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Songs with friends

The War on Drugs crafts curious magic from singular vision

The War on Drugs founding member Adam Granduciel // Courtesy

The War on Drugs has had a busy year. Adam Granduciel, David Hartley, Robbie Bennett, Charlie Hall, Jon Natchez and Anthony LaMarca released Lost in the Dream (named a top 10 of 2014 by Pitchfork, Uncut and others), toured the world and were nominated for a BRIT award. After a healthy hiatus back at home in Philadelphia, keyboard player Robbie Bennett says they’re ready to get on the road. Lucky for us, they’ll be making a stop at Cain’s Ballroom on April 5. 

Most of what you’ll read about The War on Drugs centers on founding member (along with Kurt Vile of The Violators) Adam Granduciel. He’s more than earned the right to run the show, but it’s hard not to wonder about the hands on the other instruments. I ask Bennett how much of their music is a collaboration, and he gives a surprisingly honest answer.

“I think The War on Drugs kind of has two different states,” he says. “The live part and the record part. The songs and records are mostly like a solo effort from Adam. When we’re playing them, we all contribute melodies and musical moments that shape the songs and help the record, but it’s really his vision.

“It also has this other part—the live band, and what happens in that moment. And I think Adam always wants it to be a band. He doesn’t want to be a solo thing, up there by himself. He wants to be surrounded by friends.”  

The tour kicked off at one of Bennett’s favorite hometown venues, Philadelphia’s Tower Theater. He saw his first show there as a 16-year-old just getting into music—the Flaming Lips opened for Candlebox. These days, The War on Drugs shares the bill at festivals with the Lips. 

“They’re sweet guys,” Bennett says. Inflatables and all. 

Speaking of festivals, when I first saw The War on Drugs at one in Vermont, their light show and pumpy, too-loud ‘80s rock ballads perplexed me. I wasn’t sure what I was listening to, but I knew I liked it. This oddly pleasing cacophony apparently isn’t so uncommon at the band’s festival shows. 

“You get outside, and you’re playing this very condensed set—what should be two hours, crammed into 45 minutes,” Bennett says. “And all of a sudden ... there’s like seven amps onstage ... it’s way louder than it’s supposed to be ... you’re all just soloing over each other ... you’re just kind of sweating it to see if you’re going to make it through. Sometimes it’s a complete catastrophe, and sometimes it’s transcendent.”

Their show at Cain’s will likely be much more contained, mostly featuring turns from Lost in the Dream. The album is textured—a bunch of slurred, Springsteen-sounding layers looped and piled over one another with a dreamy, beachy feel. It’s a record you listen to with wind in your hair. It’s palpable.

With Granduciel handling most of the creative direction for the band, I wonder how Bennett himself creates. After all, nobody joins a band to live in someone else’s limelight.

“You know, I feel like I get inspiration from my friends and things like that,” he says. “I also perform in a men’s singing group, The Silver Ages.” (Google it. Now.)

“It’s a men’s choral group. We sing 19th Century songs, kind of like stuff from Yale groups. So we get together once a week when we’re home, make Old Fashioneds and sing old men songs.”

Band members Charlie Hall and Dave Hartley are in the group, too. I’m not much for a cappella, but I’m jealous. 

With Lost in the Dream just over a year old, I ask Bennett if he’s ready for something new yet, and his answer makes me hopeful for what we’ll hear during their Tulsa stop. 

“I’m definitely still enjoying playing the record. Whenever we get a break, it kind of reinvigorates us. It’s hard to hit the road and play the same songs every night. We definitely mix it up, but you fall into patterns. It starts to become a little robotic, and that’s no fun. We want to stay true to the record, but it’s staying true to the idea of the song, not every note for note. No one really has an interest in doing that.

“And if they did,” he says, “I’d probably be out of a job.”

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