This is the fourth piece in our Unlikely Encounters series, where a local musician interviews a big-name artist. You can read the rest of the installments, including Darius Rucker and Nickelback right here.
When I was 15 years old, I drove a 1987 Toyota Corolla with two oversized speakers in my rear window and would always scream the words to my favorite songs while putzing around the suburbs in my silver-blue compact. At the time I was going through a ’90s phase with a heavy dose of Counting Crows. Some of my friends didn’t get it and some did, and I’m sure some just tolerated it. But to me, they were killer.
Somehow I had gotten my hands on a greatest hits CD of theirs and within weeks, I had memorized the lyrics to all 15 tracks. I was always enchanted by Adam Duritz’s ability to paint a beautiful picture with a set of off-the-wall lyrics and conversational melodies that can seem so derailed but so on-point at the same time.
My knowledge of the Counting Crows catalog really only spans that particular greatest hits album, but I knew it start-to-finish and am so glad I had it. When the City Paper asked me if I’d like to interview Adam, I jumped at the chance. I was pumped to talk to a man I’d been singing along to for the past decade.
Keon: Hey man, what's up. My name's Keon and I play in this band Brave Baby. I live here in Charleston, and they're doing this thing where they're putting musicians talking to other musicians for the paper. So this is new for me. So if it's cool with you, I'm gonna ask you some questions.
Adam: That's really cool. Sure, man, that's a really cool idea.
K: So how's it going?
A: Good! I'm glad to be home for a few days.
K: Yeah? Where's home for you?
A: New York
K: Oh, OK. I thought you were a Berkeley guy.
A: I grew up there. Well, Texas, then Northern California. But after our first album I moved out to L.A. for a little while, but I've lived in New York for, let's see, I think it'll be 13 years this Christmas.
K: So where you at? West Village? Greenwich?
A: East Village, yeah.
K: East Village, awesome. We were up at Bowery Electric not too long ago.
A: Hmm. I live across the street.
K: Oh really?
A: Bowery Electric's where we do the Outlaw Roadshow every year. We have this thing me and a couple of friends do where we get all these indie bands from all over the country and the world and we put on these free shows where we promote all these bands. And we do it at South by Southwest in Austin and CMJ in New York. And this weekend we're doing it for the first time in Nashville — I'm heading there tomorrow. But when we do it in New York, for the last like three or four years we've done it at Bowery Electric.
K: What a great little room, right?
A: Yeah, it really is. We use the upstairs and the downstairs, so we have two bands playing at once.
K: Yeah we had this show, and it was our first time playing downstairs. For us it was great, it was like one of our first headlining New York gigs. It was like 120 __ which packed the place out. It was a killer time.
A: That's great! I played that room — I like that room.
K: I do too — it sounds way better than you think it's gonna sound.
A: Yeah, it's weird. They have very good sound. A lot of the New York clubs have great sound. It's bizarre. You wouldn't think they would. Piano's is the same way. Lockwood's great too. They don't look like they're gonna sound well, and they sound great. Hey I don't know why that is
K: You made it out to Baby's All Right yet? That place in Brooklyn?
K: Apparently everyone from Arlene's Grocery bailed and started this new club in Brooklyn called Baby's All Right. It's supposed to just be the shit. I've yet to go. [side note: Funnily enough, four years ago another Charleston band, Slow Runner, played at Arlene's Grocery for the Outlaw Roadshow, and Duritz Tweeted, "whoa...um SLOW RUNNER is kinda shockingly good."]
A: Oh, I wanna know, where's that? When did that happen?
K: I think it's been up a year and a half, two years maybe?
A: I haven't been there. But I've been on the road for most of the last year. I haven't been home very much for much in the last year.
K: Yeah, you've been doing Somewhere Under Wonderland, right? How's that going?
A: Been great. This album's been — some albums you love but they might not necessarily be as great to play live, but this one is just really great to play live.
K: Yeah, I listened it this morning. Your storytelling has just always been pretty great, but particularly with the song about Andy — "you don't see Andy much anymore" ["Palisades Park"]. It reminded me of something very Springsteen-esque but very Counting Crows.
A: I love playing that song live. Before the record was released we started touring America that whole summer for about two or three months. The record came out I think in September. And on the second show of the tour, we decided to try putting "Palisades Park" at the top of the encore, which is kind of a terrible place to put an eight-minute song that nobody knows. Really, not good for your show every night. But it worked kind of, and, more importantly, we loved playing it there. And we just left it there, and the funny thing is it's been there ever since. It was played the entire summer for people who had never heard it ... at the beginning of the encore, and we've left it there for every single show we've played since then. It's just been great there.
