The Adam Duritz Interview

On March 25th, Counting Crows will release the double-length CD "Saturday Nights & Sunday Mornings." It's their eighth album and their first since 2006's "New Amsterdam: Live at Heineken Music Hall," - a 2003 performance of their songs recorded in front of an audience. The new record represents the first new material from the band in studio in five years ("Films about Ghosts" - 2003).

The new album represents a return to form for one of America's best bands and arguably one of its most creative songwriters in Adam Duritz. What follows is my exceedingly frank and open interview with Duritz - a gifted creator and producer. These are his words. Together we explore the new album and listen to his heart...

ADAM DURITZ - the RSL Interview

image of Duritz by Danny Clinch

"The song’s still busy being born as long as you play it like it is. For me, for us, songs after the finish of the album process become almost like coffee filters. You pour your life through them every show and they come out a little different every time, because your life’s a little different every day... They never really stop growing and changing."

. . . . . . . .

"Adam, thank you for doing this interview! I worked hard to get you some though-provoking questions – hopefully these haven’t been asked 100 times already...

"Let's talk a minute about the new project. The new album has a dualism approach. The very nature of the “Saturday Night” versus 'Sunday Morning' outlook seems to point to a greater vision. Realizing there are always 'befores' and 'afters', how and why did you choose this approach for the new material?"

"I think it was really more a case of the material choosing the approach. Listening to and thinking about “1492” really drove me towards the Saturday Nights record - which is all it was going to be, to begin with. And, with changes in my life and the songs that sprung from that, inspired the idea that there was a Sunday Mornings album that would be a companion piece.

"Now that's something I definitely would not have considered. I guess we live in a day and age where you see a double-disk on the rack. You would never stop to consider that it was a happy accident, of sorts, that led it to all that material. But the truth is, that it's an organic process. You showed up in studio to record 'an album' and this is the result.

Counting Crows - 1492
From the new album due in March

"How do you view yourself at this point in your career?"

"Well, I’ve never really looked at what I do as any one thing. There’s always been more than one component to that. Songwriting is the first burst of creativity when you take something insubstantial inside you and turn it into something substantial and real. But that’s only really a skeleton. When you work with the band, you flesh it out into the thing it’s supposed to be. Recording it and finding its place as part of a body of work that all fits together to make a greater whole as part of an album is another aspect of it.

"It’s no less difficult or important than the initial writing and it may actually be more difficult process now that I think about it. Playing live, at least for us, is a very vital and living part of the process too. The way I look at it, the song’s still busy being born as long as you play it like it is. For me, for us, songs after the finish of the album process become almost like coffee filters. You pour your life through them every show and they come out a little different every time, because your life’s a little different every day. As long as you don’t just play them by rote, you can learn a little more about your own songs every time you play them. So they never really stop growing and changing."

"What would you call yourself then? Are you more a journeyman, a stage performer or a songwriter?"

"As far as how I view myself specifically, I’m just a musician, like anyone else who does it. The core of it hasn’t changed much since I was first writing songs in my bedroom or first playing in clubs. You are one because you choose to be one. The life and the people around you certainly change but the motivation and the work doesn’t. I think, at least for someone like me, when it does, you’re done."

"When you are with the band or out on the road performing for an audience, are there any Counting Crows songs you particularly enjoy playing more than others?"

"My taste in playing OUR songs changes from night to night. Lately I’ve been really enjoying the return of the electric version of “Have You Seen Me Lately”, maybe because this new album wants to be played loud, but I’m also loving “Perfect Blue Buildings”, another song we hadn’t played in years before last summer. “Hard Candy” is always a blast because it rocks but it’s still a very emotional song about a very poignant memory. You know, my favorite right now is the acoustic version of “Miami” we came up with. It’s just beautiful."

"Which artist and song would you like to most cover on the road in 2008?"

"My favorite covers are “The Ballad of El Goodo” by Big Star, “Start Again” by Teenage Fanclub, “Blues Run the Game” by Jackson Frank, and “Friend of the Devil” by the Grateful Dead. We almost never play it but we also have this great cover of Madonna’s song 'Borderline'."

"I would like to spend some time talking about your songwriting... The characters who live in your songs are often complex. The songs, themselves, are often about second chances, forgiveness and redemption..."

"I just think people are complex. It’s no deep thing. I just think there are motivations that you have which come with doubts about those motivations and there are dreams that come true which come with consequences you didn’t think of when you were busy dreaming. You say one thing and you mean another. You love someone but you can’t stand the way that feels so you leave.

