The A.V. Club raved about the War On Drugs’ latest album, Slave Ambient, when it came out in August, but the members of The National—particularly guitarist Aaron Dessner—might love the record even more than we do. The National invited the Philadelphia band to open up for one of its New York City shows this month, but before then Dessner asked if he could interview War On Drugs members Adam Granduciel and Dave Hartley for us. Dessner was itching to learn more about how the War On Drugs created the dense and billowy soundscapes that surround Ambient’s sturdy, classic rock-oriented songs. During the conversation, Dessner also discussed his production work on Sharon Van Etten’s forthcoming record, and contrasted the War On Drugs’ working methods with how The National works in the studio.
Aaron Dessner: I think I’ve met you. It’s possible we met at [Philadelphia music venue] Johnny Brendas.
Adam Granduciel: Exactly, when you were there with Sharon [Van Etten]. I was seeing my friend’s band play. I’d had a couple of drinks. And I was offering to come down to Sharon’s recording studio, and essentially solo over all of her stuff. “Yeah, I’ll come down, I’ll bring my guitar and I’ll just fucking rip on everything.” And I could tell, Sharon was like, “Yeah, I don’t think you’re going to do that.”
AD: I feel like you made a ridiculously good record. I think I’m going to stop listening to it one day, but it’s been months now, and I listen to it all the time, and in lots of different situations—on the tour bus or dinner or driving. It’s really, really good. I’m definitely interested in the genesis of it. I think it works at the songwriting level in a very simple way at the core of it, but then it’s incredibly ambitious sonically, and the production is pushing things as far as it can go while still staying true. You’re not dressing things up, but you’re blurring the lines all the time of what’s a song and what’s not a song. It’s very confident, and you took a lot of risks. How did you go from writing these songs to the final point? Was there a lot of experimentation?
AG: For the most part, a lot of them were written over the course of recording the song. Starting with a lot of experimenting, taking the tape machines home, recording sessions with friends, and then sampling a lot of stuff off the tape machine and then re-sampling it and coming up with a backdrop. I wasn’t really sure where the song would go; then just, over time, you add stuff and write the song as you go, and keep arranging stuff. A lot of them would be really simple kind of melodies that I would have, and then I ended up going through layers of stuff that we’d put on and take off. Some of them were written a little more straightforward, too. “Brothers” or “Black Water Falls”—they were written, then performed live as a band.
AD: A lot of people in our generation dress music up, and they lose it all in reverb and lean on effects as a crutch. But you guys, a lot of your experimentation seems really integral, or part of the tapestry that makes it more emotional and more hypnotic. I feel like I’m learning a lot listening, because it’s always something that I struggle with recording, and our band struggles with it. “Don’t put icing on the cake,” you know? But I always want to experiment more, I always want to try new things, but we usually throw everything away in the end to get ourselves back to where its most simple form is. It’s hard, in the end—I would imagine this record was hard to finish.
AG: Yeah. It was exciting to mix. It was difficult to mix. It was just really difficult to—I think Dave could probably attest to this—to know when things were getting close to being done. I think they were close to being done for about a year and a half, you know? Part of it, too, is a confidence thing. Certain songs, I never want to hide behind a ton of effects. I guess I found when a song sounded a certain way, I was able to finally put a real vocal on it, because over the course of time I’d always be putting scratch vocals on and changing the arrangements, and learning the song as we were finding the song. I didn’t want to saturate it. I wanted you to be able to hear the words, and hear the actual song.
Dave and I recorded “Brothers” for [2010’s] Future Weather EP at my house one afternoon, pretty randomly. Dave plays drums on it, and I ended up finishing the song in four or five days. And then we went on a little tour, and then I booked a day in a studio down in North Carolina, and we’d just been playing “Brothers” live as a band, so I thought it would be great if we recorded a live version. So that’s how we ended up recording two versions. But for me, the definitive version is the Future Weather one, because I remember the way it was made and how I was feeling. Putting a full band recording of that gave it an entirely different feel emotionally. It’s funny, because it’s exactly the same song, with no real lyric changes at all, but the two versions have completely different moods to them. When I heard the full band recording of it, I knew it wasn’t the same thing as the EP.
All the War On Drugs records were made without any sort of live band in place. Dave’s been in band since the beginning, and we’ve had some of the same people play on the records, but we’ve never been able to make a record in the way that we did “Brothers,” where it was a song that was fully realized and performed, then we recorded it and could take it to another level.
AD: It feels like your music is more organic on record than our music. There’s more of an alchemy going on, with accidents and more interactive experiments happening. It feels more live to me. Our recordings, you feel that it’s been, not labored, but you feel that it’s been constructed in a way where sometimes it’s hard for us to create the feeling that this was done in a room. Because the music is written long before any vocals are written, or any vocal melodies. Like “Terrible Love,” what’s on the record is my demo, and Matt sang over it. And for a long time he sang some Nirvana lyrics over it. I liked how shitty it sounded; it’s just this weird, muffled, hazy thing. And I think I was probably overly attached to the sound. The electric guitar sounds there, I think I had on a bunch of different pedals, and I was looping myself as I played, and got this woofy drone beneath it that was hard to make sound that good. And Bryan drummed to it, and there was only one mic up, and he only drummed for 30 seconds or something. It was hard to convince him to play again, so we just ended up using it, and we all liked it. It was either going to be first on the record, or it wasn’t going to be on the record, because it’s this weird, harsh thing.
