Dave Hartley, the bassist for The War on Drugs, wasn’t even aware that the rock band of which he is one-sixth had won a Grammy.
“We were in New Zealand, in the morning, I guess,” he says. “We all woke up and we were sort of conscious that the Grammys were taking place.”
Hartley and drummer Charlie Hall took a walk to check out a record store, as they usually do in a new city. Hartley’s wife was the first person to let them know that A Deeper Understanding, the band’s fourth record, had won in 2017’s Best Rock Album category, beating out Metallica and Queens of the Stone Age.
“We just kind of like laughing about it,” he says, noting that the Philadelphians had considered themselves heavy underdogs. “I didn’t it super-seriously that we could win, but it was cool.
“It’s sort of ironic that, definitely the people around us were more stoked than we were,” he adds. “Maybe that’s false humbleness, or maybe that’s just sort of realizing that it doesn’t really move the needle in any significant way. It’s just some cool thing you can tell your kids. But for relatives and parents and stuff like that, they’re so excited. It means a lot to them — a lot more than it means to us.”
His nonchalance is all the more surprising since, if you read a little symbolism into the names of fellow nominees’ albums, it almost appears as if The War on Drugs were destined to triumph over the competition. Something titled A Deeper Understanding sounds like it has a better shot than the evanescent-sounding Emperor of Sand (Mastodon), the false hope of The Stories We Tell Ourselves (Nothing More), the obvious foil that is Villains (Queens of the Stone Age), and the self-fulfilling prophecy of Metallica’s Hardwired … to Self-Destruct.
It’s not too early to talk about the prospects of a new record, Hartley says, although he’s not the one to hit up for nuggets or teasers. They’ve had a couple “exploratory sessions,” and that’s it.
“You’d have to ask Adam for more details, but I can safely say the gears are turning away.”
Adam is Adam Granduciel, The War on Drugs’ guitarist-vocalist-songwriter, whose last name sounds like a percussive 16th-century instrument that’s fallen into obscurity. Vis-a-vis Granduciel, Hartley considers himself “the guy standing next to the guy
“I’m curious as to what he’s got plans for,” Hartley says, “and from what I can tell you right now, it seems like he’s trying to write amazing songs. Songcraft seems to the thing he’s most interested in right now. It’s a worthy adversary.”
In its earlier days, The War on Drugs didn’t have a stable lineup. But the collaborative ethos remains, in that “After many years of touring, the circle like of friends and collaborators is pretty big, so I don’t know if you’ll ever see a record that’s just the six of us playing.
“There’s always going to be tons of people participating,” Hartley says. “Also, Adam has really specific tastes in certain things, so he likes to pull different paintbrushes out of the quiver — to mix metaphors. But as far as the core band, it feels real stable. There’s nothing like the bond of playing a zillion shows in a zillion countries over five years to bind you together.”
Emanating from the husky, 11-minute shimmer that is “Thinking of a Place,” this approach has its own retro appeal. The Beatles were famously dismissed by Decca Records in 1962 because “guitar groups are on the way out,” but that has been true of music for some time, at least since the always-nebulous indie genre peaked in the late aughts (and for purer pop, even longer than that). The Best Rock category speaks to the situation. For about a decade and a half, it seemed that U2, Foo Fighters, Green Day, and Red Hot Chili Peppers took turns trading the Grammy among themselves, with an occasional win by a genuine godfather of the genre, like Neil Young or Bruce Springsteen.
On top of that, there is a consistent impulse in music journalism to find a new band to crown them as the saviors of rock ‘n’ roll. (In 2002, for instance, it was The Strokes.) Even referring to a band as “traditionalists” or describing their sound as “Americana” can feel more like canonization than description: Hey, these guys are doing it the old-school way. Is Hartley laboring under that burden?
“I feel like we’re not quite mainstream enough to have that mantle hoisted upon us really in any significant way yet, but there have been festivals that we’ve played — especially in Europe recently where we’re pretty much the only band featuring guitars,” he says. “And, you know, we’re talking about dozens of bands. That’s kind of a strange thing. People have called us quote-unquote classic rock or heartland rock, so it’s strange for that to be the minority in a quote-unquote rock outdoor festival in Europe. But, you know, you just kind of have to do your thing. It’s sort of too intense to wrap your head around, so maybe you don’t do it.”
What makes Granduciel’s songwriting unique, Hartley says, is that it’s blended with krautrock sensibilities or “an intensely deep appreciation of synthesizer-based music and ambient music.
“That’s not window-dressing,’ he adds. “It’s not like Adam writes a Dylan knockoff and then it’s, ‘Let’s put some synths on it to young it up for the kids.’ You couldn’t possibly overstate how deep this guy goes on a synthesizer. There’s nobody more obsessed with the Juno 106 in the world — except for the guy who designed it, Jimmy Juno.”
When the War on Drugs plays Monday and Tuesday, Sept. 10-11, at the Fox in Oakland, they’ll be returning to the city where they once ended an entire album cycle (at Treasure Island in 2015), something like the 300th out of 300 tour dates. The live versions of their catalog morph over time, Hartley says, because it’s “more interesting to play a song that reveals itself.”
“Brothers,” which appeared on their 2010 debut EP Future Weather and its follow-up full-length, 2011’s Slave Ambient, is one example.
“We still play that cause it’s weirdly different every time,” Hartley says. “I don’t know why. It’s just something about those three chords — and really, there’s only three chords in the song — that every time we play it, it has a different feel.”
“I actually love Future Weather,” he adds. “It’s one of my favorite documents in the catalog, mainly because Adam is such a — not a perfectionist, but so obsessed with bringing his vision completely to completion that it’s the one example of something that isn’t totally done, I think. He would tell you that. It was like something in progress, so I like that about it.”