Adam Duritz talks covers as Counting Crows come to Anaheim
When it came time for Counting Crows' Adam Duritz to hunker down and write new music last year, he just couldn't clear his head.
Hard at work on his first play at the time, the 48-year-old frontman says he soon discovered that juggling both creative tasks was too demanding. So when there was a break from composing music for his yet-to-be-finished production, Duritz and the rest of the band – guitarists David Bryson, Dan Vickrey and David Immergluck, bassist Millard Powers, keys player Charles Gillingham and drummer Jim Bogios – decided to decamp to the studio and quickly cut an album of cover songs, rather than belabor over a proper follow-up to 2008's Saturday Nights & Sunday Mornings.
"It had been something that we always wanted to do," Duritz mentioned during a recent phone chat. "I really enjoy interpreting other people's stuff. I love that sort of active interpretation."
The final product, Underwater Sunshine (Or What We Did on Our Summer Vacation), dropped in April, filled with songs by artists Duritz and his steadfast mates admire: Teenage Fan Club, