Wagonwheel Blues didn't land on a whole lot of best-albums-of-2008 lists, nor did the single "Taking the Farm" find its way to an iPod commercial, Obama rally, or the dramatic denouement of a House episode. Still, as the saying goes, if some guy in Philadelphia records a brilliant record and nobody hears it, the Pope's hat is no less funny.
"I'm actually pretty satisfied with the attention the record got," says Adam Granduciel, the mastermind behind The War on Drugs (the band, not the government policy). "What I liked about it was that it wasn't in everybody's face, you know? It came out in June and eight or nine months later, people are still hearing it for the first time and really enjoying it. It's cool. Finding the album a bit later and loving it is a lot better than having it jammed in your face the week it comes out."
It's virtually impossible to pull a sound straight out of left field anymore, and Granduciel doesn't really make any such attempt on Wagonwheel Blues, The War on Drugs' debut CD. What he did pull off, however, is one of the more impressive Frankenstein efforts in recent pop-music history—piecing together seemingly disparate and even oppositional influences to create something that sounds wholly unique and sometimes pretty important.
"I think maybe, in retrospect, yeah, [contrasting influences] was something I was interested in," Granduciel says. "But a lot of it also had to do with how the songs on Wagonwheel Blues were recorded. They went through a lot of stages of evolution, a lot of mixes, so different elements came and went, new and old. It's not something where we were consciously trying be a band that combines, like, ambient music and folk-rock. But when I look back, I can see how things turned out a certain way."
The different stages of recording that Granduciel refers to came about in large part thanks to the financial aid of The War on Drugs' record label, Secretly Canadian. Granduciel had previously relied on low-budget eight-track recorders during sessions with friends in his Philadelphia apartment; a record deal opened the floodgates to all sorts of new possibilities for his already stellar batch of songs.
"It kind of came out of nowhere," Granduciel says. "I'm not really the kind of guy who was in a position to shop my recordings around, because I didn't have any money to do anything. My friends had recorded ‘Taking the Farm' and ‘Arms Like Boulders' basically pro bono, because they liked the band. But I didn't really think that any label would care. Then, somehow, Secretly Canadian heard my Barrel of Batteries EP, and they e-mailed me, wanting to hear more. So I sent them the new stuff and they got really into it. Even though the record wasn't done yet, they said, ‘We want to put this record out, here's some money to finish it.' And I was like, ‘Holy shit, I can actually make this album the way I want to!'"
In the end, Wagonwheel Blues grafted together Granduciel's earlier home recordings with the more advanced sessions from various friends' studios around Philly, making for an album that sounds unusually complex but familiar, at once intimate and intimidating.
The critics who didn't let this one slip under their radars last year had a field day trying to organize The War on Drugs' influences into a helpful synopsis. Standout track "Taking the Farm" seemed to offer the best starting point, featuring Granduciel's Dylanesque vocals, some dreamy Cure-like guitar work, a driving organ from the Clap Your Hands Say Yeah playbook, some Sonic Youth fuzz, and what sounds like a miniature Clarence Clemons playing an electric saxophone. These descriptions don't exactly do the song justice—do yourself a favor and listen to it on the band's MySpace page—but they certainly help reveal that The War on Drugs aren't your average indie-rock recyclists.
In the case of "Taking the Farm," Granduciel started with the song's propulsive beat, lifted from a preset on an old organ that his roommate had supposedly found in the street, as in Punch Drunk Love. From there, a melody quickly emerged, followed by some important-sounding but mainly nonsensical lyrics about "chopping down tree tops" and "digging for diamonds at the bottom of the sea."
"I don't really know what the song means, necessarily, but that tends to be my process," Granduciel says. "It's not like I can go to a party, fail to get a girl's number, and then go home and write a sad song about it. It never works that way for me."
And perhaps that explains why The War on Drugs (the band, not the government policy) hasn't achieved great success just yet—the wrong choice of words.