“Slave Ambient” is the excellent second album by the War on Drugs, the Philadelphia-based band led by Adam Granduciel. He writes ideal road trip tunes that build off the cornerstones of American rock music — Dylan, Springsteen, Petty, etc. The band’s also-awesome 2008 debut, “Wagonwheel Blues,” was Americana that felt like it was glued together by bits and pieces of busted technologies. “Slave Ambient” is less rickety, more refined — and that’s no accident. Granduciel labored on it for a while.
Besides staying busy working on “Slave Ambient,” Granduciel spent some of the last few years on the road with fellow Philly rock dude Kurt Vile . The two have been connected for years — Vile used to be in War on Drugs, Granduciel in Vile’s band, the Violators, and they shared drummer Mike Zanghi. With both of their careers taking off in 2011, they’ve had to go their separate ways a bit. Click Track talked to Granduciel about being on the road and the long gestation of “Slave Ambient” in advance of the War on Drugs’ visit D.C.’s Red Palace on Friday.
“Driving music” is a term that’s often associated with your band — do you ever come up with song ideas while you’re driving?
No. But I do tend to listen to the mixes when I’m driving. So when I’m driving and something’s lagging, it’s not doing it for me. Maybe if I was just sitting in a chair it would be doing something for me.
How’s the driving on this tour going? Last time I talked to you, you told a story about how your car was fell apart while on tour.
That was hilarious. [Laughs.] That’s when we were touring in my Volvo. It was myself, [bassist] Dave [Hartley] and Kurt [Vile] on that tour. The bottom of the car had pretty much fallen off by the end. The catalytic converter, the muffler … so bad. Now we’ve evolved to a 15-passenger van from the days of the Volvo. That’s kind of a good metaphor for the evolution of the band. When we had the Volvo, the record had come out but we didn’t know anything about touring or how to play the songs, or anything at all. Constantly breaking things. Now we have a luxurious 15-passenger van.
Is [drummer] Mike [Zanghi] still playing with you?
Not really. He’s been with Kurt so much. We toured with Destroyer in March and April, and he was with Kurt, who was touring with J Mascis. I told him, Mike, I really want to do this tour so I’m going to find another drummer. And he’s bummed, but what can you do? I didn’t want to fight over Mike. He was the original Violators drummer anyway. I didn’t want it to be like, You take him for this tour and I’ll take him for this tour. Let’s figure out something else, this isn’t really working.
You and Kurt have had such parallel, intersecting careers and now you’re both experiencing your greatest success this year, apart from each other. That must be nice, but also maybe a bit weird?
The main difference now and from eight years ago is that we don’t record in my house anymore. We’re just not recording in my living room. Nothing’s changed too much. People make a big deal out of the story arc of the band. It’s always like, We started, then Kurt quit to do his solo thing! It wasn’t like that, really. Sometimes that can kind of cheapen things.
It took the three years between “Wagonwheel Blues” and this album. Are you one of those people who has another record ready to go right away?
Not even close. No way. There’s like one song from these sessions that we kind of started and it was nice to have it among the other songs so we could fiddle with it and pause the other ones. But I think the next one — I’d like to do it more live, in a different way. The reason the first two were how they were was that the live band was never really that solidified or really that good, in a weird way. It was difficult for us to go into a room together and come out with something rich, musical, unique. But I feel like the way the band works right now it would be fun to try it that way. This record, I was so into for a while I didn’t know what I was doing at times.
It was a super-intense process. I had so many things going on. Songs I was working on, or songs I was thinking about. Songs I didn’t think were good enough to finish. “Come to the City,” “Your Love Is Calling My Name” — those were songs that I just worked on for so long mostly because I wasn’t able to wrap my head around them. I started the backbones of them. I knew they were good and I tried to work on it and it just never felt right. I kept doing it, scrapping it, going from the bottom again. It was amazing to see three years later I ended up with my two [expletive] favorite songs ever. It was awesome. It’s all there. There’s nothing leftover. Scraps of loops. All of the ideas I had for songs made their way into other songs. The only thing that’s left over is carnage.