As we make our way through these days without live music, our minds often revisit musical moments that struck a chord with us. Today on the occasion of his 56th birthday, it seemed fitting to celebrate one such moment I had a few years ago with Adam Duritz of the Counting Crows.
Stopping in Central NY at the Lakeview Amphitheater, Duritz was joined by Robb Thomas on this 40+ city nationwide tour. Helping to get the word out about the upcoming shows within New York, I was able to take a few moments to interview Duritz about music, past experiences, and his music process. Normally interviews are short and sweet, but this one was special as it was a conversation that both Duritz and I continued for about half an hour.
Kathy Stockbridge: Hi Adam, how are you?
Adam Duritz: Hi Kathy, I’m great, it’s a beautiful day today.
KS: Yes, it absolutely is. I want to thank you for taking the time to talk with our readers today, I know you are a very busy man. Most know that you are a musician, but you are also a film and music producer as well. You wear a lot of hats. Is there any one particular hat you prefer over the others?
AD: I just really like playing with the band. I’ve done a lot of different things, and mostly because it was necessary at that moment. Honestly, I don’t think I would ever do another movie again, that was exhausting. I just did it because my friends had written a script and I wanted to help them get it made. Mostly, I just play in a band, that’s what I like.
KS: Well that’s good because you are good at it, and we enjoy it so it’s a win/win for everyone here. In past interviews I’ve seen and heard, many people think that “Mr. Jones” was your breakout song as it went up the charts so fast. But it actually was your performance on Saturday Night Live of “Round Here” that actually catapulted you into the limelight. Talk to us a little about that takeoff, and was it everything you expected when it happened?
AD: No, but it never is. Because there is no way for you to ever conceive what that’s going to be like. Whatever picture you might have or imagination about fame or fortune of that sort of thing, where guys are suddenly listening to your music and you are the center of culture for that second, yeah there’s no way. In fact, whatever ideas you ever have about what’s that’s like, are nothing like what it’s actually like. It’s so weird.
KS: It’s almost like the first time you ever hear your song on the radio, you never forget where you were. I’m sure it was a really cool experience though.
AD: Yeah, that’s a really cool experience. I very vividly remember that. It was just very clean, very simple, and FUN. Like the first time I heard us on the radio I was like, “that’s just really cool.” But becoming famous all of a sudden, having a sudden wash of success is nothing like anything you’ve ever experienced before in life. Like hearing your song on the radio is really cool, but it’s like feeling appreciation from someone in some other way. And that’s happened before (feeling appreciation), people have told you something was good and you’ve gotten a compliment so it’s like a bigger, better version of something you’ve experienced before. Getting famous and having that mass cultural thing is like nothing else in life.
There is no way to understand before you hit that, how weird that is. It’s just really strange and bizarre. We had been touring for a while at that point. People had made a mistake thinking that “Mr. Jones” was new, but it had been out for a while. “Mr. Jones” had been on the radio, the record wasn’t even in the top 200. The video came out and we were touring, and we had not been doing our first headline shows yet. We had been opening for Kracker. We really hadn’t toured as a headliner at all. Then we played Saturday Night Live, and played “Round Here” and the whole world changed. Our record jumped forty spots a week for five weeks. We were at like 213, then we were at 170 something, 130, 90 something, 50 something, 12, 6, 2, and then stayed at 2 for like the next two years. It was just weird. It happened so suddenly, and it was such a weird surprise.
KS: That song has a special meaning to you I’m sure, but then even more so as it was the one that helped you get your music out there to everyone.
AD: Yeah, and not just for me too, but for our fans in a way. Because “Mr. Jones” is a really great pop song, I love that song, but “Round Here” shows the breadth of what we really do. Like what we do live and how it’s kinda the scope of our music. “Mr. Jones” doesn’t, so when we played it on TV, that’s why it blew us up because a single is one thing, but a band that moves you, a band that makes you feel something, expansive and big and moving like “Round Here” does, apparently knocked people out that day because our lives all changed after that.
KS: Did you know automatically this would be the one you would sing?
