A Conversation with Counting Crows' Adam Duritz
Mike Ragogna: Adam, what is the concept behind the assembled material you recorded for Underwater Sunshine?
Adam Duritz: No concept, they're just really records we liked, songs we wanted to play.
MR: The material also, for the most part, isn't about big hits, much of it being a little lower on everyone's radar.
AD: Well, we weren't really thinking about doing ones they were or weren't familiar with. We just picked songs we liked, you know, and doing our versions of them. As it turns out, it's literally the most obscure covers album ever made, but it sounds like a Counting Crows album, which was what it was supposed to sound like anyway. We never intended to make a covers album that was like a jukebox of their favorite songs, these are our favorite songs.
MR: I'm not sure how many times that's been done before, if ever, by a major band.
AD: It was kind of accidental. But, I mean, it would never have occurred to me to make the record for the other reason anyway.
MR: What was the approach for gathering the material?
AD: We had some songs we'd been playing for a little while that we wanted to document and come up with really great versions of, and I said to the guys, "Bring in the stuff you want to bring in," so there's some of that. Then there's stuff I surprised them with and I didn't tell them until that day. I never played the songs for them, sometimes. The Travis song, "Coming Around," we had a really bad day in the studio and I kind of wanted to wipe that away, so early the next morning, I sent Millard, our bass player and one of our guitar players this Travis track and said, "Look, just don't play the song for anybody, and don't spend too much time with it yourself and we'll just come up with our own version today." We just sprung it on everyone. If they had heard the song before, they weren't thinking about it. I don't know if anybody had heard it because it wasn't on any records, it was just a single from England. But I remember it from when we were playing festivals together and I always loved that song, so we did it. I don't know if anyone in the band had ever heard it before we did it, only a couple of us and even they hadn't listened to it very hard.
MR: Speaking of England, you do a cover of the song "Meet on the Ledge" written by Richard Thomspon, it coming from Fairport Convention. Did that group mean something to you?
AD: Oh, yeah. That was a band that I really loved. They were one of those bands that I read about when I was a kid. But their records weren't available in America. They were out of print. A lot of records were out of print when I was a kid. So, I made a list. I think a lot of music geeks had a list of the records that you couldn't find. I had on that list at one point or another Pet Sounds, Smile, The Modern Lovers, all the Big Star records, all the Fairport Convention, all of the Richard Thompson, except for Shoot Out the Lights. Shoot Out the Lights would come out here and you'd read articles about Richard Thompson, Fairport Convention, and how great his records were, but you couldn't hear them. They weren't available anywhere.
MR: Did you visit England when you were younger?
AD: My parents took my grandmother to England when I was a kid and I went along. All I did, all day, was go into every used record store in England and Scotland. Everywhere we went, I would go into every record store I could find and I found all the records. The last one I found on the very last day, I picked the one record store on the way to the airport. I literally closed my eyes and touched the phone book and found a store and the last one I found was on the very last day I was there. I brought them all home in this little suitcase. I spent the rest of my life being affected by those records.
MR: You cover a few songs here that have affected a lot of people's lives. For instance, "Amie" by Pure Prairie League and "Return of the Grievous Angel" by Gram Parsons.
AD: I love Gram Parsons, always have. Gram Parsons was a huge deal for me. The International Submarine Band, The Byrds' records -- that was really life-changing stuff for me. It's really how I got my way into country music, to some degree. "Amie" by Pure Prairie League has nothing to do with anything except I just love singing that song. We just love singing it. It's just really fun to sing.
MR: That had been a standard bar sing-a-long song for a long, long time.
AD: I'm sure. It's just fun to sing. It's just really fun. I don't know any other word for it. It felt so good.
MR: I wanted to ask you about your recording the Big Star track, "The Ballad of El Goodo."
