Music History

Nerding Out About Music With Counting Crows’ Adam Duritz

Adam Duritz will be playing with his band Counting Crows in Irving on Sept. 17. But does he love or hate the Eagles?
Adam Duritz will be playing with his band Counting Crows in Irving on Sept. 17. But does he love or hate the Eagles? Jason Kempin
Counting Crows are touring in support of their latest release, Butter Miracle, Suite One. The four-song EP will be followed up in the near future by a second one, Butter Miracle, Suite Two. Together the two halves will form a full-length LP. Ahead of Counting Crows’ Sept. 17 performance at the Toyota Music Factory in Irving, we caught up via phone with frontman Adam Duritz about music, Hemingway, why the Eagles are so polarizing and how he has stayed true to himself artistically.

Dallas Observer: Adam, Tell me about St. Clements.

Adam Duritz: Oh, like, my elementary school?

Yeah! I’m from El Paso, so St. Clements isn’t too far from where I grew up.

I mean (laughs), I don't remember a lot. I remember it was a it was a nice place to go to school, I really liked El Paso. I mean, for a little kid El Paso was great. You know it's a lot of a desert and vacant lots, snakes, and spiders. I thought it was really cool. St. Clements was cool as far as I remember. I don't remember a whole lot about it, I remember I read a lot. I found two ... whatever you call them ... commendations or certificates, I guess, more like from first and second grade there that said I read 170 something books in first grade and 218 in second grade.

That's ... I don't want to say excessive since there's no such thing as reading too much, but that's a lot. Which books did you read as a kid?

Fuck if I remember (Laughs). That was a long time ago, I was 6 — that's 50 years ago. I don't remember, I was pretty voracious about it; you know, we moved a lot and I didn't know a lot of people and also we did these cross country drives moving from like Boston to Texas, and you know, like back of the car, a lot of reading. That's when I started really loving music. I remember being right around at 6 years old, getting the record players. So, before that, I think I just read a lot — that was my real refuge.

Do you think that's one of the reasons why you became a “wordy” musician? You’re known for sort of lyrical acrobatics, so do you think that that love for consuming words is part of why you put out so many words in your music?

I don't know that my first-grade love of reading did, but you know at a certain point, you get older, you end up in college as an English major and, you know, you study some stuff, then, it informs the way you write probably.

What kind of books were you into in college as an adult?

I really liked Richard Ford — Mississippi writer. I remember really loving Independence Day and, well, really the one before it, The Sportswriter. Anne Tyler. Carolyn Forche’s poetry was probably more influential than anything on me, her poetry, I would think.

Were you into Hemingway or Faulkner?

Oh yeah! I read all of Hemingway when I was ... that I got into a little younger, like I got really obsessed with him. Like as junior in high school, I think, maybe.

Which one is your favorite of his?

I remember loving A Moveable Feast just because it was a story of a writer, you know in Paris, even though it's not one of the books proper, I really loved A Moveable Feast for that reason.

I haven't read that one yet. Recently just before the pandemic I finally read The Sun Also Rises and that just completely altered the way I could perceive a book in the sense that nothing actually happens in the book but there's so much going on with these people just because they're dealing with so much that it just completely altered my reality. I recently recommended that book to a lady friend of mine, and she also had the same kind of reaction so that idea of, like, that short prose being so just powerful. When you first started writing did you kind of look over all of that, all this music you're listening to, and say, "I want to do that" or did you make a conscious effort to say "Well, I want to carve out my own identity first.”

Well, I think when you first start out, you're copying other people. That's the first thing you have to get rid of is that idea that you have to sound like something else to be good. I remember that, like the first when I listened to some of our early demo stuff — the songs I left off that I didn’t even want to record for the first record — some of them are just ... because that sounds like a Peter Gabriel song that sounds like I’m copying this (...) like at first what you think is good is if it sounds like somebody good, and you have to get rid of that really quickly, you know, otherwise it's a bad crutch.

You grew up in a very specific era of music, the "classic rock era," but you're really into sort of the alternative side of that; you're into Bowie, you’re into Love, you’re into The Velvet Underground. Did you kind of just love the whole thing and eventually gravitated toward that? How did you find your taste in music before you found your output in music?

