Adam Duritz On 25 Years Of Counting Crows, Woodstock ’99 Porta Potties, And Playing “Mr. Jones” … Or Not
Tracking Down is a Stereogum franchise in which we talk to artists who have been out of the spotlight for a minute.
Of all of the acts to spill out of the ’90s Bay Area rock scene, adult-alternative troubadours Counting Crows have been one of the most enduring. Right around the time Green Day were rattling the walls of Berkley punk incubator 924 Gilman, Adam Duritz and Counting Crows guitarist David Bryson were on the other side of the Bay kicking around — well, hangin’ around, to be precise — San Francisco coffee houses performing what would eventually become a spectacular series of angsty folk-pop staples: “Mr. Jones,” “Round Here,” “Rain King,” and so on.
As their popularity grew, Counting Crows enjoyed all of the success afforded to easy-listening radio kingpins of their stature — millions of albums sold, a VH1 Behind The Music special, a turn on Saturday Night Live, landmark song placements like the uncharacteristically upbeat (for the Crows, anyway) “Accidentally In Love” from Shrek 2 in 2004. All the while, Duritz coped with personal demons, some of which he shared in his songwriting, and some he kept bottled up for years — struggles with anxiety and mental illness.
Today, seven albums and two-and-a-half decades in, Duritz is currently hangin’ around this town of New York City, where he says he’s lived for 15 years. He and the rest of the Crows are still releasing music, too, with 2014’s Somewhere Over Wonderland being their most recent LP. He also regularly records a podcast with journalist James Campion called Underwater Sunshine (named for the band’s 2013 covers album), which he says is pretty freeform — sometimes they exclusively talk music, other times they nerd out over Marvel movies for hours.
For the moment though, Counting Crows are heading out with Gen X torchbearers Live on an anniversary tour, “25 Years And Counting,” which begins tonight in Boise and celebrates a quarter-century since the release of the band’s breakout debut, August And Everything After. We spoke to Duritz before he hits the road to reminisce about some of Counting Crows’ greatest hits, the debauchery — and even sexual assault — he witnessed at Woodstock ’99, and why he’s too selfish to play “Mr. Jones” at every show.
STEREOGUM: How did you get started in the podcasting world?
DURITZ: Well, [co-host and journalist] James Campion had done a lot of in-depth interviews with me over the years. And at some point, years ago, he said to me, “I’ve got way more material than I could ever use in these articles. We should write a book sometime.” And at one point I just called him up and said, “You know, I think it’s a good idea. Let’s try it.”
So, starting about a year-and-a-half ago, he came out to a New York, Austin, and Nashville music festival we did. He spent like three days with us while we were doing that. After that, we would meet once a week and we would talk for four or five hours, and we would record it and we did that for about a year.
[Eventually], I called him up and said, “Hey, these talks we’re having are really cool, but there’s way more than we’re ever gonna use in any book. We should do a podcast, and it doesn’t interfere with the book at all. We’ll still do the book. But I think people would enjoy this. I think I enjoy it. I’m just sitting around talking about life and music and whatever. I think it would be a great podcast.”
So we started doing [the podcast], and it’s been really cool. Sometimes it’s just completely freeform. Other times, we kind of come up with themes or ideas, or one of us will come in with an idea. Once we did a four week series on punk music. Other times, like I’d just seen Avengers: Infinity War and we did a podcast the next day. This one came out just a few weeks ago. I think the ones we’re putting out next week are ones we did on background vocals. It kind of goes back and forth. Sometimes they’re planned out, sometimes they’re not.
STEREOGUM: I’d be remiss if I didn’t say congrats on 25 years of Counting Crows! What’s the most surreal thing about that number?
DURITZ: Well, it’s weird because on the one hand, you’re always planning for this. When you imagine it, you don’t imagine having one minor hit… You imagine spending your life doing it. But at the same time, once you’ve done that for real, you realize it really doesn’t work that way for anyone. You kind of expect it to fall apart at any minute.
We’ve always tried to think about the long run, as opposed to short-term gain. But the fact that it keeps working… I’ve spent half my life in this band. It’s kind of crazy, and you see your friends’ bands come and go, and [some] bands last five minutes. The longer it goes, the more you realize how rare it is.
STEREOGUM: It’s like any other relationship where the objective is to grow together, and some people are better equipped to do that than others. What do you think it is about Counting Crows that keeps it moving forward?
DURITZ: I think you’re probably right about that. One of the reasons it’s so hard is that most people don’t have relationships with seven people at the same time. But I think it’s also important at the beginning to figure out what’s really important to you. There’s gonna be all kinds of things that come up, like money’s gonna be a part of it. Money’s gonna come up, and power, and fame. Those are all things that are gonna be a part of the mix, and everybody’s gonna want them and everybody’s gonna get them in different amounts, and what’s the important thing to you?
