Counting Crows

Melody makers

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By Gary Graff  

Long before their Shrek 2 soundtrack success with the infectious pop hit "Accidentally In Love," Adam Duritz and Counting Crows had proven themselves to be pre-eminent song stylists, offering fans deeply introspective lyrics with earfuls of melodic arrangements that reflect the best of their rock 'n' roll forebears.

Counting Crows are certainly no strangers to the charts -- think "Mr. Jones," "A Long December," "Hanginaround" and "American Girls" for starters, from the Crows' Hard Candy, which features forceful backing vocals by Sheryl Crow. If Duritz and company have their way, all of the group's pop success will only be the beginning of their mainstream onslaught. The dreadlocked singer and songwriter readily acknowledges that melody and focused arrangements are the order of the day for the Crows since the success of Hard Candy, which was produced by Steve Lillywhite with contributions from Ethan Johns and others. Also taking part in the proceedings were Ryan Adams, who co-wrote and performed on the track "Butterfly in Reverse," Adams' girlfriend Leona Naess, and pop master Matthew Sweet. A simple recipe for success? Says Duritz: "I have no idea what makes something a hit. We can only do it, you know?"

Q: Did you make a conscious effort to focus more on melody in your latest releases?

Duritz: Yes, I wanted to write great melodies. That was sort of in my head before we started the album. Every song had to have a great melody. It's not that we didn't have songs with great melodies before. I just don't think I made it a priority. Before it was okay to have a song that just worked as a mood piece, mood settings for lyrical ideas. Now there has to be a great song there, too. There are dark songs, but they had to have the melodies, too. It wasn't okay just to have the lyrics.

Q: You did some early work on the album with Eric Valentine, Smash Mouth's producer?

Duritz: Steve was first. The first two weeks of the record we did two weeks with each producer, Steve, Eric, and Ethan. The time with Steve was really great. We made a lot of progress. The time with Ethan worked out really well, too. With Eric, it didn't work. It's weird, he's such a great producer. He's so good in the studio, but he's really detail-oriented and he's really good at nailing down all the things that make a great pop song. And we're really sort of naturalistic, performance-oriented, so we kind of tried to get the best of both worlds. I felt like a lot of it was our fault, in trying to work under the microscope that Eric works under, we played so leaden. I mean, our playing was so terrible that the tracks were unusable, which is really uncharacteristic of our band, which is normally so lively.

Q: What do you think made Steve Lillywhite the better fit?

I couldn't tell you exactly, but whatever it is, he's great at it. He makes you make great records. He makes it all work in the studio and makes you feel like what you're doing is magic and that you're making a record like those other terrific records he's made. He makes you part of that fraternity of bands. You feel like you're U2, you're Big Country, you're the La's, you're the Pogues, you're Joan Armatrading, you're XTC.

Q: What did you draw on for the lyrics?

Duritz: The last year and a half before we started recording, I kind of spent alone a lot. I didn't really go out at all. I didn't see many people. I didn't date anyone for about a year and a half. I just really kept to myself, and I think that as a result of that, these songs aren't about a lot of stuff that was actually happening to me. They're very much about memories, the way in which you use your memories and your imagination to fill out parts of your life, to make yourself feel all right at times when you really don't, to hold onto things you can't otherwise hold onto. When you can't commit yourself enough to your life to keep hold of something, at the very least you can honor it by remembering it.

Q: How did Sheryl Crow get involved doing vocals on "American Girls"?

Duritz: I was ready to leave that song off the album entirely. I couldn't figure out what was wrong, and (label head) Jimmy Iovine said, "Why don't you ask Sheryl to sing the backgrounds"? So she came into the studio, listened to the song a couple of times, got an idea, sang a harmony note-perfect, doubled it note-perfect, then did the next section. It took her about an hour. I've never seen anything like it in my life. We don't really do a lot of the collaborative thing. Our records are basically us. When people end up on our records, it's generally because they're a friend or they're just stopping by.

Q: You opened for the Who during the first week of their summer tour a few years back, right after (bassist) John Entwistle died. What are your thoughts about bands trying to carry on after experiencing something like that?

I think ballplayers should play ball after their prime. I think people should make records forever, 'cause you know, this isn't about our perception of them. It's not about how you feel about seeing Willie Mays get old or how you feel about the fact that (the Rolling Stones') Voodoo Lounge may or may not be as good as Exile on Main Street. It's people's lives. There's no mandatory retirement in music. As long as someone finds satisfaction in their work, they should keep doing it. If they want to make music, then by all means, man. And if all they want to do is rock our minds live, then more power to them. To be honest with you, if there's a band I think could still do it, it's the Who, because they're still so strong live. There's a passion there. I really felt like it was a gift to do that tour. They're fantastic live, and I've gotten to see that now probably more than anybody else in America!

Q: What's your assessment of the state of the music industry these days?

It's pretty shameful. Their attempt to make what we do "work for hire" is absolutely shameful. They wonder why people feel no guilt whatsoever about free downloading. It's because the artists hate the labels, so why should the consumer care? The only person the consumer could possibly sympathize with would be the artist. The labels are so shortsighted. They couldn't figure out a way to integrate the Internet into what they did, so they just tried to legislate everything against it. Well, good luck! Now they can't figure out why they're losing all this business. Instead of trying to figure out ways to run the business more efficiently or whatever, they just go after the short-term answer, which for them seems to be getting a little more money from the artists. It's so pointless, really.

Gary Graff writes extensively about music. His work has appeared widely in such publications as The New York Times, The Boston Globe, The San Francisco Chronicle, The Detroit Free Press, and Billboard.