After seeing the announcement that the first Counting Crows album in over four years was a covers album, the reaction around the web was somewhat tempered. A covers album is something that mainstream rock acts are supposed to put out to bide time between records. It’s not something that a band with a ridiculous amount of credibility, like Counting Crows, would do. Once people really went through the set list of what was included on the band’s new album, Underwater Sunshine (Or What We Did On Our Summer Vacation), things clicked. This isn’t “The Joker” being covered for the ten thousandth time; these songs are Counting Crows recreations of great music that hasn’t been discovered by as many people as it should.
Adam Duritz of Counting Crows explained in an interview with Alternative Addiction, the very simple reason why the band wanted to do a covers album instead of a traditional Counting Crows album. “Just because we wanted to, really. I think there’s a lot to be said for just doing what you want. Not because you’re lazy but because it’s what you want to do. The inspiration that goes into something that you really feel like doing is there. We wanted to do it because we felt like it was a good idea. We’ve kind of tried to do that our whole career. We’ve never thought a lot about schedules or record company business or what we’re supposed to do. We’ve made the records we wanted to make.”
Wanting to make a covers album is one thing, but bringing together a bunch of songs that the masses haven’t heard is different. It wasn’t a conscience effort to bring a group of somewhat unknown songs to record, it just kind of happened according to Duritz.
“It’s definitely a music geek’s covers album,” said Duritz. “Now that I look at it, it’s exactly what I’d expect from us. We just didn’t realize it when we started doing it. All we wanted to do was pick really good songs. We’ve always liked the idea of introducing people to cool songs. Some of them weren’t going to be well known which is why we wanted to introduce them to people. We didn’t really think of it consciously when we started the record but I’m really happy with it actually.”
Discussing a song on the album, the Counting Crows’ vocalist provided some terrific insight on how the album was made. Duritz told the story of the Travis song, “Coming Around” and how the band worked on it. It’s a song that he knew and loved, but not necessarily a song that the rest of the band was familiar with.
“I sprung “Coming Around” on everybody the second day of recording because the first day was terrible,” he said on the early days of recording the album. “We spent the whole day recording songs we supposedly knew and sucked. We got absolutely nothing and blew Dan’s voice out and almost blew my voice out. I was trying to figure out a way to clean the palette up. I woke up early that morning and had this idea. I sent an .mp3 to Immy, one of our guitar players, and Miller, our bass player. I just said 'Listen to this song, write the chords down and learn the structure and then stop listening to it. Go to the studio and teach the other guys, and don’t play it for anybody else then I’ll come in as soon as I can and we’ll get to this song.' I just felt like if we did it that way everybody would be starting from scratch and we wouldn’t have any preconceptions about whether we should be playing it well or not. Then everything we came up with would be our own invention. It was a good way to give everybody a fresh start after a s_____ first day. Some of the songs we’ve known for years and some I just sprung on the band like that.”
Underwater Sunshine was recorded in 2011 in April and June. Since then Duritz and the rest of the group have gradually finished the album and put in play a plan of publicity and promotion surrounding it. That doesn’t mean that the Counting Crows frontman had a boring 2011, he also kept busy as a playwright, co-writing Black Sun with the critically acclaimed Stephen Belber.
“I’d never done that sort of thing before,” said Duritz of his foray into the theatre. It’s really unfinished though; we only presented the first act. But it went over really well, people kind of flipped out. I’ve never seen other people sing my songs before. I’ve never written and then watched other people sing. It was cool for me. Also I’ve never written for other voices and I’ve never written for women. It was really cool because of the kind of singers they were, we could make it really challenging. I really liked the writing and then watching somebody else singing it. Everything I did last year increased the range of what I got to express because having other people sing the songs really opened up the range of the kind of things that I could express in my writing. And by the same token, singing other people’s songs myself really opened up the range of what I got to express in my singing. In both ways, it was kind of liberating for everyone. “
“It was liberating for everyone in the band too. A big part of what you do isn’t writing. Most of what you do isn’t writing. I can come up with the skeleton of the song and then the whole band, including me, turns that chord and those words into a song. That’s a lot of work. That’s the same thing that we did on this album, I just didn’t write these songs. Which is kind of great because it’s such a big part of what you do is the interpretation. And the fact that you have to limit your whole career to one writer…. I don’t know… I’m just sick of limiting. It was really nice to play others peoples music and to explore other kinds of syntax, other kinds of wording, other sorts of melodies or rhythms that I wouldn’t normally write. There’s so many things to explore musically that we’re totally capable of doing, but that I wouldn’t normally write. As a musician I really got off on that.”
