Whenever I listen to “Red Eyes,” one of several perfect tracks on the War on Drugs’ most recent album, Lost in the Dream (Secretly Canadian), I imagine how thrilled main man Adam Granduciel must have been after he wrote the dusty guitar lick that opens its chorus. His simple, skittering lead, backed by what sounds like a symphony of synths, makes for a beautiful wide-screen hook—and it hasn’t lost an iota of its luster in the six months I’ve been obsessively spinning the record.
Granduciel still writes the majority of the War on Drugs’ material, but he’s no longer the only constant member, as he was for a spell after the 2008 departure of cofounder Kurt Vile. He’s recruited a full-time band—basically the group he’d assembled to tour—and they helped him craft what I’m sure will end up as one of this year’s best rock albums. When it’s at full thrum, Lost in the Dream sounds like Petty and Springsteen and Dylan on a road trip together, cruising down parched dirt roads with a destination in mind but no particular desire to get there—and leaving hazy trails of delay, acoustic guitar, and harmonica in their wake. Steady, pulsing drumming keeps the tracks grounded, but above it float wisps of psychedelia, which undoubtedly feel like a constant invitation to extended jamming when the War on Drugs take the stage.
Interviewing Granduciel for this week’s Artist on Artist is Steve Krakow, aka Plastic Crimewave, one of the Chicago music scene’s most recognizable and indispensable characters. Among the many hats he wears, he’s a visual and comic artist, in which capacity he writes and draws the Secret History of Chicago Music for the Reader; he leads several bands too, including the rarely convened psychedelic wormhole generator he calls the Plastic Crimewave Vision Celestial Guitarkestra, whose huge lineup consists of whoever shows up able to play. (Krakow is also a rabid collector of musical oddities and out-there pop-culture ephemera, as you know if you’ve seen his apartment.)
Both the War on Drugs and the Guitarkestra play on Sat 9/6 at the Hideout Block Party & A.V. Fest—Krakow and friends open the day, and Granduciel’s band headlines. This reliably good-vibes-intensive music festival (now in its 18th year, and its third as a collaboration with the Onion‘s A.V. Club) kicks off Fri 9/5 with a bill highlighted by indie powerhouse Death Cab for Cutie and goth-country geniuses the Handsome Family. Other acts worth seeing on Saturday, the fest’s final day, include the Dismemberment Plan, the Funky Meters, and Mac DeMarco. —Kevin Warwick
My old band and your band played together in Chicago at the Empty Bottle.
Plastic Crimewave Sound.
It was, like, 2008?
All right, there you go: 2008.
That was the show. That was probably one of the worst shows in the history of my career. It was like a legendarily awful, groundbreaking, turning-point show.
Wow. What was so bad about it?
That was the show where we had no drummer for the tour—we had a different drummer for each city. That show, it was like the recommendation of a friend of a friend. Apparently he’s a good drummer, but this night, first he got wasted at dinner. Then we’re about to play, and he had the monitor on his right, and—you know the Empty Bottle, how everything’s kind of crammed into that little corner? There were a lot of songs at the time with tracks—like drum machines and shit [that he had to hear in the monitor so he could play along]. Right before we’re about to start, he’s like, “Yeah, you know, I’m deaf in my right ear. Maybe we should move the monitor.” I’m like, what the fuck!
He’d been studying the music for a month. This was only the first record, so it was only like eight songs. And he played everything totally flipped around. He was playing in between the beat. It was a train wreck. He also showed up without any drums or sticks or snare or anything. It was fucking surreal. Also because I know that he was a respected drummer. I don’t know what it was.
And that was the first time our label had seen us play. It was so fucked up. We were touring. It was like a six-day tour. The bottom of my Volvo was falling off.
So Kurt left shortly after that?
Sure. We weren’t a band the way we are now. There was no leading of the band. There was no band. It was like, Oh, now this collection of songs needs to form a live thing, you know? It’s like, “Dave [Hartley], do you want to come to Chicago and learn these songs?”
When you’re writing songs now—I heard you spent a year on this last studio record—are you thinking “How are we gonna do this live?”
I don’t even really think about it. I don’t feel like there’s anything I can do in the studio—that I would like to do—that we couldn’t pull off musically. Because I know what everyone’s capable of, and I also know my taste.
I mean, I love Robbie [Bennett] as a piano player and keyboard player in the live context. I also played about 90, 95 percent of the keyboards on the record. It doesn’t mean that live I need to play the keyboards. Live, Robbie gets to reinterpret those hooks and the sound that comes naturally to me. It’s almost like my sensibilities in the studio shape Robbie’s sensibilities live. It’s what you try to develop in a live band—a similar, shared sensibility. That’ll be something I’ll have to think about when I make the next record. Because now we definitely for the first time are a full-on, live act. You know, like an “act” in quotes.
