The problem with talking to musicians about music is that you can end up talking about anything but. Interviews become about about rock star beefs or who they're dating, when all you really want to know is: "Why do your songs make my heart swell up until it feels like it's going to burst?" I mean, is there a secret chord or something?
Adam Granduciel, who records as The War On Drugs, has had at least one weird rock star beef (with noted asshole Mark Kozelek) and is dating a genuine celebrity (Krysten Ritter, latterly of Breaking Bad, currently of some iteration of the interminable Marvel universe) but if we're going to find out he writes music to make the heart swell then we're going to have to find out how his desire to become an painter led to him crisscrossing America, how he learned to live with his anxiety and, in the end, what he hears when he's listening for that special moment. But before all that, the first thing you should know about him is that he's the sort of guy who's so obsessed with the way sound is recorded that he collects studio T-shirts.
A couple of weeks ago, when he played Jimmy Kimmell, he was wearing a shirt from Electric Lady Studios in New York. Today, when I meet him on a bright, warm day in Berlin, he's wearing a shirt he bought the day before at Hansa Tonstudios. He was there to play a few songs from his new album – his fourth, A Deeper Understanding – and to answer questions from the German rock press. Stuff like: "Are you a fan of Bruce Springsteen?" ("Yeah, I love the Boss") and: "What songs are you looking forward to playing live?" ("All of them, eventually") and "Your album is called A Deeper Understanding, what would you like to have a deeper understanding of?" ("Well, you know, everything really…").
For a studio nerd like Adam, hanging out at Hansa was a dream. "There was this old man walking around who introduced himself as Eduard Meyer," he says. "He was the house Hansa guy for 35 years. He recorded Heroes and Lust For Life. There's this picture of Bowie, Visconti and then this other guy. Eduard's the guy. He was just walking around the control room as I was giving this interview. I chatted to him for a while, but then the kid I was doing the interview with was going: 'Sorry, I only have ten minutes!' I was like: 'Dude…'"
Beyond studio geekery, another thing you should know about Adam is that Granduciel isn't his name. He was born Adam Granofsky on 15 February 1979, in Dover, Massachusetts on the outskirts of Boston. His high school French teacher pointed out that a literal translation of his surname Gran-of-sky would be Gran-du-ciel. Years later, when he recorded the first cassettes of his guitar playing, he used it to label them. It was, he thinks, perhaps a way of dealing with his anxiety about putting music out into the world by distancing himself behind a fake name. Hey, it worked for Dylan.
But then came 2014's Lost In The Dream, a record coloured with anxiety – one awash in themes of paranoia and loneliness – that also placed Adam centre stage. "That record was me making something that I knew was me," he says. "I wasn't sure if it was good, but I knew I was going to release it to a lot of people."
As it turned out, people did like it. A lot. It was named Album of the Year on 13 different best-of-2014 lists. The band were promptly signed to major label Atlantic, and Apple's Jimmy Iovine, the definition of an influential music boss, said The War on Drugs: "should be gigantic". Adam says all that helped him "trust his gut" a bit more, like a nervous new boyfriend who now knows his partner really is into him ("Oh, you do like me? Cool"). But as he's grown older, he's also learned how to cope with his anxiety better. "I think a lot of it is just knowing the feeling first," he says. "I remember that in the past I was overwhelmed with the mystery of anxiety, or the mystery of depression, but now when you feel that feeling coming on you no longer go into fight-or-flight mode. You go: 'Oh, I know what this is' and you ride it out."
To rewind, Adam didn't initially think he'd make it as a musician. Although he's been playing guitar since he was 13, he went to university in Pennsylvania to study history and fine arts. Afterwards he crossed the country to the west coast with the idea of becoming a painter. He lived in Oakland for a year with his friend Julian, looking for the same spark that had inspired the Bay Area abstract expressionists in the 50s and 60s, artists like Richard Diebenkorn, David Park and Elmer Bischoff. He would layer paint onto a canvas and then scrape away at it, trying to find the picture hidden in the colours. The painting didn't last, but the technique did. It's still how he makes The War On Drugs records. "That's kinda the main thing," he says. "I can't just go into the studio with one idea and be all in on that, 100 percent. It takes me a while to arrive at something that feels like it's finished. I don't know what the sound is or the song is until I've spent a lot of time on it. I'm always chipping away at it, rethinking it."
Instead of painting, he and Julian would sit up late, smoking joints and hammering away at twin typewriters. "We were still kind of living our Gregory Corso fever dream," he says. "We'd write prose, poetry, tag-team typewriting. That's actually where the band name originated. We were writing a dictionary, defining phrases or words that were important to us, with long explanations of what they meant to us. Things like: 'The Pacific Ocean', 'The White House'. Then someone said: 'The War On Drugs' and we were all like: 'That would be a good band name.'"
It was in Oakland that he started recording his own music, making those first Granduciel-labelled cassettes, but he still knew "nothing about labels or indie culture". Then in September 2002 Julian moved to Philadelphia, and Adam followed on 3 January 2003. He started to meet other musicians there, people like Kurt Vile and The Capitol Years, and began to think that making music could be his life. Personally, too, he was starting to come out of his shell. "For some reason," he says, "at that time I started getting good at socialising."
His first two records, 2008's Wagonwheel Blues and 2011's Slave Ambient, won him a cult following but Lost In The Dream broke all the windows and rammed through all the doors. The success of that record, coupled with the fact that his girlfriend was living in LA, meant he could move back to the west coast and rent out a studio, Sonora Recorders near Griffith Park, for 15 months. He moved in all the old rugs from his living room in Philly, making an ersatz recreation of his former home, but also revisited his favourite records from the city: albums like Neil Young's Tonight's The Night and the greatest of all LA records, Warren Zevon's Warren Zevon (He's recently taken to covering Zevon's "Accidentally Like a Martyr" live).
You can hear traces of those records on A Deeper Understanding, but Adam also found himself returning to the road songs that left their mark on Lost In The Dream. "Holding On", this album's second single, lifts the glockenspiels from Springsteen's "Born To Run". "Nothing To Find" shares an emotional connection to Jackson Browne's "Running On Empty". He happily acknowledges those influences. "Oh yeah, they're the sweetest," he says. "It's not a sound that's in those songs, it's a spirit that travels through those kind of songs that I think I'm really attracted to." The layering of that sound, then the slow process of chipping away at it, gets us close to an answer, but still the question remains: "How do you go about making a song that makes my heart swell up until it feels like it's going to burst?"
"I just wait until mine swells too, I guess," he offers. "That's what I wait for. When you're working at a song, you just keep chipping away at it and you're kind of waiting for that feeling. The sound of the music is that feeling, but it's tough when you're really inside of it, because you're like: 'Am I even capable of experiencing the feeling that I think I'm supposed to achieve?'"
What is it he's waiting to hear? "Somewhere between this kind of cruising freedom, and this understated moment where all these little things intertwine to create a bigger sound. You don't want one thing to be bright, or too prevalent," he says. He's waiting for that ache, like a heart about to burst. "Emotionally, it doesn't feel too over the top," he adds. "It just feels subtly, kind of, painful."
You can find Kevin on Twitter.
'A War on Understanding' is available now via Atlantic