“They say that rock ‘n’ roll is here to stay… but where?” asked Max Arloft, the music critic played by Jeff Goldblum in “Between the Lines,” Joan Micklin Silver’s 1977 film about an alternative newspaper in Boston. “Certainly not at my place, it’s too small.”
Rock is making its bid for yet another revival, as leader Adam Granduciel and his band the War on Drugs prepare to return to the road to support the just-released “I Don’t Live Here Anymore,” their first studio album since 2017’s “A Deeper Understanding,” which took home a Grammy for best rock album. That was the first of a two-record deal with Atlantic after three releases with ultra-hip indie Secretly Canadian. “Live Drugs” came out last November, spotlighting the growth of the band’s concert performances from 2014’s breakout “Lost in the Dream” and helping make up for the fact that Granduciel and the band haven’t played a concert in front of an audience since December 2019.
Even though much of the material for the new “I Don’t Live Here Anymore” was written and recorded before COVID-19, it’s hard not to hear the album through the prism of the pandemic, with its themes of moving forward, embracing and dreading change, and the importance of friends, family and co-workers.
“So much of this album came from working during that time, both lyrically and with [album co-producer/engineer] Shawn [Everett],” says Granduciel, talking over Zoom in a parked car somewhere in his adopted home of Los Angeles. He’s explaining how the band tried unsuccessfully to communicate via email, forcing him to “work alone in my house, trying to make sense of these songs, getting frustrated with a few of the ones we worked on before the pandemic.”
The opening “Living Proof” sets the template with acoustic strumming and piano, leaving until the end a wrenching, electric Granduciel guitar solo. “Banging on a drum / You turned me loose / Maybe I’m the living proof / What have I been running from?” wonders Granduciel, opening with a primal beat and closing with the admission, “I’m always changing / Love overflowing / But I’m rising / And I’m damaged.”
“I Don’t Live Here Anymore” marks several changes for the now 42-year-old Granduciel, with a two-and-a-half-year-old son and a solid domestic partnership. Stylistically, pianos and synths take a prominence over his traditional emotive guitar solos, which are now more ingrained into the individual song’s melodies, as the rest of the band fills in the tapestry.
Granduciel re-worked several of the tracks at legendary studios like Electric Lady in New York, as well as Sound City in Van Nuys (recording in Studio B, where Neil Young laid down “After the Gold Rush”) and the recently shuttered Electro Vox Recording Studios on Melrose Avenue across from Paramount Studios.
“So much came out of those six months,” he says. “The inability to get in the same room together, the fear and confusion everyone was feeling. When Shawn and I were finally in one room, with our hands on the faders, making decisions and committing to an idea, the songs really started to take shape.”
“Harmonia’s Dream” returns to several Granduciel obsessions, including the tyranny of memories, and the power of water in the guise of the ocean to grant or take away life, with an existential longing for a higher power. “I’m in a rolling wave / That moves across the line / Am I losing my faith? / We’re gonna lose it in time / Sometimes forward is the only way back / To reach the hill in time.”
Granduciel says, “It’s almost like I build up the songs with all these different sounds, so that I can react to it with a guitar solo. It doesn’t come naturally all the time, figuring out where those parts should go.”
There are also songs about parenthood, including “Old Skin,” a very Bruce Springsteen-like meditation on aging that features a cathartic Charlie Hall drum beat, Daniel Clarke’s Hammond organ, a Granduciel harp solo and a riff coaxed by Adam from the late Walter Becker’s Pelham blue Gibson Melody Maker bass, which he bought in an auction after the Steely Dan member’s death. “Rings Around My Father’s Eyes” finds Granduciel confronting parenthood from the perspective of being both a dad and a son.
“I had that title for a few years,” says Adam. “We were at Electric Lady with the band, sitting around in a big circle. I just started strumming and everybody fell in. I free-associated the lyrics on tape to guide everyone. Sometimes that’s all you need in that moment; when you’re not thinking, the lines just fall out of you. Just seeing my kid growing up, I knew I wanted to sing about being a dad, having a son, understanding what it feels like. Being a dad grounds you… It’s all a blur, but it’s the best kind of blur.”
