Single Copies

A Conversation with Adam Duritz of Counting Crows

By Brennen Matthews

Images by Mark Seliger

I first discovered Counting Crows when I was 19 and living in California. It was a warm January evening, and I was with a colleague at the time, traveling fast up the 405 in his Porsche. It was the first time I was ever in one. I was young, we were in a fast car in California, and “Mr. Jones” came on the radio. He turned it up and turned to me and hollered, “Have you heard these guys yet?” I hadn’t, but it sounded pretty good. “They’re called Counting Crows. They are going to be huge.” After that evening I began to hear their smash hits everywhere, and yes, they became huge. For many, Counting Crows is part of the soundtrack of the ‘90s. Their fun, upbeat, and at times reflective and mournful tunes define the decade and reflect a time of youth and simplicity. Now, after selling over 20 million albums, the band has a new record out and a lifetime of experience under their belt. I too am older and more seasoned now, but their music still always takes me back to that warm California night.

Your family moved around quite a bit; Baltimore, Boston, El Paso, until finally settling in California. In what ways do you think that impacted you?

Well, I think you can see it a lot in my writing, for one thing, because I write a lot about America and the scope of it, and different places in it, and I think growing up, you know, spending a lot of time at a young age, before 10, living in like five or six different places, and having driven to all of them, I spent those years, some of it, in a car, traversing a very large country. I think I had a real understanding of that, and [it] definitely informed some of the writing. But, also, you know, there’s a certain displacement, I think. Because I definitely remember noticing it when I got into junior high and high school, that a lot of my friends and people that I knew, had friends that they’d had for years, and I didn’t even really understand that. Like for me, it didn’t exist.

When I was three, my dad finished medical school and moved to Boston for his internships. Before I was six — it was during Vietnam — my dad had to go into the army. We moved to Texas. When he got out of the army, we went to Denver to finish [his] internships, and then back to Houston, to start doing research. But when we got to California, he decided that he wanted to practice instead. So, those were a lot of places, and to me, there was no such thing as people in your life. That was something that came and went. There wasn’t a sense of permanence with it. And I think that’s definitely affected me a lot through my life and in my relationships. That’s one of the things that was really difficult for me. I didn’t have the sense of belonging anywhere.

By the time I got into adulthood, I didn’t really have a sense of myself outside of the here and now. Like, this is where we are, and the future seems very uncertain; the past seems like a blur that has no permanence. And I really think that informs a lot of the ways I relate to people even now. It’s taken a long time in my life to let someone in and stay. It’s really the first time I can think of doing that now, five decades in.

I really do think my writing is informed by a sense of — I’m obsessed with the scope of this country, the sheer size of it. What it takes for people to cross it. The distances people will go to be with each other, and the distances people will go and be separated from each other while staying within one country.

With all of your traveling, have you been on Route 66?

I have to have been. I feel like traveling from Texas to California through Arizona — as a kid — I was on it for sure. I don’t remember if we’ve been on the tour bus on it though, because it doesn’t run on the regular highway routes any longer. But I feel like the Route 66 thing came up when I was a kid, because we moved from the East Coast to Texas, but also during those years when we lived in Texas we traveled constantly. My parents were obsessed with Native American art, so we were always going to the reservations to visit the artists. I met all the great potters and sand painters and painters.

As an adult, have you had the chance to just hit the road and do the ‘Great American’ road trip?

Well, once you join a band, road trips suck. I mean, like, once you’ve driven... because the first year or so you’re doing it in a car by yourself, which means, I may have driven it by myself, because we put like 30,000 miles on my car in the first tour. We took a van and my car out for the first three months. Then we went to two vans, it was about a year before we went to a bus. But you know, there was a lot of driving at that point, so [now] it just doesn’t have any appeal.

But I think, especially when I was a kid, those road trips gave me a real appreciation for the country. I lived in so many different parts of it, met so many different kinds of people, and we literally drove those miles. The ‘70s, you know, in a station wagon, and I really grew to appreciate the vastness of it, especially growing up on the east coast, and then ending up 10 years later on the west coast. The sheer scope and expanse of North America, it really knocks you out, and you get an appreciation for different kinds of people and different ways of life.

