How the War on Drugs' Adam Granduciel beat back crippling anxiety and isolation to make one of the year's most inclusive—and best—rock records.
Adam Granduciel of the Philadelphia band The War on Drugs (Dusdin Condren)
By David Bevan
September 23, 2014
“This is not my safe place, I want to be in my bedroom.”
At the very end of last year, atop a mountain surrounded by miles of rainforest, Adam Granduciel felt the floor begin to shudder. The War on Drugs frontman had just eased his band into their afternoon set at Falls Festival, an annual New Year’s Eve gathering on a remote farm 15 minutes from Australia’s southeastern coastline. The song was a warm, bath-like meditation named “Best Night", and the views in every direction were both spectacular and serene, save for the overwhelming distance from the one place Granduciel had spent much of 2013. And then: “classic panic attack.”
As a subwoofer groaned beneath him, the vibrations in the stage forced his left leg to shake unexpectedly. His chest tightened, his mind shut down, and he grew so uncomfortable that he nearly stopped playing. “The weird part is, if you had filmed me and then had me watch it later, I don't know that I'd be able to tell,” Granduciel told me. “You don't wear it on your face.”
Or perhaps you do. Earlier that day, after the drive up to the festival site left him feeling increasingly uneasy—“in the middle of nowhere, where anything can happen”—Granduciel gave a brief on-camera interview that was later spliced together with performance footage. Onstage, he appears clenched. And when answering questions about Lost in the Dream, the album that he and his bandmates had finished weeks earlier, he looks at odds with the sunlight, like someone who hadn’t been outside for the better part of a year.
A month later, on a brutally cold January morning, Granduciel was standing in the kitchen of his Philadelphia home, peering out its frosted windows. A blizzard had just barreled through the Northeast and buried it in snow. The sky was heavy, the color of sheet metal. “When I moved in here 11 years ago, that was a landfill,” he said, pointing to a lengthy back lot behind the house, all of it submerged in white. “But now it’s a sweet garden. And every winter, when my gas bills are really high and the house is drafty, I say, 'Ah, I’m fuckin’ moving out.’ Then in spring, the perennials come out and I think, 'This is the best.’”
Inside, his refrigerator was clad in Bob Dylan magnets, his lonesome dining room adorned with a rare, imported promotional poster for Neil Young’s 1979 album Live Rust, hung strategically to hide extensive water damage. The walls weren’t insulated, the roof was failing, and five cats could be heard but not seen. Strips of blue electrical tape clung to the living room’s peeling cappuccino paint job, labeled and leftover from a distant recording session. Natural light seemed to fade the moment it entered.
Over the past decade, this three-story row house in the neighborhood of South Kensington has functioned as a practice space, barracks, and makeshift home studio where Granduciel would often work by himself. It has helped birth three albums of music under the War on Drugs moniker, and a number of recordings by friends including Kurt Vile, his former bandmate and creative sibling. “I was the guy who didn't get a cool little apartment,” Granduciel said. “I took one for the team. I liked having the place we could make noise in, the place that could be the center of the music. I sat down and calculated it one day, and over the years, I've had something like 38 roommates.”
“Do you keep in touch with any of them?” I asked him.
“Not a single one,” he said, sharply. “Except for the few that were my friends. I don't think I would have the friends I have if I didn't live here.”
Knowing that he wanted to finally move out this year, Granduciel chose to memorialize the house in the artwork for Lost in the Dream, an album that owes as much to his fractured state of mind as it does the small group of friends that rallied around him to finish it. In the grip of an anxiety and depression so severe he was frequently afraid to fall asleep at night, the 35-year-old endured a recording process so harrowing, all-consuming, and genuinely cathartic, it almost broke him entirely. Like its predecessors, Lost in the Dream places Granduciel’s oceanic vision of the American rock canon on full, psychedelic display. But unlike those early, relatively insular records, it is an outward, emotionally dynamic exploration of self and sound, full of anthems and comedowns, storms and lighthouses.
“Whatever has been said, whatever will be said, and whatever becomes the mythology of the record is insufficient,” War on Drugs bassist Dave Hartley told me. “Because it was pretty crazy to witness: We as a band went from worrying about the record to worrying about the person.”
