REVIEW – A band called The War on Drugs is a band you’d expect to be wild. Or at least political to the point of tear gas. But Adam Granduciel and Kurt Vile, who each play a pharmacy’s worth of instruments, spent their time in the green room of the First Unitarian Church on Nov. 2 sipping mineral water, spinning cigarettes like drum sticks and talking earnestly about their respective Bob Dylan obsessions and recent sign to the Secretly Canadian record label.
It’s no surprise that freewheelin’ Dylan is one of their idols. When I first heard them play last April at the Philadelphia POPPED! Festival, I thought immediately of the harmonica-wielding singer. Granduciel’s voice has the same rough, untrained edge to it – cracking at times, occasionally venturing off-key. And their collective guitar work has definite folk influences. Yes, they dip their music in the acid of feedback and distortion, but at the core of it, the tradition of Woody Guthrie, Dylan and others holds strong in their sound.
Dylan actually played a small part in the band’s formation. “That was my and Adam’s original bond,” Vile said. “I had just read all of these books about Dylan, and I had just moved back into the city and I was blown away that this dude had read all of the same books as me. The first night we hung out, we got wasted and talked all these nerdy Bob Dylan facts all night.”
That was back in 2003, and The War on Drugs formed not long after. They didn’t play their first strictly War on Drugs show until 2005, however, and still haven’t done much touring. They are a Philly band in the truest sense: they play mostly small, local venues, hold rent-paying day jobs and embrace the ideal of DIY. They even represented the Philadelphia music scene with fellow City of Brotherly Love acts Nouveau Riche and The Cobbs at CMJAWN, the CMJ Music Marathon and Film Festival’s all-night Philly party at Pianos in New York City, which was co-sponsored by the POPPED! Festival and Philebrity.com.
Granduciel and Vile, however, don’t feel that being a band from Philly defines them. While they record and play in the city, they aren’t married to it. And, many times, their songs are transporting rather than rooted in the Broad Street Line and the red, blue and green curves of the letters L, O, V and E.
“In some weird way, it’s like we make music to get out of Philly,” Granduciel said.
Soon, The War on Drugs will have many more opportunities to abandon the city. Currently in the process of recording an album to be released by Secretly Canadian (the same record label that houses Swedish indie pop darling Jens Lekman), they’ll start touring this spring. Otherwise, not much has changed since the band got signed, and they’re still reveling in first-paycheck excitement. Their big splurge? Oiling up their machines.
“We fixed all our amps and stuff,” Granduciel said, leaning back against the worn, flower-patterned couch and twirling one of his own very Dylan curls around a finger. “We’ve shared gear for the past four years, and it was all gutted and ruined, so we fixed it all.”
For a band that sees its live shows as chances to experiment, having good equipment is key. Later that night, The War on Drugs played opening act to pop punk Sub-Pop band The Thermals, who drew a much different crowd than would typically be present at a War on Drugs set. Audience members were visibly impressed, though, by songs like the breezy, dizzy “Buenos Aires Beach,” which has a certain Animal Collective quality to it, and “Taking the Farm,” a number that earns the band yet another Dylan comparison. Their performance was subdued but impacting, thanks to the natural swells and quells of their music and the emotion knitted in Granduciel’s face as he sang.
At the POPPED! Festival, Granduciel and Vile were joined by four other members, including two drummers. These days, The War on Drugs is strictly a duo, but it hasn’t damaged their sound. Their music is still anything but simple, and their use of samples during recording and live shows helps to flesh songs out.
Vile called it a change for the better. “I feel like when it’s just us two, and now that we’ve been playing together for so long, it’s like neither of us are afraid to take chances,” he said. “It’s just kind of natural. If there were more people up there, we’d have to be more rehearsed.”
While I spent time with them, I didn’t see Granduciel or Vile tip any back, light anything up or make any attempts to fight the law. Then again, their name came out of a 25-page dictionary that they began writing while holed up during a blizzard in 2003. It doesn’t make a statement about much except boredom. The War on Drugs may look like a pair of rock stars onstage, but, offstage, Granduciel and Vile are eternally calm, soft-spoken and humble.
With one digression. “I always proclaim myself [to be] Philly’s constant hit-maker,” Vile said, smirking. “So I’d say we’re probably the kings of Philly to some extent. In our minds, we’re the musical kings.” The two dissolved into laughter, but bands like Dr. Dog and Man Man can’t occupy the thrones of the Philly music scene forever. The War on Drugs could very well be new royalty within the next year – the times, after all, are always a-changin’.
Anna Hyclak can be reached at