Over the past eight years now Adam Duritz and I have spent some quality time just talking; much of it has ended up in this paper. Each time Counting Crows comes into town, which is quite a bit, we chat. And each time it is engaging, informative, intimate, and analytical. In all my years doing this I have rarely found a more insightfully honest subject.
This time is no different, as the band readies another swing around the U.S. this summer; a perfect opportunity for Duritz to share his views on his organically emotional live performances, playing with Springsteen, the passing of David Bowie and Prince, and “normal” life versus that of “the road”.
A Counting Crows show always features unique versions of your songs, as the band often follows your lead on stage, which always appears to be extemporaneous. You get into an emotional state and you take a song into different directions, which is remarkable when considering how many musicians you work with.
Oh, yeah. That’s exactly how it happens. The first time you try something it might not be all that good, but as you work it through more and more you get better at finding your way. But they’re good. It would be impossible if we weren’t. Listening is really everything for us. It’s a big thing in our band. It’s like they say about jazz and soul music, it’s more important what you don’t play than what you do play. I would probably phrase that more like, “It’s more important how you listen on stage than what you play on stage,” because no matter how good you are as a player, if you’re not listening to the other guys, it’s a train wreck, especially in a band like ours, where there’s so much improvisation. It’s not like solo improvisation, more like necessary group improvisation. You really have to listen and that’s the thing we really kind of beat into each other’s heads for a long time.
I always get the feeling that you are kind of leading the band down the proverbial rabbit hole, and once the song gets in there, now it can go anywhere.
Yes. It makes it a little dangerous to not listen for me too because people will do things and on top of it, it’s messy. That’s the one thing in our band that everyone will call you out on, just not paying attention. Also a lot of things that may seem like me leading down the rabbit hole, might have been me hearing something cool someone else did that was a small thing, maybe too simple for anyone else to have heard or for the audience to have noticed it, but that might have given me an idea. It’s not like I’m the one coming up with the ideas every time. It probably sounds like it is, but probably a lot of times; it’s someone else doing something kind of cool that I hear and then I start something different and then that’s the part you hear, or the audience hears because it’s a little more obvious when the vocal does it. I suppose I’m the one making the decisions to take everyone down the rabbit hole with me, but I’m often inspired by just something little someone else did—or not so little. Little is the wrong word. Just something cool that someone else did.
That reminds me of your putting “Thunder Road” in the middle of “Rain King,” and I remember you doing it back in ’97 in Jersey and I thought, “This is perfect. It’s a homage to Springsteen.” But then it became part of what you did with the song, and after we did our first interview in 2008 you played that Apple show downtown in SoHo and you did it again, but this time it was a different way of utilizing it. When you include a verse or even a chorus of one song, maybe yours, maybe another’s, how predetermined or organic is that idea?
Could be a little of both. It could be an idea that comes while I’m on stage. The “Thunder Road” thing is a perfect example. I just started doing it one day, and granted, “Thunder Road” is one of those songs that without thinking about it we kind of know it from start to finish. It’s so dynamic in the way it builds that you kind of know most of the words. Even if you didn’t bother to learn them, they’re in your head. I was never really in cover bands very much. I never played “Thunder Road” in a band, but I started singing it that day. The first time I did it I only got about a third of the way through. No matter how well you know “Thunder Road” I’m singing it to the music of “Rain King” and that can get confusing.
You know? The next night I got a little further through it and eventually I put almost the whole thing in there. But it took a few days to do that. And sometimes you just get an idea while you’re singing something, like just a melody from another song will seem really cool in there, but the first time you do it you might not have the focus or the wherewithal to think of that melody in the context of the different song and also remember the words. The funny thing is a lot of times when we remember songs we remember them because of their melodies too, so when you try to sing them over a different song it can make your head spin around a little bit.
How much post mortem do you guys do on that? Do you guys get together after a show and say, “Oh, that one part of ‘fill in the blank’ we went there and I could see it going there”? Is there any way you can verbalize it?
