Charlie Hall '92 is the drummer for the Grammy-winning band, War on Drugs. We recently had a chance to catch up with him (via email, of course, while he was on tour), and learn a little about his life then and now.
GFA: How did you originally get involved with the band? What were you doing before that?
Charlie Hall: I lived in San Francisco for a while, and there I had been splitting my time between teaching high school by day and playing in various bands by night. I moved to Philadelphia in the fall of 2003. I was initially reticent to make the move, as our roots in the Bay Area had gotten deep and I loved it there. But I immediately found the music community in Philly to be really interesting and creative, with bands really supporting each other and building a scene. It seemed like everyone played in each other’s bands.
Adam (from The War On Drugs) moved to Philly around the same time and we met pretty soon after because we were both playing in bands that were orbiting the same sort of universe. We became fans of each other and then friends. As he developed his own voice as a songwriter and bandleader, The War On Drugs evolved as a gang of like-minded folks that helped him realize this vision that he had been scratching away at — early on I played drums in the band, then later I would come and go playing guitars and keyboards for special shows, then in 2013 when we made the last record (2014’s “Lost In The Dream”), I came back full-time playing drums again.
GFA: What was the moment when you realized that this band was really something special — that this was really going to work?
CH: Even in the very rough, almost shambolic early days when things were, shall we say, quite loose, I thought that this band was really special, that the potential was there for something really amazing. Adam has always had a very unique vision and way of creating sonic landscapes. It’s music that always felt bigger than the environments in which it existed then — bars, clubs, art spaces, and venues that one might affectionately refer to as “dumps.” It’s fun now to see how the music really can resonate on a larger scale, in theaters and arenas. It’s tough to pinpoint a moment where it came together, but just after “Lost In The Dream” came out in early 2014, we went out for six weeks of shows in the U.S. followed by a month in Europe: it became clear that the music was resonating with people in a pretty deep way. Shows were sold out and the audiences were diversifying. It had the feeling of expansion, that the music and the spaces and the audiences were all just working. Maybe selling out Radio City Music Hall was one of those moments. That place is pretty magical. To top it off, the night we played there I saw Judd MacArthur (GFA class of ’82 — the first drummer I ever knew, and who I looked up to as a doe-eyed second grader) there in the front row for a high five as I left the stage. That was a cool moment.
GFA: “A Deeper Understanding” got critical acclaim almost instantly. What do you think made this album different from any other album The War On Drugs has released?
CH: Things had been on a natural upward trajectory, but it was anyone’s guess how the thing would be received and how things would play out. I remember saying to Adam, as a friend and a cheerleader, before the album came out, that he had created something beautiful and magical and that he shouldn’t pay any mind to what any music critic or some blogger might say about it. I think it was sort of a preemptive defense mechanism thing. And it turns out that people really loved it.
The process of making “A Deeper Understanding” was a little different in that there was a greater level of comfort: we moved into a studio in Los Angeles for a year and had some freedom to explore a bit – testing out songs in a way that we hadn’t ever before and figuring out what the right process was going to be for actually making the record. We’d all fly out and really do nothing but make music for weeks at a time, with no distractions. I think that having just been around the world for a couple years playing 300 shows for all kinds of folks gave us confidence to follow our instincts and go with the flow.
I guess this time there was a greater lever of expectation or pressure on some level because of whatever amount of acclaim had been built up on the previous album cycle. And having signed to Atlantic Records, maybe there was some kind of narrative about “the indie band who went and signed with a major label,” but honestly that stuff is meaningless in this day in age. Atlantic signed us because they like the band. Our A&R guy is so cool – he’s such a music fan. He toured with the Talking Heads in the ’80s, he signed The Strokes to RCA, he thinks our band is great, so what the heck? It’s nice to have someone think that our music can and should reach a vast audience. So we’re just gonna play music, whether it’s to 200 or 2000,000 people. And I know that 2000,000 isn’t a number — just seeing if Mr. Deitrich was paying attention.
GFA: What is your favorite War on Drugs album? Song?
CH: Isn’t it annoying when artists say that their newest album is their favorite. Like when Elton John tries to say that his new album is the best thing he’s ever done. Dude, you put out “Tumbleweed Connection,” “Madman Across The Water,” “Honky Chateau,” and “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road,” all in the span of a couple years! And you’re going to tell me your new thing is the greatest?!? So…um… our newest album is the best we’ve done. Seriously!
