STEREOGUM: When [the War On Drugs Adam] Granduciel wasn’t obsessively recording, he and War On Drugs bassist/founding member David Hartley were working at a Philadelphia company called University City Housing, cleaning up college apartments and helping run open houses. “In hindsight it was really hilarious because we were both just really scraggly, skinny musician-y dudes who had no business occupying any sort of professional atmosphere,” says Hartley, “and we were sort of the two linchpins of this pretty huge operation. Eventually we got fired, but that was a fun time because there were a lot of other musicians working there. Kurt would pop in because at the time he was working for the Philadelphia Brewing Company and would be delivering kegs to the bars. People would come into work hung over, with rough mixes and demos on CD-Rs, and we’d drive around in the company cars getting stoned and listening to them. It was a little bit competitive.”
Shit jobs that you don’t need to give a shit about are helpful for any musician, but they’re a way of life in Philadelphia. By all accounts, nearly every coffee shop, bar, record store, print shop, or cool gastro pub was either started or infiltrated by an aging scenester; the old punks are always there to hook you up with the type of job where no one cares if you’re visibly hung over. It’s how one generation of Philadelphia musicians takes care of the next.
“It’s just cheap as hell,” says Hartley. “It’s getting less cheap, but if you compare it to Brooklyn or something, it’s not even close. What that does is, it sort of loosens the noose around the neck of the artist, because you can afford to maybe work at a coffee shop like 35 hours a week. You know you’ll still be scraping by, but that’s kind of the point. With the rest of your time, you go with friends to see shows, and you work on music in your bedroom, and you jam with as many people as you can. It sounds sort of contrived the way I’m putting it, but I definitely lived that, along with everybody else in the band and everybody else that I know who is now a successful musician from Philly. None of them were living out in the ‘burbs working at a cubicle. It’s just not how it works.”
Hartley moved to Philadelphia after graduating college and spending some time living in the Virgin Islands. He lived in a friend’s spare room for $200 a month (“He was like, ‘Man there are so many bands here, and they all need bass players,’ and that was enough for me”), but his first block was filled with too many bros and too many Jell-O shots. It all made more sense when he moved to Fishtown, right as it was changing from a neighborhood most reasonable people would avoid to the place students and artists were remaking.
When I talked to him for this story, Hartley was packing up his coffee rig before the War On Drugs left for their most recent tour. This trek would see them play the biggest stages of their career, including a sundown set at Coachella. Last year the War On Drugs released Lost In The Dream, a gorgeous paean to heartland rock nostalgia and fighting off your demons with as much multi-tracking as possible. It topped critics list, dramatically increased the band’s font size on festival posters, and turned them from a respected club-size act into something of a modern standard-bearer.
Neither Vile nor the War On Drugs is a household name, and barring a major sea change at American radio, neither is likely to have a true mainstream hit. But both are well on their way to career paths along the lines of Wilco and My Morning Jacket, where an ear for adventurous sounds blends with satisfying classic-rock songwriting. They’ve established Philadelphia as a major player in modern left-of-center music in a way that no other recent rock band has. But while the War On Drugs and Kurt Vile have gotten the most attention, the bands that have sprung up just outside of their spotlight prove that Philadelphia isn’t just on the come-up, it’s now the biggest game around.
“I feel like when I came here, heavy rock was not really happening in any of the bands I knew,” says Hartley. “It was all sort of chilled-out spacey-ness. That’s why the new wave of bands is crazy. I just kind of turned my head for a year and then came back and there was a new crowd of great bands. The big story is that there’s this bubbling thing happening in basements and bedrooms and garages right now that we don’t even know about because it’s truly a little bit under the radar. That’s actually the most important thing happening right now … just the kids working on the next thing.” MORE