Long play version: An interview with Adam Duritz of Counting Crows
The Counting Crows singer talks about his new album, his Mick Jagger impression, and the good vibes of Cal women's basketball
Q&A with Adam Duritz
Sin. Disintegration. Self-medication. Redemption. These are some of the themes running through Counting Crows much-anticipated fifth studio album, Saturday Nights and Sunday Mornings, which hits stores March 25. The Berkeley-born band, which has been selling out concerts around the world since its 1993 debut smash August and Everything After, hasn’t released an album of new material since 2002’s Hard Candy. The creative hiatus has been in part due to serious health issues of lead singer Adam Duritz. Diablo got an early listen to the new album, then called Duritz at his Manhattan residence to talk about his songwriting, his health, and why he decided to record the redemption half of his new material in his East Bay hometown.
I’ve noticed that the album’s first song, “1492”, has been in your live show set lists since as far back as 2001.
Was it in the set list in 2001? I didn’t realize that. Well, that song was in its infant stages for Hard Candy, we did demo it for that album. But we didn’t really get how to play it then. Hard Candy was a record about memories and how your life is affected by memories, the way you perceive them and the way they affect you. “1492” did not belong on that record.
I’m curious about the origins of this concept record, with Saturday Nights being a series of dark lyrics, and raw, electric guitar driven songs, and Sunday Mornings being gentler, acoustic songs.
“1492” is the inspiration for this whole record. At the time it was written I was going through some stuff at that time, sort of falling apart. When I eventually did turn into a puddle of spit, I didn’t want to work on music for awhile.
There’s a structure to your life when you’re in a rock band—you write the songs, you make the record, you go on tour. I kept screwing up my life up because of the way my schedule works. I couldn’t keep relationships together. I lost the girl I was in love with. And I almost skipped my grandmother’s funeral. I sure didn’t see her for the last four years of her life. When I almost did that, a friend of mine said, “You’re a f***ng asshole. You’re an idiot. You have lost all your priorities and don’t know anything except go to work.”
So I decided to pull back for awhile until I could figure out what was going on. We still played and toured some, but I wasn’t sure about making a record. I didn’t know if I would ever do it again, honestly.
Then I was sitting around a year or so ago, and listening to “1492”, and I thought, “There’s a record I want to make here.” Which at the time was just Saturday Nights. An album about disintegration, and about everything that had brought to my life to that point, and where I thought my life was going.
Was the entire Saturday Nights section done before you moved on to writing Sunday Mornings?
We worked about 20 days in June  on Saturday Nights in New York City. Then we went on tour, and I came home, and that’s when the puddle of spit happened. I hit this place in December, and I thought “You’re in a lot of trouble now, you’ve gone as far as you can go without this being a really serious issue.” So I had to get my shit together, called the band up to get back in the studio. We went back in from mid-January to mid-February  and finished Saturday Nights.
As things were turning around in my life, I had the idea for Sunday Mornings. So while we in the second batch of work on Saturday Nights, I began to introduce to the band the idea of Sunday Mornings. How it would sound, the kind of instruments we would use. Nowadays, people think of folk music and they think unplugged acoustic guitars. But folk music used to have these really interesting arrangements. [Carole King’s] Tapestry is not an acoustic album. Nor are the Simon and Garfunkel albums. They have strings, they have some loud electric guitars on the electric version of “Sound of Silence.”
I went out and listened to all the indie folk music that was being made. And this name just popped up, Brian Deck. He was producing these really creative records. We set up a studio in the garden in my house. We call it “the garden”, but I don’t have any outdoor space, so I put down Astroturf and bought some beach furniture inside. We set up a little Protools studio here. We prepped the whole Sunday Mornings album in my house. We went mid-January to mid February on Saturday Nights and then took about three weeks off and then we worked, mid-March to mid-April, and we went out to Berkeley with Brian and did Sunday Mornings. We worked 25 days straight. We worked 6 1/2 day weeks. Long days.
Since we’re an East Bay magazine, I want to talk about the Berkeley recording session for the Sunday Mornings tracks.
Oh, by the way, we played a Super Bowl party this weekend. My [band members] from Walnut Creek were very excited about us being on the cover of Diablo. I told them, “Oh by the way, we’re going to big in the hometown, big in the hood.”
Cool. Why did you pick Berkeley to record?
