A FEW MINUTES WITH… Adam Duritz of Counting Crows
By Don Wilcock
Photographs by Andrzej Pilarczyk
“We were kind of independent from the beginning,” says Adam Duritz, lead singer and the creative force behind Counting Crows, who co-headline with Matchbox Twenty on Friday night (August 25) at the Saratoga Performing Arts Center in Saratoga Springs. “The truth is we signed with Geffen because, even though there were like millions of dollars on the table because there was a bidding war for us, Geffen offered $15,000 between all of us. So, like $3000 each for our record advance.”
The year was 1993, and record labels still were king. Most bands in Counting Crows’ position would have taken the millions and bowed to their new label’s bidding, which was all about making money with a sound that was similar to other chart-topping bands. Instead, Counting Crows wanted total control over their sound. “Geffen gave us higher royalties, and they were willing to give us complete creative control before the first album, which was really a good way to start your career. I mean, we didn’t even have a single at first.”
“Mr. Jones” from the band’s first album, August and Everything After, was the first hit, and it became their signature song. “The label wanted ‘A Murder of One’ ’cause it had that ‘Mr. Jones’ drumbeat, but I didn’t want to edit it, and it was too long for radio. I wanted ‘Mr. Jones,’ but not because it was a hit. We all thought ‘Rain King’ was a hit. I just thought ‘Mr. Jones’ was a good introductory song. So, we went out on the road with no single.”
Their first producer was T Bone Burnett, who would go on to become a creative magic man producing hits for Alison Krauss & Robert Plant, Gregg Allman and others, as well as soundtracks for “O Brother Where Art Thou” and the “Nashville” TV show.
“I really wanted to strip it back and just get rid of some instrumentation,” says Duritz about that first album. “I wanted to get rid of the synthesizers. I wanted to get rid of the fretless basses, wanted to get rid of the effects on guitar. I wanted us to learn to play together. Also, I thought we were getting into kind of a sound that was going to be dated soon. We sounded a little like late Roxy Music. That’s kind of what Counting Crows sounded like at the time because there were a lot of synthesizers and Dave (Bryson’s) guitars were very effected. I just wanted to get rid of everything and just learn to play together, and then we could do whatever we wanted for the rest of our career, which is kind of what we’ve done, you know, and T Bone was great about that ’cause he understood what I was talking about.”
Fast forward 23 years and Counting Crows is still intensely independent. They change the set list every night and are constantly tweaking their sound. “We have songs that are nothing like they are on the record. Then, we have songs that are completely improvised in different ways. Last summer when we were touring and (Matchbox Twenty led singer) Rob Thomas was opening for us, we ended up having him come out on stage for a bunch of songs and having his band members come out and sing with us.
“He was singing parts of ‘Omaha’ and ‘Rain King.’ He sang the bridge on ‘Rain King,’ and as he got to it, I turned to him and I’m like ‘Oh, yeah, that’s how that goes,’ ’cause he was singing the melody from the record. I realized, ‘Wow, I haven’t even heard that melody in 20 years.’ I’ve been singing that a million different ways. I forgot that was the melody from the record. It was such a shock singing a couple of things because I suddenly remembered, ‘Oh, yeah, that’s supposed to go like that. Oh, well, Rob used to sing it that way. He’s great at it.’”
Counting Crows live in a music world that’s changed drastically since 1993. Because fans can hear virtually any song they want off the internet, intellectual property has become virtually worthless. “I’ve learned to live with that. I don’t like the fact that we’ve lost half our income (from record sales vs. concert ticket sales). I don’t like the fact the internet led to us losing people paying for records ’cause it’s like saying tires are worth money and your new TV is worth money, and whatever else you want is worth money, but art isn’t. I should get that for free.
“I don’t like that Spotify made a lump sum payment to the record company, and I really don’t think we’re ever gonna see any of that or just a pittance, but I do appreciate I can go listen to whatever I want right now because it’s there. I still enjoy that part of it. I love Pandora the way they can tap radio stations. For me, I can hear all kinds of new music. It works great for me. I like that part of it. I don’t like the part that I’m not getting paid, but I don’t think about my job all day. Sometimes, just like the kid I was growing up, I just want to listen to the music. I still love listening to music. So, nowadays I can. That’s kinda great.”
So, technology closes one door and opens another. Most bands’ income derives from concert ticket sales, and modern technology allows acts to record for very little cost. “I have friends in independent bands that have never been signed, that were able to stay together for a decade, make six, seven, eight albums, and they got so good over the years. Bands like Mean Creek from Boston were brilliant. They just broke up now, but they had 10 years together. It was a really hard thing to do in the old days, but it’s a great thing now.”
Counting Crows is an alternative band that rocks like it’s 1966 but is infused with contemporary angst led by a guy who’s in it for the music, not the fame or the money. When I asked him how he felt about Dylan winning the Nobel Prize for his songs, he said, “The thing about prizes is if you just live long enough, they’ll give you one. I think they just kinda come because eventually everybody feels bad about not giving you one in the first place, or they feel bad that you’re dead, so they’ll give you a prize for it.
“I’ve never really gone to the awards shows. I’ve never been to the Grammys. I’ve only been to the MTV Awards once because I wanted to see R.E.M. I didn’t go when we won. They’re always so boring to me, (but) the Nobel Prize is different from the MTV Awards, no doubt about that. I’m (just) not sure of the value of awards at all anyways.”
WHAT: A Brief History of Everything Tour
WHO: Counting Crows
WITH: Matchbox Twenty and Rivers & Rust
WHERE: Saratoga Performing Arts Center, Saratoga Springs
WHEN: Friday (August 25), 6:45pm
HOW MUCH: $49.50, $79.50 & $99.50 for reserved amphitheater seats; $29.50 for lawn general admission