Six albums later and a myriad of lineup changes behind him, Adam Duritz continues to lead his Counting Crows. Their latest effort, this year’s Underwater Sunshine (Or What We Did on Our Summer Vacation), is a collection of cover songs and their first independent release. In support, the band has been headlining the The Outlaw Roadshow all summer. The layered bill features an eclectic round up of artists — We Are Augustines, Field Report, and Filligar, to name a few — and has toured the country over two legs with its last date set for August 11th in Billings, MT. Recently, Consequence of Sound’s Len Comaratta sat down with Duritz to discuss Sunshine’s various selections, his adoration of Big Star, writing songs for films, and his personal struggles in the past.
Warning: It’s a lengthy one, so grab that cup of coffee now.
Your latest effort was originally called Under Covers, but now it’s Underwater Sunshine. Is that a reference to the Soft Boys?
Sorta. It’s the name of a website that we were starting a long time ago, which was going to be about all kinds of independent films and independent music, just anything under the radar that people didn’t really know about. And a bunch of bloggers were going to write for it, for me, and we were going to link to their blogs from it. It was going to be a cooperative Web site, I think about when I was writing a few years ago on Down the Rabbit Hole. It was like a magazine I was writing myself, but I was going to use a lot of different bloggers as well. We were just going to have people write for it. But we never got around, with everything else that was going on, to doing that.
I always planned to try and record “I Want to Destroy You”, or something off of that Soft Boys’ record [Underwater Moonlight], and we also did record “Meet On the Ledge” off What We Did on Our Holidays by Fairport Convention, so it just seemed funnier to me to name the record Underwater Sunshine (or What We Did On Our Summer Vacation). Kind of a reference to both records. But then we forgot to do the Soft Boys cover, and I forgot there was any reason for naming it that other than I liked the sound it. It actually did start out as a kind of referential thing, but all the reasons for using those referential things sort of disappeared.
I was going to ask why you didn’t do a Soft Boys cover if the title was in reference to the Soft Boys.
I know, I know. I do love the Soft Boys either way, and I do think that everyone should probably go listen to them. So it still works, as long as it starts the conversation.
You said recently “Do you want to know how big an influence these songs are? They all ended up on the album.” Well, then, why did you leave off the Stereophonics [“Local Boy In the Photograph”] and Joe Jackson [“It’s Different For Girls”] songs?
Stereophonics we just didn’t finish. I think we were on our way to a really cool cover there, but we just didn’t finish it in time. We were only in the studio for…I don’t know how many days…ten or 11 full days on this record, and we were trying to do about 20 songs. The Joe Jackson song did finish, and I, just upon reflection, didn’t think it was very good. It seemed like the best possible reason for leaving something off. Everyone loved it too. People flipped when they heard it. Managers, agents, everyone in the band, everyone just flipped out when they heard the version, and we had the time of our lives playing it. I was driving off that day and I just was so underwhelmed by it. I didn’t know why. It bothered me for months. I went into the recording the next day, and I said, “Does anyone else think this sorta sucks somehow?” And everyone’s like, “No it’s amazing. It sounds great.” “I know. It sounds great to me too, it just sorta sucks. I’m not sure why.”
And it went on that way for months. I sort of let myself forget about it but I wasn’t gonna put it on the record, probably. And then when we were mixing, I forgot to tell Brian Deck [engineer] that we weren’t going to use it. So, he just mixed it one day, and sent it to me, and I thought, “well, maybe it’s for the best, because he’s been doing a lot of miracle work with stuff. He hears stuff in our music I don’t always hear. He seems to have a good grip on how to bring stuff out in our songs. Maybe it’ll just turn out great.”
And I went and listened to his version of it, and I thought the same thing I’d been thinking for months. It just sort of sucks. I don’t know why. I called Brian up, and I explained the whole situation to him. I said, “Look, everybody loves this, and I love it too when we’re playing it. I was really excited to lead with it, but ever since I’ve been listening to it since that first day in my car, it’s just not doing it for me, and I don’t know why.” And he said, “Oh, I can explain that to you. It sounds like a cover. It’s the only one on the record that doesn’t sound like it’s yours, and it kind of just sounds like you’re singing somebody else’s song.” And I realized that’s kind of what it was.
I love that song, and when we went to record it, I had the greatest time singing it. I think my whole life I wanted to cover that song; since I was a kid it was one of my favorite songs. And I was having such a good time singing that I forgot that it’s not a song about having a good time at all. It’s a really sad song. And it just sounded awesome, but it had no emotional weight at all. It was one of those songs when I was a kid…you know when something’s really sad, but you love it? When you’re bummed out, you listen to it, and it makes you feel a lot? It was that song for me, and it wasn’t doing that for me when I heard it. It wasn’t moving me. And I realized it’s because I had a great time singing it. And my band is really, really responsive to where I’m at. They listen and play to me. They don’t play a song, they play what I’m singing, whatever that is, in subtle ways, they don’t even realize.
