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The War on Drugs Turns Alienation and Isolation Into Eloquent and Eerie Indie Rock

Adam Granduciel of The War on Drugs.
Adam Granduciel of The War on Drugs.
Dusdin Condren

Philadelphia's The War on Drugs began as the home-studio project of Adam Granduciel - an unrepentant tinkerer and gearhead whose deeply layered songs put a new spin on classic rock.

After the breakthrough success of the expertly crafted Slave Ambient, Granduciel's project became more of a live band, a move that guided the next studio project. For his part, Granduciel turned the years of touring and self-reflection on making music for a living into a batch of more personal, sharply focused songs.

It's both aspects that make Lost In The Dream an early contender for album of the year. Led by the pulsating "Red Eyes" and the swirling, haunting "Eyes to the Wind," the album has garnered rave reviews, including a Best New Music tag from Pitchfork.

"As a songwriter, I wanted to put more of myself into it, to step out a bit more and to write songs and music I felt very connected to and put the way I was feeling down," says Granduciel in a phone interview from a tour stop in Denver. "It wasn't a conscious decision to write about anything in particular, but I was wrestling with some emotions that were new to me and I couldn't escape. I was all consumed with the songs and my relationship to the songs and what I wanted to talk about."

The War on Drugs reveals plenty of reverence for Dylan, Petty and Springsteen, but that forceful rock 'n' roll is seamlessly layered on top of an entirely different sonic world of layered loops, ambient tones and swirling textures. The songs began in the summer of 2012, built up from early recordings, sometimes just snippets, Granduciel did at his home in Philadelphia's Fishtown neighborhood.

Even as he built the songs up from those foundations, altering things along the way, following unexpected directions, adding and subtracting instruments and parts, Granduciel kept those first recordings.

"I really tried to let those early moments of inspiration exist instead just of going into the studio for with two weeks with the band," Granduciel says. "You don't have any foresight then. For me foresight in the way I record is really important."

Lyrically, themes of isolation, alienation and self-doubt run through the album, captured "Eyes to the Wind" with an eloquent and eerie sharpness: "There's just a stranger living in me."

"Lyrically I was just going with what was close to me at the time, and just living in the moment and writing vocals on the spot, stepping up to the mic with one verse out of four and writing in that moment what I was feeling and hearing the song, figuring out what it sounded like to me," Granduciel says.

"There were a lot of changes in my life, spending a lot of time traveling and also a lot of time alone. It's an ongoing battle with the self. Some people are more prone to tapping into it, but I caught really up in these existential kinds of questions about my life and my purpose and what music meant to me and what I wanted to write about and what I wanted to contribute to society and my fans. Was I going to step it up?"  

A former property manager, Granduciel says he feels fortunate to be earning his living from his music and with the time to focus on songwriting and recording, he takes his role as a professional very seriously. Lost In The Dream met those high expectations he set for himself.

"I'm really proud of it, really proud of the decisions I made. I knew I was really proud of it, just as a person and as a songwriter, and I felt like I moved forward. But the other half of that as a job is you have to put it out here and you hope people relate to it and people like it and it gives you the opportunity to tour more and play bigger places," he says.

Playing live -- a U.S.-and-Canada tour brings the band to Crescent Ballroom on Monday, April 7 -- gives The War on Drugs more changes to tinker with the songs.

"I feel like the band is really dialed in and really locked in and the songs are taking on a life of their own. They're the same songs, but we're playing them and they're bouncing around in these beautiful rooms and they're coming alive in a different way. It's a whole new thing. It's great. It's special to play them with these people, my friends, and the musicianship is great."

The long evolution the songs undergo might seem to make it difficult to know when they're done, but Granduciel says all those transformations are a crucial part of how he works.

"I start seeing during the recording what the sequence is going to be and then I start playing around with sounds a little more. A lot of it comes from looking at the album as a whole," he says.

After nearly two years of work, he knew Lost In The Dream was done. But trepidation still hung around the edges, a mindset hung around until the record's March 18 release.

"I was scared for it to come out. I was too close to it. But people heard it and heard a step up, maybe. I'm just really proud that I'm connecting to people through music. That's a rare and beautiful thing and I don't take it for granted. I'm fucking humbled by all the press and everything. I ended up with something that I'm really happy with and represents what the band has become and to have people love it as a War on Drugs album is really great," he says.

"That these songs I hold so close and worked so hard on connect with so many people on so many levels is pretty special and pretty humbling. It's amazing. I hope I can keep doing it and hold up my end of the bargain."

Granduciel says that bargain, that relationship between performer and fan, between musician and listener, is at the core of what he does.

"I just wanted the songs to be more important than they had been in the past, and connect with people," he says. "I was doing my best to write stuff like the songs that I love, that I keep coming back to, classic songs that have a place in my life. I want to try the best I can to provide songs like that for others people's lives."

The War on Drugs is scheduled to perform on Monday, April 7, at Crescent Ballroom.

Find any show in Metro Phoenix via our extensive online concert calendar.

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