A name like The War on Drugs practically invites preconception.
Knowing nothing about them, one might expect anything from blissed-out psych-rockers to heady musicians with some nebulous, jaded and ironic social agenda. Or just another indie outfit with a moniker obscure enough to avoid the dreaded trademark infringement.
Rather than some coke-addled nihilists or self-prescribed whistle-blowers, this Philadelphia quintet is actually far more mercurial. Like the phrase itself, the music of The War on Drugs is intentionally misleading. By summoning Nixon's all-too familiar tag line, the band prompts you to scratch below the surface, dig up the glossed-over complexities and attempt to make sense of something much more knotty and convoluted.
As almost any article on the band will tell you, founders Adam Granduciel and Kyle Hartley used their mutual respect for Bob Dylan as a jumping-off point for their collaboration—a footnote that nearly all of the first round of reviews of their '08 debut Wagonwheel Blues harped on. To be fair, Granduciel's lyrics do, at times, evoke Dylan's half-poetic, half-jeremiad rants circa Highway 61, and the band's lighthearted, road-song tone kindles a laundry list of '70s heartland rock. But more often than not, critics seemed to use those touchstones as conversation pieces for a sound that propelled far beyond their reach.
"It gets to the point where I don't think people even know why they're saying that," Granduciel tells the Scene. "I think people hear a song like [opening track] 'Arms Like Boulders' and they have to say, 'Dylan!' "
That track in particular serves as a head-long thrust into Wagonwheel's melting pot aesthetic. Soaked in feedback as if recorded in the unforgiving confines of a cinder block basement, the first anthemic guitar blasts counteract rounds of barreling drums and pinched organ before settling into the song's four persistent verses. As on follow-up track "Taking the Farm," each line is slightly altered from the last, with Granduciel spacing each syllable to discover fresh transitions, either cramming a word into the tail end of his breath, paring a phrase or elongating a hushed vowel for emphasis. Gaining traction in the first minute through steadily layered, live-wire guitar accents doubled by buzzed vocal coos and a chugging cadence, the latter typifies The War on Drugs' framework of true-blood American rock as it becomes enveloped in a dense sonic skin.
"Some of the songs would go through three or four recordings where a couple different versions would end up becoming one song," explains Granduciel. "For as much time as I spent writing songs on the acoustic guitar, I spend as much jamming out on pedals. I enjoy writing songs, but I also know that I don't want it to be, like, strum it, record it and press it."
Prop those two songs against more ambient tracks like "Coast Reprise" and "Reverse the Charges"—more comparable to post-electro-pop bands like Atlas Sound or Benoît Pioulard—and Wagonwheel Blues' dueling elements form an entirely renovated brand of retro-rock that feels neither dated or even updated, as it evolves so naturally. Translating their precarious sound to the stage, though, has taken the relatively young band months worth of tour stops to hone, especially since they've been reduced to a three-piece while out on the road.
"When we played in Philadelphia, we had two drummers and a couple guitar players. It was just a hodgepodge," said Granduciel. "But as we started touring more...we solidified the lineup and the performance, and it's like a whole different band than it was a year ago."
With more headlining shows and longer set times as their tour wraps up in Tennessee, Granduciel says they now have breathing room to explore their newly discovered dynamic. And with a second LP in their sights and fresh material to needle into shape onstage, The War on Drugs are becoming just as formidable a band live as they are on tape.
"By the time we hit Nashville," he says, "we'll be in prime shape."
Toats I meant
Yeppers I would goats do that
Tigger, just come on back if you ever want to try again; I done told…