Counting Crows frontman Adam Duritz sounds really happy. And considering a song catalog that’s poetically chronicled how his mental illness informs his view of the world, the 49-year-old’s enthusiasm is nearly palpable for every minute of our almost hour-long conversation. “Sometimes, the shit going on in my head is so bizarre you have to laugh at it,” he says at one point. “It's not going to kill me in the end.”
Durtiz is talking about the creative process behind “Elvis Went To Hollywood,” a song off Counting Crows’ forthcoming LP, Somewhere Under Wonderland, due this fall via Capitol Records. The band’s first album of new material since 2008’s Saturday Nights & Sunday Mornings finds Durtitz exploring new songwriting techniques that rely less on first person observations on life as a crazy man, and more on subtly inserting his ideas into lyrics that touch on anything from Jack Johnson’s 1910 knock-out of Jim Jefferies to aliens flying over the Hollywood Hills.
Durtitz, who admitted to feeling more comfortable on stage than he does living day-to-day life, doesn’t hint any at social anxiety during our chat and it might be thanks to the a band he says is playing better than ever before. He sounds like an excited kid when he discusses the breakneck speed of recording the nine-track album, and he’s chomping at the bit to share the music on an upcoming 37-date summer tour that kicks off in Tampa on Wed., June 11, at the Straz Center for Performing Arts, where fans will help the band toast to almost two decades of music making. “I feel pretty good because we're 20 some odd years into this and everything's in better shape than ever,” he commented at the end of our chat. “We never really stopped doing anything but the world has kind of come around where it all seems like it’s gonna be alright. You don’t usually get another chance like that.”
CL: This is your first new album since 2007. What got you writing again?
I’ve never really stopped writing. But I’ve been working on a play and I didn’t want to work on two different things at the same time.
Adam Duritz: That’s why we made [2012 covers album] Underwater Sunshine. We were playing all these gigs and we were touring and wanted to record still. We’ve been wanting to do an album interpreting other people's’ songs, so we did that instead. But we never really stopped playing, we were touring the whole time. Especially after Underwater Sunshine, those were the best tours after that. The last couple years have been spectacular onstage. With the band having gotten so much better, that really made me want to record some new stuff.
You open the tour in Tampa. Do you anticipate feeling any nervousness as you take this yet-to-be-released album on the road?
I don’t think I’ve really been nervous before shows, even before Counting Crows. It’s been a long time since I felt anything like that. The stage has always been a refuge. I’m more comfortable at a gig than the rest of the day – I have a lot more nervousness about dealing with shit the rest of the day than I do dealing with anything onstage. It’s always been a place where it seemed to me that everything was okay, where everything was alright.
How are you dealing with your mental illness these days, and what’s your relationship with yourself like?
I don’t know if this stuff is ever gonna go away, but I’m okay. The fact is that it’s not gonna kill me. It sounds like an overly dramatic statement, but the stuff that happens in your head is fucking terrifying, and it seems like you can’t survive it, but after a while you realize that you can — and you do.
When I was younger I always hoped this stuff would kind of work out just by getting better, and figuring out how to be. It hasn’t happened that way, and I still kind of hope it does sometimes but the more likely scenario is it won’t. I’m not scared all the time. I’ve been through some stuff that was terrifying, and I’ve survived it and I’m still here. I took some years where I didn’t wanna talk about myself or write about myself, so I wrote about some other stuff.
That’s kind of why we did Saturday Mornings. When you have a mental disability or mental illness and you write about it over a series of records, people not only judge the content, but they judge the story line because they want the stories to have an arc, as if life really works the way that movies do, like books do, and plays do. Like you’re gonna go to the bottom, and then come back up, and you’re gonna recover. So there’s an arc to these stories and I wasn’t sure that my life was following that kind of arc.
I didn’t want to write impersonal songs. I think I found a really good way on this record since about every song I’ve ever written before is about how I feel about things. And I think the songs on this album really are, but they’re not all first person. They’re stories about other things, but they’re really revealing about how I feel. It took me a while to adjust to how to do that because I was so used to writing first person, confessional shit that it was hard to switch over and try to write about something different, express my feelings.
I mean it’s ridiculous that people insist on it, but they do insist your plot arc to go somewhere. I don’t know how many times I’ve read reviews that went something like “he’s depressed on this album, depressed on the next album, depressed again...where’s it going?” It’s like ‘whoa, judge the songs, but don’t tell the poor guy how his life should be,’ because I’m sure he wished he was better too, you know? I think it was a Lou Reed album that the guy was ripping on.
And that made the approach to this new record different?
We were so good on stage the last couple years. It was great playing covers and playing our own songs, expressing ourselves and the band was so in tune with each other. By the time we finished at the end of last August I was so excited about recording with the band. I just needed songs. The way I used to work, I’d finish all my songs in one sitting. It could be a 45-minute sitting with “Rain King” or it could be an eight-and-a-half hour sitting with “Ms. Potter Lullaby,” but they were always in one sitting.
