A Conversation with Counting Crows' Adam Duritz
Mike Ragogna: So, it's another leg of your Counting Crows Traveling Circus & Medicine Show tour.
Adam Duritz: That it is, that it is.
MR: And what is that exactly?
AD: The idea kind of came a few years ago when a couple of guys in our band's wives got pregnant. We thought we had it perfectly timed out for the end of the tour, but what happened was the tour got extended. So, they had to leave before the tour was over. The guys in Augustana were also on the tour, and they volunteered to help fill-in on the instruments that were missing. I was kind of concerned that people would feel like they were missing something, that they were getting less of a show than other audiences. They weren't, but I didn't want it to come off that way. I thought about it for a little bit, and then I decided to come at it from a completely different tack--let's make this show about all of us playing together. Instead of making it about people missing, let's make it about people being here.
We changed it around; we started off a show playing all these songs together, and had a lot of fun doing it. Instead of them coming in and filling in instruments on a few songs, we had guys guesting on everything. We changed all the songs around, and we came up with different versions of our songs. I really hate to say it--whenever I say it in interviews my friends try to kill me--but the truth of the matter is that I had more fun in those few weeks when two of my best friends were gone than I'd had in years. I love playing, but I get a little burned out on tour sometimes. On this tour, it was so much fun.
So, I decided right at that moment we would do that again. I wanted to put together a whole tour like that the following year. Augustana was an obvious choice for it, and we got Michael Franti & Spearhead to come along. The three of us went on tour; we got together and rehearsed a few times, and then we started playing these shows together that were like three hours long. We'd play with everyone on stage, we'd play all together, we'd play apart, we'd play on other people's sets, and we sort of just wove on and off the stage together. We'd take one of our songs and kick most of the members of my band off of it and play it with two or three members from my band and two or three members from Spearhead. We turned everything into something new. I thought it was just a completely great way to tour.
Mike Franti got really sick at one point, and had to leave, so we were doing three hour shows with just the two bands. Then, when Michael came back, we didn't want to cut the shows down at all, and we started playing four-hour shows which proved to be a bit much. By the end of the summer, I was taking steroids so heavily to keep my voice together that I almost lost a leg.
AD: I was really on steroids for so long trying to keep my voice around that, this infection that I'd gotten from smashing my leg open at one point just couldn't heal. I generally leap around a lot. I used to leap around a lot more, but I try to do it less now.
MR: But you wanted to do the tour.
AD: I wanted to do it again. I really enjoyed it, and I enjoyed the idea of bringing different kinds of music to people that they hadn't heard before. I hate the idea that people come to a concert so tired of it. When I was a kid, Miles Davis would open for The Grateful Dead who would open for The Rolling Stones. That's a cool concert--everybody is there to see all different kinds of music. Nowadays, everybody listens to the same kind of music, one or another, and the radio station sort of tells you this is what's cool and what's not cool. You're not exposed to different things. Also, maybe a great band plays, but they play at the beginning and nobody is going to see them. Then another band plays and maybe you like them and maybe you don't, then you see the headliner for not as much time as you wanted. You're not getting much of a show at that point, you know?
So, I wanted to give people maybe three hours of music. You might not think coming in you were going to like all this, but I bet you do because these bands are great. You might not think you'll enjoy reggae, folk, hip-hop like Michael's band plays, but I bet you do because he's amazing. And this summer, we've got NOTAR along, which is really straight hip-hop, although it's not with a DJ. He's always played with a live band, and this summer, half of it is our band. Everybody is so into it, they all want to play on NOTAR's songs. So, he's got more people on stage than I think he thought he would because everybody wants a piece of it.
MR: Where are you going on this tour?
AD: We've been all over already. We started in the Midwest, in Milwaukee. We've been down south in the Carolinas, Florida, and Georgia. We've about to play Jersey tonight, and the gig before this was in Atlanta. We've got another gig in Massachusetts, then we get to take a little break for about a week. Then we go back out again...we kind of bounce all over. I know we go back to the Midwest again, our last gigs are in Chicago.
MR: You mentioned how live music should mix it up--like when Miles Davis opened for The Stones. It seems that everything lately, from concerts to recordings, are so heavily formatted, focus-grouped, and genre-fitted that it prevents this scenario from happening. I wag my finger at Disney and American Idol all the time for contributing to this environment.
AD: I would start with radio. Honestly, before you had Disney and American Idol, you had radio stations which became very, very genre specific. I grew up listening to lots of different kinds of music on the radio stations in The Bay area. One single radio station would play Miles Davis followed by The Sex Pistols followed by Loretta Lynn or George Jones, followed by The Rolling Stones. You just never knew what you were going to get.
