Up All Night With The War On Drugs

IF you’re a War On Drugs fan you’ve probably read a lot about Adam Granduciel’s insane attention to detail. Those 15-hour marathon studio sessions. The anecdote about him literally watching speaker vibrations for hours on end to make sure a kick drum’s levels were right.

“Did I go back and forth thinking that the kick drum’s too loud?” he told Pitchfork. “Maybe. Did I not sleep for a week? Maybe.”

What you probably haven’t read about is the party at U2 producer Daniel Lanois’ Los Angeles mansion that came during the recording of The War On Drugs’ fourth album A Deeper Understanding. Adam and engineer Shawn Everett were pulling another infamous all-nighter when a call came through: “There’s a party at Daniel Lanois’ house, do you want to go?”

This is the story of ‘Up All Night’ by The War On Drugs.

 

‘I Once Got Started…’

‘Up All Night’ was one of the first songs Adam Granduciel started working on when he began writing the follow-up to 2014’s game-changing Lost in the Dream. It’s the first song on the record, and it opens – rather unconventionally for the world’s most guitariest guitar band – with an arpeggiated piano chord over beats from a LinnDrum LM-2 drum machine.

Shawn Everett: It was one of the songs he played me first. I just thought it sounded so cool, the drumbeat and just the vibe. But it wasn’t really a song yet. He just had a vibe. He had the beat and maybe some chords. I can’t remember exactly what he had when he first played it to me.

Adam Granduciel: The first thing was the LinnDrum, the chords, a Wurlitzer [electric piano] and a pretty early, just general arrangement based on a scratch vocal. Then the piano melody, I remember recording that when we were doing some full band work on that song in the studio. I had this idea on the piano and just kinda hammered it out. We kinda built it up and there was another version out there that I was still working on [but] the arrangement didn’t make sense to me yet.

Shawn: I can’t really remember the piano … A lot of times when Adam is working on a track like that, he’ll just mute something forever and then he’ll have it in the back of his mind for a spot he liked. So, at some point, he’ll just turn the piano on.

Adam: I love writing on piano. Piano, Wurlitzer, Rhodes. It’s a different way of playing a chord. Certain chords I’d never play on guitar but I play them on piano pretty instinctively.

Adam couldn’t work out what to do with that “vibe”, so the song was put on ice for five months while they chipped away at other tracks.

Shawn: Whenever we were working, there was always that song lying around, kind of like this wild card. I feel like sometimes we were working on a song and I kept bringing it up with him all the time. I was like, “Dude, when are we gonna work on this song. I love this song.” He was like, “Yeah. We’ll get to it. We’ll get to it.” Because I think that he also had high hopes for it. I think he was just keeping it in his back pocket waiting until the right moment.

Adam: I kinda put the song on the back burner for five months. And then in the winter time I was listening to a bunch of old demos, some of the stuff we did that night we did the piano mix – some rough mixes – and I was like, “Oh, I should really go back to that song. That song has some cool moments.”

Shawn: We did one version of it that just kept hanging. It was always on the periphery. It was never one we were totally focusing on. Then he went to New York for a while.

Adam: I spent the next couple months kinda becoming reacquainted with it and re-obsessed with it, and started figuring out the arrangements and how I could mix the two versions together and use some white noise stuff and synth stuff that I did very early on.

 

Shawn: I think he rented a little studio by himself and at that point he kind of figured out the melody and got it into shape and then added that guitar, the big guitar solo.

Adam: I found out a way to make it all work, and then carved out a bunch of really nice bass in the song, and added some vibraphone, and then those background vocals we all did in mixing. It was probably the last song that come together, in the last month or two of the recording. It was kinda realised and then very quickly towards the end, I could see it pretty clearly.

Shawn: When he came back to LA, he’d figured it out. He figured out what the melody was, what the song was. Then he played it for me and I was like, “Aw man. It’s so awesome. You did it.” I was kind of jealous because it was the one I wanted to work on most. He figured it out when I wasn’t there.

Despite a prolonged gestation period, the song came together quite quickly at mixing stage. There were two pieces of gear that really pulled it together:

  1. A mixing console popularised in the ’80s called an SSL, which allowed them to “double down” on that LinnDrum beat; and
  2. An ARP Odyssey analog synthesiser, which “tied some of the parts together”.

Shawn: That thing [the ARP Odyssey] is a magic box. It has a glassy high-end that wraps its arms around a track. It cuts through anything. You don’t even have to do much mixing to make it heard. It just automatically gives something a sense of nostalgia and intensity. It’s expressive. Ever since I’ve been a Joy Division fan, I’ve always been a fan of that sound.

Adam: We were mixing it on an SSL and it was really coming together. I was doing a lot of recording during the mixing – some background vocals, some guitar stuff. I really knew where that song was supposed to go. It was me and Shawn sculpting away at it in the last hour or so.

