Photo: Mark Seliger
Adam Duritz On Counting Crows' New EP 'Butter Miracle, Suite One' & Finally Catching A Break From The Critics
Adam Duritz just made crawfish bread and the responses are bowling him over. In a recent episode of his cooking show—which has all but subsumed Counting Crows' Instagram account—Duritz gave a notoriously finicky New Orleans dish the old college try. The base elements are relatively simple—spices, veggies, crawfish—but to make it come out as anything but a pizza or a calzone is a Sisyphean ordeal.
"It's near-impossible to recreate," he tells GRAMMY.com over Zoom from his home in New York City. "I'm on the verge of getting it."
The crawfish bread feels metaphorical for the GRAMMY-nominated band themselves. These days, some may not view them as toothsome as Cajun cuisine. But early on, the slightly mystical rock band with an eccentric leader was almost universally acclaimed. ("We couldn't buy a bad review," Duritz says.) But as he admits, a mix of factors—from tabloid drama to radio omnipresence to an increasingly poppy sound—undermined Counting Crows' image. That they had arguably never made a bad album was powerless against a thousand Shrek 2 jokes.
But as Counting Crows' new EP, Butter Miracle, Suite One, out May 21, wafts in, so does the true essence of the band, one unfairly obfuscated by snickers for too long. The suite's four songs—"Tall Grass," "Elevator Boots," "Angel of 14th Street," and "Bobby and the Rat Kings"—are plugged into their bulletproof inspirations, from Big Star to the Small Faces; Duritz is as emotive and poetic and beautifully skewed as ever.
When the rest of the band kicks into gear, it feels like a self-evident argument for Counting Crows as a great American rock band—one that just made a big circle back to the artistic terrain of 1999's This Desert Life. And, Duritz says, the world is coming back around to them after years of being viewed as—in his words—"a joke." "I think the public must love us because it's been almost 30 years," he concludes. "The average rock career doesn't even exist."
GRAMMY.com caught up with Adam Duritz to discuss the long road to Butter Miracle, Suite One and the sometimes fraught dynamic between his band and the public.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
It's commendable that you spent the pandemic not feeling sorry for yourself but flexing a new muscle in your brain.
I get really anxious about that sort of thing. When you write songs and play music, there's a lot of your life where it's not easy. It's not an easy thing to feel like you're really going to do it [for the rest of] your life. There were a lot of years where I was struggling in the clubs where it was like: I don't have a future.
I got a job, but I'm doing construction or landscaping. I'm washing dishes. Or there's some stretch of time where I don't have a job. It was 10 years in the clubs for me of an uncertain future and not being sure what's happening and feeling like a bum. To this day, coming out of a matinee at a movie theater into the sunlight gives me anxiety because it reminds me of a time where I didn't have much going on.
We took 2019 off. That was our year off of touring. Then, we were going to tour in 2020, and you know what happened. There were points during this year where it just felt like I'm back where I don't have a job. Which freaks me out a little bit. I know it's free-floating anxiety because I do have a job and I'll be fine anyway. But this whole last year and a half definitely made me feel anxious about not working at all.
You know, that app, Cameo? I started doing those because I was like, "I can't sit around and not do anything. I need to earn some money so I feel like I have a job. I've got to do it because it's driving me crazy."
There was a point when I was writing and recording it where it felt like that. I was so excited about making this suite. Once I started writing it and got the idea for what I could do, I was champing at the bit to get in, record it and put it out. I wanted everyone to hear it.
Then we ran into a pandemic when we were 85% done with the record. In the last couple of days in the studio, we were going to take two weeks off and then bring the other two guitar players in, because they hadn't played on it yet. We were going to finish up their stuff, mix it and be done.
This was the first week in March. We were sitting there watching the news in the studio [and saying] "Uh, this doesn't look good. At all." Sure enough, right when we hit that break was right when the quarantine came down. It wasn't until July that we finished.
To zoom out, I feel like the story of Butter Miracle, Suite One begins in the years after 2014's Somewhere Under Wonderland. What was going on with the band in that long stretch of time between albums?
Well ... we toured a lot. We were working. There's always a few years after we put out a record, but in that case, we did it for another three or four years, maybe. Up until 2019, because we had been working probably for a decade straight. Which, of course, was bad timing for a vacation.
I started spending a lot of time over in England. My friend has this farm in the West. It's kind of in the middle of nowhere. There's no one around. Sometimes, my friend was there with his family. Sometimes, my girlfriend was there. But other times, I was alone. It was just me and their dogs and the horses and whatever wildlife there was, which is a s**tload. Miles and miles of hill and dale.
I hadn't wanted to write for a while and I found myself wanting to, so I rented a keyboard in London and got a friend to drive it down one weekend. I started playing it because I was by myself and I started writing. The weird thing about dissociation is that I don't retain things. I actually forget how to play the piano if I don't play all the time. Every time I start a record, I generally have to learn to play the piano again. It's not automatic.
That song ["Tall Grass"] starts out very simple, I think because that was all I could play at the time. And it opens up into a much more melodic thing, but when I finished it and played the whole song through, seeing how it felt, I was just vamping at the end, playing those two chords back and forth and singing, "I don't know why/I don't know why."
