We’ve Got A File On You: Adam Duritz

Mark Seliger

We’ve Got A File On You: Adam Duritz

Mark Seliger

We’ve Got A File On You features interviews in which artists share the stories behind the extracurricular activities that dot their careers: acting gigs, guest appearances, random internet ephemera, etc.

Talking to Adam Duritz is like flipping through the most extensive Rolodex you could possibly imagine. Beyond his known romantic dalliances with celebrities like Jennifer Aniston, Courteney Cox, and Emmy Rossum, the 56-year-old Counting Crows frontman has come in contact with a lot of famous faces through his multi-decade career, and he’s clearly not afraid to embrace it. During our hour-long conversation that’s part of a press lead-up to the band’s latest effort, the Butter Miracle Suite One EP (the first in a two-part installment that will be completed this fall as a full-album release), Duritz approached the less-discussed corners of his career with such gusto that there simply wasn’t enough time to go even deeper.

This, as you’ll soon see, didn’t prove to be too much of an issue: Possessing a seemingly natural knack for casual storytelling, Duritz can spin a web of personal history out of recalling a brief cameo in a nature-documentary parody, or even a simple backing vocal contribution to a friend’s song. It makes total sense that he’s also got a podcast, Underwater Sunshine — a largely music-focused effort that started in 2018 with journalist James Campion and has recently returned after a pandemic-related pause. Our conversation touched on that, and other odds and ends from across Duritz’s career.

The Himalayans (1990-1991)

DURITZ: I was still in Counting Crows at the same time as this band — David Bryson and I were playing a lot of acoustic shows and open mics. But my main band was the Himalayans, along with Sordid Humor. I loved being in those two bands. I’d just left my first adult band. There are politics involved with being in every band, but I wasn’t ready for it at the time, and it made me want to quit. The nice thing about the Himalayans is that it was very democratic between four people. I barely wrote any music in that band. I just wrote lyrics. It was a much wilder band in a lot of ways — loud guitars, very psychedelic. It was a lot of fun, I really enjoyed my time in that band. They’re really good guys.

I would’ve been happy in that band forever, but I got back to wanting to write songs myself again. I started to have a vision for a kind of band I wanted to try, and when we got Counting Crows together, it worked really well. Once it was pretty clear that we were getting signed as Counting Crows, it wasn’t possible to do both anymore.

What was the catalyst in your life for inspiring you to pursue music in general?

DURITZ: I didn’t write any songs until I was in college. I wrote my first song during fall term of freshman year. That was really life-changing. The hardest part of becoming an adult is a lack of a sense of definition. You don’t know who you are as a kid. You’re on other people’s schedules, you’re being told what to be. All you know is the opposition — “I wish no one would tell me what to do.” But I always really loved music. I was a good singer, but what are you going to do with that? Be in musicals? That’s not where the culture was when I was a kid. So when I wrote that first song, it was a lightbulb going on in my head. It was disorienting. I played it back for myself, and I thought, “I’m a songwriter.” The rest of my life went from there. I wrote every day in a way that I don’t do now. I’d lock myself in a room with a piano and skip class just to write songs. I felt a sense of knowing who I was from that moment on when all of my friends didn’t. I fell behind again when we all got out of college and I was washing dishes or working construction to support myself while all of them got jobs, but in that moment I knew who I was, and it was just a matter of figuring out how the hell to live with that afterwards.

Filling In For Van Morrison At The Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame (1993)

DURITZ: We were in the middle of recording our first record, and we’d gone home for a few weeks off before we came back to put some guitar and mandolin stuff on it. I’d only been home for a few days, and I got a phone call from our A&R guy saying, “Robbie Robertson called me up. Van Morrison is about to get inducted into the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame, but he’s not coming. They were thinking of having Tom Petty And The Heartbreakers come in and play a Van Morrison song, but Robbie recommended you. How would you feel?” I told him I’d think about it and call him back, and two minutes later he calls me back and says, “Are you out of your fuckin’ mind? You don’t think about it — you do it.”

It was Sunday afternoon, the show was Tuesday, and rehearsal was the next day, so we had to get back down to LA and figure out which song to do. My dad gave us a ride to the airport, and we stopped at Tower Records to pick up a bunch of Van Morrison cassettes so we could figure out which fuckin’ song to play. We decided on “Caravan” on the plane. We worked out a version in an apartment in the Oakwoods we got for that night, and then we drove down to the Valley the next day to the rehearsal space.