So, it was a really great, fun take on that song. But it’s not a fun song. It’s just a great song, and we had a great time playing it. I took everybody, without realizing it even, took everyone down the wrong road. It just didn’t have any emotional weight to it, and that particular song isn’t supposed to be like that. You can just sing “Amie”. “Amie” is there to be just sung. It’s fun. “It’s Different For Girls” isn’t. So, I left it off. I realized that’s what the problem was. It’s my fault. Without thinking about it, I took it down the wrong road. Everyone else followed me right down it, and we recorded a great version of the song that has nothing to do with the song, so we left it off.
Do you think you’ll play it live because of how much fun you had?
Probably not, because it’ll have the same problem. I took the wrong tack on the song, and now everyone’s got a certain version in their heads that is all wrong. That song is supposed to move you, and I don’t think it does anything. Our version is so much fun to listen to, but it’s just not the right thing. I don’t know. I doubt we will, because I think we’d screw that up. Even if I could get my head around doing it a different way, I think everyone else is probably locked in the way they were.
You just mentioned how your band plays to you rather than plays the songs. You are also known for mixing your lyrics up and transposing different songs in and out. How did that come about?
It was the very first gig we ever played on the road. We were up in Vancouver, and me and Charlie [Gillingham], I want to say it was me and Charlie, and Matt [Mallery], and Dan [Jewett]. We walked over to Lake Victoria and we’re sitting there in the afternoon before we played our first gig. We were opening for Suede. I said, “You know what? You can play anything you like. I’m just gonna cut you guys off. I’m gonna gesture it, and everyone just let the bottom drop out of the song. I’m gonna do something, I don’t know what. Follow me.” And they were like, “What?”
“I don’t know, I kinda feel like I wanna be the kind of band where you just never know what’s going to happen, and maybe even we don’t.” And they were all like, “Okay.” So, that night, and we’re an opening band, we’re playing a half-hour set, in the middle of “Rain King”, I just dropped the bottom out of the song, and wandered off, and we wandered back eventually, and it was cool. And the audience was like, “What the fuck?” But they were into it. As much as the thing that everybody comes there wanting to hear exactly what they want to hear, they still get transported when you transport them. They still do react, sometimes, like, “Wow, I didn’t expect that.” And I don’t know, it just worked, and so I just started doing it. I also realized it was something I learned when I was singing on the first record too. The best thing to do is whatever you feel like doing at that moment. Take yourself where you’re honestly feeling like you want to go. That’s always going to be real and frosh.
I was afraid you’d have fan blowback that you were forgetting your lyrics, but apparently not. It seems to be a really positive response.
I think we probably had both. I do think there’s people who love to sing along and they’re pissed that they can’t sing along at the concerts. I saw somewhere on Twitter the other day, it was a couple days ago after a Counting Crows concert, “the bliss of not being able to sing along because you have no idea what’s about to happen.” Some girl wrote that. Something like, “I love singing along at concerts, but there’s a bliss to the Counting Crows’ concert where it’s impossible to sing along, because you have no idea what they’re going to do next.” Something like that. For me, whatever I sang on the record was just something that happened at that moment. You’re trying for a version that crystalizes into something timeless, but you’re also going to feel different on other days so you should always approach the song as if it’s happening right then. I don’t think these songs have to get old, because most of the feelings you feel in them are stuff you can experience on any given day. It’s a little different than it was the first time you recorded it, and it’s a little different from last night. And you should feel okay with just letting it go wherever you want it to go. I can understand not doing that too, but I’m a good enough singer that I don’t have to worry about pitch too much, and I don’t have to worry about…I don’t know, whatever else one worries about that you have to hold on to where you are in a song, which I totally understand, because it’s not easy to sing all the time. But I can do that, so I feel pretty safe just letting myself wander.
You don’t want to get too precious about it. You don’t want to fuck up your songs. I do think that sometimes it’s a big thing, like a complete detour in the middle of a song, and sometimes it’s just something that people probably wouldn’t even notice the difference. They might feel it, but they wouldn’t necessarily be conscious that you just changed a little bit of the tone, sang a line a little sadder, a little happier, a little funnier, a little quieter, a little louder, whatever. Just little things that make it exactly what you’re feeling at that moment, so that you don’t feel obligated to be repeating something over and over again, but more experiencing it right then and there. Like, sometimes, quite honestly, it’s as simple as “I forgot the lyrics.” But that’s okay, because I can stand here and be,“I forgot the lyrics,” or I could just make up new ones. There’s a new melody, and a new lyric out there. I’m going through stuff, there’s no reason I can’t make up something different, if you think quick enough. You’re playing music, lots of it is improvised, people playing different notes all the time, so why shouldn’t I sing something a little differently. I feel like I don’t have to be…just because I’ve got words and melodies that I can lean on every time doesn’t mean I can’t play a guitar lick or a guitar solo. Sometimes I will stop the song because it’s just too lousy. Like, “Wait a minute, that was just a huge fuck-up and this song isn’t making sense any more. Stop. Okay, let’s kick it in from the second verse, and then go.” I have no real problem doing that, because it’s human. The shit happens. But sometimes I’ll just go along.
With that in mind, and how you don’t necessarily feel the same way about the music you did twenty years ago, or even last night, how did you approach when you recorded and performed August and Everything After in its entirety? Was that something that the band wanted to do, or were you approached with that idea?