We played it on the Jimmy Fallon show, and it was the first time we’d ever played it. And actually the label was like, “Don’t play that song. Play ‘Bloodbuzz Ohio,’ the single.” And we were like, “No, we’re going to play this song.” And we played it, and we were like, “Uh-oh, we might have fucked up here.” Because we realized then it was going to be this live rager, and we play it really well. Eventually we did re-record it for use in Europe on the radio, but I kind of hate doing that. I still much prefer the recorded version that’s on the record, because it reminds me of originally doing it. Like you were saying with “Brothers,” I like that it feels more spontaneous than other stuff we do sounds. I think it’s great that bands have lots of different versions, and especially doing things live take on a new dynamic.
When people review you guys, they talk about Springsteen, Petty, and Dylan. To me, you’re just using what some of those older recordings did so well—this almost casual, effortless quality. It is very produced, but it is very casual. How did you see the instrumental passages, all the blurry intros and outros?
AG: All the instrumentals were earlier versions of songs, or different ways at me arriving at songs. I just like to show where songs originated from, or the process of trying a lot of different things out. Sometimes things would get spliced together, or they would exist on their own. I put a lot of those on because it gives it a flow, it kind of shows you where things originated from. I can show people without necessarily ever really making them into a song of their own.
AD: I always want to have time to experiment, and have transitional things, and have these weird non-songs, but usually the stuff I’m working on comes down to this weird deadline, where it just never happens, and it’s kind of a bummer.
AG: That’s when you just got to be, “All right, guys. I’m going to go get the record mastered tomorrow. 10 a.m.” Then you get there at 8 and put in all the stuff you want to put on there. “Noon, guys, see you there at noon!”
AD: There has been a little bit of that with Sharon, where I was like, “Okay, you can call this done, or we can fuck with it for another year.” She was like, “It’s done.” I think it makes sense; it was a very clear statement that needed to be done.
AG: I can’t wait to hear it. I’m looking forward to hearing that record.
AD: The way we made it was so piecemeal—two days here, three days there, so it’s basically mostly us and whomever was in the neighborhood at the time. I think it’s really special. That’s how I started listening to you guys, through Sharon. The rest of the guys in The National were also obsessed even before I started listening to you.
I was telling Amy, your manager—and I was kind of saying it jokingly—but it really does sound like your music could fill arenas. I would be so happy if music as good as this could do that someday, because it has that kind of wide horizon to it. It doesn’t feel like it would be a struggle for it to communicate on that kind of level. Does it scare you to play bigger and bigger rooms, or are you guys enjoying it?
AG: I think it’s awesome. Before the record came out, I wasn’t sure how we were going to play a lot of them. I was little worried about “Your Love Is Calling My Name” and “Come To The City,” and then everyone was super confident in their playing, and it only took us a few rehearsals to where they sounded just great. Everyone’s so tasteful, and everyone’s sensibilities are so good that now some of the most challenging ones I thought are the most enjoyable to play, just because the idea of pulling it off while you’re doing it is really special. Especially to me, since I labored over the recording for a long time. To see them take shape live, it’s a totally different experience. And it’s great, we don’t focus on tons of layers, and we don’t play to backing tracks. We have some drum machine that we play for certain songs, but nothing that really locks us in to a pattern or sequence or anything. So you can let the songs go wherever they want to go. Someone asked me, “Do you reinterpret a lot of the songs live? Do you experiment on them?” And I was like, “I kind of wish we could, in a way. But at the same time, it took a long time for those songs to arrive where they ended up being, so I wouldn’t know how to change something, or reinterpret any of them, because it took a long time for any of them to end up how they sounded.”
AD: It seems like there’s room within the songs to be expressive.
Dave Hartley: I think one of the things that’s been a challenge has been learning how to play a longer set, because for years we were doing opening bills for various bands. And that’s challenging in of itself, because it’s not your crowd, and people don’t really want to see you, but you have 40 minutes to go out and play. Hit audience in the face with your best stuff then drink a bottle of wine or something. But with this, we play for a couple of hours, and you really have to take people on a trip or a journey of some kind. It’s really cool. We’re starting to get the hang of it. It’s really satisfying to get to hold some of the tension for two hours, or try to, which means not wasting everything right up front, but pulling them in and that kind of thing.
AD: It is definitely a transition that you make at some point. We’ve been in that position a lot. I kind of love opening, because it’s easier and kind of just more fun to get up and play fast and furious and have a good time.
AG: You have, like, two hours afterwards to party and hang out.
AD: Where we are, we have different kinds of fans. There are people who want to hear what they consider your hits. There are people who want you to experiment and explore random, rare things. And it’s kind of a different; they’re two different beasts. But listening to your guys’ music, and imagining where it’s going to go, I have a really good feeling. It would be fun for you to play older stuff and random stuff, but you do have these, what I imagine, anthems – like “Your Love Is Calling My Name” or “Brothers” or “Last Night” or “Baby Missiles.” They feel like anthems to me, even though they don’t necessarily have choruses you’d shout out. You don’t repeat things that much, but to me they feel like big songs.