As we were in the parking lot, I heard the Doors’ “Roadhouse Blues” being played inside, and I thought, “Wow, that sounds like a really good version of that song — just like the Doors.” When we walked in, it was the Doors, with Eddie Vedder singing. We can see Jack Bruce, Eric Clapton, Robbie Robertson, and Don Was around the room just watching, and as I waved to Robbie I saw Bruce Springsteen standing with him too. It was a pretty heavy room. Clapton grabbed his guitar, but he couldn’t remember the riff to “Sunshine Of Your Love,” so Jack Bruce had to remind him how it went. In the ’90s, you could take Eric Clapton for granted, so when he played that riff I was like, “Right, that’s Slow Hand, of course.”

We were shooting hoops with Eddie Vedder for a bit, and then we go back in and Robbie’s like, “Do you want to do an arrangement with all of us?” The house band was Don Was, Jim Keltner, Benmont Tench, Robbie on guitar, maybe Springsteen. I wasn’t thinking, but I didn’t want to be a problem, so I said, “Nah, we can do it ourselves.” I didn’t mean to sound arrogant at all! I just didn’t want to be a hassle for anybody. But there was total silence, and everyone just laughed at me. I started apologizing, and Robbie was like, “Nah, I get it. Why don’t you play it and we’ll see if it works.” We played it and Robbie said, “That’s actually pretty good. What if Benmont comes in on the second verse too?” We played it again with him and it sounded good. To this day I think we’re still the only unknowns who played the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame, so I understand why they were thinking [we might want to play with the house band].

We hung out for a little while longer. Cream was supposed to rehearse an hour before us, but Ginger Baker hadn’t shown up yet. Classic Ginger Baker! It felt like reliving rock history. We watched them for a while and then we took off because we had to be there early the next day. It’s Hollywood stuff, so they do soundcheck at 8AM. We get there and the room is even heavier. There’s Springsteen’s band, John Fogerty’s there, Ruth Brown is there with Bonnie Raitt, who I actually knew through a friend. k.d. lang was there because she was inducting Etta James.

George Clinton was there because he was inducting Sly, so a bunch of the guys in the Family Stone are there too. It was a crazy crowd that we had to now soundcheck in front of while they sat at banquet tables, relaxing and waiting for their turn. We soundchecked and all of them came up to us afterwards and said it sounded good. When we played that night, the first autograph I was asked for in my life was from George Clinton, because we were sitting at a table together. I said, “No, you’re gonna have to give me yours first, because this is too weird.”

What I remember most about the performance itself is that I was wearing this hat called a mambo sock and a big heavy jacket. I wasn’t really used to performing that much yet, and I felt more comfortable in big jackets. When we started playing, I threw my head forward and the mambo sock came flying off my head. I caught it and put it back on, but I didn’t get it on right, so it hit sideways. Every time I moved, it started falling off my head. I should’ve just taken the fuckin’ thing off and threw it on the floor, but instead the entirety of the song is this hat migrating on top of my head as I’m trying to play this song for all of the most famous people in the world. And we’re killing it! It’s a great version of the song. But I get really lost when I play, especially back then, so this fuckin’ hat is just migrating around on my head the entire performance.

We finish and everyone’s cheering, and I walk offstage. Some of those bigger stages are really deep — they have multiple curtains off to the sides, and the wings are really dark so it’s hard to see back there. As we come off the stage, it’s pitch-dark back there, and I trip on a cable or something. I fell, and I thought, “I’m about to get hurt.” Instead, I landed on this big, soft, pillowy cushion. I can’t see because it’s dark, and as my eyes adjust to the light and I push up out of these cushions, I realize I’ve fallen face down into Etta James’ breasts. She was sitting in a chair because they were next, and I just pitched face-first into her chest. I push my face out of them, and Etta James — her face, it’s so beautiful — just goes, “Y’all alright, honey?” I just go, “Uh, yeah,” and I hear this other voice standing behind her chair. It’s k.d. lang, and she goes, “Are you sure you’re okay?” I got up and walked away. No one saw, but it was the most bizarre thing.

Afterwards, Cream played, and I thought, “Wow, I’m the first person in my generation to see Cream.” They’d been disbanded for 20 years! It was awesome. The whole night was really cool. I was glad it happened then, because I don’t really know what the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame means to me anymore. After a while, you realize that all that awards show crap… I don’t know who decides who wins awards, but they’re not suited to do so. After a while, they don’t seem to have as much of value, but back then they did. After a little bit, I stopped going to most award shows because they seemed silly.

