Start Again: An Interview with Counting Crows' Adam Durtiz
Counting Crows have never played things by the book, which is why the Oscar-nominated group's third live release is filled with covers, and Duritz talks to PopMatters about his process, his regrets, and what fans can expect next ...
A lot of Counting Crows fans might argue the group's best moment. Be it that four-minute stretch on disc two of their 1998 double album live set, Across a Wire: Live in New York City, when leader Adam Duritz extends "Round Here" to heights previously unexpected for the mid-'90s pop-rock band and riffs through "Have You Seen Me Lately" in a poignant, mysterious manner. Or, that quick instance on 2008's "Cowboys", from the criminally overlooked Saturday Nights & Sunday Mornings, when the band explodes into a fury of radio rock as the singer's voice quivers with uncertainty and sincerity. Maybe it's one of their hundreds of live shows, where the covers reign supreme and the set list is as unpredictable as the amount of musicians of who may join the group onstage for a singalong that night.
Best moments, you see, are hard enough to define as it is, but when you throw a 22-year-old band that's sold more than 20 million records worldwide into the mix, the selection from which you can choose seems endless, an infinite collection of mainstream achievements, happy mistakes, imperfect perfections, and tiny flashes in a minuscule bottle that seemingly goes on forever. On this day, however, a chilly early November afternoon in 2013, perfection comes in the form of that one word.
It's said after a four-second pause of silence that Duritz meticulously offers after being confronted with the mere reality that he is poised to turn 50 next August. He's asked if it's true. He waits long enough to suggest that more than one thought has popped into his mind before responding. Then, in maybe the most indicative answer a single multiplatinum, sad-sounding rock star-artist could ever give a reporter in a phone conversation, he sighs quietly and offers that utterance. Theoretically.
It's funny and self-deprecating, light-hearted and serious, suggestive yet innocent. Or, in other worse, the most perfect response for a band led by a guy who has never held secret any of his flaws. That's part of Counting Crows' appeal: you believe what they are doing because you believe him, the guy who once told a generation they don't know why they all want to be rock stars. His lyrics cut deep, his presentation deeper. Heartbroken to the core, Adam Duritz loves himself some music, yet if his own work is any indication, he also loves himself some misery.
"Sure," he says when asked if he has any regrets about both his personal life and career in music. "You know, there's no way to know what you're doing is the right thing a lot of the time. You gotta make a lot of choices, and I made a lot of choices in my career for the way I want to do things. I pissed a lot of people off sometimes. But, you know, I feel pretty clean about things, too. I may have made the wrong decisions occasionally, but I think I made them for the right reasons.
"We've sort of run our own careers from the beginning," he continues. "And that's been kind of nice. We sat down the first album when we didn't want to put out anymore songs. I'm glad we did that because I think the backlash was bad enough as it was. I think most people would have milked every last single out of that; we put one, two videos out ... and then we shut it down and just toured. We pissed a lot of people at the record company off because we wouldn't make anymore videos for the record, but I thought we were losing control of things and that was the end of our career."
"I wanted to have a career and not just the biggest record ever."
More than two decades later, it appears the singer was wise beyond his theoretical years. Proof of as much can be found on Echoes of the Outlaw Roadshow, the band's recently released live record chronicling their 2012 tour featuring performances from an array of stops. The set is decidedly more loose than their previous officially released live efforts, the aforementioned Across a Wire, as well as New Amsterdam: Live at Heineken Music Hall and August and Everything After: Live at Town Hall. Book-ended by two songs best known from the incarnations Bob Dylan gave them, "Girl from the North Country" and "You Ain't Goin Nowhere", Echoes admittedly leans more on other people's songs than any other live record the Crows have put out.
This, in part, is due to the release that preceded it, Underwater Sunshine (Or What We Did on Our Summer Vacation), a 2012 cover-tunes album that borrowed from such modern-day standouts as Travis and Dawes, as well as yesteryear heroes as Gram Parsons and Big Star. In addition to the Dylan songs, Echoes offers at least four other non-originals, including three that appeared on Underwater -- "Untitled (Love Song)", "Hospital" and Norman Blake's "Start Again", a pretty, mandolin-driven vehicle for lovestruck vocal harmonies and a hook featuring quirky, off-time grooves.
The idea for the album came as the band realized how good they were sounding on the road, Duritz said, and it wasn't long until someone suggested documenting what the singer described as "longer shows we were playing where audiences were really flipping out." The process was time consuming, he explained, because while the group usually records each show anyway, they had to go back through dozens of concerts to find standout performances good enough to make the cut.
"It was important to get the songs we thought were really good," he noted. "I think that's the only thing we are thinking about when we make a record -- does the record hold together and is it the best collection of songs? It was natural that we made a covers record -- there are a lot more of those in our set. I mean, there are a lot of takes of 'Start Again' to choose from; we play it a lot of nights, 'Untitled (Love Song)' we play a lot of nights, and some of those versions are pretty stellar, so we wanted to find one of those and put it on the record."
But what about new material? The Baltimore native said that part of the reason why the band decided to put out this live record was because they were already planning on heading into the studio in December to work on an all-new set, their first since 2008's Saturday Nights, an album made during what Duritz openly described as a difficult period for him personally.
"I especially love the Sunday Mornings part," he explained. "It's really sort of, beautiful, painful folk songs. But I love that record. I think it's a great record, but it was an exhausting period in our lives ... I was going crazy at the time when we made this record, so I was having a lot of trouble and that's what was hard for me about it. I don't think everyone else had that bad of a time, but they were also really supportive of me. I mean, I was like, floating in and out of consciousness at times during the Saturday Nights part."
So, will this next one go any smoother?
"Oh, I don't know," he said, a tiny bit disgusted by the question. "I don't know what tomorrow will be like. Who knows? I love the songs we've been writing. It's been a totally different process for me -- I've had a lot of doubts about these songs when I started working on them, but the guys have been flipping out. Immy (David Immerglück, Counting Crows' principal guitarist) thinks it's the best lyrics I've ever written. They're really different. There's a lot more imagery ... I didn't have a lot of faith in it at first, but as I finish them, I really love the new songs, too."
OK, but back to those regrets. Duritz, for all his doubts and self-deprecation, has been famously (and often romantically) linked to a respectable, if not explicitly enviable, group of sought-after women. Winona Ryder. Courteney Cox. Mary Louise Parker. Jennifer Aniston. Shoot, he was even reportedly involved with the much-younger Shameless star Emmy Rossum, though many reports claim that has since fizzled.
Couple that with Anna, Elizabeth and Maria -- three women's names that often creep into a lot of the songwriter's lyrics -- and it's hard to argue he hasn't had a fruitful and successful dating life through the years. Or, well, that is unless you ask him, of course.
"I've just done a lot of things that, like ..." he says before gathering himself and starting over. "I've known a lot of people in my life I wish I had done better by. Being crazy isn't always the best person to be as your boyfriend."
"And ... um ... I've sort of failed a lot of people along the way, that way, and I don't know what I could have done differently, but I sure as hell have a lot of regrets about it. People that I really loved and I hurt. We get along real well now, most of us. I'm close to everybody. But I hurt a lot of people and myself, you know, just being crazy.
"I try to be better," he then offers before following that up with a fleeting, quieting tone.
"You know," he says, this time leaving nothing up to theory, "nobody lives a perfect life."