The War on Drugs’ career arc has been on an upswing ever since the night Adam Granduciel took the stage at Johnny Brenda’s for the band’s first-ever gig in 2006.
Throughout the past decade, the rock band that created their own sui generis sound from source material that includes Bruce Springsteen and Bob Dylan and German electronic bands such as Kraftwerk and Neu! has moved from strength to strength.
The 2011 album Slave Ambient lifted the Fishtown-founded group from small clubs to medium-sized venues. In 2014, the spacious, plaintive Lost in the Dream grew their audience and won widespread acclaim.
In 2018, A Deeper Understanding cemented the rock auteur status of Granduciel — who writes and sings the band’s songs — with a best rock album Grammy.
The Drugs have been celebrated as a new breed guitar band revitalizing classic rock without settling for timeworn cliches. Producer and record executive Jimmy Iovine has said the band “should be gigantic.” Last year, Mick Jagger hired Granduciel to remix “Scarlet,” from the Rolling Stones’ reissue of the 1973 album Goats Head Soup.
Now, The War on Drugs are back with an album poised to make arena rock dreams come true.
I Don’t Live Here Anymore (Atlantic *** 1/2), released on Friday, is a collection of 10 cascading songs that — starting with a gloriously soaring title track whose video finds the sextet joined by singers Jess Wolfe and Holly Laessig of Lucius on a Los Angeles rooftop — announce the band’s return with anthemic grandeur.
“The new songs are much bigger and more dynamic,” Granduciel says about the record he produced alongside Shawn Everett. “They have more of that band feel than maybe anything we’ve ever done before.”
Granduciel spoke last week via Zoom from Austin, Texas, in an interview that began while he was watching, Bruce, his 2-year-old son with Krysten Ritter, the Jessica Jones actress who was in the Lone Star State to shoot the HBO Max crime drama Love & Death.
He chose to keep his Zoom camera off during the conversation. “You’d get seasick watching us,” he said. Instead, his given name, Adam Granofsky, appeared on screen. The guitarist, who grew up in Massachusetts and studied painting and photography at Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pa. before moving to Philadelphia in 2003, got his nom de rock from an art teacher’s French translation of “grand of sky.”
(Earlier this month, a celebrity gossip site reported that Granduciel and Ritter had split up. He has said it’s not true and chose not to comment for this interview.)
Next month, the band — which includes bassist Dave Hartley, keyboard player Robbie Bennett, drummer Charlie Hall and multi-instrumentalists Anthony LaMarca and Jon Natchez — will play their first concert in almost two years at the Desert Daze festival in California.
This holiday season, there will be no “Drug-cember To Remember,” Granduciel said, speaking of the band’s tradition, which began in 2018, of playing multiple Philly venues in December to benefit the Fund for the School District of Philadelphia.
But keep an eye out for “a Drug-uary” event of some kind while the band is in town for the Met shows. “I plan to do it in some capacity every year,” he says. “For sure.”
Granduciel is a studio obsessive, a tinkerer who labors in pursuit of perfection. “I wanna find what can’t be found,” he sang on “Pain” on A Deeper Understanding.
But by Drugs’ standards, I Don’t Live Here Anymore, which the band started working on in early 2018, is immediate and concise.
There is no equivalent of Understanding’s 11-minute “Thinking of a Place.” Six minutes is the limit for gleaming tracks like the contemplative “Rings Around My Father’s Eyes” or the keyboard-driven “Victim,” in which Granduciel makes his guitar sound like a ray gun being fired in a futuristic cartoon.
I Don’t Live Here Anymore’s cover shows Granduciel making haste, a cup of coffee in one hand, a guitar in the other. It’s an album about shedding “Old Skin” and moving on. “I’ve been runnin’ from the white light, just trying to get to you,” Granduciel sings on “Change.”
Granduciel lives in Los Angeles, where the band has been rehearsing, and the other members are now spread throughout the country, with only Bennett and Hall still living locally. But the “Here” in the album title doesn’t refer to Philadelphia.
