As the lead singer and main songwriter for Counting Crows, Adam Duritz ranks among the most recognizable and successful artists to emerge from the early ’90s alt-rock boom. Counting Crows has sold more than 20 million albums in almost 20 years, starting with the band’s debut (and most popular release), 1993’s August And Everything After, which spawned the iconic hit single “Mr. Jones.” That song still defines Counting Crows in the mainstream of popular culture, but the band remains a prolific concert act even as its creative output has slowed. (Only two new albums of original material, 2002’s Hard Candy and 2008’s Saturday Nights And Sunday Mornings, have arrived this century.) Duritz has also been busy battling personal demons; in recent years he’s been more open about his struggles with mental illness and anxiety disorder, which troubled him once again as Counting Crows made its latest album, the all-covers collection Underwater Sunshine (Or What We Did On Our Summer Vacation).
Underwater Sunshine includes songs by some of Duritz’s most obvious influences, including Bob Dylan, Big Star, and Richard Thompson. But most of the record is composed of lesser-known material by up-and-coming singer-songwriters like Kasey Anderson, Coby Brown, and Luke MacMaster of The Romany Rye. Long an outspoken champion of his favorite artists—hence the line, “I wanna be Bob Dylan,” from “Mr. Jones”—Duritz has made Underwater Sunshine another act of personal fandom, to go along with his active social-media life (he constantly interacts with music bloggers) and setting up shows for young bands, including a recent showcase at South By Southwest in Austin. The A.V. Club recently spoke with Duritz about the record, why he might not write songs anymore, and what he’s doing to try to stay sane.
The A.V. Club: You’ve always been open about admiring other artists, and Underwater Sunshine is clearly a fan’s record. Did the experience of having fans of your own change your feelings about being a fan yourself?
Adam Duritz: I probably got a lot more self-conscious about talking to other musicians, because of the uncomfortable conversations you have with people. I realized how big of a geek I was, because all the conversations that were weirding me out were the exact conversations that I would have had with my hero. As a result, I’ve become so shy about talking to other musicians. I’ve never been one of those guys who went to the award shows, so I don’t really know a lot of my peers. Just people I’ve toured with and played with. My friend Ryan Adams is so much more social than me. He’s just so much better at stuff. He seems to know everybody. It’s awesome. He gets to meet people like Elton John. I just don’t know any of them. But the last few years, doing these showcases and trying to get on Twitter, I’ve met so many musicians that I know now. That’s been really cool. That’s the world that I found myself swimming in when I became friends with some of these bloggers. I found that I just met so many musicians and so many people in that world who are just really loving music.
AVC: Many of the artists you’re covering on the new album are obscure or in the early stages of finding an audience. Do you feel any envy for emerging artists? Does being a known commodity—and knowing that your music will be judged a certain way—have an impact on your creative process?
AD: Yeah, but not in the way you’re thinking. I just don’t really think too much about fans in terms of pressure on the creative process. I mean, I couldn’t care less. We got creative control from before our first album just because our demos were really good. And we traded away all the money. We got very little money on that first advance. But we got complete creative control. A lot of people think we got that because we were successful with our first album, but that’s not what happened. We got it already. We just did our thing. So I never really felt any pressure because I always thought, “The best thing I can do is to do our own thing.” There’s no way to figure out what’s going to be successful anyway. There just isn’t, not for me. I think there are people who are really into stuff like that. And producers who are very good at making music sound a certain way. I pretty much get into anything the Neptunes ever did because they’re great at it, because they’re great songs and they know exactly what to do. But I just don’t have that kind of talent. I just don’t. It’s not what I do well. We just write these songs and then we get there and we play them. And if it feels right, it is right.
I’m sort of mentally unstable. I had a very hard time dealing with being famous because all these people were looking at you all the time and talking about you and it just becomes something weird. I was already weird. When everybody else started acting weird, it just really tipped me over the edge. But that was such a long time ago now. The only way fame affected me was my songs, because I wrote about my life and my life was affected by becoming famous. And I know everybody hates when people write about being famous, but you know, fuck you, I’m not supposed to impress you with how just like each other we all are. We probably like the same kinds of music, that’s how we’re like each other. But my life got really weird that year so I wrote about it.
AVC: Recovering The Satellites was your “struggle with fame” record, but a lot of people connected with the album’s themes of displacement and identity crisis, which are obviously more universal. That’s how music works in most cases: You take what you relate to and disregard the rest.
