“I’m intensely self-critical. There’s a myth in the Tv movie and the portrayal of art-making. A myth that self-criticism can really bog you down and that beating yourself up is not the way to go about it. The truth is beating yourself up is a really good way to go about things. You just need to know when to stop and know that it’s not personal. This is work. You’re working on things. You want to be really, really good at something? Then you need to be intensely self-critical. Push yourself. What you find is that you can actually do things that are great.”
Viv: Our guest this week on Art of the Song is singer, writer, producer, and entrepreneur Adam Duritz. Adam is best known as the frontman and lead songwriter for the alt-rock band Counting Crows. The band was formed in the early 1990’s with producer David Bryson and guitarist David Immergluck. In 2008, Adam was diagnosed with Depersonalization Disorder, a mental condition that causes him to feel disconnected from his own thoughts and body. After six years of silence, Counting Crows has released a new album “Somewhere Under Wonderland“. We spoke with Adam about the new album, the challenges of being a band leader, and the insights he’s gained through coping in the process.
Viv: Adam Duritz, it’s so great to be talking with you today for Art of the Song. Thank you for joining us.
Viv: We’re loving your new CD, “Somewhere Under Wonderland”. We’d love to hear where you got started. Where are you from?
Adam:Well, I was born east coast, Baltimore, and lived in Boston. I kind of think of myself as growing up in Texas and Northern California because that’s where I started. I don’t know how to describe this. I was in El Paso. Of all the places I’ve lived in my life, El Paso was the last one that I’d not played. We got there this summer. It was actually supposed to be a gig in Albuquerque, and they switched it to El Paso. At first, I was bummed because my parents then didn’t come to the gig. But then I was like, I’d never been back to El Paso since I was a kid. I found the houses I’d lived in. I was trying to describe to people why El Paso felt like such an important place and I realized there’s a period when you’re a kid where you’re enjoying things and having fun with your family. Then, there’s the first time you enjoy something, and you look around there’s nobody else there. Just you. When you can do something on your own without grown-ups. That started for me in El Paso. First and second grade. That period. There’s just a lot of vacant lots. Spiders. Snakes. Dirt. Sand dunes. Desert. And Mexico across the river. Then, it just seemed like a kid’s paradise. We lived in Houston later and I didn’t really like that as much. It’s just a city. Houston isn’t really Texas. It is, but it’s very much like every other place in the world. But El Paso was really cool because my dad was in the army there. I found both the houses I lived in in 1971, 1972, I found them this summer. I can’t believe I found them, but I did. I remembered where they were, kind of on the streets that they were on, I knew the cross streets, so I found them. It was bizarre. It was really cool though.
Viv: Are we going to hear a whole new album about El Paso?
Adam:Texas is all over my records. It tends to pop up places because I think it was pretty developmentally important. Then, after that, Northern California. I grew up in Oakland and Berkeley after that. Then, after the first album insanity, I went down to L.A. for a while because there were people camped out on my lawn in Berkeley and it really was Beatlemania for us around that area. Then I moved here about it’ll be 11 years in a few weeks. By which I mean 9, I think. I mean 8 or 9. I moved here on December 5, 2003, I think.
John: Did you grow up in a musical family? Or how did music come into your life?
Adam:My parents had a lot of records. They had a large record collection, which I’m not even sure they listened to. But, they had it. They had a lot of musicals and stuff, but they had all these other records too. They had “Surrealistic Pillow” by Jefferson Airplane. They had some Supremes stuff, Blood, Sweat, and Tears. They had a bunch of records. They had a bunch of Beatles records too. But, I remember them being wrapped in plastic still. Like they hadn’t been taken out of the package.
Viv: Wow, so they bought them; but they never really brought them home and listened to them.
Adam:What I can’t remember is whether they were slit down one side. They might have been in plastic but not that. I don’t remember them listening much, but I remember them really liking music and they took us to concerts when we were really young. I think the first concert I went to was Jackson 5. Like the real Jackson 5 around 1971 at a rodeo in Texas.
Viv: What was that like? Wow, that must have been like…. for me, because I’m about the same age as Michael Jackson, so he was like a little mini hero for me.
Adam:Me too. He was a little older than me but not much. What I didn’t realize at the time was that it would allow me to win the “What was your first concert?” argument for the rest of my life, really. Unless someone had seen The Beatles, I pretty much won because nobody saw The Jackson 5. There were two days at the rodeo and for some reason I went one day, and my sister went the other day. She saw Sonny & Cher and I saw The Jackson 5. The Sonny & Cher thing is pretty cool too.
