Record of the Week: The War on Drugs’ ‘I Don’t Live Here Anymore’

Listen to part of Celia’s conversation with Adam Granduciel of The War on Drugs

The reverb-rich drums and twinkling keys throughout I Don’t Live Here Anymore, the fifth studio record from Philadelphia rock group The War on Drugs, surely recall soft rock sounds of previous decades. But make no mistake—front man Adam Granduciel leads a world class 21st Century guitar band. At base level, Granduciel and his five musical collaborators have continued to make palatable, melodic rock and roll centered in lyrics with emotional intensity like these, from Side A standout track “Change”:

Maybe I was born too late
For this lonely freedom fight
Or maybe I was born in the wrong way
Maybe born on the wrong day


But I Don’t Live Here Anymore feels like more than a loose collection of high-quality tunes. With each thoughtful key change and emotional build-up-to-break-through, the album is an impressive and cohesive work that raises the already high bar The War on Drugs set for themselves with previous releases, including indie gems Slave Ambient (2011) and Lost In The Dream (2014), followed by their Grammy-winning major label debut A Deeper Understanding (2017).

Granduciel worked with producer Shawn Everett to perfect this batch of songs written pre-pandemic and recorded over half a dozen sessions at multiple studios, including Electric Lady in Manhattan. As Granduciel described to me, his approach to finalizing a song varies based on the “foundation” of an idea and/or its “spirit,” which he said he’s unwilling to abandon if he knows something worth revealing is in there somewhere.

He took some time to workshop the track “Old Skin,” which begins with a delicate if underwhelming first section, then explodes in what rock critic Steven Hyden referred to as that “one moment…I’m sure you know which one.” I have listened to this song repeatedly with anticipation for precisely this moment, which is somehow surprising each time. The drums crashing in hit like classic War on Drugs, and new instant-classic rock.

The title track is an unforgettable entry point for the album, and, really, the band too; it’s a straightforward, but not at all sparse power ballad for which they recruited Nashville-based, Philly-bred musician Eric Slick to supply the backbeat, and pop duo Lucius for jubilant choral harmonies that defy the very thought of “walking through this darkness on our own.”

I’m gonna say everything that I need to say
Although you’ve taken everything I need away
I’m gonna take you to the place I need to go
We’re all just walking through this darkness on our own

“I Don’t Live Here Anymore”

The wintry snapshot on the album cover, and songs about tough transitions, are no match for the warmth of these compositions, which will be reinvented for live performances again in 2022. Early next year, that War on Drugs warmth will fill the biggest and most storied venues of their career, including Nashville’s own Mother Church, The Ryman Auditorium. Read below for my chat with Adam Granduciel during the band’s record release week.

On the Record: A Q&A With The War on Drugs

Celia Gregory: We’ve been jamming the title track, which gives me all the feels, but really the whole record does. I want to ask about this time in your career, being able to play MSG [Madison Square Garden], the Ryman Auditorium and some of these venues. What is your sense of place like as you’re about to embark on this next tour after this prolonged time off the road? 

Adam Granduciel: [The band guys] all got together for the first time in July, so we hadn’t seen each other in 19 months and I think everyone was worried we were going to be super rusty and, “What’s it going to feel like?” Everyone kind of settled into other things in life to some capacity. And the first five hours were a little rusty. After that it was like we didn’t miss a beat. We started playing old stuff, it all came back and it was so loose. And we’ve had a couple trips since for rehearsal, everyone’s come out to L.A. and it’s really great. I mean, we’ve never rehearsed this much before, and been this prepared musically, so that we can enter a tour and be loose from the first show. 

So then to be able to walk into like the Ryman or MSG or The Shrine or ACL Theater—every step of the way it’s always felt like we’ve been prepared to play some of these places. When [2014 album] Lost in the Dream came out, I kind of put together this bigger band of six people because I wanted that big sound. We had toured with this band Destroyer a couple of years before in 2011, and they had a nine-piece band and we did this like crazy North American tour with them. And I was like, “Man, that must be so fun to sit up there and have nine people just like blasting away.” And so I put that together for Lost in the Dream. And as we started playing bigger and bigger places on that [tour], we kind of grew into those rooms, it didn’t feel like we didn’t have enough sound to fill it. And so now that we’ve been this six-person band for almost eight years, we come to the Ryman and it’s exciting, because we’re confident as a band. We love playing together. To be able to do what we do, like how seriously we take it and then to be able to do it in a place like that is quite a gift. 