The title track is the album’s centerpiece, as Granduciel confronts his own evolution and maturation as a human being, as well as his own shortcomings.
“It’s also about the idea of commitment and understanding, knowing where you don’t want to end up,” he explains. “Or where you want to go. It’s about accepting your own faults, realizing you’re never going to be perfect, and just continuing to learn and improve every step of the way, sticking to a moral code, an ethic, maintaining your principles.”
While the War on Drugs’ songs lyrically can get “Lost in the Dream,” there are moments of specificity on the new album – the reference to being alone in Chicago pining for connection in “Living Proof,” or the nod to dancing with a loved on to Bob Dylan’s “Desolation Row” in the title track — that ground the record in the here and now.
“I was sitting there, zoning out, free-associating, thinking about all the people I’d seen Bob Dylan with,” he recalls. “Actually, it was only six times, but each one was with someone special, a very significant person in my life. I thought at first it was a throwaway, but, like that line about Chicago, it’s a really real thing. It was an actual experience seeing Bob Dylan with all these people I love.”
In songs like “Change,” he sings with urgency about not having time to lose, while “Victim” finds him a prisoner of “my own desire… And I keep changing.” And while Adam is a control freak – another thing he frets about – he still hasn’t quite found what he’s looking for. In “Wasted,” a song that could have come right out of the Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers songbook, he laments, “I’m just tired in a way that I can’t explain / It’s like I’m losing all control.”
Explains Granduciel, “Midway through the making of this record, I realized I was writing about that notion of trying to power through one day at a time, to move into a new chapter with grace, that you’re living up to your moral code, something larger than ourselves, taking control of the life you know you want.”
For Granduciel, that search extends to making music, where sometimes he doesn’t even know what he’s searching for until he finds it, reveling in that spirit of discovery, which is a major part of the live War on Drugs experience.
“That’s basically my relationship with making music,” he says, explaining how a song like “Old Skin” took shape. “I knew deep in my heart there was something there that I believed in. But it wasn’t until the frustration overtook us, and we had to make some big creative decisions along the way, that the song revealed itself. If I feel strongly enough that something’s going to happen, I keep at it until it does.”
Now that the album is out, it’s time for the War on Drugs to hit the road again, with a scheduled appearance at L.A.’s Shrine Auditorium Feb. 26.
“We definitely need to return to touring for these songs,” notes Granduciel. “I was so worried about playing some of them live, but we had a couple of rehearsals in July and October and within five hours, we definitely starting to transform them in real time, which is very exciting. Once you add the audience into that scenario, that’s the final step. It gives you that thing where you’re at the edge of your own seat; it gives you the confidence, but maybe also the bashfulness that you don’t get in a rehearsal space. It presents those moments you didn’t even realize until you listen back to them. You start doing the little things maybe weren’t nailed on the record.”
But as he grows older – and with the experience we all just went through — Adam is gratified to learn he has a life outside the touring cycle.
“Before I was a father, I didn’t think there would be anything that would take me away from the touring lifestyle,” he admits. “Knowing that I have this family, maybe I don’t want to be on the road the rest of my life.”
If the new album shows Granduciel – like one of his heroes, Robert Fripp – making the guitar sound like anything but, he is nevertheless heartened how the pandemic has fueled sales of the instrument at Fender and Gibson. We get back to rock ‘n’ roll’s staying power.
“Every year, people talk about rock and the guitar being dead, and then you see groups like Snail Mail or Lindsey Jordan,” he says. “There’s plenty of great rock pop and singer-songwriter music out there. Hey, I’m 42 and Nirvana is the new Led Zeppelin.”
Like many of us, Granduciel has gone through these weird times and lived to sing about it.
“I feel a storm coming on,” he sings on “Occasional Rain,” the final track on the album, and his personal favorite. “I feel a darkness at my gates / Live this loneliness of life / Keep moving at your pace / Ain’t the sky just shades of grey / Until you’ve seen it from the other side?” “I Don’t Live Here Anymore” offers us a comforting glimpse of the calm after the storm.