AD: That band means more than any (other) one and is at the heart of anything I do. As much as any musician that made a difference to me, I'd say they did. I was really obsessed with Big Star. When I brought those records home and heard that stuff, it blew my mind. I listened to it non-stop for years and years. When I got in this band and we went on the road, the first thing Dan and I did was we went through Memphis, and there was the drummer from Big Star. We started talking and struck up an acquaintance. In the early '90s when they played a concert at Columbia and then they played at San Francisco a month or two later, Jodi called and offered us a gig opening for them. I said OK but I would only do it if we could go under an assumed name, 'cause it was at the height of Counting Crows and I didn't want the club to sell out with Counting Crows fans. I wanted it to sell out with Big Star fans. It's a great poster -- Big Star, The Shatners and The Gigolo Ants. We went as The Shatners. The concert just sold out with all Big Star fans. It was really cool. I met Alex that day. He came out to Florida that summer, he opened for us. He lived in New Orleans back then, which was my home away from home and I spent a lot of time down there so I could see him a lot. I was always really shy around Alex and couldn't talk very well around him.
MR: Were you also a Chris Bell fan?
AD: Sure. I never met Chris.
MR: Chris Bell's I Am The Cosmos album, boy... I thank journalist Rob Kemp to this day for turning me on to that album.
AD: That wasn't available then. That came out a little while later. When they finally got released on CD, the first thing that came out was a German CD with Radio City and #1 Record on it.
MR: What a great influence they had on many others.
AD: I think there's probably no more influential bands except for maybe the Velvet Underground on modern rock 'n' roll. Replacements, R.E.M., and a million great guitar rock bands during the '80s and '90s would never have existed without Big Star. I think it was said about Velvet Underground that almost no one bought a Velvet Underground record except almost every one who did pick up a guitar and started a band. That might have been Andy Warhol. I don't know who said that, but I think it's very telling about them, and, also with Big Star, although everybody, of course, now knows both bands.
MR: Adam, what advice might you have for new artists?
AD: This is a great time to be in a band, probably the best time I can remember to be a new musician since the '80s when all the great college radio stations were popular and the big indie labels were starting up. I don't know if you're going to be a superstar tomorrow or not, but it's possible to be in a band and survive and even thrive now in a way that hasn't been possible in a long time. It's really great. It's so much easier to record now, it's so much less expensive and there are so many great bloggers out there writing about music who love music, as opposed to being like really entertained by how clever it is when they talk about how much they hate music. There are a lot of people out there writing who love music and who are completely motivated to talk about your band. So bands can make records, tour, and build audiences, and they can survive now. I think it's really great. I tell people to learn to use the studio in your computer and join Twitter. Make friends. I've made so many friends through Twitter. So many of my friends are musicians and bloggers I've met through Twitter.
MR: What advice would you give Counting Crows, looking back at your career at this point?
AD: Same thing, learn to work a computer and join Twitter. It is a social environment right now for musicians. It's easy to meet everyone, network with everyone, your friends and your fans. There's a great camaraderie out there. All these musicians... it's really cool. One of the jokes that me and my friends have is how long we can go being friends without being in the same room together, without meeting in person. Some of my best friends keep in touch by emailing and tweeting, or whatever for periods of time, until finally we're in the same place. You meet people because we like each other's bands or we stumbled upon each other on the Internet. You cannot emphasize how much that eases your way as a musician these days and how important it is.
MR: Of course, you played SXSW this year.
AD: Our showcase wasn't official, we had 21 bands on three stages in our showcase in a little club. We were on time. We really worked hard promoting it. We had 4,500 to 5,000 people come through the doors of the club that afternoon between noon and six. We set up a download page where we got each of the bands to give us a song to download and we got about 25,000 downloads, 20,000 in the first week. It was pretty amazing. The testament is to how many bands there are now.
MR: Yes, and it's easier to get your music out there through all sorts of smart innovations.
AD: I don't think it's a great time to be on a label or to work at one, but it's a really good time to be in a band. A lot of choices.
MR: And, Underwater Sunshine is on your own label, right? It's the first one not on a major label. So far, so good?
AD: Well, yeah. You can do things like those downloads. They (major labels) don't seem to understand. Until they understand that the Internet exists... If you're not going to pay attention to the Internet, I've got no time for you. I waited long enough and they're just not coming around.
MR : And, when it comes to music, you get to enjoy others' music too. You seem to really appreciate it, obvious proof of that being Underwater Sunshine.
AD: That's why I want to do it.