CG: I want to follow up on that point, that this is the most you’ve ever rehearsed. Is it because of the time away or because the time you have had now to really be sitting with this music for a while? Or is it just because you need to feel refreshed?

AG: I think a little bit of everything. Yeah, I think part of it was having a little bit of extra time. Part of it is also kind of being wanting to be prepared, you know, and good. And also part of it is feeling a little daunted by the music when you finish the record. When we turned in the record, you’re so inside of the recording aspect of it and creating the illusion of a band on a record that it feels impossible that a real band could actually play it. Because you’re like, “Well, what about this sound? How is he going to know to do this?” And then like the third time you play a song like, “Oh yeah.” It feels great, feels dynamic. And then it’s just about grabbing the little sections and working on little things.

I think part of it too is just being excited to see the guys once everyone was vaccinated and could travel and things calmed down in L.A. especially. To be in the same room and play—we all couldn’t wait to have that experience. 

CG: Yeah, that’s true that you wouldn’t have been able to even test out some of these songs on the road and see how they gel performing them until now, right? I think it was actually right around Lost in the Dream you mentioned in a magazine that making that record was less about “trying to keep the edges clean,” and making sure more so that the heart of the song was in it. So with these songs that are so expansive and you’re rehearsing the hell out of them, is that still your philosophy when you were recording, like don’t get too precious about a particular song? Or did you have a little more time to obsess over every detail?

AG: I think the at the heart of the song, I feel like making sure that there’s the foundation that I liked. Once you have the solid foundation, you can kind of paint a picture you want on top of it, and it still feels real. Like the song “I Don’t Want To Wait,” I rewrote that a few different times in a different key, then there was a key modulation. And I rewrote the bridge and finally got it after about a year of just writing it to where I felt like I was ready to lay it down with a band, with Dave and Anthony at Electric Lady and John on organ. We cut the basic track in maybe two takes, because I knew like the foundation was there and then we could basically spend another year or two years making it sound as cool as we could. 

Other times there’s a song that you know can be good…that there’s something in there that you love, but the version you’re working on is terrible. Like the song “Old Skin”—I had done a demo that I really loved that had a really great spirit. And then we recorded it, and I was like, “Oh, this is terrible…how do I salvage this?” And you just keep chipping away at it, you know, trying new things or muting a bunch of stuff or doing this or redoing this and trying to just reveal the thing that you know is in there. Because it’d be easy to just be like, “Well, it sucks, let’s just scrap it.” And sometimes you have to not be too worried about whether or not it’s polished, but if there’s something there in the demo or an idea that you know is worth revealing.

CG: I don’t mean to be too technical about it because it sounds like we’re talking about the same thing. It’s one in the same what you hold on to musically and also thematically, right, with the songwriting process? I almost didn’t want to talk to you about these songs because they’re really personal to me already. And I imagine that’s going to be the case with a lot of folks that hear these songs. But I didn’t want to shy away from facing it head-on because that’s sort of what the record’s about, right? 

AG: Yeah, definitely.

CG: Can you speak a little bit to your relationship with the idea of change and going through because you can’t go around it and you can’t dodge it, whether it’s loss or something triumphant like parenthood? How do you feel about that differently now as a person, not just a songwriter? 

AG: I feel like the essence of these songs isn’t necessarily something that I even sat down and knew when I was thinking about the record or when I had this little idea for a song. I think these themes reveal themselves over time as you treat all the songs as one work, you know? But I think the overarching theme is kind of moving forward through things and almost having to affirm that you have to take control of the thing that you know to be the most true, whether it’s a code you live by or if you finally realize that you have to change. It’s a sense of destiny, almost. It’s as easy as saying “follow your gut,” you know what I mean?

CG: Has that always been easy for you to do, to follow that gut feeling?

AG: I don’t think necessarily in life. I think with the last maybe six or seven years, eight years with music, I’ve learned how to know what I love musically, what feels right, and really follow that. But it hasn’t always been something that I’ve been able to accomplish everywhere else. But that’s a lot of life’s work, you know? 

CG: Totally. Well, this record is beautiful. There are songs on it, like “Occasional Rain,” like I said, really touching. And then of course, there are the songs that will always be on my running playlist. I’m sure you’ve heard that. Like “Wasted.” The pacing, everything about it just feels very true to War on Drugs and very welcomed after so much time. So thank you for the music. I can’t wait to see it live—to welcome you to Nashville again at the beginning of next year. 

AG: Oh my god, can’t wait. Really looking forward to it.