizer” appears to be insufficient, replaced with the exact make and model of the electronics in use: ARP Solina, Korg Trident, Prophet-5, Roland Juno-60, and so on. According to frontman Adam Granduciel, that’s part of the plan.

“I collect a [expletive] ton of gear,” Granduciel says. “Part of it is for the guy reading the liner notes, just getting lost in the pieces of gear that I really love. That’s why I’m so specific with what I play. Because I could easily just say ‘synths.’ But even if I play a little bit of the song on this one synth, it’s probably a pretty specific part or something, so I want them to be like, ‘Oh, what’s a Yamaha CS-5? Oh, that’s cool.’ I want people to uncover those little tidbits in the liner notes and maybe learn for themselves what those pieces do.”


That specificity, that meticulous attention to detail, runs to the very core of the War on Drugs, who launched a world tour this week that will bring the band to Boston’s Blue Hills Bank Pavilion Saturday. The second story told by the liner notes — the way that Granduciel plays multiple instruments on every track, sometimes more than the rest of his band combined — is just that same deliberateness viewed from a different angle. It results in a probing sweep that mashes up the drive of Bruce Springsteen with the scope and complexity of “Love Over Gold”-era Dire Straits. It’s a sound that has garnered nearly universal praise for albums like “A Deeper Understanding,” released last month, and its predecessor “Lost in the Dream,” which review-aggregation site Metacritic tabulated as 2014’s most critically acclaimed record.

Born Adam Granofsky in Dover, Granduciel (whose pseudonym, which he picked up as a Roxbury Latin student, is French for “Gran of the sky”) demonstrated, to his father’s recollection, no noteworthy interest in music beyond playing a bit with a band in high school. After attending Dickinson College in Pennsylvania, he ultimately landed in Philadelphia, where he joined forces with fellow indie stalwart Kurt Vile, with whom he performed in early incarnations of the War on Drugs. But Granduciel’s and Vile’s visions began clashing, and the two ultimately chose friendship over joining musical forces.


“I think Kurt was a little bit more interested in keeping it super hyper-loose and spontaneous, and I think that we were veering away from wanting to add a core group,” says Granduciel. “Kurt wasn’t interested in going on the road with a rock band, unless it was his own. Which I totally got.”

Granduciel would play with Vile’s touring band over the next six years, but Vile stepping away from the War on Drugs allowed Granduciel more latitude to aim for greater and greater sonic perfection. And yet, as intricately constructed and layered as they are, the War on Drugs’ songs are often found in the studio after basic tracks have been recorded and the rest of the band has headed home, often for weeks on end. It’s then that Granduciel begins to determine not just the sound but the shape of the material.


“Some decisions are made on the spot when you’re cutting live,” he says, “and some things are made six months later when I’m like, ‘Let’s insert 16 bars here. I want to write a bridge.’ And then it’s pieced together. Or, ‘Let’s expand the solo for 20 bars. There’s a lot more in there that we could be doing.’ ”

It was a process somewhat foreign to “A Deeper Understanding” engineer Shawn Everett (Weezer, Alabama Shakes), who compares it to a photo developing. “When he first brings a song, it’s quite hard to see the picture a little bit,” says Everett. “But I implicitly trusted his whole thing and imagined where it could possibly go, because what he ends with every time is so unique and cool. So he hands you a Polaroid that basically was like a little shoe or something, and you’re like, ‘Oh, wow, where’s this going to go?’ And then as he’s going, he starts layering something and then it starts becoming a leg, and [so on]. You don’t quite know until almost the song is done what’s going to happen.”

Granduciel says that the degree of sonic perfection for which he aims helps explain why the album features six different drummers (seven if you count Granduciel himself). “When you make a record, you get to live in an imaginary world where you have the best kind of band on every song,” he says. “I’ve met so many wonderful drummers — including our own drummer Charlie [Hall], obviously — that I love to get all sorts of different flavors on the record. Everyone hears a song a different way and hears timing a different way. And then you just kind of start from there.”


The resulting tracks aren’t brief, to say the least; only one of the new album’s songs runs shorter than 5½ minutes, and “Thinking of a Place,” the first song to be released from “A Deeper Understanding,” runs over 11 minutes. It suits the grandiose expansiveness baked into the War on Drugs, even if Granduciel swears, again, that there’s no larger strategy at work.

“If I could write a two-minutes-and-40-seconds song that did it for me, I’d be psyched. To me, [the song] ‘Pain’ is really precise, and I’m like, ‘It’s [expletive] five minutes and 30 seconds.’ Granted, it is a long solo, but . . .,” says Granduciel. “It’s cool that our stuff is received as it is, and our stuff is fairly long. But from a songwriter’s purview as well as an exercise, I’m trying to write shorter material and find ways to condense ideas.

“But screw it,” he adds. “Let’s go out and jam.”


At Blue Hills Bank Pavilion, Boston, Saturday at 7 p.m. Tickets $26-$36, www.livenation.com

Marc Hirsh can be reached at officialmarc@gmail.com.