Viv: I was going to say. That’s right up there.
Adam:But it’s not cool in the same way, really. It didn’t last the same way. It’s more of kitschy cool whereas The Jackson 5 thing is just straight up cool. I don’t really remember the concert at all. I have this picture of them playing in my head, but I’ve seen so many films of them playing on stage back then that I’m not sure if the picture isn’t just from some TV thing of them because they did play a lot on TV when I was a kid. But I don’t really remember.
John: It’s funny how all those memories just kind of collide.
John: Well, let’s talk about your writing process. Your creativity. Tell us what it’s like. What inspires you. What happens when you sit down to write a song?
Adam:It was very different this time. I think I went through a lot of changes in the last few years. We worked on an album called “Underwater Sunshine” of other people’s songs, which we did because at the time I was working on a play and I didn’t want to write for two different things at once, but I still wanted to work with Counting Crows. I just didn’t want to sit around trying to decide if this song should go here or there. It seemed really confusing. So, we did an album of other people’s songs. I think that was really great for us because, well, historically interpretation is a big part of music. It wasn’t till the ’60s that more people started writing their own songs post-Dylan. Before that, it was really just Woody Guthrie as far as performing and singing. There isn’t a lot of that going on. Then that became the norm. But before that, Diana Ross went through her entire career without writing songs. Elvis did too. So did, for a large part of his career, Michael Jackson. Dionne Warwick’s entire career is Hal David/Burt Bacharach songs and they’re really good. I love writing, but there’s a part of me that’s a musician that just loves playing and loves the act of interpreting. Doing a whole record of other people’s songs was really eye-opening. It makes you think about what a waste it is to spend your entire career only working on one person’s songs. Even though, in this case, it’s me. As a musician, I really love the chance to look at the way other people looked at the world. It’s a weird thing to do to look at the world in your daily life and then turn it into something like a painting or a song or a sculpture, whatever it is you do. That’s a bizarre habit to get into. Not surprisingly, different people do it in different ways and they see it differently and they translate differently. I think it was really good for the whole band too because they took more ownership of songs because of that. They really dove into that album. Meanwhile, at the same time, I’m working on a play, which is the first time in my entire life I’ve ever written for people other than myself. The first time I’ve written for women’s voices. The first time I’ve ever tried to express things I feel, without them being a part of my daily life. I thought for the longest time that in order to really express things you feel deeply, they somehow needed to be couched in some kind of autobiographical way. What I realized during the play was that wasn’t the case at all. It had a weird effect on me after that and I didn’t realize what was happening for a long time. I’ve always been a person who sat down and wrote the whole song. If I didn’t, I threw it out because I figured it wasn’t good enough. I figured that was the reason I hadn’t finished it. The inspiration ran out because it just wasn’t good enough. Whether it’s a 40-minute session for Ranking or two-hour session for Long December or 8 hours for Mrs. Potter’s Lullaby, I would do it in basically one sitting. Over the last few years, I’ve started a lot of songs and not finished them. After a little while of doing this, I started to think I needed to mark this down or record it somehow because I don’t seem to be finishing anything and I don’t want to just wait for myself to finish one again. I better take note of everything I’m doing and keep record of it. So, I started in the text notes in my phone, in the voice notes in my phone, in my computer, in songbooks where I’d always kept them before as well. Just chord patterns, no notations. I would sing a verse. If something occurred to me on the street, I would just sing it in my phone or write it down. It’d run though my head, I’d do a little more with it. Might not finish it. I mean, I didn’t finish anything for a while. But I had all these pieces in my phone. The year following “Underwater Sunshine”, we had the best year and a half of touring of our lives. When it was over, I really wanted to make a record because the band was on fire I thought. This was summer of 2013. Near the end of the summer, I asked Millard (Powers) if he would come over. I’m not a great musician. I can figure stuff out but it’s hard. I don’t play with a lot of facility. It’s not easy for me. So, I thought, with all these pieces I had, it’d be easier if someone who could play by ear well could just be there with me to figure it all out. It’d be a lot less work if they could do it. So, I asked Millard to come hang out for a few weeks after tour was over. There was some other stuff going on. It turned out the band was going to be around so Immy (David Immergluck) and Dan (Vickery) came too. We just started excavating all the stuff I had. Whether it’s notes in my phone. All the different places I had stuff. We started getting into it. What does it sound like? What would this play like? Now, if it was chorus driven? If it wasn’t just me humming, what would it be like? We started working through it. We spent about a week every month during the fall. I’ve never really worked this way before. But we’d get together for a week every month and we would just crash out at my place. Me, Immy, Millard and Dan, we would bounce ideas off each other. We would excavate my phone, basically, and all my different songbooks. We didn’t finish any songs, but we got all these ideas out and recorded where we could see them in front of us. Then, a couple days after they left, I finished “God of Ocean Tides”, which is something we’d excavated from my phone. There was a voice memo. I went back and looked up the date for it. We’d had a gig in Nashville, and we were driving west to a gig just over the Mississippi border from Memphis. So, we’re driving west across Tennessee in the middle of the night. At about 3 or 4 in the morning, there’s a recording of me singing something in the back of the bus. I’m just in the bed on the bus. It sounds a lot like the first verse of “God of Ocean Tides”. About the same length, but no real words to it. Just nonsense. Then, about two hours later, at 6 in the morning or something, there’s another recording of me and it is the first verse of “God of Ocean Tides” exactly as it is now. It’s just that much of it. With the lyrics, the melody, everything is exactly how it is on that song. We excavated it from that. That’s what we got it from. I don’t know why I popped the first verse up into my head. I had no idea what it meant at the time. We sort of worked our way through that song and we hadn’t quite finished it when they left, but we did. It was kind of stuff like that. Recordings from the back of the bus or me walking down the street. Or just notes I’d taken.
