Tuesday, October 02, 2012

INTERVIEW: Counting Crows (March 2012)

If you’d have told me at age 15 that one day I’d be chatting to one of my boyhood heroes while he swans around New York City in a taxi, I’d most likely have laughed you out of the room. If you’d then said that the same person – Counting Crows singer Adam Duritz, the man whose neuroses and outpourings of raw emotion formed the perfect soundtrack to my angst-ridden teenage years - would be sounding fairly chipper by his own dour standards, I would’ve been positively catatonic…

I suspect this sense of levity is a result of his band having recently released what may just be their finest album in over a decade. Underwater Sunshine (Or What We Did On Our Summer Vacation) is a collection of the group’s favourite cover songs, taking in familiar favourites from the likes of The Faces, Travis, Gram Parsons and Big Star in addition to lesser-known tracks by upcoming contemporaries The Romany Rye, Dawes and Kasey Anderson. Although several of the songs featured will be familiar to long-term followers of the band (Sordid Humor’s Jumping Jesus and Tender Mercies’ Four White Stallions – both groups that various Crows performed in before joining the current line-up - were a staple of their early live sets, while Teenage Fanclub’s Start Again, Bob Dylan’s You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere and Pure Prairie League’s Amie are re-recordings of former B-sides), the album exhibits a freshness which has perhaps been absent from some of their more recent material. Shot through with a sense of cheerful camaraderie, it’s a far cry indeed from their last studio release, 2008’s Saturday Nights And Sunday Mornings – an album which sounded like it was about as much fun to make as it ultimately was to listen to.

Truth be told, I’m still feeling a bit bad about dishing out such a pasting to their previous LP upon its release – time’s been slightly kinder to it than my initial prognosis suggested and, despite being their most difficult and unlovable offering to date, it now forms a grimly compelling portrait of the frontman’s fractured mindset following his diagnosis with Depersonalisation Disorder. During our conversation I take the opportunity to find out more about its troubled gestation, as well as ’fessing up to a fairly embarrassing incident from way back when…

Before talking about this album, I wanted to ask you about the last record, because there’s an absolutely marked contrast in mood between the two. It seemed like Saturday Nights and Sunday Mornings wasn’t a particularly happy place to be - is that a fair assessment?

[Laughs] Yeah, I think so! Absolutely. Actually, it sort of sucked…!

What was going on at the time?

Well, I was… it’s kind of similar to what’s been going on lately, in a less fun way… I was, uh… not doing well mentally…? I was having trouble getting a handle on it, and they’d just diagnosed it in a way that was pretty disturbing too. And I was sort of on a lot of medication, you know, I was going through a lot of weird side-effects of the medication - particularly when we were recording the Saturday Nights part. I was halfway narcoleptic, I remember, when we were recording that record – sometimes I was, like, half-awake, half-asleep, like: conscious but unconscious – I couldn’t open my eyes, but I could understand what was going on around me sometimes. I forgot about that. That was really creepy…

Sorry to bring it back up…!

[Laughs] Ah, it’s okay! Yeah, it’s always… that was a really tough time when we were making Saturday Nights – it was a little better when we were making Sunday Mornings; I kind of enjoyed making that record. That was pretty fun, that part of it. But the Saturday Nights part of it, that was a fucking huge downer! I mean, I love the record – it was fun and very liberating to play loud music, very angry loud music like that: that was a blast, in a way. But it was so disturbing when we were doing it – it was the first time they’d ever really got a clear diagnosis on me, so in that sense it was sort of the first sign of things starting to get better. But at the time, it just felt like a real downer. I mean, they were considering electro-shock therapy… I don’t think they really wanted it – they brought it up in the conversation and were talking about it being a last resort. But it seemed so matter-of-fact that they brought it up that it really threw me for a loop at the time. Thankfully, that never happened!

Has it influenced your choice in deciding to do this record in any way – that sense of being able to say, “I’m not going to sing about myself for a while”?

