Hope in the World-Reversing Night


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Written by Andrew Stark | Photographed by Andrew White

Picture a movie scene. We open on valleys of Technicolor green, distant traceries of a saw-toothed mountain, and a sunrise of such dramatic bombast, it feels like the sky is flexing. A lone road curves into the horizon. On that road, our protagonist travels in an appropriately rusted-out Silverado of two-tone blue (colors symbolizing depth, loyalty and truth), a truck with some years on it, with history. This is a picture of Rockwellian familiarity, our nation schematized. We tighten on the protagonist's face—handsome, furrowed, eyes lost in the gauzy void of colorless thought—as a few haunting octaves break over the scene. The song is cinematic and sweeping, at once new and nostalgic: “Thinking of a Place” off the sublime fourth studio album, A Deeper Understanding, by The War on Drugs. Fits the scene perfectly. This is a man leaving something behind, the audience thinks. They brace for a tearjerker. 

“Just see it through my eyes,” he implores on the song, “And love me like no other.”

Like that epic first single (clocking in at 11 minutes and 12 seconds), A Deeper Understanding (out August 25) plays like strong drama. Frontman and lead songwriter Adam Granduciel's conflicts and revelations and messy debris are laid bare, wearing his dénouement on his sleeve. Each song is masterfully written, hat-in-hand soliloquies illustrating 38 years of the songwriter's life, the soundtrack of a field-stripped soul. 

A Deeper Understanding is the highly anticipated follow-up to 2014's universally acclaimed Lost in the Dream, and marks the band's first major-label release, under Atlantic. But Granduciel doesn't feel like a rock star. 

“Definitely not, definitely not,” he says. “But sometimes it's cool when you go do a show somewhere and somebody comes up to you and says, ‘Hey, I love your album.’ Then you start talking about stuff, start talking about music. But I don't really search for any sort of grander fame, obviously. And in fact, whenever there is a rare situation where you're like, ‘Oh, maybe I'm a little bit more recognizable than I thought,’ if you go to a show, then it's actually a little ... very uncomfortable.

“But I just think of myself as the same guy, [who], just like anybody else has identity issues and self-conscious issues or thinks they haven't gone far enough or that everybody's laughing at them.”

Granduciel, typically photographed in cowboy flannel and beat-up denim, looks vaguely Sioux and speaks with measured inflection. It's like he's trying to put you at ease. (The worst job he's ever had, for instance, was working at a place in Boston called Joe's American Bar and Grill. Menu items include Fully-Loaded Nachos and Joe's Mac & Five Cheese. “I spilled hot grease on a baby's head,” Granduciel says. “Not my fault.”)

“You get on the [tour] bus and there's always fresh beer,” he says, “I mean, I don't drink much anymore, so there's Pellegrino on there for me. But then there's usually a game of dice going on in the front lounge. There's this after-show pizza that [tour manager] Craig [McQuiston] gets. Maybe the day before I'm eatin' some Tofurky, and so then I'm rolling it up into little sandwich slices, you know?”

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He adds: “After the show, life on the bus is the real party.”

On maintaining sanity during interminable air travel: “I download some podcasts and stare out the window.”

But the ultimate vulnerability of air travel, he agrees, has a funhouse-effect on the human psyche.

“I don't know if it's the realization that, at any moment, you could just fuckin' explode or what, but I get very emotional. Like, before we even took off the other day, I was already fuckin' bawling. Because the in-flight entertainment had started, and I was sort of watching The Devil Wears Prada when I sat down.”

It's interesting to trace the stylistic trajectory of The War on Drugs, a band formed in 2005 by Granduciel and Kurt Vile (who amicably departed in 2008 to focus on his solo career), whittling down over the years what would become its ultimate sound, finding, turns out, their own deeper understanding. 

“[Kurt Vile and I] met because he worked at Yards Brewery, and my roommate at the time also worked at the brewery, this guy named Joe Beddia.” Then, in true avuncular fashion, Granduciel digresses into a biographical sidebar: “Joe's gone on to pizza fame. He has this pizzeria in Philly called Pizzeria Beddia, and he wrote this book called Pizza Camp, and he's like a pizza celebrity. 

“But he introduced me to Kurt, Kurt came over to the house. I think I was listening to the Stones or something, I don't remember. We kind of just became friends, and we started playing acoustic guitar together. I went over to his apartment, which wasn't far away, and jammed up in his little jam room. At my house, I had a drum set and a digital eight-track recorder and an amp and guitar and pedals. At his house, he had a small room without a drum set, but he had synthesizers. It was like a different thing. We'd go to my house and kind of play loud, and we'd go to his house and play on synthesizers and electric guitar and acoustic.”

From the jangly heartland beginnings of Wagonwheel Blues (2008), the band's sound has always been big. But as the albums progressed—Slave Ambient's (2011) subaquatic anthems, Lost in the Dream's heartbreaking punch and lull—the contours of that bigness came into focus. A Deeper Understanding, then, is an incredibly moving work, music that swims. You get lost in its landscape.

“I just wanted to make something that I was proud of,” he says. “I wanted to make a record that was a pretty good representation of what we'd become as a live band.”

A Deeper Understanding has been called an L.A. record (Q: “So you've said this is an L.A. record—” A: “Well, I didn't actually say it was an L.A. record, but somebody said I said it, so let's just say I said it.”), but it lacks the flash and rapacious appetite associated with Tinseltown, the neon frenzy. What it does share are the existential questions damn near every Angeleno and import have undoubtedly asked their reflection: Who am I? Why? How? 

“At the end of the day,” he says, “all I have to do is feel like I made the record I wanted to make. You have to remember why you're making music in the first place. [A Deeper Understanding came from] questions about identity. Reconciling with the past, with decisions you've made. A little bit of loneliness and isolation, a little bit of confusion … All the good stuff.”

So, let's say this is a movie, and it's coming to a close, the emotional conclusion. We have a better understanding of our protagonist, a deeper one. Maybe he's standing at a window in Nashville, far-off locomotives howling. Or tipping a Pellegrino on some vacant beach, the forlorn reverb of surf, foghorns knelling like cattle in the dying light. Our protagonist in cowboy flannel and beat-up denim, boots that have walked in many countries, handsome, long-haired, Native-cheekboned. Maybe he's singing, sotto voce, a song crushingly lonely and beautiful. “Love is a bird I can barely see,” he practically whispers, “even in the darkness right in front of me.” The music swells and expands, opens up, harmonica blasting. Not a dry eye in the house. 

Credits roll. MM

Holly Bieler