Though he hadn’t suffered a panic attack in weeks, Granduciel was visibly anxious that morning. Through fine, dark hair down to his shoulders, there were ripples of tension in his jaw. He spoke in clipped, circular sentences, many of which seemed to surprise and further confuse him. At Hartley’s suggestion, he’d been seeing a therapist, in an effort to make sense of what had happened to him, and was still happening. In less than 48 hours, he was due to board a flight to Amsterdam, for the first stop in a week-long press tour through Europe. The thought of dying on the plane had crossed his mind more than once.
“Sometimes,” he said, “I wake up in the morning and I pull the blinds and I get that feeling I still can't shake: Today is just going to be another long, shitty fucking day, and hopefully tomorrow will be better.” We stood quietly for a moment, the silence punctuated by the violent clanging of old radiator pipes on the other side of the house. “I may have been living with this my whole life,” he continued, “but I can tell you the day it really started.”
A year earlier, on February 16, 2013, Granduciel walked to a Mexican restaurant not far from his home to watch some basketball and have a drink with Hartley. It was the day after the singer’s 34th birthday, a Saturday. The restaurant was mostly quiet and empty, and Granduciel joked with a few other bar patrons that he was “captain of the block,” a bit of a bon vivant around the neighborhood. As the night oozed on, the bandmates enjoyed what Hartley described as “a gallon of tequila.”
In the six months leading up to that night, Granduciel had been working at home on Howard Street. As was his routine, he’d get up each morning in his third-floor bedroom and come downstairs to his living room, where, amid a tangle of equipment, he would write and record for hours, alone. But on the morning of February 17th, he didn’t come downstairs. “I woke up,” he recalled, “and something inside my head had flipped.”
Granduciel experienced a “massive, crazy” panic attack, the first of many that would soon come as often as five times a day. He grew depressed and paranoid, and began feeling the physiological effects of his anxiety in the form of sudden electrical sensations in his limbs, excruciating tension in his skull, and frightening pains in his chest.
What may have been a standard-issue headache felt to him like the beginnings of a brain aneurysm. What were likely palpitations or acid reflux were thought to have been the onset of a heart attack. Triggers would present themselves at indeterminate moments and places, be it in Whole Foods, in his van, or eventually, his own home. “The second I would step back into the house, I'd tense up,” he said. “I'd think the house was the source of great sadness or pressure. I knew it wasn't. I knew it was just where I lived. But I'd walk up the stairs and the second floor was just desolate. My old bedroom: empty. My old rehearsal room: empty. First floor studio: messy and empty. Middle room: broken gear everywhere.”
He retreated almost entirely to his bedroom, where he had moved everything he needed to both live and work. Days passed without him stepping outside of that room, the hours creeping by as he stared at his computer and his reel-to-reel recording setup, paralyzed. “In the course of two weeks,” Hartley recalled, “Adam quit everything he possibly could. He quit drinking alcohol and coffee, he quit smoking pot, he became a vegetarian, and he broke up with his girlfriend. He wasn't even really eating food—he was just drinking juice from a juicer he bought on an infomercial. It was like Howard Hughes.”
Increasingly concerned, his bandmates—Hartley and keyboardist Robbie Bennett— would come by the house on Sunday nights to eat Indian take-out and watch “Breaking Bad”, a show so relentlessly tense it would often send Granduciel reeling. Fortunately, he'd already booked several days of studio time in New Jersey and North Carolina, spread out over the first half of 2013, from late February to June. It was a reason to leave the house, albeit briefly. “I didn't know why I was second-guessing everything,” Granduciel said. “I didn't know why I was feeling the way I was feeling all the time. I didn't know why I was making my life smaller. I didn't know what was making me sad.”
At the first of those sessions, in Hoboken, just 10 days after his initial panic attack, Granduciel experienced a turning point. The band had just cut the basic tracks for “Red Eyes”, a future single that felt like it could last. “I knew it was going to be a great song,” he said. “I realized I really wanted to make something that was great, something that makes other people happy. I went to bed that night in the studio, thinking, ‘Oh man, I hope I don’t die before this record comes out, because I want people to hear that song.’”
A native of Dover, Massachusetts, 20 miles southwest of Boston, Granduciel grew up a self-described loner. He played guitar, but rarely in bands. He was a member of his high school’s varsity soccer team, but a goalkeeper. His parents were private. “My mom and dad never really had friends, never went on vacations,” he said. “We stayed home. And I see a similarity there: A general anxiety runs pretty deep.” After studying history and fine arts in central Pennsylvania, he moved to the Bay Area, where he hoped to emulate the work of mid-20th-century West Coast artists Richard Diebenkorn and Elmer Bischoff, both known for abandoning abstract expressionism in favor of more defined forms.
