That’s the end thought from Counting Crows frontman Adam Duritz in reply to a question about the prospects for a new album from the band, which would be their first studio album of new material since Saturday Nights and Sunday Mornings in 2008.
Underwater Sunshine, the latest release from the Counting Crows is not the new studio album that many fans might have been waiting for, but it is something that Duritz and the band view as a “new Counting Crows album.” If you look past the fact that it is on paper, a covers album, you’ll discover in listening to it that in fact, it is not a “covers album” in the traditional sense.
It does play like a new Counting Crows album, with covers of songs that you probably haven’t heard by Dawes, Kasey Anderson and The Romany Rye mixed in with some songs that you might have heard, along with a few that you definitely know. And for the most part, the band succeeds in making each of the songs sound like Counting Crows songs. In short, put aside your preconceived notions and give Underwater Sunshine a good listen.
The press release for the album describes it as “a testament of a band geek-obsessed with music.” Certainly, that comes through in talking with Duritz, who peppers our conversation with mentions of various bands that he’s excited about (and he continued to share additional bands in emails after the fact), including the bands featured on this summer’s Outlaw Roadshow tour, a trek curated by Duritz and blogger Ryan Spaulding.
Our interview was lengthy, so I’ll present it in a couple of installments for your enjoyment. Believe it or not, for everything we talked about, there was plenty that we didn’t get to. But I feel like we covered some good ground.
One of the things that really impressed me about Underwater Sunshine is the good energy and vibe that you captured with these new recordings, something that reminds me a lot of the feeling behind the first two albums. I know that you recorded a lot of this new material live in the studio and it just feels very alive.
Well I think, it’s our records since the first album that sound alive to me. It’s the first album that sounds kind of produced [to me]. We weren’t very good at being a band yet on that record and it feels slicker. Two months of production is a lot slicker than anything we did after that. It’s like we went for much more live sounding things after the first album. But yeah, I know what you mean though. Like all of our records, it is recorded with all of us in the room together.
I guess a better way to put it - which is not to say that I haven’t liked the other albums, because I really liked the Saturday Nights album for example - but I really hear the enthusiasm behind this material in the recordings.
Well that, I mean, the Saturday Nights record, I’m losing my mind during the first half of it, I mean seriously losing my mind during that half of it. I don’t know if any of us thought we’d make another record after that. It’s not an enthusiastic record, for sure. The second half, I was pulling myself together, but I was still a bit of a mess. That was a bleak album. What it’s about, it just wasn’t very much fun to live through it. This one was a lot different. I don’t know if it's fun, I mean, we’re always kicking each other’s ass around the studio. We played really well though - I really like it.
I was really excited after hearing the Saturday Nights and Sunday Mornings record, the way that album wraps up with “Come Around.” I was going “man, I can’t wait to see where they’re going to go with the next record after hearing that record.” So although perhaps my enthusiasm wasn’t in place when I first heard about this covers album, after I heard it, I had a very similar reaction - I was equally stoked to hear the studio album that’s going to come out of this experience. As the songwriter, what sort of songs and directional thoughts are in place for the next album?
If I had songs in place, we’d make the record. I haven’t been interested in really doing it. I’ve been writing plenty, but not for Counting Crows. I’ve written a lot for the play, the theater piece that we’re working on. That’s another reason we did the covers album, because it was really hard for me to think about writing for two things at once and I was much more interested in writing for the theater piece than I was for writing a Counting Crows record.
I’ve enjoyed writing that stuff and I kind of want to get back to it after this. I feel like I’ve put it aside - I did it right in the middle of all of this and then I put it aside, because I wanted to be able to make a Counting Crows record and we’ve been wanting to do this record for a while, so it was perfect. It really made it so we didn’t have to take a break, just so I could do the other thing.
You know, records come when they come. I don’t really think about them too much or plan for them too much, because I don’t think you really need to. There’s no real schedule - you’re just kind of living your life. So you should express it however you feel at the moment. We can always make records and I’m sure we will. But I don’t know, I mean, I don’t have any plans - but I never have plans for making records - it just happens. It can be me writing a couple of songs and we’ll go right in and start recording. It doesn’t need a lot of advance planning, we have all of the equipment, you know?
The truth is, I shouldn’t say that we did no planning, because a lot of the time that we spent in the studio for this album was sort of research, looking at different kind of rooms that we could use, because we have our own studio basically. We’ve made all of the records in houses and that’s kind of our way of keeping a working studio open all of the time for us. We sort of halfway did it for this album, because we didn’t really find exactly what we wanted room-wise, so we spent a little more time, just to get in the studio and record. But you know, we’ve spent this whole year looking for an ideal place in L.A. or Berkeley.