K: For the new record, has that kind of been a song people have been gravitating towards?
A: Oh I don't know, but it's one that I do. To me, it's like my favorite song we've ever written. It's the kind of thing we've often done — like we often take our songs in the middle and take a left turn and go off into some other place after the song. But I'd never really been able to write that into a song, to have like a song with several movements like that, that stops and starts, and that has that kind of like improvisational feel to it. And so it was really cool to actually capture that for once in a whole song. When we recorded it I had to conduct it as we were going, because there's all those starts and stops. And I have to conduct it on stage too, but I don't know, it just seems really cool to me with this going on.
K: Yeah, I liked it a lot. So I have some questions, and some are probably terrible, so if you bear with me I want to ask just a few questions. So you're about to be 51, right?
A: Yeah, in August.
K: Which is crazy to me.
A: Seems crazy to you? Try me!
K: Because I just always picture you as a twenty-something, or maybe thirty, and you're oozing with angst and moodiness. I mean, listen to "Round Here." Do you find it hard to still be that guy who wrote those songs?
A: No, I wish I could just not be that guy sometimes. I find it hard to be anything but that guy. I'd like to be better at fixing parts of my life that I was writing about then, but they seem to have stayed the way they are. I guess I've changed in a lot of ways and I've grown up in a lot of ways, but it's weird to me, the age thing. When I was in my 20s, I always freaked out about my age, because, like you, I wanted to be a musician, and it's tough. And you're sitting there playing, and it feels like there's any chance of anybody ever hearing any of your songs. But you kind of come to a thing in your mind where you've got to do it anyway. That's life — if you're gonna be a musician or whatever. And that's scary, you know? But as I got older and my friends got married and got better jobs and moved up in the company, and I was still, like, washing dishes somewhere or doing landscape and construction work and playing gigs in three bands at night, you know. It got really scary. But I don't think I've thought about my age since then. You know, when I turned 30, we opened for the Rolling Stones that night for the first time at like RFK Stadium, which was sold out. So I mean, who cares if it's my 30th birthday. You know? My 40th birthday, I had accomplished a lot, so I don't think I really thought about age again, not since my late 20s — I never gave a damn about my age. I never even thought about it — I just felt like me wherever I was and that was that. Until like, last summer, and all of a sudden I'm in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and I realize I'm 50 — and that felt fucking weird, because that's a grandmother's age. I remember my grandmother at 50, and I couldn't see where I and her had come to the same place. Selma Feldman was a very different woman than me, you know? She's a Jewish immigrant's daughter who grew up in Baltimore. That's not the life I've led, you know? So how the hell am I 50? It took me a while to sort of grasp that, and I haven't really come to grips with it at all yet. To be honest with you, it is a source of confusion with me.
K: My dad just turned 60, and he's having a hard time with it. He said, "Dude, when I was your age, 60 was old as dirt. And now I'm about to be 60?" But I turned 25 this year, and I'm happily panicking.
A: (laughs) Welcome to rock 'n' roll.
K: So your lyrics, your melodic nature and your delivery, are very Adam Duritz. There's not many guys who can do what you do. After Nirvana, there was just all these Nirvana wannabes, but the Counting Crows are the Counting Crows, and there wasn't a lot of stuff like you, which is great. And you also had these one-liners in these songs that would knock it out of the park for me — like in "Mrs. Potter's Lullaby," that line [sings] "If dreams are like movies, then memories are films about ghosts." That line is unbelievable. Or in "Anna Begins," you have that goofy line, "Every time she sneezes I believe it's love."
A: That's a great line, too.
K: Yeah, now, are those pen-to-paper moments? Or are those off-the-cuff, from within, behind the mic?
A: Well, "Anna" was pen-to-paper — although I don't know — a lot of "Anna" I sang off-the-cuff when we were working on that song. Long before Counting Crows — or the early version of Counting Crows — we were recording, and I was singing off the top of my head. I used to write a lot of stuff off the top of my head. I wrote "Round Here" largely off the top of my head. "Time and Time Again" was almost entirely off the top of my head. And they were longer. I just edited them down. "Mrs. Potter's Lullaby" though, we were in the middle of recording This Desert Life, and I kind of came up with the idea at home the night before, like in the middle of the night. And I came to work the next day, and we were working on stuff, and it was one of my best friend's birthday parties that night. Everyone in the band was going to the birthday party, and I got about a verse and a chorus into "Mrs. Potter" — which is like two versus and a chorus, because it's actually like eight verses and four choruses — and I kept saying, "I'll meet you guys there later. I've got to keep working." Because I tend to write — and for this record I really wrote — everything in one sitting. It could be a 45-minute sitting for "Rain King" or an eight-or-nine-hour sitting for "Mrs. Potter's Lullaby." But I was just in the piano room in the studio — we were working at this house — and I was just playing, playing, playing, and I then I'd go down under the piano for a while with a pad. Once you have the song in your head enough you don't have to play it, you can just lay on the couch.
