Much of “Lost in the Dream,” the War on Drugs' third full-length studio album, took shape in the late-night hours when Adam Granduciel put rubber to the road.
“I made a lot of decisions driving around at night in my van, which is the best way to listen to [the music],” said the 35-year-old singer/guitarist by phone from his home in Philadelphia. “I'd just listen to the songs and think about all the things in my life that were bothering me, like, 'Man, when am I going to stop feeling so nervous all the time? When am I going to stop shaking?'”
This stress, largely brought on by Granduciel's desire to live up to the band's celebrated 2011 album “Slave Ambient,” affected everything from the songwriting (note new tracks with titles like “Suffering” and “Under the Pressure”) to his own physical and mental well-being. Fortunately, in conversation the musician sounded in high spirits and appears to be doing much better these days.
Do your ears perk up every time you hear a politician say that it’s time we end the war on drugs?
Yeah, totally. It’s like a subversive advertising campaign.
Have you ever gotten letters from irate parents suggesting you’re endorsing a deviant lifestyle?
I guess the modern equivalent of that would be posts on the Facebook wall. It’s like, “C’mon, did you even look at the page?” It’s fine. I just delete them. But there’ll be people who write, “Come to Florida!” or “Come to Montreal!” And then it’s like, “End the child slavery laws! Drugs cause so much pain!” What? We’re just trying to have a good time over here on this page.
How much of a challenge was it going into this record, knowing people would be paying attention this time around?
That was the biggest challenge. It was more about wanting to hold up my end of the bargain with our fans and people who latched onto the music earlier. There wasn’t really anything I felt pressuring me [from the outside]. It was all internal. It was self-doubt, and not always trusting my instinct all the way. I was always second guessing myself. It’s hard to explain to somebody why a song is wrong when you’ve spent a year working on it. It’s hard to put that in words. But you just know. Sometimes I had to scrap [the song] or change it around so drastically that I think it was hard for people around me not to think, “He’s in way too deep.”
Was it a Howard Hughes/Spruce Goose kind of situation where you were clearly falling apart and the people around you were all like, “What is going on with Adam?”
I don’t think so, no. Although I think there were some Howard Hughes-levels of hypochondria, which is a whole other interview. Maybe I’ll do that interview with WebMD or something. It was really just about trying to find the magic in each song, and knowing when you had it. It wasn’t total perfectionism. It was just getting it to a point where it felt like ... it was a good representation of the song or of the band.
It sounds like the making of this album really enacted a physical toll on you.
Yeah, totally. It depends how deep you want to get. I started seeing a therapist about eight months ago because it became a little unbearable. I think a lot of the pressures manifested themselves as intensely as they did just because of the way I’d always viewed myself. I never thought I was good enough. I was in this position — the songwriter of a highly anticipated rock album — and it was not a personality I had grown up with. I felt totally overwhelmed without really knowing it.
It seems like making this album was transformative for you. What do you think you learned about yourself throughout the process?
I think I learned music actually is something I’m good at, and maybe I do have those instincts and I’m not just swinging blindly. I think I also learned music is something that’s inside of me. I didn’t grow up in a musical family. A lot of people who are great musicians are like, “Oh yeah, we all grew up singing bluegrass and we played music together every night.” I didn’t have that in my house. My dad owned a small clothing store and my mom was a teacher. I always wondered whether I was faking it, or if I really had a knack for songwriting. So it was definitely transformative in that way.
I know you and Kurt Vile are friends, and you both seem pretty laid-back, but is there anywhere you are highly competitive? Are you ping-pong rivals? Or are you in the same fantasy football league?
[Laughs] The very thought of Kurt in a fantasy football league is hilarious to me. If I started playing ping-pong with Kurt I think he’d lose interest and be like, “I don’t play games.” I have a great respect for him, and he’s one of my biggest musical influences. That time in my life where I met him, I think we were looking for each other. It was the most gratifying musical relationship I’ll probably ever have. I wish we had something we did together other than musical stuff. Tennis would be nice. I could see Kurt being a good tennis player. He’s quick. He’s got good balance. Obviously he has good hand-eye coordination.
And you could both rock the headbands on the court.
Exactly! Maybe we’ll submit me and Kurt as a doubles team at the U.S. Open or Wimbledon. You can put us up against the Williams sisters.
The War on Drugs, 9 p.m. March 23 at Metro. $19-$21.