Start Again- An Interview With Adam Duritz Of Counting Crows

June 5, 2012 by Chris Grosso

“There are a million great songs written every day, many on records you discover that you wish your friends could appreciate as much as you do.” That simple truth, courtesy of Adam Duritz, is as good a place as any to begin discussing Counting Crows’ Underwater Sunshine (Or What We Did On Our Summer Vacation). After five renowned full-lengths, multiple live albums and soundtrack appearances—not to mention Grammy and Oscar nominations—the modern rock mainstays are not only issuing their first independent release, but coloring it with infectious interpretations of some of their favorite tunes.

Recorded in Burbank last April and June, Underwater Sunshine is a collection of 15 gorgeously rendered songs, in which the Bay Area seven-piece honors global icons (Bob Dylan, Gram Parsons), indie-pop heroes (Teenage Fanclub, Travis), compelling up-and-comers (Dawes, the Romany Rye, Kasey Anderson) and even their own seminal pre-Crows projects (Sordid Humor, Tender Mercies). But no matter the artist, the Crows selected each song due to its merit, not its ubiquity. “You may or may not know these songs,” Duritz concedes. “It wasn’t an intentional theme, but it did sort of fall out that a lot of the songs on this record aren’t well-known. The songs on Underwater Sunshine come from old bands and young, they stretch from the early ’60s to earlier this year, and they were recorded for major labels, for indies and, in some cases, for just a few friends to hear. Either way, they’re all great songs, and hopefully they’ll be heard by a few more people now.”

 

Underwater Sunshine is the sort of treat that established bands too rarely bestow upon their fans. But Counting Crows have always been cut from a different cloth. Having exploded onto the scene with multiplatinum breakout August and Everything After in 1993, the band—Duritz (vocals), Jim Boglos (drums), David Bryson (guitar), Charlie Gillingham (keyboards), David Immergluck (guitar), Millard Powers (bass), and Dan Vickrey (guitar), —has thrived for nearly 20 years as the rare radio and touring powerhouse that blows you away with songs, not superficial excess. Their enduring critical and commercial popularity is easily explained: They write from the heart, challenge themselves, and still give a damn about new music. Dashboard Confessional, Panic at the Disco and The Hold Steady are among the many to count the Crows as influential, and the band are still the kind of guys who roam from club to club at SXSW, CMJ or whatever city they’re touring, simply out of curiosity and love. Music geeks? Sure. We prefer lifers.

Underwater Sunshine is a testament to that open-mindedness. It feels homemadebecause it is, the band teaming with old friends Shawn Dealey and Brian Deck to capture what Duritz calls “the feeling of all us squeezed into a room playing songs together… almost all recorded live so everybody’s tracks are all over everybody else’s tracks.” From making the electric four-chord bump of Romany Rye’s “Untitled (Love Song)” their own to not-so-delicately expanding upon Kasey Anderson’s fragile “Like Teenage Gravity,” from fulfilling a new obsession with Dawes and a longstanding one with Big Star, Underwater Sunshine exhibits the depth of Counting Crows’ tastes in an entirely new light.

The following interview was conducted via phone on 5/31/12.

The Adam Duritz Interview

TIS: So, it’s a really broad range of music on the new album from Dylan to Pure Prairie League to artists I wasn’t really familiar with. Is this an accurate distillation of the DNA at the heart of Counting Crows? If we were to toss all these songs in a blender, would we get an album of original Counting Crows music?

