For many, August and Everything After is nothing less than a classic, a record teeming with quality songwriting translated into hit singles. For a then-relatively-unknown San Francisco band called Counting Crows, and, in particular, its lead singer, Adam Duritz, it was a launching point leading to household-name status, world tours and several more albums. The band's latest, Saturday Night and Sunday Mornings, hits record store shelves today.
Paste caught up with Duritz to conduct a standard Q&A piece that transformed into an blow-by-blow re-telling of Counting Crows' history from his personal point of view. Rather than break it up, we kept his stream of consciousness intact, and the story he tells includes painful personal loss, never-ending tours, mental illness and one resilient rock 'n' roll band.
Paste: Can you describe your evolution as a musician during your time in Counting Crows from your first album all the way to Saturday Nights, Sunday Mornings? How have you grown through each release and how do you see your music having evolved over the years?
Duritz: On our demos, we were kind of a Roxy Music Avalon-sounding band. Not completely, but in the drumming and the solos. I knew that there was something that we could be, and I wasn't sure what it would turn out to be, but I knew that we had to get rid of all the preconceptions about the band and just learn to play songs together and everything else would spring from that. We took away all of Dave [Bryson]'s guitar effects, half of Steve [Bowman]'s drum kit, we got Matt Malley an old box teardrop bass and Charlie [Gillingham] just played the piano, no synthesizers. The idea wasn't to go play classic-rock music, it was just to get rid of everything that was making it safe. No effects, no freaky drums. We were just going to sit in a room together and play. It was about stripping it back so all we had was each other.
After that, Dan [Vickrey] joined the band, and then we had louder electric guitars. And when Ben [Mize] replaced Steve later, it was much more of a punk drumming sensibility, so we were playing much more rock music. That allowed us to become the band that could make Recovering the Satellites. Believe me, nobody wanted the band who made August and Everything After and sold 10 million copies to go work with the Pixies producer (Gil Norton). That was not greeted with enthusiasm from the people around us.
After that, all these things were changing, I mean, indie music came back again, and there were bands like Sparklehorse and Cracker was making these really cool albums, and Built to Spill was out there doing stuff, and Radiohead was starting to come out with some interesting kinds of music. Hip-hop had done a lot of interesting stuff too with taking bits of music and mixing them around into other kinds of music and loops. We were really getting into the studio for that album and making it quirky and weird. Again, nobody wanted the band who made "Long December" to go and make a record with [producers] Dennis Herring and David Lowery who had been making these indie records.
After that, I was at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame the night that Springsteen and McCartney were inducted and [McCartney and I] ended up having this conversation. I told him how he blew my head off singing [that night] and that he looked like he was about 20 years old up on stage, and he goes, "Well, yeah, that's rock 'n' roll. That's what it does, doesn't it? It makes us all 20 years old." I thought, "Yeah." It just keeps you who you are. You play rock 'n' roll, you never think about getting old again. Rock 'n' roll does that, man.
As I was leaving that night, he was on my mind because it was just such an amazing thing that he said to me. I was humming and singing all these Beatles songs all the way home. I suddenly thought, "Man, that guy's written like 50 records, the melodies of which I cannot get out of my head 40 years later." How the fuck do you do that? What is it to be the kind of guy who can write a melody that cannot get out of people's heads? I kind of decided at that moment, "This record that we're going to do right now, every single song will have a melody." You can all judge for yourself how successful that was.
[Hard Candy] turned out to be a record about memories, which, it's not ironic, but kind of the point of it. That was our intention in making that record, and we got [producer Steve] Lillywhite for that, who is so good. I mean, I own like 45 Lillywhite records. It's also why "1492" and "Los Angeles" aren't on that record, because they're not songs about memory. They're absolutely raw songs about disintegration, and so they couldn't go on that record. So we didn’t use them for it.
We toured for a year and a half on This Desert Life, and then we toured while we were making Hard Candy and then we toured on Hard Candy, and then we toured for the greatest hits record [Films About Ghosts: The Best Of...], and then we toured through the Shrek thing, and it just went on for like five years.
At the end of it I had totally lost my mind. Not that I wasn't doing it for 20 years already, but there was this moment when my grandmother died and I lost this girl I had been dating all in the same five-minute moment, where I got the phone call from both of them at the same moment, while sitting in a hotel room in Perth [Australia], literally the most isolated city on Earth. There is no other major city that is as far from other cities as Perth on earth. And the sense of being so far from everywhere I was supposed to be in life was so palpable. That was the egg cracking. There wasn't much egg left anyway, but that just cracked me. After that, I just stopped. We played some gigs, but I was essentially done. I walked off the plane to go to the funeral. I mean, I almost didn't do that, and then we didn’t do anything for a while.
I mean, we played. We still toured every summer. We did some gigs here and there, but I didn't want to make any more records. I knew I didn't know how to live anymore. I knew I had lost my mind. I knew that I'd never make it through another tour, but I also thought, "You can't stop fucking around with this. This is really serious mental illness and you've got to figure out your life before you go and do this again, because there's nowhere lower that you can go." I was wrong about that actually; it did get a lot worse.
Then one day I was sitting around listening to the demo of "1492" and I started thinking, "There's this album here." There is something I wanted to say about beginning to lose yourself in this void of who you are and the disintegration that follows that. Suddenly, I thought, “We have to go in the studio now. Right now.” Everyone came to NYC in June—I still wasn't capable of leaving home—and we did 20 days or something. We got the basis of Saturday Nights, which is all the record was at that time. Then we went on tour, and afterward I just went completely down the pipe and we never went back to work on it.
Around December of that year I just realized, “You’re going to be dead if you don't try to fix this.” By January, I was like, “Okay you've got a grip on some of this.” I was still narcoleptic, still fucked up on the drugs and the medications. But Gil had to start a Foo Fighters records in the beginning of March, so I was like, "Gil, everybody, let's go just another two or three weeks."
After that, I was looking at bands, and a lot of them were produced by Brian Deck, who I hadn't heard of. A lot of indie-folk albums were produced by him. So I called him up and we talked, and he came to visit us and we played some of it for him in my living room and it was clear to me that this was the guy.
We made Sundays, which was maybe even a harder record to make. I mean, I was less insane, so that was good, but it was really hard music to make. To make it work the way we wanted to, we had to be really creative about it.
I was surprised at how big the resistance to making this album the way we did was. Almost no one wanted to make it the way we did. I mean, our producers did, and so did the engineers and so did my publicists, but almost everybody wanted to get rid of the two records and thought that we were wedded to a concept. It's not like the concept had driven the album. It was the complete opposite; the songs had created the record.
Thank God for the label for this: They allowed us to have two songs for free download. I really wanted one song from each side of the album out all over the world to everyone as free downloads. This argument was very important for us to make—the ability to put two songs out there. It will save our band, and maybe the record.