1. "Untitled (Love Song)" by The Romany Rye (written by Luke MacMaster)
2. "Start Again" by Teenage Fanclub (Norman Blake)
3. "Hospital" by Coby Brown (Coby Brown)
4. "Mercy" by Tender Mercies (Kurt Stevenson and Patrick Winningham)
5. "Meet on the Ledge" by Fairport Convention (Richard Thompson)
6. "Like Teenage Gravity" by Kasey Anderson & The Honkies (Kasey Anderson)
7. "Amie" by Pure Prairie League (Craig Fuller)
8. "Coming Around" by Travis (Fran Healy)
9. "Ooh La La" by The Faces (Ronnie Lane and Ron Wood)
10. "All My Failures" by Dawes (Taylor Goldsmith)
11. "Return of the Grevious Angel" by Gram Parsons (Gram Parsons)
12. "Four White Stallions" by Tender Mercies (Kurt Stevenson and Patrick Winningham)
13. "Jumping Jesus" by Sordid Humor (Tom Barnes and Jim Gordon)
14. "You Ain't Going Nowhere" by Bob Dylan and The Byrds (Bob Dylan)
15. "The Ballad of El Goodo" by Big Star (Alex Chilton and Chris Bell)
iTunes Store bonus tracks
16. "Borderline" by Madonna (Reggie Lucas)
17. "Girl from the North Country" by Bob Dylan (Dylan)
Transcribed by Brian O'Neal
A Conversation with Trampled By Turtles' Dave Simonett
Mike Ragogna: Dave, Trampled By Turtles has released quite a few albums up to this point -- Songs from a Ghost Town, Blue Sky and the Devil, Trouble, Duluth, Palomino, and now Stars and Satellites. You're classified as "bluegrass," but the sound goes beyond that, and your songwriting has the depth of classic artists like Jackson Browne. What inspires the style for Trampled by Turtles?
Dave Simonett: Directly, I don't know how to add to that concisely. On a broader scale, all of us are influenced by such a variety of music. We know everybody in our band listens to a lot of stuff. We've all been in rock bands, some of us have been in hip-hop bands, everybody has a pretty diverse musical background, and I think when we brought all of that stuff to this instrumentation, that's what influenced us the most
MR: How did you Turtles get together?
DS: It was in 2003, and we started as sort of a hodgepodge. The four of us that started the band were in different rock bands in Duluth, Minnesota, and we started this as an acoustic project to have on the side, play once in a while, play small venues, side shows, and just to do something besides the rock band format. Slowly, all of our other bands broke up and left, and we decided to try to this full time.
MR: Why did you title the new album Stars and Satellites?
DS: The title came about because of where we recorded the record. We did it at this log home on the north shore of Lake Superior, out in the boonies, and it was just a really beautiful, calm recording experience. It was in September so it was the most beautiful time of year up there, and everybody felt really relaxed. I think the songs take that tone, it's a relaxed record for us.
MR: I was going to say, there isn't a lot of hip-hop on this one.
DS: Yeah, which is a departure for us. (laughs) I think it fit, where we did it, what the music is, the lyrics and songs all fit together.
MR: What was the creative process like?
DS: Well, most of it was me writing the songs, I had this cache of songs, and we wanted to record a record and we had this little window of time that we could do it. So we got together and recorded, and most of the stuff we had never played together before. We arranged everything on the spot, got a real, fresh, off-the-cuff recording session, which for our band works pretty well.
MR: What inspires your writing?
DS: Oh man, everything. I think that most songwriters probably have a hard time thinking specific things. I think it's just daily life, everything that happens to you in the course of the day, work, relationships, death, love, all of that stuff soaks into you. Once in a while, a song comes out of it. Very few of my songs are a specific instance or specific theme. I think they just come out as descriptions of broader times of my life.
MR: Not a lot of love songs on this project.
DS: It's kind of a poor subject for that because I've been married since 2005 and been in a relationship for a really long time, so I'm lucky enough to not have a ton of heartbreak on my record. I have to dig way back, but when that stuff comes in, it's maybe trying to visualize that through somebody else, or through another situation, but I do try to stay away from a lovey-dovey love song.
MR: You just don't go there.
DS: It's not because I don't like that stuff, but it's because it doesn't come naturally to me. I just try to be honest.
MR: One of your songs is "Walt Whitman." Are you a fan of his work?