Oh, I think I just loved ... I was obsessed with music. I mean, it didn't really matter, like, I heard The Beatles at first, and the Jackson 5 were the beginnings, for me, you know. Shit, I love Mac Davis and Helen Reddy, I saw Mac Davis open for Helen Reddy in Houston. If it had a tune, I liked it. Then we moved out to the West Coast, and I think I really got to love funk and soul. Living in Oakland takes you right ... you know, that early love of sort of the Jackson 5 which led to Motown led me to The Commodores, Earth, Wind & Fire and P-Funk. By that time, it's like '74, '75, '76, '77 and you start hearing some of the punk stuff and Elvis Costello and Joe Jackson and the Clash. I just heard whatever I heard and liked it, I never really thought about genre.

I grew up in a weird place in the Bay Area, there was this station called KSAN that was the original sort of freeform radio station from the '60s, but it was still going that way in the '70s, and then you hear the Stones followed by the Sex Pistols followed by Willie Nelson followed by the guy deciding to play a Miles Davis tune, so in my head, it was all just music. I just didn't really get the genre thing until much later. I didn't think about it, because I grew up listening to a radio station where they played everything, so I just assumed, we were all supposed to like everything.

I just was interested in more and more and more and more and more, give me more music! As soon as you get into, like, being in the band you're playing clubs — everybody's an indie musician just like you are, and the other bands are, too, and so you find yourself. You know, if you're going to listen to your bands playing around the bay area and their demos, you can listen to anything. Also, by that time college radio was big. In the '80s — especially in the Bay Area — KUSF and KALX, great college radio stations, so we listened to that, too. They played you stuff the other stations ... by that time KSAN was gone and the stations were a lot more “classic rock,” but the college radio played everything. They were playing like R.E.M, Men Without Hats.

Roxy Music, that sort of thing.

Yes, Roxy Music, sure, but they were kind of done by then, because I saw that last tour, and I think I was a senior in high school — the tour for Avalon. They were done pretty close after that. There was just so much music and it was just, like, a lot of local bands and everything that was on college radio — Robyn Hitchcock & The Egyptians, you know, like stuff like that.

And sometimes one’s musical tastes tend to be influenced by your peers so like if you're hanging out with a bunch of punk kids sometimes, you'll just become a punk kid yourself. But from what you're telling me, you didn't really you didn't go through that — you're interested in music, singular. It was you. You were just consuming music constantly.

Yeah, I mean I had lots of friends who are into what they were into, but that just tended to get me into what they were into. The next thing you know it's like “Oh, Return to Forever! Fusion! Let's try that. Weather Report? Sure! Hendrix — I hadn't listened to when I was younger — great! Wow!” I was just like a sponge. I didn't like everything, but I was interested in everything.

So, let me ask you this because you're so open-minded musically. You grew up in the heyday of this kind of music; can you explain to me why the Eagles are so polarizing? What's your take on that. Are you pro-Eagles or are you anti-Eagles?

I think the problem for a lot of people with the Eagles is that if you're just getting into country-rock, the Eagles are pretty good, and they have some nice songs, but if you've ever listened to Gram Parsons or The Flying Burrito Brothers, well, I don't think the Eagles are as good as that, but they're more pop. They had a lot of hits.

For a lot of people, it's like, “I really love this music, I wish everybody knew this stuff” because the Eagles were massive, I mean huge, the biggest ever country-rock band. So, everybody likes the Eagles, and you just wish that someone would appreciate Gram Parsons, then, yeah, I can see why that's frustrating.

I think music’s polarizing because we're geared to it. It's not like the other art forms. We literally wear it on our shirts. What I mean to say this is we use music in a way we don't use movies or paintings or anything else to say “This is who I am, this is my personal cool.” And I think that was true of paintings in the early 1800s, but for music it's still a way of dressing. It's a scene. Sometimes people don't like your scene and you do, you know? And so it tends to get polarizing and then people like to look down on other stuff, too.

It's weird. It's like people who got picked on by the school bully turn into school bullies when they get a chance — which seems like a waste to me because there's all this fucking music and you're wasting your time. I don’t like everything I hear but I tend to respect it and I'm open to liking it. I've never not liked something, because it was, you know, a certain kind. Like, what's the point?

I've always tried to pry open that mystery about the Eagles because I've always thought that they sort of embody the “classic rock” establishment and people tend to reject the establishment. That punk attitude in “music critic” circles — which is both good and bad for various reasons. At the same time, there's always that Lebowski syndrome; like Creedence Clearwater Revival also kind of embodies that, and I think they may be even more beloved.

