Adam Duritz: 1991 and Everything After

The Counting Crows leader recalls his band's early days and recording sessions

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In Issue 1049, Counting Crows' Adam Duritz tells Rolling Stone's Brian Hiatt about the band's struggle to be likeable, the dissociative disorder that derailed him for years and making their new album, Saturday Nights and Sunday Mornings (read the whole feature here). Keep reading for more from the forty-three-year-old singer who's still rocking the dreads and hailed as an inspiration by everyone from Sara Bareilles and Dashboard Confessional to Panic at the Disco:

Adam Duritz on ...

The band's early days and singing their record deal:

Dave Bryson and I were just going to open mikes at bars and playing acoustic. I don't think I'd written "Mr. Jones" yet. We had an acoustic version of "Round Here," the Himalayans' [Duritz's first band] song. And we'd just kill at these open mikes. I was in the Himalayans and I was singing backup for Sordid Humor, which was my favorite band. [Dave and I] got together for one more recording session and we each picked our favorite musicians. We'd opened for each other, we'd closed for each other, we'd all played in a million bands around each other. It was a really tight scene, San Francisco. There was so much music every night. And I was in three bands, so I knew everybody.

Some guy came and saw us and said, "My brother-in-law is an executive at EMI. I'm going to bring him to see you next week." And he did. He brought him to see me and Bryson playing acoustic. I was twenty-seven years old, I'd never had anyone from any record company ever come see a band I was in. I figured we needed a lawyer. We went down to meet with him on a Friday. He said, "Listen, I have some clients who are managers. They really want to meet with you." They weren't a big management company, but they had really good acts, like Joe Jackson and Sam Phillips and Danzig and the B-52's. And I suddenly thought we're either going to get signed or we're not good enough. But it's no longer about being noticed or rising up from the swamp with everybody, the anonymity mire.

We played a couple of gigs and we had this pretty big mailing list [from our other bands], so Counting Crows packed crowds in right away. And I think I took a few weeks and thought about it. I had a vision for something I wanted to do, and I wanted to do it. January of the next year, '92, there were two showcases, ASCAP and BMI, on separate weekends, and people from every record company came to one of the two. And on the Monday morning after the second one we got offers from pretty much every single record company. We didn't take the offer with the most money. We took the offer with the most control. Geffen was going to give us total creative freedom, which is what we wanted. And they gave us firm albums. I wanted three firm albums. All I got out of the first record advance was, I want to say, $4,000, and I spent $3,500 of it on a '69 Karmann Ghia convertible. I had wanted one my whole life. I loved them. Shitty, fucking little thing. I love that car. I still have it. You know, I'll never get rid of it. It's on blocks in L.A.

The band's early sound and recording August and Everything After:

We sounded a lot like late Roxy Music. That's kind of where Dave's guitar leanings were from, a lot of Stone Roses kind of stuff. But I knew it was going to be dated really soon. You can hide behind effects. You need to learn to play. You need to learn to listen. On the first album I took away all of Dave's guitar effects. We took most of Steve [Bowman]'s drum kit away. We took away Charlie [Gillingham]'s synthesizers, and we made him buy a Hammond 53 organ. We built a studio in a house, and we got in a circle, and we played and played and played and listened to each other. I didn't even sing. T Bone Burnett [the album's producer] played acoustic guitar and sang. I played harmonica, which I can't play but anyone can actually play as long as you're in the right key. And so I stood there and played harmonica until it felt like the way it was supposed to breathe. And then I went back to singing and we played the song. But it was like, man, it was brutal. The first album, oddly to me, is the most produced, slickest of the albums. Because I hadn't learned to do it and be raw yet.

By the second album, when we'd been on the road for a long time, we had Dan [Vickrey] in the band, and Ben [Mize] was the drummer, this Athens, Georgia, guy, he came from much more like a punk, indie background. And we could rock, which is what I wanted. I wanted to play "Round Here," but I wanted to catapult "Angels of the Silences." To go from "Raining in Baltimore" to "A Murder of One" is a jump. It's not like "Round Here" from "Rain King" is a jump. It's not like "Round Here" from anything is a jump, you know. I always like those songs where it's just one set of chords and you can still manage to make a whole song out of it. "Round Here," "Goodnight Elisabeth." No chord changes. It still works, you know.

I had a total breakdown in order to make the record. So did everybody. People think I'm a control freak because I'm in the studio a lot of the time. I do it because I hate the thought of making someone else do something I should have done and then they put all this work in and I tell them it's not good enough, I'll fix it later. T Bone did like, four records while we were doing our record, so he wasn't always there, which made it hard because we didn't know how to make a record. And so we'd work all day and then he would come in and be, "No." And his suggestion was brilliant.

