Interview: Adam Duritz of Counting Crows

By on Friday, 19th September 2014 at 11:00 am
 

American alt-rock band Counting Crows have made a strong re-emergence onto the music scene with a new album, ‘Somewhere Under Wonderland’, released this past Monday on Virgin/EMI Records. Lead singer Adam Duritz had already done a fair bit of promo when I caught up with him on Tuesday, but he was gracious enough to give me some insight into the new record, which features a surprisingly spirited reiteration of Counting Crows’ signature musical style.

On listening to ‘Somewhere Under Wonderland’, I was instantly struck by the energy and expansiveness of the sound, and I asked Duritz what had inspired that size and scope. He explained that the band were galvanized by their previous release, 2012’s ‘Underwater Sunshine (Or What We Did on Our Summer Vacation)’, which featured covers of songs by Teenage Fanclub, Big Star and Bob Dylan, to name just a few. “There was something really good happening with the band when we made ‘Underwater Sunshine’ a few years ago now. Playing all those songs by other people, I think it did a really good thing for the band. Maybe they took more ownership of it, or maybe it’s just the variety of playing songs by people other than me. We immediately noticed as soon as we got on tour that we were just way better. We’d always been a pretty good live band, but we got great after that. And you know, it was the best year and a half of touring of our lives, and when it was over, we just really wanted to record. I think there’s a lot of that, the guys in the band really being a lot more daring. I think they’ve played fantastic on these last couple of albums. The contributions, the collaborations with everyone. They just really, really did a great job.”

The opening track on the new album, called ‘Palisades Park’, makes an immediate statement about Counting Crows’ newly revitalized musicianship. Duritz says that he knew it would be the first song on the album as soon as they finished writing it. “I’m really proud of it, I mean I really love that piece. For years we’ve been taking our songs apart in concert and kind of exploding them, you know, like taking a left turn in the middle of ‘Round Here’ and going somewhere for 5 minutes, then going back to ‘Round Here’. We’ve been doing that with a lot of our songs for years and years, but we’ve never been able to write it into a song and therefore capture it on a record, and I think with ‘Palisades’ we really did that. We got a lot of what we’ve been doing live and put it the composition of a song. I think it was really cool, it’s a really unique piece of music.”

[youtube]https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VtZ3ACkTGC8[/youtube]

Starting with the extended musical journey of ‘Palisades Park’, ‘Somewhere Under Wonderland’ shows a variety of musical styles in its track list, including the more radio-friendly songs ‘Earthquake Driver’ and ‘Scarecrow’. Though ‘Scarecrow’ is the current radio single here in America, Duritz says the band didn’t write it with that intention. “It’s still probably 5 minutes long. They wanted us to cut it, but I said no, we’re not cutting anything. They wanted to remove all the guitars at the front and the back to make it shorter, but (we’re) just not really interested in doing that. It’s nothing we ever think about when we’re working on records, but it is how records are promoted, so it’s good to have songs on the radio. It’s not something we ever put a lot of thought into. It might be better if we did, but I wouldn’t even know how to do it anyways. Other than to clip everything shorter.”

Like previous Counting Crows records, ‘Somewhere Under Wonderland’ is filled with specific characters and geographical references. When I ask Duritz about the mysterious title to ‘Earthquake Driver’, which also contains the lyric that became the album’s title, he gives a vivid description of the character in the song as “a guy who can’t figure out whether he wants to be in a small pond or a big pond. He wants to make a difference, he wants his life to mean something, but he can’t decide whether it’s okay to do that.”

Talking about the very specific references that pepper his lyrics, Duritz remarks, “I’ve always been big on details. I think it’s just something I do when I write. It’s funny, when we were first signed to make a record, there were a lot of people who told me that I should stop doing that, to stop using proper names and place names, because they said it made it too personal and people couldn’t relate to it. Which might be true, but it still seems stupid to me. I like writing in details. I think that communicating things that really are meaningful to you will communicate something that’s meaningful to other people. But either way, I didn’t really care. I mean, the truth is, you write the songs that you’re moved to write, and in my case, details make a big difference.”

I suggest that those details might actually make the songs more relatable to a listener, and he continues, “oh, I think they probably do. But I had people telling me the opposite back in the day. But you’re not writing songs to relate to other people. You’re writing songs because they’re important to you. Hopefully people do relate to that, but I don’t have a plan for that, really. For me, I don’t think you need to tell people how you feel. I think if you tell them what’s on the shelves in the room that you’re in, how you feel comes through in that. I mean saying “I love you”, it can mean a lot when you’re saying it to another person, but in a song? It’s just like everybody (says) over and over and over again, it doesn’t really communicate anything anymore. But if you tell someone how it feels to look at someone, (for example) the line from ‘A Long December’: ‘All at once you look across a crowded room and see the way that light attaches to a girl’. That tells something about how the guy felt. I think the details make it meaningful.”