A: And it took me about eight hours. I missed the entire party. Everybody came back to the house we were recording at and were like, "Where the fuck were you? Your friend's bummed out." And I hadn't even realized the time had passed. But I couldn't leave. It took so long, because it's such a fucking long song. So it took me forever. I was like bouncing back and forth between sitting at the piano and singing and laying under the piano and writing. And then getting back up to make sure it was interesting enough rhythmically. One thing about getting off the instrument is that you can start to write things that are very much zany, in the rhythms and the lines — you wanna be careful about that. But that was written in one sitting but it was an eight-hour-sitting. I missed the whole fucking party.
K: It happens. Midnight comes along, and you think, "We can work a little longer," and the next thing you know the sun's coming up.
A: Yeah, everyone came home from the party and they said, "Man where have you been?" I'm like, "Well, let me show you where I've been." And I played them the song and they said, "Hey, it's fine, no problem."
K: But you know when you hit a line, and you feel that line every now and then? Because the whole songs are great, but then there's those moments within songs that people hold onto.
A: Oh yeah. I mean I feel like on [Somewhere Under Wonderland], there's a lot of those in "John Appleseed's Lament" — especially this one: "I say a prayer, I say a prayer to Pocahontas/ I preach to John Appleseed/ I cigarette the winter air/ And Fred Astaire myself down 7th Street." And "Jesus loves me more than I know, but less than I need." But especially the "Fred Astaire down 7th Street" — I love that line. Like, cigaretting the winter air, and letting the cold air out of your mouth — it's just so visual to me.
A: And that's like the "films about ghosts" line to me. And it was born out of an idea that like when I was writing that song "Ghost Train" [August and Everything After], the idea of that whole song is that memories are like a train of ghosts that you carry around behind you in your life. That's what memories are, these ghosts of times in your life, and the longer you live the longer the train gets, and you just kind of carry them around with you and drag them everywhere you go. Now I'm referring to that in "Mrs. Potter's Lullaby" and sort of taking that metaphor and moving it into a film thing, because "Mrs. Potter" is much more of a cinematic song.
*time for one more question
A: Sorry, I've been overtalking.
K: No, you're fine. Man, where's my homerun question?
A: You've already had like three of them. Those are all good.
K: OK here we go. This is cheeky as hell, OK?
K: So, in one of your fan favorites, "Mr. Jones," you exclaim, "I Wanna Be Bob Dylan." Do you feel like in some ways you've accomplished that?
A: Well, yeah, I guess. I mean, the point of that line is really — I mean it's not really wanting to be Bob Dylan — it's like a metaphor. Like Marty was a funk bass player — Martin Jones [a.k.a. Mr. Jones] is a great funk and bass player. And so I wanted to be more like a singer-songwriter kind of band like Bob Dylan, and he wanted to be something a little more funky — like some of the other bands we were playing in, because he's an Oakland funk guy. And that's why in that song I say, "I wanna be Bob Dylan/ He wants to be something just a little more funky." That was just a way of describing how we were coming from two different places and still making music together. And so, I mean, yeah, I guess it worked out. I mean, I think I've probably been singing "I don't really wanna be Bob Dylan" for years now, because that got misconstrued. I don't really wanna be Bob Dylan. I wanna be me — well, I mean the truth is, fuck, we'd all like to be Bob Dylan. He's really fucking good. I'd like to be that good, but I'm not, but I'm OK with being me. If you're gonna torment yourself in life for not being Bob Dylan, well, what are you gonna accomplish? That's just really hard. It's really hard to set that bar for yourself, but when you're a kid those are the bars you set. You dream about being Bob Dylan or being an astronaut —you don't dream of playing in the NBA on a seven-day contract. You want to play your whole life in the NBA. So dreams are not meant to be reasonably sized. That's why they're dreams — they're meant to be huge. And that's the best way to do it. The best way to accidentally end up being as good as Bob Dylan is to dream about being as good as Bob Dylan, even if you don't get there. I mean, who the fuck's gonna get there? You know? But I got somewhere! I'm happy where I got.