With its 2011 album Slave Ambient, Philadelphia band The War on Drugs stepped into the big time.
The album's dreamy, forward-pushing songs, written and sung by bandleader Adam Granduciel, garnered widespread acclaim. Slave Ambient landed on loads of year-end best lists, including The Inquirer's. The foursome moved up the music-industry food chain, from intimate clubs to midsize venues, and played marquee festivals around the world.
Any impartial observer would think the band was making significant progress artistically and careerwise.
Granduciel, however, wasn't all that impressed.
"At the end of that cycle for Slave Ambient, a lot of people were connecting to that record," says the 35-year-old singer, guitarist, and sonic architect of The War On Drugs' distinctly enveloping, ambient rock-and-roll sound. "And I didn't feel like I had really expressed myself as an original songwriter. I didn't feel like I had really given all of myself."
On a recent icy afternoon, Granduciel, who lives in Northern Liberties, was drinking coffee in the darkened barroom at the Standard Tap. He wasn't far from his house, where he began the yearlong process of recording Lost in the Dream (Secretly Canadian ***1/2), the new War on Drugs album, which comes out Tuesday.
That night, the band - with bassist Dave Hartley, keyboard player Robbie Bennett, drummer Charlie Hall, and guitarist Anthony DeMarco - will start a national tour for the new album at Union Transfer. They'll be back in town among headliners at the Roots Picnic on May 31.
"With this record, I started to look a little more inward," Granduciel says. "I wanted to write something that was a little more personal, in the vein of records I grew up listening to that I really loved."
Granduciel was raised in Dover, Mass., and studied painting and photography at Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pa. After two years on the West Coast, where he and a friend "pretended we were the two characters from On the Road," he took a train east in 2002 and ended up in Philadelphia.
The songwriters Granduciel had in mind as inspiration on Lost in the Dream include "people like Neil Young. Dylan. The Boss, though that was a little bit later. Roy Orbison." Granduciel's vocal phrasing and way with poetic language is evocative of Dylan's. "Love's the key to the things that we see/ And don't mind chasin'," he sings on Lost in the Dream's title cut.
But the music he makes with The War On Drugs is its own patented combination of classic rock influences and beautifully layered ambient guitar-driven sound.
His songs take their time in revving themselves up. One instrumental passage is called "The Haunting Idle." It took its name from a Kansas car mechanic's diagnosis of a van's engine trouble. But once the songs get rolling, on steady accelerators like the "Ocean Between the Waves" and "Eyes to the Wind," they transport the listener - and make for great driving music.
For much of the year spent working on Lost in the Dream, though, Granduciel had difficulty getting out of the starting blocks.
"I felt a certain satisfaction" in Slave Ambient's success, he says. "But I didn't feel like I had given enough yet to deserve it." While still on the road, Granduciel wrote the lyrics to Lost's opening track, "Under the Pressure," predicting the anxiety he would feel in making the album.
"I'd already written music and some words for some of the songs, and then in February and March last year, my world started becoming significantly smaller. I started becoming very anxious and depressed. I had never really experienced that before. It was far beyond anxiety about the record. It was more of an inborn thing I had never confronted.
"Everything was real," he says. "As the idea of making more records presented itself, it was like: 'Everything is professional now.' I had to own up to what that meant, and how I viewed myself, and what made me happy in life and why I put so much pressure on myself. I was not leaving my house. Not like Howard Hughes, but I remember watching that movie The Aviator and thinking I was going to turn into that."
When Granduciel moved to Philadelphia, he became fast friends with long-haired rocker Kurt Vile - who happened to walk by outside the Standard Tap just as his name was being dropped. The two worked on each other's music in a period Granduciel describes as "a super-eye-opening, inspiring time, where you get the one thing you're looking for at the right time."
Of the two buddies, Vile, whose 2013 album Wakin on a Pretty Daze was the strongest local release of that year, has always carried himself like he knew he was a rock star. Granduciel, who made the Philadelphia album that will be tough to top in 2014, by contrast, has seen himself as "someone who was always the guy tagging along with people. All of a sudden, I was pushed to the front, and I wasn't able to stand and defend."
"Crippled by paranoia," Granduciel started having panic attacks. "For a while, the only time I was happy was when I was working on the record," he says. Still, with the help of therapy, the self-described "obsessive micromanager" immersed himself in the process and completed the album, which was recorded in Philadelphia, Hoboken, N.J., Brooklyn, and Asheville, N.C.
"I powered through," he says. Granduciel paid for Lost in the Dream out of his own pocket, at considerably more expense than Slave Ambient, which was largely recorded at his home studio.
"You only get one chance to be a studio nerd and a rock-and-roll head and be able to make your own record with what would normally be considered a decent budget," he says. "That was just a journey I wanted to go on. I felt that if we were going to go on this circuit again, I wanted the guys to be behind me and be surrounded by people who love the songs. I wanted to make something that I felt was great."