INTERVIEW: War On Drugs
Tell me a little bit about how you got to Philly. You took a cross-country train trip, right?
Yeah, that was a sweet one! I took the California Zephyr from Oakland. We stopped in Chicago and hopped on another train to Pittsburgh and than another from Pittsburgh to Philly. But that was actually on a whim. I was living in the Bay Area and my friend Julian came to visit and he ended up staying for like 4 or 5 months. He saw there were some deals on this Amtrak train, like a hundred bucks per person, one-way to Philly. We gave two weeks notice and we left a week later. It was sweet. We met these two girls from Denver that got on there and their parents were waving to them outside the window. That was funny. They had a smoking car which was pretty much just like one train care hollowed out, where you could smoke and drink. Julian ended up putting on an impromptu spoken word poetry hour in there. All these people’s minds were blown because a lot of these folks were getting on in Reno and places like that, looking downtrodden and completely freaked out by us. We didn’t really know anyone in Philadelphia except this one kid and we slept in his apartment for a few months. I eventually got a tiny house of my own. That was January of 2003. But yeah, I plan to go through that again
Was this long before you started the War on Drugs project?
Yeah, that’s when we came up with the name. It wasn’t an actual band until we got to Philly, until 2004 or 2005.
Had you been playing in bands while in Oakland?
Not really, no. I was working and living in this little cottage with these random people. I had some minimal recording stuff that I was working with and just buying a lot of music. I didn’t really play in bands then, no. I wasn’t really interested so much in doing that at the time.
So when did Wagonwheel Blues begin to germinate? Once you got to Philadelphia?
Well, some of the songs are from out west. “Barrel Of Batteries” is from when I first got the [drum] machine out in Oakland. All of the recordings are from the last four or five years in Philly.
It sounds and feels like a really great road record, like a lot of the scenery between Oakland and Philly has been distilled.
Putting it on the car is definitely the best way to hear it, I think. It’s just got that vibe. There’s something about moving around—I didn’t really think I would stay here for very long and I’ve been here for two years. Maybe there have been plenty of times where I’ve wanted to move somewhere new, but it never really happened.
You’ve got to find another train special back west.
I can’t find them! They’re all real expensive. That was the thing, that train was so cheap. We’d like to do the Sunshine Line from Florida to LA trip at one point but I don’t see it happening soon. I’m happy I stayed here because obviously, I met the guys in my band. Over the course of time, people in Philly were so open to helping with the recording. From all these years of recording, even before Philly, stuff that was on mini-disc or cassette, it eventually made its way into these songs. We made it in 2006, but there’s something from 2002 in the background. I like the way it all came together in that collage-style recording.
How do you feel about the live translation? It seems like you guys have been through a few permutations.
Yeah, it’s been an ever-changing thing. There have been times when it’s just me and Kurt, just two guitars and a sampler. I guess we weren’t doing certain songs then, we weren’t doing full-band songs. But a few songs came out of that. I think there were two weeks where no one could do shows except Kurt. So I got this new loop and we would jam over it and a song came out of it. You know that song “Show Me The Coast?”
That one came out of that. We played it one night in New York and it was really cool. A week later we recorded it live. All the changes that happen within the band up until the point of the record really benefitted the record. I feel with the Drugs, every night is better than the one before it. Now we’re trying to find a way to make it all make sense. We use a sampler live, too and it’s come to the point where you don’t want to be doing karaoke, you know? You don’t want to be playing over chord changes, you want to be playing to something.
Do you work on visual art as well? Like you said, the sort of collage-ike way you recorded the album makes me wonder.
I do photography and I painted for a while. But then I got obsessed with Richard Diebenkorn and I could never paint ever again. I bought that orange The Art of Richard Diebenkorn book, I could never touch a canvas ever again.
I just became so obsessed with it—it polluted my mind. He used Prussian Blue a lot. Apparently you don’t use that color because nothing actually really goes with it. But I tried to prove that wrong and so I’d buy all these tubes of Prussian Blue and always be using it but nothing ever made sense or looked right. I did all the art for the album, all the collage stuff. For a long time, I had a huge Polaroid collection. When I was younger, I did more visual art than I did music. When you’re making an album, you’re maybe not too aware of the elements that are making it what it is. To me, it was just that I had this collection of old stuff and I knew what key it was all in. I could move it around to make it all flow. Now that I’ve put it together and realized what made it sound a certain way, I’m real excited to start digging through and finding new exciting stuff, try to piece together some old recordings.
Did you get a chance to write at all when you were on that train trip?
Yeah, there was probably something but nothing too extensive. During that period of time, when Julian and I were living together, we always had a bunch of typewriters set up. We had three set up in Oakland and a bunch in Philadelphia. I think on that trip, I just had a couple of notebooks to write in. Back then, I was more interested into writing prose than songs. I’d actually like to dig through because we’ve got a huge bag of archives of three or four months' worth, including the train trip. I’d like to see what I had written down. I had a Super 8 Camera on that trip and I took five rolls of that. I’ve never gotten in developed because it’s too expensive.
Do it. There’s got to be some gnarly stuff in there.
Yeah, there’s awesome shit in there from all over. I got that camera in '98 and took maybe 40 rolls of Super 8 film that I’ve never developed because it’s too expensive. SO maybe for the next album, I’ll send it all in to make a DVD. There’s some great shit in there.