AD: Which is how it should be. I think the people who are able to do that, Recovering is their favorite record of ours. I think it’s just one of those attitude things that gets people to take the other side of the equation. It’s so silly. The weird thing to me is people ask me how I feel about people relating to my songs, and I just don’t know how to feel about it because when I started out I was pretty sure we weren’t going to be a very popular band. Because our songs were so personal that I didn’t think anybody else would relate to it. I thought that it was really good music; I just didn’t think it was music for everybody. I was wrong about that. I realized that fairly quickly. Actually making songs really personal and really being intimate about them is what people relate to. They find all kind of things about themselves in those songs. I don’t understand it. I do know that it’s true. People were talking at the beginning to stop using proper names, stop using particular places and details in your songwriting because people aren’t going to relate to that. But they’re wrong. Those details give those things truth, some sort of real weight.
AVC: How do you feel when someone covers one of your songs?
AD: I have almost never heard it. Closest I came was last summer, when I was working on a theater piece. It’s the first time I’ve taught anyone to sing any of my songs, and I wasn’t sure how that would be. I wasn’t sure if any of my songs were good or would move someone to singing it, because I’m not a good singer. I was wondering if I’d be any good at teaching people, if I’d be patient, if it would be too easy or too hard or I don’t know what, or whether it would have any emotional weight. It was really cool. That’s the closest I’ve come to that. I was watching people perform songs in a theater piece and kind of being knocked out by it. I’ve never written for women before, so I’ve never even heard my songs in that frequency.
People think cover records are just a big departure, where you’re just doing these little side projects. The truth is, when you make a regular record, sure, you write songs, but those are the skeletons. It’s like some chords and some words. You take those things and you make them into a song where you add seven musicians playing at once. There’s a big difference between what I do on the piano and the records you hear, which have no piano in them at all. It has everything to do with composition and arrangement and interpretation. And don’t forget that the other guys didn’t get to write the song at all, so everything they’re doing is an interpretation of my stuff. That thing is a big part of what you do as a musician, but a lot of times in your career, you’re limiting it all to one writer. It never seemed so limiting to me until we made this record. And it’s really cool to do it with some different writers. It just really charges up a whole part of you—the musician part and the arranger part and the interpreter part. I had a really good time. I mean, why should we all be limited to one writer for our whole career? There’s so many great songs. You could spend years doing these kinds of records and you wouldn’t be bored at all. There’s so much good material.
I’ve said a lot of stuff about my life over the last 20 years. I’m not sure I have to tell anything else about my life. If I stopped and didn’t say anything else about my life from now on, I still will have said plenty. I mean, sure, I have more stuff to say. I’m sure I’ll write another song. Certain times, I’m like, “Shit, I already told you everything. Who cares about it anymore? Let me tell you about some of the other people’s shit. Let me tell you about Kasey’s shit.”
AVC: After making this covers record, do you feel like you’ve picked up anything or learned anything that you would apply to your own songwriting?
AD: Certainly. I’m not sure exactly what, but I think influence is a very real thing. But I think the way everybody looks at it isn’t the way it always is. It’s not like you listen to something and you make music like it. I mean, you want to know how big an influence these songs are? They all ended up on the album. That’s a huge influence on our career right now. It’s no joke and it’s not like we did it for the commerce of it. Clearly they infiltrated all of our thoughts. And we think about them and talk about them. We sing a lot of them onstage and they are going to become part of what we do; I don’t know how that comes out in the next thing we do, but it will. I certainly don’t think at any point in my life I’d say what I just said to you about not writing any more songs, which isn’t really what I think I would do. But it never occurred to me before. There are other musicians whose songs are good enough to take up the rest of my life, for the rest of my career, if I want to.
AVC: Is it more of a challenge to write a song now that you’ve been doing it for so long?
AD: Well, I don’t know if it’s more of a challenge to write a song, but I’ll say this: For most of my life, there wasn’t anything as important as writing a song. There wasn’t anything as important as playing it or recording it, and it certainly took precedence over being happy. I thought that being happy, people made much too much of it. It just wasn’t possible to always be happy, and not everything you do in life should be geared around that. We have a career that is a hobby for a lot of people, so they associate it with fun. But we do it because it’s who we are. Not that’s it’s not fun, it is, but it’s our job, too. It’s not always fun, but it’s not supposed to be. That’s, like, for kids. But it’s supposed to be meaningful.
