SNAPSHOTS FROM UNDER WONDERLAND
Counting Crows Front-Man, Adam Duritz Talks New Album, Fleeting Memories, Lou Reed, Robin Williams and Alienation
By James Campion
“I think this is one of the best records the band’s made, if not the best,” Adam Duritz proudly concludes, sitting in his hotel room in Redman, Washington preparing for one of the final American shows before heading to Europe for the rest of the summer. The quiet confidence in his tone is palpable. And why not? Somewhere Under Wonderland, the first collection of new original music from Counting Crows, is two weeks from release and has been successfully debuted live for weeks, much of it can be seen on YOUTUBE, bootlegged by eager fans, something the band enthusiastically supports.
“By the time we got together to write and record this material we were on fire as a live band,” Duritz continues. “I grabbed three of the guys in the band, Immer (Dave Immerglück), Dan (Vickrey) and Millard (Powers) and got together for six days in New York and started excavating these pieces of songs that I had and wrote five songs in six days, which is insane! There’s no way that should be impossible. But we did it. We just poured it out.”
Somewhere Under Wonderland may indeed be the band’s best work; a meticulously arranged beauty of a record filled with the kind of passion and poetry that sets Counting Crows apart from many of the band of its era. Its songs reflect deeply upon the disposable touchstones of Americana; Palisades Park, Elvis, Disneyland, the fantasy world of radio and television and their sense of literal disorientation. After just two listens prior to our discussion, it is amazing how simply each song eases into the next, traveling through folk, rock, country and jazz, all being held together by Duritz’s haunting melodies and razor sharp lines like “You’re just scared/I mistake it for strange” from “Possibility Days” or “I need the whites/She gets the blues/It carries us on through” from “Scarecrow” or “Resurrect or genuflect/She saves the ones she can’t protect/And keeps the chapel pris- (if not Sis-) tine” from “Cover Up The Sun”.
Duritz, a few weeks removed from his 50th birthday, is now among the elder statesman of rock front-men, having steered one incarnation or another of his Berkley-born band for the better part of 23 years. More than that, he has been the driving force behind the Counting Crows’ music, as principle songwriter and lyricist, which includes stirring performances of its canon over seemingly endless tours.
There is never a time that we’ve spoken where Duritz has not been achingly honest about his work, his band, his life as a rock star and his living with a debilitating mental illness called Dissociative Disorder, which he described to me in 2008 thusly: “The world literally seems like an hallucination. It just doesn’t seem real. Imagine living for twenty years as if you were having an acid flashback.”
It is hard to listen to Somewhere Under Wonderland and not be reminded of Duritz’s condition; the themes of alienation, grasps at reality, and fleeting snapshots of disjointed memories; both harrowing and joyful. “I’ve had a lot of trouble holding onto to things for long periods of time,” sighs Duritz. “I’ve had moments that were wonderful with people who were wonderful, but part of the disease is the difficulty holding onto to them.”
And this is where we begin our discussion…
I just listened to the entire album this morning, so if you would indulge me for a moment. I see a thematic thread to these songs; the inability for their narrators to remain affixed in reality while grasping for “the dream”, or as the dream unfolds within their purview. The album’s title Somewhere Under Wonderland evokes Lewis Carroll, whose Alice in Wonderland also delves into the concept of an irredeemable dreamscape or a place of no permanence.
Well, I think there’s always a theme, but I also don’t think it’s intentional. If you write a bunch of songs all at once, as we did with this album, I think they bind together somehow. I don’t think you always see how when you’re doing it. But you’re moving through a period of your life and the stuff you create during that time tends to hold together ‘cause it’s about that period of your life. It’s unavoidable. I tend to not try and evoke a theme, but it does come out when you’re writing more from feelings and textures and when you’re a writer that stuff is embedded in there.
Speaking specifically of the opening track, which is also the single; “Palisades Park”; it unfolds as an epic poem, reading like Ginsberg’s Howl; snapshots of suppressed sexuality, testosterone rage, and creeping nostalgia. It even has that Beat Poetry soundtrack; the music bounces from jazzy interludes to straight ahead rock and roll and back again with ease, marking a sort of chronology to the lyrics.