I didn’t want to do it in New York. I knew that Saturday Nights should be recorded in New York, and Sunday Mornings shouldn’t. I thought it would be good to come to Berkeley. It was away from home for me, but it was still home. My parents still live there, I stayed with my mom and dad. It was good for the rest of the guys in the band because they would not have to be away from there families. They’ve all been understanding and kind enough to come here to New York for me so that I would not have to leave home at a time when I probably shouldn’t for health reasons. I wanted to put everybody in a comfort zone that was fresh. We’ve actually only recorded one song in the Bay Area. “Miller’s Angels” was recorded in San Francisco.
You came to Fantasy Studios, the “House that Creedence Built”, to record Sunday Mornings.
(Laughs) Well, yeah, Creedence built it, but I wouldn’t say they meant to build it, or they were happy that it was built. And they didn’t record there—but they built it for sure. There’s no doubt that that place was built from that money made from Fogerty and his boys. You have to understand, we have never made a record in a studio before. We’ve done all the other records in houses where we have built our own studio.
There are some East Bay references on the album. The third song, “Los Angeles”, has a little kiss off to Oakland.
That song was written by me, and Ryan Adams and Dave Gibbs. It’s about each of us leaving our hometowns and coming to LA. Ryan talks about Nashville in the first verse, for me, I talk about Oakland in the second verse, and the bridge is about leaving Boston for Dave Gibbs, who was the Gigolo Aunts singer and now is in the Low Stars. It was written as an unapologetic f*** you to anyone who wanted top criticize our lifestyle because we loved what we were doing. We were working on Gold (Adams’ acclaimed 2001 album) half the days, and Hard Candy half the days, and then Ryan and I were wandering Hollywood Boulevard from bar to bar, all night long. So at the time, it was about our particularly debauched lifestyle. But in retrospect, it’s a much darker song to me. It becomes this picture of someone celebrating their own demise.
I think I sang it drunk. The ending was completely improvised, I was rapping out an homage to “Shattered” at the end of the song. I thought it fit really well, it has this raw feel. I’m definitely copying Jagger at the end of the song. Music gives me a spine, and that music is part of my song.
I’ve read that you moved out of Berkeley to Los Angeles because Berkeley just seemed to small after the success of August and Everything After.
No, it wasn’t that at all. It was because I couldn’t leave the house. There were kids camped out on my lawn. It was impossible. It had become Beatlemania. And not just a hometown boy makes good situation. San Francisco is a struggling artists town, and there can be some bitterness that way. L.A. is a working artists town. Given the choice, I’d rather spend the day in Berkeley anyday, but at that one moment in my life it wasn’t very pleasant being there. There was some bitterness, some resentment, and, mainly, there were just kids camped out on my lawn. Everytime I left the house it was an issue. I didn’t have any anonymity. Anonymity is great, man, you don’t realize that until you lose it.
In the song “Washington Square”, you say “I’ve traveled the highways from Dublin to Berkeley.” I assume you mean Dublin, Ireland, not Dublin at the 580-680 Interchange.
(Laughs). Yeah, but it would be great for Diablo magazine if it were Dublin, California.
On another song, “On Almost Any Sunday Morning”, you sing, “Lithium is like heroin to me.”
Well, that song is about a guy who is unable to connect with other people at all. You wake up in the morning next to someone, and its just horrible to be there. And then he can’t wait for her to leave, and now he realizes he has to get it all back together and find someone else, because he can’t go home alone. He’s walking on this edge, he can’t stand being alone, he can’t stand being together. He lacks the knowledge of what direction to take, but has the ability to empty of himself of any feeling through the medication. The drugs make him withdraw all the anger and loss, but it all comes back in the morning.
I’ve been reading your blog (Downtherabbitholemagazine.com), and it seems like Saturday Nights and Sunday Morning has sparked a discussion about what the definition of an album, or double album is these days.
That was confusion mostly. Things get out there, especially with the way the Internet works right now. Somebody says something online, it doesn’t matter if its true or not, but it proliferates everywhere. [Saturday Nights and Sunday Mornings] is two records, but I never planned to make two CDs. There isn’t time in the world to do that. So it’s a double album, in that it is two albums There’s the Saturday Nights album, and the Sunday Mornings album. That was misinterpreted as a double CD.
Another misunderstanding came up when we delayed the release. We pulled the record back because we had some problems with the record company’s marketing plan. That becomes, “we pulled the record because the record company turned down our record,” which is not the case. Believe me, they were not happy about losing Christmas sales. That became, “they pulled the record because they need to go back and rework the songs.” We haven’t touched the record since June.
