Jul 06, 2021
By Jake Uitti
For those, like me, reading this who grew up in the 1990s, the names Adam Duritz and Counting Crows are as ubiquitous as any other monikers in our memory banks. We remember when we heard “Mr. Jones” on the radio the first time—if you were like me growing up in central New Jersey, you heard it almost hourly on 97.5 WPST Trenton and Philadelphia!
Duritz and Counting Crows rose from their humble Bay Area beginnings in 1991 to become one of the most popular bands on the planet, with hits that also included, “A Long December,” “Round Here,” “Omaha,” and “Mrs. Potter’s Lullaby.” Duritz also became notorious for his floppy hair and his dating habits, having reportedly canoodled with both Courtney Cox and Jennifer Aniston at the height of their Friends fame.
But Duritz, more than any of these salacious tidbits, is a sensitive soul. He’s suffered from a severe mental illness. He’s traveled the globe and seen the affects, both positive and negative, of supreme fame. Durtiz and his band also have a new EP out in the world: Butter Miracle Suite One, which was released in May. We caught up with the now-shorn frontman to talk his early days as an aspiring artist, the genesis of the new EP, and what he loves most about his craft.
Jake Uitti (Under the Radar): Hello! Thank you for making some time, Adam. It is currently 8 a.m. here in Seattle on a grey day, just to give you some context of who is on the other end of the line. How are you?
Adam Duritz: It is 4 in the afternoon here in the U.K. and it is, for once, a beautiful day.
It’s been raining and freezing for a while. It was nice and, like, 85 and then it dropped to about 40, 50 and it’s a little more pleasant today.
Good! Well, I’ll try not to keep you for very long! Let me ask the first question here, when did you first find music? When did music enter your life in a significant way as a young person?
I mean, I was a young kid. My parents had a bunch of Beatles records. I went to see a Jackson 5 concert when I was probably five or six, in that period. That’s when I started to really love music.
How did that dovetail into singing?
I don’t really remember. I just think I sang. But it didn’t have much of a point to it until I started writing.
Yes, then how did you start to write lyrics? Were you a reader growing up, how did words begin to take hold for you?
I read a lot! But for some reason freshman year in college, fall term, I wrote a song. And that changed everything.
Do you remember the song?
Yeah, it’s called “Good Morning, Little Sister.” My sister was 15, maybe 16 and my mother was off at medical school and, you know, for a young girl, the teenage years are difficult. I was at college, my mother was away at medical school. You know, it was just her and my dad at home and I think she was going through what every girl goes through at that age. She missed her brother and I thought I’d just write a song about that.
Do you remain close?
Your singing voice is so nimble and moves so much when you sing. How did you develop it from an early age?
I don’t know. I think I realized at some point that I had a nice voice but that wasn’t the same thing as singing. Being a good singer was a craft and I think I felt unable to really properly express the emotions of the songs. So, I wanted to push myself and be able to do more that way. I remember doing some recording sessions for Immer [David Immerglück], who is our guitar player now. But he was just a friend of mine then; he was producing some stuff and I remember getting really, really pushed in some sessions for him to sing stuff that was difficult for me. And realizing that there were a lot of textures and dynamics in a voice that I wasn’t really using and pushing myself to kind of become aware of that and learn to be a singer, as opposed to just a voice.
It translates instantly, your emotion, your vulnerability, the brittleness of the voice. I imagine there is so much intention in there and I imagine it might be rather taxing to have to do all that work as you sing in all those micro-moments?
Yeah, I mean, I just remember realizing that it was possible to sing much, much better than I was and that I was just singing melodies but there’s all this emotion and things that could be in there too. And I remember thinking how limited I was and how, you know, much I needed to get better and then really trying to do that. Really—I mean, I’m very, very, very, very self-critical, which I think is good. That’s how you get good at things, you demand a lot. And I think I do that in my writing, I do that in my singing. I’m trying to push everything through a very, very critical lens. And I think that helps after a while. Taxing? I guess it is. But, I mean, this isn’t supposed to be easy! Making art of any kind at a high level, there’s a thing that separates people who have hobbies from people who do it, who really do it. It’s the work.
Do you think there’s something about yourself that’s allowed you to meet and even exceed these many personal challenges? People often have ambition and see what could be done but they don’t always follow through—why did you?
I have a pretty debilitating mental illness and, at times, it made life fairly terrifying and crippling. [Duritz suffers from a dissociative mental health disorder.] I think getting through that made a lot of other things just not seem as hard. That was horrible and a real fucking handicap. You know, focusing to do other kinds of work during my life has often seemed doable, I think, because that impossible sick thing made some things in life so horrible that—I don’t know, it took such acts of will to climb up from being a vegetable back in those moments that when I found things I really wanted to do, I think I had the will do them. It doesn’t work for everything, but I think it certainly made me want to push in certain areas very, very hard.
When you did push through that to have great success with, say, your first album, August and Everything After, was that joyous? Was that happy, relief? Or did it seem, like, “Oh God, what have I done?”
Well, I don’t think it’s any one thing. Making the record—I think our first record’s really good. It was very satisfying to make that. It was very difficult to make that and I didn’t know how to make a record or be a bandleader. There was a lot of shit that I had to get through to not only do my parts of it well but to enable everybody else to do their parts, as opposed to making life miserable for them. But I think there are few things as satisfying as finishing a record. When you finish a record and make something really great, and I’ve gone through that about eight times now, it’s truly, truly satisfying. But it’s also completely unrelated to success. Like, I mean, the record was done. We started having things like selling a lot of records later and that just seems like a thing that happens sometimes. Sometimes you’re the center of the culture and it’s somewhat related to doing good work and somewhat related to the fact that you’re just at the right place at the right time. So, there’s a different thing happening there. I don’t always connect those things. I’m very, very, very proud of our records. They give me endless joy at how good they are! But the success and fame, those are different things. They’re sometimes great—it’s nice to be able to get a table at a restaurant occasionally! It’s nice to be able to go to concerts—you know, if I want to call up a band and say, “I’d like to come and see you play,” I can do that. But, you know, sometimes a lot of people you don’t know come running up to you. And that’s a weird thing, you know what I mean?
You know, success at making a record is an incredibly pleasant thing but it’s not very related to fame. That just happens sometimes. I have friends who’ve made some of the most brilliant records in the world that no one’s ever heard. They’re not having that kind of success, but the record they made is fucking amazing!
Yeah, living in Seattle, the city is saturated with musicians, many of whom make great records but who don’t see financial success. So, I understand that dichotomy or fine line to a degree, yeah.
You have to be able to draw a line between there’s a difference between success in art and success in commerce. They’re not necessarily related and you have to be able to take pleasure in one and hope for the other one. But, like, Van Gogh never sold a painting in his life, but he made a lot of great art. He might have been pretty miserable about not being able to support himself but he was probably pretty pleased with his great paintings.
I wonder—I would love to talk to Van Gogh!
He might be a bad example, by all reports actually he was just fairly miserable. Dude was not enjoying life! He cut off his ear, he was clearly going through some shit. So, he might not be the best example. But the point is, you can do great, great work but it doesn’t necessarily equate with any kind of commercial success. Sometimes it does but sometimes it doesn’t. They’re two unrelated things and you have to always look at them separately.
It strikes me to ask, when you were experiencing great fame, did you research others who had been in similar situations before?
Well, I don’t know how you would research it. What’s a reliable source on someone’s turmoil. You know, I was friends with—I knew Kurt Cobain, we were friends. That was very scary to watch what he went through. I saw it first hand and I’m not sure if I would trust any other source about what he was going through. Somebody wrote a book about him—if you write it with the guy, you only give them as much truth as you want to give them. I don’t know how you would really—you make friends and some of them are doing the same thing you’re doing, your peers. I have friends who play music and do the same shit as me. We talk to each other about things but I’m not sure there was any way you could ever research that. Real intimate shit about what people are going through, I’m not sure you could ever find a trustworthy source, expect with the person.
Okay, your new record! What was the genesis of the EP? I picture you writing all the time and storing tracks on your computer. So, if that’s the case, why this EP, why now? How did it start?