If I had to pinpoint a song, I’d say that “Thinking of a Place” is particularly special to me. It’s got a heartbeat. It’s sort of ethereal. It’s wistful. We recorded the basic track late one night, right when we’d just started working with Shawn Everett, who engineered the record. It really captures the band in a moment of purity and, to me, represents the sonic palette that defines the record. It’s a song that transports the listener and has a dream-like quality that I, personally, really appreciate in music.
I’ll never forget the first time someone from Atlantic came to the studio to check on the scene and see what was up with this rock band they signed. “Thinking of a Place” was the first thing they heard, and we’re talking about, basically, a 13-minute slow jam. As it finished, I recall us saying “Oh it’ll get trimmed down, don’t worry,” and our A&R guy was casually like “What are you talking about? Make it longer.” That’s when I knew we were in good hands. To top it off, it was the first thing by us that they released. It was a 12” single, which you have to flip over halfway through. A fairly bold move as a first release. I respected that.
GFA: Who are your greatest musical influences? Who are some of the artists/bands that you are listening to now?
CH: That is such a tough one, though I know it should be easy. My first great musical influence was my brother Allen (GFA class of ’84). He and all his cool friends like Thea Sullivan listened to WLIR and the Talking Heads, R.E.M, and Elvis Costello, and I was always just voraciously listening to everything he was into, stealing his records. And Dave Perry who taught me about close harmony singing, Led Zeppelin, and being part of a group, which is as important as any key signature or chord structure. He was the head of athletics (go figure) and my advisor starting in sixth grade. He also started the Beachside Express.
Then Allen went away to college when I was in fifth grade and I started to get into some things on my own, like U2 and Pink Floyd, both of which are still part of my musical DNA. Joni Mitchell and Miles Davis are two others that have continued to inspire me. I could list a bunch of drummers, but honestly it’s songwriters that I think about more and who shape my musical concepts. But if I had to say one drummer, it’s probably a guy named Brian Blade who is as joyful as he is soulful. He’s a guy that plays with everyone from Joni Mitchell to Bob Dylan to Wayne Shorter and Daniel Lanois. His musicality is off the charts, and though he certainly has chops for days, I’m most interested in drummers who play with heart and soul and who serve the song and the music. He epitomizes this.
In a way I feel like I can trace my life through the records that have impacted me at any given time. It’s one of the beautiful things about music: there are records that when you hear them you can remember exactly where you were when you first discovered them, what you were going through at the time, how you felt, what it smelled like, everything. There are too many of these to name for me personally, but among them would be Joni Mitchell “Hejira,” U2 “The Unforgettable Fire,” Miles Davis “Bitches Brew,” The Blue Nile “Hats,” Stevie Wonder “Talking Book,” The Cars “The Cars,” Gaussian Curve “Clouds,” Brian Eno “Discreet Music,” Pink Floyd “Animals.” These are all records that have profoundly impacted me in my life. And there are hundreds of others, it goes on and on. As far as contemporary artists go, I’m a huge fan of The Radio Dept. and The Clientele. There’s a new band called Lo Moon who just put out their debut record which I was honored to be a part of, and it’s really great. I love them so much. And I thought that Slowdive record that came out last year was the tops. You’re probably sorry you asked.
GFA: Being on tour can be grueling — how do you stay enthusiastic and motivated? What do you love about being a performer?
CH: I love everything about my job. It’s a privilege to get to do this, and that fact is not lost on me at all. I’m grateful for it every day. I’m as much a fan of music as I am a musician. I’ve waited in line overnight for tickets to see my favorite bands…I’ve gotten googly eyes and felt my heart go pitter-patter when I’ve seen my heroes in real life…I danced to "Thriller" in front of the mirror in my bedroom for probably 10 of the 12 months of 1983. I made a poster in Mrs. Ford’s art class to bring to a U2 show at the New Haven Coliseum on The Unforgettable Fire Tour in 1985 (it was an Irish flag with “U2” written on it). To know that I might have some small part in bringing excitement or joy or happiness to someone for doing something that I love — with people I love — that is really special. I get to go across the world to places I’ve never dreamed I’d come to know, from Japan to Iceland, from Norway to Brazil. To get to spread joy on even the tiniest, dumbest level as that of being a drummer in a rock band, is something for which I am eternally grateful. So that is some motivation right there.
Touring IS grueling. This is true. But I’ll never complain about any of it. What motivates me is coming home to be with my family. The real hero is my wife Anne who, when I’m away for weeks or months on end takes care of everything and everyone day in and day out (not to mention that she is a school counselor, on top of it all). It would be idiotic of me to complain about jet lag or that the catering in Liverpool stunk or that I have a blister on my thumb or that I couldn’t hear enough of the keyboards in my monitors one night. So I won’t.
