Adam Duritz leads Counting Crows to the Saratoga Performing Arts Center on Aug. 15. Jim Gilbert/nymusic.com
“Actually, we played a show in Vegas about two years ago,” said Adam Duritz, lead singer of Counting Crows—trying to remember the last time he saw his friend Rob Thomas, of Matchbox Twenty, before the two decided to go on tour together.
The iconic 90s alt-rock musicians are headlining together at SPAC on Monday, Aug. 15, and, according to Duritz, have earned their longstanding success. “A lot of bands fall apart,” he said in a phone interview with TheSpot518 in June, “because of an inability to work together and make all the parts add up. If collaboration is something you suffer through and you can’t make the most of everyone’s talents, then your band will only ever be so good; the fact that we can do that is one of the things I love about this band. Not that it’s easy. We fight a lot, but it’s worth it, you know, you make records that stand the test of time.”
Duritz can’t even remember when he met Thomas. “I feel like maybe we played one of those radio Christmas shows together, but I’m not sure. We have a bunch of mutual friends too, so it could have been through one of them. It was 20 years ago, so I’m not at all sure. That’s really weird,” he mused. “I haven’t seen him much for the last ten years. We used to be really good friends. But he got married and moved out of town and I tend to be kind of a hermit myself.”
Originally, Duritz said he had been talking to his other good friend, Chris Carrabba from Dashboard Confessional, about a summer tour, but, he said, “there was some miscommunication and we wound up committing to other stuff. And then the Rob thing came up and I was like, ‘that sounds great!’ It just seemed like a really good tour for us; It’s always so nice to tour with your friends and I thought it would be fun to hang out with Rob again.”
Being on stage with his fellow bandmates, said Duritz, is what he loves best about touring. “I love what we can do together and that feeling of being on stage. I made a really big point to the band in the early days that playing onstage is really important, but listening is way more important. If we want to be the kind of band I want to be, you gotta listen to each other while you’re playing. And, you’re never really sure if someone’s going to hear you when you say something like that, because a lot of times people just nod and the go ahead and do whatever they want to do. But, every night when we’re on-stage, I can hear those guys listening to each other; I can hear somebody try something, I can hear someone else hear it, and react to it on their instrument and then I’ll sing something a little differently. It’s very small stuff—most of the time, you would never hear it out in the audience—but it’s part of what I think makes the music great. That what makes it real and emotionally true.”
“Nobody gets along all the time really well,” he said, trying to explain the creative dynamic in his band. “Especially with something that really matters like this. Because you literally do fight about stuff every day. This is not a hobby where we’re just supposed to have fun all the time—it’s a job and it’s something we’re all really serious about and, if you’re serious and you really care about something, then you have to fight for it. It doesn’t mean you have to always be right, but you have to fight. There are some days that we don’t like each other at all, but it’s been 20-plus years and we’re still here. A lot of my friends’ bands aren’t.”
Asked how his music has evolved since Counting Crows’ mid-90s success, Duritz was initially flustered. “It seems really different to me,” he said thoughtfully. “But I feel different too. I think you just grow—you get older, you change, you experiment with stuff. I think I could go album by album. The first album, we just started playing together—it seems very simple to me. I like it, but we didn’t really have a lead guitar player yet and that held us back a whole lot on that first album, I think. We couldn’t play a lot of the kinds of music I wanted to play without a lead guitar player and then Ben joined us, our drummer, and he came from a much more indie-rock vibe and that really opened us up to do a lot of the songs we did on “Recovering Satellites” (1996), it was a much louder album with much bigger guitars—a lot more raw. And that was really great for me; I think it was a shocking thing for our record company because we sold millions of records with T Bone Burnett and they hadn’t wanted us to go find the guy that did all the Pixies records, but we were interested. That’s the way we wanted to go, so we just did it.”
Counting Crows second album was produced by Gil Norton, the English music producer who worked with bands like Pixies, Foo Fighters, Jimmy Eat World and Dashboard Confessional. The quintet had, by then, became a sextet—with Dan Vickrey added as a second guitar player and contributing songwriter, and Ben Mize replacing Steve Bowman on the drums. “We never even really repeated with a producer until the last few records,” said Duritz. “The third record, we went and found our friends who produced the Sparklehorse records, because we’d been listening to that and wanted to do that. So Dennis Herring and David Lowery produced our third album [“This Desert Life,” 1999], because we were really interested in experimenting in the studio and messing around with loops and, just, doing weirder stuff.” (Sparklehorse—essentially Mark Linkous—produced a beautiful and sombre album called “It’s a Wonderful Life” in 2001, before dying an untimely death in 2010.) And, the fourth album was mostly Steve Lillywhite.”
Lillywhite, who had collaborated with artists such as The Pogues, Dave Matthews and The Rolling Stones, produced Counting Crows fourth album, “Hard Candy,” which featured a hidden track — a cover of Big Yellow Taxi, by Joni Mitchell, which wound up being one of their biggest radio hits from the album.