Oh, a little bit of both, I mean… I don’t know if it was particularly inspired by the other record – it’s just something we wanted to do, too. Because we like playing these sorts of songs – we do like covering other people’s music. While I think songwriting is an important thing, it requires a total skill and ear to become really everything, and I’m not sure it really should be, because interpretation is certainly an equally worthy art-form as well. You know, a lot of our greatest artists didn’t write, and a lot of our greatest artists didn’t sing, so there are great songs out there. People wrote great songs: you know, you don’t buy Burt Bacharach records, but Burt Bacharach wrote a shitload of songs. You don’t buy Dan Penn records, but we love to hear Dark End of the Street and we listen to Do Right Woman… all those great songs he wrote. And there’s something to be said for – especially when you’re in a band - you come up with so many bands, and you know so many bands. But so many of them, no-one else gets to hear: you know, they’re just friends of yours, or they’re people you met at this gig or another gig, and they never really make it big but they have these amazing songs. And so many of the great songs, nobody ever hears, you know? And they’re out there – it’s like this treasure-trove of music out there, and great songs by bands people don’t listen to. I mean, now, everyone listens to Big Star, to a certain extent, but think about if Big Star had never gotten heard. There’s just so much music out there that it kind of knocks me out. And we love playing covers, because they’re fun that way, too – another part of your musical talent has to do with interpreting. It’s the same thing, in a way, that the other guys in the band do when they work on a song that I wrote by myself, you know? But it gives me a chance to do it as well. It’s like: get in someone else’s head, and find my own take on it.

You know, everyone keeps calling me up, my friends, family, everybody: “Hey man, I just want to tell you, I really enjoyed this record”. And I go, “Oh, great, I love it, I love it too”. And they go, “No, I really enjoy this record – I keep listening to it, I really enjoy it”. And all I can think of is: yeah, that’s what happens when you pull me out of the fucking mix! [Laughs] Things start to get a hell of a lot more fun!

It is – dare I say it, for Counting Crows – a fun record which you end up going back to again and again. I really like the sense that you can tell everyone’s in a room just enjoying playing.

I mean, we still beat the shit out of each other when we were recording it, like we do. But, you know, you want your record to be really good. But yeah, you know, we just got into it in a way that’s… I dunno, I don’t know if it’s better to make your own records, but I do think it’s different, and different is always good. You know what I mean? There’s nothing wrong with having another string that you don’t normally have. For me, this record is having strings I didn’t normally have – the other guys too, probably, in a way, and for listeners, it seems like. So it really is an enjoyable record. It’s not that it’s light-hearted, but it’s a lot of fun to listen to. I keep listening to it over and over again too!

Well, that’s fine!

I would’ve gotten really good stick ten years ago if I found that: that guy’s a downer! Another me…

Underwater Sunshine is an interesting record in a sense, because although it’s a collection of covers, it does still feel very much like a Counting Crows album in that it’s a kind of road-map of the band itself – where you’ve come from, and perhaps where you’re going in the future in terms of current influences. Do you think that’s accurate?

Um, yeah… and I think that any record we did like this always would’ve been, and always will be - if we do another one in ten years, it’ll be just like that, too. Inevitably, you pick the songs that influence you, you pick the songs that are interesting you now… I think it’s a very good road-map. But if you look at it, it also sort of tells you a lot about our musical sensibilities, too. I mean, in a lot of ways, where we’re going now is where we always did. It’s just always been good songwriters and it’s never necessarily needed to be very mainstream - although we’ve ended up being a popular band, our tastes were always wherever they were. I mean, in a way, Dawes and Kasey Anderson and Coby Brown are very closely related to Fairport Convention and Big Star and Sordid Humor. They’re all really good bands, and Dawes right now is becoming more successful, hopefully Kasey will as well, and Coby… you never know. They’re just really good, it didn’t seem to matter to us – we’ve always been that kind of band, we were always interested in… we dug music. We’ve always been music-huge.

You’ve always been very hands-on in picking your own support acts when you go out on the road, and you started your own record label [E Pluribus Unum] - is it nice to be able to be in a position to shed light on some lesser-known musicians, as you have here?

Um… yeah, I mean, I guess – I’ve never really thought of it [like that]. There were times we did tours that were more commerce-based, but… yeah. If you’re in a band, all of a sudden you stop seeing bands – they’re on tour all the time. So it’s really great to bring people out with you that you wanna go see, ’cos then you can still see music. I mean, on a purely selfish level it’s good for myself that way, as otherwise I would never have got to see anybody play – so that was nice that we had bands on there and we could just watch them play.