But touring is a different pace than being home. I don’t know if this is true or not, but I remember hearing somewhere that Bono’s wife makes him stay in a hotel for a week when he’s back from tour – like keeping the goldfish in the plastic bag when you bring it home from the pet store to get it acclimated before you drop it in the tank. Again, I don’t know if that’s true or not…but I get it. The flow is different.
GFA: What’s something that people would be surprised to learn about you?
CH: Hah! Good lord, I can only imagine. Probably something really boring. You should probably ask Andrew Grosso or Andy Laird. Or Josh Fishkin, who has been on tour with the band a bit over the past year…that guy has seen behind the curtain.
Andrew Grosso ’92:
As a kid at GFA, Charlie was already a talented musician and preternaturally kind and mature. So nothing about either his musical success or his continuing to keep his feet on the ground is remotely surprising.
But what might not be obvious is that Charlie's alter ego is actually Martha Stewart. Underneath the artisanal facial hair and rock star facade beats the soul of Martha; from meticulously slicing the perfect cocktail garnish and dicing tomatillos, to hand steaming denim, Charlie is actually an effortlessly talented domestic perfectionist. His text thread is filled with punch recipes. I'm pretty confident that when he meets Ringo Starr they spend about five minutes on drumstick twirling technique and then secretly swap tips on home decorating and how to keep white rugs stain-free.
GFA: Did GFA influence your eventual career path, and if so, in what way(s)?
CH: GFA has influenced my career path in just about every way imaginable. The encouragement that Mr. Denes always gave me, starting when I was in Lower School, had a profound effect on my confidence and my proactivity in bringing groups of people together. My years were marked by what band I was going to put together for the annual Variety Show, and Big D was always the catalyst. “BOOM! Charlie! What’s it gonna be this year?” When I got to high school there was no jazz band, so we started one, with the support of the school. Because I always loved school, I knew that I wanted my career to somehow be connected to school or education, which is why I went into teaching in San Francisco and then into supervising school-based mentoring programs for Big Brothers Big Sisters here in Philadelphia. Not a day goes by that I don’t think of one of the many memorable lessons learned in my GFA days, such as Mrs. Johnson’s kindergarten motto “No less than your best,” or Mrs. Ford’s art room motto, tacked up by the sink, “Waste not, want not,” to Mrs. Jessup’s all-time classic “Consider the day lost in which you learned nothing.” Every day is a learning process.
And reflecting on it further, I think that I’ve always been very interested in human connections and group dynamics. Music, in my experience, has always been the great connector of people and things. And I also think that growing up in an environment where you have occasion to interact with people of such different ages impacted me greatly. I remember looking up to guys like Jimmy Bebon and thinking they were actually my friends, as if we were on a level or something…meanwhile I was in third grade and he was a senior and I would just see him in the hallway when I was walking to lunch. But there is something about the confidence that came from building relationships like that, and usually music was a big part of that.
GFA: What advice would you give to a student who dreams of a career as a musician/performer?
CH: My first piece of advice would be to recognize that “what you do” as your career doesn’t define who you are. How you treat others, how you spend your energy, how you commit yourself to teaching and learning in life — those are the things that define you and will open up opportunities. Just because I happen to have the opportunity to play music and it is my livelihood, doesn’t make me any more of a musician that someone who has been singing their whole life or playing the guitar or piano or zither or whatever. A dear friend worked as Obama’s videographer for his entire eight years in office, and she told me that his mantra was always, “Be Kind, and Be Useful,” as those are things that we all have the capacity do, no matter what. And I really love that. And I try to always keep that in mind.
I think it’s important also to remember that for every action you take, there is a reaction. As we navigate our way through life both personally and professionally, what matters is how you treat others and what kind of citizen you are. There are plenty of drummers out there in the world…but every job I’ve gotten has been as much about things that have nothing to do with actual drumming. How you treat others and how you build relationships is what is going to open doors of opportunity. Don’t be a jerk. Mr. Dietrich, who was our grade-level dean, called a special assembly one day senior year and essentially read us the riot act. His point was basically, “You all are the leaders of this school right now, and people look up to you and you are acting like a bunch of jerks.” He was probably right. I’ll never forget it.
Everything comes full circle. Just this weekend at Coachella, Snoop Dogg’s dressing room was next to ours. A friend had recently told me about how Snoop and Martha Stewart are, like, full-on super buddies now. I was sitting there hanging with Snoop and I was like “Man, when I was in high school, our Concert Choir used to sing at Martha Stewart’s Christmas parties.” What I didn’t tell him is that I’m pretty sure Ms. Bergeron is still trying to wrangle that check from her.