We talk about it a lot, especially in the middle of a show. If I hear something that we keep doing wrong or something, I’ll go to the mike at the back of the stage where I can talk to my monitor guys and my stage manager and I’ll often just give them a note, like, “Can you just tell Charlie this later or tell Immer this about ‘Good Night Elizabeth’?” I will make quick notes, so I don’t forget. We’ll also talk a little bit about it the next night at soundcheck and work on it.
A good example is the Teenage Fanclub song, “Start Again”. We really love playing it and we didn’t stop working on it even two years after the record [Underwater Sunshine – 2007] was already out. I still kept feeling like it didn’t work right. It starts with just an acoustic guitar and then it’s an acoustic guitar and a mandolin, and there’s some piano that comes in and then more vocals and then the 12-string comes in at one point, but all that’s about two-thirds of the way through the song, and for the last third of the song I really felt like it was a song we established through dynamics by slowly building things, but nothing happened for the last third of the song. Then we came up with an idea, I guess it was the last chorus of the double-chorus, to drop all the instruments out and have it just be vocals. I think it happened because someone forgot to play something in one show and one of us noticed it and we talked about it the next day and sort of then tried to do it on purpose. So eventually we then kind of came up with a way of doing it where everybody dropped out except the twelve string, which kept playing.
I really wish we had that when we recorded it, but we didn’t. Even though the recorded version is the ultimate version to me, it’s great if you can come up with all that stuff. But sometimes you just don’t, so why not make the song better if you can?
And the happy accidents only happen if you keep playing. There is no way to get a happy accident or something that’s organic like that unless you’re playing all the time and constantly listening, as you say.
And also being willing to see something as not just a mistake, but possibly an improvement; seeing a happy accident as happy as opposed to just an accident. Because the fact is that music is that way, so people do things because of some gut instinct and often that seems like a mistake and it is a mistake, but the jazz of playing together is that you can hear something and it just gives you a different way to look at the song.
Just the same way that my being in a different mood on any given night might cause me to take a song in a different direction, it’s the subtle stuff that takes it to another level. We’re playing every night for 25 years, so, like I say, why not keep getting songs better?
The last time we spoke it was probably the day after or two days after Robin Williams committed suicide and then I think that when we first spoke about Somewhere Under Wonderland, Lou Reed had passed while you guys were recording it. And since then David Bowie and now Prince have passed. I’m just wondering if you had some thoughts about Bowie’s passing and certainly Prince’s, who is a little bit closer to our generation.
Well, Bowie was really big for me, because I came to Lou Reed probably through Bowie. I think I got to Lou Reed and the Velvet Underground and all that music through the experience of Bowie, to Transformer and then backwards to the Velvets, probably with a big dose of R.E.M. covering Velvet songs to push me into that too. I mean, I had probably heard “Walk On The Wild Side” when I was a kid, but I don’t think I really understood Lou Reed until I had really gotten into Bowie. He is really the thing that draws all that together; what a song like “Palisades Park” is especially rooted in. It comes from Bowie and Mick Ronson. I obsessed over Bowie bootlegs when I was younger.
That was hard. That was really weird and upsetting. It seemed so sudden too. You’re not part of their lives, so you don’t realize that they’re sick or something. You don’t really know about it. So it seems like there’s someone you have been with your whole life, and then all of a sudden, it’s just on the news that they’re dead and that’s it. It’s hard to digest that in that way because you don’t really get prepared for it. It’s almost like when people die in accidents. It just happens very suddenly and there’s no prep for it because even though this isn’t that, we’re not living with the lives of our idols, no matter who they are we don’t really know them that well, so when they do pass away it’s, for us at least, without warning, which is strange.
When Hunter Thompson died or Kurt Vonnegut died, I looked at it in terms of how many more years do I have left to ply my craft? It put my own mortality into perspective. I don’t know if the same happens to you when an influential musician dies.
The interesting thing for me with Prince, because, you know, when I was a little kid my first concert was Jackson 5, and soul music was a huge part of the American rock and roll experience for white and black people. There was no real division there. But sometime in the ‘70s, and especially in the early ‘80s, it separated again. It was like there was R&B music that black people listened to and some white people, and then there was rock and roll that white people listened to and it wasn’t like when there were bands like Sly and the Family Stone or the Jackson 5 or whoever, where there were just black people who played rock and roll and it was funky and it was still rock and roll. There seemed to be a real racial divide in music. The only person crossing over it was when Michael Jackson put out Thriller, but even that was a little later. I really remember pretty vividly Dirty Mind. The first thing I heard about him was that the Stones were going on a tour and this guy Prince was opening for them.