AD:I think an accurate distillation is it’s a bunch of songs we like. I think that’s what it is; just songs we like that we felt like playing. That said, I think that it probably sounds a lot like a Counting Crows album, because when you make a record, songwriting isn’t the main thing you do. I think, I hate to say that, being that I do most of that, but I come in with some skeletons of songs; it’s just some chords and some words and that’s a long way from what you guys listen to on a record. The work that goes into an album, what makes us a band, if that what all it took, I’d be making solo records, but I’m not really interested in doing that. Most of the work that goes into making a record is turning that sort of skeleton of chords of music into a song, into, in our case, a Counting Crows song, and that’s something we all do together, and that takes most of the work, and that’s really no different on this album than any Counting Crows album, because that’s still what we did. The only difference is we didn’t limit ourselves to one writer. And it’s weird, when we were making this record, it never really occurred to me before this way, but being that that is the lion’s share of the work you do, it’s a little bit of a weird thing to limit yourself to one writer. When we were making this record, it was really occurring to me how much sense it made all those years when people made records with lots of songs recorded by lots of different people, not necessarily even written by themselves, and they made great records for years and years. I mean, and they don’t sound the same. I think that Miles Davis and Frank Sinatra sound completely different doing the same songs, as do the Beatles. I mean, all three of them recorded Beatles songs and they all sound really different, too. The Beatles recorded Chuck Berry songs. I mean, it was a weird thing. It was such a great liberating thing to get to work with so many other songwriters, in a way. I mean, it was like collaborating with people without them being there; although, sometimes they were there. I know Kasey Anderson was around when we were recording and so were the guys in the Romany Rye at one point. It’s just, it did a great thing for the band, too. It really, we didn’t even notice it at times. I noticed afterwards how much better I thought we played on this album; how the guitars were so much more aggressive and expansive and expressive, but when we got on the road on this last tour, it was like we were a different band. I didn’t have to do anything. I didn’t have to run around; I felt like I could just stand there and barely move a muscle if I wanted to, and there was so much music that less was more. I didn’t have to overdo anything or over emote or even gesture if I didn’t want to, because the band had made a huge leap forward playing on this record and it had something to do with, like, I mean, I can only assume it had something to do with working with songs that weren’t mine. I don’t know why that should be better, but it was. I mean, it’s not what we’re going to at all, but, like, we could go through the rest of our career and never reckon the rig or the song and there would be so much good stuff to do, which is, of course, not what we’re going to do. I didn’t even really take last year off writing. I wrote plenty of songs last year; I just put them all into play, just working on a different thing with that part of the sort of skill set.

TIS: So with this album and the band working with a bunch of different writers, do you foresee what Counting Crows do and record next as forcing the rest of the band to do more writing, either with you or on their own? Or some change in the way you make original Counting Crows music?

AD:I don’t know. I hadn’t really thought of it. I don’t imagine I’ll start letting other people write the lyrics, but, and that’s what I think makes it the sort of, I don’t know. I honestly don’t know why it was different; maybe we were just at a time when we were going to make some changes, but there was something really great about it, really easy, really low pressure about the attitude we took into it; not about the way we played, because I still beat everybody up around the studio. But I don’t know; I get asked a lot of questions about what I think this or that means about the future and I have no idea what’s going on later today. I never know what songs are playing until sometime after sound check that evening, so the future is generally not something I think a lot about. That’s a crappy answer to your question; sorry.

TIS: Haha, no I hear what you’re saying. So instead of talking about the future, let’s talk about the past. Why did you opt to spend time working on a covers record instead of releasing an original? I ask a some fans are disconcerted with the length of time since your last release and feel it was more than ample to release a new record.

AD:I don’t know; didn’t think about doing it really. I mean, I was working on songs, but I put them into play. It wasn’t that we couldn’t as much as I didn’t really want to do that right then. It’s hard to do two things at once and it’s hard to write for two different things at once. I found that I really didn’t even want to. And also we really wanted to make this record. It’s kind of as simple as that. We actually really wanted to do it, which is a pretty good reason for us for doing it. It’s like, you get really caught up on working on other people’s schedule of expectations of what they think makes up a record or what they think you’re supposed to, but it’s not a schedule of expectations; it’s just our lives. And you’ve just kind of got to do what you want to do and not waste time trying to fulfill other people’s expectations, because, I mean, why should there be any. I mean, I kind of can’t really care. I can see why people have them, but I don’t see why I should care about fulfilling them because it’s just not, I don’t know; I suppose if I wanted to write songs, I would. I just didn’t really want to write songs for Counting Crows that I was going to have to sing. I mean, the nice thing with the play was I wasn’t playing them; I wasn’t singing them, so I felt really a different kind of liberation about expressing myself there. I don’t know. Sometimes you just don’t feel like being everybody’s confessor. I don’t know. I just didn’t want to really, I didn’t really want to talk about my life right then to everybody. I don’t know why.

TIS: Right on. So in the liner notes, you said that you guys picked these 15 songs because you think they’re all great songs so I wondered if you’d talk a little bit about what you think makes a song powerful and great.