If I didn’t finish a song it was because I thought it was because it wasn’t good so I’d throw it out. A few years ago while I was working on the play for a while I started to realize I wasn’t finishing anything, and that didn’t seem like a good thing to do. So I started like taking really careful notes about everything and trying to record every idea that I came up with. I’d sing it to my phone, record it or write it down, just document everything so I wasn’t losing things just because I wasn’t finishing them. I felt like I was purposely not finishing things.
Yeah, when you’re crazy a lot of shit happens that you cause without you realizing it and it seemed like I was making a choice on some level that I wasn’t aware of, where I wasn’t finishing songs. So I started documenting everything and I had all these pieces in my phone and I was pretty excited about it. I wanted to get everything out of my phone and notes and see that they really were all of these songs.
So I asked Millard (Powers, bass) to come to New York when tour was ending and have him hang. Dan (Vickrey, guitar) came and Imme (David Immergluck, guitar) came, and we sat here and went through all these pieces and found all these songs. I just started pouring stuff out. It was helpful to have the guys here because I didn’t understand these they way I’ve understood my other songs. I didn’t think they were good at first. They were so different from the other stuff I’d written before, so I just didn’t get it. But then they just started to come, and we just loved them. I came out with a verse and chorus and they’d flip out so I’d be like ‘oh okay’ and go lock myself in the back again and they’d be out here playing guitar and piano in the living room and I would come out into the living room and show them what I had and they’d be like, ‘holy shit.”
How long did it all take?
The bulk of the album was written in this one week, where we just ripped through all these great songs. You know, we did a lot of the groundwork already because a lot of the stuff was already in my phone. I had all these pieces of songs, we just hadn’t worked on them very much. I was really careful, if I really liked something then I wouldn’t just let it get lost. Literally that second meeting was kind of crazy – it’s a nine-song record and five of them were written in a week.
Where did you record them?
We did them all at Fantasy in Berkeley (California) where we did Saturday Mornings. It’s a great old studio in Berkeley basically built on the proceeds from all the Creedence records. They gave it to us for nothing. Cheaper than anywhere else that’s as big. There are seven of us, but we like to work on songs together. We’ll break down and play separately at times but we really like to start with all of us playing, developing songs as a whole band. We need a big room to do that. It was a lot less expensive since we were doing this on our own without a record label.
What made you finally accept these songs as okay?
When I didn't like them at first, I just didn't understand them. I mean they felt very creative but very different.
I talked with one of my friends who is a songwriter, and we were listening to the songs. At first I thought they were less personal and he said, “no they're way more personal.” I was like “what do you mean?” And he said, “I feel like you've been writing this epic tragedy for the last 20 years about being crazy and how it’s fucked up your life ... I love your records and there are great songs but that's not all you are. You are crazy, you are funny, but knowing you as a friend there's more to you than just that.”
And that’s in these new songs. They are these emotional big tragedies, the stories of being inside your fucking head, but it’s great to see that there's dumb jokes, there's aliens, there's all kinds of shit going on. I'm realizing that in a lot of ways being crazy sucks most of the time — it's generally better not to be. But sometimes the shit going on in my head is so bizarre you have to laugh at it — it's not going to kill me in the end.
How did the crazy manifest itself exactly this time?
I have to laugh at some of the stupid shit in my head. There's a song on the record called “Elvis Went to Hollywood.” People always talk about the decline of Western civilization or whatever. I think Elvis going to Hollywood was one of those points. So this is where my crazy head comes in and takes the thought of the decline of Western civilization and thought ‘what if it wasn't just the artsy fartsy thing?’. What if there were Aliens coming over the mountains and burned everything down? What if there were much more severe consequences?’ So I wrote a song about the decline of Western civilization that also involves aliens.
“Elvis Went to Hollywood” is actually one of the most emotional beautiful songs ever I’ve written before, and yet it's got all this other ridiculous stuff in it. I was never able to write that kind of thing before.
What about some of the other songs on the album?
The first song on the album is called “Palisades Park.” It's about the best thing I've written in my life. It's an epic story of two kids from New York in the late ‘70s and their lives Basin Park. It's about taking a look at your life and trying to figure out how you got here when you were there. It’s also about Reno in 1910 and the story of Jack Johnson knocking out Jim Jefferies, who ends up lying on the ground looking at the sky thinking he's not sure how this happened, how am I here? I was there. It starts as a story about that, then changes to be about these kids and their lives and how they changed. It's the best thing I've ever written, very heartfelt. I'm not a character in the story at all really. Well I kind of am cause a scene is from one of my perspectives, but I was never really able to write that way before.
How’d you remove yourself?
I think I didn't judge it a certain way. I didn't try to make it as emotionally manipulative. As a result I think I found a bigger range. I think I wasn't just set on telling stories about “these are the horrible things that happened to me.” I was telling bigger stories, and I still got to talk about how I feel so I really love this record — it's amazing to me.
SHOW DETAILS: Counting Crows with Toad The Wet Sprocket, Wed., June 11, 7 p.m., Carol Morsani Hall at Straz Center for the Performing Arts, Tampa, $56.50-$105 ($250 VIP), strazcenter.org. Click here for tickets.