Interview: Adam Duritz of Counting Crows talks Bluesfest, songwriting, Josie and The Pussycats and more

American Rock (with influences of Americana, Folk, Blues and Country) group Counting Crows can boast a solid 25 year career. Gaining massive success after their debut album August and Everything which featured their hit single Mr Jones, Counting Crows have released 7 albums, have had songs featured in movies including Clueless, Cruel Intentions, Josie and the Pussycats,  have been nominated for an Oscar for their song Accidentally In Love from the movie Shrek 2 as well as many other milestones and impressive moments in their career.

This year marks the 25th anniversary of Counting Crows forming. Having already embarked on a Anniversary tour, Counting Crows head back to the UK to play the O2 Arena for Bluesfest. The band bring along Alison Krauss and The White Buffallo as support and this gig is not one to be missed. The show takes place on Sunday October 28th and tickets are still available and can be found here.

We caught up with Adam Duritz, lead singer of Counting Crows to discuss Bluesfest and more. As a fan of Counting Crows for a number of years now, I was pretty nervous at first but Adam was such a gentleman and so easy to talk with that I soon relaxed and could have easily have spoken with him for hours. A man of such a high calibre, it is refreshing to know how humble and kind he is.

I hope you enjoy our chat!

Hi Adam – How are you?

Good. Exhausted! We had a crazy week last week. I have this podcast The Underwater Sunshine podcast and we do The Underwater Sunshine Festival, which was this past week. We did the shows at night, we had 18 bands play across two stages over two nights on a Friday and Saturday. On Thursday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday all day at my house, we filmed acoustic sessions with, I think, 40 bands over the four days. It was pretty exhausting, but really cool – and incredible.

That is a good exhausting then?

Yeah, it was one of the best. It is my favourite thing that I do with my life. These festivals that we put on are so cool.

I hope you bring them to the UK eventually?

Oh man, if they can expand to that, that would be amazing.

You will be playing Bluesfest soon as part of your 25 year Anniversary Tour – are you excited about coming back to the UK?

Oh yeah, I really am. It was a big deal the first time that we went overseas and the first place we went to was London. I just felt like the reverse Beatles. It was so incredible landing in London and playing gigs. It was weird because the first night we were there we went to a midnight show in Leicester Square of Backbeat, which had just opened I think. It is about The Beatles in Hamburg when they are young. I have never forgotten that first day. Every time we go back we get a thrill, honestly.

Tell us about putting a tour together. You have a different set list every night, so how do you pick them? I assume with this tour especially, you change it up, because playing 25 years’ worth of material in one night just isn’t possible.

Well, usually if people want us to play something they will tell us, and we will rehearse it at soundcheck and if it is ready, we can work on it that night. We usually have dinner and Immy and I -our guitar player – right after dinner, we sit down and make a set list of whatever we want to play that night. I have worked on a lot of spoken word stuff this year because it is the 25th Anniversary and I wanted to talk to people about the songs. We had a little more structured set list this summer than we had in the past. We still change stuff every night, but because we have this spoken word section before certain songs, it is a little more structured each night. It is kind of just like what we want to play – a lot of songs we love and we just try to get to them.

You just said you like to talk, share the stories before certain songs on this tour. Tell us about yourself as a songwriter? Your lyrics are poetic and wonderfully unusual – have you always written songs, poetry or stories from a young age? Were you creative at school?

Not really! I wrote stories a little bit when I was younger. I really liked to sing but I didn’t see that I could do anything with singing. It was just singing you know? I guess I could have done theatre stuff; I love theatre, but I didn’t really want to do that. It wasn’t until I was 18 years old and I was in the first semester at college that I wrote a song. Literally the moment that I wrote that song, it was like a switch in my head. You know when you are young, you feel so undefined and growing into who you are going to become in your life, what you are going to be – that sort of sense of definition comes sometimes not until your late twenties. But at the age of 18 for me, I wrote that song and it was literally like a light switch flipping on. Before that, I was a kid with a lot of potential but no sense of purpose. I finished that song and I was a songwriter and I knew it, right at that moment. It was like a complete sense of definition. I still didn’t know how that was going to work out, but I was a songwriter from that moment on and it completely changed my life in one afternoon.

That is amazing! The entire band is quite creative too and you do write together?

Well they are usually my songs, but we collaborate a lot. I am completely open to ideas from everybody, so I will have a piece or an idea for a song and with finishing it, I am completely open to anyone’s ideas and I want to credit that. Even if I write the entire song, it is just a skeleton, it is just words and some music and some chords. What turns it into the song that you hear is a collaboration from all of us. There is arranging to do, the dynamics of a song to be set, with seven band members to play. Even if you see a song that is completely credited to me, I can guarantee you the impact of all of them is in there, because everyone has to write their own parts and we help each other out with ideas. There is a lot of collaboration.

You have written a lot of songs for movie soundtracks. You wrote some songs for one of my favourite guilty pleasure movies Josie and the Pussycats. Tell us about that and how that project came to be – and what is the deciding factor for you on what projects to be a part of and what not, especially in film soundtracks?

Well, that one was different from all the others because I usually make someone show me a movie. If they want music by me in the movie, they have got to show me the movie and I have got to love the movie! I wrote a song for a film called Crossing Guard, which actually didn’t end up in it. I wrote for Cruel Intentions, Clueless, The Rounders – but Josie was different.