“It’s about looking at a place that you’ve moved past, that’s already behind you,” the 42-year-old rocker says. “You know what’s gone. Whether it’s with music, or it’s about being a father, it’s really about trying to move into that next phase with some grace.”
Living in L.A., Granduciel has been thinking about the city where he started playing music with friends like Kurt Vile shortly after his 2003 arrival.
Philadelphia is “kind of a memory of home,” he says. “It’s this place you call home, that is not your actual home.”
“I don’t live there, and we’re not a part of the local scene, really. But it’s where our band’s story started, and it’s because of Philadelphia that we were able to have a band. When we lived in Fishtown, it was so cheap that we could just do music all the time. The culture in Philadelphia is what gave us the ability to exist. It will always be that place.”
Granduciel came up with the band name while on a road trip to Big Sur with friends, then moved to Philadelphia “because I wanted to pursue a life of creativity, and I went there without basically knowing a single person.
“And that’s what I got out of Philadelphia. It couldn’t have been any other city. It had to have been Philly. I don’t know any other place that you could have moved in 2003 that could have offered you what Philly offered us. Everything aligned. It wasn’t my destiny. It was everybody’s destiny. It became everybody’s soup.”
Granduciel shouts out his musical heroes directly on I Don’t Live Here Anymore.
The title song begins with a line lovingly lifted from Dylan’s “Shelter From the Storm.” “I was lying in my bed, a creature void of form,” Granduciel sings, conjuring quarantine malaise. The song draws on memories of seeing Dylan at the Newport Folk Festival, the Trocadero and the XPoNential Music Festival in Camden.
The opening track “Living Proof” is a departure, a spare, slow burner that never really puts its foot on the accelerator. (The War on Drugs make great driving music.) It also shares a title with a Springsteen song. Elsewhere, he calls out “Show a little faith” on the shimmering, hopeful closer “Occasional Rain.”
“There’s a half-truth” in reports that baby Bruce is named “directly for the Boss,” Granduciel says. He and Ritter met Springsteen backstage on Broadway in 2018. “We liked the name a lot, it felt like a classic name. And then he was so big when he was born, it was clear that he was a Bruce.”
Fatherhood has affected Granduciel’s music making. “There’s a logistical change, which is nice. You have a little bit more focus ... If I want to go to a studio to work on a new song, I know I have to be home by 6.”
“But the main thing is having him around when I’m in the studio, hitting knobs and reacting to what he’s hearing coming out of the speakers. It’s a reminder that this should all be very fun. ... [A]t the heart of it there should be a real kind of curiosity that I’ve been able to tap into.”
The band is approaching the road cautiously. “You’re trained to avoid people at all costs, and now here’s 5,000 of them,” Granduciel says.
But they’re also eager to reconnect. Last year, when it became clear the shutdown would be long-lasting, Granduciel and producing partner Everett shifted focus to Live Drugs, the in-concert album that came out last November on Granduciel’s Super High Quality label.
It was a reminder of the power of performance. “There was no live music, and the huge sound of the crowd sounded so foreign.” Listening to those recordings helped shape the direct, energetic I Don’t and its songs designed to be played live on stage.
The War on Drugs’ albums have always been about a search for meaning. “I’m going to find out everything I need to know,” Granduciel sings with determination on “I Don’t Live Here Anymore.” “I’m gonna make it to the places I need to go.”
This time, Granduciel is that much closer. “I feel a little more confident about wanting to write something, and being able to make music about it. And my relationship with my extended musical family is closer than ever. Time deepens the bonds.”
COVID-19 precautions mean no glad-handing backstage, so “it’s going to be a different kind of tour,” he says. “We’re just going to have to focus on the music. After the show, we’ll watch Dances With Wolves for the third time in a week, and go to bed.”
He laughs. “Everyone’s excited. I think the pandemic showed all of us that we love spending time with our family, obviously more than anything in the world, but that when we get together and play, that is a visceral kind of thing that we need.”