Counting Crows' Adam Duritz: SNL made us, but never had us back
Photo courtesy of the artist
With a career spanning two decades, Counting Crows have proven that releasing a megahit in the '90s hasn't been the only thing to sustain them. After releasing six albums since 1993, the most recent, Underwater Sunshine, is a departure for them as a collection of cover songs. Including both modern and 50-year-old compositions, Adam Duritz and the band took the chance to pay tribute to other artists, one of them being Bob Dylan.
Appropriately, the Counting Crows are on a U.S. tour with Dylan's son Jakob, frontman for the Wallflowers, and play at Myth in St. Paul tonight. Both bands represent the tenacity it takes to not only stay relevant but to build a long-lasting, solid fan base. Gimme Noise took some time to chat over the phone with Adam Duritz to discuss the band's current plans as well as the some of the challenges he has faced with his career in the business.
Gimme Noise: Have you spent much time hanging out with The Wallflowers on this tour?
Adam Duritz: No, there hasn't been a lot of that. It's just been exhausting. I know they've been on the road for a while, so everyone's kind of focused. Tour is work. You have to really focus on that because you don't want to screw it up. If you mess around too much, you wake up with no voice, especially nowadays.
After being on the road for more than twenty years, does it feel more like work now than it did before?
I don't know, it's always been a job. You just don't want to fucking fail at it. I do better at it now. When I was younger it was just harder for me to focus. Playing gigs is great because you're only doing it for a couple of hours a day. Most people play music as a hobby. It's strictly for fun, like collecting stamps or something. It's not something most people do for a job. Work is not an unsatisfying thing. It's not like, is it fun or is it work? It's satisfying to be a grownup and support yourself, especially because with what we do, there were years where it seemed impossible to take care of yourself. To have made a whole life out of it -- it's really satisfying.
Speaking to that, you have been fortunate to have this career for such a long period of time, does it feel like a challenge to create and move forward in a changing industry?
It's always been a challenge. It's never been a particular well-run business, from the beginning. It's really hard now because the changes with the Internet, but that has also made it easier in some ways. You're free to do whatever you want. You don't have to work for a record company. It's kind of great. It takes a lot of the frustration out of things. We still write for the same reasons and sing for the same reasons. It might not be easy to become a superstar or something, but it's possible to record and be in a band in ways that it never was before.
What's it like for you looking back at the time when "Mr. Jones" came out?
It's very similar to now. The record company didn't want "Mr. Jones" as a single. They wanted "A Murder of One," but they wanted to edit the song. I wouldn't let them, so we agreed to disagree and put out nothing. We just went around, toured with the Cranberries, and radio stations were coming out to see those bands. We didn't even think it was a hit single either. We just thought it was a good introductory song. But I think things really blew up not just because of "Mr. Jones" anyway. I think it was playing on Saturday Night Live. When we played SNL we weren't even in the top 200 with "Mr. Jones" being a radio hit. When we played SNL, the record jumped 40 spots a week.
Did that experience shock you or did you feel validated?
Well I thought the record had great songs. So I thought playing it on national TV was a really great idea. I thought it would establish us. That said, it's still bizarre. But that never stops being weird. No matter how big you are, you can't tell what's going to suddenly excite an entire culture to all jump on the same bandwagon at once. Nobody knows what does that. It just happens sometimes. You try to put your best foot forward and you try to take every opportunity to be the best you can be, but lots of people are great all the time, and it doesn't guarantee them success. Lots of people are shitty and they have hit after hit.
Is it a conscious effort for you to try and keep the same fan following you've had and maintain a certain image?
You make music and see what happens. That's its own thing. People following you doesn't enter into writing songs at all. Never has. But you always have to work on tour, on Twitter, on Facebook, you're still running a business and I think we've been pretty good at it for a long time. We've always been conscious of that. I can remember when I first moved to LA, between, August and Everything After and Recovering the Satellites, and realizing that AOL had message boards for all these different bands. There was a Counting Crows message board on AOL, and I realized I could just talk to fans directly this way. It took me a while to convince people it was me, but once I did I could talk directly to our fans and that started a community. That's even before social media. It's hard to keep people interested in what you're doing for a year, but we've done it for twenty years. We really focused, and I think that's the reason a lot of bands don't survive.
Has there ever been a time when you questioned your passion and thought maybe you should do something else with your life?
