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Permanent and Infinite: Counting Crows' Adam Duritz on Making Music That Lasts

Wednesday, 05 October 2022 Written by Simon Ramsay

Photo: Mark Seliger

The best songwriters refuse to compromise themselves for anyone or anything.  Such a strong,  unwavering commitment to artistic integrity, though, renders them immune to outside pressures—they are unmoved by those who don’t understand their process and unapologetic about the time it takes to craft their music. If ever a songsmith embodied those ideals, it’s Counting Crows’ Adam Duritz.

It’s almost impossible to find an interview with the vocalist that doesn’t mention the time he and his band take to make records. In fairness to Duritz, he always answers those questions graciously and politely. After all, when you’ve only made five albums in nearly 30 years, it’s not an absurd thing to ask.

Although there’s a practical element to his seemingly sluggish work rate, dig a little deeper and you’ll find someone who cares so passionately about his artistic vision that, when inspiration strikes, he’ll follow his muse wherever it leads, pouring every ounce of himself into ensuring the material is both top drawer and presented in exactly the right format to flourish.  

The belated follow up to 2014’s ‘Somewhere Under Wonderland,’ last year’s ‘Butter Miracle Suite One’ perfectly encapsulated Duritz’s approach. Initially seeming like a meagre offering after eight years' wait, that uninterrupted four song snapshot, which he wrote on a friend’s farm in the English countryside, slowly revealed itself to be a beautiful body of work that epitomised the phrase quality over quantity.  

We caught up with Adam prior to Counting Crows’ upcoming UK tour to chat about his songwriting approach, the challenges of playing their latest release live and why, somewhat frustratingly, work on the second part of ‘Butter Miracle’ has been temporarily derailed by a talented gang of youths.

After ‘Butter Miracle Suite One’ was released you said you were really excited about playing it live in its entirety. When it first came to performing that 20 minute piece of music, without any breaks, what were the biggest challenges?

Well, I thought the big hang up was gonna be two things. One was people having to switch instruments in the middle, which was necessary, especially for ‘Immer’ (multi-instrumentalist David Immerglück). The whole of Tall Grass is based on his acoustic guitar, so he has to be playing acoustic, but that’s his electric on everything else. So he has to get to electric guitar, which means somebody else has to switch from electric to acoustic. You have to have enough time to do that.  

And the other worry was the background vocals because there’s a lot of them.  Sometimes up to six or seven parts. I was concerned that it was going to be a nightmare to learn but, when I showed up for the first day of rehearsals, the guys had been rehearsing for a couple of days without me, I walked in and they’d figured it all out. I don’t know what they went through in those first two days with how to switch instruments, but they had the vocals down and were pretty much there. I was shocked and surprised.

The hardest part of it now is focusing throughout the whole thing. You can’t finish a big moment and think ‘OK, there’s nothing here.’ No, there’s a whole new song here and you have to get your head into that. When I get to the last chorus of Bobby And The Rat Kings my voice is tired. I’ve been singing for 20 minutes without a breath.

I’m a pretty good tambourine player but don’t do it much in concert. It gets exhausting. But the tambourine is really important in the choruses of Elevator Boots and Jim, who did it on the record, is busy playing drums. So I pick up the tambourine and start playing it. That also leaves me pretty tired going into Angel On 14th Street, which is the hardest one to sing. By the time I get to the end of Bobby I could use some water and a few breaths.

Last year you spoke about being back on the farm in England, hoping to write the second part of the ‘Butter Miracle’. Where are you at with that right now?  

Well, I did write it. But while I was over here I also sang on my friend Dave Le'aupepe’s record. His band is called Gang Of Youths. When I got home he sent me the record.  I listened to it and thought, ‘These new songs of mine aren’t good enough.’ [It gave me] a clearer perspective of ‘This is what we’re aiming for. I need to do some more work.’   

Did you throw out those songs and go back to the drawing board or are you refining them? 

A bit of both. I liked a lot of the bones of it. I thought some lyrics really needed work and some of the music didn’t move me enough. This is kind of their fault, Dave and the band, because that record ‘Angel In Real Time’ is so fucking good. It’s honestly the first time in my entire career, in my entire life, that I’ve ever finished something, listened to somebody else’s record and then thought, ‘Mine’s not good enough.’  It’s never happened to me before. That whole record is genius but there’s this one song, The Man Himself, and I found myself thinking, ‘This is what we aspire to.’ I’ve never recorded anything I thought was less than fantastic so I’m not going to do this.       

What might the second suite sound like in comparison to the first part?

I have a sound palette based on the songs I was working on. There’s some heavy guitar again. One is very riff heavy. Another is a jaunty Beatlesy melodic song. One is a slow, not really blues, but minor chord melody I like. Until I’m done I don’t think I’ll have a big idea. I knew when I finished the first suite that I really wanted a lot of Mick Ronson guitar, Ziggy Stardust kind of stuff, especially for Elevator Boots.  I wanted that Mott The Hoople feel. I didn’t have a lot of detail in there. I just wanted the palette to be colourful.

Music’s been the centre of your life since you were a child. You’re geekily obsessed with it. So what I don’t understand is how you can feel that way, yet go for such long periods without writing?

