Hangin' Around With Adam Duritz

Counting Crows frontman talks about the band, The Band, insomnia and more

It's been four albums, and Counting Crows frontman Adam Duritz hasn't gotten much sleep. His band's new effort, Hard Candy, haunts old grooves and revisits familiar themes of squandered love, angels who won't return phone calls and lead singers who won't go to bed. Produced largely by Steve Lillywhite, Hard Candy is also crammed with guest stars, from Sheryl Crow and Matthew Sweet to Ryan Adams and his sweetheart, Leona Naess.

From the Crows' tour bus, Duritz talks about the new set, songs about old girlfriends, his new fitness regimen and Riverdance, which his band mates happen to be watching, to his mock-horror. "I can't tell if they're having an ironic hour or not," he says.

Is there significance to the title Hard Candy?

The album is thematically about memories -- the way you use them to substitute for living sometimes. Some memories are sweet, but tough and painful too. And they're not good for you.

There's also a candy-coating to some of the songs. "Butterfly in Reverse" has an almost Burt Bacharach feel. Do you see this as a new direction for the band?

We're always playing around with stuff. I don't know what new or old is for us. Whatever we feel like doing is what a Counting Crows song sounds like. I agree that "Butterfly" sounds different than our other stuff. We made an effort on this album to really finish songs. Once we're done getting a good band performance, we work on all the colors, harmonies, horns, strings, banjo -- whatever the extra colors are gonna be.

You recorded this album in a house in L.A., which you've done in the past. How does that differ from being in a studio?
We've never done a record in a studio. I hate studios. Studios are really claustrophobic to me. I hate the whole vibe, sitting in some bland lounge when you're not working . . . T Bone [Burnett] used to say that recording studios reek of despair and stink of other people's bad records.

What did Steve Lillywhite bring to the record?

I have no idea what Steve does, but I can tell you he's really fucking great at it. There's a reason why he's been producing records for twenty-five years now. The best producers just bring a certain atmosphere to the studio. They create a vibe where it seems magical, and it seems like you're making this very special thing that's classic and timeless. It was a cool feeling knowing I was working with this guy who'd done all these records that I loved: U2, the La's, Joan Armatrading . . . we counted them one day, and I have forty Steve Lillywhite records.

Is there a story behind "If I Could Give All My Love (Richard Manuel Is Dead)?"

That's about this time I was out all night with my friends and this girl I was seeing, getting wasted. I came home drunk around six in the morning with this girl, and I grabbed a newspaper, and before we went to bed I was flipping through it and saw that [The Band's] Richard Manuel had died. He hung himself the night before, in Florida. And it just had this striking effect on me, you know, the utter impermanence of things. I really got the sense that you can't afford to go on forever just playing footsie in your life, dipping your toes in, because your life will pass you by. Here was this person that'd meant a lot to me that was gone, and I suddenly thought about the girl I was with, "God, she'll be gone soon, or I will. I'm not doing anything lasting in my life, nothing that I'm doing is gonna be around five minutes from now." In a sense, writing songs, you're making meaningful, permanent memories, so that things that come and go out of your life don't just fade. The people in the songs understand that however transitory things were, they meant something to me. Anna knows. Elizabeth knows.

Was the Band a big influence for you?

We were signed maybe three or four months after we got together as a band, and I was really concerned that we weren't sure who we were. The thing about the Band is that they clearly listened to each other when they played and were responsive to each other, and I wanted to get to that place. So with the first album we made a point of no more fretless bass for Matt. For Charlie, just Hammond B3 and piano. Get rid of all the effects on the guitars. We got into a circle where we could see each other and just played. We learned to play together by listening. We got that from the Band. I don't know if there's ever been a group with that many great singers, and I almost think Richard Manuel was the best of them all. He's just an achingly heartbreaking singer.

Let's talk about the collaborations on this album. How did Ryan Adams get involved?

"Butterfly in Reverse" was a song that I had been working on. I had the music for the verse and the chorus and the lyrics to the chorus, but we couldn't figure out how to get into the bridge and out of the song. And one day Ryan stopped by to say hi, and he figured out the rising part that goes into the bridge and out of the song. And then we started talking about the lyrics, and I was stuck. We ended up brainstorming and doing the whole song like that. It all started with a mistake too. I had a line that went "Had a lot of girlfriends/I should've known then," and he said, "What a great line, 'I should've known them.'" I was like "Oh, I didn't say that, I said 'I should've known then,'" and he was like "'You should've known then' what?" I'm like, "I dunno." He said, "Well let's use mine then, 'cause that's stupid." We just went line for line then, trading lines through the whole song. It took us fifteen minutes. And I wanted him to sing it with me because we wrote it together.