With Josie, my friend Dave Gibbs was working on that movie and Babyface was the music director. They had about ten people working on it, Kay Hanley from Letters to Cleo, Dave and a couple of protégés of Babyface. They had a lot of people working on it and they didn’t have any songs, they weren’t coming up with anything; it was a problem. I knew this because we all lived together in the same house, Dave and I and a bunch of other musicians. We had been talking about it when Dave had come home from work one day really frustrated. That weekend I sat down and wrote about six or seven songs for that movie to start and then Dave came in and we wrote some more. We finished them and had about ten all together.

We called up the directors who were friends of ours and we asked them to come over to the house and we said to them “I hear you have a problem? I think we have a solution”. We played all the songs for them and they flipped out. They called the music director and he came over to the house and same process. They called the producer and he came over to the house, same process.

But then we kind of ran into a problem because the musicians all had this deal that movie makers do with musicians where they say “We will give all you talented people a chance to work on this but we are going to give you no piece of it, no money, no publishing.” They had a terrible, terrible deal and I said “You’re not doing that deal with me, and you got to change Dave Gibb’s deal too. If we wrote these songs for you, we are not sharing credit with 20 people.” That was a bit of a fight. They didn’t end up using all ten, probably about four or five maybe. I noticed when the film came out that there’s a song I am dead certain that Dave and I wrote ourselves and it has been credited to two other people but, whatever – we gave them the songs.

There is so much money involved and so many executives, that it is worth it more to them to just stick lawyers on you and screw the deal. I was happy doing it for Rachel and Rosario as they were friends of mine. They released a record of it last year and they did a big party out in L.A. Kay Hanley was there and Dave played too.
I still love those songs. The other day, I happened to turn on the tv and whatever cable station it was, they were playing Josie and The Pussycats and it was the final scene when they had the concert and played Spin Around, which is one of ours. It was so great, I was thinking, what a great song and it was exciting.

And have you recorded versions yourself? If so will they ever be out?

No, we were talking about that though. At one point we went over to Babyface’s studio and I did the same thing that we did with the producers. I just got on the keyboard there and laid down all the songs. We wish we could find that recording, so we could hear it because it is just me along on the piano playing all the songs. Some of them, I don’t even know if I remember how they go anymore, I don’t have any recordings. Whatever song book they are in has gone. They were written for fun. It is liberating sometimes to write for someone else.

How do you pick your support acts as at Bluesfest you have the amazing Alison Krauss and the brilliant White Buffalo.

I just look for bands that we like -musicians we think are cool and making music that we like; in this case there were some that were suggested to us. Who doesn’t want to see Alison Krauss? White Buffalo seem really cool to me, too – I didn’t know their music before but I checked it out and I liked them. But I mean Alison Krauss, yeah, I mean sure! I have never seen Alison Krauss in concert, so for me it’s just really cool. You know, I’d like to meet Alison Krauss, she is incredible. She made some records that I really love. She made a record with the Cox Family last year. I love that band, I haven’t seen them in twenty something years. They opened up for us on our first album. They are like a three generation Louisiana-Bluegrass band and I am so excited to pick her brain about how they are, how they are doing these days?

You offer some VIP packages this tour to benefit the Greybird Foundation – tell us a bit about the charity and why it is so important to you.

I find there is so much politics and acrimony involved in a lot of people’s ideas about what is a good thing to help others and what is not. I just want to get people involved with the idea of being involved with their country and their world. One of the biggest problems we have is a sense of helplessness. People feel like they are such a small part of the world that their contribution can’t possibly really mean anything, so they don’t volunteer, they don’t help out, they don’t contribute and they don’t even vote – especially in our country, not voting is a huge problem.

The idea of Greybird was to kind of go to each city and find people who are doing things and are contributing. I wanted to show people that there are people in their community who are doing things, who are making a difference; that there are people who are volunteering at free clinics; that there are people volunteering at aids clinics; that there are people who are setting up women’s shelters and hotlines.

They are doing it because there are people in trouble, people who need help, or they are doing something to save an ecological thing right there in their town. There may be a park fallen to disrepair, there may be a river that is polluted – and people are doing things and they are actually making a difference.

Instead of working with just one big organisation everywhere, I wanted to work with little organisations all over the country, and around the world if we could, and just show people that the smallest acts have consequences – good and bad. It is possible to make a difference. There are people making a difference in ways that you may not like, so it behooves you to participate and make a difference in a way that helps the world.

I encourage people to vote but I don’t tell them how to vote. I don’t think the problem is too many people on the other side, I think the problem is too many people not taking part at all. We live in a democracy that means I am not necessarily right about everything. What democracy means is that we’ve agreed to decide things together and live with it, without revolting every time; that you don’t kill the other side when you win; that you learn to live with it and respect the minority as well; that our constitution protects the minority. We want to have a democracy where the larger group wins but we want to have protections for people who are in the minority.

Greybird is about the idea to get them involved with this country, this world, their town – as it’s something we are all a part of. You can make a difference. I am hoping in subtle ways it has an effect on people and works. We have had testimonials from groups we have worked with and how it has made a difference; how through our concerts they have found sponsors and benefactors who have supported their mission for years and years now. We have been doing this a long time. I didn’t want to get on one side of an issue, I just wanted to find things that are inarguably good ideas to help with.

Well it sounds wonderful and very worthy, I will certainly read up on it more.

Thank you so much. I am so excited to see your show in London.

Can I ask you a quick question?

Sure!

Why is the site called Building Our Own Nashville when you’re in London?

Because that is what we are doing now pretty much. Nashville is Music City and home to not just country music but also a lot of blues, rock , Americana and sub genres as you know. So we, the fans, are building our version of it here – and it just keeps growing and growing. The community is massive now.

That is so cool. That is so cool. Thank you so much for taking the time to talk.

No, thank you!

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