"We live in such a soundbite world. You say something and it gets boiled down to something simpler than it is. But people aren’t actually living one-dimensional lives. Everyone lives complex contradictory lives because that’s the way the world is."

"That - that's pretty accurate and its truth shows how reflective we can be as humans. What is it about the theme of redemption, which has emerged in your albums?

"As far as the themes of forgiveness and redemption are concerned…well, I fuck up a lot and that puts me in a lot of situations where I need a lot of the one to have any sort of chance at the other."

"Ok, well that's pretty honest... Adam, so many of the people who listen to your music, hear it 'spiritually.' I know that a great number of your fans really love your music – perhaps, I think, more than many other musicians and artists. Do you ever speak to your fans through the songs directly?"

"I just write songs about me. It’s the only thing I really feel like I know anything about. When we started, I didn’t think people would relate to them because they’re just so personal. But now I think that’s actually WHY people relate to them.

"You open yourself up to people when you play music and the more you open up and let them in, the more they’re able to see the parallels in their own lives. I’m honest with them about things that mean so much to me. I think that means a lot to them."

"Can you take us, briefly, through the song-writing process? How does it all happen?"

"First of all, let me say that I don’t think I’ve ever written the words to a song before the music. I don’t think I could. They’re too tied together in my head. The words are a product of the mood and the rhythms of the music. I either write them at the same time or I write the music first..."

"One of the questions I try to ask of all the artists I do interviews with is how they arrived at the final product. – Can you take a song from the new album and tell us how it came to be?"

"I think the most interesting song to talk about for the 'whole process' discussion is probably 'You Can’t Count On Me'. I started writing it a few years ago sometime during the latter end of the long touring period that followed Hard Candy (2002-2005), probably around mid-2005. It fascinated me that I’d written four entire albums worth of reasons why any sane woman should stay as far away from me as possible and that THAT was somehow still 'romantic'.

"I wanted to write a song about leaving someone that alternated between honest sad feelings about the loss and brutally honest admissions about the damage done. However honest my regrets have been and however much I 'did the right thing.' I don't cheat.

"There's still no changing the fact that people I cared about were hurt very deeply. So I wanted to write lyrics that drew you in with the honest beauty of the reminiscence and then punched you in the face with the truth about my own culpability.

"So in the 1st verse:
You watch the sky
It’s a pale parade of passing clouds
That cover the bed upon which we laid in the dark
And the memories that I made of a laughing girl
But you’re just my toy and I can’t stop playing with you baby

"Or in the last verse:
I watch all of the same parades
As they pass on the days that you wish you’d stayed
But all this pain gets me high
And I get off and you know why

"It pulls you in and then punches you and both sides are just statements of honesty. They’re contradictory but they’re still true. And that’s why the 'Can' in the chorus has a 't' on the end of it. You’d almost always expect the line to be 'You Can Count On Me' but it’s not. No one ever says 'You Can’t Count On Me' because it’s not a very nice thing to say about yourself. It’s also not as 'hit single'-y in people’s minds. I know this because people actually suggested removing the 't'. I know some of them were joking but not all of them.

"Wow this is some amazing stuff, Adam. Really... How did the music and the words for "You Can't Count on Me" finally come together?"

"I wrote the song on the piano and my original music was very much like a combination of the picking acoustic guitar part and the piano part Charlie plays on the record. The two parts are, in fact, derived from different parts of my original piano recording. I always knew the song was never supposed to be pretty.

"The music had to be like the lyrics: sentimental, punch, sentimental, punch. This proved to be harder than I thought. We tried it a few times over the years at sound checks and it always sucked. Eventually I gave up on it and completely forgot I had ever written it."

"What was your inspiration for this one? To see it through, I mean?"

"When we were beginning to work out the songs for Sunday Mornings, my friend Dave Gibbs, formerly of Gigolo Aunts and now Low Stars, said 'Why don’t you record ‘You Can’t Count On Me’?' I told him I had no idea what he was talking about. He said it was one of his favorite songs of mine and sent me an mp3 of my original demo.