Your first record, August and Everything After, is thoughtfully reflective. It’s obvious that your life experiences influenced the tone.

Well, I think it informs all the albums, I don’t think that’s ever shifted really, yet. I think it was always a real desire to communicate and connect. I really looked for ways to get out of the solitude and to connect with people. I think songs were a way... I wasn’t really good at doing that one to one, myself, but when you write a song you feel like it could connect with everybody, which might connect you with somebody. You don’t have to decide to connect or not to connect to anyone when you’re writing a song, you just write it and maybe it connects to everyone at the same time. I had much more of a desire to connect when I didn’t have to commit to any person in that connection, you know. I think that informed a lot of it, but I also think that impermanence and the question of your relationship to your memories is a big part of all my songs. I mean, from “Ghost Train” which is, you know, literally about a train of ghosts, which are your memories, and [it] gets longer and longer, the longer you live. They all get on cars behind you and ride along with you. A lot of my songs are about looking at things that have gone, trying to come to grips with what it means to have done something, and try and remember it, that a part of your life that is not here today, even just yesterday, but especially a year ago or 10 years ago. What all of those things have to do with you now, because they never seem to leave you, but they’re also not here with you, you know what I mean? And I think that that sense of displacement has just been embedded in everything from the beginning.

Tell me your story. How did you begin musically and end up being one of the most respected bands in the world?

I was in a lot of bands. I was in Sordid Humor and I was in Himalayans at the time, which “Round Here” is a Himalayans song. Himalayans was really my main thing, and at the same time Dave Bryson and I were playing acoustic shows together. We played in a version of Counting Crows before that, but we were just playing some acoustic shows and open mics and experimenting with little versions of a band here and there, but I was really focused on Himalayans. I would write songs and Dave and I would get together with different groups of guys, whoever we were playing with at that point, and record them. And at one point, we put this band together, and we played a couple of shows. We started to get some offers from some people who saw us, and they were making us really uncomfortable. They weren’t great offers. They weren’t really seeing what we were, they wanted to make us something. And so, we thought, we better get some kind of representation, because this was a little too scary to deal with ourselves. When we found our managers and our lawyer, it opened up a lot of doors for us. This all started in the fall of ‘91, I guess. We played some gigs in January of ‘92 and there were two weeks in a row [where] we played showcase gigs, and every record company in the world came at one point in those two weeks, and the Monday after the second week, we got offers from everyone. There was a big bidding war.

That must have been affirming. What made you decide to go with Geffen Records?

We went to Geffen for a variety of reasons. One, it was kind of a boutique label, and we liked our A&R guy there. And they offered us full creative control and a higher royalty. We traded away all the upfront money. There was a lot of money on the table, and we took home [around] $15,000 between the five of us, just like $3,000 each. But we got a really high royalty rate and we got complete creative control, which kind of doesn’t mean anything, because they’ll find ways to push you if they want to, but you know, we had it at least on paper, and we didn’t know that yet, so it seemed like a really good thing. So, we went to Geffen and we made the first record.

You’ve received all this attention from record labels. You’ve signed on with one. And now it’s time to make the music. What was that experience like?

It was a brutal experience. We didn’t know what we were doing. I, especially, didn’t know what I was doing, and I was really, really concerned about doing it wrong. I knew what I wanted the record to be, I knew what was important to me–that you felt things. I was hard on everyone, and I didn’t know what to do, and I didn’t know how to do it. I just kind of decided that I was in charge. It wasn’t really a decision on anybody else’s part. I just decided that I was and willed it into being, and I didn’t even know whether that was fair, you know, but I thought I had to do it. Then [we] went out and played and nothing really happened for a long time. We were out there on the road opening for Midnight Oil and The Cranberries and then Cracker. And we didn’t even have a single out. We didn’t agree with the record company on what it should be. We thought it should be “Mr. Jones” and they thought it should be “A Murder of One,” but they wanted to edit it because it was too long. I refused to edit anything, and so we agreed to do nothing, and we went out there on the road and just kind of lied to radio stations and told them that the first single was “Mr. Jones.” Not because we thought “Mr. Jones” was a hit, we were all pretty sure “Rain King” was the hit. “Mr. Jones” just seemed like a good introductory track to get everybody to know the band, and get some attention before, you know, “Rain King.” We made a video, it came out. The record wasn’t even in the top 200, but we got this gig on Saturday Night Live, and then after we played “Round Here” on Saturday Night Live, the record jumped 40 spots a week! 40+ spots every week for five weeks. We ended up at number two for a year-and-a-half, or so. A long time. It never got to number one. Bonnie Raitt, Ace of Base, and The Lion King kept us out of number one as I remember. Which didn’t really matter to me. We sold a ton of records. I just thought it was funny.