AD:I don’t know. I mean, thankfully it’s a big, largely unquantifiable thing, because I have no idea what makes a song powerful. I don’t even know what makes a song something I like, because I like lots of different songs. I like, I got in a big argument with our fans at one point because I pointed out that I thought that Justin Timberlake’s first album was genius and that the production was brilliant, the songs were great; that it was just a fantastic album, and our fans, of course, that was all just wrong in that mindset. So, for whatever reason I got off on it and they didn’t. I don’t know why that is, but I don’t know. You know, some of the songs just, there’s a lot of good songs out there and these are just ones we like. If it was easy to break it down, I think more people would probably write them.

TIS: Cool. So can you tell me a bit about the new musical, Black Sun, that you composed the music for. Can you give me some details about the play and what the songwriting experience was like, and what ultimately the plans are, if you’d like to see it on Broadway one day.

AD:Yeah, I think we all like to do that. People are doing other things right now. I mean, Caramel Jean’s been putting together some other stuff on her own. She was musical directing with me. And Steven Belberg; I mean, Steven’s always writing something else. We haven’t really done anything since last summer when we did it. I’ve just been busy with stuff for my band since then. I did it right in the middle of work on the record and it was really cool. I really enjoyed it. We had a great cast. We had Evan Rachel Wood was in it and Gina Loring, who’s Def Poetry, and it was just really kind of great. I really enjoyed doing it. It was interesting because I’ve never in my life; I wasn’t sure how it would go because I’ve never written any songs for anybody else. I wasn’t even sure if my songs were good if I wasn’t singing them. I mean, because I can kind of sing a songbook. So, I mean, I was wondering, like, have I been carrying my songs or are they okay without me singing and I really didn’t know because I’ve never seen anybody else play them. I’ve also never taught anyone to sing any of my songs. That’s always been something I did myself, so I wasn’t sure how that was going to be. I’ve never written for women’s voices and I did that on this one, too. I’ve never written for a voice from inside, not a musical voice, that wasn’t my own. And doing all those things was, like, I really wasn’t sure how any of it was going to go and we were Oh High with a lot of great playwrights. The playwright conference at Ojai is pretty high level playwriting. We were the only musical there and we were very unformed, but I found that I really loved it. I really loved doing it. There was something so great about writing and not singing, about just like the liberation of getting for one second enjoying. I’ve never seen a Counting Crows concert, not really. I mean, I’ve seen them on film, but I don’t know what that’s like. I’ve never been at one the same way as everyone else is without, like, being in the middle of emoting my ass off But in Ojai it was great. I was very nervous the day it went up, but also just had the best time watching it. And everybody wants to come back and do it more. It’s just a matter of getting me some time free to do it, and the plans for everybody to finish it and it’s just a matter of; I mean, the other thing I really learned when I was there is that writing a play and the collaboration that goes on is really hard. It’s the reason not a lot of great plays get written like that because the people who write them are very, very talented, and putting together, collaborating with book writers and making scripts and songs and making it all go together and figuring out what is it that makes people start to sing in the middle of a conversation, because I doesn’t occur in the rest of our lives. All those things are really complicated and it’s a big endeavor, so, I mean, I’d love to say it’ll be there for sure, but I think that would be disrespectful to the process because I think there’s a reason these things take time, because they’re just really hard to do. I have a lot of respect for that now after the work we put in, because we put a lot of work in. We put out about half a play and we really loved it and the audience kind of went crazy. It got quite a response, but it’s a long way from being done. Would I love to see it on Broadway? Sure. I mean, I’d love to see it. I want to go to the moon, too. I’d be happy with seeing it pop that way; really, that would be just, really. I mean, if it got to Broadway, that would be the greatest thing ever. It would be really cool. I’d really love to see that take place, but I don’t know.

TIS: You mentioned earlier about how much you love collaborating with other artists. I know you collaborated a lot in Underwater Sunshine and, in the past, you’ve collaborated with artists, like the Wallflowers, Ryan Adams; the list just kind of goes on and on. What has it been like collaborating with these artists? And do you have anyone you always wanted to collaborate with that you haven’t had the chance to yet?