Going back to that initial period of the band’s history that you describe in the liner notes, do you ever look back with a sense of surprise at the way things turned out? It seems like any one of those bands that you mention could’ve been the ones to make it, with any combination of musicians…

Um… I dunno, I mean, it’s sort of a long time past then to be thinking about being surprised now – this has become my life for twenty years now, so I don’t really think I’m surprised… this sort of thing just happens. One thing I’ve realised is that it just happens with some bands, others don’t… there’s not a lot of rhyme or reason to it. I dunno – you want to make the best of your chance when you get it – we always did that. Like, if we were going to be on Saturday Night Live, we kicked ass. We didn’t take any risks or tamper with that. You know, it’s a weird thing – there are times when we weren’t as good on TV, and it’s kind of dumb luck in a way that we were really good when it really mattered: you know, when it was Letterman in the beginning and it was Saturday Night Live and the first time on Jools Holland’s show, I’d say – those times, we didn’t screw up at all. You know, we were on fire for those sort of gigs. And I dunno, it’s hard to think of it that way – on the one hand, it’s a lot of like: I don’t know why it’s us, and not one of the other bands… they were great bands. You know, some of those guys – even though the bands didn’t make it, a lot of the times it was just choices, and they chose lives that have been really good for them. You know, they got married, they had kids… I don’t know if they would even regret it themselves. Sometimes it’s just like: you work at something for long enough, and you just want to be something else. And they did other things, so in that sense it’s not really that much of a shame because some of them have really great families, and I know a lot of those guys still and they’re happy.

I suppose the question that comes out of that, then, is a bit of a philosophical one: would you trade?

[There follows a long pause, during which I think we may have got cut off.]

- Hello…?

Yeah, I’m just thinking! …It’s a hard question, because one thing I know is that you can’t trade. You just have to deal with your own life and get it together. I dunno, there’s things… I used to think there was nothing more important than music, but now I think that that was a little naïve. But it’s still a choice I made, and that’s part of why we’re here too, you know – it’s because I always made that choice, for better or for worse. We never faltered in that, and that’s part of the reason we did make it too, and why it’s not much of a surprise. There was nothing more important than that – not even my sanity at times, or anything else. We just did what we had to do: we just played and played and played, and music was always the answer for everything. And you know, it seems it’s probably not, but that’s a choice you make.

You were always notable in the pre-social networking days as one of the more ‘hands-on’ stars in music, engaging with fans online via internet messaging boards and so forth. Since splitting with the record label, you’ve had a productive couple of years putting out your own material like the All My Bloody Valentines EP. This idea of going ‘straight to the source’ - crowd-sourcing artwork and self-releasing albums to an already existing audience – is that a more comfortable approach for you as a band nowadays?

Yeah – well, it’s not even a captive audience: to me, we’re always expanding it. You know, the thing about the internet is that you can get people to listen to anything you want them to – it’s just like a better radio station that you don’t have to bribe! I kind of feel like it’s where we were headed all along – I remember spotting the AOL message boards when I first moved to Hollywood, and that was 1995. So that was a long time ago, but it occurred to me, I was like: “Oh, wow – look, the internet! This connects to everyone in the world for free! This is the greatest thing in the world, I can’t wait to tell the record company!” Oh, wait. Oh, we can’t – at all…? That’s just great. That’s really smart! [Laughs]

You know, for me, this was like sixteen years ago when I first ran into the brick-wall of stupidity of a record label not wanting to use the internet! That’s a long fucking time ago to suffer through all this, like – I’m pulling out my hair knowing that I have this thing was basically like a version of the tower of Babel. It just connects everyone in the world for free, and these people insist on paying hundreds of thousands of dollars to get records played on a radio station. Bribing them – to do nothing guaranteed, by the way – just bribing them. Stupid. Stupid.

It’s just been, like… I’m so liberated. I mean, it didn’t really help the records at all – we gave up all the money. We signed with Geffen because they gave us full career freedom. There was never an iota of interference on making records, we made whatever record we wanted to make - they barely came by and visited. You know, it was a big deal for them to come by and visit, they had to call and ask permission or whatever. And we were fine – they were nice people, so they came by, they had smart music people at Geffen. But it sure has affected what we can do outside of that, because I am all about downloads! [Laughs] I think it’s the greatest thing in the world – I’m all about, like, streaming music, getting downloads and connecting with your fans because Jesus, it’s just so easy! I mean, why would you not do it? It’s not even a populist thing with me, it’s just, like, smart business: turn the world into your radio station! Who’s carrying a boom-box round on their shoulder? Nobody! But everybody’s got an iPod. So give ’em a song they can put on their fuckin’ iPod! [Laughs] How hard is it not to do that?! So, I dunno.