Working on the play was an amazing experience for Duritz as a song writer and an artist. The time he took to work on it did come into play when deciding to make a covers album instead of the normal Counting Crows record. He’s a fantastic song writer, and he probably could have pulled it off, but writing songs for two completely different things would have been extremely difficult.
“Because I was working on the play the part of my mind that was concentrating on writing was going to that. It was hard to think about writing for two things at once. Rather than try to write for two things at once or not make a record, we really wanted to make this covers album so we just did. That way I got to work on the play and write for that and we got to make a record at the same time. We just didn’t want to write songs and record them right then. The nice thing about the play is that I’m not doing the singing. I just kind of didn’t want to empty my guts for everybody right then. Songwriting is a weird thing to do. ‘This is how I feel s___.’ I just didn’t want to do it. I just wasn’t in the mood. I would say, it’s more because I wanted to do this more than I didn’t want to do that. It worked out really well because it would have been hard to write two albums at once. And writing for the play took up a lot of my time.”
The past few years have been out of routine for Counting Crows and their fans. In 2011 Duritz focused on writing for the theatre and making the covers album. The two years before that, they put together the Traveling Circus and Medicine Ball Tour with acts like Augustana and NOTAR. All of this time they focused on creative things but the next traditional album still hasn’t been made yet. When asked about the past year shaping the sounds of the next record, Duritz focused on Underwater Sunshine, and rightfully so.
“I never really think in the future like that. I’m not a big planner. I kind of see the individual experiences for what they are. My friends keep calling me and telling me how enjoyable this record is. I say, ‘Cool, thanks man.’ Then they say, ‘No I’m really ENJOYING it,’ really accentuating that word. I just want to smack ‘em and say, ‘Okay man, I got it. This is what happens when you take me out of the mix. F___ you.’ [laughs.] To be honest, I agree, I’m enjoying this record. As far as what it shapes, I think we’ve always tried to do whatever we’ve felt like doing and thought we’d make the best possible music by doing that and exploring wherever it took us. This is sort of one more expression of that. It’s nice to hit this independent spot in our career, which I’m so thrilled about.”
This is the first Counting Crows release as an independent band since parting ways with Geffen Records years ago. Looking back at the label days and looking forward, independence won’t change what music the band puts out.
“It doesn’t change anything creatively because we’ve had creative control before our first album, said Duritz. “That was part of the deal with Geffen. We signed with them after a bidding war, we could have signed anywhere we wanted to. We went with Geffen because they were willing to trade the money away for higher royalties and full creative control. We didn’t get almost any money as an advance from our first record but we got high royalties which is good because we ended up selling a lot of records. We also got complete creative control before we hit it big. That made all the difference in the world from the very beginning for us to be the band we are.”
What does change for The Counting Crows with their new found freedom is how they’ll promote the album. It’s something that Adam might have been looking forward to for almost two decades.
“I moved to L.A. in 1995 and I remember early on when I moved into a house down there, I discovered that AOL had a message board that was like a forum for Counting Crows. I started writing our fans on there and it really opened my eyes up to like, ‘Wow, this is really crazy. It’s a total direct conduit to everyone… for free.’ This was 1995, this was a long time ago. I was so excited about this whole internet thing that I went to the guys at the record company, ‘There’s a million things you can do here you can get straight to people on the internet, and this is amazing.’ They of course went ‘Internet bad. Everything else that costs us enormous amounts of money good.’ It didn’t get any better once Napster came along. That was pretty depressing to realize at that point that I was signed to a contract with a bunch of people who didn’t grasp the internet….a long, long, time ago.”
“I just kept writing on it all the time, but now we can stream things. Instead of putting out a song to radio we put up a six song streaming player up online everywhere we wanted to, and gave six songs to radio and that went really well. Last week we gave a streaming player with the entire record to a bunch of sites, (including Alternative Addiction.) That was really cool, it enabled everybody to hear the record. I kind of feel like we’re not trying to pull the wool over anyone’s eyes. Here’s the record, if you like it, buy it. If you don’t like it, don’t. I don’t want to try and trick them into buying it, I want them to stick around for a long time. If you don’t like this one, you’ll like the next one. These are all things the record companies don’t allow and I think they’re really good things. The independent route has been great for that.”
Underwater Sunshine is available as of today. Duritz and Counting Crows will be hitting the road to support the album for a short tour this spring, then they’ll traveling on a longer summer tour later on. To see dates for all of the shows, you can visit: http://www.countingcrows.com/events.