Singing Backing Vocals On The Wallflowers’ “6th Avenue Heartache” (1996)

DURITZ: I’m not someone who tries to do collaborations, but I’ve sung on a ton of stuff because I love singing on friends’ records. When I first started working as a musician, I was doing a lot of backing vocals for Bryson’s studio. Jake [Jakob Dylan] was a friend of mine, and when I was working at the Viper Room all those years, he was another Viper Room denizen. Their first record hadn’t done well, they got dropped by their label, and they got signed to Virgin, but he had some really good songs. I said, “I think you just need the right producer for this — someone who can help you find out who you’re supposed to be.” I suggested T-Bone Burnett because he was really great for us. There’s a reason he does a lot of “first records” for bands. Being a producer can be an unquantifiable thing. How do you help a band learn how to be themselves? T-Bone’s really good for that.

They ended up doing the record for T-Bone, and eventually it was either him or the Wallflowers’ manager Andy Slater who called me up and said, “We have this song we really like, it’s just sitting really flat right now. It needs something. Can you come down tonight?” I lived up in the Canyons, so I just drove down to the studio in the Valley, got a beer, and they played me the song. I asked them to play it again, I grabbed another beer, and then I sang it once or twice. We listened to it, and I left. It was really easy. I heard it and I knew what to do right away. Sometimes you just nail it. Singing background vocals isn’t about you — it’s about them. How do you make their thing work? You’re just another instrument. You want to find a way to support what they’re doing. Sometimes you find something that’s good for you, but you overdo it and it distracts from them.

With “6th Avenue Heartache,” that’s a killer background vocal because it supports the song in such a good way. I found a way to make all the dynamics work. We could all hear it right away — the song became Technicolor. I was really proud of it because it was my friend’s record, and it ended up being the single that helped their career. [Jakob] had a hard time. There’s a lot of expectations that come with being Bob Dylan’s son. It’s really tough, and their first album was met with a yawn. But Bringing Down The Horse is a great record, and that single put the world in the right place to hear “One Headlight” — the same way “Mr. Jones” put the world in the right place to hear “Round Here,” which was the record that made us stars.

Contributing To The Josie And The Pussycats Soundtrack (2001)

DURITZ: The movie’s become kind of a kitsch icon thing. A lot of my best friends are songwriters — specifically my friend Dave Gibbs, who’s in the band Gigolo Aunts. He was living in my house at that point, and he got involved in the project and it was kind of a mess. Babyface was running the music, but they’d brought all these people in a room together — including some of his protégés — trying to write stuff, and they weren’t getting anywhere. They had Kay Hanley from Letters To Cleo there, too. Really good songwriters who were just stuck. It was disheartening, too, because you knew that everything would get divided by nine. It was chaos.

I knew the directors of the film too, and I was thinking about it one weekend and I started writing songs for Josie And The Pussycats on a whim. I had three or four of them, and I called Dave and said, “Come on up here, I’m on a fuckin’ jag up here.” We wrote 10 songs that weekend, called up the directors, and said, “I know you’re struggling but we have ten songs. Come over.” We played them all the songs in my bedroom, and they called up the music supervisor, and eventually I offered to write all the songs in the movie for them. They used three or four of them.

Sometimes working with movies can be kind of a hassle. I love the idea of writing for films — of being like Simon And Garfunkel for The Graduate, participatory in a way that really helps a movie. But [Counting Crows] have also had complete creative control from the beginning with no interference at all. Movies have so many more layers of money and executives, and lawyers to sic on you. It can be a really disheartening experience for musicians, because you’re at the bottom of the barrel at times.

We gave them a bunch of songs, and it got to be a huge argument because they had this writers’ room and they wanted all of them to be included on the songs. I said, “Forget it. This is me and Dave Gibbs.” Eventually they gave in. There’s some songs on there that have nine writers on them that I know are just me and Dave, but it doesn’t matter. It was fun to have the songs on there, and I was good friends with Rachel Leigh Cook at the time, so I was happy because everyone was worried when they didn’t have songs. It got them off to a good start, and they got the rest of the songs after that.

I don’t remember seeing the movie when it came out, though. It became such a big legal fight with lawyers getting sicced on us that I got kind of fed up with the thing after a while. We’d get the contract, send it back, and say “These three things are problems,” which our lawyers would write up. Then we’d send it back, and it’d get back to us with those three things fixed but they changed three other things. It cost us $20,000 in legal bills to make $9,000 for the movie. I did see the movie later, I remember thinking it was kind of dopey. About 10 or 15 years ago I was clicking around on cable and I watched the last half of it, and when it got to the end of the movie they did the big concert scene where they played my song “Spin Around.” It was such a cool feeling, seeing Rachel up there playing with Kay Hanley’s voice coming out. When I finally heard the soundtrack, I thought some of the songs were really good.