When he painted, he would listen to music: Jimi Hendrix, Joni Mitchell, Neil Young, Led Zeppelin. The more he listened, the more he felt compelled to start recording on his own. And once he began, Granduciel developed a decidedly solitary process, often working through the night in his Oakland apartment, sculpting and conjoining layer upon layer of guitar. In completing his first cassette, he labeled it “Granduciel,” a portmanteau and nickname given to him by a high school French teacher as a joke, a word-for-word translation of the English words in his real last name, Granofsky.
After returning to New England in 2002, Granduciel befriended a crew of musicians in Boston that included singer-songwriter Carter Tanton, who had recently finished an album he’d recorded on his own, in a studio he’d built in his childhood bedroom. “He was sleeping in his parents’ basement, playing every instrument, going through this breakup,” Granduciel said. “That was the first time I saw someone make music obsessively. I’d never seen anyone living inside of something, to that level. Within minutes of being introduced to those guys, I realized that this was the world I wanted to live in—I loved playing music, I just never knew how to connect with people doing it.”
The next year, he left for Philadelphia on a whim, and through pure happenstance he met Vile, a gregarious-yet-enigmatic guitarist as fond of fingerpicking and Fahey as he was. Together, they began playing guitar side-by-side, for hours, luxuriating and splashing about inside the classic rock songbook they both loved. Though Vile played on—and left the band shortly after the release of—the War on Drugs’ 2008 debut, Wagonwheel Blues, his influence remains paramount. “I never really like to talk about it because it was such an important part of my life that I don't want to be reduced,” Granduciel said of his relationship with Vile. “It was that moment where you gain confidence in your work, when you finally find that one person that likes you as a musician, likes being around you, seeks you out, asks you for advice, and relies on your approval. I don’t want it to become a tiny moment.”
As musicians and songwriters, the two have, as Granduciel phrased it, “expanded on our original idea, but apart from one another.” As people, they differ in fascinating ways. Granduciel described Vile as a “very outward guy” who’s “always surrounding himself with people, his family.” In contrast, Granduciel—a former member of Vile’s live outfit, the Violators—would often come home from tours and revert back to working alone in his cavernous house. And as Vile slipped into the role of relatively traditional singer-songwriter, Granduciel became what he now likens to a producer, an architect whose exquisitely textured home recordings were open-ended enough that a band could help expand on them further, if not forever. As the two have ceased to tour with one another, each of their subsequent releases have been met with questions of rivalry. “It's competitive,” Granduciel admitted. “But I think that everyone needs that healthy competition with people you really respect and love. You want to show them that you're good, too. That's true of anything. All those crazy Impressionist painters in France were friends but they would write about how jealous and competitive they were. That's what makes good art.”
After a series of early touring mishaps left Granduciel in debt, he was forced to borrow money to finish 2011's Slave Ambient. Facing a deadline, he and local engineer Jeff Zeigler sifted through nearly two dozen songs—all built from hundreds of layers of experiments and amorphous sounds—without “any instance of mental breakdown.” Perhaps, Granduciel suggested, the relative ease of that recording experience was the result of “zero expectation—it was like, 'I love this, but it's for the 400 people who bought Wagonwheel,and a middle finger to the booking agent that dropped us.”
But Slave Ambient didn’t feature songs so much as vast weather systems. Granduciel had further developed a highly interactive way of writing and recording that allowed him to vaporize his influences—Tom Petty, Bob Dylan, Fleetwood Mac, Bruce Springsteen—then move through them. To record collectors, it felt both prehistoric and completely modern: the romantic sweep of major American singer-songwriter fare wed to krautrock's hallucinogenic expanse. But not a single track featured a traditional chorus or distinct emotional center. And though its modest commercial success inspired his touring band to solidify around him, it also forced Granduciel to confront the nature and gravity of what he was doing creatively: The War on Drugs was becoming much more than just a solo endeavor.
“I loved it,” he said, of touring and leading a band of his own. “But I was also wondering, 'What is this really about? Who am I? What am I doing? Am I really contributing, or am I hiding behind these "soundscapes? Am I hiding behind my fake last name? What are people connecting with? Are they connecting with an idea or are they connecting with the music?’ Because what I always connected with was songs.
