The War on Drugs may have released one of the most acclaimed records of last year, but making it wasn’t easy for the Philadelphia indie rockers.
“Lost in the Dream was a pretty painful experience for everyone involved,” bassist Dave Hartley said of the album’s recording process. “There was a lot of never being satisfied; there was never that high-five moment where we played the music back and everyone was stoked and hugging each other.”
Speaking to Weld before the band’s April 3 show at Iron City, Hartley recalls the emotionally fraught recording sessions that saw frontman Adam Granduciel isolate himself from his bandmates to make what he later told Stereogum was “a solo record.”
“Adam was just going through some pretty heavy [expletive], and he just battened down the hatches,” Hartley said. “[The rest of the band] were all just like, ‘What the [expletive] is going on right now?’ We would play in the studio, but Adam wasn’t really ever satisfied with anything any of us gave to the record. I don’t think he was trying to exclude anybody, but the only way he could work out [what he was going through] was to make this record. And that meant shutting everybody out of the creative process, which at the time felt a little hurtful, to be honest. I think we all wanted to be a little more involved. But it was coming from an honest place; he really was falling apart emotionally, and this was just his certain way of coping with it. That made it a lot easier to stomach.”
Hartley paused then added, “The record speaks for itself, so he did the right thing.”
Those who have heard the record would tend to agree. According to review aggregator Metacritic, Lost in the Dream received the most critical acclaim of any album released last year, pushing the band closer to mainstream success than they’ve ever been in their decade-long existence.
Hartley has been with the War on Drugs since the band’s second show after Granduciel, then his coworker at a Philadelphia housing company, asked him to join.
“I didn’t really know him as a musician, I just knew that he had a great sense of humor and I thought he was pretty cool,” Hartley said. “I said yes, just based on the name.”
Now close friends, Hartley and Granduciel have been the only constant members of the band since that second gig. The band’s consistently shifting roster has seen a long line of drummers and keyboardists; guitarist Kurt Vile was a member until 2008, when he left to start a successful solo career. Multi-instrumentalist Robbie Bennett joined the band in 2010, followed by drummer Charlie Hall in 2013. To bring Lost in the Dream’s ethereal, synthesizer-heavy sound to a live setting, the band added Jon Natchez (formerly of Beirut) and Anthony LaMarca (St. Vincent’s former touring drummer) to its lineup last year.
It’s this “massive” evolution to which Hartley attributes the band’s success.
“I was in a lot of different bands [when the War on Drugs started], and if you had told me that this was going to be the band that would be the most successful, I don’t know if I would have believed you,” Hartley said. “I always knew Adam’s songs were special, but we were actually pretty terrible live for a long time. It’s pretty ironic, now — I think we’re one of the best live bands in the world, to be completely honest, but the reason I can say that is I think we were one of the worst for a long time.”
Now, the band have established itself as a prominent voice in indie rock with a distinctive, reverb-heavy sound that hearkens back to 1980s rock acts like Bruce Springsteen and Tom Petty. Hartley acknowledges those influences without giving them too much credit.
“There’s such a culture now of pointing fingers for being influenced by things, and my opinion is that every great artist is a product of their forefathers,” he said.
There is one common comparison, though, that he just doesn’t understand: “I will say, I don’t think any of us listen to Dire Straits or can name more than two Dire Straits songs. But people constantly bring up Dire Straits. I think they’re a cool band; it doesn’t insult me, but it’s strange. I can see Bob Dylan’s influence. I can see Springsteen, even Tom Petty, although I don’t see his influence quite as much. But I don’t know where Dire Straits comes from.”
“I think the real reason for our classic sound is that the real manifesto of the band is to be timeless and never gimmicky, never chasing some [expletive] trend,” Hartley said. “That’s really important, not trying to jump on whatever micro-trends are successful on the Internet. I think the way to do that is to look at records that have been around for 30 years and ask, ‘What is it about that record that touches people so deeply?’”
The War on Drugs has experienced firsthand the constantly shifting focus of the Internet. Last September, they found themselves at the center of a highly publicized “feud” with singer-songwriter Mark Kozelek of Sun Kil Moon, who engaged in a prolonged, baffling attack on the band for several weeks after noise from one of their festival sets interfered with his own set.
According to Hartley the band found Kozelek’s over-the-top assault, which culminated in a lengthy, profanity-laden song insulting the band, mostly hilarious if unfortunately distracting from the music.
“Most of us were actually amused by it, because it was so preposterous and absurd,” Hartley said. “It really blew our minds. I don’t think anybody was really offended, but there was this moment where we wondered, ‘Is that what we’re going to be remembered for this year? Will this overshadow the record?’
“But it taught me how insanely short peoples’ memories are now. One day, [the feud] was all you heard about — it was headline news in indie rock spheres, anyway — and the next day it was gone. Nobody gave a [expletive] anymore. The music obviously had a little more staying power.”
For 2015, the War on Drugs hopes to keep the focus entirely on the music. Hartley told Weld that the band plans to start recording its fourth studio album in mid-April.
“After Coachella, we’re going to post up in L.A. and start recording,” he said, sounding optimistic that the process will be easier than it was for Lost in the Dream. “We’re starting right away on the new record. It’s really awesome news because we’ve put out three records in 10 years. Everybody wants it to happen faster, including Adam. We just want to get ahead of it. We don’t know how long it’ll take, but it’s best to start now.”
The War on Drugs will perform at Iron City on Friday, April 3. Hop Along will open. Doors will open at 7 p.m. Tickets are $26. For more information, visit ironcitybham.com.