The butt of the 8-iron hovers over the T-shirt for a beat, then descends and twists. The soaked fabric tangles with the grip and swirls just as planned. “I knew it would work!” Adam Granduciel shouts with a grin. “Such a tight twist!”
The frontman and creative force behind The War on Drugs is delighted by the addition of the golf club to tonight’s tie-dye production line in front of one of the band’s massive tour buses. Tie-dye is the latest obsession for Granduciel and his band. The fans love it too, and demand for the homespun merchandise is high, so more units must be produced. Tonight, the target is more than 100.
By every metric, The Drugs are a wildly successful outfit, but, even for them, the grind never stops. The realities of touring don’t change. Yesterday’s batch of shirts will be sold at tomorrow’s gig. Last week’s parking lot will be confused for next week’s. Kill time, perform, pack up, move on. We’re in the time-killing phase of the cycle, so there will be dye. For his part, Granduciel approaches the task with a disarming, childlike enthusiasm. Wring the shirt, lay it on the table. Grab the 8-iron. Twist, grin, tie, repeat.
“Welcome to tour life,” Jimmy Russo tells me. He is The Drugs’ production manager and responsible for everything on stage, including the logistics of getting the two enormous shipping containers full of equipment delivered and set up at each venue. Russo is also Granduciel’s golf buddy and the prime enabler of his habit while on tour.
“Touring is just a series of parking lots,” Russo continues. “This one is nice. You should’ve seen the one in Indianapolis. We called it Riverview. We had our camping chairs lined up along what was basically a sewer. It was disgusting.”
The other band members begin to appear back at the bus from wherever they’ve been on their day off. It’s obvious that Granduciel has been thinking and talking about how to incorporate the golf club into the tie-dye process for some time. Each of them is impressed with the implementation, but not surprised. Experimentation—sonically and otherwise—is Granduciel’s M.O., after all. Each of them gloves up and takes a turn with the club. Wring, twist, tie, repeat.
Since the 8-iron is central to the proceedings tonight, Granduciel’s “golf thing” comes up often. By “thing,” his bandmates mean his newfound passion for the game. In nearly two decades of touring, golf clubs have never been on The Drugs’ equipment manifest, but here they are. It’s a wild mix of secondhand relics that “came with the bag” and a set of new Titleist T200 irons he bought as a gift to himself for releasing their most recent album, 2021’s I Don’t Live Here Anymore. The sticks have been used a total of five times on this leg of the tour, which, not coincidentally, is exactly how many days off they’ve had. None of Granduciel’s bandmates join him on the course, but their smiles seem to say, “If it brings Adam joy, then I support it.”
Charlie Hall, the band’s longtime drummer, strolls over to inspect the production line and offers warm encouragement.
“No tie-dyeing for you tonight?” I ask him.
“Oh, man, I love the tie-dye. The only things in my house that I haven’t tie-dyed are my children! But I’m wearing white pants, you know, and I have a beer in my hand, so I’ll watch tonight. Did you hit a couple today?” he asks, changing the subject. “Did you hit a couple sweet shots?”
He laughs at his own ignorance of the subject matter and sways through the motion of a surely flubbed 20-yard pitch.
“We did,” I reply enthusiastically. “We definitely hit a couple sweet shots.”
The greens at Virginia’s Springfield Golf & Country Club pitch back to front. They’re running fast and true, so any approach above the hole is trouble. This doesn’t concern Granduciel, Russo or Matt Lowell, the lead singer of opening act Lo Moon. Strategic concerns are for another time in their golf journey. Today, Granduciel just wants to “stick it.” He’s not overly concerned with score, either. Putting isn’t as “exhilarating” as a good drive or a purely struck iron shot. Not yet, anyway.
I ask if there are any first-tee jitters, knowing full well he sells out concert halls and arenas most nights.
“Nervous?” Granduciel looks confused. “More like excited.”
A few extra adjustments and waggles on the first tee betray his confidence, but it all works out: He opens with a beautifully struck draw that settles on the left side of the fairway. For a neophyte, Granduciel has a shockingly good swing. It’s smooth and unhurried. The man knows good tempo.
While the pandemic provided the catalyst for conversion, Granduciel’s relationship with golf began as a teenager when he caddied at Wellesley Country Club outside of Boston and took advantage of the Monday playing privileges the gig afforded him. He played all the way through high school, but then: music. Wildly popular, critically acclaimed music. Sold-out shows, endless touring, hundreds of millions of streams, a Grammy Award for Best Rock Album of 2018, a self-produced live album, the arrival of his son, Bruce, another hit album in 2021, millions of adoring fans, et cetera.
