Twenty years in, Adam Duritz is reinvigorated. So are the other members of Counting Crows. After perhaps some tiptoeing around songs penned by the front man, Duritz says a recent covers project, Underwater Sunshine, provided the musical freedom the band had lacked in the studio. Now that they’re back with another batch of original tunes, the band’s September release Somewhere Under Wonderland, Duritz says the band has found a refreshing honesty in the studio. It might be a messy process, but it’s necessary to get the songs to where they need to be.
Duritz, on the other hand, has no problems being honest. Always a transparent interviewee, we recently asked Adam about the most difficult rooms he has to play, the hope he found after Saturday Nights & Sunday Mornings, and why it was necessary to piss off a few band mates to get the best out of them in the studio this time around.
Stereo Subversion: I just caught the show at the Ryman here in Nashville. Lots of artists talk about the honor to play the Ryman, but just curious how much of that is stage speak. Does that room hold any sway for you at all?
Adam Duritz: That’s the opposite of what I’ve heard. I’ve always heard that it was so fucking hard to play the Ryman. It’s like the greatest place and you really want to go there, but it’s just with the pews and the whole air of the place, it’s hard to have a show that lifts off. We heard that for forever, and then we went down there with the Traveling Circus about five years ago, and took the roof off the place. I thought, ‘Wow, this is like the greatest place. I don’t know what everyone’s talking about.’
I had literally heard from so many people how hard it is to have a gig there, and then we had a great gig there. Then we went to the Outlaw Road Show with Mean Creek like a year or two later and we had another great show there. And then we had a great show there the other night. I had honestly heard nothing but how hard it was to play there, and I’ve had nothing but absolutely killer experiences there. I love playing the place, so I don’t know what they were talking about.
You can’t start to lessen that intensity now, or you’ll just get old and start making shitty records.
SSv: Are there rooms that are difficult for you to play in?
Adam: Nothing in particular is springing to mind, but sometimes casinos can suck. I don’t really care what an audience does that much. To me, we’re on stage, it’s not their responsibility to get on their feet and cheer for us. They need to enjoy the show. That’s the only responsibility they have. It’s our responsibility to put on a great show. If you can enjoy a show sitting down, well, I know I can sometimes. Who am I to tell them to stand up?
It’s much more fun for me for them to stand up, but that’s not their responsibility. Most of the time my feeling is, as a musician, you shouldn’t be looking out there anyways. Whatever’s happening out there has nothing to do with your show. To be on stage with your band mates, that’s where everything’s happening. So I’m usually not particularly bothered by it.
But the weird thing about casinos is that they’ll often save the front row for high rollers and the like, so that’s the one place where it’s not like having someone who paid a lot of money to come and see you play. That also sometimes happens with scalpers. But there you’ll actually get people in the front row who didn’t give a shit at all. That can be distracting. They’ll be sitting there with a hooker on their lap, and they’re making out in the front row. They’re getting up and leaving and then coming back and talking. They’re just not into it at all, and that can be distracting for me. I can’t think of any one place in particular because generally we have good shows wherever we go, but casinos can be distracting.
SSv: The songs change so much for you guys over time with added verses, extended versions, and such. We heard several new songs the other night. Have they already begun to change as you’re playing them out?
Adam: Sometimes they change in ways you wouldn’t even notice. It’s just about the internal approach I take to singing a lyric. A lot of times, it seems different for me, and you wouldn’t even notice it. But I don’t really think of the record version as the infant version either.
It just seems to me that there are three parts to being in a band, three distinct skill sets—at least in our band—that you’ve got to do. One is something from nothing, creating songs. That’s really important and it’s really hard to bring something out of nothing where you have this idea and now you have a song. And again, you’re only creating skeletons, very bare forms and words, but it’s important to be able to do it, and to put a lot of time and effort into that. It’s very frustrating, but it’s also very satisfying.
The second part is really the band part, which is where you as a band get together and determine what turns this skeleton into a song. For me, that’s like the jazz of it. It’s a really cool collaborative process. It’s just taking sketches I’ve made and turning them into full-blown things. That requires a shitload of contribution and collaboration, and that’s the work of a band.
That’s why for me, Underwater Sunshine, the covers album, is every bit as involving as a record in which I wrote all the songs, because that band work, it still happened on that record. All the stuff we do to turn these skeletons into songs took place on Underwater Sunshine, just like it does on every record. We took those songs and turned them into our songs, and that’s why that record, to me, is so great. I love it, because there’s no difference between that and any of our other records except that I didn’t write the songs. That’s the second part of it, which is really frustrating as well.