Who's idea was it to bring Sheryl Crow in?

At one point we were having a lot of problems with "American Girls." Something was wrong with it and we couldn't figure out what. Somehow the chorus sounded too anthemic, and it wants to be relaxed, sort of sexy and breezy. So Jimmy Iovine said, "Why don't you call Sheryl and have her try to sing on it." I'm sorry, that girl is the most accomplished background singer I've ever seen. I called her up and said, "Can you come over and try this?" She listened to it, liked it, put the headphones on, sang the harmony, note-perfect, doubled it, note-perfect and moved on to the next section. She did the entire song in an hour. That could have taken all day with somebody else. Backup singing is a totally different art. The kind of shit Sheryl did, I can't do that.

But you're kind of famous for that stuff, like your backup vocals on the Wallflower's "Sixth Avenue Heartache."

All of those were kind of like things I just fell into. I had a beer, sang on the song and left. It took about an hour. Most of my stuff has been like that. Like, I knew Jake [Jakob Dylan], I knew T Bone, so I came down. They weren't like, "Let's get a collaboration with Adam on the record." They were just in trouble and needed someone to sing, so I came down. Sometimes I think collaborations are just a big circus just for the promotional aspect of them; it kind of bores me. I'm not really a good collaborator either -- it's a lot of pressure. With Ryan, it just sort of happened. I became friends with him, so I ended up on his record a bunch of times. I'd just rather do it that way. The only time I've ever been set up to do something was on the Nancy Griffith record. But it was because her A&R guy knew I was a huge fan, and they needed someone to do a duet. It was a really a dream for me.

So you don't have any dream collaboration now?

No. The idea of collaborating just turns me off, to be honest with you. But I'll do them when they happen if it's spur of the moment, and it feels right. If you're around when we're playing a concert, and you're a friend of mine, by all means, get the fuck up on stage, come sing "Hangin' Around" with us.

Jimmy Fallon does a pretty good impersonation of you . . .

It's embarrassing. I always threaten to beat him up. I met Jimmy years ago. We were in a bar, and Jimmy came over. He let it slip out that he did this impersonation of me, and I was like, "Shut up!" He said, "Yeah, I play guitar, do some songs, funny stuff." I said "Well, we've got a gig tomorrow night at fucking Hammerstein Ballroom, Mr. Funny Guy, why don't you come down and play, see if you can do it in front of a whole house of Counting Crows fans." So he came down and went on right before we did. I introduced him, and he came out on stage and embarrassed the fuck out of me. It's such a horrific impersonation of me. But imitation is a form of flattery.

Each one of your albums mentions insomnia. Shouldn't you see a doctor about that?

I'm doing better right now. Sometimes at the end of the day, I just can't believe that's all there is. Is that as good as it's gonna get today? So I'll stay awake and watch TV and read books and keep spooling time out as if something was gonna come along at 4 or 5 or 6 in the morning, and there ain't nothing coming. But you have to practice a certain discipline to make yourself go to sleep when you're that way. But, yeah, I'm going to bed at a pretty reasonable hour these days, waking up at seven or eight in the morning, working out. I've been boxing a lot, which I've been doing for about a year, so I have to be up to do that. It started off that I wanted to get in shape, and there's different ways to do it, like running, biking, but that shit bores me. I'd rather shoot myself than do something tedious like that. Plus, when you're in my situation, it's good to take care of yourself. I'm not utterly unprepared to defend myself anymore. Also, I was an athlete as a kid, and I got really far away from that. When I got to college, after all those years of athletics, I felt, "I am so tired of running around. I want to get high, get drunk, so I stopped all that shit." So then there were years of just drinking and smoking. I'd always been in good shape, but in the last ten years I found myself in less and less good shape, and I didn't want to be that way. I wanted to be like a "rock star" rock star.

You once said you couldn't understand what people get out of the pain in your music. Now that you've been doing it for a while, do you have a theory on that now?

Yeah, I think they're not really listening carefully. No, just kidding. I don't know, I really don't understand people. Even though I'm into other people's music, and I'm a huge music fan, I still don't grasp why other people are into mine. I can listen to Joni Mitchell all day, but on a gut level I don't get it . . . I mean, my songs are so specific. I use place names, people's names . . . people are always asking me why I use the names. It's really simple, because those are the names, you know? That's what the song is about. It seems crazy not to use them. But I'm not just name-checking cities because I want to get a cheer out of that city when we play there. That's constantly happening to me by the way, you forget, and then you sing the name of the city, and the people go crazy, and I'm always like, "Whoa, what happened?" The guys always tell me, write more songs about Ireland -- we wanna go to Ireland. Write more about New York City, write about Spain. We could sell records more there if you write about it."