That’s just the way the Internet works, it makes it gospel because it goes everywhere at once. Which is the wonderful thing about it too, because you can get music you want out there for free, instead of paying someone to do it. Personally I think the Internet is the greatest thing in the world for a band. It looked like it was going to be the death of all of us, but I don’t think it is. Isn’t that a long answer for a question you haven’t even asked yet?
How do you like blogging?
I am a writer, that’s what I do. There have been times when I was unable to write and I don’t really find those times to be very pleasant. I’m happy to be able to do it again, better than I could for a long time.
I think that people have been mistaking the Internet as a hole, that sucks all your money out. But that’s a foolish mistake. It’s a pipeline, a conduit, an instant way to reach everywhere. It’s a way to communicate to fans, a way for me to express myself, which is kind of what my life is all about. I talk about how I feel about things. If it actually interests people, I appreciate that part of it. I’m always really honest, which has been confrontational at times. I try and answer questions. When I find people being really rude, I’ll take their heads off for it. I closed the forums on our website down for awhile because the people who just wanted to talk about Counting Crows were getting a little hijacked by people who just wanted to talk shit.
Between Hard Candy and Saturday Nights and Sunday Mornings, you gained quite a bit of weight, and then were able to take it off.
The meds make you gain weight, some of them. There’s nothing you can do. I’ve tried to work out and eat right. I’ve boxed for seven or eight years, but there’s nothing you can do. It changes your metabolism. And I don’t really want to talk about it, but I made a decision to do so on this album.
Your life becomes public property in a way, and I resent that, because parts of my life are mine. But you end up paying for it. I realized I was paying more for my privacy than the privacy was worth. So I said, “I have problems, I’m on medication, it made me fat. You got a problem with that, whatever.” I’ve fixed it, and now I’m not fat. I’ve lost 60 pounds.
How are you feeling?
I feel good. I run all the time, I box just like I always did, but I’m a lot faster.
Growing up in the East Bay, what were your favorite bands that came from this area?
Hmm. That’s a hard question, there are so many great bands. I always wished I saw The Avengers. I was a little too young for the punk scene. That’s my favorite music, the late ‘70s, early ‘80s punk music. My playlists on iTunes are The Undertones, Stiff Little Fingers, New York Dolls, I kind of wish I had seen some of that.
One of the bands I was in, Sordid Humor—I saw them a lot before I was in the band. Tom Barnes is a genius and its one of the great shames, and sadly a very common story, that a lot of the great artists out there, never ever get the recognition they deserve. But Tom, and his band Engine 88, that followed Sordid Humor…incredible.
What were some of your favorite concerts that you went to while growing up?
I can remember camping out to see Santana. Oh, and I remember this really great J. Geils show, at the Oakland Auditorium, I think its called the Kaiser now. I went with my friends— we were like 15, and we got there really early. So, the audience was four of us stoner kids and, like, 10,000 Hell’s Angels. We spent like 12 hours with the Oakland chapter of the Hell’s Angels. That was a pretty great show.
You’re one of the most famous Cal Bears football supporters. This past season, they came within 90 seconds of being the number one team in the nation, and then ended up having a disappointing year. How was this season for you?
Tough, but less because of how the season turned out because I got so busy with work that I couldn’t come out very much. I have 30 years with season tickets at Cal, I just love it. The hardest part was that I have a lot of friends on the team, and friends and are coaches, and when it got hard for them I wish I had been there. Your huge friends are there when you’re having a hard time than when you’re not.
The real story, right now, is about Cal basketball. The men’s team had two big wins this weekend. But the women’s team, man, (Coach) JoAnne Boyle, in three years, has taken them from a doormat to alone in first place in the Pac-10. What are they ranked, 8th in the country? That is incredible.
That’s a university that supports its men and its women. They win national championships in mens and womens sports and they hire good people who take kids through a very difficult university. The girls on that basketball team come from some of the ghettos in Oakland, and they get better grades than I did at Cal. They take the same classes and they play basketball. That’s one of the things I love about from being around that school, the coaches and the kids that I’ve met, who play sports and have to get through Cal. It took me seven years, largely because I took time off to play in bands, and I didn’t turn in my thesis to graduate. I don’t have my degree, these kids get theirs. I admire those guys. I have to send my props out to JoAnne and what she’s accomplished in the past few years.