Patient man in impatient music world

Adam Granduciel , leader of the War on Drugs, at World Cafe Live. He took so long with their new album that their label was getting itchy.
Adam Granduciel , leader of the War on Drugs, at World Cafe Live. He took so long with their new album that their label was getting itchy. (DAN DeLUCA / Staff)
Posted: August 18, 2011

The War on Drugs is gathering steam.

Things are moving fast for the Philadelphia band led by Adam Granduciel, which released its transfixing second album, Slave Ambient (***1/2), on the Secretly Canadian label this week.

Thursday night, the foursome will play a show at Johnny Brenda's that marks the beginning of a tour that will take the band across the United States to Europe and back again in the coming months.

Granduciel, the songwriter, singer, and sonic architect for the Drugs, just got back last week from touring as a guitarist with the band of his fellow Philadelphia rocker of note and good friend Kurt Vile.

Once he did, he hit the ground running in support of Slave Ambient, a labor of love largely recorded in his Fishtown living room in the three years since the release of the band's buzzed-about debut, Wagonwheel Blues, that ups the ante on the Drugs' intoxicating blend of Dylanesque verbiage and guitar-driven tapestries of sound.

Granduciel is embracing the quickening pace. He sat for an interview earlier this week in a Northern Liberties eatery before he and his bandmates hurried to New York for a record-store performance, with a song to learn in the van on the way.

But the scraggly-haired 32-year-old is not to be hurried when it comes to making music. Consider the focal point of the 12-song Slave Ambient - the six-minute epic "Your Love Is Calling My Name." Granduciel worked on the track over 3½ years. He speaks of how the "strange electronic backbones" of songs like the tightly coiled "Baby Missiles" or the propulsive "Come to the City" came together over a long process of trial and error.

In a digital era when indie bands use the Web to distribute their laptop pop instantly to the world at large, Granduciel - who grew up Adam Granofsky, in Dover, Mass., and acquired his nom de rock from an art teacher's French translation of "grand of sky" - records his experiments to old-fashioned tape and then nurtures them for months at a time.

The songs he's most happy with, he says, are those that display a quality not apparent much in popular culture: patience.

The son of the owner of a Boston used women's-clothing store and a Montessori school teacher, Granduciel studied art and photography at Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pa., but gave up on painting because, he says, "I wasn't patient enough."

He's most proud of "Your Love Is Calling My Name" because "that's the one I was most patient with. Some of the early versions were awesome. But it never felt right. That was one it took a lot of patience, a lot of agony to get to the end of."

He cites sculptor Richard Serra and painter Richard Diebenkorn as his favorite visual artists and is still a devoted photographer. The abstract shapes on the covers of both Slave Ambient and last year's Future Weather EP were results of happy accidents with a not-fully-functioning made-in-China Holga camera.

Granduciel is not an obsessive perfectionist. "There are a lot of mistakes on the album, which I like," he says. But he's committed to continually working on his art until he senses it's right, an approach he admires in the work of Bob Dylan, of whom he's an enthusiastic fan.

"It's like how some people are with, say, Godfather 2," he says. As Granduciel tucks into a tuna melt, Dylan's "One Of Us Must Know (Sooner Or Later)" from the landmark Blonde on Blonde plays fortuitously on the jukebox. "You don't watch it every day. But you know it's the tops.

"At 70 years old, [Dylan]'s just always searching for the right feel of each song," adds Granduciel. He says Slave Ambient's "Black Water Falls" was directly inspired by Dylan's late-period classic "Red River Shore." He finds Dylan's commitment "so impressive and so inspiring."

Granduciel's own commitment led him to record about 25 different versions of most of Slave's songs. The demos filled five spools of CDs when he was working on the album.

When Granduciel and bass player Dave Hartley - who has his own excellent ambient project called Nightlands - went to Moog Studios in Asheville, N.C., last fall for further recording that yielded "Black Water Falls," the folks at Secretly Canadian were starting to lose their patience.

"They called Dave," Granduciel remembers. "And they were like, 'Dude, what do we do to get Adam to finish the record?' "

The answer: Wait for him to know it was done.

"I just feel that it's a matter of when something - not even when it sounds good, but when it's me, when it sounds authentic," says the guitarist, who's developed his own distinctive, arpeggiated sound. "That's when it's ready."

A fan of electronic music pioneers like Brian Eno and Robert Fripp, as well as German Krautrock exemplars Neu!, Granduciel got the idea of naming a band the War on Drugs when he was living in California after graduation.

Reading Henry Miller and Gregory Corso, he and his friends were "drinking wine, and being young," he recalls. As an art project, they decided to write their own dictionary, defining things of great importance like "Pacific Ocean" and "Mountains."

One entries was "The War On Drugs." The not-yet-recording songwriter knew a good name when he heard it, and put it to use after he moved back East to Philadelphia in 2003.

Eight years later, with Slave Ambient, the War on Drugs' time has arrived.

"The live band is more together than it's ever been," says Granduciel. "This lineup has gone through some very passionate but legendarily awful shows," he adds, with a laugh.

But the group, which includes drummer Steven Urgo and multi-instrumentalist Robbie Bennet, is now at the point "where we can stand behind the record, and play it with confidence. Everyone's just a real artist with their instrument, and everyone gets behind the music. If it's going to happen, it might as well happen now."


Contact music critic Dan DeLuca at 215-854-5628, ddeluca@phillynews.com, or @delucadan on Twitter. Read his blog, "In the Mix," at www.philly.com/inthemix.

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