Well, we had this gig coming up…they were Town Hall gigs, and we were planning on doing something to sort of celebrate that. But in my mind, we were just going to…I just wanted to have friends come from all over our career and play songs with us. We called the Jayhawks and Jake Dylan, Chris Carrabba [Dashboard Confessional], the guys in the Gigolo Aunts who were then in Lo-Stars. We were just going to bring friends from all over our career and do all kinds of songs together, our songs, their songs. To me, it was going to be more like a Last Waltz thing. That’s what I wanted to do. I didn’t think the album would hold together very well. I listened to it. Someone came up with the idea of playing the whole record. I listened to the whole record and thought it didn’t sounded very good in order. It was really a trick, a prank that Jimmy [Bogios] and I pulled on the other guys in the band one day at a show. About a month before, we were filming that show, we were out in Jersey somewhere, we were playing minor-league baseball stadiums all summer long, and I was looking at the song list. I was looking at the list of songs from August, and I started thinking about how they actually go nowadays, not how they are on the record, but how differently we play them.
There’s a long center section at that point for “Sullivan Street”. “Ghost Train” has this really loud, dark guitar intro. It’s just very different than the way it used to be. “Time and Time Again” has all these instrumental passages in it. I started thinking about how they actually go nowadays. The fact that “Raining In Baltimore” is something that I would stick inside “Round Here”, and then I started looking at the sequence of songs and thinking, “okay, actually it’s not exactly the way I thought it was.” I look at it this way, it was “Raining In Baltimore” inside “Round Here”, and I think about the way we actually play all these songs now, this might be really cool in order. We just did it as a pr…we hadn’t even played some of those songs with the guys in the band, I don’t think ever. It was more a prank than a show. I already said it, but I’m not sure some of the guys had ever even played “Ghost Train”. There were a few of those songs that we hadn’t played in a long time. I didn’t realize Millard [Powers] had never played “Ghost Train”. He just didn’t say anything about it, he just went up and did it.
I figured we’d do them that afternoon, so we gave the set list to the crew and didn’t tell anybody. The night before the show, they go and look at the set list, and realize we’re playing August and Everything After in order. And it was like, “Okay, now what are you going to do.” [Laughs.] It was kind of a joke on the rest of the band, and then we did it, and it was awesome. And also, for some reason, that 50 minute record is an 80 minute concert. Some of the songs are stretched out a bit. And then somebody started thinking that might be a really good concert. After the show was over, and it was so good, I said we should actually do Town Hall. “Let’s do it this way. We’ll do August and Everything After, and we’ll play a bunch of songs off the new record that no one’s ever heard, off Saturday Nights and Sunday Mornings. We’ll just do that.” And the guys were like, “Okay, great, let’s just do it a few more times before we get there.” I said, “No, we’re not doing it anymore. We’ll do it then. We did it today, it worked out fine. I’m not going to beat it into the ground. We’ll do it again in New York. That’s it, we’re not rehearsing this. That’ll just kill it.”
And so we didn’t. We waited, and played it again in New York at the concert. It was kind of like a prank more than anything else. Sometimes in the middle of a tour you get to the point where you’re just like, “I cannot think of how to make a set list.” So you start making rules. “Okay, I’m going to do it alphabetically, first song has to start with ‘A’, second song has to start with ‘B’.” Or you do, “this is my new rule for today, song from the first, song from the second, song from the third, song from the fourth, song from the fifth, song from the sixth album, and back to the top, and that’s how you have to make the set list today” [Laughs.] There was a period right there around those tours where I was really having trouble making set lists up, and so I did them that way. I don’t usually do that, but then I did. So that was just one of those, “Okay, what are we going to do today? You know what, let’s do the first album.” That’s sort of how it came about.
So there was never an intention to record it until actually that night, when you guys started doing it?
We knew we were going to film that show, but we just weren’t planning on doing the whole album. It was going to be a Last Waltz kind of thing with a bunch of friends of ours. We actually had a bunch of them we had invited already. But then, once we played that show in Jersey, I had to call Phil back, and say, “You know what, we’re just probably going to do our own thing.” All we had were the people that were on tour with us. I think Lo-Stars were on tour with us, and Chris Carrabba lives in New York, so he was right there, so it was easy to have Chris come by and do the second encore. We did an encore of songs from Saturday Nights and Sunday Mornings, which wasn’t released yet, and then we did a second encore of cover songs that we all played together. Although we did “Angels of the Silence” acoustic with Chris singing on it because, he’s been playing a version of it. We did…I think we did “You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere”. I don’t know what else we played. We just kind of knew some songs that everybody could play. I think we did “Ballad of El Goodo” for the second encore.
Is that what led to that song being on this album [Underwater Sunshine]?
No, I think it’s just something we love to play. And that’s the reason it was on this album and the reason we did it at that show. It’s probably a song that everybody who was at that show who was playing music, who was a big Big Star fan, whether it’s Chris or the guys from Gigolo Aunts or Lo-Stars, everyone, we were all kind of devotees of Big Star. It seemed like a good thing to do at the time.