The rise of War On Drugs to an arena-sized level of success is a feel-good rag to riches rock ‘n’ roll fairytale reminiscent of the golden age. Led by Adam Granduciel, The War On Drugs’ analogue heart is thriving in the digital world.
Their timeless mahogany sound could derive from any time over the last 50 years, and Granduciel has taken pinchings of influence from artists scattered across this time frame, a process that has led to him frequently being labelled the reincarnation of Bruce Springsteen. However, there are plenty more intriguing inspirations that the adopted Philadelphian has intricately pulled from to shape his barnstorming sound.
Earlier this week, we were greeted with the joyous news that I Don’t Live Here Anymore, the band’s fifth studio album that will arrive on October 29th. A record they describe as an “uncommon rock album about one of our most common but daunting processes—resilience in the face of despair”.
With the anthemic new single, ‘Living Proof’, ringing fervently in our ears, it seems an appropriate time to put The War On Drugs under the microscope and inspect their greatest influences.
The War On Drugs’ biggest influences:
Dylan’s inclusion on this list won’t come as a surprise to anyone who has even heard a note of Granduciel’s music. Armed solely with a handful of records that included many Dylan bootlegs, he stepped aboard the cross-country train to Philadelphia and started a fruitful new life. From there, he would spark up a friendship with a kindred spirit in Kurt Vile, and they quickly bonded over the Dylan records that accompanied him on that train journey to Philly.
“Adam was the first dude I met when I moved back to Philadelphia in 2003,” Vile once said. “We saw eye-to-eye on a lot of things. I was obsessed with Bob Dylan at the time, and we totally geeked-out on that. We started playing together in the early, days and he would be in my band, The Violators. Then, eventually, I played in The War On Drugs.”
Granduciel spoke about that fabled box of records with FaceCulture in 2014 and recalled, “The one I definitely remember grabbing was the Bob Dylan Live At Manchester Free Trade Hall, live in 1966. It’s the vinyl of the first show, which is the acoustic set, which is the first CD of that double CD they came out with.”
The Grateful Dead
The Grateful Dead played an unlikely part in The War On Drugs’ ascension to stardom after a clip of the group covering ‘Touch Of Grey’ in 2011 surfaced online and converted many Deadheads to Grandiciel’s group. The singer heard it while in a supermarket which reignited his love for the song, and he immediately decided to bring it into their live set.
“I’d never heard the song in that context,” Granduciel later recalled to Relix. “I was like, ‘This is a sweet tune—those chords are right up my alley.’ So we learned it in the back of a van and I half-assed the lyrics one night in Indianapolis. It ended up on the internet and my friends from high school started texting me—‘Dude, great ‘Touch of Grey.'”
Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds album, Skeleton Tree, surprisingly played a pivotal role in shaping the sound for the band’s fourth album, A Deeper Understanding. It made Granduciel realise that music can be complex and has the capacity to be more than one finite thing.
“It sounded like they arrived at sounds a lot easier, maybe in a more communal way,” he told Rolling Stone. “It reminded me that music can be intense and personal, but it can also be just fun.” He added: “It’s fun to throw a bunch of sounds down and sift through it and make something really beautiful.”
The Rolling Stones
Working with The Rolling Stones is a feat that every artist has dreamed about, but few have had the pleasure of actually achieving it. Last year, Granduciel received a call out of the blue from the band, asking him to remix their long-lost Jimmy Page collaboration, ‘Scarlet’, and it was an experience that enriched him wildly.
“This song is, like, 45 years old, and the dude is still honing in on something he could bring to it. He’s still searching for the music,” he told Variety about working with Mick Jagger. “I learned more from talking with him for a while than I could have ever imagined.”
Granduciel has been open about his adoration for the Jeff Tweedy fronted outfit, Wilco and even once told the New York Times that he hopes to replicate their career. He pointed to their “self-sustaining, self-governing, great fan base, tight connection to their roots — that’s what we’re trying to build over here.”
“My favourite modern-day band,” Granduciel heralded the group as to Rolling Stone. He went on to say how Wilco’s 2002 documentary, I Am Trying to Break Your Heart, made him want to become a musician, and almost 20-years on, his love for the group remains the same.
“I like that there aren’t necessarily any wrong notes,” he added. “You just find that one note and if you hold it long enough, it’ll actually end up being the right note.”
The comparison to Bruce Springsteen has been a noose around Granduciel’s neck at times. He has faced boundless criticism for wearing his influence perhaps too firmly on his sleeve. Nevertheless, which songwriters don’t worship the ground that Bruce walks on? He’s called The Boss for a damn good reason.
“It feels like he spent forever on every song,” Granduciel once said to Rolling Stone. “He’s working on telling stories. It just made me want to keep pushing.” The singer went on to recount how he fell in love all over again with Ghost of Tom Joad while recording A Deeper Understanding, and the influence seeped into his own work.