Published on the Deli Philadelphia – Monday, August 15, 2011
by Annamarya Scaccia
If nothing else, Slave Ambient is deeply personal. Dropping tomorrow via Secretly Canadian, the War on Drugs‘ second proper full-length was, for outfit mastermind Adam Granduciel, a chance to prove his worth, talent and musical acumen as one of the most prolific and experimental artists to come out of Philadelphia. It’s a record of layered complexity, of intense brevity, of changing hearts, and even in its stark, woven landscape, this record, four years in the making, is voluminously grand. The War on Drugs will be celebrating the release of their highly-anticipated album this Thursday at Johnny Brenda’s with Caveman and Tin Horses. We had a chance to chat with Granduciel about his unconventional approach to creating Slave Ambient, his upcoming tour in support of the album, and why cassettes blow mp3s out of the water below.
The Deli: The War on Drugs’ second studio LP, Slave Ambient, is four years in the making. Why did it take such a long period of time to craft?
Adam Granduciel:Well, it wasn’t really made in the traditional way of starting with a song written and then sitting down and laying down an acoustic guitar and the drums first – the traditional way of recording. It definitely wasn’t done like that. It was definitely done from the ground up. A lot of the stuff that I work on at home, like a lot of ambient textures or producing stuff to where it becomes this progressive drone, that where songs start from. Definitely the crafting in that process of building a song off with sounds, just writing a song as you go – recording it then listening and then also pre-mixing stuff and taking stuff away and changing the arrangements. Definitely the songwriting, crafting and recording is one big process. Also, I didn’t really spend four years straight on it because I was on the road at times and a lot of last year, I was on the road with Kurt Vile and the Violators. But usually when I was home for either a week or two or two to three months in a row I was working on this record but not really knowing what I was working on, just working on a set of songs that I had and that I was trying to find of making it all work together and that they were all unique in their own way. I think I’m the only one who knows when a War on Drugs song is done. And so, even though a lot of these songs were “finished” a while ago, I just knew they weren’t there yet. I just had to keep digging and keep changing stuff around. That’s kind of why it took so long because it wasn’t the traditional, standard way of [recording]. It wasn’t like that at all.
TD: Since you say you’re the only one who really knows when a War on Drugs song is done, when was your “a-ha moment” when you knew Slave Ambient was finished?
AG: It was last year, right before we toured with Destroyer – we left in early March for six weeks – that was a deadline for me because at about end of October 2010, I was like, “Alright, I need to finish it,” because I was 60 percent of the way there. I had a ton of stuff I was working on. It was almost there. Then Jeff Ziegler helped put it down in his studio in Philly, and we just finished it. We put it all together. It wasn’t like it was even almost done. A lot of songs came out of those sessions. But by March, I knew I had to have it done because otherwise, I would have been on the road for six weeks and I was confirmed to play with the Violators all through summer. So I knew I had to make decisions. A lot of the stuff was really close, so we finished it fairly easily and then a lot of it we worked on for the last five months, which was really intense. At the end, I knew it had to be done, and we met our deadline. So when I turned it in [before the Destroyer tour] and it was all sequenced and everything, I did know that it was done and although there were small changes I would have made to it, there were totally personal opinions that don’t affect anything…and people wouldn’t notice…It all worked out in some way. It took a lot longer than I think the label expected.
TD: While it’s important to appease labels, it’s really important for the artist to be satisfied with their record because listeners can hear if music is genuine.
AG: [The label] was super supportive. They know that my process may be a little more introverted than another band’s recording process. But they’ve also been getting rough mixes or different songs now for years, so they knew something was in the works that was happening, and they also knew I was on the road in both bands, obviously trying to make a living as well, so they were supportive of that. At the end of the day, I knew that they’ve been so supportive that I wanted to finish it because they were like, “Look, we really want to put this out in August after your tour with Destroyer. There’s gonna be a good feeling going on, so we just want to get it out.” So I knew that I was close and I just needed to wrap my head around it and finish it, which turned out to be super gratifying and also pretty painstaking to finally wrap up this thing that I’ve been working on. The whole point is I knew I wanted the next War on Drugs record to be definitely cohesive and a mixture of all the stuff I’ve been working on and collecting at home, and all have it work out. Yea it took a while but it worked out.
