COUNTING CROWS: NEXT STOP, AMERICA
Lead singer Adam Duritz Talks Evolution of Live Performance, Spodify, Bands Assholes Like, and the Inspiration of R.E.M and RUN-D.M.C.
The current Counting Crows tour, which appears to move seamlessly from the last Counting Crows tour, and the one before that, has been promoting the band’s last record, the ethereal and infections, Somewhere Under Wonderland for nearly a year through Canada, New Zealand, Australia and Europe, finally beginning the leg of its U.S. jaunt late summer into autumn…and on and on. More than most, the Counting Crows is a touring band. It caravans entire families and friends across thousands of miles in order to make each night a special occasion. Its lead singer and principle songwriter, Adam Duritz calls it an economic necessity, but in the same breath believes it to be vital to the creative process. “Truthfully, I think a lot of my creativity is satisfied by playing every night,” he tells me. “I don’t necessarily feel the need to write.” With each performance, the songs take on new meaning and subtle and not so subtle changes – expressive, as well as musical.
Back home, just beyond the literary and cultural beacon, Washington Square Park, the center of New York’s Greenwich Village, Duritz is gearing up for U.S audiences. Fresh off another successful Outlaw Road Show, this time in Nashville, a three-day, thirty-two band review in which he is co-founder and host (with friend and blogger Ryan Spalding), and gleeful front-row fan, he says without hesitation, “It’s my favorite thing I do, it’s more fun than anything else.”
Random conversations with Duritz has been one of the highlights of my career; whether discussing songwriting, performing, the struggle to achieve, as well the more challenging struggle to handle, fame or just bandying about goofy pop culture and literary minutia. He is a man of various tastes, but an admitted lunatic about music; cherishing its history, absorbed in its influences, and never daring to take for granted his place in it. Devouring any subject I throw at him, he is never guarded, and yet he chooses to share his thoughts carefully. Duritz is, after all, a word man. He provides context to the shifting moods of his band, a perfect six-piece amalgam of equally voracious music freaks that instinctually understand how to serve his songs, build upon them, and then restructure them for fun and art.
The Counting Crows may tour a lot, but they are never to be missed. Maybe that’s why they tour a lot. Performances are always a new and intriguing expression and to be there to witness it is a joy. They are the eternal live act – in and out of the studio – and Adam Duritz is their clarion.
When we last spoke early last August, Somewhere Under Wonderland had yet to come out, but you mentioned having played the songs live for awhile, and you were really jazzed about their reception. You’ve been touring this whole past year; Europe, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, so how have they evolved and how do you feel about how they’re coming across on the tour?
They’re coming across great. The only thing that’s weird is that we still haven’t really played America yet since the record came out. We did like a week and a half in the Midwest around Christmas last year, because we had to play a couple of little festival shows… but it’s weird we’ve been touring for so long on this record, including a whole summer playing America before the record came out. It’s easy to forget because we’ve been to Europe twice, we’ve been to Australia, New Zealand, we’ve been all the way across Canada…Vancouver to Newfoundland, places I’ve never even been before in Canada… but we haven’t played America. We’re all looking forward to that.
The songs have caught on great, but we thought that when we wrote them too. We thought they’d be great live, we thought some of them were immediately great live. We played “Palisades Park” the entire summer, and it worked when nobody knew it. So it certainly started working when people did know it, it became very powerful. I had a lot of trouble over the summer with “Scarecrow”. It took me awhile to get really good at “Scarecrow”, and “Earthquake Driver”, they got really good eventually. I had trouble finding my way inside them as far as live songs, but that came eventually. It takes a little bit of figuring out how to get your head around things you’re doing live.
What do you mean by getting “inside a song”?
Well… you want to be present while singing it… you don’t want to be doing a copy of a version you did before, you want to be singing it as you are there… and I have no problem on songs like “Palisades Park”, which theoretically could be harder, or “God of Ocean Tides, or most of the stuff on the record like “Dislocation”. I knew where to go with it. I think because “Scarecrow” and “Earthquake Driver” were so strong melodically and rhythmically as they were written I sailed through recording them on the record. I think a lot of that was because when I was singing them on the record that’s the first time I was really singing it, and I was very present in it. When I got on the road with the songs the particular melody and rhythm is so strong in those songs…was so strong in my head…that it felt like I was covering my own song for awhile there. I couldn’t find a way to really… put myself into it, to really feel it while I was singing it. It took me awhile to find my way into those songs. I want to be present singing stuff and I want to sing it like it’s happening right now, whether it’s “Mr. Jones” or ‘Scarecrow”, and sometimes that can be harder the stronger a song is melodically, especially if it’s melody and rhythm like those two are, you get really locked into what you’re doing and it can be hard to express yourself because you get locked into singing a certain thing a certain way. It took me awhile to open up those two songs, those were the two I had the most trouble with on the record. But they turned out great. Since then “Scarecrow” has been the second song of the set most nights.
Are there songs now you’re singing that you prefer the versions you’re doing now to the recorded version, they’ve become this other thing entirely?