They threw shit at him and booed him off the stage.
Yeah. That’s what I mean about there being a real separation between white and black music. He got booed off the stage! But I remember hearing “When You Were Mine” and some of the other stuff on Dirty Mind, and thinking, “No man, this is the Ramones. This is like punk music. It’s new wave music.” In the same way in the mist of all the dinosaur progressive rock music that people were playing in the ’70s the Ramones came along and just put guitars and basses on and played very simple chord patterns and melodies. “When You Were Mine” is just like that. It’s a little cleaner, but it’s just a black guy playing a very melodic rock and roll guitar to a very straight drumbeat and a great melody. That could be a Motown song. It could be a Ramones song.
And I remember hearing the rest of the album and how vulgar some of it was and thinking it was kind of cool. I didn’t really start to love him until the next record Controversy, which is way funkier than Dirty Mind. Controversy’s got all these long funky jams on it and it really reminded me of like some of the Earth Wind and Fire, Commodores stuff when I was younger, but with this whole other edge to it, and also was still the new wave stuff like “Ronnie, Talk To Russia.” And I remember thinking at the time, “This guy is Sly Stone. There is no color here. He is a black guy playing music for everybody that draws from everything and he is really different.”
You’ve been off the road for a few months now. How are you feeling about getting back out there again?
I think it will be good to get back on the road. I think this much time at home isn’t really all that healthy for me, honestly. It took me about three or four months to realize I was just sitting around. Not talking to people. Not seeing people. I was so relieved to get home in a way that all I did was sit here in my room. Then I started going to the gym again, started working out, and started talking to people and getting out of the house. But I get in such bad habits when I get home after a while. I’ve been trying to like cure myself of them recently, but it will be good to be on the road again. Not so much for the touring but just because it’s a real community. It’s a family. You’re forced to be social every day, because you’re simply around people every day and that’s good for me.
So you’re going to Europe first and then you come back here?
Yeah. Between the European tours last year I went over to Europe with our tour manager and our manager and I called up a bunch of promoters and we asked to meet with promoters in different countries and apparently no one had ever done this with them before, because the agent comes and talks to them and people talk to their agents, but no one had ever traveled around talking to different promoters. I went to all these promoters in all these different countries and I said, “Look. I really like coming here and I understand that you only get us like once in a while and it’s kind of like whenever we’re coming, and so it may or may not be a good time for you, but do we build Counting Crows in Italy or how do we build Counting Crows in Holland?” I really liked Claudio, the promoter over in Italy. He was talking and said, “I’ve got some ideas for gigs, but what would also be good is you should open for Springsteen.” And I said, “Well, Claudio, Springsteen doesn’t have openers.” He goes, “I know, but he did it for me once over here. I think he would do it for me again for you.” I was like, “Okay, well…whatever; that doesn’t sound like the most promising idea I’ve ever heard.” But then Claudio called and he said, “I got Springsteen touring in Italy this summer. I want you to play with him at the Circus Maximus.” You know, the big Ben-Hur arena in Rome?
So we got a gig with Springsteen in Rome. So we put some other gigs around it, but that’s what happened. Claudio came through.
First time you’re playing with him?
Yeah. At a Springsteen show. I never even heard of him having an opener before quite honestly. It should be cool.
Catch Counting Crows at the shows below. For more information on the band, go to countingcrows.com.
July 31 – Nikon At Jones Beach Theater – Wantagh, NY
Aug. 5 – Bethel Woods Center For The Arts – Bethel, NY
Aug. 9 – PNC Bank Arts Center – Holmdel, NJ
Aug. 10 – BB&T Pavilion – Camden, NJ
Aug. 16 – The Amphitheater At Coney Island Boardwalk – Brooklyn, NY
Aug. 18 – Sands Bethlehem Event Center – Bethlehem, PA