Why the War on Drugs are 'firing on all cylinders' as 'I Don't Live Here' tour hits Tempe

Adam Granduciel doesn’t think he’s seen the sun in 30 days. And he’s OK with that because the trade off has been so rewarding.

In exchange for the subzero temperatures that can come with a “basically deep-winter tour,” as he calls it, Granduciel and his bandmates have been playing almost every night, reconnecting with fans after more than a year on the sidelines thanks to COVID-19.

When The War on Drugs hit the stage for a headlining set at the Desert Daze festival in California last November, they hadn’t done a proper concert since the previous December.

They’d been looking forward to returning to the road “ever since it was taken away from us and everybody else,” Granduciel says. “And the band sounds better than it ever has.”

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Making ‘I Don’t Live Here Anymore’

They put a lot of work into sounding that much better when finally getting together in July to begin the process of learning how to bring the songs on last year’s “I Don’t Live Here Anymore” to life.

A cinematic masterstroke of deeply felt reflections with a grandeur built to translate all that introspection to the back rows of a stadium, the album had been in the making since early 2018.

And very little of that making had been done by Granduciel and his bandmates in the same room at the same time.

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‘Dipping our toes into the new songs’

“We were just dipping our toes into the new songs,” Granduciel recalls of those rehearsals.

“Because we didn’t really make the album as a band per se, we kind of had to figure out how to not reinterpret but to play these songs in real life, not just track them. That was challenging, but we got over that hump pretty quickly.”

By the time they got to Desert Daze, they had already woodshedded those songs more than they’d done for any previous release.

And there were more rehearsals prior to mid-January, when they launched the tour that makes its way to Innings Festival at Tempe Beach Park on Sunday, Feb. 27, having made the rounds of year-end critics lists. 

Granduciel says ‘The band is really firing on all cylinders’

“It’s been incredibly satisfying,” Granduciel says. “I feel like the band is really firing on all cylinders. And it’s been a real joy to kind of stretch the songs out every night.”

Some songs are sounding better live than Granduciel would have thought — the song “Victim” for instance, which was built on tape loops. 

“I would normally have said that one will be impossible for us to play,” he says. “But it has actually been somehow the most natural sounding. We just kind of figured out the essence of it.”

The same thing happened with another highlight of the album, “I Don’t Wanna Wait.”

“Instead of trying to recreate the track exactly, we just kind of found the spirit,” Granduciel says. “It was challenging to learn to play these songs. Their tapestry is rich. But we really cracked the code.”

Granduciel started work on “I Don’t Live Here Anymore” in March 2018 while still on the road in support of The War on Drugs’ fourth album, 2017’s “A Deeper Understanding.”

How COVID-19 shaped ‘I Don’t Live Here Anymore’

The pandemic hitting when it did in early 2020 had a major impact on that stage of the creative process, with members recording parts in their own studios. 

“It kind of made the record go in a different direction, because I had more time at home to mess with certain ideas or approaches,” Granduciel says.

“And it gave everybody the ability to work at their own pace and spend as much time as they wanted in their studio instead of flying them out to LA. It let everybody get inside the songs in a way that maybe they don’t really get the opportunity to.”

As a result, he got some “really spirited performances and cool ideas” from his bandmates that maybe they wouldn’t have spent that kind of time on in LA.”

The limitations of working remotely “kind of expanded the palate of the record,” Granduciel says.

“It wasn’t the hi-fi studio experience we did on the last record. But I think it was better for having those moments.”

When Granduciel and co-producer/engineer Shawn Everett got together at Sound City in Van Nuys in October 2020 after six or seven months of working by remote, it was “a jumping off point” for the rest of the recordings. 

“It was weird because everyone had to wear masks, but it was me and Shawn diving back in with a renewed sense of urgency and a renewed love of what it means to work together in person.”

‘I think it was ready to be done’

Asked how they knew when the record was done after three years, Granduciel says it’s more a matter of logistics and accepting the idea that you need to turn a record in at some point if you want to book a tour around it.

“You never really sit back and listen and say, ‘Oh, my God, it’s so good! We’re so done!'” he says.

“You just kind of accept a level of doneness. You can always keep going. But I think it was ready to be done. It’s not about making it sonically perfect. It’s about making sure these 10 songs live together in a way that feels real.”

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Midway through the album-making process, Granduciel became a father. At first, that just meant carving out the time he planned to spend recording so that he could be there for his family when he wasn’t actively engaged in working on the record. 

As his son, who’s two and a half now, got a little older, he started wanting to hang with his dad in the studio, which had an unanticipated impact on how Granduciel came to look at the recording process.

“I would give him a keyboard and he’d hit the buttons,” Granduciel says.

“And it would just remind me that a lot of this stuff should be filled with a certain level of wonder and naivete. I was like ‘Oh yeah, this should just be fun. Don’t forget about  having fun with sound.’ There’s no right or wrong when it comes to sound, you know.”

It’s very likely that the songs on “I Don’t Live Here Anymore” will keep evolving as the tour goes on, in much the same way songs they’ve played for years continue to evolve.

“Sometimes maybe we’ll try a different key or a little bit of a different arrangement,” Granduciel says.

“We’ve been doing that with our song ‘Brothers.’ We kind of changed the key, which is cool, but now we had to get back to the song. It’s always trying to stay true to the material and just have fun with it and see what works in the set.”

Which older songs work in the set can change from tour to tour.

“Because everything changes around you,” Granduciel says. 

“The whole sonic infrastructure of the band kind of suits the newer material in a way, and you adapt it for other material. Sometimes, you’re like, ‘I don’t really know how to play that song with the sounds that I have curated for this tour.'”

What they play can also come down to what fans are yelling.

“We open up the floor a lot to people just yelling requests towards the end of the show, which I love,” Granduciel says.

Sometimes, he’ll joke about a certain older song not really going anywhere.

“To me, sometimes, the earlier material, a lot of it doesn’t have the same kind of songwriting that maybe we got known for on the last couple albums,” he says. 

“I was still learning how to do a lot of different things. But it is cool to play a song like ‘Come to the City’ and have people really respond to it.”

There are times when playing older songs inspires Granduciel to reflect on how his writing has evolved on the road from 2008’s “Wagonwheel Blues” through their breakthrough with “Lost in the Dream” in 2014 to “I Don’t Live Here Anymore.”

“It just reminds me that it’s been a journey and that at every step, there’s different things that you’re obsessed with as someone trying to enjoy himself and make music,” he says. 

“I mean, obviously, when we do stuff from ‘Lost in the Dream,’ you just remember that that was the record that gave us so many opportunities to grow and that people are very attached to that record.”

It’s not uncommon for their shows to end with a handful of highlights from “Lost in the Dream.”

“I’m like, ‘Whatever…. People love that record,'” Granduciel says. “And that’s just how we’re gonna close the show.”

Innings Festival

When: 12:30 p.m. Saturday-Sunday, Feb. 26-27. (The War on Drugs play from 7:15-8:20 p.m. on Sunday).

Where: Tempe Beach Park, 80 W. Rio Salado Parkway.

Admission: $105 a day; $179 for weekend pass. 

Details: inningsfestival.com.

Reach the reporter at ed.masley@arizonarepublic.com or 602-444-4495. Follow him on Twitter @EdMasley.

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