AD:No. I mean, I don’t think I said I loved collaborating with artists. I said it was probably like collaborating with a lot of artists, because, I mean, we weren’t actually working with anybody, but, I mean, playing their songs was a lot like working with different songwriters as opposed to, like, me and me and me and me all the time. And I do like collaborating, but it almost always just happens because a friend of mine asked me to do something. I don’t really seek it out much. Very few times in my career have I been set up to work on a song with someone. The only time I can actually think of was when Nancy Griffith asked me to work on that song, “Going Back to Georgia” with her, because she was looking for someone to do it with and her and our guy was a friend of mine and so he suggested me and she was a fan and I was a fan, so that was great. I mean, we might never have met Nancy Griffith other than. But, you know, Ryan and I met getting drunk in a bar one night. We met at the Viper Room, getting drunk on stage, and we were singing together and he said, “Yeah, you should come play my record tomorrow,” so we spent the next few months working on each other’s records. A lot of those ones; the Wallflower thing, I’d known Jake for a long time. He used to hang out when I was bartending at the Viper Room and we had talked a lot about how his second record should go and I suggested T-Bone and they just called me. I was at home one night and they called me up and said, “Hey, we’ve got this song and it’s not really working and can you just come down and sing on it?” I didn’t know the song, but I said, “Sure.” And I drove down the hill, but it was really just like spur of the moment and most of them have been that way or else it’s just friends who’s making records and working on them. I do like doing it, but only because I kind of like hanging out with my friends and it’s fun to do stuff like that. But I don’t really think about it much, which is probably why I don’t do as many, sort of, high profile ones. The ones that have turned out have almost been accidental, like when I worked with the Wallflowers. They had made their first album and it was such, a lack of excitement, they got dropped off that label. So, I mean, it wasn’t like they, they weren’t a very well-known band and, although Ryan was, I mean, I knew who Ryan was at that point. He had only really put out one record in the Whiskey Count stuff, so it wasn’t like, they weren’t really big high profile things. They sort of became more high profile after that, but, yeah, I don’t know. I don’t really think about it much, because I really do love playing with my band. And because I never know what I would do with someone else; although, it generally turns out pretty well. The Dashboard Confessional came about also because I know Chris and he called me up and said, “I’ve got this song. How do you feel about,” and sent it to me. And, honestly at the time, I didn’t think it needed me. I thought his back and lows were great. But it ended up being really cool what we did together. But, yeah, I tend to not, like, the future’s something I don’t plan out a lot and I tend to not think about that stuff. Maybe I should; I don’t know, but it’s like [Inaudible 00:29:54] knows so many more people than I do. He’s much more social.

TIS: Right on (laughing). So I was reading an interview that you had done last month when you were talking about Underwater Sunshine and you said it was a very liberating experience for you, but the interviewer did not really delve further into how is was liberating for you so, could you elaborate on that for me.

AD:Well, it’s kind of what I was saying earlier. Something happened when we made that record. I mean, we just played differently and I’m not sure why but it affected everybody afterwards, too. Like, we went out on the road and, I mean, the band was so good. The rest of the guys were playing so much better. It’s like, I mean, I hate to think I was doing this, but it’s almost like there was something sort of confining about having to work on my songs in our band, not that it was screwing up our band all these years, but there was something, I guess less that that was confining than that there was something that was completely liberating about not doing my songs, about just like the fact that the guy that wrote them wasn’t necessarily standing in the room with you and wasn’t necessarily a guy you’d known for all these years, but so you owed less to them, in a way. I don’t know what happened with everybody, but everybody loosened up in some way. It was really creative, including me. Like, I love the singing on this record; I love the vocals on this record. I just sort of let go in a lot of ways. I mean, I wasn’t spending a lot of time thinking about how I wanted to express the exact feelings I knew I was feeling when I wrote the song. For whatever reason, I just let go and sang. And I’m not sure that technique works for everything, but it sounds great to me on this record, and it affected everything live, including our older songs, which now have a whole other sort of, like, intensity to them, a looseness that’s sort of playing out, an intensity. I don’t know. It just feels really; it was a great experience. I can’t tell exactly why it was liberating because I didn’t think about it being that way at the time we were doing it. I only noticed it afterwards and I was listening to, like, what we’d all produced and, I mean, a lot of my friends had told me they really enjoyed this record and they keep using that word, “enjoy,” as if there was less fun to be had on the other records, which I think is quite possible. But I think there’s something about this record that, I mean, it might be the most enjoyable listen of all of our records. And I don’t know; I really like that about it. I find myself still listening to it. I find myself enjoying listening to it, too. Like, I feel like putting it on sometimes, walk around the city listening to it. I dig it. It just keeps surprising me. I don’t know why it is; I can’t explain this to you exactly. I’m just sort of drifting off the top of my head, but it definitely made a difference. If you see the band live now, I think you’ll see, like I don’t feel like I even have to move around. I could stand in one place without moving a muscle for the entire show. I mean, I don’t, but I could. It feels like the slightest gestures are reflected in everything the band’s doing, so overdoing it feels like I’ll be covering up stuff the other guys are doing. It feels like I can be very economical now because there’s so much happening and I think it’s making me a better singer.