You got some pretty gnarly guitar sounds on this new record. Is that stuff you’re doing in the studio, or are you using boutique pedals and stuff like that?
Nothing crazy boutique. I use a lot of vintage stuff I buy, some newer stuff that I hear about that I really like. I’m not one who likes to put a bunch of fuzz pedals next to each other and A/B them. I like what I like, you know? I like my old phaser, my 70s phaser that I put pretty much everything through.
Do you have an MXR or a Small Stone?
No, I don’t like those. I have a Mu-Tron II. I love the Mu-Tron on keyboards. On this record I also play through a Leslie a lot.
I noticed a lot of Leslie on this one.
That’s such a classic sound, and just through guitar geekdom I figured out tricks about recording a Leslie and how to make it sound a little less generic. And I was really happy with some of the sounds we got through the Leslie and some amp things. I also love doing guitar parts. People are like, “Oh, why do you put so many guitar tracks or different tones?” Because if I work on a song for eight months, there’s like 11 different instances in the studio where I’m like, I just want to do some more guitars on this. I’ll always plug in a different chain. One day it’ll be a small Gibson amp, one day it’ll be a vintage Super Reverb. Or direct into the deck.
You got to experiment a little more with this record?
For sure. Are you familiar with Bob Bradshaw?
No. Was he producing?
No, but Bob Bradshaw’s a well-known guitar guy. He builds pedal boards called Custom Audio Electronics. He invented Eddie Van Halen’s pedal-switching system. He’s a pedal guru. I’m in LA because I’m picking up something I had Bradshaw make for me.
It’s one of those things where some people are like, “Oh my God, you have a Bradshaw board?” So that’s why I asked. It’s not really that big a deal. To me, even, it’s not that big a deal. I kind of got suckered into it, but I’m actually psyched because the guy’s awesome. And he’s done an amazing job. I can’t wait. It’s gonna be totally foolproof. It’s just funny, because some people in the guitar world—who A/B between Dr. Z amps and fucking TopDawg amps, you know what I mean—that world of people are like, “Oh my God, a Bradshaw. You’ve got to be shitting me.” So I’ve got to leave in like 20 minutes to go pick up my Bradshaw.
I use a lot of pedals, but I don’t even have a pedal board. I like the Zen-ness of attaching it up. It’s sort of my meditation at the beginning of a show. Plugging everything in, laying them out. And then of course inevitably something does not work.
I totally get it. At least in my experience, as things get a little bigger, there’s a lot of people like, “Dude, what you need is . . . ” What they don’t understand as nonmusicians is that sometimes the chaos is just as important as the signal chain. There’s something to be said about all the signal passing through all the pedals at once. I don’t need to isolate a true bypass, because something about squishing that is the sound.It‘s like Nels Cline said. “Everyone tries to get me to get a true-bypass thing,” but he’s like, “Degradation is my sound.”
You get a lot of people who try to get you to go into this world, but what they forget is that sometimes that chaos, that way in which each musician interacts with his equipment, is the way that they arrive at their sound. It’s a very tricky thing. You want to be professional, but you also have to sometimes just be like, “Listen, you don’t know what’s best for what’s happening onstage.” There’s a really delicate balance of chaos and musicianship that’s happening, and no one necessarily has to throw a wrench into that, you know? It’s not all about making it easier to control.
Right, right. Actually, last night we played with this band that has original members of Pere Ubu, Home and Garden. And it was the second guitarist, Tom Herman, who plays on The Modern Dance and Dub Housing, so I was sort of in awe. And he was like, “Hey man, can I give you a little bit of advice?” I play a Flying V, and he was like, “You want to redrill the hole so that your strap hangs not from the top part of the Flying V but from the middle.” And I was like, that’s the weirdest guitar advice I’ve ever gotten—maybe I’ll actually take it.
You like a Flying V?
I do. I’ve wanted one my whole life, and I finally got one.
I really want a Flying V.
I’ve got the black and white. You know, the classic.
Thin Lizzy style. Not that I can pull those moves, but I can pretend.
I’m sure you can. That’s awesome. Where’d you play last night?
Actually, the Empty Bottle. Your favorite place to play. [Laughter.]
I had a lot of great shows there with the Violators, with Kurt. That one show with the Drugs—it wasn’t even the show or the place as much as it was just the environment. It was the first time I felt like a label shill, you know what I mean? Like, “I just let the label down. Why do I care?”
I don’t remember there being a lot of people there either.
No, there weren’t. But if I saw that band now, I would be like, “Oh my God, that was the best band I’ve ever seen.” It was so chaotic. Kurt had that microphone that he would plug right into the amp and sing through. He was just spinning it around like a lasso, and it was going [makes cycling feedback sounds], feeding back, going through all the pedals. In retrospect, it was probably an awesome show. At the time, you shoot to be more professional. You always try to be more put together than you are in reality.