I think we really figured out early on — or at least I did — that I love being in bands, and that was what I got most of my joy from and most of my satisfaction, that this was kind of the life I wanted. And with that in mind, the other things become less important. For me, the band was always the most important thing. I wanted to stay with this band.
STEREOGUM: What’s your relationship to Counting Crows’ most recognized songs — “Mr. Jones” being the most obvious example? Do you play it at most of your shows?
DURITZ: No, I’m much too selfish for that. I think I just realized at the beginning that there was a possibility, if everything worked out, that we’d be doing this over and over again, for years and years, night after night after night, and it just seemed like a mistake to do something you didn’t want to do every night. We decided early on, if there was a night where we don’t wanna play something, we don’t play it. That way, we’re always into it. You’ve gotta remember, we make records, whole records, and all of the songs are really important to me. There’s no sense that one of them’s a hit and another one isn’t, because you never do know. Often the record company just picks one song and they wanna put that on the radio a lot. But it’s not necessarily any more valuable to me than the other songs.
I love “Mr. Jones.” I think it’s a great song. But it’s nothing that I thought was any more special than anything else. It wasn’t even anyone’s first choice for a single. The label wanted “Murder Of One,” but they wanted to edit it and I wouldn’t let them edit it, so we didn’t put it out. We didn’t even think “Mr. Jones” was a hit. We just thought it was a good instructor track. We all thought “Rain King” was the hit.
Honestly, it wasn’t even really “Mr. Jones” that broke the band. That’s just what everyone remembers, because “Mr. Jones” had been on the radio for a while and we weren’t even in the top 200. No one was buying the records, no one was coming to see us play. We were opening for some good bands, but we played “Round Here” on Saturday Night Live. That blew the band up. Then we played “Round Here” again on Letterman. Those things blew the band up. It’s just that once we were huge, later on over the years, “Mr. Jones” was easier to play on your radio stations, and I just think it’s the one people remember.
STEREOGUM: You guys had some pretty iconic movie-soundtrack placements, too. I know for me, the song “Colorblind” is inextricably linked with Cruel Intentions. Do you remember how that song ended up in the movie?
DURITZ: That one in particular, I think [director] Roger Kumble came to me and asked if I would come watch the movie and that they needed a song for this one scene. I made them show me the movie, and I was like, “Oh, this is weird. I wrote a song last night that I think is perfect for this movie.”
We were in the middle of making This Desert Life. So we were in the studio at the time, and [I came] home after work, I wrote the song “Colorblind.” We hadn’t even recorded it yet. I don’t even know if I’d played it for the band yet. But I went to see the movie the next day or the day after that. It was literally within hours of finishing the song, because I didn’t even have a demo recording.
I went to the living room of the house we were making the record in, and I literally recorded it in one quick take. [After recording], I had the cassette in a boom box, and when the scene started, I pressed “play” and I was like, “Oh yeah, this is perfect.” Even him reaching and touching her naked leg when it said the line about the skin. I called them back up and was like, “Yeah, I’ve got the song for you. Just come take a look at this.”
STEREOGUM: In terms of era-specific songs, I remember your cover of “Big Yellow Taxi” featuring Vanessa Carlton was all over the radio a few years later — practically in conjunction with her “A Thousand Miles” ascent. But the version that hit the radio, that was a remix, right?
DURITZ: Yeah, we were doing B-sides for Hard Candy, and I had had this idea. We had recorded this acoustic hip-hop version of “Big Yellow Taxi.” Not the one that you heard, a different one. It was just us from drums, bass, and acoustic guitars. It’s an upright bass and acoustic guitar and drums. And it was really cool and everybody really liked it, and I was interested in doing some remixes, because I think mostly because no one expected us to do remixes.
So we did a remix of “Big Yellow Taxi” that [producer] Ron Fair did, and it turned out so well that we decided to hide it on the end of the record. It wasn’t really supposed to be a single at first. It was supposed to be a hidden track.
It really was late when it got finished. That’s why the first version didn’t have Vanessa’s vocals on it. We had to leave to go to Europe to start the tour for that record, and I didn’t want to not be there while someone was doing vocals. Vanessa had just finished an album with Ron. I don’t think her first album was even out yet, but I had heard it, because Ron, who mixed Hard Candy, also mixed her album, her first album. And they had been in there right before us.
So Vanessa did that while I was gone. They sent it to me and I helped them edit it together while I was on the road. But I think I knew her. I think I had met her already. I definitely wasn’t there when she sang it. But it was a good idea, because she was relaxed enough to kind of go off, and that was good.
STEREOGUM: As long as we’re talking about the late ’90s and early ’00s, you guys also performed at Woodstock ’99 — the infamous Woodstock ’99. Do you have any crazy memories from that experience?