TD: Why was wrapping it up painstaking for you?
AG:I think it was just the amount of stuff that there was and the number of ways that things were changing and evolving with the songs, it started to confuse me a little bit for a little bit of time. When we realized we were gonna wrap it up [around November/December], and we were trying to but I was still like, “Ah, there are too many things I know don’t feel right to me.” Just going through the process of wanting to make sure it feels like it came from you and it was unique. You were fighting your friend engineer because he’s like, “It’s fine,” and you’re like, “No! This doesn’t feel right to me. It doesn’t feel like it’s me. It sounds good but it doesn’t feel like it’s my song. It doesn’t feel close enough to it yet.” So I think maybe more painstakingly for the people working on it with me because [there was] definitely a lot of redoing and a lot of taking it to a level and then going off on a totally different direction once you’re almost done with something. A lot of time and a lot of late nights and a lot of confusion, you know? It obviously wasn’t painful, but it was just intense to wrap it all up and see it through, and know that there was a vision for it but not really sure what it was until towards the end.
TD: Would you consider yourself, then, a perfectionist?
AG: Not really, no because a lot of the stuff that I’m attracted to in the recordings are mistakes or things that aren’t perfect. You know, a lot of the vocals are way improvised. There’s a couple of songs where there is mild gibberish, but that’s the stuff I’m attracted to. I’m not a perfectionist. I think I just know what each song’s identity should be, and so it’s just a matter of knowing when it’s there. If I was a perfectionist and I worked like this, I don’t think I would ever finish a single song. Part of the way I work is that it is layered and really maybe intricate but, at the same, it’s not overly thought out. I just let it exist the way it is and make little adjustments to the overall sound. A lot of experimentation isn’t necessarily one for the perfection.
TD: Even though you didn’t record Slave Ambient in a traditional way, did you go into it with some idea of what it would be although the vision wasn’t there until the end? Did that change shapes through the years?
AG:I spent a lot more time on certain songs than others and having recording it in a number of places, the song was always kept alive. It was never really done mostly because I knew the rest of the record wasn’t done, so why should there be one song finished? As I was working on a newer song, I would still go back and still work on the older ones, and start tying things together with maybe similar sounds that I was using on more recent recordings. Like those three songs that all flow into each other – “Your Love Is Calling My Name,” “The Animator,” and “Come to the City” – those were done all independently of each other. It just happened to be they all were in the same key, so I noticed…that these could be all together as one. When you start having moments like that when you have enough recorded that you can start seeing things like that, then I think that’s when the record starting taking shape in my mind – seeing those three songs work together like a triptych and how having a block of songs can work with the other songs to you have going. I guess it was just difficult to figure out what needed to be done to the songs to make them finished. At the end of the day, I think it was a matter of having a friend who was the engineer and producer instead of going to these studios and working with a producer by name or a house engineer. [Jeff and I] worked on a lot of music together, and he knew where I was coming from a lot of the times, so he was able to drive a lot of these songs to the completion. He has an ear for a lot of that stuff, so he wouldn’t get lost in the mess like some other people had.
TD: Having Jeff as your engineer, producer and friend, how much of an influence did he have on Slave Ambient?
AG: He was definitely the kind of guy who heard certain things that were there that I had done at home, and then he brought those to the forefront. He started building songs around maybe a loop or something, which is something I would love to do but it’s nice his instinctual response allowed him to do that. And there was also stuff that I had on some of these songs for a while but the vocals, like on “Come to the City,” I did those a while ago and, naturally, I wanted to redo them because we started building songs and I was like, “Let me just redo those vocals,” and he was like, “No, man. They’re pretty right on,” and I was like, “Nah, I can do better.” He was just the kind of guy who was like, “I’ll let you do that but we’re not gonna match that performance. You nailed it then, and we’ll make the song work around what’s there.” He was really good at making sure we didn’t backtrack. It was nice because I’ve done a handful of things with him over the years, so he has seen a few of the songs progress, and he was aware of where some of those originated. So it was nice for him to hear it almost done and be able to put those two cents in…Mixing together was a big thing because Jeff and I love a lot of the same music so it went in the right direction. There wasn’t any confusion on how we wanted it to flow and the general vibe of a lot of the songs.