Since we made our first record I’ve never been a guy who wrote every day. Before that I was but, as soon as we made our first record, you have to spend years touring and I can’t write on tour. I don’t play guitar and can’t bring a piano to my hotel room every night. So it’s sort of this enforced year to year and a half, after every record, where I couldn’t be writing. But writing’s not the be all and end all of my musical experience.  

I feel there’s three parts to it. You do this thing by yourself where you write songs, or with some other person, that’s the ‘something from nothing’ period. And then you have the most important part where you take the skeleton you’ve written, this bare bones thing, this idea, and turn it into a song with the whole band. That’s maybe the most exciting part. It’s the place where there’s the most collaboration in a band. If there’s a band you love, that’s the moment that makes the band the band.  Where they all get together and do it. And then there’s the part where you take it out every night and filter it through your daily life, or filter your daily life through the song, and the song lives on in a different form every night on tour. Those are all equally important to me. 

Early on in your career, you were told not to be so specific with your lyrics. It seems like a strange note because those detailed, evocative words are what make your songs so emotionally resonant.

Yeah, that was just bad advice. You get a lot of that. All you have to do is interact with a record company. It’s the perfect place to get a lot of bad advice. That was like, ‘People won’t relate to this. You need something everyone can relate to and they won’t relate to this because they don’t live on that street. They don’t know that town. They don’t know those people.’ And I just remembered it as, ‘That’s stupid, I don’t have to listen to you.’

That’s a lot of what it is. They’re trying to think in terms of selling and they’re even wrong about that, because the things that give body to art are the specifics. You can’t write a book that’s just about feelings, you have to talk about the room you’re in. You need a setting. Place gives resonance. People give resonance. A proper name sounds more moving, even if you don’t know who the person is, than ‘that girl.’ And with just the use of a name you start to picture the person. When you say ‘that girl’ it doesn’t mean anything.

What emotional state do you do your best writing in?

I was gonna say miserable but I think it’s really hopeful. Most of my songs, even if they’re about something difficult, they’re generally about hope. That’s a big part of my music. That sense of possibility and hope. Possibility Days is a very emblematic song. It takes the philosophy behind everything I’ve written and puts it in a much more specific form. 

A lot of your writing focuses on trying to make peace with your memories and find a comfortable equilibrium between, in your words, how to ‘carry your past, look back but not swim there.’ How have you managed to live with those ghosts?

I don’t know that you do, ever. Someone once asked me if songwriting is therapeutic, and I said, ‘No, I don’t think so. I don’t think it fixes anything.’ But if I have to choose between a day when I’m not feeling great, or a day when I’m not feeling great but I write a song, that’s better. At least I was productive. I can look back and say, ‘Well, I really examined those feelings and dealt with them and faced them and something good came out of it. This is beautiful. This song rocks.’  Whatever it is, something positive is mined out of difficulty. That way difficulty is not just a hole you’re slowly sinking in. It becomes something else.It doesn’t fix the difficulty but it is a positive benefit if you can create something out of it.

You’ve had a huge amount of acclaim from fans and fellow musicians. But do you feel, critically speaking, you’re an underrated songwriter?

Oh, we were shit on by critics for a good 10 years, from the moment we were done with ‘August and Everything After’ until ‘Saturday Nights And Sunday Mornings.’  ‘Recovering The Satellites,’ ‘This Desert Life’ and ‘Hard Candy’ are our best work and they were brushed off at the time. We were sort of a joke for a while, which happens when you have a lot of success right at the beginning. I get it, .but it doesn’t thrill me that it happened.  

But a little while ago Bill Simmons, he’s a sports writer in America but also produces a series of documentaries on HBO called Music Box, came to me and said, ‘In our next season I want to make a documentary about the making of ‘Recovering The Satellites’ and what it was like coming from all this acclaim on ‘August And Everything After’ to a backlash and dismissal of this record that was so powerful.’  So we’re getting to a place, now, where someone wants to make a documentary about the fact we got backhanded at that moment.

Many great bands have shown that, if you hang in there long enough, things do have a habit of coming full circle.

Whatever you deal with in the public sphere, however you’re viewed, that isn’t necessarily infinite or permanent. The thing that is permanent and infinite is the work you did. Even if, in 1996, nobody got ‘Recovering The Satellites,’ then in ‘99 most people didn’t appreciate ‘This Desert Life.’ Well, ‘Recovering The Satellites’ and ‘This Desert Life’ are still there and pristine. They’re not fading so, as time passes, if people decide ‘OK, you weren’t a piece of shit during those years’ they can always go back and discover that. And here comes a guy with a pretty acclaimed documentary series that wants to make a movie about it. ‘Recovering The Satellites’ is still there and, if someone wants to go and check that out right now, what they’ll find is this record I’m intensely proud of. I’m really happy about that.  

Counting Crows Upcoming Tour Dates are as follows:

Mon October 10 2022 - BIRMINGHAM O2 Academy Birmingham
Tue October 11 2022 - MANCHESTER O2 Apollo
Thu October 13 2022 - SHEFFIELD O2 Academy Sheffield
Fri October 14 2022 - GLASGOW O2 Academy Glasgow
Sun October 16 2022 - SOUTHAMPTON O2 Guildhall Southampton
Tue October 18 2022 - DUBLIN 3Arena
Thu October 20 2022 - LONDON Eventim Apollo
Fri October 21 2022 - LONDON Eventim Apollo

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