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When I tell Adam Granduciel—the mastermind behind Philadelphia-based indie-rock band The War on Drugs—that we’ll be talking about his favorite guitars, pedals, and home recording gear, he immediately lights up. “Whoa! Oh man, I should put on nicer clothes!” he says, laughing. “Awesome.”
For the past decade, Granduciel has been building his profile as one of America’s great modern rockers, and has released a series of marvelous records that showcase an ever-increasing mastery of mood, texture, and sheer guitar-and-synth ecstasy. Granduciel’s wide-eyed study of figures including Bob Dylan, Jeff Tweedy, Bruce Springsteen, and Talk Talk has helped him forge his own musical identity, and through a decades-long obsession with dominating the tools of musical production, he’s given that identity an instantly identifiable sound, most recently on The War on Drugs’ newest record, 2021’s superb I Don’t Live Here Anymore.
In 2008’s Wagonwheel Blues and 2011’s Slave Ambient, Granduciel experimented with drones and loops, and distinguished himself among a sea of indie rockers by figuring out how to make his rollicking, guitar-steeped tunes sound humongous. Three years later, on the band’s 2014 breakout LP Lost in the Dream, he went full-on heartland darkness, creating one of the best-sounding guitar records in recent memory. The album is 10 tracks full of epic grooves and shimmering reverb, so precise and focused that they almost seemed like they were constructed in a laboratory. In a way, they were—Granduciel used those early albums to figure out how to bring his musical fantasies to life.
With I Don’t Live Here Anymore, Granduciel has reached even greater levels of restraint and technical precision, and has explored new paradigms of recording and collaboration. The title track, filled to the brim with sparkling keyboard riffs and crisp guitar layers, is a master class in how great studio work can corral a humble set of melodic ideas into a massive-sounding, arena-ready banger. In the hushed acoustic guitars of songs such as “Living Proof” and “Rings Around My Father’s Eyes,” Granduciel’s tender touch is rendered with incredible clarity; among the neon-shaded synths, motoric beats, and colossal lyricism of tracks including “I Don’t Wanna Wait” and the hypnotic “Victim,” the band plays with a renewed intensity and aggression.
A known gear-head and obsessive technician, Adam Granduciel is one of the most respected rock musicians on the scene today, and one of the most knowledgeable when it comes to DIY recording, since he essentially started from scratch and worked his way up to arena rock. While crafting his earlier records, Granduciel relied on home recording and mixing tools including the Boss BR-8 Digital Recording Studio and later, a Tascam tape machine to capture his sound. “When I signed with Secretly Canadian, I think I got $3,000 for my first record,” he explained. “I bought the Tascam 16-track one-inch tape machine, and that kind of opened my eyes to a whole new way of recording. I started to get more into sound experiments, like recording experiments and drones, tape speeds, sampling with digital samples and then recording it back onto tape.”
Eventually, he began to explore the digital side of production, embracing the industry-standard music software Pro Tools, explaining that many of his songs start with a simple loop over a Pro Tools drum machine. “Maybe it’s just something that’s just a couple chords, and maybe I’ll make a loop with the keyboard, loop it across the grid so I have a vibe going. That’s what I did for ‘I Don’t Live Here Anymore.’ For other songs it’s different—sometimes the voice memo is all you need before going into the studio.” When The War on Drugs released the robust A Deeper Understanding in 2017, the album cover showed Granduciel looking up from a small, lamplit piano in an otherwise dark studio; a guitar and a tape machine can barely be made out in the background. The album’s music was full of moody echoes and cascading pianos, blissed-out landscapes and expansive layers of synth, pristine vocals, and meteoric guitars; if anything, it felt like the perfect expression of everything he’d learned to date. For their work on A Deeper Understanding, The War on Drugs won the 2018 Grammy Award for Best Rock Album.
When I spoke to Granduciel on a chilly January morning, he was preparing for The War on Drugs’ first real tour in years; that evening, they’d play Austin City Limits Live, followed by over 50 dates around the world, including a headlining show at New York City’s Madison Square Garden. (They had a good warmup in their endearing NPR Tiny Desk Concert.) “We have two more rehearsals, and then tonight’s the first show,” he said. “We’re so excited, nervous, all of the things. Prepared and not prepared. It’s an exciting and weird time.” But despite the pressure of following up a Grammy-winning record, recording, and touring during a pandemic—and trying to raise a young son, Granduciel is ready to blast his way forward.
I’d come to pick his brain about the home recording equipment that built his career, the gear that he relies on to keep producing fantastic songs, and how he executes his musical visions. Below, he takes VICE through his early days of self-recording, his favorite guitars, his most important pedals, the amp that was integral to his new record, where that crazy “Victim” solo came from, and more.
Hi, Adam. Can you tell me about what it was like to record I Don’t Live Here Anymore? The members of the band now live in different places, right?
I live in Los Angeles now. Dave [Hartley] lives in Asheville, North Carolina, Anthony [LaMarca] is in Youngstown. Jon [Natchez] is in Los Angeles. Robbie [Bennett] and Charlie [Hall] are still in Philly, basically. The record started with basically myself, Dave, and Anthony doing some remote recording. Then, in early 2018 in upstate New York, I had some ideas and we got together and worked them out as a three-piece. This isn’t the kind of thing where the six of us get together for a month at some studio and hope to have a record done. We got together a handful of times in L.A. and New York. In between those times I’d be working on it myself with [producer] Shawn [Everett] in L.A. at his house.
