By setting Springsteen riffs adrift on an ocean of echo, the War on Drugs has created a better kind of soft rock.
Led by singer-songwriter Adam Granduciel, the Philadelphia quartet reaches back toward the Reagan era for instruments and effects — drum machines, synthesizers, digital reverb — that have long been written off as unhip and mechanical. But these slightly funky tones imbue the band’s latest album, “Lost in the Dream,” with a gauzy, dreamlike quality. Songs drift in and out of focus, morphing from driving arena anthems to extended zone-outs. Depending on your age, the music might set off a disorienting wave of nostalgia. When bands look to rock-and-roll’s past for inspiration, they tend to reach back to the 1960s. The ’80s — when even Bob Dylan had a perm — don’t get the same reverence.
But Granduciel, 35, makes it clear that he isn’t trying to trigger a run on 1980s recording gear. “I mean, I’m a fan of it in some capacity, but I’m not consciously trying to channel [that sound],” he says by phone from a tour stop in Denver. Instead, his aesthetic choices are often driven by practicality.
“When I work on stuff at home,” he says, “I always have a drum machine going, because when you transfer stuff [from a tape machine] to the computer, if you don’t have a drum machine in there, you can never add drums or redo the drums.
“I like the ’80s and I like Roxy Music and I like ‘Born in the U.S.A.’ and I love [Tom] Petty, but it was never, ‘What can we do to make it sound like this?’ or ‘How can I tap into this lost Dylan catalogue?’ ”
Indeed, when the War on Drugs released its debut album, 2008’s “Wagonwheel Blues,” the band’s woozy take on roots-rock sounded like an offshoot of the then-ascendent genre known as chillwave, when such groups as Washed Out, Toro Y Moi and Ariel Pink were applying a layer of grit to synthesizer-driven melodies appropriated from ’80s pop and R&B. The War on Drug’s songs — with their spacey textures and lo-fi smog — existed in a similar universe, albeit one stocked with more Dylan records.
Over the past several years, Granduciel has moved toward a more organic sound, mirroring the trajectory of Kurt Vile, his friend and former bandmate. Both write music that touches on the familiar tones of vintage rock but is saturated with the pleasant, amorphous sensibility of ambient and new age music. Their songs float forth from the speakers, full of roaming guitar riffs that rarely congeal into hooks.
For Granduciel, though, generating that lazy, languid sensibility takes some determination. “Lost in the Dream,” with its billowing reverb and surging guitars, sounds expansive, but Granduciel mostly conceived the songs while working alone in his home studio.
“I still want to make stuff sound big and huge and rich, but I’m not a big fan of starting from scratch in [a professional] studio,” he says. “It’s easier for me to start at home to get the magic of the song unlocked.”
Granduciel began working on the album in his home studio. Once he set down the essence of each song, he’d take the material to a larger studio to rework it with the band and his longtime engineer, Jeff Zeigler. Songs would be expanded, edited and discussed.
But, in the end, the polished versions didn’t always make the cut, and Granduciel would wind up returning to his late-night demos.
“Sometimes we just lost that little thing about the song that I kind of inadvertently captured at one in the morning,” he explains. “When the piano does the changes nine times instead of six, like you would when you’re playing with a band, you know?”
That attention to detail is a somewhat new development for Granduciel. For years, music was an after-hours gig, but now it’s his full-time job, giving Granduciel more free time to count up those extra measures.
“When I started making this record and realized I didn’t have to work,” he says, “I felt a commitment to myself as somebody who has been working on music a long time, to try to get better at it.”
The War on Drugs may be a band, but its music is very much the product of Granduciel’s vision and, to some extent, obsession. The songs may sprawl, but they’re not nonchalantly jammed into existence. For Granduciel, spontaneous energy translates in concert, but not necessarily on tape.
“Live, you get to experiment,” he says. “But it can’t be, like, ‘We’ll just get to be a well-oiled machine, and next time we’ll make a live record,’ because those moments are more intense [in concert] than they can be on record.
“I like letting the band cut loose live, and I just like doing the records the way I do them.”
Leitko is a freelance writer.
For a sampling of the War on Drugs’ music, check out:
From “Lost in the Dream”: “Under the Pressure”
From “Slave Ambient”: “Come to the City”
From “Wagonwheel Blues”:
“Arms Like Boulders
Appearing Friday at the 9:30 Club, 815 V St. NW. 202-265-0930. www.930.com.
Doors open at 8 p.m. Show is sold out.