It always did surprise me – I mean, I kind of know why it happened, because Napster happened, and their first experience of it was such a negative thing that they were out of the field ever since then. And the only thing I can say about it is, well, in a way it’s kind of good for us now because there isn’t a lot of competition in that area - the record labels still aren’t doing it. So, I mean, we can just give out songs, and we’re the only ones doing it – I mean, there’s lots of indie bands. But almost everything you do seems like a groundbreaking move even if you’ve seen a thousand bands do it before, because they were doing it independently. To me, this is like the best time to be a musician or a music fan since the 80s when there were all the great independent labels and the college radio circuit, because there’s room for everybody nowadays: there’s so much played on the radio, and on the internet it’s like having college radio everywhere. It’s just amazing to me. It survives now, because there’s so many outlets for it.

That’s a really interesting thing to hear from a big-name act – certainly over here in Britain it’s only really Radiohead who seem to be beating the drum for free downloads, and a lot of the acts on major labels seem to be really against it. Do you think it’s the same in America? Are bands still trying to get onto labels because it’s seen as the ‘accepted’ way of doing things?

Yeah, I do think it’s that way, because you still have to have really smart people around you. It’s still really hard to do it, but it’s still like: you’re only limited by your own imagination. You need to have that imagination! Now you’re free to do anything you want, but what are you gonna do? I don’t think most managers have necessarily thought about that yet. You know, I think a lot of them are still trying to get everybody on a major label. Because, you know, I’m not sure that the commerce model has been proven out about making a fortune out of an independent band. That’s a hard thing to do. If you want to make a lot of quick money, you might still have to be on a major label. I don’t know. We have a little bit of an advantage that way – well, I would say a lot of an advantage! But, that said, if I was advising another band when I talk to people now, I’d still advise them to find yourselves the smartest set of managers you can find. And stay independent, because there’s so many ways to do it if you’re smart – you might not make a billion dollars, but you might make a good living. And it’s yours, you know what I mean? Because those major labels, they hijack your fortune, but it’s also just a graveyard for bands. That’s where bands really go to die – it’s like, languishing on a major label, no-one doing anything for you, you can’t do anything on your own, and you’re just stuck there. It just seems like such a doomed area – it’s hard for me to recommend that to bands. I just feel like I saw so many bands die on major labels. At least when you’re on your own you have, like… you can always try something new.

What’s your relationship with the core fanbase like nowadays? I know you’ve had fairly heated disputes from time to time on the Counting Crows message boards…

Oh, I dunno! [Laughs] Beats me. You know, it’s the internet. It’s where you go to complain! I do think that, y’know, that’s where you go to whine about shit. [Laughs] It’s just like politics in America nowadays – a very small minority makes a lot of noise. So I’m sure… I mean, we played in Austin the other day - they told me we’d probably have about ten thousand people and twenty-five thousand people showed up. So it shows we’re all still pals! [Laughs] So now we’re all getting along. There was a lot of people there, so…

Obviously the band’s level of peak exposure can be traced back to the August & Everything After days, but you remain – to my mind at least, and certainly from a physical standpoint – one of the most recognisable figures in popular music. What’s your relationship with fame like these days? Are you any more comfortable with it than you used to be?

Oh, probably much more comfortable with it than I was at the very beginning, sure – because I mean, like, that was really weird! You know, you have to make adjustments to your life: it’s like waking up on a different planet. But, you know, I got used to things. I’m never gonna be, like… some of that stuff is just born and bred. From childhood, I really didn’t like cameras. [Laughs] I never liked having my picture taken since about the time that I was four. So then I got myself in a job where I had to take about seven thousand pictures a day, so that was freaking me out a little bit! So yeah – that’s never gonna change, probably; you just get a little numb to it sometimes. You know, I’m never gonna love cameras, but I sure do live around a lot of them!

This is perhaps another big one, then, given your numerous outpourings to the contrary in the past, both musically and in interviews – are you happy?

Oh… I don’t know how to answer that question! I dunno, I’m still trying to sort of figure out how to make my brain work and live a normal life. It’s such a work-in-progress – last year was such a big honing of the diagnosis, and while we were making this record I was going through just fucking horrible withdrawals off the drugs, because the doctors decided I was on a bunch of drugs I shouldn’t be on anymore – it’s not that I was abusing it, it’s just that the prescriptions were to keep me alive during, like, Saturday Nights and Sunday Mornings time. I needed to get off some of this stuff, so I had to switch off seven drugs – and those things are very addictive. And that is quite an ordeal. The withdrawals were just horrific, so that was kind of hairy. But, you know… that’s while we were making this record. You can hear it on some of the songs – it’s most audible, obviously, on Hospital. I was literally vibrating around the room while singing it.