The War on Drugs at Bonnaroo in 2022. Photo by Phil McDonald
Only a pandemic could slow Granduciel enough to rediscover the joys of an open fairway. “Oh, man, I forgot how much I love this,” he says, recalling his reaction to his first round back. “We went away for the weekend and I rented some clubs and I had just the best time.”
That could have been where it ended, were it not for a chance encounter in LA with an old acquaintance while taking his then-infant son for a walk. Granduciel’s neighbor and some buddies had a Friday game and invited him to join.
“My friends and all the bandmates are spread around the country, and I wasn’t hanging out with anyone,” he says. “So I bought a set of Pings on eBay for 99 bucks. During the pandemic, we played every Friday, and I just got obsessed. I live three blocks from a range and the par 3, so I was just going all the time.”
The three comparatively regular Joes in his Friday group found, as I did, that rock stars have to hit shots too, and Granduciel hits them with humility and humor.
His rediscovered obsession bled into the lyrics of “Occasional Rain,” the closing track on The Drugs’ most recent album. In it, he ruminates about “living down by the old par 3,” an admission that has opened an unexpected new chapter in his touring life. While Granduciel’s bandmates may not play, an entire gallery of Drugs fans latched onto the line.
Russo and Granduciel are frequently paired with strangers when they sneak out for rounds on their off days: a celebrity chef who invited the crew to their restaurant for the “best meals of their lives”; a couple celebrating their 35th wedding anniversary. “They were having a good time,” Granduciel recalls. “We got them tickets to the show and they were down front making golf swings in the pit, just yelling at us: ‘Hey, Adam, it’s us from the golf course!’”
“I shouted them out when we played ‘Occasional Rain,’” he laughs. “Now there’s always some guy down there in the pit making golf swings, trying to get my attention.”
A genteel game like golf doesn’t exactly gel with the rock-star aesthetic, so planting that particular flag required a maturity found only in people of a certain age who are comfortable with their lot. “Now I’m a golf guy,” the 43-year-old says with a smile. “It’s like, ‘You’re a rocker and you’re into golf. Isn’t that froufrou?’ But with golf, it’s like…I’m just into it.”
No further explanation is required, but he goes on anyway: “Golf is so deliberate. I got into thinking about every shot. I’d watch YouTube videos and go to the range. Music is second nature, and you just give yourself up to the moment; you’re not even thinking. I’m not good enough at golf to do that. I have to be really intentional about it, and I like that.”
Like most COVID-era converts, Granduciel’s short game still needs some work, but what he lacks in technique, he makes up for with feel. The proof is beautifully executed on the second hole in what he calls a “backyard flop” (so named after the tight backyard area where he practices them), which results in the ball being returned to him without needing to unsheathe the putter. Easy par.
A few holes later, a birdie putt comes up short. I crack a Bon Jovi joke about the ball getting only halfway there. The joke always performs incredibly poorly in the sample groups I’ve tested it on, but I say it anyway. Better to be remembered by a rock star for a pathetic joke than not remembered at all.
I suggest a putting mat for the tour bus, but Granduciel and Russo immediately think bigger, like a simulator that could be erected at each tour stop. Far more exhilarating. Russo then dreams up an entire trailer for the simulator—something good enough where he could charge fans for the privilege of playing golf with The War on Drugs. They laugh, but only because it’s well understood that Granduciel absolutely hates this idea.
On the 16th, he sticks it. Not for the first time, either. A big drive down the right side and a purely struck iron to inside 10 feet. I watch as he turns his attention to Springfield’s juniors, who are teeing off on the adjacent fairway with their parents in tow. For the moment, it’s all that he can see. The junior on the tee all but misses the ball, and it trickles out onto the fairway. It comes to rest amid a chorus of encouragement. Granduciel can’t conceal his smile, perhaps imagining a time when he and Bruce are free to spend a leisurely Sunday afternoon out on the course. Now he can’t look away; it’s like he’s looking through the glass on the other side. He’s not trying to make Bruce wait. This life on the road, he doesn’t need it anymore, but he can’t turn back or give it all away when it’s all he has. The lyrics of longing land harder out here in the sunshine, thousands of miles from home, in the wide-open spaces between songs.
“Lookathat mooooon! Amazinggg!” Granduciel shouts over the crowd, toweling the sweat from his face and hair. “I want to tie-dye that fucking moon!” The quip goes over most of the 3,000 heads facing him. Still, it lands better than the Bon Jovi joke. The band and crew are howling.