Adam: Yeah, you’re getting in there with six or seven other people, beating each other up and coming up with this. But that’s really the lifeblood of what it is to be in a band. That work right there is hugely creative and really important work, and that makes a difference between bands who are great live, but don’t make great records, and bands who make great records, too. That bit of work there is really, really important.
I think sometimes people undervalue the idea going out and playing live and discovering stuff, because you shouldn’t go out and play live and not discover new stuff. But you should also keep your fucking nose to the grindstone and make that record something that’s going to last forever, too. It’s not just a document of your songwriting, it’s a record. If it was just a document of your songwriting, you would demo it in one take and then you’d go on the road and get better at everything.
That thing has to be really special and it’s got to last forever, because it’s the one part that’s absolutely timeless. You’re going to encase it in amber and freeze it for the rest of time, so you’ve really got to get that shit right. I feel like we do, but just because we get it right, doesn’t mean we can’t learn something new every night. It doesn’t make them better or worse things, it just makes them new things.
SSv: What about the third part?
Adam: Yeah, then you go out on the road, and that’s the third part where you filter your life through your songs every day. They change that way, too. I don’t think that necessarily makes them better. Sometimes it does, sometimes it doesn’t, but it’s just natural for them to change because you’re changing, you know? I wouldn’t want to undervalue that record part because that’s really, really important. And the music that we remember for years and years, are the ones by those bands who went in there and didn’t just document. That’s not a demo process. You’re making a record. That’s got to last forever.
SSv: You talked about the difference between live bands without great records and those with…
Adam: There are bands who play great live and I love ‘em, but their records aren’t as good. I saw the Grateful Dead a million times when I was a kid, and they were, at times, the greatest live band I’d ever seen. They were extraordinary. They were also horrible other times, but they were great other times. And the truth is, only a few of the records really live up to that. The other ones just aren’t at that level.
The records, a lot of them, aren’t as inspired as those songs turned out to be later in the live setting. Some of them are really, really good records, but that’s the difference between the Dead and bands like the Stones and the Beatles who really made a lot of great records. As great as the Dead were live, they didn’t leave that documentation behind on record that the Stones, Beatles or The Who did. R.E.M., who also play great live and have great bootlegs you can get of them, has these records that are really good too. They didn’t overvalue one at the expense of the other. I think that’s really important.
SSv: You mentioned you guys beating each other up in the studio. How much of that beating each other up still happens or does the internal language change with familiarity?
Adam: Oh, we still kick the crap out of each other in the studio.
SSv: Even after all these years? As much as ever?
Adam: Yeah! Everyone’s still the same. It’s still a lot of pressure being in the studio. It’s a hard place to be a guitar player, especially when a song rests on you a lot of times. You want to be responsible, but it’s not easy to come up with something that’s as signature as the song I wrote that it’s going to go on.
Some people are more adept at playing guitar than others. Dan [Vickrey] is someone who struggles at the beginning that way. He’s not going to play off his head the way Immy does. Immy just plays so well, but Dan will put the time in if you kick his ass, and also if you don’t. He will put the time in and he will end up writing signature riffs, things that really do matter, things that you are going to hear down the line. But you’ve got to put him through it sometimes, because without it he’s not going to do it right away. Nobody likes to keep being told they suck, and if you just let it go it wouldn’t be as good. But Dan will come through.
When you listen to the records in the end, it’s a different process for Dan, but you wouldn’t know that, because on the record he just churns out great stuff. Always. But he’s going to struggle at first, and he’s going to want to get out from under everyone’s magnifying glass. He wants to be let out, because it’s a pain when everyone’s kicking at you. But you’ve gotta do it and I think he would thank me for it in the end. It can be a horrible experience for him on a record sometimes. It’s been painful. But when you listen to the record, he comes through there and I think he would tell you it’s worth it. He puts a lot of hours in there, and there’s a lot of hours of me kicking his ass too. That’s just one example, but it’s true of everybody.
SSv: What about the new record, Somewhere Under Wonderland?
Adam: When we were starting this record, the first days we went into the studio to record, Jim’s [Bogios] wife was pregnant, and she was due any moment. So it was really important that we at least get the first tracks done. We always play together. You can always go back and work together, but you’ve got to have some kind of track to work on. Hopefully it’s the drum track, because if you don’t get the drum track… y’know? We’re not looking for perfect, it’s just got to be thrilling.