There was a part of me that thought it didn’t matter if I was ever happy, because I was making music and making a mark and I was going to be remembered and that seemed to be everything. I really wish I worked a little harder on being sane when I was younger, instead of letting this mental illness get more and more entrenched, because that has fucked up my life. I don’t know what the fuck my excuse was for letting it happen, but it did. I let it happen for a long time, until it got disastrous. I guess what I’m saying is, I think there are things that are more important now. There’s a way in which I resent the songs, or how, for all those years, it didn’t matter what happened in my life because I wrote songs. That isn’t a good replacement for life. That’s just a way of describing life. So, I guess a part of me now resents my own habit of substituting songs for people, songs for relationships, songs for whatever. You can’t wait too much longer to get your shit together, because you only have so many years to live. I’ve definitely made it more of a priority to get healthier. It’s much more important for me to try and get sane than it is to go on tour. This was the first summer in I don’t know how long, maybe 10 or 12 years, that we didn’t tour. So, I mean, part of me is being very conscious of it this year because I don’t want to get stuck and go off the rails again.
It’s not so much that it’s harder as I’m just not willing to sacrifice everything for it right now. It’s not the priority it once was. That said, I did a lot of writing this year. I just didn’t write for Counting Crows. I wrote for this theater piece I’ve been working on. So in that way, that would have been like making a record. I just didn’t make a record. I made the play and then we made this record on top of that.
AVC: Taking that break from touring, do you feel like that’s helped you? Do you feel healthier now that you’ve taken that time?
AD: I think I’d feel a lot less healthy if I hadn’t. I needed to be at the doctor every day. They were taking me off all these medications that I had been prescribed—more than was probably necessary for my survival, but I wasn’t going to get better while I was still on them. So I had to get rid of about seven medications, which I went through withdrawals for from mid-April all the way up to around December. Eight months of drug withdrawals, not just physical withdrawals but the mental withdrawals from drugs prescribed for mental illness. They’re going out of your system and you’re freaking out in 50 different ways, twitching and shaking, which I could not stop doing while we were during our second session [for the album]. I vibrated around the room while recording “Hospital” and “Like Teenage Gravity.”
It’s a very raw world right now, because I’ve been coated in gauze and amber for the last decade or so and I am running around naked right now. It’s like the difference between being deaf and everyone in the world talking to you at once. You can’t understand what the fuck anyone is saying either way, but it’s probably better to be here than not be here. But it’s very loud right now. It’s like an assault in a lot of ways.
AVC: Are you trying to work toward a happy medium between feeling raw and being "coated in gauze"?
AD: No, I’m just trying to be sane. I don’t think the problem was the medications. The reason they wanted to take me off of them is that they were protecting me, which I think I needed at the time, but they also were making it so I necessarily couldn’t get better because I was so buffered. So they were the right drugs to keep me alive at the time when I was really crazy, but they’re the wrong drugs to get better on, so you’ve gotta get off it all. And you gotta find the right medication because I don’t need protection as much as I need one that’s going to help me feel a little more sane, just specifically dealing with some of the things that make it really hard to live.
AVC: Do you have any trepidation about going back on tour?
AD: Definitely. I haven’t been that adventurous. I’ve been mostly in my house for the last year. It’s not that I’m afraid of people, I just don’t know who to call. On the road, you’re really briefly in contact with tons and tons of people and then you go back to the hotel and there’s no one there. It’s a really weird push-pull thing. I do very well like when I am at South By Southwest. Being in a crowd with my friends when there’s a billion people around, it’s no problem. Figuring out how to socialize with individual people, that’s harder. I can’t think of names sometimes. I just forget that I know people. So I don’t know how it’s going to be, being on the road for a year and dealing with a lot of that because the one thing that’s been good and dependable over the last year is, I was mostly at home. I knew what was going on there. Touring gets really amorphous because you’re on your own a lot, and for me with my voice, I have to be really careful, because I sing really hard. My voice doesn’t recover that well. I can’t afford to fuck around at all. I can’t go out much or go socialize that much because you can be in a restaurant and the volume level will wipe out my voice after a while. We have to do everything possible to make sure we don’t miss gigs, because that’s a commitment you make to people to play, and when you fuck up, it’s a big fuck-up and people never forget it. So I mostly just play the gig, go to my hotel room, get up in the morning, go to the bus, go to the backstage room, go onstage, back to the backstage room, and back to the hotel or the bus. It’s a lot of isolation, without whatever you depend on at home.