Our podcasting pals reach their 70th episode, interviewing the lyrically gifted singer and songwriter of US alt-rock band Counting Crows
inger, songwriter and frontman for the beloved and hugely successful US alt-rock outfit Counting Crows, Adam Duritz and his band have sold over 20 million records to date. Born in Baltimore in 1964, Adam grew up mostly on the West Coast, in San Francisco. As a kid he was a voracious reader and claims to have read hundreds of books by the time he was six or seven years old. He studied English at the University of California in Berkeley and, inspired by the abundant culture and freedom of expression that characterised his San Francisco surroundings, he began writing songs and performing with various bands around the Bay area.
Together with guitarist David Bryson, Adam formed Counting Crows in 1991. Originally performing as a duo, they eventually augmented the line-up with the likes of bassist Matt Malley, drummer Steve Bowman, keyboardist Charlie Gillingham and future full-time member David Immerglück. They soon came to the attention of Geffen Records who signed them to a multi-album deal in 1993, the fruits of which was August And Everything After, released later that year. Produced by the legendary T Bone Burnett, and bursting with great tunes, with Adam’s distinctively emotive vocals and deeply personal lyrics, it became the fastest-selling album since Nirvana’s Nevermind. The record’s success and how it impacted on Adam’s life informed much of the lyrical content of subsequent albums Recovering The Satellites in 1996 and This Desert Life in ’99. The band released a fourth album, Hard Candy, in 2002 and received an Academy Award nomination in 2004, for the song Accidentally In Love, as heard in the animated feature Shrek 2.
Following the release of the excellent Saturday Nights And Sunday Mornings in 2008, the band parted company with Geffen and took something of a recording hiatus, although they did put out the covers album Underwater Sunshine in 2012. In the summer of 2014, following a six-year break from recording original material, Counting Crows made a triumphant return with their excellent seventh album, Somewhere Under Wonderland.
In what would become their 70th episode, the Sodajerker guys welcomed to the podcast, the great Adam Duritz…
Earthquake Driver [on Somewhere Under Wonderland] is such an interesting title for a song. Do you remember coming up with that phrase?
“I don’t know why I came up with it. An earthquake driver is just a potent fucker! The way we wrote for this record was, I invited Immy [David Immerglück’s nickname], Dan [Vickrey] and Millard [Powers] to my house and we’d spend a week every month sitting around my place in New York, bouncing ideas off each other. I had a lot of stuff saved up – pieces of songs and ideas. First time we got together we didn’t get anything finished, but we excavated a lot of pieces from phone memos and things I’d sung into it in the middle of the night, or songbooks where I’d had stuff written down. After they left, the next day I finished God Of Ocean Tides. Then, the next time we got together, about a month later, we had six days and got Earthquake Driver, Scarecrow, Cover Up The Sun, Dislocation and Elvis Went To Hollywood. On the first night, Immy and I were here and we were talking about stuff. I can’t remember what we were talking about, but I was like: ‘I’m so sick of not being able to write well. I haven’t finished any songs in a while, it’s really frustrating.’ We were kind of joking around about it and I went to crash, but I came out of my bedroom about 40 minutes and said, ‘Dude, dude, I’ve got a song!’ I played him the chorus and the music for the verses, but I didn’t really have the verses written yet. The whole next day I spent filling in the verses. It just flew out of me, that song.”
The way that the words sort of tumble out kind of indicates it was written in that fashion, and you’ve got those internal rhymes, almost. Is that something you’d craft later on and polish up, or is that just the way it came out?
“If by ‘later on’ you mean the next day, sure! Those five songs were done in six days and the Earthquake Driver was done by mid-afternoon on that day.”
Are you mainly at the piano when you’re writing most of those pieces of ideas?
“No, often on this record it was just stuff I sung into my phone. Some of them are on the piano, or to help figure it out and play it for Immy that way. But a lot of it was just humming it in my head. I kind of treated Earthquake Driver almost like a rap. The words spit out really fast and I wanted to be free to spit them out almost like gymnastics, like verbal fireworks and let it happen. Sometimes, if I sit down at the piano, I’ll get too rigid in my rhythm and I wanted really polyrhythmic stuff in that song.”
Do you ever bring in words that you’ve written in advance of a session?
“I have lyrics, but I’ve never written first for anything in my life, I don’t think. It’s always music first, or melody and words together, but never words first. I don’t write poetry very well. I mean, I do have notebooks but those are lyrics that I wrote with ideas of melodies in mind.”
Do you feel you need to keep a regular writing routine in order to keep your skills sharp, or could you take a year off and start writing songs again?
[cc_blockquote_right] REAL FEELING COMMUNICATES TO PEOPLE AND THEY LIKE THAT ABOUT OUR MUSIC [/cc_blockquote_right] “I not only could, I usually do! I don’t write very much. Just usually when we’re going to make a record.”
We heard that, when you do get that chance to write, you’ll complete a song pretty much in one sitting?
“I used to write everything in one sitting, pretty much, but it can be a short sitting. Mrs Potter’s Lullaby took about eight hours but I sat there the whole night in the studio – everybody else went to dinner and a birthday party, I think, and I just stayed there. Rain King took about 40 minutes. I mean, I used to think that the way I knew songs were good is that I would finish them.”
