The War on Drugs: ‘Springsteen gets a kick out of my son being named Bruce’
Naming a child can be a taxing task for any new parents, but for Adam Granduciel and his partner, the actor Krysten Ritter, one name for a boy stood out as a clear frontrunner. In 2018, the year before their son was born, the couple met Bruce Springsteen backstage at one of his theatre shows on Broadway. Springsteen is a longstanding hero of Granduciel’s, and a noted influence on the epic, road-trip-ready rock music he makes with his band The War on Drugs . No surprise then that Granduciel and Ritter decided to name their child Bruce, or that The Boss himself gave them his approval. “I didn’t tell him beforehand, but he knows now for sure,” says Granduciel of his son’s famous namesake. “He gets a kick out of it!”
In 2021, The War on Drugs are something of a rarity: a massively successful modern guitar band. Their last album, 2017’s A Deeper Understanding, won the Grammy for Best Rock Album, while their international tour next year will see them perform at some of the world’s biggest and most storied venues, including Madison Square Garden in New York and the O2 in London. Those grand arenas will provide a fitting home for the meticulously crafted rock songs that fill the band’s forthcoming new album, their fifth, I Don’t Live Here Anymore , which is set to be released on Friday. While their early records featured sprawling soundscapes emerging from a maelstrom of Seventies and Eighties classic rock influences, the songwriting on the new record is more direct, the lyrics more personal. It was to some extent inspired, Granduciel says, by the arrival of the younger Bruce in his world.
“Nothing will put your life into perspective like having a kid,” says the 42-year-old, speaking over the phone from Austin, Texas, where Ritter is currently filming the forthcoming HBO series Love and Death, from Big Little Lies creator David E Kelley. It’s a quirk of her celebrity that Granduciel has the curious distinction of being one of the very few grizzled, long-haired contemporary rockers to regularly be trailed by paparazzi around Los Angeles, often with Bruce under one arm. “I think it helped me understand what it means to grow up. It puts your place in your own life into a little bit of focus, and there were things that I wanted to write about as I entered fatherhood. It was a ripe opportunity to understand new facets of life.”
That’s not to say that the album is full of hymns to changing nappies in the middle of the night or any of the other prosaic demands of parenting. Rather, it’s a record about attempting to navigate your way through life’s many changes. “I found myself writing about trying to take control of your destiny so that you can move into new chapters of your life with grace,” says Granduciel, listing off the questions he was asking himself as he wrote the album: “Who are you? What kind of code are you going to live by? What are you going to pass down? What are you going to be an example for?”
Naturally enough, this existential contemplation of new fatherhood led Granduciel to reflect on his own childhood. He was born Adam Granofsky on 15 February 1979 in Dover, Massachusetts, just outside of Boston. His stage surname was inspired by his high-school French teacher, who told him that a literal translation of his surname ‘Gran-of-sky’ would be ‘Gran-du-ciel’. When he was growing up, his father Mark owned a women’s clothing store in the North End of Boston and showed little interest in classic rock. It was Granduciel’s older brother, Burton, who introduced him to the life-changing sounds of Led Zeppelin, Jimi Hendrix, and Neil Young.
It was only years later, after the 2014 release of The War on Drugs’ widely-acclaimed third album Lost In The Dream, that Granduciel’s father began to educate himself about all the musical touchstones he’d missed out on. “That album got a lot of press, so he could read about me a lot, and I think like any parent he was probably pretty psyched,” remembers Granduciel. “But he started seeing all these comparisons to things he had never really heard, like Dire Straits or Tom Petty. It was kind of cool because he had zero reference points, so he would just buy a Dire Straits record and then listen to Lost In The Dream and be like: ‘You’re better!’”
As a young man, Granduciel had thought he might make his career as a visual artist. He studied painting and photography at Dickinson College in Pennsylvania before moving to Oakland for a year, where he made art inspired by Bay Area abstract expressionists like Richard Diebenkorn, David Park and Elmer Bischoff. It was while living on the west coast that he first started making cassette recordings of his guitar playing, labelling them “Granduciel” because he still felt too nervous to put his own name to them. Then, at the start of 2003, he moved to Philadelphia and discovered an indie-rock scene he could feel at home in. “When I moved to Philly, I made a commitment that I was going to pursue a creative journey in music, but I had zero concept of what that actually meant,” he remembers. “I wasn’t shooting to get a record deal, I really just wanted to be creative and do music and find people that I could do it with.”
