What does it mean to play Classic Rock? The term is mostly applied to loud and furious groups from the 70s and 80s – think Led Zeppelin, AC/DC, The Rolling Stones – but when you listen to The War on Drugs, the band led by Adam Granduciel, there doesn’t feel like any other way to describe their music. It’s grandiose and imposing with an intense love of guitars; their fulsome sound has led them to becoming one of the biggest rock bands in the world. 

After organically building the band up over a decade, it culminated in the Grammy for Best Rock Album for 2017’s monumental A Deeper Understanding. Yet just a matter of months after winning that award, Granduciel and his bandmates took themselves back into the studio, beginning work on their next album.

That album is I Don’t Live Here Anymore, released last week: judging by the reviews it’s already received, it might even be the equal of A Deeper Understanding. It’s filled with some of the heartiest guitar anthems since the heyday of Bruce Springsteen and Tom Petty (Springsteen is a noted hero of Granduciel). After 15 years, they’ve never sounded more accessible while remaining firmly themselves. 

That’s because of commitment to consistency, Granduciel tells me when we speak. Famously one of music’s great obsessives, spending intense amounts of time making his records, his approach didn’t particularly mellow on I Don’t Live Here Anymore. “I think before the pandemic I was pretty obsessive about it,” he considers. “I’m pretty obsessive about the songs. 

We’d demo something as a band and then I’d go back and rewrite it in a different key, rewrite the bridge, change the outro, and then we’d record it again, and still I’d be like, ‘I’m going to go back and change one more thing’ (laughs). Then I’d feel like the song was good enough to record it for real. I wasn’t so obsessive about every sound though, it was more about obsessing over making sure the songs were good enough.”

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Despite the band being in lockdown for some of the process, the collaboration between Granduciel and his bandmates didn’t prove as difficult as perhaps feared. “it was kind of cool because everyone was just sitting in their fucking house anyway,” he says. “Luckily we’d already done so much of the record so that anything we were doing in lockdown remotely was all overdub stuff. 

This way, I’d send Dave (Hartley) something and he’d have like a week with it. He could do it in the morning, have some coffee and then go back to it and really refine his part. We did everything that way, drums, bass, guitar.”

They reunited with engineer and producer Shawn Everett, who had a huge effect on the album’s eventual sound. “Shawn’s a freak!” Granduciel exclaims. “We worked on the last record together but this time we were better friends and had a better working relationship and just understood each other more. He took ownership of this record in a way I don’t think anybody else would have. I think he’s just that special type of guy that gets really passionate about stuff he’s working on. We had a lot of fun.”

There can’t be many more captivating album openers this year than ‘Living Proof’: it’s a soaring melancholic journey that is dizzying in its intensity. What made him place it right at the beginning, I ask. “I couldn’t find another place for it on the record,” Granduciel reveals. “It was also the first song we finished, about a year before everything else. Whenever we’d go back to it and think that we’d have to change it, it sounded so good. 

So the only place I could really think of putting it was at the beginning. We tried it in every other place and it didn’t feel right. It’s a little confusing when you’re driving because it can be tough to get the right volume, you know? But if you’re at home or listening on a record player, I think it’s actually really nice. It definitely puts you in a certain zone and I could see some fast forwarding through it but there’s also certain experiences where you’re going to listen to it all the way through. I think it’s important to have that song first, it sets the stage for the rest of the record.”

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Some things have changed for Granduciel though. This is his first album after the birth of his child, Bruce, who was born in 2019. It’s something that naturally changed his approach to making music. “There’s a general playfulness that comes with making music with a young person around. It’s not like this stuff (music) doesn’t matter but it puts into perspective your precious record. It’s not the most important thing anymore. It puts it into focus a bit in the best way.” 

Just before our chat, Dave Grohl had said that he believed the dial was turning back to guitar-based music. Given his stature as a guitarist, it was something I wanted to get Granduciel’s thoughts on. When I mention it, though, he sounds agitated. “I feel like for 10 years, everyone’s been saying, ‘there’s no more guitar music’. But the whole time everyone’s playing the fucking guitar though (laughs). He mentions Snail Mail’s Lindsey Jordan and Hand Habits’ Meg Duffy as two of this generation’s finest guitarists. “There’s always been other things in music but there’s so many people playing guitar and making great records.”

There’s been a subtle transition in The War on Drugs becoming more of a live band than a recording one. “It’s definitely turned into more of a live thing,” Granduciel says. “The records are really important, those are my thing, but the band on stage isn’t necessarily the band that’s on the record, you know? We’ve turned into a live thing, it’s a whole big thing. It’s cool though, it’s been an amazing journey with these guys.” 

They’d also love to return to play live in Australia, where they were last in 2018. He expresses his love of The Triffids, the iconic Aussie alternative rock from the 80s. He also tells me of his admiration for rising indie rockers Middle Kids, who they toured with while Down Under in 2018. “We did some shows with them in ‘18, they were the best.”

In January, The War on Drugs will play a headline show at New York City’s legendary Madison Square Garden, which feels like a coronating moment for a modern classic rock success story. I ask Granduciel if he ever imagined his band making it to such a place. He answers immediately. “No, definitely not! But that’s part of the journey, that’s part of the fun. If I ever expected to be able to do that, I’d probably have never enjoyed the ride. For us it’s like, ‘oh shit, holy shit!’ When you have no expectations it makes it a fantastic experience.”

Five albums in, The War on Drugs show no sign of relenting. Given his heroes are Bob Dylan and Springsteen, who have been releasing music and touring for so long, it feels perfectly feasible to imagine Granduciel and co. doing the same. “At least four decades five maybe,” he laughs when I ask how long he sees the band continuing. “It depends where we’re at. As long as everyone in the band is there for the right reasons, then I’ll fucking rip the guitar until it’s out of style, you know?”

I Don’t Live Here Anymore is out now via Atlantic Records.

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