You know, I don’t write very often. I used to when I was young. But ever since I’ve been in the band, I don’t write very often. I write a record and we make a record and then I don’t write for years. Part of it is simply because the nature of our job means that we are living in hotels and on busses and I play piano, not guitar, so I can’t bring it into the hotel with me every night. So, I don’t. I don’t have a place to play and so I don’t write for years. So, I hadn’t written in a number of years when I wrote this record. But also I think in this particular case, I was staying away from it purposefully. I just—I like making music, writing songs, making records. It’s all stuff I do by myself or with six of my best friends. It’s very intimate and personal and putting out a record involves a whole bunch of other people—record companies, agents, managers, press. All this other stuff that’s involved. But I don’t always want to be a part of the music business. I love playing music. We toured all the way up through 2019. I got off the road in 2019 and went over here to England, where I am right now. I was on my friend’s farm. I’ve spent a lot of time here in the last five years, really. Some of the time my friend was here with his family, some of the time my girlfriend was here. But also some of the time I was just here by myself, me and two dogs in the middle of nowhere, really. I just found myself wanting to play piano. I rented a keyboard in London and one of my friends drove it down and I started playing and a couple days later, I wrote, “Tall Grass.” Then the next afternoon, I was sitting around. I’d been playing it; I was messing around with the ending because I wasn’t sure if it was over or if I wanted it to be longer. I played some different chords over the “I don’t know whys” and I really liked that. Then I sang this line, “Bobby was a kid from ‘round the town,” and I started thinking, “Oh, I really like that, maybe this is a longer song like ‘Palisades Park’ with different movements?” So, I started to work on extending the song and I realized after a big, “Eh, this is actually a different song, it’s not the same song.” Then I thought, “Well, I really like the way it floats straight out of ‘Tall Grass’ into this—well, it turned out to be ‘Elevator Boots.’” And I thought, “What if I write a series of songs where the ending of one is the beginning of the next.” So, instead of having a song like “Palisades Park,” which has a number of different movements inside a song, I have, like, a suite of songs with a number of different songs that work like movements where they’re completely different, independent songs. But they flow as if they were just parts of one long song. So, I got excited about that. That was something I really wanted to work on and from that point, I just kept working on it.
There’s almost a theatrical or musical sense to the EP, given that all the songs flow together in that way. Was a larger tapestry or landscape in mind? And, to me, a lot of your music has this spacious, even smaller town Americana feel. You often write about people, names. I’m not totally sure what I’m asking here, but what comes to mind when I say all these things?
Well, I mean, most of my songs take place in either San Francisco, Berkley, Hollywood, or New York City, none of which are very small towns. [Laughs] I mean, “Tall Grass” definitely takes place on this farm, but I don’t have much experience—this was my first experience with that.
My songs are almost all positioned—they’re about city life, in many ways.
I hear a song like “Round Here” and I think of the prairie.
In “Round Here,” specifically, there’s the line, “She walks along the edge of where the ocean meets the land,” which is coastal. I mean, it takes place in the Bay Area for the most part. But they do have larger world connections, too. Certainly something like “Omaha” is about more transcontinental. And, I mean, I’ve spent a lot of time traveling. I do think that my writing has a sense of the whole of a—especially of a continent as large as America. That’s a big part of my writing. The fact that all of it’s there. As far as a musical, I was working on one a few years ago, unrelated to this project. A friend of mine is a playwright, he’s had several plays on Broadway. We were working on something together, called, Black Sun. But there’s no real plot line that runs through this suite that way. I think thematically it’s very connected. But, I mean, the plotline of the film [music video] they made about this, that’s something [the writer] invented to make a film about it. It’s not really in the music. But I always think that—all the records are very tightly interwoven themes. Not intentionally but just because, you know, you write 10 songs, they’re about a year in your life. You’re writing about a chunk of your life and they’re inevitably going to be tied together. These songs are more tied together intentionally musically to me then they are lyrically. But I think they have that, lyrically, as well. But I think it’s inevitable; it’s the same person who wrote all of them. So, they’re going to be connected.
Last question, Adam! What do you love most about music?
I mean, it’s been the center of my life since I was a child. It was my comfort and my joy. It was what I turned to for everything from the time I was very young, I’ve been obsessed. I’m geekly obsessed with music. And then weirdly enough at a certain point in my life, I started making it. You know? I think that two of the songs off this new record deal with that. Music having been one of the most important things in my life and having experienced it both as a creator and as a fan, “Bobby and the Rat-Kings” really looks at music from the point of view of a kid for whom this fictional band provides all of his touchstones and for whom all of his memories are soundtracks to their music. And then “Elevator Boots” is about a guy who is actually playing music and it’s about touring and about how everything in his life is very temporary—people, places, they all fade in and fade out as he passes through them. But music is the one constant. It’s always there, there’s always a gig the next night. There’s always that thrill. The one thing he can always depend on is music. And I think those two songs look at the thing that’s been most important in my life from a couple different perspectives.