Performing At The Oscars For “Accidentally In Love” (2005)

You said before that you stopped going to award shows, but you attended and performed at the Oscars when you were nominated here.

DURITZ: It was great. That’s the one exception I’d make. It seemed really cool to win an Oscar. I’ve still never gone to the Grammys. I went to the MTV Awards once when we weren’t nominated because I wanted to see R.E.M. I went to the Tonys, which I thought was really fun. The rest of it didn’t really mean much to me, but the Academy Awards seemed really cool. I thought about my parents being able to put the Oscar on their mantle. Also, you get all the free movies. It’s not a big deal now because everything’s streaming, but it was really cool to have all the movies in your home.

I had mixed feelings about going at the time, because I thought they were really shitty to [the other nominees]. We were the only people that got to perform their song. For everyone else, they brought other people to do it for them, which I thought sort of sucked. It was more about putting on a show than honoring anybody. The guy who won was a Mexican singer-songwriter, and they had Antonio Banderas and Carlos Santana do it. And I love Carlos — we’ve toured with him, he’s the nicest guy in the world — but it would’ve meant a lot more if that guy got to do it himself. It made me really sympathize for him, even though he beat us.

But being there was fun. We got to go to all the parties and we got all that free shit. It was kind of a hassle at times, because music’s always the lesser cousin. There’s seven members in our band, and we had to argue a long time just to get everyone to be able to come. They wanted us to play, but they didn’t want to give everyone seats. I said, “No, I’m not doing it unless you let the band be there.” We had to fight for the band because we weren’t as important. But I had a blast, except for losing — which I thought sucked. Who wants to lose? I spent my whole life blowing off award shows, and I finally go to one and I lose.

For what it’s worth, it’s a great song.

DURITZ: I love the song. When they asked me if I wanted to work on [Shrek 2], I was like, “Absolutely.” That shit is timeless. Those really good animated films for children are eternal. The chance to be part of something like Shrek, where your contribution goes on in a way where nothing else does… I’m really proud to be part of that movie.

Farce Of The Penguins (2007)

I’ll confess that I forgot this movie existed until I was doing research. It’s a weird artifact from the 2000s.

DURITZ: It’s just Bob. I’ve known Bob Saget since I started out. My goddaughter’s godmother — my godwife, I guess — is Lori Laughlin, so all the Full House cast members — Mary Kate and Ashley — would come to the shows. Me and Bob were drinking buddies, we’d run into each other in LA. Comedy is the highest form of performance art, to me. None of the things the rest of us do compare to that. Standup is the most daring of all artforms. A lot of those guys — him, Jeff Ross — are good friends of mine.

So Bob called me up and said, “Hey, do you wanna be in this movie?” I said “Sure,” and he said, “Think about which penguin you want to be.” I thought, “I know just what to do.” He wanted me to sing “A Long December,” and my idea was to say, “Doesn’t anybody want to fuck the singer?” afterwards. So the penguin walks off into the distance by himself, I sing “A Long December,” and then I drop that line. Bob’s still a very close friend. I love that guy. Saget is one of the best guys on Earth, about as good as they come. It’s hard to find a truer friend.

Underwater Sunshine Podcast (2018-Present)

DURITZ: When I started in the music business, there were so many walls between you and your fans. You could only communicate through the press, or TV or radio. You don’t have any chance to connect directly. Right after I moved to LA in January of ’95, I realized AOL had all these message boards for fans. I thought, “What if I went on as myself and communicated directly with people?” I started doing it back then, and it was so powerful to talk to them. When Twitter and MySpace came around, it was obvious how useful they were for the idea of being able to connect directly.

The podcast itself came about because I’d done a number of interviews over the years with James Campion, a journalist. After one of those interviews he said to me, “We always have such good and long conversations. We should work on a book sometime.” A couple of years later I called him up and said, “Hey, let’s try it,” and we’d meet up every Friday for a year and talk for three or four hours. We’re still working on the book now. But after a year of that, I called him up and said, “There’s way too much for us to use in one book. I don’t even know if that’s how people digest media these days. We should do a podcast.” So we started doing it.

I have a lot of friends in the film business, and all they want to do is talk about how this movie and that movie were shit. But musicians love music, and they just want to shove the latest shit they’ve been listening to down your throat. We’re all geeks that way. We’d all be doing it anyways, and the podcast was a great chance to just talk about music. We had to stop during the pandemic, 98 episodes in, but I really love it. It’s been hard not doing it — I used cooking to replace it. But I’m going to sit around and geek out about music anyway, so I might as well be doing it in a form that people can listen to.

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