Jim is a really, really good drummer, but he comes from a long line of well-trained, classical musicians, and he’s very responsible and professional, which isn’t always the same thing as thrilling. All of that, plus the fact that his baby was about to be born, he fucking sucked. The first days in there, he was terrible. We were trying to cut “Dislocation,” and he was fucking terrible. It wasn’t bad, but just uninspired and perfect, and who cares?
By the second day, he was really supposed to be having that baby any minute now, and we really needed to get the tracks, because when she had the baby we were going to lose Jim for a few days. If we hadn’t gotten a few tracks, what were we going to do? We could work on a couple songs that were acoustic, but we wanted to save those for later for a day when we couldn’t use Jim. We didn’t want to use those days right at the beginning.
But it got to the point, midway through the second day, where Brian [Deck, producer] came to me and said, ‘Dude’s losing it. Maybe we just need to let him go, because I feel like we’re beating his head against the wall, and I think we’re getting fewer returns instead of more. At some point you’ve got to stop beating on a guy because it’s just not working. It’s great if it does work, but the poor guy’s about to have a baby, so you can understand it. Maybe we should just go to ‘God of Ocean Tides’ and do some acoustic stuff right now and just let him go.’
I said, ‘Yeah, I hate to do it, but I think you’re right. Why don’t you go tell Jim, because he’s having a baby? It’s no wonder he can’t focus.’ He’s playing terrible for making a record, but he’s playing great for any other living drummer. He was just playing perfect, awesome and boring, and not what I wanted on a record, but perfect, incredible drumming that was just like, ‘Eh, who cares?’
So Brian went and told Jim that and Jim was melting down, but Brian told him, ‘Go home. It’s no big deal. Have the baby. This is the biggest moment of your life, having your first baby. Go have a baby with your wife, and don’t worry about this stuff. We’ll get it when we get back.’ And Jim got so fucking angry, steam came out of his ears. He yelled at everybody. We all went back into the studio and he absolutely blew the roof off of “Dislocation,” finally. He came back out and I said, ‘Well, what have you been doing sucking for a day and a half?’ And he said, ‘Fuck you, let’s do something else now.’ So we did “Elvis Went to Hollywood” too.
SSv: [Laughs] That’s great.
Adam: Yeah, after a day and a half of absolute shit where we got nothing out of Jim, in the space of an hour-and-a-half, he cut two songs off the record. And we got a lot of people on those songs. We were all playing so well that a lot of the guitars were done by that point, the bass was done, the keys. A lot of my vocals were already done there. He played so fucking well at that point that everybody turned in great performances. We went from wasting the first two days and not having Jim the next two days because he was going to be gone, to at the end of that night we had two songs we could work on, which was plenty to work on for a couple days. Jim laid down some insane drum parts, which was what we wanted.
We wanted inspiration, but we had to kick his ass to do that even though he was leaving to have a baby. It sucked having to kick his ass like that, because in the end it was him who he said he got so mad at for sucking, that he went in and knocked out two songs—the first two songs for the record—which is some impressive shit. [Laughs] Those two songs are fucking rock songs, too. He beat the crap out of the drums on those two songs. They’re the two hardest songs on the record as far as how hard they kick.
But that’s what it’s like. You can’t start to lessen that intensity now, or you’ll just get old and start making shitty records. I think the funny thing is, when we made Underwater Sunshine, because they weren’t my songs—and I’m not sure how this happened because it wasn’t purposeful—we finally got everybody really contributing the way we wanted. They were playing loosely and not being so respectful of what they were doing with my songs. They’re just letting go and playing their asses off on that record.
It changed the band in a lot of ways, and not just after that when we went to go tour on the record to play those songs, but the way we played all of our songs. Everybody started really putting themselves into it more aggressively, really being more creative and involved in the jazz of being in a band. Something really important happened when we did Underwater Sunshine. I think because they weren’t my songs, everyone took more ownership of themselves and played better, and that had a huge effect by the time we got to this record. It had a huge effect on touring all throughout last year, and we really felt it by the time we went to make this record. It changed the band in a really good way.
SSv: What does the cutting room floor look like for this record? There are nine tracks and I know “Palisades Park” is long, but how much editorial work is there? Or did you really just focus on this set of tracks?
Adam: There is none. There are pieces of music I had begun to work on, but as far as finished songs that were intended to be on this album, there’s nothing left off. We wrote those nine songs and that was it. There are five, six, seven, maybe 10 other pieces of music or ideas we started that we didn’t finish when we were in the songwriting process.