Nowadays, it's like there's one kind of music, and that's dangerous because music is not like other art forms. You wear music like your personal cool. So, if you listen to a radio station that only plays one kind of music or a magazine that only talks about one kind of music, and they tell you that that's cool and everything else isn't, you're not going to listen to anything else. That has a very powerful effect, especially in the '90s. I knew Kurt; Nirvana was an amazing band. But they had everybody convinced that wearing Doc Martens and a flannel shirt meant something, which it didn't, you know? Hell, Kurt wore cardigans half the time. That's the problem, I think, that's coming out of a lot of magazines in America, and the radio for sure...it's so genre specific.
MR: It seems as though there is one producer out there creating all of these records, but really, it's just different producers copying each others' alleged formula for pop records. Even in the '90s, there were mixes of music within whatever the sound of the station was.
AD: I think it's always easy to say, "It used to be different." But as far that part of it's concerned, who introduced the world to Fats Domino? The only reason that Fats Domino is a very, very famous musician is because of Ricky Nelson. The hits that Fats had were all Ricky Nelson. Later, people went back and found Fats Domino. And Fats will tell you that in any interview; he said in a million interviews, "Ricky Nelson made me a rich man, and made everybody know me." There were always those shows, with people coming off them, whether it was The Partridge Family or whatever.
MR: People used to trash that show, yet all these years later, I know many who think those pop records were kind of fun after all.
AD: We were just listening to "I Think I Love You" on the bus the other day. We were like, "Wow, that's actually really good." I guess I think that, yeah Disney brings us The Mickey Mouse Club which brings us half the guys in 'N Sync, but it also gives of Justin. And Justified brings Timbaland and The Neptunes right out in the front. They were already there, certainly, because of all the Jay-Z and Nelly stuff they'd done. But there's an entire record where half of it's Timbaland and half of it's The Neptunes.
MR: Yeah, you're right.
AD: Anything that interests people in music is probably a good thing. And kids come to music that way, at a younger age, where they may have not otherwise. But music's in a dangerous place right now. We're so stratified, it's hard to get new music out there, and the record companies are dying because they're incredibly foolish.
MR: Well, I was going to touch on that with you. You left Geffen in '09, and OK Go left Capitol in what, January of this year? Recently, Taylor Hanson glowed about all of Hanson's success since the brothers took business into their own hands.
AD: Well, for one, they're really nice guys. They run a songwriting camp every summer, and they invite all these songwriters out to their ranch. Food and housing is taken care of, and they have all the recording equipment set-up. All these great, young songwriters get to come out of there with great songs and great demos. It's such a cool thing they do. They realized early on that they had a means to help young artists and foster talent on their own.
The truth is, the biggest problem with the record companies is the Internet. It's this amazing tool that connects everyone in the world for free, and they will not use it. They refuse to do anything but bribe radio stations and bribe record stores. There aren't any record stores left, or very few. And the radio stations may or may not play your songs, and very few people walk around with a transistor radio in their pocket. I like the radio because it introduces you to new stuff. But if you really want someone to have a song and have it played, give it to them. Just give it away as a free download. You should give it to radio as a single too, but don't forget that there's a way to get it into everybody's pocket.
MR: You released Madonna's "Borderline" that way, didn't you?
AD: We did that, and we did a digital single on our last album with one song for Saturday nights and one song for Sunday mornings. We also delayed our record for three months and everybody pulled out all this crap about the label turning it down. No label's going to turn down a Counting Crows record, they need money badly, and we're an instant sale. We pulled it because they wouldn't let us put out the digital single. I told them, "You're out of your minds. We are not going to release this record the way you want to." I had two songs, neither of them, they wanted to put on the radio. So, we pulled it for five months until they gave in. They finally gave in and because we did all the work ahead of time, it went to number three. It would have been number one if somebody hadn't backed out on this one deal. We would have had the number one record after being gone for six years. You know, they won't use it, so you cannot work with them.
Radiohead's idea where they gave away that record the way they did? First of all, on the amount that they sold, they made a ton of money. But the best thing about it was the amount they didn't sell, the one's they gave away for free. Two-million copies went out, and sixty-five percent of it, people didn't pay for. For thirty-five percent of it, people paid an average of like six dollars. That's an average of two dollars per record for over two million records. That's s**t-load of money, and it's more than you would almost ever get for your record company percentage.
Secondly, over one million people who didn't pay for it? Those were probably people who had never bought a Radiohead album before. They just introduced their music to one-million people who they would never have introduced it to before that. That may have allowed them to be able to play in Iowa...see, they've always been a coastal band, they couldn't hit the middle. They had troubles playing there because they couldn't draw crowds in the middle. That may have allowed them to get to Davenport or get to Ames or Iowa City because all those people downloaded a Radiohead album for free. But the record company could have never done it.
MR: Are you selling flash drives of your concerts after the show?