That’s actually my favourite track on the record, actually – I think it’s by far the best thing on there.

I love that song, I think it’s amazing. Well, obviously as my focus was just hard, because I did some of the best arrangements of my life – Hospital and Like Teenage Gravity. I mean, I couldn’t be any more proud of two songs than those two. For some reason, I had absolutely… I don’t know how it happened, because I am usually not that specific, but I had pretty much every note - I knew when we started playing the songs, all of a sudden I had very clear ideas about exactly… all these bits with everybody coming in… I had a really good picture about what we should be doing in that song. And then Teenage Gravity was a nightmare for a little bit, and then I got this idea, then everyone kind of jumped on it and it really worked, you know. But I think it turned out great – maybe part of it is just literally the inability to stop oneself from shaking and twitching makes you, like, completely focused. So, you know, Hospital turned out really, really well. That’s a great song - I love that. Just a great fucking piece of little… we didn’t really even have a recording of that song – all we had was the demo that Immy had just done with Coby Brown, I think it was maybe just bass and guitar was all there was, and the lyrics weren’t totally finished. It was really, like, virgin territory, which is kind of cool.

For my own amusement, then, here’s a question I always ask of artists who’ve had a long career in music – what are your top five favourite Counting Crows songs?

Oh, wow. That’s a hard one, because I really don’t… I’ve said this a lot of times, but they’re really like elbows and knees to me – I like ’em both, I need them both, I use them all… so I don’t really know if I have ‘favourites’.

Let’s put it another way, then – what are the five songs that you’d like to be remembered for?

[Laughs] …Okay. I probably didn’t write those. I wish I could’ve! Um… ah, god, that’s a really hard question for me because I just… I don’t even think in terms of that. Well… [Thinks] I don’t know if they’re my favourites, but I really loved Amy Hit the Atmosphere – it’s really beautiful, that song… uh… I Wish I Was a Girl… um… Cowboys… um… 1492

I’m glad you said that. 1492 is, in my opinion, the best song you’ve ever written.

Yeah, I mean, to me it was very much like the whole of the last record came off 1492 – everything came off of that. And Washington Square. They are just songs that I really, really love for whatever reason – they say a lot about where I was at that point in time. I would say that the best, most perfect song I’ve ever written was probably A Long December – it kind of wrote itself. But it’s like, that list could change from day to day… I really love Speedway, too. Carriage is just incredibly sad. I dunno, those ones seem really important to me, for some reason – but that’s kind of where I’m at right now. Maybe coming off all the drugs, Amy Hit the Atmosphere seemed really important because that’s about a friend who fell into being a user. And, uh… Cowboys and 1492 are very much about where my life was last year, as was Washington Square. And Wish I Was a Girl – I just think wow, that’s a fucking crazy recording. That record was all about experimenting and stuff, and that is a fucking crazy recording! But I just love that song. And we really like performing it live, because it’s so insane that when we pulled it off live, I thought it was so cool.

Finally, then – I just wanted to say that I met you once in Manchester in 1997, and I’ve always felt a bit bad about this: you came out to watch Cake (who were supporting you) and I wandered over and bothered you for your autograph. It was only afterwards that I realised that was basically what the entire Recovering the Satellites album was about – so I wanted to take the opportunity, fifteen years after the fact, to finally apologise! I was only fifteen at the time, so I really didn’t know any better…

…Was I a jerk?

No, you were very sweet about it – you signed my little bit of paper and that was fine, but I’ve always felt bad about it. So there you go!

I wouldn’t worry about it too much – I think it’s pretty natural to ask for that stuff. And it’s part of what happens in that situation is not that anyone does anything wrong – everyone does exactly what comes naturally, as it’s just real different from your normal, natural life, and everything changes a little bit. But I don’t, you know… but that’s the thing that makes it hard is that you’re really not doing anything particularly bad, it’s just… everything changes. Y’know, hey – I’m just a fan too!

Underwater Sunshine (Or What We Did On Our Summer Vacation) is available now on Cooking Vinyl.


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