Granduciel is in a particularly feisty mood tonight in Raleigh, North Carolina. Maybe it’s the full moon. Maybe it’s the heat: a stated temp of 97, but it feels well north of 105. The affable, laid-back golfer I’d spent the previous day with is now commanding the attention of thousands. The country-club etiquette is gone. He’s back to doing straight rock-star shit.
Throughout the performance, he continuously rotates counterclockwise, repeatedly trading views of his amps and bandmates with his fans and his pedalboard. He punctuates each rotation with a series of toe taps, turning some lights on and others off. Each click alters the voice of his guitar: It wails and screams, vibrates and echoes in time. The rig is the product of years of collecting equipment by the truckload, and he uses it to create layered atmospherics that are utterly unique to The Drugs. It’s the manifestation of an obsessive mind, so it’s no surprise he’s been taken with golf. The mass of wires and electronics that powers this sound literally surrounds him on stage and is the domain of Granduciel’s guitar tech and band confidant, Dominic East.
“I’m his caddie,” East says by way of introduction during sound check. He’s playing it up because he knows he’s talking to a golfer, but the analogy works better than he realizes. In the heat of the performance, East is as active as anyone on stage. He frequently makes false starts: a half-step forward, a half-step back. A quick whip around to retrieve a different guitar from the vault before the next song. All the while, he’s watching, listening, gauging his player’s mood, attempting to anticipate the all-too-common audibles.
His station at stage right is a musical shrine: a quiver of classic axes adorned with vintage straps surrounded by rock ’n’ roll ephemera. This is the big stage, and his player is on one tonight. Even in a crisis, East’s demeanor is one of brisk calm. Like all great caddies, he’s an extension of the player, a ballast, able to anticipate and communicate with him without words or gestures. It’s a hard-earned intimacy that the best loopers would appreciate.
The previous day, the designated “day off” for the crew, East was pulled into a project for his man while Granduciel and I played golf. A crucial pedal in the rig needed repairing. He begins to explain it all, but stops himself short, chalking the solution up to a full day spent with “a battery-powered amp, a guitar and a fucking soldering iron.”
Tonight, the caddie has bigger problems. “Under the Pressure,” a mainstay Drugs song, has boiled up and over. Granduciel ends the track by repeatedly slamming his guitar into the amp to produce a wall of noise and feedback and chaos. The scene is reminiscent of a player trying but failing to break a club after a bad shot, sans the stigma and shame. Although here it’s hard to glean a clear motive. Frustration? Boredom? Showmanship, no doubt. There’s also an element of mischief at play; it’s fun to break things and make a lot of noise. East will have some work to do before tomorrow’s show.
By now it’s an accepted fact that Granduciel will throw curveballs at the crew and the band every chance he gets. “That’s always been his vibe,” says East. “He needs to get jazzed about something, right? I’ve worked with him for 10 years, and that’s why I was joking about being his caddie. I give him advice, but he’s making the shots. I tell him what I think maybe he should try, in the most diplomatic way possible. For instance, we usually don’t have that Fender head there.” He points to a unit on top of a wall of amps. “We had this whole discussion about what to do with it, so today I just put it there. He loved that. He walked out and was like, ‘That’s what I’m talking about!’ I just suggested a club for a shot, and that’s all.”
On stage, the feedback drowns the cheering crowd. The ’65 Jazzmaster has inflicted significant but not irreparable damage to the amp. Granduciel staggers around on stage like a dazed, sweating pugilist. East is noticeably tense, but eventually takes a deep breath, relieved that the song is finally over.
Outside the bus, the music has stopped. The relentless driving beat of Granduciel’s life is slowing for the night. The tie-dye production line is largely dismantled. There’s a shuffling of feet and a series of clicks as containers are clamped shut and put away. Now the beat of a slamming door, then the crash of trashed bottles and cans. An all-too-familiar rhythm: set up, break down, clean up, move on.
Some finishing touches need to be applied to the creations. Granduciel requests a headlamp and, on cue, one appears from the crew bus. More dye is applied; the shirts are wrapped in black plastic and loaded in. Granduciel grabs the 8-iron that was so prominent in tonight’s effort, and there’s some flippant talk of a quick nine holes somewhere. He takes a few smooth swings with his headlamp on and flashes a grin before putting his last tool of distraction in the bag. Clubs clatter as they are loaded into the bus, and a one-two percussive punch follows: first the cargo hatch, then the passenger door.
The generator drones on and out into the night. Through the hum, there’s no one there. The circus will roll out at 2 a.m., not a moment later. Tomorrow, The Drugs will wake up in a different city. Depending on the schedule, it may be a precious day off. If that’s the case, while the night is drifting, Granduciel will be searching. If there’s a golf course nearby, you know he’ll be playing.