With the attention and notoriety that came with that success, it must have been a crazy time for you.

I had the feeling it was getting out of control, which it was, and tried to shut it down. We put out “Round Here” as the second single, and then I told the record company we weren’t going to do anything else, that we were done, because I didn’t want our career to be over that year, and I was really afraid that it would be. That all looked good for a second, [but] I had given them this demo, like a year before, of “Einstein on the Beach,” for a rarities record that was never going to be seen or heard by anybody. But when I told them that we weren’t releasing any more singles, they put that album out and made it a single. And so, the record blew back up again with a song. In retrospect, I would much rather have had “Rain King” out than that, but you know, I think things just got a little out of control after that, it just got bigger than we would’ve wanted it to be. We kept touring, but I had a hard time with it. I wasn’t prepared for everything that came with [success.]

In what way? I mean, obviously you were looking for success, but then...

Well, you’re looking for success as a concept. That isn’t to say you have any idea what it is to live in it. Yeah, I really wanted to be successful, because I wanted to make my life out of [music.]

But you don’t have any idea about fame until it lands on you, you know, and it landed on us! I was very, very, very shy, and I didn’t have any sense of how to talk to people.

So, when I suddenly needed to talk to everybody, and there were all these people... And also, quite honestly, I was mentally ill, and I didn’t want anyone to know that. I sort of cracked in there a bit. I’ve said the same thing a million times, but if you woke up on Mars, it would take you a while to get used to the gravity, you know, and it took me a while.

How did you handle all the fame and attention?

So, after that year, there were people camped out on my lawn. It was impossible to be in Berkley. I moved to LA, and that was a nice fresh start for me. I found myself in a town full of people who really just wanted to be creative; like a working artist town. I came from a struggling artist town and our success wasn’t handled very well there. It frustrated a lot of people, as it does. But in LA, it was like a working artist town, at least for a few years, for me. It was really nice just to be around other creative people. I hadn’t had many peers in my life really. Other than the people you play in the clubs with, most people don’t understand what you’re doing. Even your friends, they don’t do the same kind of thing you do.

After I recovered and settled back in, we got really excited to do another record. And I was really creative. I had a lot to say, and as I was writing the songs for Recovering the Satellites, I was pretty excited about it. There was some pushback and a lot of pressure after August and Everything After, but we had creative control and we didn’t really care a lot. So, we made that record, and I was so proud and happy about it. And you know, I think there’s always backlash when you have that much success. I think there was a lot of, “Okay, we’re really tired of these guys.” By the time that Recovering the Satellites, came out, it didn’t get the reception that we were hoping for. Which happened to a lot of our records after that. But I love that record, and it went straight to number one and was multi-platinum.

Did you find much of a struggle between doing songs that look like sure commercial hits like “A Long December” and those that may not be, but that you really love?

No, because the truth is, it only seems like obvious commercial stuff in hindsight. Like I said, the record label wanted “Murder of One.” They did not want “Mr. Jones,” at all, and they absolutely never even considered “Round Here,” which is really the song that established our career. Because as good of a song on the radio as “Mr. Jones” is, and it’s great, it was people seeing us play “Round Here” that said, “Okay, this is a new thing. This I’m interested in.” I think it’s the “Round Here” that keeps people coming back for 30 years. And “A Long December,” I remember the first response from the record company was, “Are you sure you want to put Hollywood in a song?” But nobody knows what a hit is. They just don’t. And it seemed so obvious afterwards. You know, I thought, when I wrote it, “A Long December” is perfect. It just feels like a gem to me. It’s a perfect piece of timelessness. It’s the one song, maybe the only song, I am never tired of playing. I don’t think I’ve ever not wanted to play “A Long December” in concert, and I don’t think that’s true for anything else. But I don’t think that we knew that at the time, or I don’t think the record company knew that.