“The music sort of naturally changed as we went, sort of grew into a fuller version of itself,” said Duritz. “I definitely write differently than I used to. I think the onstage stuff is very similar, we still improvise a lot. It all feels kind of natural; I change too and the way I’ve dealt with the music has all well. I think a lot of people expected us to change because we got really successful, and that wasn’t really the case. That didn’t seem to affect us much, except to make us a little more stubborn – something that our record company has never really liked.”
Duritz said that he, and his Bay Area bandmates, were influenced early on by a local San Francisco radio station. “This is something that a lot of us in this band have in common,” he said. “There was this radio station called KFAN (100.3) and they were like the original free-form radio station in the 60s and 70s and in the 80s for a while, and they played everything. They were bizarre. There was no playlist: they played The Rolling Stones, followed by The Sex Pistols, followed by Funkadelic, followed by George Jones or Willie Nelson. They really played all kinds of music: punk, indie, classic rock, country, funk music. So I never had any real sense of genre, my musical collection was everything—hip hop and country music and Prince.
“It was a big thing in a lot of our lives if you grew up in the Bay Area,” he said. “And, years later, the first person to ever play one of my songs on the radio was Bonnie Simmons, who was a friend of mine that became the program director at KFAN.” Simmons played songs from Duritz’ first band, The Himalayans.
“They were a huge deal to us,” he continued, “because it’s one of the reasons that I think our music has never needed to be, like, some specific kind of music. It’s always been whatever we wanted it to be. Because, you know, we are lizard brains—music IS whatever you want it to be.”
Not having a specific allegiance to any genre, he said, has allowed to band to expand and experiment and explore multiple sounds, and incorporate them into their creative process. “If I had to credit anyone,” he said, “it would be Bonnie and KFAN. We never grew up with the sense that there was good music and bad music, because they played everything. I like all kinds of different music.”
Asked about his opinion of contemporary pop, Duritz said, “I kind of think music is always all the same. There are so many great bands, there are always a million great bands and a million great records being made. Sometimes they’re at the top of the charts and sometimes they’re not, but music is really always music. I think people often tend to perceive it too much based on what’s at the top of the charts, and think that’s all that’s going on, but there is always five billion bands you’ve never heard of.”
In an attempt to publicize lesser-known bands he’s discovered, Duritz and his friend Ryan Spaulding, a music blogger, have been hosting free musical events called The Outlaw Road Show, which feature up to 40 bands—many of which Duritz has collaborated with over the years, one of which will be opening the SPAC show on the 15th. “I love the guy we’re bringing this summer,” he said. “K Phillips and the Concho Pearls—he’s an amazing Texas songwriter who’s living in Nashville now. I sang on his new album. I’ve sung on five or six in the last year and a half—all Outlaw Road Show bands.”
Credited with seven studio albums, six live albums and myriad collaborations, Duritz said that his favorite song is one that came out in 2014—and that the band has been unable to shake from their set list ever since. Palisades Park, the lead single from the album “Somewhere Under Wonderland,” is not exactly autobiographical, he said, “but, on the other hand, it’s based on a lot of stuff that I went through in my life and that I’ve seen in my life. And it’s all about how I feel about things. So, to me, every song is very strictly and purely me – just not always the plot. What I put in songs is how I feel about something, legitimately and literally how I feel.
“I think it’s the best song I’ve ever written,” he said. “I’m really proud of writing it; I’m also really proud of what we did to record that and what we did to make it and how we play it live every night. It’s such an amazing collaboration with all of us, because it goes al kinds of different places. That kind of thing is not easy to do on a record; it’s not easy to pull off live, but it’s really hard to do on a record and we really managed to do it and I’m so proud of that.
“I’m kind of addicted to playing it. Our set list changes every night, but probably for the last two years, that’s been part of our set every night,” he said enthusiastically. “About three months before the record came out, we were playing gigs that summer and learning to play the songs for the new album and, on the second show of that summer tour, we put Palisades Park at the beginning of the encore to see if it would be good there—which is a really poor choice of a place to put a song that’s eight minutes long and no one knows, it’s not really a good idea—but it worked and it was really cool. And it’s never really moved from that slot since then.”
While Duritz is credited as the writer on that song and many others, he says that collaboration is an incredibly important part of the creative process. “Even the songs that are credited entirely to me,” he said earnestly, “to say that it’s all me is just kind of laughable, because what happens when you have that skeleton of a song—those words and those chords—and you go to record and work out different parts of the song, it’s such a collaborative effort and has everything to do with the whole band. Usually, it’s half words and half music, but I like to give a third of the writing process to everyone else who plays on the song because, to me, they’re writing their parts – no one is giving them sheet music—it’s very, very collaborative. Not everyone can do that, it’s kind of the hardest part.”
That ability to work together, said Duritz ultimately, is why Counting Crows is still drawing crowds and selling records. “We rehearse every day at soundcheck and then, right after soundcheck, I send a text to the band, the crew, the opening band—if we’re good friends, and ask if there’s anything they want to play or hear that night.” While he may not always take every suggestion, he said, he makes sure that everyone is enthusiastic about the show they’re putting on.
“You never get us phoning it in onstage, because the set we’re playing that night is the set we really want to play. It may not be all the songs you want to hear, but you’ll never hear a band that’s not into it.”