"I listened to it and realized it was the perfect song for the middle of Sunday Mornings because Sunday Mornings needs to NOT be a record about redemption. It’s a record about struggling to get your shit together after you’ve wrecked your life; not necessarily a record about getting your shit together. But the songs are mostly very sad and very beautiful, especially in contrast to Saturday Nights, which can land you in the trap the song’s about. Sunday Mornings needed 'You Can’t Count On Me' for the same reason I needed to write 'You Can’t Count On Me.'

"And that reason?..."

"So that you don’t make the mistake of getting to the end of 'Anyone But You' thinking 'Poor Adam, if only I could make all the pain go away'. Because 'Poor Adam' will still hurt you very badly if you’re not careful. If you don’t still feel that, the rest of the record that follows doesn’t really work."

Thanks... Tell me about the recording process.

The acoustic demos we cut at my apartment while we were finishing Saturday Nights all sucked for the same reason my original demo sort of sucked: they were too pretty. So when we went out to Berkeley to record Sunday Mornings, we took a different tack.

We started out electric, figuring it would make a jarring centerpiece to the latter album. It didn’t work. The drums and bass made the song too bombastic. It wasn’t jarring at all. It was just turning into an arena rock power ballad. Which sucked."

(Note to Readers: Amazing! There is the potential here that this was going to be an all-electric album. Read on:)

"So then we took the drums and the electric guitar out and went back to playing it acoustically with a dobro, an upright bass and some percussion but that just had no balls at all so we had to abandon that as well. Because that really sucked.

"Finally, after singing about 20 versions of the song that day, I went out to dinner and most of the guys went home. I came back a few hours later to find our drummer Jim and our producer scurrying around the hallways excitedly between our studio and one down the hall that was empty. They’d had an idea.

"They set up a really stripped down drum kit in the small square room with only three mics: two over heads about 3-ft above the kit and one kick drum mic about 6-7 feet away from the kick (as opposed to inside the drum where you’d normally put it. By setting it up this way, you could beat the living crap out of the drums and they never sounded big or bombastic.

"They’re violent but they go 'crack' instead of 'boom'. We called our bass player Millard, woke him up, and made him run back to the studio with this little Hofner Beatle Bass. Then, with everything we’d recorded muted (except the piano track so we had something to play to), Jim, Millard, and me played the song as hard and as loud as we could play it. We had Jim keep his high hat open so it sounded really sloppy and we just beat the crap out of the song until we had this insane aggro version of it. Then we went home."

"The next day when the other guys came in, Brian had them set up to play the pretty acoustic version but made them play it to these insane drums, bass, and vocal tracks. And that didn’t suck at all. It worked.

"The song would seem really pretty and then it would blow up in your face. You could hear all the violence and the edge in the drums and bass without overwhelming piano arpeggios or picking acoustic guitar. The last step was finding the thing to go on top. I’d always wanted someone to slash at it with a distorted electric guitar like a Replacements song and Dan had been trying out just that sound on some other song so I had him play it on this song instead.

"We made him play as hard as he could because we wanted mistakes and bad notes and some dissonance. Dan just killed it. He was inspired and a little disturbing. We actually got more than HE wanted. Brian and I loved it but we had to talk Dan out of fixing some of it.

"Although I think some more 'economically-minded' people would probably prefer it had stayed 'prettier', for me, I was just happy it finally turned out to be the song I’d always wanted it to be. I had no idea how to get it there but that’s why we’re a band. We collaborate and find a way to take this thing I bring in, which is really just a skeleton or a blueprint at best, and turn it into a song... From top to bottom, that’s how we took one idea and turned it into a song."

YOU CAN'T COUNT ON ME (streaming audio)
from the new album to be released in March!

Counting Crows: Webpage / Myspace
Adam Duritz: blog


JETHRO said…
killer interview. thanks for sharing. cant wait for the record. LOVE the CC.

Ryan Spaulding said…
* I just wanted to mention that Adam had such a good time (and hopefully challenged by my questions) that he has allowed this interview to be posted on the Counting Crows web page. At this time - this is the only interview from this CD and tour on the site. You can access it here:

Thanks Adam. Best of luck in '08
Anonymous said…
great interview ryan ~ well thought out questions. just saw them twice in concert ~ 3 days apart and many miles driven. i'll be in greenwich village at the end of the month for a couple days, any chance you can line up 'coffee talk' with adam and me?! i'm 6 months younger than adam, and we think eerily alike. i may be the soulmate he's looking for?! i also belong to the pigeon club of nyc.

i'll pay you ;)
Fantastic interview - great to see Adam's process.. thanks for the insights!

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