So then is it more difficult for you to do a song like “Accidentally in Love” when you’re writing it for a movie?

That one was really hard. I could not get a handle on it. I went over to DreamWorks, to the Amblin studios there, and sat with the director and one of the guys from the company. They showed me most of the movie (Shrek 2) and they took me through storyboards of the other parts, and then we went back, and they showed me the scene at the beginning again that they wanted, and I said, “Yeah, I get what he’s talking about,” and I was like, “Yeah, I’ll do it. Just give me a DVD that I can take home of this scene.” So, I took that home with me and I struggled, because I never write with a plan. I never have a theme in mind. I never have a plot in mind — I just write.

I’d had it for about a month, maybe a month and a half, and we were getting ready to leave on a European tour, and I had sort of decided that if I didn’t get it before I left, I was going to call them and say, “Look, I’m not getting this, you should go to someone else,” because I didn’t want to screw them over. I didn’t want to leave it to the last minute. Then, a couple of days before I left, I got the verse and the chorus music — maybe a little bit of the verses and one of the choruses. I didn’t have all the lyrics, and I didn’t finish it, but I had the song, what it was going to be. I was hugely relieved. But I don’t think I’ve ever struggled writing anything like that in my career.

Being a shy person, have you always been comfortable performing in front of audiences or is it something you worked at?

Well, I don’t think I’m as shy now as I used to be, but it’s still an issue for me. It’s more that I’m uncomfortable with people and I feel... because dissociation [Dissociative Disorder] is a disconnection from life in general, so you’re in the back of your own head, you really have some distance between you and other people. But I have never been that worried about performing.

But the first few gigs I played with my first band, as an adult, not when I was a kid, I woke up — the first three gigs we played — with complete and utter laryngitis, for no reason. I had no voice those days. I had to chew ginger on stage and swallow—continuously have a big ginger root, shave it, cut parts off, chew them like gum, spit them out, to burn my throat enough to get me to be able to sing for the first three gigs. And then it sort of stopped happening, so it was some kind of psychosomatic laryngitis, just vocal loss. But now, honestly, I know what to do on stage, and I have a feeling that anything I do is just self-expression and it’s okay, so if I want to be creative, I can just do that, but there’s no wrong up there really, not really. It’s a lot more uncertain with people, and I don’t have the slightest idea how to do it a lot of the time.

When you did “Big Yellow Taxi,”—a great version by the way—was it the record company who suggested that you do it or were you already a fan of the song?

We were recording a bunch of covers. We took this one weekend where some of the guys didn’t come back on time to the studio, and we just started recording cover songs. I’d had this idea for a while for an acoustic hip-hop version of “Big Yellow Taxi,” with just a drum kit playing a loop beat, an upright bass, and acoustic guitar. And we had this version of it, and we were thinking of doing a covers album back then, and we also wanted some B-sides — we did about 10 songs, a bunch of different stuff — but that version of “Big Yellow Taxi,” everyone loved it, our managers, the record company, they’re all flipping out over it. We decided to try and do a remix of it, and we went to a bunch of different producers. But Ron Fair, who was a producer at Geffen — he had just finished Vanessa Carlton’s record — called up and said, “Hey, I hear you’re passing this around to producers and looking for something. I have an idea that I think could be really good. Can I send it to you?” And I said, “Sure, of course.” So, he sent it, and it wasn’t what I was expecting or looking for, but it was really good, so we decided to do it. It didn’t get done in time before we had to leave for a tour in Europe, but we had this idea for those background vocals, but they needed to be done. I wasn’t going to be able to be there, and I was worried about anyone having to sing on one of our songs without me in the studio, and being uncomfortable or intimidated, and I asked Ron if Vanessa would do it. Vanessa was a total unknown then, but she had just finished a record with him, and I’d heard a lot of it, and I thought it was really good. And my feeling was that if anybody was going to be able to deal with being in the studio without us there, it would be someone he had just worked with. So, I suggested using Vanessa and it actually turned out really well.