We looked at a place at one point that had a big barn that had rooms in it. We still continue to do that. Dave Bryson came up to me a few nights ago when we were in Utica. He had been looking at a couple of places and he found a space in Berkeley that might be really good, so he was talking about that. The truth is, that I tend to write when I have a place to put things. I’ve spent a lot of the past couple of years honestly going through these drug withdrawals. Although that’s a story in and of itself, I’m not sure I feel like writing that story after after just coming out of writing all of that Saturday Nights shit.
But I didn’t have a lot of life during that period, because I was shaking. I was either working....I mean, I did work a lot during that period. We made the record and I worked on the theater piece in the midst of the worst of the drug withdrawals, but I can’t tell you that I’ve lived much of a life in the last year. There’s not much to write about except for me sitting in my room and I did a lot of that with Saturday Nights and Sunday Mornings and I don’t want to write about that again.
It’s funny though, one of the things that I realize with Saturday Nights also, it’s not just that people expect you to write good material, but they have a plot in mind for you too. It’s like they want to write the plotline for your life. It’s like if you hadn’t gotten healthy soon, it’s like “alright, [you're] talking about the same thing again.” It’s like when you have a first album that’s really big and you write a second album about dealing with fame, everybody complains about that.
What are you supposed to write about? It’s your life - that’s what you’re living at that moment. You can criticize the quality of someone’s work, but don’t sit and criticize the plotline, because I mean, that’s just life. That always cracks me up when it comes up. I think after writing the last album and having the second half be about trying to get better, I’m not supposed to be better in the plot. And quite honestly, it didn’t work that way. And Sunday Mornings wasn’t really about getting better, it was about trying to get better and mostly not succeeding, which is still better than getting worse.
Well, you had some beautiful songs that wound up on the second half of that album, so I guess for everything that you go through, if you can come away with that, you’re leaving with something.
Oh absolutely. I really love the album in some ways. There’s not a lot of fun on it to listen to, but I’m really proud of it. It was not easy to make that record, for a variety of reasons for me and the whole band too. It wasn’t easy to work with me when I was losing my mind. I was doing my best to focus but I was narcoleptic and it was difficult. You know, it’s funny, when I was doing the initial interviews for this album, one of the things that occurred to me was God, I could stay and do....and obviously I’m not going to do this because I’m not going to make any publishing money.
But you can record other people’s songs if you did them the right way, because I know what people mean - a lot of covers albums are just like karaoke albums. They’re purposefully put out there to maybe get on the radio, reminding people of a couple of famous songs they know and here’s us doing the song. Look at us playing the song you already know you love. They are kind of an easy out that way, especially if you don’t really do them well. We didn’t intentionally make this the most obscure covers album ever, but it certainly is.
We’re not going to make a karaoke album. It’s just not going to happen. If we make covers albums, the same with Counting Crows albums, it’s going to take a lot of concentration and if the songs don’t live up to it, we’re going to throw them out. We really weren’t interested in having a karaoke session with America and the world on this album. I mean, I wouldn’t allow them. There’s only a few songs on this album that I think people would know and they aren’t on that radio thing we sent out, because I didn’t allow them to go on it.
Because I wanted people to listen to this album...you know, I wanted people to put the album and hear “Untitled (Love Song)” right at the top and I wanted you to hear a Counting Crows record, because that’s what this is. You know, you get it, for all of the best intentions of your managers or agents or whoever, if you give them “Ooh La La,” they will take “Ooh La La” to radio. They’ll talk all they want about this album being so much not like a covers album that people will think of it as a Counting Crows album and take it as originals, because the songs really are originals in the way they are played....and then they will take “Ooh La La” straight to radio.
But we did not allow it, we did not allow “Ooh La La” or “Amie to go to radio, because I wanted people to get a chance to listen to this album for the work we put into it. There’s a reason “Untitled (Love Song)” is at the top of the record. It’s a really good album opener. We wanted people to hear the work we put into this record and not their memories of a Faces album. I’d say we probably lost ourselves a lot of radio adds thinking like that, but you know, [there’s] better things. You at least, listened to this album for what it really is and liked it.
Absolutely. That’s what struck me, is that it hangs together really well as a Counting Crows album, especially considering the scattered diversity when you look at the artist lineup on paper, that these songs were sourced from. I can imagine that you might have laid down more songs than the 15 that we’re hearing on this album. Are there any good examples of that which missed making it onto the final album for one reason or another?
Oh, it’s always the same reasons, but yeah, there are. The reason is because they suck - our versions, not the originals. Well this isn’t because it sucks, but “Local Boy In The Photograph,” by Stereophonics, that’s just because we didn’t finish it. That probably would have made it - that was really cool, we just didn’t get it done. You know, we only had like two sessions, we were only in the studio for about two weeks total.
