War On Drugs Frontman Talks Live LP, Next Studio Album, Remixing the Rolling Stones

Jonathan Cohen
·6-min read

While work continues on the War on Drugs’ follow-up to 2017’s “A Deeper Understanding,” which won the best rock album Grammy, the band is releasing its first live album, appropriately titled “Live Drugs.” The 10-track project is being issued today by bandleader Adam Granduciel’s Super High Quality Records imprint and will be accompanied by a four-episode podcast about its genesis, launching Nov. 23.

Granduciel says he’s always wanted to do a live record, and was sitting on more than a dozen tracks from the two-year worldwide “A Deeper Understanding” tour mixed by longtime collaborator Jon Low back in the summer of 2019. But the plan was to wait to release them until at least 2022, because “I figured we’d do another record and have another cycle, and then be able to pull from five or six records worth of material,” Granduciel tells Variety.

Indeed, before the COVID-19 pandemic, the band was aiming to finish its next studio project by April. When that proved impossible, Granduciel returned to the live mixes for the first time in eight months and moved that project to the front burner instead. “With the lockdown and all the uncertainty, it just became clear that what I was listening to was a statement on its own about the trajectory of the six of us, developing these songs and the show,” he says, likening that moment-in-time quality to his experience listening to Bruce Springsteen’s famed “Live 1975-85” boxed set. “I just wanted to be able to put an exclamation point on what we had done together during that time.”

As deeply satisfying as the War on Drugs is on record, its music is best experienced live, when the songs stretch, grow and evolve into something very different at the hands of singer/guitarist Granduciel, bassist Dave Hartley, drummer Charlie Hall, keyboardist Robbie Bennett and multi-instrumentalists Anthony LaMarca and Jon Natchez. “Live Drugs” crackles with this excitement, including a moment in the show-stopping “Under the Pressure” when the 30,000-strong London festival audience begins singing along to the lead guitar riff like a soccer chant. The “Live Drugs” version of the vintage “Buenos Aires Beach” is taken from the same show. “We walked off the stage and were like, man, that was, like, an all-timer!” Granduciel says of that evening.

Beyond definitive versions of Drugs staples such as “An Ocean Between the Waves,” “Red Eyes” and “Thinking of a Place,” the album is highlighted by a cover of Warren Zevon’s “Accidentally Like a Martyr,” which Granduciel included “because it was just one of those things that the six of us developed together. Everyone gets to do what they’re really great at. I love to sing it, because maybe someone out there thinks I wrote it, which … I should be so lucky.”

“Especially on the ‘Deeper Understanding’ cycle, it was really satisfying for me to see each member of the band step out with his own identity,” he continues. “Not only is the music significantly better, but everyone’s invested. I think that really comes across in our show. For me, that has been the most enjoyable part of the whole thing.”

Granduciel co-produced “Live Drugs” with longtime road crew member Dominic East and collaborated with him on the artwork, which intentionally nods to the look of New Order and Factory Records releases, as well as a subtle gloss on the cover of R.E.M.’s “Green.” Says Granduciel of West, “He has such a rich knowledge of reference points. He has such a rich knowledge of our show, too. I remember everything, like what guitar I played or if I flubbed a solo, and he remembers all that as well. He just runs the show. He runs my show, for sure.”

With “Live Drugs” complete, Granduciel is continuing to tweak the next studio album, which he intends to finish in the next couple of months. So far, he says he has “five songs that are pretty much done, and five or six others that are very close to being done. I don’t really know how to categorize it, but the stuff that I have finished, I’m really into.” Look for the album to include songs Granduciel previewed on Instagram Live last spring, including the synth-forward “Harmonia’s Dream,” as well as “Ocean of Darkness,” “Living Proof” and “I Don’t Live Here Anymore,” the latter with guest vocals from Lucius. “On some songs, there’s not a ton of guitar. It’s a little closer in some ways to how I did [the 2011 sophomore album] ‘Slave Ambient,’ with things built up in a different way,” he reports.

But one thing the album is not is a “quarantine album,” as Granduciel admits he hasn’t written anything new “in maybe a year. There’s a lot of music that I’ve had for the last couple years that I continue to work on and refine. But I haven’t really been that inspired to create new things right now.”

Granduciel also says he’s unsure whether the War on Drugs will wait to release the album until they can safely tour in support of it. “Obviously, you don’t want to withhold music from your fans,” he says. “But you also want to make sure that if it’s something you worked really hard on, that you can put it out in a time where everyone can enjoy it together. I don’t know the schedule. I also don’t want to work on it for another year. Whenever the music is done, then we’ll figure out what the best plan is.”

For now, there’s one other intriguing piece of Drugs-related music, in the form of Granduciel’s remix of the Rolling Stones’ Jimmy Page-assisted song “Scarlet” from the recent deluxe reissue of 1973’s “Goat’s Head Soup.” Granduciel submitted his first mix thinking it was a record company-driven promotional idea and that the Stones would have no creative involvement, but was shocked to get a thumbs-up phone call from Mick Jagger, who liked the mix so much that he recorded new vocals for the song’s outro. “This song is, like, 45 years old, and the dude is still honing in on something he could bring to it. He’s still searching for the music,” he says. “I learned more from talking with him for awhile than I could have ever imagined.”

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