Do you know if Joni (Mitchell) ever heard it?

Yeah, I know she heard it because I was with her. When we finished that version of it, Joni was down the hall working on a record. It turned out to be “Travelogue,” the record she did with Vince Mendoza, with all the orchestral versions of her songs. So, Steve Lillywhite [British record producer] really wanted to play it for Joni, and he kept telling me that he was going to go get her, and I kept trying to sneak out of the studio because I was so scared of being around Joni and her hating it or something. So, I tried to sneak out, and I ran into Steve and Joni walking back into the studio and got busted. We went into the studio together and he played it for her, and she loved it. This is not the version that came out, it’s our version, the hip hop version. She flipped out and she got really excited and she’s like, “Do you want to come hear some of my record?” And I said, “Sure.” So, we went down the hall for the next hour and a half and she played me almost all of “Travelogue,” like we sat there and she’s like, “Do you want to hear another?” And I was like, “Absolutely.” You know, it’s still one of my favorite records. The song was a huge hit, unexpectedly though. We purposely hid it because we didn’t want the record company to put it out first, so we hid it on the record. But the record company got this offer from the movie (Two Weeks Notice), and they got really excited about the free publicity, so they put it out, but it was stupid because it became a single before we ever had it listed on the record. So, it didn’t sell any records because everyone was like, “Wow, this is a huge hit, where do I find it?” And they couldn’t find it, so it was a mess that way.

I was reading, Adam, that when Kurt Cobain took his life in 1994, it really impacted you heavily. That you sort of looked at parallels between his life and story, and yours.

Yeah, actually, and I knew him too. Gary Gersh signed both of us — Kurt a year or so before us. We were his two little brothers. So, I knew Kurt and he was really great to me. I was nobody, we didn’t even have a record out when I met him. The few times I hung out with him were all before we’d even released a record. He was just a really sweet guy. He really was. He was just the nicest guy. I don’t know how else to put it other than that, I mean, aside from that he was a genius. And I saw [Nirvana] live back when I knew him, and it was blistering. It was incredible, you know. I saw maybe the first show for “In Utero,” and it was one of the most face-melting things I’ve ever seen. It was unbelievable.

Were you and your friends surprised when he took his life?

Well, I don’t know if surprised is the right word. He’d been missing for a while, and I knew it because... I wasn’t really close to him, but Gary was. And to me, he was my life a few years ahead of me. We were off in Europe on tour, and I was pretty freaked out about a Rolling Stone interview and photoshoot that was coming up. We landed in Paris and got to the hotel that day. I was met in the lobby of the hotel. They didn’t have our rooms ready yet, but we met David Wild, who wrote [the article,] and Mark Seliger, who did the photoshoot in the lobby that day. And we were talking, and in talking to David, I actually got comfortable with the idea of being interviewed, because it was pretty much freaking me out being in Rolling Stone. I know you have to do it and it sounds like a great thing, but your life, especially back then — your face is going to be on every newsstand in America, which meant something back then. And your life is going to be different, and I didn’t know what that was, but I knew it was already changing.

So, I’m in the lobby and I hear, “Adam Duritz, please pick up the courtesy telephone.” And I go over to this phone, I pick it up, and “There’s a phone call for you.” And it was Gary calling from America, telling me that they had just found Kurt’s body. I may be the first person on the continent to know. And I’m sitting there with the guys from Rolling Stone, I’m sitting there with the things that are going to change my life, and I get the news of what happened to him, and yeah it really, really shook me up. I mean, it terrified me, and it was devastating. Because like I said, at a time when I was nothing, he was really kind to me, and I really liked him. I looked up to him and... I knew that I had problems, emotional problems and mental illness. Nobody else did, but I did, and I was looking at what happened to him with all that fame and seeing our record jump 40 points a week, and sitting looking across the lobby at the writer for Rolling Stone and the photographer who is going to shoot the cover shot, and I was scared. Yeah, it shook me up to no end.