Sure. Well… I mean from the first album there are certainly songs which I prefer now. Most albums I don’t really think about preference. We were so young on that first album, there were some songs which I think are great songs that we didn’t really nail in the studio as much as I hoped. They just didn’t get a chance to grow as much. I think “Anna Begins” is better now. I think “Murder of One” is better now. I’m not really sure about that because honestly I haven’t listened to that album in so long… the version on the record is a timeless document and I really wanted it to be one and for the most part it is, which doesn’t mean I’m going to sing it the same way every night. I’m still discovering things every day. It’s not so much that I prefer the live versions to the other versions, that’s just today’s version. I’ve learned more since then… you know? Yeah, I don’t know if I would say preference is the right word, except for some of the songs on the first album where I definitely prefer them more now.
A lot of our recording takes place live. We get in there, we’re playing in a room together. We’ll work until we kind of get the form of the song we want. And someone will nail something. It could be a bass part, a guitar part, a drum part… and everyone will go over their parts, but often we’ll just keep a lot for what you already have. It’s not like you’re laying down a drum track and then you’re laying down a bass track, we’re playing all together. Even if the drums are the first thing to go down, it’s a drum track that was played with everyone. So largely when people go back to look at their parts they’re leaving a lot of their parts in there from what was done live. We tend to play live a lot. I think there’s all kinds of interactions going on while we’re playing on the record. We’ll go back and fix things and hone things and develop things… but sometimes the thing you did while you were all playing together is the one.
A lot of bands take time off, they’ll write, they’ll get together, they’ll record an album, they’ll tour the album, they’ll break, rinse and repeat. You guys did a lot of touring even without a record, you did the covers record, you toured even more, you did the whole combination tour where you toured with other bands… then you put this record out and you’re touring it everywhere.
Well… we kind of have to tour. I mean, there’s no other way to earn money. And now the only way to promote your band is tour. Radio promotion doesn’t exist half the time nowadays, so we tour. This is our job. I don’t think there is a structure to it other than make records when you want to make records, tour when you want to tour. We’re just trying to work and survive generally.
I’m glad you mentioned that. I know you’ve run labels and you’ve been in bands and you’ve worked in other bands… I’m just curious what your thought is about the way music is disseminated now… forget about iTunes but even like Spotify, I know a lot of artists are against it, they don’t get compensated fairly for that. It’s very hard for an album to stick now… singles come out and you have your few moments and then another thing comes out… How do you personally feel about how music is disseminated and how it’s affected your profession?
Well, there wasn’t a really good mode before, and there’s not a really good mode now. It’s just a different version. Look, the way it worked before, it was terrible for ninety-nine-point-nine percent of the bands. It barely worked for anyone. The record companies were terrible and they succeeded enough to make some bands really famous, but they failed with an uncountable number of bands. Their methods were so dumb it, they just didn’t work. Most of them bribed radio stations and that worked for awhile, because there was so much money being made, but the last ten to fifteen years the income from record sales is gone, and that’s a lot of money…gone. We’re barely getting paid by Spotify. I understand why someone like Taylor Swift doesn’t want her music on there. She’s famous and she’s selling more than anybody, and she doesn’t need them on there. So she doesn’t. I get that. I don’t blame her for that at all. For us it’s probably good to be on there. I’m glad they’re paying. I don’t think we’re getting paid fairly, but whatever.
It’s not a new thing that record companies are paying bands unfairly. They’re not as concerned with paying bands as they are with getting paid. They’re overly concerned with getting paid. But there’s another side to this, which is that it used to be too expensive and nearly impossible for a band to make records, and it was incredibly impossible to distribute them. It was so expensive to get your records distributed. More than that, if you’re shipping physical CDs on trucks to record stores across America, and if you’re an unknown band, the best you can hope for is they’ll take one or two. And even if they love it, and they tell their customers to buy it, now all of their copies are gone. Now there’s this album they love, they love to sell it to people, but now they don’t have any. And that’s not good. Now it’s cheap to make records, you can do it on your computer. It’s really easy to distribute things because you just upload them onto Bandcamp. That has made a huge difference for musicians but even more-so for fans. That enables bands to stay together without getting signed by a major label, I have friends that have made seven or eight albums and have never been signed. They’ve had time to get really good. And their bands are stunning. That would have been impossible years ago, because you couldn’t have survived together for that long. It’s still really brutal, but it is at least possible now, where it was impossible then.
So as a music fan, there is a world of great music out there you can listen to and it’s a great time to be someone who likes music. It’s not as clear what you should like, so you have to go look for it, which is hard work and it’s a lazy world… but it’s all out there. There’s so much great music being made nowadays. Like I said, for me I’ve lost seventy percent of my income. That’s brutal. But I’m not so blind that I can’t see that it’s so better for most people. It’s not better for me, but it’s better for everybody else and I’m not the only person in this world. The truth is, as well as being a musician, I am a music fan. As a music fan, it’s better because there’s so much out there that wasn’t out there before.