Viv: So, you are not afraid of a long song. And you’re not afraid of a long personal narrative within that song. You don’t go by formula. Can you talk a little bit about that process? How do you let go of all those constraints on what makes a song the right length or the right process?
Adam:I don’t think I really thought about them. It didn’t come up. It doesn’t come up in life until you’re actually on a record label. That’s when that problem occurs. In regular life it doesn’t come up. There’s no need for a 3 minutes song on a Tuesday. In high school or in band or something there’s no one that says, “You know, it’d be good if you could get this under 2:45”. If anything, the thing about long songs is pulling them off. It’s about long anything. I’m intensely self-critical, which I think is all you really need to be. There’s a myth in the TV movie and the portrayal of art-making…and it’s a good idea because we want our kids to feel about things and to feel good about themselves. There’s a myth that self-criticism can really bog you down and that beating yourself up is not the way to go about it. When the truth is, beating yourself up is a really good way to go about things. You just need to know when to stop and you need to know it’s not personal. This is work. You’re working on things. If you want to be really, really good at something, then you need to be intensely self-critical and push yourself. What you find is that you can actually do things that are great. I’m not saying it’s something you have to push every kid to do because childhood should be fun and it’s not necessarily a crucible you have to go through. But I think we get caught up in this idea that everyone should feel good all the time. You can confuse feeling good with mediocrity and I don’t think that’s necessary. I think being intensely self-critical is how people do great work and how they push themselves to do things. It’s not necessary for everybody to push themselves all the time. But, if you really want to do something, you kind of need to sometimes. People who excel at things do it. They spend extra hours, they spend extra time, they become what we would call fanatical about things to the detriment of other things, which is something that happens sometimes too. In our effort to be well-rounded, we often forget that sometimes it’s necessary not to be. To suffer one way, to succeed another way. My feeling was always that you don’t have to worry about the quality of your stuff if you’re the kind of person who is consistently worried about the quality of your stuff.
Viv: You take responsibility for it.
Adam:There’s another myth out there that arts are never finished. You can always do it differently and continue. I think that’s crap too. The secret to art in my opinion is knowing when to stop. Being intensely self-critical and then knowing when you got it. Being able to confidently make that decision and commit to it. In doing so, you get things. You make things, It’s not ‘everything’s ok, everybody’s fine.’ There’s no grand mediocre level playing ground out there in the world. Beat the crap out of yourself if you want to make art. Then go make it any way you want to make it because if you’re going to be that intensely self-critical, you can make a 9-minute song work. You just have to know when it doesn’t work and make sure it does. And if it doesn’t, cut it or do whatever you have to do. Don’t accept ok. Palisades Park is a long song. It only works if we can really nail it. It has to work from A to Z as a song. And you have to have an idea of how to make it go there because just a flat line across won’t do it. You have to have dynamics. But once you get that and you know you’ve got it, then you just have to go play it that way and really make it work. You have to also be able to turn to the guy, your friend, in the band and tell him when he’s not good enough. That’s a brutal thing. People say, “Is it fun making records?” and I’m like, “Well, it’s intensely satisfying, but I would never call it fun.” It’s like a couple months you spend kicking the crap out of your best friends because nobody demands that level of themselves all day long every day. It’s just impossible. And no group of seven people is doing it all at once. So, you have to see when other people aren’t doing it. It’s not personal. It’s just work. I think we’re grown up enough to understand that. Also, I’m a good enough band leader to not make it personal. That it is work. I can be incredibly demanding, but it’s just that. I have a lot of respect for those guys. They do produce. In the end, we’ve made a host of albums I love. The thing about an 8-minute song is at a certain point it became a joke. I just wanted it to be the longest song we have, and it was almost there but not quite without the introduction. Mrs. Potter’s lullaby was longer, but the introduction was going to tip it. This is the longest song we’ve ever done now, and I have no problems with it. In fact, I really wanted it to be the first song anyone heard off the record. I knew that as soon as we finished it, I was putting it at the front of the record because why would you hide a 9-minute song? Where you going to hide it? Stick it out there in the front so that you make your point which is that we can do this, and we have no qualms about doing it and we have no fear of doing it and we’re not ashamed of doing it. In fact, if you want to listen to the record, you’re going to have to go through this first.