I switched to those two chords and it felt good there. I sang this line off the top of my head [croons] "Bobby was a kid from 'round the town." I said, "Oh, that's great. That's a whole different feel. That's not an extension of this song. That's a different song. I should work on that." I started, and then it occurred to me: "I can write a series of songs where the end of one is the beginning of the next. They can be different songs, but they can flow just like that."
When I finished that song, I did it again. I got really caught up in how cool that could—that idea of a four-song suite, or a series of four-song suites. I got really excited and inspired. Really inspired. It was the first time I wanted to create like that in a little while.
Was writing tricky for you in the preceding years?
Not tricky. I just didn't really feel like doing it. It wasn't that it was hard; I just didn't want to. I love the creative process. It's hard, but it's satisfying. Making records is even harder and even more satisfying. All of it I really love. It's not always the same when you put it out.
Everything up to that point is just you. You and your band. You and your group of people you always work with. It's nothing but your desire to create. When you put it out in the world, there's all this other stuff that comes back. A lot of other people's takes on it. Their criticism of it. Their insinuations to the negative about what it's about. This idea that you're pulling the wool over people's eyes. The weird relationship between artists and critics can sometimes be so antagonistic.
And there's a lot of s**t that goes with it that I don't like as much when it involves the rest of the world. I like making it, but I don't necessarily always like sharing it. At times in my life, the concept of writing and making art and putting it out there has seemed like the route to all my dreams coming true, and other times, it seems like just asking for trouble.
But also, I think music has been so central and important in my life that I didn't think other things were important at all. Happiness didn't seem at all central like leaving a mark did. But I think in recent years, I also got more into getting my life together. Being happier, maybe. Just learning to live a little more rewarding life than just killing myself to create.
Adam Duritz performing in 1993. Photo: Steve Eichner/WireImage
How would you describe the dynamic between Counting Crows and the public?
It comes and it goes. There were times when we were everyone's idea of the bright new thing. We were great and everybody thought we were great. We couldn't buy a bad review. And there were years when I think we were completely dismissed and thought of as sort of a joke.
Then it comes back, and people seem to think you're good again and respected again. But you've got to learn that other people's take on you can only be so important. It's so variable. You can have a front row at a concert and it's all you can see, and they don't give a s**t. They're just f**king around and talking to each other and they're bored. But does that mean you should be pissed off and not play a good show? Because there are 10,000 people behind them you can't see. You don't want to be dependent on that front row ... You start to learn after a while that it's not worth investing too much in everybody's response.
It's really important that you be inspired and play great and that you want to be there and that you give it your all. You really need to be good for everybody. You can't see everybody. You don't know if they love you or don't love you. It's only so important how everybody takes it, but it does get to be a downer at times. But I think the public must love us because it's been almost 30 years, and the average rock career doesn't exist. The average rock career never even happens. It's a very, very, very tiny percentage of people that get signed, an even smaller percentage that actually put a record out.
My view is that you guys are a great American rock band, full stop. Maybe the only true artistic successor to Van Morrison. But you said there was a point where people may have viewed the band as a joke. Why do you think that was?
Because you annoy the s**t out of people when you're really successful. On the very simplest level, having massive success on the radio means they will play you every hour. And that will annoy the f**k out of people!
After a while, it's like, "I don't want to hear the same s**t in my car every day." They're not trying to sustain your career. It's the radio's business to play what people want to hear so they get advertising dollars. So, yeah. Too much success doesn't really breed more of it all the time.
The other thing is that music's different from other art forms. It's like our personal cool. [points to Love's Forever Changes album art on his T-shirt] We literally wear it on our shirts. It's the soundtrack to all our memories and moments in our lives.
It's really important to how we feel about ourselves. It's natural to love discovering something and feel like it's yours. You're one of the few who understands something. It's a whole other matter a year later when you have to share that band you love with that a**hole at the water cooler who loves the worst f***ing s**t! He's always playing something you hate, and now he likes your band, too.
At that point, it's not as appetizing to you. That's just human nature. Success breeds some backlash. Very few bands go through life without it. Someone like R.E.M., who has six indie records, that builds that slowly—that's like Teflon. Radiohead. Nobody's really sitting around thinking they're just boring and s***ty. We might not want to buy the record because we think it's too Radiohead, but we're not dismissing them.
There were years where we just didn't have reviews of live shows or records. They were like, "Here's Adam whining again while he's f***ing famous chicks." That just became the narrative. Then it kind of cleans itself up and rehabilitates itself ... Nobody goes 30 years and stays beloved. It's impossible.
I think you guys belong to a class of artists everyone's made up their minds about before actually listening. Randy Newman. Jethro Tull. Steely Dan. The Eagles. But when I sense that there's prejudice toward an artist for no good reason, that makes me love and defend them.
I read a lot of articles from people who like our band that begin, "Bear with me. I think Counting Crows is brilliant. I know, I know. But let me explain." They're apologizing at times. This lets me know that at least, at some point, someone told them [we weren't] cool.
I think that goes around. There was a long period of time where people had made their minds up about us. I don't know how that is now. I can't tell. I certainly read a lot more open-minded reviews and responses to things. There were years when we couldn't get that. We get a lot of writers putting a lot of thought into what they think about us. Whether they like us or don't like us, or they think it's a good or bad record, it's not about some tabloid thing. It's about the music. That's come around for us in a lot of ways, which is a relief.
Yeah. It was a Greater Swiss Mountain Dog and a Rottweiler!