Charles Sykes / Invision / AP
Saturday, Aug. 9, 2014 | 2 a.m.
Counting Crows A Long December
Counting Crows lead singer Adam Duritz isn’t shy about revealing the inspiration behind his most famous songs. But ask him about his band’s first original material in six years, and he becomes noticeably guarded, defensive even.
The forthcoming “Somewhere Under Wonderland” is the Crows’ seventh studio album, their first since the covers record “Underwater Sunshine (Or What We Did on Our Summer Vacation)” in 2012. It’s their wordiest album, too, and perhaps their most ambitious.
With that in mind, you can’t fault Duritz for wanting a grace period between the album’s release and the imminent dissection of songs like “Palisades Park” and “Scarecrow.” If you’re him, you’re still in the process of feeling out these songs each night, the structure changing with every tour stop, the meaning, too.
But if you’re a fan, you want to know — right now — why the faceless muse Maria reappears in “A Prayer for Johnny Appleseed,” why amusement parks and space travel seem to hold particular significance, or why Duritz uses his own name for the first time in his lyrics.
But there’s time yet for that. Between the Crows’ concert with Toad the Wet Sprocket at Mandalay Bay Beach on Sunday and the release of “Wonderland” on Sept. 2, these songs will take on shapes Duritz perhaps never imagined.
Someday, it’ll all coalesce into an easy sound bite, and when he’s asked for the 50th time why this record, with its abundance on proper nouns and a cast of characters real and imaginary, requires multiple listens before it fully reveals itself, he’ll have all the words he needs.
It’s been six years since your last album of original material. Is it as simple as saying writer’s block, or is it more complicated than that?
Well, no, I was writing for the play (“Black Sun,” which Duritz scored, premiered in Ojai, Calif., in 2011). I just didn’t want to write for Counting Crows and the play at the same time. It was too confusing to write for two different things at the same time, so I wrote for the play and we made “Underwater Sunshine.”
The most rewarding albums are the ones that don’t reveal themselves completely right away, that take several listens to really get a feel for. I feel like “Somewhere Under Wonderland” is one of those records.
I don’t know. I’m not looking at it from that side.
But are there albums like that for you that took a while to get inside of, but once you did, they became favorites of yours?
Probably, but I can remember thinking “Pet Sounds” was great the first time I heard it, too. I’m sure there were records that revealed themselves later, like “Let It Be.” That’s an album that wasn’t at all one of my favorite Beatles albums, but I really love it now. But literally every other Beatles album, every other song is in your spine. They’ve been played so many times on so many radio stations, they don’t reveal new things.
They’re almost like a reflex. Some of the stuff on “Let It Be” was like finding a Beatles album you hadn’t found. Songs like “I Dig a Pony” and “Two of Us” weren’t the big hits that some of the other ones were. Everyone listens to records differently. I’m sure there were records that I didn’t get right away. There have to be. There are just so many records.
I think I make that comparison just because the lyrics seem to be so much of a focus. There are a lot of them on this album. There are a lot of different references, some recurring themes. They feel freer, they feel more alive, they feel more rooted in the present than some previous records. Were you consciously trying a different approach with this album? Did the play influence that at all?
Well, I think it did. I don’t think I was consciously doing anything of the sort, but it nonetheless happened. I wrote songs for the play, but I wasn’t writing much for myself. It was very different writing for the play. It was very liberating in a way writing for other voices, for women’s voices, for other characters other than myself. Just putting feelings that I had in the hands of different kinds of people.
I think it’s a combination of the work on the play and the work on “Underwater Sunshine.” Doing a record of other people’s songs is pretty eye-opening, too. I think it had a massive effect on the whole band, in a way that there’s something freeing about them not being my songs, and we didn’t have that responsibility hanging over everybody.
People took more ownership of their own playing when we were recording. They were more invested in the playing. They were more daring in the studio, and that translated into a whole other looseness onstage. We became a much better live band after making “Underwater Sunshine.” It’s like getting to collaborate with all these different people who weren’t there.
I think those two things, the play and the perspective that writing for other characters brought to me, and singing all those songs, and arranging all those songs together for “Underwater Sunshine,” completely informed this record. I don’t think there’s any way this record could’ve been made without both of those things.
Counting Crows' Mr. Jones
Was there a sense with the covers record that, now that you’re incorporating songs by Dylan, Gram Parsons and Big Star into the set, the new, original material had to compete with those in a sense?
No. I don’t think there’s that much conscious thought that goes into writing. You’re thinking about anything in the world but competing with other songs. Other than quality. You’re always competing with your own level of quality but not necessarily with anything else.
I just can’t imagine spending time making a record actually thinking about theoretical things like singles and where the music business is at. I wouldn’t even know how to relate that to writing a song. It’s an emotional, gut thing that you do. I couldn’t put that much theoretical thought into play.
You loosen up playing other people’s songs. You look at the world from a different perspective. There’s different ways of using rhyme, different ways of using metaphor, different ways of using melody or using guitars or pianos. This is the way some other guy and the band he played with approached making their music, and you sync yourself in that for a while and you play those songs over the course of the year, and it definitely opens up your perspective. And that cannot help but inform the work you do after that.
That looseness is one of the best things about the new album. A song like “A Prayer for Johnny Appleseed,” for instance. You bring the character of Maria back in that song. You include your name for the first time on record. Did you have reservations about incorporating either of those in the lyrics of that song?