I yearn for those unpredictable moments. We used to embrace that shit. That’s what I’m really searching for, I think, to be a band that plays 200 shows a year and is dialed in and has a stupid stage plot and stupid pedal boards, but at the same time—I just want every show to blow my fucking mind. And to have something happen that I didn’t expect. And have someone go off, you know?
Your new record, you’ve got eight-minute songs, so you’ve got some room to expand and all that, right?
Totally. That’s what’s great—these songs, there are some of them that on the first couple of tours, they weren’t there. And now, six months in, we finally figured out how—like this last mini tour we did, we figured out how to make that middle part of “Under the Pressure” lift up.
And all the songs have these little—I don’t know if they’re jams or what. You spend the first month or two touring, getting inside the song, then you spend a few months coasting, and now I feel like everyone’s back to “OK, I can play this thing with my eyes closed. How do I elevate myself each night?” And I feel like that’s where we’re at now, which is really exciting. Because we did the whole summer thing, the festivals—now it’s getting back to club shows, you know, or theaters, whatever they are. A proper tour. You can get back to that point where everyone is in the middle of the song, and they can just elevate themselves and try to blow their own minds every night.
So are you looking forward to the Block Party here in Chicago?
Yeah, we did the Block Party two years ago. It was awesome, dude. There’s such a sweet vibe there.
The Hideout is one of my favorite clubs in the city. Have you ever met the owners, Tim and Katie [Tuten]? They’re super rad.
We’ve never played the actual club, but I met Katie at the A.V. Club thing two years ago, and she was super nice. I know she’s kind of legendary in the scene.
Oh, yeah. Tim will give you an elongated yet enthusiastic intro sometimes, if you’re lucky. Sometimes it drives people insane. But one of my favorite parts of the Hideout, actually, is usually Tim’s rant.
Oh, I can’t wait for that.
It’ll be fun. If you get there early on Saturday, I do this thing now every year called the Vision Celestial Guitarkestra.
Oh, dude, that’s you? I remember that! I thought the Guitarkestra was fucking awesome. I remember like a 12-year-old with a Crate amp and a PRS. That’s you? That’s the coolest thing ever.
You were talking about those highs and lows—that’s definitely what I’m trying for. You want that ecstatic peak, where everything sort of comes together. As long as I get that, I feel like it was success.
Yeah, that one moment where everyone—because everyone is playing in E, right?
I’ve switched it up. I’ve thrown a little B in there, I think, one year. I don’t know—I have a feeling that people play what they want to play.
That’s so cool. I’d like to do it.
If you’re there early—I know you guys are last—and you want to throw down . . .
Well, we’re supposed to get there super, super early and do shit. I’ll be there all day, I’m sure. I have a “B rig” pedal board; I’ll plop that down.
Throw it down, all right. Awesome.
That would be sweet.
You know the Sore Eros dudes, right? You’re producing a record for those guys?
Yeah, totally. I wish I had more time to work on it consistently, but what we’ve done so far is fucking awesome. We’ve pretty much done it all to my one-inch 16-track. I’m not by any means an engineer, but like anything, I just try. They’re the best dudes. The thing I love about them—only Sore Eros sounds like Sore Eros. Like, it would be impossible to cover a Sore Eros song. They’re each completely on a different fucking planet. But then together, they’re all on different planets too. It’s like their songs, they just meander, and then there’s that one moment where it comes together and you’re like, “Oh my God, it’s so beautiful.”
I met [Sore Eros founder] Rob [Robinson] through Kurt years ago. Rob and Kurt go back. So I met Kurt and I met Rob, like 2003. And he wanted to record with me. I know what I’m doing, but I don’t really have a studio-studio. I can do like three or four things at once. So they’re just all about those limitations. Recording a live band with five inputs is great. I’ll be like, “Track five is kick drum and lead guitar.” I’ll have three things going into a splitter into one channel.
That’s how they did it in the olden days.
But it’s cool. That’s how I record myself when I’m working on stuff at home, but I don’t get to do that with anybody else. I’ve learned more about getting sounds working with them than I can on my own. So it’s really fun. Working with them makes me want to do more stuff with my band in my house.
We’re supposed to do something at Chicago Music Exchange the day before the show. Our drummer, Charlie [Hall]—his brother just started working there. You’ve been there before, CME? I can’t wait to go there.
It’s pricey—get ready!
Yeah, I know. Realistically, I’m not gonna walk out with anything, but there’s this Fender there I wanna play.
Right on. Good luck with that pedal-board action.
Thanks, buddy. We’ll see how it goes.