TIS: So with this being your first independent release, I was curious if it affected the bands process at all? Was there more creative flexibility while you were recording?

AD:None at all. I mean, it didn’t affect anything during recording. We’ve always had creative control over our records. It was part of, and there was a huge bidding war for our band in the beginning. Pretty much every label offered us a contract. The only ones that didn’t were the ones that were part of the same label as another label, like Epic and Columbia, because they are both Sony. So, Columbia made the offer. But other than that, pretty much every label offered us. And so we were able to pick and choose and we gave up a lot of the money early on. We gave up almost all the money. The advance was very small. I think we got a few thousand dollars maybe, like $2,000, $2500, maybe, was what I got, but we gave all that up for better royalties and for complete creative control. So, we had creative control recording before August and everything after, and we had it when we made that record, which I think was really good for us. It always has been. It allowed us to do whatever we wanted to do from Day One. So, on that sense, it didn’t change anything at all. Where it did change was what we did afterwards and what we did during recording. Like, what we’re able to do as far as giving downloads, doing the same with Bit Torrent, all the social media stuff. We wanted to do, putting songs up on the Internet to steam while we had the contest for getting people to design the covers or, and I think in that sense, because I knew that we weren’t going to be confined to just, like, marketing this record by bribing radio stations or record stores to put it in front, I think that it probably did affect everything else because they are more excited about making it in that sense, because it wasn’t going to be the same grind that we were all sick of to promote it. We could do whatever we wanted to do for as long as we wanted to do it. There’s no record cycle anymore, there’s none of that stuff, doesn’t matter when it came out because we could; someone asked me why we’d waited until several months after the  release to do the thing with Bit Torrent because wouldn’t it have been smarter to do it right when we put the record out. But my feeling was, like, no, we have all that attention around the release right then. The thing about the digital age no is that there is no cycle. You can o stuff whenever you want because you can put stuff out whenever you want. So, I mean, it never has to end and, in that sense, I think the knowledge of how much more free you are going to be had to do with marketing and a lot of the other aspects of our job that go into doing our job, but not the recording part of it. That part was much the same; although, we did make this record very quickly, much quicker than in the past. We only spent, what, 16 days recording, I think, maybe. No, it can’t even be that many; less than 14, and we had bad days, so five, maybe eight, 12 days, something like that.

TIS: Nice. So in close, over the last year you’ve been very vocal via Facebook and Twitter about your struggle with breaking your dependency on psychological medication. I was curious if this experience affected you and/or the band creatively or musically?

