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Philly's the War on Drugs reach for greatness and 'A Deeper Understanding'

The Philadelphia band led by Adam Granduciel is back with a fourth album and will play the Dell Music Center on Sept. 21.

Adam Granduciel in his South Philadelphia studio.
Adam Granduciel in his South Philadelphia studio.Read moreMargo Reed

When Adam Granduciel finished work on Lost in the Dream, the 2014 album by the War on Drugs, the Philadelphia guitarist and songwriter was satisfied with his creative life and career trajectory.

"I had a very full life in Philadelphia," said Granduciel, sitting down in the band's new South Philly rehearsal space to discuss A Deeper Understanding (Atlantic ****), the more-majestic-than-ever fourth War on Drugs album, which comes out Friday.

"I had a clear identity of myself and my life, and what music meant to me," says the 38-year-old rock auteur, who will lead his band into the Dell Music Center in Strawberry Mansion for former Eagle Connor Barwin's Make the World Better Foundation on Sept. 21. "I felt like I knew who I was. And then the record came out, and I went out on tour. And I never came back."

Lost in the Dream saw to it that Granduciel wasn't the only one who knew who the War on Drugs were. After their breakthrough, so did nearly everyone else. Or, at least those who cared about the state of rock and roll at a time when pop music is more likely to be made on laptops than with the arsenal of guitars that hang on the wall in the band's capacious practice room. (It's also equipped with two pinball machines and a Michael Jordan growth-chart poster from bass player Dave Hartley's teenage bedroom.)

That album topped many critics' year-end lists (including mine), and by the time Granduciel and his bandmates were done with 18 months on the road, they had graduated from medium-size clubs to well-known venues, like Radio City Music Hall and Los Angeles' Greek Theatre.

The band was big and destined to get bigger, as evident from indications such as Apple Music mahoff and legendary music exec Jimmy Iovine's quote in  2015: "They should be gigantic."

And A Deeper Understanding could do the trick: It's already being greeted rapturously, as the New Yorker last week called the band — bassist Hartley, keyboard player Robbie Bennet, drummer Charlie Hall, guitarist Anthony LaMarca, and sax player Jon Natchez — "the best American 'rock' band of the decade." New York magazine, not to be outdone, called them "America's Next Great Rock Band."

The band's ebbing and flowing, peaking-ever-higher songs bear the influence of classic rockers like Bruce Springsteen and Bob Dylan, as well as steady-rolling German motorik bands like Neu! and Kraftwerk. They're typically painstakingly put together in the studio by Granduciel, who uses the contributions of his mates in "creating the illusion that a band was playing together in a room," he says.

On the road for Lost, the War on Drugs came together as a band. For the group of lifetime musicians now mostly in their mid-30s, Granduciel says, "it was nice to be able to go out on the road and have it be a little more comfortable than last time, and come home with some money."

But at the end of the tour, Granduciel — who grew up Adam Granofsky in Dover, Mass., and got this nom de rock from an art teacher's French translation of "grand of sky" — no longer had a Philadelphia home to come home to.

While on the road, he had moved out of his house in South Kensington with mushrooms growing out of the kitchen wall and put his gear in storage in Cherry Hill. So when the tour was through, he moved in with his girlfriend, actress Krysten Ritter, who stars in the Netflix superhero drama Jessica Jones (as well as The Defenders), at her home in Los Angeles.

A Deeper Understanding is an album of self-discovery that begins its soul searching on the first track, with Granduciel admitting, "I don't know anything."

The songwriter began working in a rented studio in L.A. almost immediately. "I'm always wanting a project," says Granduciel, a fidgety soul who first suggests he'll be interviewed while milling around the rehearsal space, before reluctantly agreeing to sit.

Progress on music was steady for tracks that eventually coalesced into such gorgeous Deeper epics as "Holding On." That song's moving video features actor Frankie Faison, who played Commissioner Burrell on HBO's The Wire, one of Granduciel's two favorite TV shows. (The other is The Shield.)

Working on the album, Granduciel flew his bandmates out to play on Deeper cuts like "Thinking of a Place," the expansive 11-minute song that the band returned with on a Record Store Day vinyl release this spring. Other Philadelphians, like the French American duo the Dove & the Wolf and drummer Patrick Berkery, appear on the album, as do the vocal duo Lucius, who recently toured with Roger Waters. The new album feels like Granduciel's California album in that the songs open up wider vistas than ever before, ideal for contemplating the meaning of it all while barreling down the Pacific Coast Highway (or while stuck in traffic on the Schuylkill Expressway, as this listener was one recent afternoon).

But Granduciel felt there was something lacking.

"My whole life, my whole professional musical life was based around Second and Girard and Girard and Palmer," he says. "My whole life was in a six-block radius!"

Granduciel studied art and photography at Dickinson College, and later moved to Philadelphia in 2003, where he collaborated with fellow stringy-haired rock-star guitarist Kurt Vile. In between, he briefly lived in Oakland, Calif., where, while under the influence of Beat poetry, he came up with the band name the War on Drugs, of which he has said, "I always felt like it was the kind of name I could record all sorts of different music under without any predictability inherent in the name."

The Drugs built their identity as a Philadelphia band through releases like 2008's Wagonwheel Blues, 2011's Slave Ambient, and Lost in the Dream. "I had done all this stuff, and been in a band, and then I kind of isolated myself," he says of working in L.A. "Why," he found himself wondering. "What happened?"

Finding his way home, artistically and literally, became necessary for Granduciel. That search for self-definition and belonging is present in songs like "Thinking of a Place." Granduciel, an obsessive tinkerer, talks about the recording process he dearly loves with phrases like, "I'm still searching for the magic."

On A Deeper Understanding, Granduciel asks: "Am I living in the space between the beauty and the pain?" which has literal meaning when you consider he had back surgery last winter.

So in the process of making it, did he achieve a deeper understanding?

"When do you stop searching, and when does it get to the point where there are no outside forces preventing you from feeling satisfied?" he says, answering with a question. "You can keep moving, or keep changing or keep trying different combinations. But you really have to just be. Which is easier said than done."

He is by no means ditching L.A. — or New York for that matter, where he went to do additional recording to "get some East Coast mud," on the album, and where he's been living with Ritter in Brooklyn while she shoots her Marvel show's second season.

When back in Philly, his home is a hotel. "A true drifter," he says. He's psyched to play Barwin's benefit, and he jokes that the NFL pro, who now plays for the Los Angeles Rams, "is doing the opposite of me. He bought a house here, and I sold mine. Maybe we should get a time-share."

But seriously, "the other important thing to me is I really wanted to keep the band in Philly," he says, noting the Drugs played their first show at Johnny Brenda's in Fishtown in 2006.

"This is where I had that spark and decided that I wanted to pursue music even when it meant not knowing anybody, and I felt compelled to start learning how to write songs. Philly was that place for me," he says. "It's the root of who I am."