HT Interview: The War on Drugs, Peeling Back the Layers of Slave Ambient

As the 2011 year-end accolades trickle in, one album you can bet dollars to doughnuts will show up in most everybody’s “best of” lists is The War on Drugs album Slave Ambient. Prior to this record, The War on Drugs were a band lauded with Americana characterizations and Dylan comparisons to deserving acclaim, but Slave Ambient is a bold step forward: it’s a reinvention, an album that embraces technology, and a clinic in production.

[Photo by Maryanne Louise Doman]

Slave Ambient earns its visionary stripes by taking relatively basic song structures and veiling them in rich sonic textures with meticulous attention to detail. The careful articulation of the arrangements even manages to mask the fact that brainchild Adam Granduciel has a terrific voice, making vocals a loveable wing man to the main character – the thick tones and pulsing samples.

We caught up with Adam Granduciel to learn about the inner workings of Slave Ambient and the result is an astute look at dialing up distinctive ambient tones and timbres, taking an iterative approaches to recording, and embracing the multitude of paths that a song can follow.

Hidden Track: To get started, I’m really digging this song Come to the City. I thought perhaps we could talk a little about that song  as it relates to the whole album. Obviously, ambient music is a big theme, and it’s in the title of the record, so maybe you could explain how you went about using ambient type sounds as the backbone of the music in a song like that?

Adam Granduciel: Yeah, that song was probably the one that put me through the highest level of self doubt and self ridicule, but the backbone of it, which is really the essence of the song is really a number of different home recorded experiments. Like, I went to a studio in Philly about two years before I even started working on that song, and I had an idea for this other song that I was tracking with drums, piano, bass and I think a synthesizer. So, I was listening to that song one day and I hooked up to my mixer and I think I had my sampler after it. I was just playing around with a bunch of different effects and I sampled maybe two and a half seconds of that recording and it became this totally other rhythmic thing.

Then I dumped that to my tape machine and added a bunch of stuff to it, slowed it down, and then re-sampled it. Eventually after like two weeks, I ended up with that pulse that’s behind Come to the City. You know what I’m talking about? It’s not drums and it’s not a drum machine; it’s a collection of sampled recordings that really give it that pulse.

I had the basic chords for the song pretty early on. I remember just playing along to it – singing and playing the keyboard – and coming up with those chord changes, but I never really thought the song was done, and I never really knew where to take it. So, I worked on it in different capacities for like two years at my house and at Jeff’s studio [Jeff Zeigler, Uniform Recordings] , transferring takes back and forth and by the end of it, what I had was a song with a rather basic pop structure, but with so many different layers and feelings on top of it.

tWoD – Come to the City


When I mixed it, I took about a week and it was just taking away a lot of layers until you could feel the normal structure, but without it being too fluffy or airy and still having some balls to it. It was also about playing chords and notes without actually ever playing the chords. Rather, little things would modulate throughout the course of the song.

I’m super pleased with it, but when we finished it, I was still ready to keep going with it, because all of the sudden there was this last push and it sounded amazing, but in my mind it also opened up this whole new set of possibilities for the song. Eventually, you’ve just got to let it be though, you know?

HT: That brings up another interesting question. With regard to City Reprise #12, does that imply that there are eleven or perhaps more other reprises?

AG: Yeah, there were probably 14 versions of that song, which were not vastly different, but there were different mixes or different ways that we did it. The Reprise that ended up on the record was really just me in the early stages feeling out that melody on the synth. Towards the end, I remembered that I had it and thinking how in the moment it just sounded really cool. It was just that sample beat I was just talking about and then just me playing the synth on top of it.

I wanted to put some of that stuff on the record to give the song a little history and show where the songs came from, where they could have gone, or how different ideas were floating around for different songs

There weren’t a lot of drastically different versions, but there were a lot of different times of approaching songs in different ways. The beauty of Pro Tools is you can work on a song and take and take it in a million different directions, but you can always go back in your drive and get the original version too.

The War On Drugs – Come To The City

HT: It sounds like your experience with Pro Tools and home recording has become a big part of making music for you. How long have you been working at learning recording and how has that development progressed?

AG: At home, I actually use mostly an analog tape machine, and I do a lot of the transferring between the tape and Pro Tools at Jeff’s house.

Early on, I had a little digital tape recorder when I started writing and trying to record songs. Over the years, I’ve done a lot of research and I’ve been a part of a lot of gear gear forums and recording forums. I don’t know if I’m a gear head, because I don’t have enough money to buy any of it, but I know a lot about that type of thing. I think it’s important to know the tools that are basically hype and the tools that you might actually need to make your music.

HT: You talked about this a little bit already, but how much of what you do is actually playing through effects or synthesizers versus post-production and elements added after the fact?

AG: A lot of it is done in the moment, but some of it is processed later. Like sometimes I’ll hear something in a song and I’ll run it through something else for fun just to hear what it sounds like. And then sometimes it’s a different way of arriving at the sounds, like keeping an effected track and getting rid of the other one to try to shape a song in a sonically textured way.

A lot of it, the guitar for example, is always in the moment and played through the amp with effects. We don’t do a lot of editing like snipping together or a lot of crazy post-production, programming, or syncing. It always done pretty naturally. We approach the computer like it’s a tape machine. Really, the only thing we use Pro Tools for is arranging really, being able to have mutes here and there or things fade in, stuff like that. It’s almost always one performance though. It’s never really pieced together or comped.

For the effects, we’ll do some in mixing, a lot of it in the moment and a lot of it is already committed to tape, so even if I wanted to take it off, I couldn’t. That’s where you get a lot of your happy accidents.

[Photo by Samantha West]

PAGE TWO = The Role of Philadelphia and Touring Internationally

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One Response

  1. Great interview…totally in my top ten this year.
    Was interesting reading a bit more about this band that I know absolutely nothing about. I hope they get to the Boston area in 2012, would love to check them out.

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