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culture

The War on Drugs Come Back to Our City

The War on Drugs' Adam Granduciel talks to us about the love Toronto's shown them, how they intend to play their densely layered and critically acclaimed album live at the Horseshoe tonight, and what they listen to between tour stops on the road.

The War on Drugs, at home in the studio. Photo by Samantha West.

The War on Drugs, w/ Andre Ethier, Arc in Round
The Horseshoe Tavern (370 Queen Street West)
Friday December 9, 9 p.m. doors
$13.50 in advance at Soundscapes, Rotate This, The Horseshoe Tavern

Philadelphia-based rock band The War on Drugs received some pretty strong endorsements from Toronto-based arbiters of cool music this past year: Pitchfork contributor Stuart Berman’s review included them in the Best New Music list, and record store Soundscapes (which the band played an in-store at this summer), put up an elaborate window display based on the cover of their 2011 album Slave Ambient. That window display was left up for a good long while—an unusual show of support for an out of town act. Frontman Adam Granduciel, along with the rest of his bandmates, was truly appreciative. “When they took it down, I wanted to bring it on tour with us, hang it as a backdrop for our shows. But yeah, that was awesome. I’ll find a place at home to put it.” (He’ll be picking it up while they’re in town for tonight’s show at the Horseshoe.)

Granduciel and his bandmates have been humbled by that sort of enthusiastic response. It’s especially rewarding because Granduciel tinkered with Slave Ambient off and on for four years. “We were already experimenting with some of the songs when Wagonwheel Blues came out in 2008. I took a long time to make sure it was something I was proud of, and to be sure it had a specific vision—I had to really immerse myself in the songs, and find those moment in the record that were controlled, and also when it cuts loose. To have had it received the way it has been—it’s been really gratifying.”

Figuring out how to properly play the intricately constructed and densely layered album live, which has been getting comparisons to seminal fuzz rock outfit My Bloody Valentine as well as road troubadours Tom Petty and Bruce Springsteen, has been challenging for the band—in a good way, of course. “We’ve gone through changes, and that’s not just in personnel.” (Kurt Vile, a founding band member and long time friend of Granduciel’s, bowed out of touring with The War on Drugs due to his own skyrocketing solo career.) “We’ve also changed the way we approach The War on Drugs recordings. I’m not sure we respected them enough as a live band in the past.”

It’s an interesting admission, given that the band, veteran musicians all, have a reputation for jamming out (their Twitter handle, after all, is @WarOnDrugsJams.) “So for the last year, we’ve been trying to be a bit more faithful to the recorded versions, not just pummeling audiences with chords, or blasting off.”

To present Slave Ambient properly live, Granduciel explains, “There’s a lot of layering. Those transitions between songs like “ Your Love Is Calling My Name” to “The Animator” to “Come to The City” on the album, that whole trilogy, it’s important. So we make sure nothing’s unrecognizable. There’s some things live we like to accentuate, things we recognized post-recording are really key moments. But we’re pretty faithful to the arrangements, the structures, and the feelings of the songs live.”

While the band’s a more diverse mix of backgrounds now, the solid months they’ve spent touring, and other past experiences, has them feeling honed. “Dave [Hartley], who plays base, he’s been since the beginning, and Robbie [Bennett], who joined a little over a year ago, had been playing in another band with Dave for six years, so they have a lot of musical history together. Mike [Zanghi]‘s been drumming with us for a little over eight months, but those longtime connections—being able to look at someone and know what they’re going to do—they help us all take it up a level, playing live.”

Of course, all that time playing on the road has had the band expanding their own musical knowledge on the long drives from city to city. We mention how Toronto’s Rural Alberta Advantage recently cited Slave Ambient as one of their favourite recent albums to play on the road, and how many reviewers cite their records as perfect road trip music; Granduciel is only too happy to list artists who get frequent play in his own tour van. “I’ve really gotten into The Waterboys recently; when we were playing in Europe, a lot of people were telling us we reminded them of that band, so I went out and bought everything of theirs I could find, and it’s great stuff—really inspiring to me. We’ve also been listening to Sharon Van Etten‘s new record a lot—we’re good friends with her, and it’s been playing almost non-stop lately. And of course, lots of older stuff—Stereolab, The Rolling Stones, later period Led Zepplin…”

Sounds to us like Granduciel and his bandmates already have definite stop points they want to hit in their journey to the next album. We hope they stop here then, too.

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