The Counting Crows are an interesting paradox; they have enjoyed tremendous commercial success, just reading the name Counting Crows made their megahits “Mr. Jones” and “Round Here” pop into your head, didn’t it? They have the fiercely passionate fanbase of a hometown favorite (a website where fans trade live bootlegs of the band’s shows has well over 5,000 members) and one of the main reasons for the rock band’s longevity can be chalked up to their authenticity. The Counting Crows have always done everything on their own terms. When they were first discovered, they found themselves in the midst of a huge label bidding war. The band passed on ridiculously huge sums in favor of a smaller advance that offered something with no monetary value: maintaining complete creative control.
The Counting Crows continue to exercise their freedom with Underwater Sunshine (Or What We Did On Our Summer Vacation), their first independent release since leaving Geffen Records in 2009. Another first for the band is the album’s content—Underwater Sunshine contains no original Crows material; rather, it showcases the band’s talent at putting their own spin on some of their favorite songs. Lead singer Adam Duritz spoke at length about the process of recording Underwater Sunshine, his “raw” life, and their summer tour.
When recording the covers, Duritz says “there was something that was completely liberating about not doing my songs. I found that I really didn’t even want to. And also we really wanted to make this record. It’s kind of as simple as that. Sometimes you just don’t feel like being everybody’s confessor. I didn’t really want to talk about my life right then to everybody. I don’t know why.”
Removing the pressure of writing new material may have been a blessing for the singer, who was detoxing from powerful prescription medication during recording. Duritz has spoken openly about his struggles with dissociative disorder in the past and, until recently, was taking several different medications to control it. Last year, his doctors reached the decision to take him off of the drugs; however, coming off them caused serious side effects.
“I was in the worst parts of coming off the meds when we were making this record. I was visibly shaken during the second recording session,” he says. He details the experience in the album’s liner notes, writing that he could be heard vibrating around the room, especially on “Hospital”, originally recorded by Coby Brown.
The side effects have since dissipated, and Duritz describes his current state as “a pretty raw life right now. It’s very unprotected, the difference being on all those meds and not is like the difference between being unable to hear anything and [then suddenly] having everyone in the world talk to you at once. I mean, you can’t make out anything anybody is fucking saying in either case, but it’s probably better to be able to hear than not and right now it’s a little bit like the whole world screaming all the time. But I think that’s better than being deaf; I just have to figure out how to sort it out, I guess.”
Having a major project like Underwater Sunshine to focus on was a huge help during his recovery. There were endless choices to make; deciding which songs to try arranging; choosing which ones to actually record; and, finally, picking which songs made it onto the album. Duritz originally wanted it to have as many as 20 songs, but “we just didn’t end up with 20 songs that worked. We’re really trying to come up with our own versions of these things, and that means that sometimes you just take the wrong take on the song. I mean, some of them were just terrible; it was very easy to leave them off the record.”
The songs that made the cut created an album which beautifully blend a diverse array of artists; you’ll find freshmen band The Romany Rye (“Untitled (Love Song)”); needs-no-introduction Bob Dylan (“You Ain’t Goin Nowhere”); and the pre-Crows project Tender Mercies (“Mercy”). While Pure Prairie League’s “Amie” was chosen because it’s “a great song to sing”, the track “Ballad of El Goodoo” by Big Star has a more personal back story.
Duritz says Big Star “had a huge effect on me when I started writing”. Over the years he had developed a casual friendship with the late singer Alex Chilton, although he regrets the shyness that stopped the two of them from becoming closer.
“I guess it bothers [me] more because I could have had a different kind of friendship. I had a friendship with him, but not the kind I would have liked to have had. It would have been easy because [Alex] was so nice to me.”
Duritz is quick to clarify that the song’s inclusion on the album was not eulogistic but reverencing: “Like all the songs on the record, it’s just a great song. And like all the other Big Star songs, it’s a great song. I just happen to love it and I love singing it and I love our version of it.”
The Counting Crows are currently headlining The Outlaw Roadshow Tour in support of Underwater Sunshine. Duritz urges fans to come as early as possible to see what promises to be an amazing show.
“We’re going to rotate the [supporting] bands. No one has to be the band that no one sees every night or the band that everyone sees every night. When we do the road shows, we don’t always put the biggest bands last or in the middle, we want to make sure we start off the shows really well,” says Duritz.
The band was also very conscientious of choosing places that weren’t “the same old cookie cutter venues that everybody goes to. We really handpicked every venue. We wanted venues that were a little bit more fun to play and also maybe also a little more fun for an audience, because we want people to be coming out early and checking out all these bands. I thought it was really important to find the right kinds of venues where people, I thought, would be more into. Most of the venues on this tour are places we’ve never played before or they’re places we love [to play].”
While the supporting bands and venues have been carefully cultivated, don’t expect the Crows’ set list to be a calculated collection of their greatest hits; Duritz believes doing so would put the band in danger of becoming bored, which could lead to the inexcusable disaster of a bad show:
“The thing I think is really important to do onstage every night is want to be there, and you should play your ass off every night and you should put everything you can into it. So, if I’m tired of playing something, I’m not going to play it, because I think that’s going to make a bad show. What really got us here was making sure we were very committed to doing everything we were doing every night. And you owe [the fans] that, because they paid for their tickets. You don’t owe them songs, but you do owe them a quality performance, and I think the best way to do that is to make sure that you’re fully invested in everything you’re doing. And as near as I can tell, that’s what’s kept us working for 20 years is that we still give a shit. We’re not bored up there and we’re not phoning it in. We’re really gone when we’re on stage and it’s a good thing. Nobody gets ripped off at one of our concerts.”
Get ready to trade some awesome concert bootlegs.
by Dana Giusti