AD: On Saturday Night Live? Yeah, we knew. But it was a huge fight. It was a mess. Like we had been getting offers for months. The Letterman show had been offering for us to play on there. But they kept making all these caveats like it had to be Adam with the Late Night Band. Okay it can be Adam with guitar player and our band, it can be Counting Crows, but with Paul, and we were just waiting for someone to offer us an opportunity so that we could just play. And then SNL came along and there were three more months of arguments about what we were going to play and came to an agreement that we would play “Round Here” first, then “Mr. Jones” later, and then we wouldn’t have to cut anything. Then we got there that week and started rehearsals for the show and they sprung on us that they had changed their mind and that we were going to play “Mr. Jones” first and that we were going to have to edit both songs. So it was just a huge fight all week. It was kinda a nightmare. Like I was sure that “Round Here” was the song to play for our first big exposure. They didn’t want it anymore and it was a mess, and it was a huge fight all week. Then they finally caved about an hour before the show.
KS: Good thing you stood your ground there.
AD: I think they were so pissed that they never had us back again.
KS: Their loss. “Round Here” was written off the top of your head, from what I understand. You were able to write it in one sitting. In an interview I did with Charlie Gillingham, he said that “(Durwitz) has a way of coming up with the amazing complex literary lyrics off the top of his head. And that there are lines in these songs, hundreds of them where he says something that really matters that is just so well said.” That’s amazing to me. When writing songs do you find that these songs take on a life of their own or does it write itself in a way with you?
AD: No, it’s a little of both. It’s not like I wrote the song off the top of my head, it’s a Himalayan song, my band before Counting Crows. “Round Here” is from that band. We were playing along and we were recording, on a cassette tape, our rehearsal. So it was probably 20 minutes of us singing on there and a lot of the song was already in there, so I edited it down. I used to do that a lot. Where I would say things off the top of my head, listen to it, then go back and pull things off it, and edit it down into a song. That I used to do an awful lot of. But I don’t write as much that way anymore. Probably because we don’t rehearse as much anymore, as we all live in different places now. So I tend to write more by myself or with the other guys. Yeah, I used to write a lot that way. But it wasn’t like I would play for five minutes and then there’s “Round Here.” It’s more like there are 20 to 30 minutes of music on a tape and I pull from it and then craft it into a song. A lot of it was there, but it was heavily edited down.
KS: Has writing been something you’ve always done? Was it a creative outlet for you?
AD: I didn’t really start writing songs till I was about, well the first song I wrote music and lyrics was the fall term of my freshman year in college. Before that, I hadn’t really done it. But after that, I did nothing else. For years at a time. I just used to write all day, every day.
KS: Well you are very talented and it comes out in your lyrics and music. You once described the difficulties you experienced when you guys were recording August and Everything After. You were developing your roles within the band and the sound and brand during those sessions. You knew in your mind what you wanted to achieve in the finished product and took charge. If you had a chance to go back would you do anything differently while recording that first album?
AD: I’d be less of an asshole. The thing of it is, it’s hard to like…I have skill sets now for being a bandleader that I didn’t have then. I had no idea how to do that. It wasn’t a brand, I just knew there was something better than what we were doing. We were playing a kind of music that sounded like a sort of style of the time. It kinda sounded like late-model Roxy, which is cool. We sounded like a bunch of sounds that were big at the time, that we were trying to sound like. And I just wanted us to sound like us! I was like, strip it down and find out what we were. I felt like that was what was necessary, and in order to do that, I had to take away to just play simple instruments for a bit.
We ended up using lots and lots of weird sounds over the years. But at that moment I just wanted us to stop trying to sound like something and just figure out what we sounded like when we stood in a circle and played together. I felt like there was something much more long term, much more rewarding, and much like a deeper vein to mine than what we were doing. But the thing is, I was brand new to doing this. And brand new being a band leader, and not very good at it. People always talk about how they love playing music, or anything you do in life that you enjoy like a hobby, then talk about it becoming work it’s a negative. Because all of a sudden you’re fighting over things that you used to enjoy. But that’s what work is. Work is when you take something you used to do for fun and you turn it into something you really really good at. And a lot of people can’t get past that point because they don’t like when their hobby starts to be work. Because it’s a big transition to get from one to the other, ya know. And you have to fight about things, where you used to just have fun. I just wasn’t very good at that so there was a point on that first album where we were having a lot of pressure of making a first record and I’m making everybody ditch the instruments and the effects they are using that they are comfortable with and stripping them all away and saying just play. That made it hard on everybody. I was pretty sure of what I was doing, but not very good at doing it. I was hard on everybody. I was harsher than I needed to be and I was so insecure about it.