TD: How much did your travels, and even Philadelphia, influence the content and feel of Slave Ambient?
AG: I think it has a lot to do with traveling but also I think what traveling does and what it was doing was putting me away from creating this record in a way. [There] was this really intense, personal pressure on myself to really want to make this record. So when you finally have some time when you’re back working on stuff, [you] can almost feel like super connected to it because you’ve been thinking about these songs without being able to do anything to them for weeks or months at a time. And I think, obviously the traveling thing, not being at home, constantly just being on the road – we listened to so much music on the road, so you go away and then all of a sudden, you have a week’s worth of crap to work and make money, and then that’s all in your head. All the bands listen to totally different stuff, so you come back from the tour having been turned on to a million different things or when I go tour with the Violators, all I do is play guitar – I’m not doing anything else – so my guitar playing is so much better. When I come back, it affects how I approach my songs guitar-wise. Lyrically, some people there’s this wandering feel, but I think it’s just what I naturally go towards when I’m structuring songs and writing from the heart. I think a lot of times that’s probably the way I’ve been feeling, running on all cylinders for a long time and also trying to finish up a really important, personal record and feeling lonely at times, struggling with fulfilling it and all that. But at the same, it’s not desperate and it’s not desolate. I’d like to think it’s fairly hopeful.
TD: Why was the record so personal to you?
AG: I think I just felt like I had maybe a little something to prove with this record. I just feel like I needed to prove that this was, in a way, a singular work and that I knew I could do it. Not even if whether it was good or bad, it was just a matter if I could finish it and be something that I was really proud of.
TD: You definitely achieved that.
AG:I wanted it to be everything that I hoped it would be in scope and in song and everything. And it wasn’t easy. There were a lot of songs I was working on that were bad. There were a lot of times where I was like, “Am I out of ideas?” or songs I put on the backburner that ended up being on the record. It was a struggle of trying to hone your craft and come up with something real. And yea, I did feel a certain pressure to make something I was really proud and that my friends and band could get behind and that the label was proud of. WhenWagonwheel Blues came out, I wasn’t in a situation where I was shopping a record around and trying to get a record deal. It happened fairly randomly. I had a couple of songs recorded, but I was working on stuff by myself and then a friend had sent [the label] some recordings, and then they contacted me. So that came about in a way that I wasn’t expecting to, so I knew I needed to make sure that if I was ready to put records out for a living. It wasn’t something I was originally striving for years ago. It was something I knew I loved doing but it wasn’t something that, at the time, I was actively pursuing. I was still honing my craft and just work on music and learn about music. So this record was definitely a way of continuing that education and shit.
TD: You say you naturally drift to this “wandering feel.” Would you say, then, that you’re wanderlust?
AG: Yea, for sure, in a way. I lived in Philadelphia for eight years now. Before that, I was moving around a little bit between California, New York, Boston and Philly. I love traveling, and I also do love having a downtime. But, yea, I think in general I’ve always been sort of a wandering spirit. I love to travel and doing my own thing in a way.
TD: Slave Ambient, and your last EP, Future Weather, have similar looks for the cover art, and some of the songs onFuture Weather are on the new record. Was it your intention to have the EP be a prelude to the full-length? Its name can be interpreted as a suggestion of that.
AG: Well, Future Weather was kind of the thing where that was the early stages of me trying to wrap my head around the full-length. I had “Baby Missiles,” “Comin’ Through,” and “The History of Plastic.” Those were kind of finished and I had all these other tunes, and instead of saving those, I just thought they all worked really well as a family because I had been working on them at the same time. That was all the stuff that I had been working on in some capacity over a couple of months. A lot of those sounds in the record are on Slave Ambient. It made it into the record some way. I also have a really grand vision for “The History of Plastic,” and it went through so many changes, so the one from the record is a tenth of what I thought it was gonna be in my mind. I thought it was going to be this epic thing but it turned out to be this really sparse, kind of weird song and it ended up being probably my favorite song I’ve ever done. I’m really, really proud of that record in a weird [way]. It’s obviously really short but it works really well together. It is kind of like a prelude to [Slave Ambient] but also me not being able to really wrap my head around what I was trying to do yet.