AD: We put all of them out there, we have a sort of archive that's out there that you can just get the download. We've sold them a couple of different ways; we've given them away. We're trying all different kinds of ways to do it. We've recorded every single show we've ever played. So, we have this archive that we're slowly but surely releasing more and more of. I think it's kind of on hold because we're building a new website, so I'm not sure what's going on with it right now.
MR: I remember seeing you play "Big Yellow Taxi" at one of your concerts. Around that time, I was working with Joni Mitchell on a couple of projects, so I got her on my cell phone so she could listen to it. It was very cool.
AD: The one that came out on the radio wasn't the one we actually recorded. We were in London doing Hard Candy, and we did fourteen songs in one weekend...all these covers we wanted to play. I had this idea for sort of this hip-hop, acoustic version with drums, upright bass, a couple acoustic guitars and me. It's just like four or five of us in the band doing "Big Yellow Taxi." Everybody loved it so much that they wanted to remix it. Pharrell took a shot at it that didn't quite work, and then Ron Fair ended up doing a version that I thought was pretty cool. I like the idea of people taking our music and doing totally different things. So, we took and put it as a hidden track on the record, and that ended up getting all over the radio.
MR: That ended up being the hit. Love it.
AD: It ended up being a big hit, but that's not the version we did. This acoustic, hip-hop thing is the one we did. When we were in the studio mixing, Joni Mitchell was down the hall doing Travelogue, the album she did with the orchestra and the re-records. I got caught one day in the studio when somebody grabbed her. I wanted to run away because I'm such a big fan, but they sat her down and played her our version of "Big Yellow Taxi," the hip-hop version and she loved it. She flipped out, and then she grabbed me and said, "Do you want to hear some of my record?" So, I went down to her studio and listened to some things off of Travelogue. We sat there for about two hours, and I think I heard almost her entire record that day. It's funny because I think the Village Voice came out and called it the worst cover ever, which is hysterical because Joni loved it. All I know is that I thought it was pretty cool and Joni loved it. So, you can stick that up your a**.
MR: Which songs are you playing on this tour, like, what titles?
AD: We've played everything from August except for "Ghost Train." We've played a good two-thirds to three-quarters of Satellites, only a few songs we haven't played off that. Hard Candy is the same thing, eight or nine of the eleven songs we've played. We haven't gotten as many from This Desert Life, we've only played four or five from that one. We've played four of the six on Saturday Nights, and three of the six on Sunday Mornings. For covers, we do "Caravan," "Sweet Virginia," "You Ain't Going No Where," "Just Like A Woman," and we were going to work up "Ooh La La" pretty soon.
MR: Nice. Are you a Joe Cocker fan?
AD: Yeah. Mad Dogs & Englishmen was sort of the inspiration for the tour. I wouldn't say it's the inspiration, but it's what I used to justify playing it when people said it wouldn't work. I'd say, "Look, this has already been done, it's really cool." Even though this isn't really the same thing, it's close enough that it worked.
MR: Are you working on a new album?
AD: No, not right now.
MR: Might you release a live album after this experience?
AD: There is a new album...what am I talking about! We did a live concert in New York of August And Everything After. Somehow, a fifty-minute record became an eighty-minute concert, or something like that. We made a DVD, and we made a CD of it that we're going to put out. It's the only DVD we've ever done--Counting Crows has never done a DVD. So, we'll do that, I think, around Christmas time.
MR: So, there's never been a Counting Crows video clips collection or live release?
AD: No, we've never put anything out. I've always thought that it was more of an audio medium, and the only thing we've ever wanted to put out was maybe a concert video. I ended up doing a lot of the editing myself with an editor. I think it turned out pretty cool. I was in the middle of producing a movie at the time, so I got together with some film people more than music people because I wanted to look at it as a film document.
MR: "Big Yellow Taxi" seems to have stayed in the culture because, sadly, its environmental theme remains relevant. What is your reaction to what's going on right now in the world?
AD: Oh, it's a fun place. As far as the Gulf is concerned, that pretty much sucks. I don't know how else to put that because it just really sucks.
MR: Where do you think we start with a problem like that?
AD: Well, it's a hard thing regulating companies. Where do you draw the line? Who do you put in charge? On the other hand, unfettered corporations will result in complete greed. I mean, the guy was on the platform talking about how safe it was when it blew up. And days afterward he went on the air again. That guy just doesn't know when to shut up. The government tried its best with a lot of this right when it started, but there are always elections coming up. Democracy is a wonderful thing to have. The problem with democracy is that everybody votes, and you have to do whatever you can to get the votes. So, you have your own issues in your own states in an election year. Alabama, Eastern Texas, and Louisiana are getting screwed because they don't have a lot of people. Northern America has its own issues, everybody does. It's hard in a democracy to take care of everybody. Even after Katrina, as big as that was, what's going on down there is a crime. When we were down there, we were talking to people and they had fixed up their own houses, but the houses on either side of them were still a wreck.
(transcribed by Ryan Gaffney)