We did a week-long session and a 10 day session, but with all of the studio breakdowns we went through, I’d say it was about 13 or 14 days in the studio, maybe. So we didn’t finish it, but that was actually really cool, I thought it was a very interesting take on that song. What else? “You Might Think,” the Cars song, I did a version of that for the All My Bloody Valentines record I made last year and it’s really cool on that record. It’s a very original take on the song and I thought, “well it’s such an original take, we should see how it works in a band version.” Well, the band version sucks. It sucked so bad that I started laughing in the middle of the second verse. I started laughing and said “turn off the tape, we’re not using this, it’s terrible.” It was so horrible and boring, I don’t know how to describe it - it was terrible.
Was it uptempo or downtempo?
It was exactly like the version I played, but with a full band on it. So kind of, I guess it was an uptempo song. It ended up being really light. There’s a version of “Mr. Universe” by James Maddock that Immy [Counting Crows multi-instrumentalist David Immergluck] brought in. I really like that song - we just did a terrible version of it. It was really boring and pretty bland. Although the interesting one really is “It’s Different For Girls” by Joe Jackson. We came up with this idea....I had heard a bootleg version of it - it was a real famous song when I was younger although it’s not one I’m sure people remember now. I found a live version of it that was really cool and we based our version off the structure of that. It’s such a great song and it was great to play and we loved it.
I mean, it was so much fun to play that song and we really loved it. We had a great time and I could not wait to get in my car with it. We finished work on it that day and listened to it on the drive home. We got in the car and drove [home] listening to it and I stopped about five minutes later when it was over and I played it again and I thought “what’s wrong with it?” I could not figure it out. It sounded great and I did not like it. It sounded great and I could not have been less impressed. I mean, I went in the next day to work on it and I went “okay, what’s the problem with ‘It’s Different For Girls’” and someone went “oh my God, that was amazing, I love it [and] listened to it all night.” It’s like okay, it’s so much fun to listen to it, but yeah, I do not like it [and] I do not know what the problem is. I did think it sounded great, it did sound like fun and I did not like it and I could not figure out why.
And that stretched on for months, because everybody loved it. The guy mixing it was Brian Deck and Brian was in Chicago and I was in New York over Christmas when we were doing it and I forgot to tell him that I didn’t want to use the song. Because I’d already decided without telling anybody in the band that I wasn’t going to use it. And that was going to cause a huge argument, because people loved it, I mean, our managers, everybody loved it. I forgot to tell Brian about that and he just mixed it one day. He had a first mix and sent it to me and he told me what it was and I said “okay, well yeah, let me just hear it.” I thought maybe he would have fixed whatever problem it was in the mix, he was very, very good about stuff like that. I listened to it and had the same reaction again - it sounded awesome, but I did not like it. I did not want it on the record.
I called Brian up and I said “look, I’ve got to talk to you about something. I have a problem here. I don’t get what it is, but I have a problem with this song. I think it sounds awesome, everybody thinks it sounds awesome, but I don’t like it. I don’t really want it on the record and I don’t know why.” And he said “Oh, I know why, I can tell you right now - it sounds like a cover.” I said “what do you mean?” He said “it all sounds like you guys are having a lot of fun playing a great song, but it doesn’t sound like you, it doesn’t sound like you’ve really made it your own. It’s the only thing I’ve heard on the record so far that just doesn’t sound like you’re owning it. It sounds like you’re singing a song, a little like karaoke.”
And I realized kind of what the problem was with it, because it’s a really fun song to play, but it’s a very sad song and I was having such a good time singing it that I forgot about how sad it is, you know? I took the wrong path on the song and the band is very sensitive to where I am. I mean, they listen to me very, very closely, even if it’s not in an intellectual way, they just get it and they follow me when I’m singing stuff. It’s part of why we’re really good as a band, because we do that. I was having a great time singing one of my all-time favorite songs and I was really excited about it being on our record because I thought it was probably a song that people forgot and it would be a real gem on the record. All of that doesn’t add up to what “It’s Different For Girls” is about. When I used to listen to that song when I was young, when you’re sad and bummed out about a girl, you listen to songs that really make you feel something....
It’s got a lot of that in it and it didn’t have any of that in our version, because I was having too good of a time singing it and everybody had a blast playing it and then it lost all of its emotional weight. And as good as it sounded - I mean, it sounded great - that’s not what that song is supposed to be like. It just didn’t have any emotional resonance for me except for “wow, this is really a great song!” Which is again, not really the emotion it is supposed to have in it. And then hearing Brian say that, that’s when I realized I just took the wrong path on the song. I just covered it and everybody went along with it. It’s got nothing to it.