AD:Well, it wasn’t about breaking the dependency; it was just that I’d been on some medications for years that I think were probably really necessary to keep me safe at the time, because I was really losing it. And but they were meds for people that were bipolar and I’ve never been diagnosed with bipolar. I think the reason they put me on them was because people who are bipolar need to be kept away from the high’s and low’s, so they keep you in a middle area, and I think with what was going on in my head, as scary as it was, those were just drugs to keep me safe and sane, but they weren’t going to allow me to get better and they also made it very hard to be, like, creative because they affect cognitive stuff, so I was having huge memory problems, memory gaps, and the inability to remember things. And also they really stifle creativity, and so the doctors really felt like I should, it was time to not take those anymore and to, like, take another look at what I should be on, and so we just started coming off them one by one, but they’re very, very powerful drugs and they’re very addictive; not addictive in the sense like you want to take more and more of them, but just in the coming off of them, one there’s a lot of physical repercussions to coming off because you feel in those ways and also they are huge changes in your brain chemistry, so that’s pretty hard, too. See, you get hit hard by emotional, psychological, and physical side effects at the same time and it took, like, seven or eight months, and even then I just came off another one because they put me on a drug after that that they thought would be good for me, but I didn’t really like it. So, I just came off that. So, it wasn’t really like breaking a dependency as much as, like, changing, off those drugs, it’s a bitch. That said, it was going on right when we recorded this record and right when I was doing the, I mean, I started in April or May coming off the drugs and the two recording sessions and it went until the end of the year, and the two recording sessions for this were in April and in June and then I did the thing with the play at the end of July and August. So, I mean, I was in the worst parts of coming off the meds when we were making this record. I was visibly shaken during the second recording session. I could not stop shaking, which is, like, some very colorful performances of songs, depending on what we were doing then. It would have been “Hospitals” and “Untitled Love Song,” “All My Failures.” I can’t remember what else we recorded right then; three or four of the songs were recorded during that session, though. So, I mean, it affected me and then I was going through it at the time. I don’t know how it affected me other than that. It was a really weird time, but I think the record turned out well. I mean, when you’re going through something really scary and sort of hallucinogenic like that, it really helps to have something to focus on, so having the work was good for me. It would have been worse just sitting at home. That said, my friends tell me, I mean, I’m living now basically without anything for the most part, just Adderall, because the ADD is something, I think, that I do have and should be on that med, but other than that, I’m not on anything really, so it’s a pretty raw life right now. It’s very unprotected. But I don’t find it particularly pleasant, but my friends and people tell me I seem much more clear these days than in the past and I’ll buy that, so maybe that has something to do with my, how I’m playing; I don’t really know. It’s hard to say. I’m sure it’s different than it was, but that was a lot of stuff I was going through during only, well, I mean, I was going through a lot, this particular drug that I came off of were affecting me a lot when I was doing “Saturday Nights and Sunday Mornings,” but the other records were different kinds of medications. I mean, the problem has been going on my whole life. But the problem hasn’t gone away really. It’s just, maybe I’ve got a better grip on things so I can survive it without any of the meds right now. It’s not particularly pleasant, but I do think it’s probably better for me than being so swathed in, like, gauze as I was protected on all those meds. I mean, I think they really kept me alive and I’m grateful for that, but I don’t think that’s the best way to live. I don’t think this is the best way to live, either. There’s something better; we just haven’t figured out what it is yet. There’s probably some medication I should be on, because I’m not, I mean, it doesn’t work as well as it should in my brain. It’s got issues, so but right now, there’s just nothing. It’s just me and, like I said, it’s a very raw world. I described to someone, the difference being on all those meds and not is like the difference between being, like, unable to hear anything and having everyone in the world talk to you at once. I mean, you can’t make out anything anybody is fucking saying in either case, but it’s probably better to be able to hear than not and right now it’s a little bit like the whole world screaming all the time. But I think that’s better than being deaf; I just have to figure out how to sort it out, I guess. Anyway, the only way to live maybe is to actually take part, so I look at it as an improvement.

TIS: Thanks so much for taking the time Adam.

AD: Cool. Thank you.

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Chris Grosso is a public speaker, writer, recovering addict, spiritual director, and author of Indie Spiritualist: A No Bullshit Exploration of Spirituality (Beyond Words/Simon & Schuster) and Everything Mind: What I've Learned About Hard Knocks, Spiritual Awakening and the Mind-Blowing Truth of it All (Sounds True). He writes for ORIGIN Magazine, Huffington Post, and Mantra Yoga + Health Magazine, and has spoken and performed at Wanderlust Festival, Yoga Journal Conference, Sedona World Wisdom Days, Kripalu, Celebrate Your Life and more. Chris is passionate about his work with people who are in the process of healing or struggling with addictions of all kinds. He speaks and leads groups in detoxes, yoga studios, rehabs, youth centers, 12-step meetings, hospitals, conferences, and festivals worldwide. He is a member of the advisory board for Drugs over Dinner.