Well, it’s about two friends; where they come from, the choices they make and the celebration of youth and the willingness to try things – a drink, a drug, a different kind of clothing, a different kind of sexuality, which is what being young is all about. At the same time that doesn’t always work out; not because drugs are bad or dressing up as a woman or playing in a band is bad, but for no rhyme or reason sometimes life just destroys people; this living out on the fringe. I just wanted to write about the arc of a friendship without any moral, um…what’s the word? Lesson.
It’s interesting that you would use Palisades Park as a fantasyland backdrop to the story, since you grew up in California. It was a big part of my childhood growing up in New York for sure; those endless commercials on the radio.
I was always fascinated by Palisades Park, because when I was a kid reading comic books there would be these ads in the back of DC Comics with Superman or Batman telling you to go to Palisades Park. And I couldn’t help thinking, “Where the fuck is this place Batman is telling me to go to?” But I read later that since fifty percent of the comics bought in America were in bought in New York City, it made perfect sense to advertise there. But when I was a kid, like any kid growing up in Texas or California, Palisades Park had this supernatural connotation to it, which is why it always stuck in my head.
The last time we spoke you touched upon Lou Reed’s influence on your work, and it’s evident here as well.
Funny you mention Lou Reed again. When we were working on that song, I was torn whether to make it about a man and a woman or two guys, but had decided to make it two guys and the one guy dresses up as a woman. So Angie became Andy. And I was working out the second verse; “You walked into the bar like some Saturday star/Stud-straight on spiked heels and needles and nerves”, and right at that part Millard, who had gone out to get some Indian food or something, walks in and says, “Lou Reed died”. The song was already about the Factory lifestyle, the kids going out and exploring that late-60s’, early 70s’ New York, Velvet Underground world. But then, right in the middle of writing it, we find out Lou Reed dies. That sort of cemented it for me.
In the beautifully arranged, “God of Ocean Tides” there are also several wonderfully phrased mental snapshots, as in specifically, “Coloured lights and birthday cakes/Candle wax on paper plates”. The song really captures the detail of memory. In fact, there are repeated references to memory in this album.
Yeah, it’s totems of celebrating moments in your life as they pass. You light a candle for a birthday, which is a beautiful part of the celebration, but then also there is the candle wax on the plate – after the moment, you have to clean it up. Every moment has its sparkling memory, but it also has the melted wax on the plate. Not that it is a bad memory. Part of what makes your life rich is remembering lighting the candles, but also the moments that follow – the whole thing. I really like the line too, because I was trying to evoke a lot of things that were touchstones of moments in life, like in the song “Scarecrow”; “She dreams of sunlight/Sings of smaller things/White sugar bowls and wedding rings.” The sun coming up is a beautiful part of a memory you might have in your life, but there are also the things it reflects off of.
That speaks of the fallacy of “Happily Ever After” and more to the reality of enjoying key moments in life and holding onto the memories of them; again this theme of a fleeting sense of happiness. You touch upon that throughout the album, but end it with “Possibility Days”, which has my favorite line on the record, “I said goodnight/Goodbye/It seems like a good thing so you know it’s a good lie”. Great line.
I think with the Dissociative Disorder in my life I don’t tend to get things to stay around for that long. The line later in the song rings true for me; “Somehow we mixed up ‘Goodbye’ and ‘Goodnight’”, where you get those things confused. I’ve gotten them confused, where it’s supposed to be for a second and it ends up being forever.
A few years ago I got really depressed living with this mental illness for a long time and the fact that I couldn’t make it go away. And a lot of things in my life fell apart when I realized it’s possible that I’m never going to be fine and I sort of started to give up in some ways, but the one thing I realized is that having gone through all of that is it didn’t actually kill me. I won’t be able to be sane in the way I would like to be and I might not be able to live a normal life, but it hasn’t actually killed me either.