Viv: One of the things that I’m hearing is that it’s artist driven again. That what you brought to the table is what you wanted to see out there in the world instead of saying, well, there is someone out there who needs to hear this song and who decided that in the first place. That’s such a gone model. Even though we’re on the radio, but we pride ourselves in playing whole songs and speaking in whole sentences, but that’s a rare model, and who decided that in the first place?
Adam:Unfortunately, I think we as a people did with our very fanatical and hungry response to things that required very short attention spans. Even now. We do tend to respond to a good, quick soundbite unfortunately. But this is what we’ve done, and I felt like there’s also short songs on this record. I just wanted people to understand that this record was about more than them. I really did love being independent because the for first time in years, we were just back to…. we’ve always done exactly what we wanted to when we made records. We never had any interference from record companies. We went to Geffen to get full creative control from the very beginning because we trade all the money away and there was lots of money on the table. We got a higher royalty and we got complete creative control and we’ve always had that. In the aftermath of every record, it’s just dealing with everyone’s crazy plans about what to do. It was nice to make music, put it out, then go play music. It was so frustration-free. I was perfectly happy being independent. My manager in the middle, we did the first sessions in December of last year. We did a few weeks then. Then, we came back and finished it up in February. After their December sessions around Christmas, he called me and he said, ‘Look, I’ve been listening to the roughs so far, would you mind if I just took these around to people because we have the mechanism to do them independently if you want to. We can totally do that, but I think you’ll have some choices and they might be good to see what they are.” I was like it’d be dumb not to take opportunities, so I said, “Absolutely.” It’s been a perfectly good experience. We told everyone no more multiple record deals. This is for this record and this record only. I’m done with the days of people doing a crappy job because they know they have us for a few more years. But, also, we’ll show you the record first from now on. If you want this, you can have it. There’s not risk on your part either. You know exactly what you’re getting. I was sure that most of them wouldn’t agree to that one record thing because they want the options. But they all acquiesced, so it was fine.
John: What’s been your biggest challenge, either personally or professionally?
Adam:Dealing with being crazy. Dealing with a mind that doesn’t work the way I thought it was supposed to work and having to balance that out after how weird the world got after becoming very famous all the sudden. Those two things don’t necessarily go very well together. Also coping with the realization that it’s not ever necessarily going to be ok or fine. That this isn’t something that goes away necessarily. You can’t just fix it. I had hoped to do that. When I realized that it maybe wasn’t going to happen, you can fall into despair at a time like that. It just becomes really scary. You’re just used to things getting better. Most people in most of their lives a problem can be fixed, cured, medicated, whatever. This isn’t necessarily one of those. It really shook me at first when I realized that. But I’ve also realized over the last few years that it didn’t kill me and that I was capable of doing a lot of good stuff. That I was still capable of being in a band and touring and playing shows and then this last year that I was capable of making another record like this. It’s a disability and there’s a lot of people out there with disabilities. Not that you have to spend your life comparing your experience to other people’s. I think it’s a waste of time. But the fact is that people do find ways through life when they’re blind. They find ways through life when they’re deaf. They find ways through life with one leg. People do stuff and I realized that I could too. It’s not necessarily exactly what you want your life to be but, hey, there’s some really cool parts. I’ve been in a rock ‘n roll band for 20 some odd years now. Clearly something’s working alright. That thing’s working. I definitely on some level got to be the cool kid in school. Not when I was in school, but later. I’m a huge win at reunions. I am built for a high school reunion even though I’ve rarely gone to them. This is what you want to do if you really want to grow up and go to go to high school reunions then you should do my job because it’s pretty killer. You know, I didn’t get it when I was in high school.