How did you start developing your skills when you were young?
“In my first band, when I was 13 years old, my guitar player taught me how to make a major and a minor chord. Once you know that you can sort of play, so I would sit around and play shitty piano, but I would play a lot. Then when I was 18, I was a freshman in college, I wrote my first song and, after that, I vomited songs for a few years. I wrote so many songs, which I realise now weren’t very good, but at the time they seemed like really good songs. When you’re creating something from nothing for the first time in your life, that’s a pretty big deal.”
We’ve always been fans of the incredible amount of detail in your lyrics – places and people’s names – and the really interesting imagery you create.
“Detail matters, it really does communicate things. I remember reading a thing that I think Hemingway wrote: you don’t have to tell someone you love them, in a piece of writing. It’s become such shorthand to say ‘love’ that it actually doesn’t mean a whole lot. You’ve heard a million people say ‘I love you’, so it’s very hard to bring meaning to something like that. But if you want to tell someone how you feel about them, just tell them what’s on the walls in your room, or on the walls of the room you’re in together, or the books on the shelves. Because there’s a way in which it’s all between the lines there, and everything that you’re feeling comes out when you talk about what’s there. That really made an impression on me. It doesn’t automatically happen if you just list a bunch of details, but I’ve found there is something about the things you notice when you’re describing a room that does say something about how you feel and, if you’re conscious of it, you can imbue those things with a lot of meaning.
“I really lean on that in my writing, using proper names. It’s funny, when I first started at the label, on my first record, there were people trying to give me advice about songwriting, who I realise now were ill-suited to, because they didn’t know shit about anything! These people were giving me advice like: ‘You shouldn’t use so many proper names and you shouldn’t use too many place names, because it’s too detailed and that shuts people out. If you want them to relate to your experiences, you have to make them vague enough so they can be their experiences, too.’ And I could kind of see what they were saying, but I was thinking ‘I don’t care, that’s not how I write.’ As a result, I really felt our first record was great, but I didn’t think many people would like it, because I thought it was too personal. I realise now that they had that unique condition known as being complete fucking idiots! Art isn’t commerce, in quite that way. It might be true that too many details shut people out, but it’s also true that, in some weird way, real feeling communicates to people and they like that about our music.”
While we’re on the subject of August And Everything After, I think Round Here was a song you had in an earlier band, The Himalayans. Do you recall how you went about writing that?
“Yeah, with a lot of sessions in The Himalayans, we’d have a groove and I would just sing off the top of my head, and we’d record things. With Round Here, I took a tape home that night and the entire song was on there. I may have cut some things out, but I don’t think I wrote much new stuff. It was all there. Time And Time Again was written the same way.”
We have to touch on Mr Jones, obviously. It’s kind of the quintessential guitar song – it’s got that perfect chord sequence for guitarists to play. Was it written on the guitar?
“No, I wrote it on piano. I wrote most things on the piano, but I hear guitar in my head. It’s just a matter of working with people who can understand enough of the nonsense you’re spouting, to get it, when you try and switch it over.”
The way it articulates that central quest for fame. With a line like ‘grey is my favourite colour’, it makes you think that perhaps this guy isn’t going to be as happy as they think they might be, when they achieve this success.
“It was a very honest song, I think. We were out one night with my friend Marty Jones, and his dad was one of the few Americans to ever make it in Madrid as a flamenco guitar player. He was a huge star in Spain. That month he was back visiting his old flamenco troupe in Berkeley, and we were out with them in San Francisco, in The Mission. The show had been great and we were getting hammered in some bar, and there were these girls. We didn’t know how to go over and talk to them, and I think Chris Isaac’s drummer was in the corner, with three girls around him. We were thinking, ‘if we were rock stars we could talk to these girls.’ Then I was thinking later how silly that was and wrote the song, which is kind of about wanting to be famous, but more about wishing you had the confidence to talk to girls and thinking of scenarios where that would actually happen.
“But then I got thinking more seriously about it. One of the major points of that song is that that’s not going to work for you, the popularity contest thing. Even before I’d had any success in my life – I wrote Mr Jones years before we were signed – I could see that I really wanted to be famous and popular, so that I could just have the confidence to talk to a girl. But I could also see that there’s no way that works out. ‘When everybody loves me, I will never be lonely’ – you’re supposed to see right through that line and he keeps saying it over and over again, because you know he’s tragically wrong.”
Internationally renowned songwriters are queuing up to be interviewed by Sodajerker, who now have over 70 episodes under their belt. Established in 2012 by Liverpudlian songwriting duo Simon Barber and Brian O’Connor, the Sodajerker On Songwriting podcast has welcomed guests including Neil Sedaka, Johnny Marr, Ben Folds Five, Billy Bragg, Richard M. Sherman, Neil Finn, Suzanne Vega, Jimmy Webb, Rufus Wainwright, KT Tunstall and many more.
To find out more about Sodajerker and their work, or to download their podcasts – including the full 60-minute interview with Adam Duritz – go to www.sodajerker.com. You can also connect with them on Facebook or Twitter, or download the podcasts from iTunes.