DS: Yeah, he was a big influence. I don't want to say he was a big influence on my writing because it gives me too much credit, but he was a big influence on my life. He was one of my favorite authors, and an exercise that I have when I'm stumped, when I have writer's block, is to take words from different books and try to put them together in a different form, to make a poem, a song, something, just a total writing exercise. For a lot of the time, before this record came out, I was using Leaves of Grass, so I figured I'd give him a little credit.
MR: Who are some your other favorite writers?
DS: Jack London... John Steinbeck is way the hell up there. Mark Twain. I really like the late 1800s, early 1900s American ethnic writers. I seem to gravitate towards them.
MR: Do they influence you?
MR: Are there any contemporaries that you admire?
DS: I don't know. You mean bands that have the similar instrumentation as us or something like that?
MR: Kind of, and I don't mean to throw them into your interview, but maybe acts like the Punch Brothers or groups like them?
DS: Yeah, those guys are great, I saw them. I have a hard time saying it because I don't want to put myself with these bands because so many of them I look up to. I don't want to say, "Hey Mumford & Sons," because they are this huge thing. But I just think that there's so much great music happening, I think a lot of people get bummed out about modern music in general, but especially if you come to a place like this. You see that there is so much passionate, beautiful music happening in the world and I just try to soak up as much as I can. (Note: This interview was recorded at SXSW.)
MR: Dave, got any advice might you have for new artists?
DS: I think, to keep it short, be true to yourself and music. I think if you start to gain momentum as a band, you're going to have all sorts of people telling you what you're doing wrong, how you can change to become more popular, or for whatever the reason. I think as long as you do exactly the music that you want to do and how you want to do it, you can be very proud of what you're up to.
MR: Has that been your story, do people jump in every once in a while and say, "Hey, here's what you should do... "
DS: Oh yeah. Man, there's no shortage of people that are willing to give you free advice, not even in just this line of work, but any. I'm sure in yours too.
MR: Well, the thing that I've noticed is, especially these days, is it's really hard to give advice to anyone. There's no one answer. This question gets many answers, and one of the major ones is to thoroughly use the social networks. I imagine Trampled By Turtles uses all of them -- Facebook, Twitter, YouTube ...
DS: Absolutely, as well as I can. Obviously, the things you mentioned are great tools to use. If you're going to do anything for not only your living, life in music is all about something that you really like to do. It's not just your living. On the career side of it, you have to learn how to do it right, you have to learn the tools that are available. But on the creative side of it, don't forget that that's the most creative part. You can tweet until the cows come home, but you have to remember that the focus should be on your music, your songs, and that is the passion. The other stuff is just work.
MR: What is the future like for Trampled By Turtles?
DS: To just keep plugging away. We're in a great spot, we're completely independent of any label obligations or really anything out of our own. We're really lucky because we're able to do whatever we want. Really, we've already achieved our biggest goal in that sense, so we just like to keep going with that and tour as much as we want to do it, and make music like we want to do it, and just keep going as we're going and have a great time.
MR: One last thing, your name, Trampled By Turtles. Does it mean slow and steady wins the race, and look out, you're going to get trampled by these Turtles?
DS: (laughs) Well, that's become our philosophy in the musical world -- keep plugging away and keep your focus where it needs to be and keep going. But the name came as a bit of a joke. Like I said, we started as a side project, we had a couple of shows booked and we didn't have a name. We went through all these lists of what everybody came up with. Nobody could agree on anything, and our mandolin player, Eric, just threw that out and it was the first thing that nobody hated, so we just thought alright, let's just put it on the flier, we're going to play three shows in our lifetime and that's it. But then it stuck.
MR: I've been asking a lot of artists lately for their words of wisdom.
DS: Drink a lot of water.
1. Midnight On The Interstate
3. Walt Whitman
4. High Water
6. Widower's Heart
9. Don't Look Down
10. Keys To Paradise
11. The Calm And The Crying Wind
Transcribed by Narayana Windenberger
A COMMUNION RECORDS' FIRST
A host of artists affiliated with Communion Records, including Ben Howard and Ben Lovett (co-founder of label) came together at SXSW this year to record a version of the song "Over The Hill" from late folk musician John Martyn. Howard is the first artist to release an album in the U.S. on the taste-making independent label, Communion. His new album Every Kingdom has already gone gold in the UK and is now available in the U.S. It's really lovely, check it out...