Everyone in the band tried to quit during that album. At some point during it, every single one of us decided to quit the band. It was really hard. The one thing I would change is the one thing you can’t really change. I would like to know what I know now, then. I could be better at it, but you only get that knowledge doing it. In life, the one thing you can’t go back and change, is the shit you learned, because that’s how you learn it.
KS: Exactly. I’m with you on that. As you wrote more albums, of course, it got easier for you and as you grew as a band in the business you developed a reputation as an amazing live band. Your band is one of the most cohesive groups that I’ve ever heard. And nothing is more apparent than when you play live and improvise on stage. Which is amazing to me. You once said, “playing is really important but listening is more important.” Do you think this is why you all meld so well on stage because you listen to each other and pick up these cues?
AD: Yes, I think so. And also I think we’re not afraid to get it wrong. We have confidence that there is no “wrong.” What you are supposed to do up there on stage, is try stuff. To play, feel it, and try stuff. I think it’s a live experience. I think when you are so worried about being perfect all the time it makes you really stiff in those moments and I think we’ve kinda gotten over, and not so worried about being perfect. We try to be really good, but we’re willing to experiment and if something goes wrong, it goes wrong and it’s not the end of the day. If we have a train wreck, I don’t mind stopping the song, pointing out the guy that screwed up, laughing at him, and then starting it over again. It happens sometimes, things go wrong. It’s real life.
The other night we were playing a show at a festival outside of Austin, like last Friday. I went back to the piano to play “Long December,” I sit down and was talking with the audience, and I start playing and right before I played the song I changed the cap on my mic. So when I do that, I signal my monitor guy and he turns off the mic so that when I’m unscrewing the cap, it won’t make a bunch of noise. You have to do that (change the cap) because you sweat and it soaks into it and you have to change them every now and then. So I changed it and he turns the sound off, screwed it back in, and then go back to the piano to play “Long December.” So when I go to sing he had forgotten to turn the mic back on. So I just stopped the song, laughed at him, he turned it back on, we joked around for a second, then we counted it back in. Truth is, that stuff happens. It’s just human stuff. He’s just doing 90 things at once, he’s setting up someones else’s monitors, flicks my thing off, and then forgets to flick it back on. You can get uptight about stuff like that, or you can realize it just happens. So you just keep playing.
KS: When audiences see that stuff happen, it helps them relate to you I think. They have you up on a pedestal, then when life happens, and they see your human side, they can relate more with you as you are just like them. Mistakes happen.
AD: I think that’s true. It’s an interesting by-product of it. The fact of the matter is, it is all real. We’re a bunch of guys on stage playing, and we’re trying to not do the same thing every night exactly the same way. And so, stuff happens. It’s just real life. It just happens to be on stage, and we just happen to have microphones. It’s the same as the rest of our day in a way and everyone’s real life.
KS: In 1999 you came to my hometown and played Woodstock. Can you share thoughts of that eventful concert there?
AD: They are not really good remembrances.
KS: I know. At times I wonder if we should get a do-over or should we just cut our losses and just call it a day?