You sing about Hillside Manor in “A Long December.” I was reading a book on River Phoenix and it mentioned the same place.

It was my friend Samantha Mathis and Tracy Falco’s place. They had — and it’s not a mansion or anything, that was the joke, we called it Hillside Manor. It was a little house they had, a block or two above Sunset, east of Laurel Canyon. They lived right down the hill from me. Samantha had been my girlfriend at one point. I met her with River Phoenix when we were making the first record. She was dating River then. After River passed away, Samantha and I got back in touch and became friends and we ended up dating. That was their house that they lived in. And we’d run into everyone up there: Jude Law, Christian Slater... they were all really good friends, and we would spend a lot of time at their house. It’s where I’d go after The Viper Room, to hang out.

That must have been a very exciting time. You were young, late 20s, famous, with friends who either grew up in the industry or were on the cusp of their own celebrity.

For me it was just — it was moving from a struggling artist town to a working artist town, and everyone was working. And some of them were famous, but a lot of them were struggling, too. One of my best friends was Randall Slavin, who just put out a book this year, a book of photography called “We All Want Something Beautiful,” of all the photos he took there in that year. Randall was a struggling actor back then, and we were just all friends. We knew each other — some of us were more successful than others. But The Viper Room was where my real home was then, and I met a lot of people there. There was just a world of interesting people flowing through that place all the time. It was a place to go be and not have to worry about anything else. You were just normal there. I was a bartender.

You were?

Oh yeah, for years. I was a... most of my time at The Viper I spent bartending. The people that worked there were the only people I knew in L.A. at first, really.

Do you think that a cloud hung over The Viper Room after River’s death?

No, I think in people’s perception of it, it did. But The Viper was always very anti-drug. It really wasn’t that kind of place. That was a real outlier. If you got caught doing drugs in The Viper Room, you were booted. It’s why they weren’t inside the club when that happened. I mean, not that they got booted, but they just didn’t do it in there. It was really sad because we all liked River. I mean, I was gone when it happened. I was in Dallas. The Viper was a wonderful, wonderful place, full of the nicest people that worked there and people that were interested in all kinds of sh*t.

After all these years, you shaved your trademark dreads in 2019. Why cut them off at this point in your life and was it a scary decision to make?

I’d been thinking about it for a while, I was just really tired of it. I loved them, and they were the first time in my life I felt like I looked in a mirror and really saw myself. Like, I think when I looked at myself — I remember coming, looking in the window of an art gallery in San Francisco, and seeing myself and thinking, “Oh, that’s me. That’s the me I’ve always thought was me.” I have just always felt weird. I didn’t know what it was then — it was probably the dissociation, you know, that causes you to not feel like you’re in your skin, and so looking in mirrors is probably one place where you’d get confused, but that went away when I saw the dreads. But it had been a long time, and I was tired of [them] for a lot of reasons. I got to England, and we were on our way out to our friend’s farm, a couple of days later — where I wrote all of “Butter Miracle” — but we were at his house, and I was going to take a shower, and I’m just looking at myself in the mirror and I thought... I had the clippers with me, and I just grabbed them and cut [the dreads] off. Then I took a shower and I went up and woke my girlfriend up, like, “Hey, by the way,” and she looked up at me and went “Holy!”

For months and months after that, I would pass by a bathroom and, just because I could, stick my head under the sink, wet my hair, dry it with a towel... because I couldn’t do it for so many years, and it just felt great to do it. It was pretty liberating. It was a little scary at first because that was who I was. But it felt like the right thing to do, and I haven’t regretted it at all.

It’s a new stage in life. It’s a new chapter. And, you have a new album out, Butter Miracle.

This is a very special record. It’s very unique, there aren’t a lot of things like it. I think that the same things that made people love “Round Here,” and us because of “Round Here,” are very present in this suite. It takes you on a journey, you know. I’m really, really proud of it.

Check out Counting Crows’ new album Butter Miracle, Suite One. It’s perfect for your summer road trip!


Share this story