[youtube]https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1D5PtyrewSs[/youtube]

Duritz says that his songwriting has always been informed by his struggle with mental illness, specifically depersonalization disorder, and I comment that he seems to have addressed it directly in the songs on ‘Somewhere Under Wonderland’, particularly one called ‘Dislocation’. His reply is candidly straightforward. “Well, I mean I think you could go all the way back to most of the tracks on most of our records. They’re all sort of addressing me being a crazy fucker. There’s plenty of my nonsense all over our catalogue. Certainly ‘Dislocation’, but all the other ones too. I mean, ‘God of Ocean Tides’, the last line of it, ‘I can’t remember yesterday, I tried, if I said I could I lied’. That’s a part of the dissociative thing, not being able to register the meaning of anything that happened to you, remember who the people you know are. I mean, it’s all over all these songs.”

Duritz cites another creative project as influential to the songwriting on ‘Somewhere Under Wonderland’ as well. He has spent several years working on and off with Broadway playwright Stephen Belber on a play called ‘Black Sun’. While the project has been stalled by Duritz and Belber’s conflicting professional schedules, Duritz says it has been “the first time in my life I ever wrote for people other than myself. Writing different characters, different voices, you know, and discovering that it was possible to invest a lot of meaning in things that weren’t necessarily the pot of my own life. And that gave me a much larger palette to paint on.”

He is enthusiastic about the project, but unsure about when it might be completed. “It’s a really cool play, and it was really well-received when we did it at a playwright conference a few years ago. The other writers, the directors that were there, flipped over it. The crowd that saw the reading of it flipped out. I thought it was really cool sitting in the audience watching people sing my songs. But Stephen and I have two totally different careers, and it is just really hard to find time to do this. I don’t know, I’d love to finish it. I think it’s a spectacular piece. I pulled one song from the play for the record. Just one.”

That song is the final track on ‘Somewhere Under Wonderland’, called ‘Possibility Days’. Duritz clarifies his statement, saying “It was written right before we started to work on the play anyway, so it wasn’t really for the play, but it was a big part of the play. And I pulled it for this. It’s the only one I took, though. I don’t think it was the best song in the play by any stretch of the imagination, but it’s a really good song, which should give you an idea of the quality level of the play. It was really beautiful at the end of the record.”

For the moment, the ‘Black Sun’ project has taken a backseat to the busy promotion schedule leading into Counting Crows’ November UK tour dates. I ask Duritz how the constant promotion and performing affect his singing, as his vocals are a hallmark of Counting Crows’ overall sound. He says that he does end up doing interviews and promotion even during tours, but he keeps it to a minimum. “I try and limit it, because, I mean, we’re playing like 2+ hour shows nowadays, so they’re pretty long, and I sing really hard. I just have to be careful about it because you really do need to rest your voice. When we started out, I had trouble getting from gig to gig when we were playing half hour shows. Now we’re playing 2-hour shows and we’re 20 years older. And you know, it’s not easy, but I also never miss a show anymore. ” While he has learned to pace himself between performances, he says he doesn’t hold back when he’s on stage. “I get completely lost on stage during the shows. It’s only afterwards, I just go in a room and sit by myself for the next day.”

Looking beyond the upcoming UK tour dates, it’s easy to see why Duritz might need some time to himself. The band spent this past summer touring in America, and their autumn schedule is similarly busy. Duritz notes, “I haven’t had a day off in a long time. But we have some weeks off in October, and then Outlaw Roadshow comes to town again, so we have 30 musicians staying at my house and 30 or 40 bands playing in the Outlaw Roadshow in New York during CMJ. And then, when that’s over, we leave for England to start that tour.” For 2015, Counting Crows are looking at shows in Australia, South America and South Africa in the spring before returning to Europe for the summer festivals, followed by more touring in America. And after all that? “I don’t know, make another record or something. I’ve never really planned any of it out.”

Counting Crows’ new album ‘Somewhere Under Wonderland’ is available now on Virgin/EMI. Keep an eye here on TGTF for a full review of the album coming soon. Counting Crows will spend the first part of November playing tour dates in the UK, including two already sold out shows at the London Roundhouse.

Thank you to Adam Duritz for taking the time to talk with me, and to Kat and Michelle for arranging the interview.

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