Right then, we didn’t bother mixing it any further than that, because that was it. That’s a cardinal, cardinal sin - that’s worse than sucking in a way, I just didn’t realize it. I don’t know if that sounds asinine or anything, because people loved this version. I mean, they were not happy when that was off the record. I think they understand now kind of, but that’s not something that thrilled anybody. But that’s a cardinal sin and that’s why it’s off the record. But that’s also why I think this record works, because we didn’t keep stuff like that and we never do. Which I think is what kind of makes a career work in a way. It doesn’t seem like a short-term good thing. In the long-term, it’s really served us well being strict about things like that. If you don’t hear the emotional weight you’re supposed to carry, well then what are you there for at all, really?
One of my favorite tracks on this album is the version of ‘Like Teenage Gravity’ and it was interesting to read the story of what a challenge it was recording the track. Knowing that, I think that’s a big part of why it works, because you can almost hear the frustration in the recording and it gives it that right vibe.
Well, have you heard the original?
It’s gorgeous. That is a great, great song. You can see listening to it why we would fall for it. That’s a trap with shit like that. Because everything that’s awesome about that song, we were going to have to jettison to play it [differently], or else copy his version exactly. When somebody does something really stripped down, it’s really hard to cover that, because what are you going to do with it? You know what one of my favorite songs of all time has always been and there’s no way it would ever go on this album? Graham Parker’s “You Can’t Be Too Strong” off Squeezing Out Sparks. You know that song?
That’s a great song. That’s just guitar and a little keyboard and it’s great that way. But how are you going to cover it? What are you going to do that really needs to be done at all? Nothing. I don’t know what to do with it. And this one, I didn’t even think of it until we started playing and I realized “oh Christ - we’re murdering this song.” We could not figure out what to do and everybody was just at wit’s end.
And no one came in with any ideas either, which is what pissed me off. Because I feel like sometimes they just wait for me to show them what to do. No one came in with any ideas and I was fucking not in good shape anyways. You know, trembling, having very bad tremors from withdrawals and it was a rough week that week. I was just so pissed off at them for just like coming in and standing around each other. But you know, I’m not always the most patient person but it’s okay. I mean, it’s just about music, it’s nothing personal - everybody gets that.
But yeah, I guess [with “Like Teenage Gravity"], Jim started playing that drum thing and then Dan was sort of dicking around, he was doing this thing and it was very off-key. I think he might have been tuning up or something, with the amp on. But I stopped him and went in the room and I’m like you need to go to this note, like halfway through the intro when he goes to that very dissonant note. I was like “do that thing and then go to this note.” And he’s like “man, that sounds horrible” and I’m like “yeah, I know, but I think it would be cool though. As long as you get to that note at the beginning of the second time around, it will be really cool. You’ll know where to go from there, trust me.”
And then we just got it. I mean, considering how fucking sick I felt during the second sessions, I had the most complete arrangement ideas pop into my head, full-blown. “Hospital,” I mean, I had this idea for “Hospital” which just had all of those drop-ins and drop-outs with the guitars and drums. I don’t know, I just got it in my head. And on this one too, I had this idea about “we’re going to go completely electric on the first verse and then all of the electric instruments go away and it goes to acoustic. From like electric guitar and organ to acoustic guitar and piano and it worked really well - it was really cool. And then the guys picked it up from me - I mean, we’re really good.
Give an idea like that to our band and people will find cool things to do. Considering that there’s seven of us there, people have a really good sense of where to get in and out. Of how to find just the end of the other person’s phrase to trail in after. You can hear it, especially in the latter parts of the song before the solo parts, when the whole band is in there, dropping in and out, like Dan’s starting a guitar line and Charlie being right there, following it with an organ, or the other way around.
There’s one of those [moments] right before the last chorus, the break between that sort of bridge section, going into the last chorus. It’s the split-second hesitation between when the organ and the guitars come back in. It’s really cool. There’s a lot of that on this record, just really telepathic playing. You can hear it on that song and especially on “All My Failures,” that might be the best we’ve ever played as a band. I’m not sure we’ve ever quite played with the level of communication that we do on that song. I mean, it’s just like, as a band, I’ve never been more proud of those guys.
Listening to it, their sensitivity to each other and especially the way that Dan [Vickrey] on acoustic guitar, Immy on electric and then Jim [Bogios] and Millard [Powers] in the rhythm section chase each other around through that song, like reacting to everything each of them does, it just blows me away what they accomplished on that. That’s the most like The Band I think we’ve ever sounded [on that song] - it’s really cool.
Stay tuned for the second part of our conversation with Adam, where we talk some more about the album and also dig into his thoughts about being a music fan and making albums vs. releasing EPs and single tracks. There's more musical/industry discussion beyond that, plus some chatter regarding this summer's Outlaw Roadshow tour.