DURITZ: Yeah. Yeah, we were there for a lot of it. They’re charging like $10 for water. It’s like 110 degrees. They’re charging all this money for water and people are dehydrated and wasted and they didn’t fix the porta potties. They didn’t empty them properly, so they were all overflowing, on the first day. Late in the first day, there was just a huge lake of shit and piss out there.
I mean, you’re walking in from the stage and it just looks like triage. I saw a woman during our sets — no, I’m sorry — it was during Sheryl’s sets. Sheryl played right before us, Sheryl Crow. This girl was on a guy’s shoulders and a bunch of other guys just pulled her shirt off and pulled her off the guy’s shoulders, and meanwhile, the mosh pit was so crazy violent that there’s just people coming over the fence and getting stretchered away, an endless line of people, an endless line of stretchers. It looked terrible. It just was all so cynical, to me, the way it was put together. They put people in situations that were bad for them. Then they blamed it on the bands, but they set it up that way. They blamed it on the bands who were playing intense sets at night, like aggro sets.
DURITZ: It was so stupid because we wanted to play a sundown set, or just after sundown, and they said, ‘No — yes, you’re bigger than this band, but we want all the bands at night to be the really intense, aggro bands, so to build this crescendo every day. So okay, that’s fine. But when you’re doing it that way and then you blame it on the bands, after a day in the sun and dehydration and being wasted, everyone gets really intense at night. Well, you made the bands in that order. I just thought it was a terrible thing to do, and then to blame it on the bands like they did. They really tried to blame it on Limp Bizkit. Limp Bizkit’s just playing their songs. They’re just doing their thing. They’re not doing anything different than any other Limp Bizkit set.
Everything about it was set up so poorly. I mean, we had a good time playing, but I know Sheryl didn’t. It was pretty bad. People were throwing stuff at her, bottles. But literally, there’s a lake of piss and shit. They never cleaned it up. What’d you think was going to happen when you hand out to an entire audience things that are supposed to be lit on fire?
STEREOGUM: It sounds like a precursor to Fyre Festival. Imagine if social media had existed then?
DURITZ: I think they got away with it because the only people at the time were the promoters. They got away with it because the only people who could talk to the press about it were them. They bands couldn’t go on social media and say — well, I guess there kind of was. There was AOL, but there wasn’t much social media. This was before Facebook.
STEREOGUM: Speaking of social-media discussion — lately I’ve seen a lot of reactions to Anthony Bourdain and Kate Spade’s deaths, especially with people calling for those affected by depression and suicidal thoughts to reach out. But at the same time there’s backlash, pointing out how difficult it is — financially, emotionally, societally — to realistically seek substantial help. As someone who’s been pretty open about your own struggles over the years, how much water do you think these dueling perspectives hold?
DURITZ: I haven’t seen the discussion at all. But I think that when you’re dealing with mental illness, it’s so hard to get a grip on it. Because it’s not necessarily something curable; it can feel like a very slow doom, which is why I think it causes suicidal impulses in people.
The feeling that it’s just gonna get worse and worse, at times it can really make you feel hopeless, and society doesn’t have a very good grip on stuff like that. And also because it still has this taint of evil, or “bad people do it.” As much as we talk about sympathizing, we like to make fun of it as well, because it can make people behave erratically, and especially with social media, to write about that and joke about that, and that can be a terrible feeling.
For me, for years, I went through the first … let’s see, probably 15 years of our career without saying a word about [my own struggles] to anybody publicly. Because I felt like I was sliding downhill and I didn’t want to talk about stuff that was gonna have everyone looking at me while I was getting worse.
And at a certain point, I felt like I got a grip on it, because the thing about mental illness is, there’s a difference between actually being doomed and being someone who just reacts to feeling doom, because the fact that it wasn’t going away and may never go away … well, it probably will never go away. I know how to handle that. But it’s not the same thing as it actually killing me, and at some point I realized it wasn’t killing me, it was just very hard to live with. But when I realized that, I felt like I could talk about it.
DURITZ: It’s also weird because it’s not like you get strep throat, where the doctor’s gonna give you an antibiotic. You break your leg, they’re gonna set your leg and they’re gonna fix it for you. There’s no one who can get in between you and mental illness. Even all the treatment is medical. The drugs are mostly drugs for something else that had a side effect that had to do with mental illness, but they tend to have a million side effects as well, so it’s very unpleasant.
To me, it’s closer to a disability than anything else. It’s more like losing a leg or going blind, because those things are permanent and you have to learn to live with them. They’re horrible, but people learn to live with being blind. They learn to live with losing a leg. And I think in a lot of ways, we don’t think of it that way, but mental illness might be a little closer to a disability, because it’s more permanent than most things that we face in life.