As far as the record, we wrote one song the first time we got together in August. We’d gotten a lot of pieces together, and I finished “God of Ocean Tides” right after that. We got together like a week per month. I’d have like Immy, Dan, and Millard [Powers] come to my house in New York and we’d camp out for a week and work on songs. The second week, when we came back in September or October, we got five songs in seven days: “Dislocation,” “Scarecrow, “Elvis went to Hollywood,” “Earthquake Driver,” and “Cover up the Sun.” And then when we came back in November, I got “Palisade Park” and “Possibility Days,” although that one had already sort of been written. And then we went to record in December for a few weeks, took January off, the guys came back here again, and that’s when I finished “Cover up the Sun” and wrote “John Appleseed’s Lament.” And then we went back in, recorded those songs, and that was it. We only recorded nine songs.
SSv: Is that pretty typical for you, that notion of not chasing ideas down only to worry later on about what to do them?
Adam: I figure I kind of write the record we’re going to record. Sometimes you go to sequence it and they don’t fit on the record. I’ve left some of the best songs I’ve ever written off records because they didn’t fit the record, as good as they were. But I don’t tend to write 50 songs, record 50 songs and then pick the best 10. We’re writing an album—especially on this one—and it is whatever it turns out to be. Although on this record, I always wanted it to be like a record-length record, the kind of thing that would fit on two sides of a vinyl record. Forty some-odd minutes. That’s what we were looking for. We just wanted it to be digestible. I don’t know why. That was just something that was in my head.
SSv: What’s the story behind “Possibility Days”? That one stood out at the Ryman as this rare, positive track from you.
Adam: Well, it started when we were doing Saturday Nights & Sunday Mornings.
SSv: It goes back that far?
Adam: The beginning came a little bit after that, yeah. We were making this video together, me and this girl, and we sort of started dating after that. That’s the only song that dates back like that. It changed a little bit, but essentially that’s from back then.
It’s about the idea that every day offers an infinite amount of things that could happen. As bad as things can get in your life, as much as it can suck being crazy, days offer possibilities, you know? That’s the best thing about it.
It’s kind of taken from the end of a Sondheim play, Sunday in the Park with George. It got a revival that my friend was in, and we went to see it several times. It was about the painter, Georges Seurat, and the last lines of the play are taken from what is supposedly his mother’s notebook. It says, ‘A blank page. His favorite. So many possibilities.’ I think those are the last lines of the play. All the color disappears from the walls and it’s just white. That can seem like nothing, but it also offers all the possibilities in the world. I think the song is just about that.
I had been really, really crazy, and having a hard time living with that in the years right before that. And it’s not that I figured any of that out—that stuff doesn’t really go away—but I did figure out how to live with it at times, how not to go downhill, maybe. For a while there it just felt like it was going kaput. When we made the Sunday Mornings half of that record, it wasn’t necessarily about recovery, but it was about trying to recover and at least not going down the drain any longer. The song was written well after that, but it was written in the wake of that year.
When we started the Saturday Nights portion of that, I was barely conscious for a lot of it. I was so narcoleptic and having trouble with medications, but by the time we had gotten to Sunday Mornings, I had gotten a grip on my life. I didn’t necessarily know what was coming or have any great hopes for it, but I was aware that things were possible and I just didn’t know how to do them yet.
So a year or two later when I wrote that song, it was really about trying to fall in love and then falling apart. It’s not a song about a relationship that works, but it’s about a song about a relationship that can try, because it is possible. That’s worth living for. I’m not saying things are doomed. That’s the sort of relationship that doesn’t work, but it doesn’t matter. It’s okay. It could have worked, but it just didn’t work. And it’s not the same thing as being doomed. I think most of my songs are usually about hope. They’re not usually about success, but they’re about hope. That’s kind of all you need anyway. You don’t really need to succeed in life every day, you just need to not be doomed.
SSv: I love that idea about the blank page.
Adam: Yeah, it’s a great line. I can’t take credit for it—that’s James Lapine and Stephen Sondheim—but I always thought that was a great line. ‘A blank page. His favorite. So many possibilities.’ And that’s the last thing you see in the play. When the play starts, everything is white, and then he starts creating things and color appears all over the stage. And for the rest of the play you’re kind of drenched in color. But at the very end, all of that goes away. It’s just a white square, and then he says those lines. And you’re not looking at all the colors, it’s just white, but you realize, ‘Okay, that doesn’t mean it’s empty, that just means it’s waiting for something.’