I think I would be remiss in not asking you about the news yesterday of Robin Williams’ apparent suicide and his bout with deep depression. From Counting Crows very first song on the first album, “Round Here” you’ve written with a real empathy for people who feel alienated mentally and emotionally.
It’s hard to live life, especially when you feel different from everybody else. You don’t seem to be able to take in the same things they take in; blue doesn’t mean blue to you the same way it does for everybody else. The same way certain people look at colors and feel different things, the simple things in life that reward other people don’t work that way, they don’t give you the same comfort. It just doesn’t work, which is why your mind searches around at fifty-thousand miles an hour and spits out the kind of shit Robin Williams did. I remember going to see him do stand-up in San Francisco when I was a little kid. He was fucking insane – great, but insane!
There’s a reason people get involved in making art, and it’s not because life is having the same impact on them every day as it does for everybody
else. It’s different. And when you can’t get the reward out of interactions with other people, well then you paint it or you write it or you make a joke about it. That’s what I don’t think people understand about it. It’s not that you just wake up depressed in the morning and that makes you want to be a comedian, but you don’t put the same thing in and get the same thing out that everybody else does in life and so you try and find another way to connect with life and get something out of it.
Someone asked me once if writing songs was cathartic and I said, “No, it’s not at all. Cathartic suggests that you get to exorcise that demon, but it’s not that way at all.” But, that said, the difference between a shitty day and a shitty day where at least a song comes out it, I choose the day with song. It doesn’t fix the day, but it’s better than nothing. The song lasts, even if your relationships don’t last and your friendships don’t last and feelings that you want to sustain you through life don’t last, but the song lasts and the painting lasts. So something from your life remains when it doesn’t seem like anything is going to. And that makes a big difference. It’s not cathartic, but at least you are present through life, at least you were here. You don’t just come along and fade away.
That pretty much nails it for me. Getting back to the album; I understand you’ve been playing these songs live. How has the reaction been, considering it’s not released yet?
Yeah, it’s been kind of great. We’re playing everything from the new album on this tour. Every single song is played, not every night, but on the second night of the tour we stuck “Palisades Park” in the opening slot in the encore, which is kind of a stupid place to put a song nobody knows. (laughs) It’s really not a great idea, but it worked! And it’s been there ever since. It’s kind of fucked up concerts for me in some ways. Maybe my favorite song ever is “Washington Square” and I got to sing it every night, because we stuck it on the encores. Now “Palisades Park” lives there. So it’s really been going over well. It’s funny, you never know until you play them live, but bizarrely “Cover Up The Sun” and “Dislocation” have gone over the best. Those songs really resonate with people.
I really love this record. I’m kind of knocked out by it. It’s so much a part of us. There is no way I write these songs without those guys being there, which is not how I usually write records. We did a little bit of that with Hard Candy, with everybody gathering together at my house, but for this record one of the reasons I had so many fragments of songs to work out is because I didn’t think they were any good. For me, I’ve always just written songs in one sitting and if I didn’t finish them I just figured they weren’t good, so I’d throw them out. And I realized I wasn’t finishing anything awhile ago. So I started keeping notes and recording everything and I started to realize I was writing differently than I had before, part of it is because I’ve been working on this play called Black Sun with Stephen Belber. Writing for different voices that aren’t mine and characters that aren’t me, for women’s voices, is pretty eye-opening. Then we did the cover’s album (Underwater Sunshine – 2012) and singing a whole record of other people’s songs, other people’s ways of looking at life forces you to look at this thing I’ve been doing from a different perspective than “How do I feel today?” I don’t think I could have written these songs without those experiences.
If you’ve been thinking that blue is quality for a lot of years and suddenly its green, at first it doesn’t register as being different, it just registers as not being good. So when I started working the songs out, those guys were right there, and I was able to get their response. I was messing around with the first verse and the chorus to “Elvis Went To Hollywood” and I wasn’t sure about it and I said, “What do you think?” and they flipped out. And that made me look at it differently. So I don’t think I would have gotten anywhere with this record without those guys being there and their contributions to it.