Best of 2008: The War on Drugs

war on drugs
Adam Granduciel, singer for John Walters' favorite band.

The first in a series where we talk to some of the people responsible for some of our favorite albums of the year.

The following paragraph will probably appear in tomorrow's paper in the "Lost Tracks" CD reviews, but I think I'll scoop myself since I don't feel like writing variations of the same thing:

If "I'm on Fire" is your favorite Bruce Springsteen song, if you have a thing for singers who turn a single syllable into a vocal contortion and your preferred spot to listen to music is behind the steering wheel on a dark interstate, then "Wagonwheel Blues," the debut by Philadelphia's the War on Drugs may be your favorite album of the year.

The Philly band with the bad name came out of nowhere to deliver one of my very favorite albums of the year, a road record if there ever was one, that combines the spacey, static-y sounds with old-fashion chugging folk tunes. I talked to singer/songwriter Adam Granduciel about the many road woes he and his band encountered this year and how he wrote a song that manages to rip off Don Henley and also be totally awesome.

How was your 2008?
The year was good, man. We ended up overseas a lot. We were supposed to be there a lot more, but we were there in the summer for almost three weeks. We went back to open for the Hold Steady and when we got over there, 20 minutes later the whole thing got canceled. We landed in London, we all met up because we were on different flights and everyone's flights were [messed] up. And we finally got there all in one piece, met up at the airport and then like 20 minutes later the whole thing got canceled.

But it didn't really get anyone down. They told us it was canceled and for like 10 minutes we were all, "How? What? Why?" And then 15 minutes later we were like, well, we're in London so we'll just do whatever. So it didn't really kill anyone's spirits, which was great. The label was cool about it, too, they helped as much as they could ... We haven't really done any extensive U.S. touring, and the extent that we have done, it seems like every time, something goes drastically wrong. We're going out to Chicago next week. And it's the first time since the album's been out that we're going to do some shows in the States outside of Philly or New York.

Last time we were there, before the album came out, everything got screwed up. The kid who was supposed to play drums, this kid from Boston, he canceled two nights before. And we were supposed to tour with this other band, Blood on the Wall, and they canceled the night before the tour. So we still went, but it was a long story. The drummer had the van so we ended up taking my car, which had like 252,000 miles on it, a '91 Volvo station wagon. So on the way to the first show in Cleveland, outside Pittsburgh, the whole exhaust system fell off the car. So we did the whole tour -- Pittsburgh, Cleveland, Detroit, a couple shows around there, Chicago and back -- without a muffler or a catalytic converter.

So I guess those were some pretty loud drives.
It sucked. And you had to keep the windows down, since there was no catalytic converter. If you kept the windows up, you'd die. So you had to keep the windows open and it was so [expletive] loud. And we had no drummer. So it was me, Kurt [Vile, whose solo album "Constant Hitmaker" is another one of the year's best albums] and Dave [Hartley] and all this gear in this car that was just the loudest thing in the world. I got pulled over in Ohio, after the show in Ohio, because it was so loud, at 3 in the morning.

You got like a noise violation?
Well it was Cleveland Heights, where the Grog Shop is, but it's still kind of a small community. I was driving by some cop with nothing else to do, God bless him, so I got a ticket there. He told me I had to come back through Cleveland Heights within five days and show him that I fixed the car. [Expletive.] So he says, "Next time you're in Ohio there'll be a warrant out for you if we pull you over." So maybe I'll just use that as an excuse to not go back to Ohio. I mean, I'm sure they tell that to everybody. But yeah, we had no drummer so we were picking up drummers in each city. I knew a kid in Detroit who played drums so I was like, "Dude, you want to play drums for us tonight?" And that one was OK. But the one in Chicago was just kind of ... a funny story, with the kid actually being pretty bad.

I guess when someone's doing you a favor and drumming on last second notice, even if they're kind of a [expletive] drummer you can't really be too angry about it.
That was the thing. It was a friend of a friend of a friend who was apparently like, "I love the album! I can totally play the drums to it!" So backstage he seemed to know everything. And then we started playing and it just wasn't really that good. But that's the way [expletive] goes.

(More after the jump.)

What would you say is the overall mood of the album?
I don't know, probably fairly anxious or something.

I always think it's cloudy.
Yeah, yeah. Definitely more cloudy than driving up the Sunset Strip or something. It's not that kind of ... I'm always afraid when people say it has that '70s AM thing glow to it, that the Eagles will slip in there or something.

It's not the Eagles, but, well, I played "Taking the Farm" for a friend, thinking that he'd say it sounds like "I'm on Fire" but instead if he said "Boys of Summer"...
Oh yeah. By Don Henley, totally. One of the best songs ever written. That's what [Kurt] said. I showed it to him a couple months before we recorded it, just up in my room, jamming it on the organ, and at the time he wasn't playing guitar, he was just jamming on another Casio or something. He just said, "It sounds like 'Boys of Summer.'" Because it had that built in beat from my Wurlitzer organ. And we just recorded it, and it just has that feel to it. When Kurt approached it with his guitar, that's probably what vibe he had. I had a different idea for it, but the way it ended up sounding, I thought it sounded nice.

What about all the Springsteen and Dylan comparisons? Get old after a while or still flattering?
They don't really make me feel held back, or get pigeonholed. I mean, they're all for valid reasons. I'm not gonna lie. It's not like you go out to make a song with a certain aesthetic to it. But sometimes you'll be in a certain studio and you'll overdub a snare, so you put a snare down, you listen to it and it's like, "Oh, [expletive] yeah, it sounds like a 'Born in the USA' snare drum! Sweet. Let's put a little piano here." And you listen back and it's like, "Oh, it sounds like that part in "'Highway 61.'" So I guess it's all for the right reasons, it's not for any reasons that I find insulting. There are people who hear it and that's what they think of. I'm sure people could say worse things. I mean they even mention good eras for us, so that's good.

By David Malitz |  December 22, 2008; 8:30 AM ET Interviews , Year-End Lists
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