FOR A GUY who's just released the best album of 2014, Adam Granduciel is awfully down to earth. He's willing to dork out with me on Blood on the Tracks outtakes. He asks about the Portland venue he's playing in with his band, the War on Drugs; when I suggest that it has better sound closer to the stage than at the back of the room, he vocalizes a hope that maybe it won't sell out, so that everyone can fit up front. (Fat chance.) And he's nice enough to pretend to remember an interview I did with him back in 2009, on the heels of the War on Drugs' superb debut, Wagonwheel Blues.
This time around, we're talking about Lost in the Dream, the third and—I do not say this lightly—perhaps best War on Drugs album to date. Unlike the enigmatic, almost elusive music that issues forth from its grooves in gorgeous, gargantuan swaths, Granduciel is straightforward with his responses, generous and engaged and enthusiastic. He's more comfortable discussing the mystery of making music than I recall.
"I had a difficult time making the record, as I'm sure people have read," he says, referring to recent profiles on Stereogum and Grantland, "and constantly second-guessed my abilities and whether or not it was good enough, and whether or not it was there yet. It's nice now that people are connecting with some of the songs that I worked to try to capture the magic that I knew was there. I just had to persevere and try to find whatever it was about the song that made me feel something."
As on Wagonwheel Blues and its 2011 successor, Slave Ambient, this War on Drugs record is largely the product of Granduciel tinkering in the studio and at home, carefully honing each sound and stitching together arrangements with fastidious detail. But this time around, members of the band played a far greater role, contributing tracks that were designed to show off their abilities.
"If I didn't have them in my band, I probably wouldn't go to such great lengths to make the music that I make," Granduciel says. "On the previous albums, there wasn't really enough scope of songwriting to really play to everybody's strengths. But being good friends and just trusting everyone's musicality—that's what we've gotten out of touring so much. It's like, oh, I don't have to find some gun to do this. I have a gun. There wasn't ever a time on any of the songs where an idea I had musically couldn't be executed, like on the first or second try.
"The drums in 'Red Eyes,' that's a really hard song to play drums to, especially playing along to a drum machine while doing it. It's fast and relentless, and also really locked in and there's that huge snare roll. My friend Pat Berkery—he played some shows this past year, and I just knew that that was a song right up his alley, that he could do that song 50 times over without ever flubbing it. It's great to be able to have that community of friends and musicians and people that have been in our band to just add what they're really good at to the records."
The finished product, while slow cooked, is neither soggy nor excessively polished; each track is ignited by a genuine, deep, abiding love of sound that's rare and breathtaking. Through their extended germination, the songs on Lost in the Dream take on an almost marbled characteristic, offering variegated, connected layers of strata. On paper, these are straightforward folk-rock songs with scarcely more than three chords apiece; with the War on Drugs' extravagant (but not flamboyant) technique giving them breath and color, they become marvels of depth.
I ask Granduciel about the comparisons he's earned to songsmiths like Bob Dylan and Neil Young, who are renowned for their off-the-cuff approach to recording, often putting sloppy takes on their records in favor of a more meticulous, studied approach. Granduciel's method seems at odds with the songwriters he's compared to.
"I do feel like there is a lot of spontaneity in the actual process of recording, in the moment," he says. "Nothing's ever talked about. You just go with the moment and try to shape the song around a bunch of different individual spontaneous moments. Like on 'An Ocean in Between the Waves,' those guitars at the beginning are real fluttery—those were just neat, first-take [things], totally just vibing on the song in the very, very early stage of it. That's the way I always approach the guitar, and even vocals, to some extent. I usually step up to the mic maybe 10 times over the course of recording a song. I'll have a few lines written, but for the most part it's pretty spontaneous. Then going back and listening and maybe making a few revisions, and then going back and doing it all over again.
"So I see what you mean," he continues. "It's definitely not like we set up in a room like Tonight's the Night and just jam and get whatever we get. But it's also not that contrived. I think the only contrived part is the arrangement. Like 'Eyes to the Wind,' I didn't tell Charlie [Hall, drummer] to just play the ride cymbal the whole time, it's just what he did, and it totally changed the song for me. And that defined a few other elements when I went back in and started overdubbing a few other things over it. So it is spontaneous in its approach, but definitely micromanaging comes in the arrangement."
Finishing a War on Drugs album is always the most difficult part, Granduciel acknowledges. With Lost in the Dream, it was particularly challenging living up to the expectations that resulted from the well-deserved attention the band has garnered over the past few years.
"Up until the end, I was really critiquing everything, really making sure that everything was—not perfect, but that I was ready to present them, to put the lock on it, that I really truly felt that this was truly the best that I could do," Granduciel says. "With Slave Ambient, I approved the masters through an iTrip thing from Walmart. I was just not as connected to the whole process.
"About two months after I turned in Lost in the Dream was the first time I could hear it without editing it," Granduciel continues. "I listened to it one night, in the background of my house, and I heard it for what it was and became really, really proud of it. It's definitely the first one where I was aware that the game had changed a little bit, and I guess I just wanted to deliver on my end of the bargain. That's all."