TD: You’re also releasing Slave Ambient on cassette. Cassettes are definitely making a comeback, particularly in the indie market, because there’s that nostalgia vintage factor to it. Are you a part of the cassette generation?
AG: I definitely grew up on cassettes. I use cassettes all the time to listen and also to mix stuff down on cassette at times, so yes.
TD: As someone who’s also part of the cassette generation, there is something definitely special and different about it compared to format. For me, at least, there’s a little bit more purity on cassette. So what was your motivation for releasing the album on cassette as well?
AG:I think the reason why people love cassettes, besides for the kitsch of it, is [because] there’s a natural compression to stuff, but you’re jamming all this stuff onto whatever it is, like a sixteenth of an inch. You definitely see it coming back in indie/lo-fi music because they could probably get away with it sounding just as fine on cassette as it can on record. But it’s cool and a lot of people still have cassettes in their cars. I think a lot of us making music now definitely grew up with cassettes, so to see a record come out on cassette is pretty awesome in a way. I was excited for it because of the sound quality because I think our record would sound awesome on cassette…For me, it’s definitely that natural compression of the cassette, just kind of jamming it on there and it would just glue a lot of those tones together really well. And then the B-side is just stuff that didn’t work – just random instrumental chants or stuff that I didn’t stop the tape machine one afternoon, just a random dub session. I didn’t want to put any alternate versions on. I just wanted to keep it kind of mellow and sparse. You could just kind of put side B on and drift off. Put it on while you’re cleaning or driving. It’s all ambient shit.
TD: It’s great that more bands are putting stuff out on cassette because, even though digital is great to get music quickly, this generation is missing out on the awesomeness that is the cassette.
AG: Yea. This generation now, I don’t think they’re aware of the medium effects the sound. They’re growing up with mp3s, which is actually probably far worse quality than a cassette, and 8-track or anything. If you think about it, they’re growing up with what they think is the most efficient – digital – but it’s actually probably the worse sounding medium we’ve ever had. But it’s only a matter of time, too, that mp3s become…
AG: The bandwidth is so much bigger now that you could probably get whole albums on a .WAV file or FLAC or whatever. I imagine it’ll eventually become the standard.
TD: Getting back on the record, you’re going on tour at the end of this week, three days after Slave Ambient drops. Are you excited to get on the road in support of it?
AG: Yea, it’s gonna be great. It’s gonna be awesome. The band is super tight from our Destroyer tour and the general vibe is really nice. I’m excited. We’re definitely the kind of band [that doesn’t] rehearse for three weeks for tour. It’s unfortunate some times that the first show is always Philly or New York but we just kind of get on the road. We already have our head wrapped around a lot of the songs except the newer one are going to be an experiment and an experience live. But it will be exciting. I think it’s the perfect record to tour behind to get the band on this awesome level for future recordings. I think the one reason why I essentially made this record by myself in ways – obviously, a lot of people played on it but, at the end of the day, it was because I hadn’t had a really steady band. Over the years, people came in and out but [I] never really had a solid basis. [Bassist] David [Hartley] has really been the oldest member. The touring for Wagonwheel was so disoriented because we didn’t really have a band. It was like putting together some friends for a couple of shows and then touring Europe. It never really felt like a group that was 100 percent behind the music, and really trying to grow with the band rather than just maybe go out and play the songs. I feel like, right now, I’m in a good position with who’s playing with us and everyone’s really friendly and hangs out with each other all the time. It feels like a real band in a way. It’s good. We’ll go out and experiment, try to not reproduce the songs but reinterpret them. Try to give the same feeling live as on the record without trying to worry so much about every layer and shit. But yea, it’s exciting. We touched on a lot of the new material on the Destroyer tour so we’re not starting from scratch, which is good.
TD: It’s definitely good to be prepared. Now to wind down, fun question time. What’s your favorite thing to get at the deli?
AG:I would say lately it’s been a tuna salad sandwich with bacon or maybe a half pound of corn beef to bring home. And obviously an iced coffee if they have good iced coffee. An iced coffee and a tuna salad club with pickles and sprouts on it.
(Photo by Evan Semon)