Counting Crows' early influences:

You don't really play like people; you just learn lessons from people. I bought Chronic Town, the first R.E.M. EP, and I wrote my first song in the same semester, that fall. R.E.M. taught me that you can just play as a group, that it's impressionistic. You don't even have to sing words; you can just feel it and it works, if you can all hear each other and feel it together. That band was so good that [Michael Stipe] didn't sing real words and you knew what he meant. Van Morrison taught me about freedom in the moment of singing. All that matters is where you are at that absolute moment you're singing. You watch The Last Waltz and you could see that they're listening to each other so intently when they play that they react to moments in each. You know, and they're like breathing in and out of each other on stage. It's wild to watch, you know.

You know, I grew up in Oakland with all this funk — P-Funk, the Commodores, Funkadelic. I had this real sense of rhythm. And I am not a poet. My words are so wedded to bouncing off the drums, the rhythm of a song, the groove of it. On the inspiration for Saturday Nights and Sunday Mornings:

I had been listening to "1492" a lot, and I got this idea for a record. And there was this harder music we'd been playing with while we'd been gigging during these years — but I had no words in me. I lost the ability to read. Some of the medications made it so it was hard to find words, so I couldn't write.

I needed to write a song that was really not hinting at, but truly about insanity. I had written about disillusion. I had written about disintegration. And I had written about losing faith and betrayal. There had to be something that talked about how horrifying and scary it was. Nowadays everybody says, wow, we're all crazy. Everybody's on some fuckin' pill. It's not — they're not like that, not like this was. And I needed that, a song that really said, like, this is horrible.

On the new album's sound:

Sunday Mornings was gonna be such a weird album that we had to learn how to play it. I wanted to make a folk album, but not — nowadays folk music has become just people unplugging their guitars. I wanted it to be creative, inventive. Those folk albums made during the Sixties are not acoustic records. Tapestry is not acoustic. There's electric guitar all over it, and it's distorted, acid sounding. I just wanted it to be really, really creative, the same way I was thinking about when we did This Desert Life, like the Sparklehorse records. I wanted it to be spacious and different and open and have very naturalistic sounding instruments, but not just a bunch of acoustic guitars, you know?

And we started demoing them [on Pro Tools] and then bringing them in and recording them in the studio. I looked all over iTunes and all over Allmusic.com, reading articles about bands, trying to find who's making really interesting folk music that's creative? The name that kept coming up was Brian Deck. He made that Fruit Bats album, which is so cool. I called him and got in touch, and he came and sort of sat here with us one day and we played him some of the pieces of music we had and some of the ideas we had. And he had some suggestions and went away, and we were like, that's the guy.

We [recorded] mid-January to mid-February right here and finished Saturday Nights. And then we took like three weeks off, then we did Sunday Mornings. That was fuckin' hard, hard from a musical standpoint. I was much healthier by then. Then I started to lose weight, went on a diet and was working out, and the change of medications — that changed everything. But that was hard, that fuckin' record. Man, it was just such a leap musically for us. We could always play the punk rock. We just needed to learn to orchestrate it for seven people.

On some of the new album's darker lyrics:

"We Will Come Around" is very much about you've come through all this shit and everyone's still here. So let's go play. Let's go play rock & roll. It's not about life being fine. It's just that, it's not fine, and I'm still not going anywhere. My life in the Nineties, it just didn't seem bad then. After the Millennium, things started to seem really darker to me in L.A.

Life accumulates, you know? The city stopped being a working artist city and started being about being famous. I mean, it always has been, but when I first moved there it really appealed to me. It was like everyone was a dreamer. After the millennium that all just seemed to change, the dream became so much more shallow. It's not even about being good anymore. It's just about being famous. The whole status of the city was just about being famous, just about being a star, worthless stars, just nothing. And it didn't seem to matter that I was famous.

I mean, look, I hadn't led a G-rated life by any stretch of the imagination. I don't advocate it. I wouldn't have wanted to live a G-rated life. Fuck it. I think you should have fun and get wasted and get laid and do all these things. But I just don't think you want to end up where that's all you get out of your life and you don't have no sense of yourself and no one who cares about you and no one you care about. If your dreams come true and you can't find a way to live with it, you are the biggest fuckin' loser on earth. And I have been the biggest fuckin' loser on earth. I mean, I dreamed a dream that is impossible and I got it.