Viv: That with The Jackson 5 and you’re good to go.
Adam:And The Jackson 5 will prove to you it actually isn’t such a great idea in high school to be that way.
John: Well, there you go.
Adam:It can be a hassle there too. Michael had some very hard times while being very popular I’m sure in high school age. Maybe it’s a good thing I wasn’t that popular because I would have been looney. I mean, I am looney. I think that’s the biggest challenge. There were other challenges, but I guess I think of that as the biggest one because it’s the one you didn’t really overcome. There were other things that were very hard, but maybe they just weren’t as hard in retrospect because of what I was going through in my own head and what it was like to deal with that. I think it made me a lot more understanding of people, maybe. I’m a really good band leader, which is something I didn’t realize you needed to be. But, when we started out and making our first record, nearly the entire band quit during the first record, including me because it was a horrible experience because it’s hard to do that. It’s hard to make a record. We were trying to figure out who we were as a band. I think one of the things I really realized early on was how important the band was to me, so everything else becomes in service to that. Look, there’s bands that rarely last very long. It’s hard to do creative ventures with multiple people. It’s hard to find ways to communicate. It’s hard to find ways to collaborate. It’s hard to find ways to compromise where I don’t screw things up, where compromise is a good thing and not a bad thing because it’s often a bad thing. It’s very easy to look at the numbers and the work you’ve done and find a reason to justify why I should get this, and he should get that. And the math is there for you. The math will show you every time. I do end up doing a lot more work than everybody else and I write things. It’s me that ends up doing everything. The math is there to say why I deserve this, and you deserve that. That is the math that presents itself over and over again to bands and to someone in the band when someone else is being a jerk. When someone else is being an ass and you’re like, “Why should I listen to his crap when he doesn’t do anything? I do all this. Why should I split it with him?” There’re a million reasons why bands break up and largely because they’re not doing the math wrong. They’re doing the math right and it shows them that they deserve more. So, the band explodes. What I realized, kind of early on, was that math is not your friend necessarily. What does it matter if you’re right if there’s not enough to go around for everybody else? Or if you’re right and there’s not enough just to make everybody feel good about themselves? What do you really want out of life? Do you want the math and the paycheck, or do you want the band? It occurred to me very, very early on that I wanted the band. I really liked being in a band. I liked the jazz of it. I don’t want to be a solo artist. I don’t like it. I like the musical jazz of playing with other people and collaborating. I like the comradery that we’re in this together and that we really are a band. I wouldn’t be able to do this without those guys. It really is important even if it’s not in a way that everyone else can quantify. So really early on just decided that we’re going to split everything evenly. I bet people feel ok about that and that seemed like a good idea. Even with the publishing that we do our publishing a third to music, a third to lyrics, and a third to everyone who plays on a song in a band so that you have ownership of every song. You are a part of every song you contribute to. To me, those publishing rules come from a time when people wrote sheet music for other people, when you really didn’t write it. But in a rock ‘n roll band, you are doing a lot of composition whether you know it or not. It just seemed fair to me. But it also seemed like we could all feel ok about it. There was going to be enough it seemed to me. Even so, you had to make sure everybody could get by and it’s not that easy to get by. I made that a priority a long time ago in this band. I am really hard on everyone, but it’s not personal and I don’t make it personal. I think the guys realize that too. They might not love me that day when I’m really kicking the crap out of them and they’re not doing well enough, but they appreciate it later when they look at the record and they know it’s them that came through, not me. They did it. I think that the idea of what a band really was really important to me early on. I’d be lying if I said I got really good at it right away because I didn’t. I was very bad at it. But, over time, you do figure that out if you want to. If you make that a priority, you can figure out how to be a good band leader. How to not resent things. You can can’t like everything about everybody all the time and you certainly can’t like everything about seven people that you spent 20 years with. What you can come to understand at the end of the day is he does that. That’s annoying. He also does this and it’s not. It’s really cool. The nice thing about being in a band is every night you go on stage and it’s very easy to be reminded of why you like playing with someone because they come through for you every night and you come through for them.
John: Wow, this has been great.
Viv: Fantastic to be able to sit and talk with you about these really important things. I’m taking away so much as an artist and a deep appreciation of your process. Really. Thank you so much.
John: Adam Duritz, thank you so much for talking with us today on Art of the Song.
Adam:No problem. Thank you very much.