On that snowy day in January, we had dinner at the same Mexican restaurant where Granduciel and Hartley drank a year earlier: Loco Pez. It was full and loud and humming with the sound of young people as they slurped up house sangria and tore apart tacos. Granduciel ordered a glass of red wine. Bundled up in a shearling-collared, tan canvas coat, he said he’d been keeping six Ativan in his back pocket for nearly a year, but because he tends “to fight the pill,” to prevent it from taking effect, it was unlikely that he’d take one on the flight to Europe. Since his first panic attack, he’d only opted to medicate himself once: During the mixing of Lost in the Dream in Brooklyn last September, when, wandering the streets of Williamsburg and Greenpoint on his own, crushed by the enormity of what he’d just recorded, he started to shiver. “I had a total fucking nervous breakdown,” he said.
His approach to work had long been obsessive in nature. But Lost in the Dreamrepresented more than just an anticipated follow-up record, or an opportunity to keep his friends on the road—it became the sublime and strangely symphonic response to existential questions that had been gnawing at him long before he saddled up to the bar that February night: Is what I’m doing of value? Am I of value? Perfect takes were cast aside in hopes of capturing pure magic, much to the frustration of his patient bandmates. Every monumental guitar lead, every seismic chorus, every breathless synth riff and titanic “woo!” had to feel timeless and transcendent. The resulting album is both a triumph and paradox, marked by song titles and lyrics that, held aloft by incandescent arrangements, hit like locomotives. If there is a moment of clarity to be found in its hour-long running time—insofar that it all but confirms Granduciel’s confusion—it comes halfway through “Eyes to the Wind”, on which he wails, “There’s just a stranger, living in me.”
In trying to better understand himself and his art, Granduciel said he’d “opened a door” to feelings and fears he hadn’t considered for the first 30 years of his life. “Who am I connecting with?” he asked himself as we ate. “I don’t want to leave my house, yet I want to connect with stadiums? I want to play huge festivals, but the idea of standing in line at Whole Foods sends me over the edge?”
I suggested to him that there was a reasonable chance that this album would allow him to make records for a long time to come, that it was a beginning.
“I hope so,” he said. “I hope it’s a long life. Because sometimes I’m convinced that it won’t be.”
Several months later, Granduciel is sitting behind his house, carefully restringing his weed whacker in the August heat. After being away on tour for much of this year, his garden had grown wild. Since its release in late March,Lost in the Dream has spent more than 15 weeks on the Billboard Top 200, with sales that have already, in just six months, doubled those posted by Slave Ambient. Granduciel hasn’t moved out of his house and, in fact, he’s currently planning to have it re-carpeted, in preparation for a “nice couple” from North Carolina who are moving in while he’s away on an increasingly sold-out tour of large rooms across North America. “There's been so many animals living in this house, there are just years on the carpet,” he says. I ask if he’s chosen a color. “I don't think they make tie-dye,” he says, “so I’ll probably just go with a dark charcoal.”
His voice sounds lighter. Between tours, he’s been leaving Philadelphia for New York and Los Angeles, where—in a surreal twist—his new girlfriend, former “Breaking Bad” actress Krysten Ritter, both lives and works. A few days before we spoke on the phone, paparazzi had snapped them strolling hand-in-hand through lower Manhattan. “I wasn't naive about the fact that she was a well-known actress,” he says. “That was a decision I had to make.” But Ritter has also had a calming effect on him personally and creatively: “She’ll tell me, ‘Baby, you have to make life big.’ That's a beautiful thing. I don't know what I was so scared of before. But I want to start trusting my gut and seeing what happens when you let go a little bit.”
Though his panic symptoms have subsided significantly in the past seven months, he’s incisive when I ask how he’s feeling. “I feel the same,” he says, twice. “But I'm wary of the triggers. I have a better understanding of where some of my fears in life lie—sometimes I'll feel a little twitch, but I now know what that twitch is.” The pressure he’d felt wasn’t caused by making an album, but rather, “the pressure of committing to a life, a path.” Over the course of this year, he’s been moved by the positive response to Lost in the Dream, by the ways in which these songs are being received each night during performances, and how he’s finally connecting. “I want to be surrounded by good people all of the time,” he says. “I want to grow with this band. Playing with them in front of people is a really safe place. I fear most things, but that I don’t.”