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About a year and a half ago, the War on Drugs' Adam Granduciel broke up with his girlfriend. He also quit smoking, drinking coffee and alcohol, going out, and eating meat. When he thought about doing a cleanse, his bandmate Dave Hartley finally stepped in. "I was like, 'Dude, you can't quit eating,'" the bassist tells me over the phone from his home in Philadelphia, where most of the band also resides. "He was cutting everything out of his life he could think to try."
It was the beginning of a dark and isolated period for Granduciel, one that gave him such bad panic attacks that he contemplated suicide, hyperventilated during Breaking Bad, and became convinced he was suffering brain tumors and heart attacks. Even seeing a therapist recommended by Hartley, who recognized in him his own anxieties, made him feel worse. When Granduciel surfaced from a year of writing and recording, it was with Lost in the Dream, the most magnificent album of the War on Drugs' already stellar career.
"I wasn't trying to make [the album] about why all of a sudden I would get this wave sensation and feel complete despair for two hours," Granduciel tells me at a coffee shop in Philadelphia's Fishtown neighborhood. In the blue-collar spirit of his band's hometown, he wears a Marshall sweatshirt and work boots. "But it would be impossible not to talk about that stuff. It was a huge part of making the record.
"It's funny," he continues, "a lot of the songs I had written and demoed six, seven months before I had this flip-switch in me. A song like 'Under the Pressure,' you would think it was made in a period of suffering, but it wasn't."
What did influence this batch of songs was his desire to realize his potential as a songwriter in the tradition of American greats like Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan, and Tom Petty. Ever since 2008's Wagonwheel Blues, the War on Drugs have been known for their sprawling, effects-saturated take on road-trip-ready rock like Full Moon Fever and American Stars 'n Bars. By the time the words "hazy" and "highway" found their way into pretty much every article about the band, Granduciel wanted to prove he wasn't just a "soundscape artist."
"I didn't want to work on stuff in the studio with [longtime War on Drugs engineer] Jeff [Ziegler] and then come home, put a stereo mix on my tape machine, and record a bunch of half-baked ideas," he says. "I didn't have the mental capacity to be alone in my home studio, smoking a joint and zoning out," which is a version of what Granduciel had been doing since relocating to Philadelphia from California in 2003.
After recording in his bedroom for a few years, Granduciel decided to get serious about making music, even though he didn't know exactly what that meant, so he moved across the country in the hopes that he would figure it out. After meeting his roommate's co-worker, Kurt Vile, and messing around with him on tape loops in Granduciel's basement studio, he did. "I met someone who had that fire not about making it in the music industry, but about getting your music out there," he recalls. "That was a big inspiration."
After putting out a few EPs, the War on Drugs signed to indie powerhouse Secretly Canadian in 2008. ("I didn't know who Secretly fucking Canadian was. Did they put out Neil Young records? That's all I cared about," says Granduciel.) When the press identified Vile as the War on Drugs' guitarist even though he had his own band, the Violators, "suddenly it was weird, even though it wasn't," recalls Grandu-ciel. From then on, even though they continued to hang out and play on each other's records — up until Lost and Vile's last album, 2013's Wakin' on a Pretty Daze — the two Philadelphia songwriters played predominantly with their respective bands.
When the War on Drugs returned from touring in 2012, Granduciel was in the position where he could make music full-time. "It was hard to wrap my head around the idea of just making a record, and dealing with the expectations I had for myself," he says. Paralyzed with self-doubt, he obsessed over the "midnight vibe" he desperately sought but couldn't explain to anyone else. He would re-record songs again and again, slowing them down or layering synths or muting the drums, only to scrap them and return to the original demo. When he got tired of driving down the highway late at night listening to songs in progress, Granduciel would pack up his gear, band, and Ziegler and head to studios in Asheville, Hoboken, and Brooklyn.
There, he did months of takes on seemingly little details, like keyboardist Robbie Bennett's piano riff in "Eyes to the Wind," encouraging him to play "from the heart" until it sounded just right. "If I had my druthers, I'd prefer to be more involved creatively," admits Hartley, who likens himself during the making of Lost to a "cog in the machine." "But the proof is in the pudding, because it's a fucking great record."