No. It just seemed like the right thing to say at the time. I tend to use a lot of proper nouns. I’m not sure if I’ve ever used my own before. I tend to use proper nouns a lot — I think identification and details are very good for writing. Cities, places, people. … Specifically, in that song, Maria is the one person who wasn’t a completely real person. She’s an amalgamation of several people and also this idea of what it is that gets me to write music, that gets me to want to do things.
So it’s someone I don’t really know, in that sense. So “I call the wind Maria,” which is also just a play on the old song “I Call the Wind Mariah.” But “I call the wind Maria because I do not know her face” — it’s just something that moves through you, like inspiration, like wind. “The endless sky Amelia because she stays with me from place to place.” That is a real person and someone that you remember throughout your life.
I wanted to move into the live aspect of Counting Crows. A lot of bands, as far as setlists are concerned, like to rock in and rock out. You traditionally have gone with something downtempo to open and then close a show a similar way with “Holiday in Spain.” I’m curious to hear your philosophy about building a setlist.
I don’t know. It changes a lot. We’ve done it that way for the last few years, the arc has started that way. We’ve always ended that way for the most part. It feels right. I’m sure there’s a philosophy behind it. When you write songs, you couldn’t tell someone what they were about the next day. You know what they’re about, but you couldn’t necessarily verbalize it. You can feel it because it’s not something you necessarily translate.
But you can feel what you’re singing. I mean, I know what these songs are about when I’m singing them on the record. I might not be able to do an interview about them now, but you know it. The same thing goes for the set. It just needs to feel right. There’s something about making a setlist — you want it to go through certain arcs. It has to rise and fall in certain ways.
I don’t think it’s a very good idea to play songs that get progressively slower and slower in a row. I don’t think that works. I think faster and faster works great, and then you can drop the bottom out and play something really quiet, and you can build up, but I don’t think you can build down. There are things like that that just feel right, or don’t. But then the thing is, you’ll play them in concert, and they won’t work or they will work. Sometimes I obey the thoughts of these arcs, and sometimes I (expletive) with them just for the hell of it.
The other day we were putting together a set, and we really wanted to play “Scarecrow” because we hadn’t played it in a few days. And I really wanted to play “Sessions,” too, which is a song that was left off “Saturday Nights” (2008’s “Saturday Nights & Sunday Mornings”). It’s a pretty big rock song. I had this sense that they would work really well out of each other. And that would not normally be a good idea because we’re playing a new song and then you’re following it with an unreleased song, so it’s also unfamiliar in its own way to people.
It’s a B-side, it was an outtake from the record. And then I thought because “Sessions” is so big and so rockin’ that we could play “God of Ocean Tides” after that. And that’s a really bad idea. You’ve got essentially three unknown songs in a row: a new song that no one’s heard yet, an outtake and then another new song, the last of which is a really quiet song. But I had this feeling. It just felt like it worked in my head.
Immy (guitarist David Immergluck) and I were putting together the setlist, and he’s like, “I don’t know. I don’t think it’s very good.” I’m like, you know what? I have a feeling this works really well. I can’t tell you why exactly, I just feel like “Sessions” out of “Scarecrow” is kind of awesome, and I think it’ll be great dropping into “God of Ocean Tides.”
And we did it, and it was. It was amazing. I gotta admit, I wasn’t really that sure of it, either. I just had a feeling that it worked. A set is like an instrument, too; you’ve got to play it a certain way. You get rules that work, but you break them every now and then, too, because you just get a feeling.
The second show of this tour, we put “Palisades Park” in the opening slot of the encore. Theoretically, that’s a terrible place to put an 8 1/2-minute-long new song because nobody knows it, and nowadays people aren’t that excited for new material like they used to be. They want to hear what they know. So putting a new song at the top of your encore is a pretty (expletive) idea sometimes. Also, it’s an 8 1/2-minute-long song, so that has all kinds of room for disaster in it.
But it was great, and that was before anyone had even heard “Palisades Park.” Now that they know the song a little bit, it’s incredible there. But it was kind of great from the beginning. We put it in there in the second show of the tour, and we never took it out again. It’s been there the whole time.
It’s ruined “Washington Square” for me. “Washington Square” is one of my all-time favorite songs, and I got to play it every night for a few years there because we put it at the top of the encores, and it was great there. But now “Palisades” is there, and it’s hard to find a place to put “Washington Square,” which is driving me up a wall lately because I really love that song. I’ve never put it in a set in my life until this year, but I’ve been trying to find ways to put it in sets because otherwise we don’t play it.
I think sometimes the top of the set — I don’t know if I ever did this consciously but now that I think about it — it’s a good idea to have an open song at the beginning of your set because it gives your sound guy a chance to get everything dialed in. Even though you’ve had sound check, a room changes drastically when it feels with people because they are sound absorption.
You have a big, empty thing that resonates and then you have a thing full of thousands and thousands of bodies — it’s an entirely different sound. So your sound guy needs to sort that out at the top of a show, which is why often the first few songs for a band sound terrible.
Putting an open song like “Round Here” or “Sullivan Street” at the top is probably great for your soundman, now that I think about it. It makes a lot of sense. I don’t think that I ever thought that consciously or purposely, but now that I think about it, it’s a very sensible thing to do. So maybe that’s how it started at one point. Or maybe that was another gut thing that made sense to do.
Counting Crows and Toad the Wet Sprocket are at Mandalay Bay Beach on Sunday as part of the Beach Concert Series.
Jack Houston is the editor of Las Vegas Magazine, a sister publication of Las Vegas Sun.