But they weren't at the time. The funny thing about CCR is that they were a lot of people's idea of a corporate rock band at the time, because they made nothing but three-minute singles, even though they could go out live and play 10-minute versions of them and [John Fogerty] was a great guitar player. Whereas around Woodstock, CCR wasn't revered the way a lot of the other bands at Woodstock were by that crowd. Now, looking back, I mean, they're so fucking good. Now we do revere them. It’s weird, the interweaving and the tangled web of like why we like and don't like stuff ... yeah, but it's there, I mean, I do think the thing with the Eagles, and a lot of people, is just that anything that's too popular starts to annoy you because you can't turn the radio on without hearing it and you just want to hear something else, you know?

You have such a reverence for music and Counting Crows have consistently made these records that are always interesting. Do you have a grasp of your own body of work in a way that you kind of just march forward and every record is just a new record? How do you approach making new music while also reckoning with your body of work that is beloved? Because you seem to escape the curse of people only wanting to hear the old stuff because your fans always want to hear the new stuff, which is very fortunate and very cool.

Well, I think we're really passionate about making it, and I think it makes a big difference. Look, it is really scary trying to survive in a band. It's really hard to make it at all, and once you make it, it's really hard to stay there. That's how you make your living, that’s how you put food on the table, so it gets really scary, and people will give you a lot of advice — a lot of bad advice — on how to keep yourself there. You know, especially record companies, radio stations, you get a lot of shit advice about what you should do, but all of it’s just based on what someone did last time and there's no guarantee of it ever working again.

You get a lot of pressure from a lot of different directions to do things that don't seem like a good idea to you, and you'll make stuff as a result that isn't up to par. You get more and more desperate the more you chase it. Our first record contract, we had a bidding war for us and we gave up all the money, and there were millions of dollars on the table — we went home with $15,000 between the five of us for that first record, $15,000 we took home. There was more money to make a record with and videos and stuff, you know, but the deal was we got a higher royalty and, more importantly, we got complete creative control. So, we've had that from before our first record and after that sold 10 million copies. It wasn't like we had less control.

You knew what you were doing.

Well, we just didn't ... we got in the habit of not listening to anybody, from the beginning. Like, we didn't have to, and so we didn't. And we had a lot of confidence, because the first album did so well, and so I thought at the beginning that the recipe for success is do whatever you want and you're the best judge of it — if you're excited about something, go do it. Because on our first record I made everybody ditch a lot of the things they'd been using on our demos that got us that deal.

I knew what I wanted our band to be, and I made us go towards that, and that was hard, but it worked out our second record. We were really interested in playing. We finally had a lead guitar player, we wanted to play louder music, we wanted to play a little more raw stuff. We went and got ... Gil Norton [who] produced the Pixies albums which, believe me, our record company did not want us to do (Laughs). And we made a record that we love, you know, and so we just always chased things that we were really excited about, and I think that shows up in the music, because we're passionate about making it, and this is, like, exactly what we wanted to do. There's no song on there that we made for the record company so that they could have what they wanted. It was always whatever we wanted to do was what made up a Counting Crows record, so I love every one of them, for that reason.

But also, I still feel like they have nothing to do with this record. I mean fuck, I wanted to make a suite! “I'm gonna put a make a four-song suite and put that out.” Because that is really what I want to do right now and I got really excited about it, and we did it and you know what? It turned out great. Our last record opens up with a 10-minute song that is like a suite and that's my favorite thing we've ever done, you know, maybe topped by the suite. I love that stuff, so we just kind of do whatever we want, and as a result we're not bitter about ourselves, we're not bitter about our past and we're not burned out on being us.

If you were stranded on a desert island and you could only take five records, which records would you take?

Oh, man. (Laughs.) I will give you this list, knowing that I might be a completely different list on another day.
Big Star’s #1 Record for sure. Kind of Blue by Miles Davis and Blue by Joni Mitchell. Just to stay on the theme, I might very well bring A Walk Across the Rooftops by The Blue Nile. Because that's really, really a great record. I would take Go Farther in Lightness by Gang of Youths. They’re an Australian band, and I think they're the best rock-and-roll band on the planet. That record Go Farther in Lightness, you should get it, it will freak you out. It’s a little between Tom Waits, Springsteen, us and The Clash. That singer David Le'aupepe is as good a writer as you're ever going to find. Almost all the songs are six or seven minutes long. It’s so fucking good. I saw them at Irving Plaza a few years back and [it was] the best show I've seen anyone play in decades.
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Vincent Arrieta
Contact: Vincent Arrieta