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Drinking With The War on Drugs’ Charlie Hall

Charlie Hall is not only the drummer for The War On Drugs—he's also the band's resident bartender. Drew Lazor talks with Hall about his road cocktail kit, boozy a cappella group, signature beer-infused Whiskey Sour and more.

It’s five minutes into my conversation with Charlie Hall and he’s already giving up the goods.

“I’m going to divulge a family secret,” he lets on excitedly. We’re hanging out on the couch in the living room of the musician’s three-story Philadelphia rowhome, listening to records and sipping chilly Martinis.

With The Blue Nile’s sauntering “The Downtown Lights” glinting off every available hard surface, Hall unlatches the chest. His father, an obstetrician, often said that the best money he ever spent went to sending Hall’s older sister to the University of Vermont. That’s because she returned with something important: the batched Whiskey Sour recipe all the Halls still use today.

“It’s one can of frozen lemonade concentrate,” Hall continues. “Then one and a half to two cans whiskey. Our family thing is Seagram’s VO. And then here’s the real secret—two beers. Light, nothing hoppy, like Narragansett.” Mix it all up, garnish with a cherry or an orange wheel, and what have you got? “That’s the taste of a little too early on a Saturday.”

Noticing the contents of my glass at half-mast, Hall hops up. “I might make a little bump for those,” he announces, boot heels clacking across hardwood as he returns to the gold-and-glass shaker he left in the kitchen. With the Tito’s and the vermouth already out on the counter, Hall begins fiddling with a glass jar that’s a little more brine than olive by this point in its lifespan. “Do you mind some dirt?”

A former high school music teacher, the preternaturally friendly Hall started playing drums on and off with The War on Drugs in 2005. He’d become the band’s full-time percussionist in 2013, shortly before the release of the ethereal Lost in the Dream, a broken-in jean jacket of an American rock album that fits no matter what. But spend even half a happy hour with the native New Englander, who arrived in Philly by way of California, and you’ll learn about his secondary vocation: He is the Drugs’ resident cocktail enthusiast, the ever-prepared point person for all things potable at home, in the studio and on the road.

This is by no means a new hobby. Hall grasped the stress-melting power of a nicely made drink well before he was legally permitted to consume one. Growing up between his mother’s home in Connecticut and his father’s place in Providence, he was raised a real-life Draper kid, eagerly mixing Whiskey Sours for mom—different from the aforementioned, but also using lemonade from concentrate—and Martinis for dad. “I just loved the process,” he says. “I loved the sound of ice in a shaker.” (Now the father of two young boys, Hall, described as a “somewhat trendy parent” by Stereogum, seems content to let his children play Minecraft in lieu of tending bar.)

In 1996, Hall and his now-wife, Anne, moved to San Francisco, where he worked in restaurants and record shops and made music with artists like Tommy Guerrero. (There was also a PA gig for the production company responsible for Ginuwine’s “Pony” video.) The couple came to Philly in 2003, where he eventually fell in with The War on Drugs frontman Adam Granduciel and the rest of the current lineup.

The band, which just recently recorded new music in Los Angeles, spent years slowly building a following within the Philly scene—sonic sweat equity that’s afforded them the opportunity to perform all over the world (and for Ellen). “As the gigs get bigger, the riders expand,” Hall told me. Fresh citrus (“you have to have enough limes”), fresh cucumbers, bottles of Tito’s vodka and Espolón blanco are staple green room requests for the six-piece. But more obscure ingredients, as well as drink-making tools, are a harder get from venues, so Hall makes sure to bring his own.

His portable cocktail kit, the type of thing that would look at home on the back of an oxen-drawn Old West apothecary wagon, is a cream-colored, typewriter-size box with red-and-white polka dot lining. Inside: shiny shakers, various sized spoons, screw-top pints of hard-to-find liquors, tinctures, bitters galore. He made his own grapefruit bitters recently, learning how from Brad Thomas Parsons’ book.

The case comes with him from city to city on tour dates the same way his snare and cymbals do, and it allows Hall to handle the widely varying drinking proclivities of his bandmates. Hall and The War on Drugs bassist Dave Hartley tend to drink the same cocktails (“Since we’re the rhythm section, [we] stay pretty locked in together”). Keyboardist Robbie Bennett prefers simple stuff, like tequila on the rocks with a little lime. Horn player Jon Natchez tends toward spirits like Chartreuse and Fernet Branca.

The kit functions outside the band’s orbit, too, taking its place onstage as a pitch-pipe holder during a recent performance by The Silver Ages, a close harmony collective Hall has overseen for the past decade.

The all-male a capella choir, 16 singers strong, features a few members of The War on Drugs, plus representatives from Philly bands like Dr. Dog and mewithoutYou. Following Hall’s direction—everyone calls him “coach”—the Silver Ages specialize in musically intricate ballads from the early- to mid-20th century, trafficking in the oeuvre of Princeton’s Glee Club and Yale’s Whiffenpoofs. They rehearse in Hall’s living room, trying extra-hard not to spill his signature Whiskey Sours on Anne’s rug, an heirloom passed down from her grandmother (more of a Scotch-and-soda girl herself).

This past March, when the group gathered at the Philadelphia Ethical Society for a 10th anniversary performance, Hall looked after every quaffable detail. The sellout crowd got into plenty of punch and gallons of ‘Gansett. And each of the Ages hoisted his own mug, vessels held aloft through songs and refreshed any time the high notes required it. The audience, mostly close friends, was just the right amount of rowdy.

“Musically, it was the best show we’ve ever done,” Hall tells me later. “I attribute some of that to pacing ourselves.”

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