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Bill Ellison

Philly dad-rockers the War on Drugs translate dreamy, textural rock into international success 

By now, the critical superlatives describing Philadelphia sextet the War on Drugs have reached an ad nauseam pitch: "sounds like Tom Petty," "sounds like Bruce Springsteen," "sounds like Dire Straits." Perhaps because few modern bands reference such dad-approved heartland rock, critics piled it on in the wake of breakout 2014 album Lost in the Dream, even as nearly all copped to being held in its dreamy, rhythmically hypnotic sway.

And that's the point of the War on Drugs – rather than focus on discursive discussions about influences and nostalgia and the repurposing of classic rock, this is music perfect to lose yourself in. In short, it's all about the feels (if you let it be).

Of course, that skips over vital elements of the band's biography. Like how frontman Adam Granduciel originally started the War on Drugs with fellow sonic whiz Kurt Vile. Or how Granduciel and his supporting cast – bassist Dave Hartley, drummer Charlie Hall, keyboardist Robbie Bennett, saxophonist Jon Natchez and multi-instrumentalist Anthony LaMarca – coalesced after intense touring in the wake of 2011's Slave Ambient. Or how Granduciel created Lost in the Dream solo over a year of post-breakup isolation punctuated by panic attacks, excruciating depression and crushing self-doubt. Or how this formerly cult-favorite indie rock outfit has achieved such mainstream, festival-headlining, late-night TV-appearing fame.

"Our growth has actually been really natural," says Bennett, who joined the War on Drugs in 2011 and whose synth and piano flourishes give the band's music an emotionally textural underpinning. "It's been less of a shock to the system that way. And now we have so many opportunities to get the music closer to the way we want it to sound. Even the TV stuff, which we've done six times now, is becoming less stressful. The first couple of times, you're like 'Oh my god.' You're petrified."

Now, not so much. In 2015, the War on Drugs headlined Coachella, Sasquatch, Governors Ball and Bonnaroo, with top slots at every European festival known to man still to come this summer. They taped a segment for the legendary Austin City Limits TV show and sold out landmark venues in the U.K.; now, when they announce new shows, they're booked at places like Radio City Music Hall in New York. In short, Floridians are damn lucky the War on Drugs will dip down here this week for the first time (excluding a DeLuna Fest appearance in Pensacola Beach in 2011).

When asked whether the band's recent habit of bookending festival appearances with two or three shows is good for everyone's mental, physical and creative health, Bennett laughs. "That's a good question – no one's really sure. But with sporadic touring, it's hard to get in a rhythm. When we do four weeks of club shows with a couple festivals thrown in, we hit a pretty good feeling. When we pick up after a month off, which we did in the Pacific Northwest [in May], we might feel a little rusty. We really gel when we hit the road and stay busy."

Those conditions, however, make it hard to create new material, which Bennett says the band has begun doing in fits and starts. But he doesn't expect the act's predominant process – Granduciel writing and recording demos that he then outlines for the band – to change significantly. "I don't think it's going to become more democratic," Bennett says. "Honestly, that would probably be a bad idea. The War on Drugs is Adam's vision – we're extra hands for him. We all make contributions, but Adam is at the helm. That's why the War on Drugs sounds like the War on Drugs."

Granduciel has clearly created a collective powerhouse that's built for far-reaching success – the Wall Street Journal revealed last week that the band recently signed a two-album deal with Atlantic Records. But they're also able to focus on what's immediately in front of them. When asked about the War on Drugs' next big step, Bennett is low-key: set design and lighting, but mostly "just the next record." He adds, "It's all about control for us. We want to be able to control our surroundings on a day-to-day basis. That way we can deliver the music, the show and the experience to people – in just the way we want."

music@orlandoweekly.com

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