Adam Granduciel describes his home studio as a playground for haphazard things.
In his tinkerer's shop, with a minimalist analog setup, Granduciel labors to create an ethereal batch of sounds, experimenting with combinations. It's only after he's accumulated a solid bed of sounds, often from mere snippets, that Granduciel starts seeing the outline of a song.
And then he rocks out.
As Granduciel, mastermind for The War on Drugs, describes his band's process, it's clear how expertly crafted the new Slave Ambient truly is. It's a sort of classic rock for an alternate universe. The comparisons that Granduciel has drawn to the likes of Tom Petty and Bob Dylan are certainly apt, but supporting that rock 'n' roll sound is an entirely different sonic world of layered loops, ambient tones and swirling textures. And the combination is seamless.
"It's really dense and pretty and beautiful, and a rock album, too," he says. "It's unique-sounding, but arriving at that is different than thinking about it.
"A lot of the time, I was just starting from scratch and building up some different sounds, sculpting it from the ground up until I saw where there was a song, and then writing it from there," says Granduciel, describing the four years it took him to record Slave Ambient. "Even though I was supposed to be delivering a record, I was mostly concerned with learning some new tricks. I knew the songs would come."
After the band's well-regarded debut, Wagonwheel Blues, Granduciel set out to expand his process, treating Slave Ambient like a suite of songs, flowing naturally from one to the next, with echoes of both melodies and drones forging a continuity amid the distinct tracks.
"The original vision was for every song to have its own identity, and still have it feel like a record," Granduciel says. "I knew I wanted it to be more than just a collection of songs. I wanted it to be a representation of all the time I've been recording and developing this strange process within my home studio. I expanded on that a lot with this record."
The album's centerpiece is the trio "Your Love Is Calling My Name," "The Animator" and "Come to the City." It starts with a propulsive rock song that carries with it background melodies that emerge as the focus of an airy instrumental song, which then uses that same propulsive beat for a return trip. The songs sit well together tonally, with an early version of one song serving as the instrumental backbone for another.
The very first seed was a single short drum loop. Granduciel invited two friends over to his Philadelphia home studio, set up two drum kits and three microphones, and just had them play for a while. He plucked from the recording a few-second segment where the drummers had locked into a great beat.
"I'd spend some time playing with different effects on it, re-sampling it and building up percussive tracks from things that weren't drum machines. It's human, but it's looped. It's not a straight drum beat, but something that's consistent," he says.
Granduciel started layering synthesizer parts on top of the percussive track and then picked up a harmonica and started recording it right through the board. That combination of melodies formed the backbone of that three-song suite.
Though the songs for the album were recorded at different times, in different places, and with different people, Granduciel says his steady vision for Slave Ambient provided enough cohesion.
"I was still looking for 'a-ha' moments even as I wrapping up the record. The last six months, it was about finding how to connect all the songs into something that really felt like it was a unique experience," he says. "It's a question of either keep doing what you're doing, or take the chance and go down one little side street, and I'd usually end up with a more-amazing sound.
"You can always play with it a little more, but I'm definitely able to know when the song is done. I'm not concerned with the rough edges," he says. "A lot of songs would have so many transformations, but in the end, they became what they are now. I could have spent another month making sure they were all perfect, but that would have gone against the point."
Granduciel says he didn't start out with any particular unifying ideas lyrically, but what came out along the way tends to center around the idea of "searching."
"Maybe it's just the idea of looking for something to latch onto," he says.
The recording process itself came to serve as an inspiration for Granduciel's writing. That struggle to create, to lock on to a vision and bring it to reality, became the record's central theme.
"Although nothing is really written lyrically in a linear way, when I did vocals for a song, it was in a time of flux, a time of working on stuff really obsessively. So that mentality came through a lot of the lyrics, along with self-doubt and hope and moments of ecstasy and reinvention and feeling down in the dumps," he says.
Slave Ambient came about during a period of change for Granduciel, who was also playing guitar in Kurt Vile's band The Violators. Vile had played guitar in The War on Drugs, but left to devote more time to his own project.
"(Slave Ambient) was a working title for a lot of the stuff just because of how I was cataloging it in my head. I had a million different titles for it, but even I admitted to myself that was it. And I just like the way the words sound together and how it looks on paper."
Granduciel is now looking forward to performing the songs live, where the experimenting drops off and the rocking elements emerge.
"The home studio is where you can spend a lot of time re-evaluating and changing, and you have the time and the space to do something and immediately erase it. To me, the live thing is great, because now the songs are there. The studio is where the songs are born, but live, you get to re-create them."