It’s harder to make millions and millions of dollars, almost impossible nowadays. But it is possible to make music and survive and that’s kind of cool. I don’t know if I can give you a yes or no answer whether it’s better or worse now, because it was terrible then and it’s terrible now, but it’s also better now in some ways. Like I said, not for me as a musician, but as a music fan, it is better. I don’t want to tell you that the record business is shit now, because it’s not, it’s just the record company business has kind of gone to shit. But it was always shitty, it’s just shitty for them too as well as for musicians. It used to just be really shitty for musicians. Now it’s shitty for record companies too. Welcome to the club. I don’t have a lot of sympathy.
Do you recall what inspired you to write songs?
I can very much remember my freshman fall term in college. I read Carolyn Forché’s book, The Country Between Us, which is a book of poetry. She was a huge influence on my writing. These three things happened that term in college; I remember reading that, I got my first R.E.M record, and I wrote my first song. I think that there was something about the impressionistic nature of the early R.E.M, that first EP, Chronic Town that really hit me that it was all about expressing whatever I felt like…even though I didn’t write anything like it, that it sort of made it okay to write. I remember that was sort of a big deal at the time. I was pretty hugely affected by the Run-D.M.C. records. There’s something about Run-D.M.C. and R.E.M. I’ve always loved them together in a weird way. There’s a way in which the vocals and the instruments flow in and out of each other on the R.E.M records, you don’t even need to know what words he’s singing. Run-D.M.C. is the first stuff I really remember that there could be more than one rapper in a band. They generally said their verse and it passed to the next guy. With Run-D.M.C., they were so interwoven… that was when they started doubling each-other’s words and popping in and out of each-other very quickly. The interaction was much faster the way it is in jazz or the way those R.E.M records were, it was really woven all together. I remember thinking that the DJ and the two rappers were just flying around each other on that record. It was exhilarating, the speed at which they bounced in and out… it wasn’t like “This is my verse – this is your verse…” It was like they were in and out of each-other’s sentences, finishing each other’s sentences; it really made me think about what a band is like in a way.
I know people compared us to The Band at times, but it may have been even more Run-D.M.C. than The Band that influenced me in that way; the way they aggressively moved in and out of each-other’s music. I was really blown away by that, the speed and the pace of it. For me, that translated into what a lot of people see us doing with the interaction on stage and with each other – improvisations you might associate with The Band or Van Morrison, but in my head a lot of it came from Run-D.M.C. too.
Your songs are very interpretive, that’s one of the reasons I’ve come to you and really enjoyed speaking to you about them, but in almost all of them there’s a connection between you and the fans that is unique. Counting Crows songs are extremely relatable on a personal level.
Well, I think I had it in the beginning, and I have it now, but there are also periods in the middle where everything I did was shit on, because that’s what happens. We really do love to discover music and we love to be the ones to discover it. Especially me or you, music geeks, we love knowing music other people don’t know, and we love showing it to them. But inevitably you gamble on the success like we did, then as a fan you find yourself having to share the band you like with the dipshit across the office, who you don’t like. And he was always listening to absolute crap music, and now he’s a Counting Crows fan too. Now it’s not fun to be a Counting Crows fan anymore, because I’m not sharing them with that asshole. So for a few years everyone hates you, because that’s human nature. It just fucking happens. I’m not bitter about that, that’s life. I understand what it’s like to discover cool music and I also remember when my band got co-opted by all the dipshits across the hall, who I don’t like. So I can’t really rage too much about the fact that it happened to me. It only happened because we had so much success. It was a little brutal at times.
Okay, then, have you been affected, negatively or positively, by your fame? And how has that informed or detracted from your writing?
None of that affects how you write songs. You’re in your bedroom at one point… writing about yourself and you really wanted to open up about how you felt. And then people listen to it. I don’t know… it doesn’t change for me what I wanted to say, I still wanted to talk about how I felt. You’re really just writing to yourself. It’s very tertiary…peripheral that everyone else listens to it. It’s great for your career and earning money, it’s wonderful. But it doesn’t have a lot to do with what you’re doing; especially because during the period when you’re doing it, because when you’re writing and recording, none of those people are around. There is no feedback at that time. So it seems a lot like when you were younger and no one was listening to your music. At some point you do go back to that room and write, and that’s the same as it is now.
When we went in to record our first album, before anyone had ever heard of us, you’re in there recording by yourself. And when you record now, when everyone in the world knows who we are, you’re in there recording by yourself. The response comes so far after the fact that I can see how people do let it get in their head, but it’s easy to not let it get in your head because you’re not really facing it everyday. You’re not getting feedback as you’re writing or recording, at least outside the band. But that’s always been the same. People worry about that stuff too much. We were always really independent. We never had to bounce songs off our labels. We had that creative control from the beginning. We were always sheltered from that.
And you’re finally getting to play these more or less new songs for your home audience.
Yeah, it kind of reminds you how big the world is. People wonder why there’s time between albums for bands. It’s because it takes time to get around the world and play it for everybody. So much time, in fact, that it’s been a year and we haven’t played it at home yet. We’re getting to that now. It’s kind of nice, because you might be getting kind of burned out at this point in the record, but it’s great to be coming to America for the first time now. It’s exciting.