When the pandemic hit, we were sitting there with a record that was 60-percent done. Everything was written for the most part, but we spent the next year-plus rearranging songs. You kind of have a handful of songs that you want to pursue—in this case it was 13, maybe 14 songs, and as you get closer to the finish line, it becomes 12 and then 11, and then the 10 that you love.
Which guitars and instruments were central to I Don’t Live Here Anymore?
The electric guitar I use most in the studio is this Gibson SG, I think a ‘67 or ‘69. I don’t really use it live—I’m now using it live because it’s on “Living Proof,” because that’s the guitar on that solo. It sounds completely different than my other guitars. In a live environment, the rig is designed for my Jazzmaster and Strats, I use that SG all the time on the record, along with my ‘62 Jazzmaster. My acoustic is a Gibson J-50. I gave my friend a ‘65 Jazzmaster and he gave me a J-50. I think I initiated the trade—he wanted me to see this J-50, and I was like, “I kind of want that J-50.”
I wrote “I Don’t Wanna Wait ” on the Tom Thumb—I have this tiny piano at my house, this Tom Thumb piano, 66 keys. If I write on guitar, I just start ripping licks. On the piano, if I play a pretty basic chord inversion, to me it’s exciting. It’s like, “Dude, did you see what chord I just played?!” With guitar, that stuff doesn’t impress me. It’s a good way of tricking yourself into thinking you’re really musical.”
What about guitar pedals? What were the most important ones in your arsenal for making this record?
When I record, I don’t really use my big pedal board in the studio. I tend to plug my SG—if I need an echo—into this old, blue Memory Man that sounds really awesome. But I wouldn’t use it live. I use this pedal called the Hot Cake, by Crowther Audio, this New Zealand guy. I basically just turn all the dials up to 10, and that’s the sound of any sort of distortion. It’s pummeling the front of whatever amp is there. I usually use that pedal with my ‘62 Jazzmaster on the bridge pickup—that’s the secret. And I have this tiny little ‘68 Vibro Champ amp that I think normally would have an eight-inch speaker, but somebody put a 10-inch in, so it’s like a mod. But I just use that all the time—I bring it wherever I go.
The guitar solo in “Victim” is really wild. Can you explain how you arrived at that sound?
That’s the SG, actually. I was at Shawn’s and we were working on that song, and I was doing vocals, but when I do vocals I like to have a guitar and amp going. We always take a [direct input] of guitar, just to have it; whatever my hands are doing, it’s recording, without any pedals or amps or anything. I wasn’t expecting to do a solo in that section—I didn’t even have an idea of what a guitar would do in this song. but then that section came and I just played that solo. I had it cranked, my Vibro Champ, the whole thing was going. It was an SG ripping through an amp, that solo.
I took it home and for the next few weeks I was just in my basement studio, playing with all my gear. I just processed things all day, like, “Let me run this fuckin’ piano through this.” I just had that [direct input], the straight guitar, and I was like let me run the clean, straight signal through the Prunes and Custard pedal, made by Crowther. It’s probably made most famous by Jeff Tweedy’s solo on A Ghost is Born. That sound is him, but it’s that pedal. So I had one of those and I never really had a use for it, so I just ran that solo through that pedal into a Moog Cluster Flux stereo. And I was like, “Oh that’s really cool!” But you never really know. And then more people heard it in the band and were like, “That’s great!” And I was like, “Oh cool.” I don’t know, I thought it sounded cool, but maybe it was too insane-sounding. But it works.
You’re a big fan of the Roland Jazz Chorus. Can you talk about why that amp is so important to you?
There’s just something about it. I like playing guitar through it, because it reminds me of [The Smiths’] Johnny Marr or something. We used it on the album for re-amping, so you can run a stereo stem out of Pro Tools into the amp. For the song “I Don’t Live Here Anymore,” we basically reamped every single sound on that song through the Roland Jazz Chorus. For each sound, I’d change it to chorus, extreme chorus. I would switch it over to a subtle vibrato. Everything has that solid state Roland sheen on it, you know what I mean? And you can meticulously tuck it in behind the source track. I do like those amps a lot. It’s super clean, but they’re not for everything.
We were working on that song, and it had a pretty identifiable spirit to it, and then I looked across the room and saw that Roland JC-120 sitting there and I was like, “Oh. Duh. Let’s just run everything through that amp.” Four hours later, we were running everything through it.
What piece of gear, whether recording equipment or instrument, do you wish you knew about 10 years ago?
Interesting question. I feel happy that certain things I didn’t know about, because then everything comes at the right time. So you don’t overuse things. Everything I had 10 years ago led to what I have now. I could say Pro Tools, but I like that I didn’t have Pro Tools for so long. Even making Lost in the Dream, I really didn’t have a functioning Pro Tools rig—I was working in the studio with the producer, and when I wasn’t in the studio, I was at home making sound experiments in my tape machines or demoing. I couldn’t really take tracks home and obsess over them, collecting crazy gear. I feel like everything I had 10 years ago informs stuff now. Even the Jazzmaster. I didn’t get into the Jazzmaster until 2014 when Fender gave me one for free. I didn’t even like it the first time I played it, but then I had a breakthrough moment with it in Minneapolis. Up until then, I’d just play whatever. I’d borrow guitars from friends.
I had a Firebird at one point, and this garbage Strat that I loved. It felt like I had the best guitar at the time. I love that weird knockoff Strat that I had that didn’t stay in tune.
There’s a million pieces of gear I love, that I use a lot, but nothing that I feel like if i’d known about it sooner, that I’d have approached things differently. It was about making the most of whatever was around or whatever we could get our hands on, and that just being the sound.