Jon [Natchez] played saxophone in the mixing too. He had moved to LA and I was like, “Jon, we’re mixing ‘Up All Night’, you should come over and add some sax.” This baritone sax kicks in in a low register in that section and it really lifts everything. Things kinda happen without overthinking it. They kinda happen because you’re directing this ship. And then you step back a week later and you’re like, “Woah, that’s actually really intense. That’s awesome.”

Shawn: The SSL is not a console I normally work on … SSLs are kind of famous for big ’80s records like Born in the USA, Roxy Music’s Avalon, and stuff like that. Bob Clearmountain mixed a lot of classic records on the SSL, so it has this crunchy nostalgic sound but also a kind of hip-hop, kind of modern sound. It’s maybe the perfect kind of console for that.

 

The Party

Bob Clearmountain was one of a trio of producers often cited by the pair in the studio. The others were Bob Ezrin, particularly his work on Pink Floyd’s The Wall; and, yep, Daniel Lanois, who worked on monstrous U2 albums such as The Unforgettable Fire, The Joshua Tree, and Achtung Baby.

The pair ended up going to Lanois’ house – and it was everything you’d expect from a party at a super producer’s place, and probably more. They ended the night in Lanois’ living room flanked by six $20,000 Aurora Sidecar consoles; a “totally wild thing to have”.

Photo by Marthe A. Vannebo

 

Shawn: Weirdly, we had been talking about Lanois the whole time. His party was exactly what you think a party at Daniel Lanois’ house would be like. It basically looked like a Southern mansion. Crazy lights, music coming out of every room, and a whole lower garden area. There were hundreds and hundreds of people playing music everywhere. It was just really quite a scene.

I’m not sure if Adam ever actually met up with him. I feel like Adam sometimes doesn’t want to meet his idols because he doesn’t want it to be different than he would imagine. One of Daniel’s engineers was there and Adam and I, when the party was closing up, we kind of ended up talking to his engineer for like 30 minutes and Adam was super interested in that…

“There were hundreds and hundreds of people playing music everywhere. It was just really quite a scene.”

Stuff like that is super inspiring. Even a U2 record, just the stuff that Daniel Lanois and [Brian] Eno were doing together on U2 was so crazy. Adam was inspiring me in that same way where he’d bring out a piece of gear and we’d talk about a classic record. I’d go home and I would be obsessed with listening to these records and also being inspired by the gear.

Adam: We were just collecting sounds, having sounds in the studio you’re really attracted to and you making them work somehow – everything from the white noise of the synthesiser to the beautiful warbly vibraphone of the Meltron of that song. I love generating stuff on all different instruments. I’ll never take ugly sounds. I like organic, rock’n’roll-based sounds.

Shawn: I’ve met a lot of gear nerd musicians, and I feel like most of those people use those powers for evil. Adam uses it for good. The way that he thinks about gear is unlike a lot of people. He’s super into gear, but he thinks of it in the context of the way you think of gear in a classic album sense.

 

‘I Always Have Paranoia/That I Would Not Last’

While Lost in the Dream dealt directly with Adam’s struggles with anxiety and depression, there’s a sense on A Deeper Understanding that the fog has lifted, if not just temporarily. “Pain is on the way out now,” he sings on ‘Pain’, conversely one of the most “painstaking” songs to produce according to Shawn. “Look at the way the domino falls away.”

The optimism of ‘Pain’ carries through on On ‘Up All Night (“I’m stepping out into the world/I’m stepping out into the light”), but it’s still apparent that the issues that plagued Adam on Lost in the Dream – the relentless second-guessing, the self-imposed pressure to find the perfect sound – carried through to A Deeper Understanding. Except this time the stakes were higher.

The War On Drugs had just inked a two album deal with Atlantic Records, and they had to follow a record that was critically and publicly adored.

“I’ve met a lot of gear nerd musicians, and I feel like most of those people use those powers for evil. Adam uses it for good.”

Adam: Even though something may seem relatively straightforward it’s tough getting there. The main thing is making music that is layered, that has all these little melodies everywhere, but that doesn’t sound like you worked all that hard on it. There’s a fine line between sounding like you worked hard on something and exploiting all those things. Sometimes you want it to sound really natural. And that’s kinda the goal.

Shawn: He doesn’t say it in words when you’re just hanging around, but I definitely – as time went on and the pressure of getting the record out grew for him – I could see what he was maybe thinking. He had a record [Lost In The Dream] that was hugely successful and loved. Making a record that felt exciting and lived up to that, I think it did put a lot of pressure on him.

Adam: I think it’s just– everything can be a passing thing if you want it to be. Paranoia might be a heavy inescapable part of your life and then you turn around and it’s like, “Oh, it’s not here right now” – but maybe it’ll come back.

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