Well I think I questioned it every single time someone told me we were doing the wrong thing, which is what makes it all the better that we're still doing it. As far as my own personal passion, well yeah, that too because it's a weird version of public over-sharing. When you're young and you decide you want to write songs, it feels like the right thing to do. At a certain point, I'm like, "What the fuck am I doing talking to all of these people about this personal stuff? Why am I putting my life up for discussion?" It's a bizarre thing to do. In a way it's embarrassing, but I balance it out by doing other stuff. You have to make a decision to do it anyway.
Do you do it because it's cathartic?
No. It's not cathartic at all. I don't know how to describe it -- the satisfaction of making art. Catharsis is a way that everybody can relate to it. It's more important for everybody else's life. I think most people think of a moment of catharsis where you express something emotional. But when you're in a band, you do it every night. That would be an insane amount of catharsis. I'm not saying it's not emotional and intense. You're giving something out of yourself, working out a problem.
You write a lot of songs about love and connection. How much of that is a reflection of your real life?
I don't think I'm writing about love as much as about people finding connection and people failing to connect. That's what life is all about. Especially with my difficulties in my head, connection is a hard thing. I've struggled with mental illness over the years, some kind of associative disorder, so it's a challenge. It doesn't quite work right, like it does for other people. I have a hard time with that so that's why I've written so much about it.
Is writing songs the easiest way for you to feel connected?
I don't think it fixes problems like that. But if I had a shitty day when I didn't write a song versus a shitty day where I did write a song, at least I got something done. I've had a lot of trouble, but as long as I'm gonna fuck up that much, at least I'm writing songs instead of doing nothing.
It's a bit ironic, though that you feel like you have trouble connecting with people even when the songs that you write, millions of people feel connected to.
They are connecting. I don't have problems with other people connecting. I have problems with me connecting. The problem is me, not everybody else. I write these songs in an attempt to connect, but I don't make the connection.
Isn't that frustrating as a musician, though?
It's not frustrating as a musician. It's frustrating as a human being. It's perfectly satisfying as a musician because they are connecting with my songs. We're all just connecting with a song.
Tell me about the process of putting together cover songs for Underwater Sunshine last year and the new live stuff on Echos of the Outlaw Roadshow?
Well Underwater Sunshine was really cool. You know, it never occurred to me before, the difference of interpretation of music. Like Frank Sinatra didn't write any songs. Diana Ross didn't write any songs. They were great interpreters of other people's songs. There's a great history of that. When we did this record, it was like getting to collaborate with all of these people who weren't there. It was really eye-opening. It really occurs to me now as what a waste it was to spend a career working with only one songwriter, even in this case when the songwriter was me. It changed the band. We didn't even realize it at the time, but we started playing shows together after this record, and we were way better. We've always been a really good live band, but we got great after making this record.
With Echos, we've recorded every show we've ever played pretty much. Because this year was so good touring, after making the record, we wanted to do some kind of a documentation of it. It's kind of emblematic of being an independent band right now. Being independent, the nice thing is if we want to try something we can. If someone has a good idea, you just try it. This is a perfect example of that. It's a gift for fans who buy tickets here. At some point we'll sell it.
When you look back at your career, from the beginning until now, are you accustomed to the fame and success or is there part of you that is surprised that it worked?
We're really proud of all of our records and a lot of our shows, too. Saturday Night Live made our career, but we've never been invited back because of what happened that week. I don't know whether that's a mistake or not. They wanted "Mr. Jones" first, but we made an agreement, and we stuck to it. They kept trying to force us to do it differently. It made our career, no doubt in my mind that our choices were the right choices, but there's a price you pay for that for being stubborn. We got where we got because we stuck by a lot of stuff. We're still doing the indie stuff. It's kind of nice to get back to that. This is the first tour with an established band that we've done in a while. We're getting ready to make a record in the fall, so its easier to take the summer to do this.
When you've had a lot of mainstream success at the beginning, everybody sort of pegs you as a mainstream corporate band. We'd fight with our labels and be a huge pain the ass and made a shitload of money, but it was always a fight. Those guys will live the rest of their lives knowing they didn't want "Mr. Jones."
Counting Crows. With the Wallflowers. 6:30 p.m. Tuesday, July 9 at Myth. Tickets here.
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