AD: I think that was one of the worst ways of honoring one of the best places in the history of rock and roll that I can ever possibly imagine. Woodstock is deservedly one of the most important place names in the history of music. It really is, and totally deservedly so. But those guys, that year, ended up charging like $7 for waters, on a concrete pad, on a day that was 100 degrees outside. Having the port-a-potties not properly maintained, and the poor fans that are dehydrating like crazy can’t buy water because it’s so expensive, and there was a 40-yard pool of urine and shit. People rioted. Let me tell you something about that. And they blamed the bands. Not the people, the promoters blamed the bands. But we wanted to play a night slot at Woodstock, I know this is true because they came back and said we want you to play before sundown because all the night slots we want to have as many aggro bands as possible. They wanted to have it as wild and as intense as possible at night. So we are only putting the loudest bands on at night. They put Limp Bizkit on, the Red Hot Chili Peppers and whoever else. After a certain hour, they were only really aggro bands. Which meant that’s exactly what you are going to get at the end every day. So when they set that up that way, all the bands did was be themselves. I saw the Limp Bizkit show, they played a great show that day. But they are an inciting band. So if you want to have people out in the sun all day and not give them water, and then put Limp Bizkit on, it’s going to become a mosh pit.
KS: Our town is quite embarrassed by the whole thing. It’s one thing to be famous, another to be notorious. So sorry you had bad memories of Rome.
AD: I don’t think that’s people’s memory of Woodstock. Many have probably forgotten that part. When you think of Woodstock, you think of the original, just not that year. Some stages were like triage. There were people like on stretchers. People were getting like so hurt. We saw women getting their clothes torn off them in the audience. It was just so chaotic and so much anger in the crowd. It just wasn’t well run.
KS: Well we hope to welcome you back to Central New York this August at the Lakeview, and hope to change that bitter taste you have in your memory with some good ones. You will be touring this summer with Rob Thomas. Have you ever played together before?
AD: Yeah, but we’ve never toured together before. We’ve known each other for such a long time. There were times we would be in the same city and get up on stage and sign “Momma Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys” together. One time I had a European tour and they had a European Tour that started a couple of weeks before mine, so I just went over early to be with Rob and the guys in Italy. I just spent a week getting drunk and hanging out with them in Italy going on interviews with them before my tour started. Just because it was fun. I’m really looking forward to this because I haven’t seen Rob much in the last ten years. So it will be nice to see each other again.
KS: It will be an epic tour and we can’t wait to have you guys come through. Final question for ya. If I had never heard a Counting Crows song before, which one would you tell me to listen to to get a feel and encompass what you guys are all about?
AD: “Pallasides Park.”
KS: Okay. That’s a very interesting choice. That is a great video too. Where did the concept for that come from?
AD: It was all Bill Fishman. I asked him to change a few things, but basically it was his concept from hearing the song and wanting to do it. There were a lot of submissions for who wanted to direct that, but it was clear to me the moment he sent his in. He was the guy. He just had a grasp on it.
KS: So his visual concept met yours?
AD: His visual concept met my emotional concept. I didn’t have a visual concept. I knew how I wanted it to feel, and I felt like he really captured that.
KS: Well thank you again Adam for taking the time to talk to our readers and we look forward to welcoming both you and Rob Thomas back to Central New York once again.
As the interview ended, the proverbial “don’t ask a question you’re not certain of the answer” came to mind. I wasn’t quite sure how I expected Adam to answer the Woodstock ’99 question, however his insight from a stage view was enlightening to this journalist. I was actually embarrassed all over again for my community wishing there was a way one could rectify this catastrophic event in the minds of all that participated and attended. Perhaps some things are best left alone. Note to self, do not ask about Woodstock ’99.
I found the lead singer extremely easy mannered as our conversation began. Although I sensed a reservation in his tone at the beginning of the interview, I felt his guard come down as I kept my questions on topic. I know readers want a personal insight into stars and their lives, however some things that personal are just that, personal.
His first answer to my hello, pointing out the beautiful sunny day he (and I) were experiencing here in New York state, immediately made him real to me. As our conversation went along it truly appeared that he was happily reliving the moments with me as he shared his story with our readers. His simplistic answer said it all. “Mostly, I just play in a band, that’s what I like.”
I love that quote. It’s what music is all about. Every interview I’ve ever done with a musician they never had a “Plan B.” Music is more to a musician than a job. It’s part of their soul and I think with Adam, he’s eloquent at expressing himself and what is fueling him.
Still to this day, one of my favorite interviews. Happy Birthday Adam!