Fortunately, that didn’t take long. While living in a shared house in the Frogtown neighbourhood, one of Granduciel’s roommates introduced him to a fellow guitar obsessive who lived nearby, Kurt Vile. The pair hit it off immediately, and their friendship was cemented in March 2004 when they went together to see shared hero Bob Dylan play an intimate show at Philadelphia’s 1,200-capacity Trocadero Theatre. “That was a transcendent performance,” recalls Granduciel, a sense of awe tangible in his voice. “I remember they did this version of ‘She Belongs To Me’ with a pedal steel guitar. It was just so good. Then after that show we went to an indie-rock show, and it was funny [by comparison] because we were both like: ‘Oh, we just saw the master!’”
Dylan’s influence is all over the first albums the pair made together, albeit drenched in layers of lo-fi psych-rock fuzz. Granduciel played guitar on Vile’s 2008 debut Constant Hitmaker, and Vile returned the favour by co-producing the first The War on Drugs album that same year, Wagonwheel Blues, and playing on follow-up Slave Ambient in 2011.
Granduciel recalls that even at this early stage of his musical career his father was always supportive of his ambitions, despite barely understanding them. “I remember when we were doing weird shows in Philly, things that were lifetimes removed from what we’re doing now, he was there watching and trying to process it and probably being confused,” says Granduciel. “He’s definitely been there for the arc, you know? I think my dad saw the pieces as they were still falling into place, so it must have been nice to see myself and the other guys come out the other side to some extent.”
He’s referring to the rapid ascent the band found themselves on in 2014, following the release of Lost In The Dream. He pinpoints the moment he realised the band’s popularity had leapfrogged even his own expectations as the November 2014 shows they played at the Roundhouse, a venue he and the band were excited to perform at because it was where Led Zeppelin made their London debut in 1968. “And then it wasn’t big enough!” says Granduciel, still sounding bemused. “It almost became an afterthought because it sold out too quickly, so we were told we could have done it somewhere bigger. I was just thinking: ‘What? What’s happening?’ We were fortunate that when those things started to happen, we were ready. We had put together a big, six-piece band and the sound was there.”
The breakout success of Lost In The Dream – which was named Album of the Year by no fewer than 13 different publications – led to the band being signed by a major label, Atlantic, for the first time in their career. Meanwhile, Apple’s Jimmy Iovine, one of the most influential figures in music, publicly announced that The War on Drugs “should be gigantic”. From the outside it may have looked like everything was happening according to plan, but for Granduciel it sometimes felt like being a passenger on a runaway train. “For the last five or six years of us being a band on the road, it might have seemed like we’re on some path that we’ve carved out, and that we’re steadfast,” he says. “But sometimes you’re just trying to keep up with the things that are happening around you. One day you open your eyes and you’re like: ‘Oh s***, I’m here now, so where do I go next? What’s the next thing for us?’”
Little wonder, then, that Granduciel found himself returning again and again while writing I Don’t Live Here Anymore to that theme of attempting to wrest control of your own destiny. The album’s title, he says, refers to a non-literal, emotional place. “If you say ‘I don’t live here anymore’ it means you’re still standing where you’re saying you’re not,” he points out. “It’s almost like you know where you don’t want to be. You know exactly what you’re not, but that doesn’t mean you know where you’re going.”
While free-associating lyrics for the title track, he came up with the lines: “Like when we went to see Bob Dylan / We danced to ‘Desolation Row’ / But I don’t live here anymore / But I got no place to go”. At first he considered them throwaway lyrics. It was only later, listening back, that he thought about all the times he really had seen Bob Dylan, including that transcendent night with Kurt Vile, back at the start of his musical journey. “When I had time to think about it, I realised it has a context,” he says. “The more I was working on the song, the more I thought: ‘This is a real memory of a very real thing in my life, so why take it out?’”
As he finished the song, he realised its title could fit the mood of the album as a whole. “I knew when I was close to being done with it,” he remembers. “I liked the affirmation of it. It felt like something.” He also thought it could work with the cover. “That was a weird thing,” he says. “Because of the pandemic we couldn’t really do a photoshoot.”
Instead, he asked his bandmates if they’d taken any suitable pictures during their recording sessions, and stumbled across a shot of himself heading to the studio during a blizzard, a mug of coffee in one hand and his guitar in the other. It was almost perfect, an image of a man forging his own path, but it needed one final alteration. “I was the one that chopped my head off,” says Granduciel with a quiet chuckle. The man may well be on his own path, but that doesn’t necessarily mean he can see where he’s heading. “It just felt like that was essentially what the record was about.”
‘I Don’t Live Here Anymore’ by The War On Drugs will be released on 29 October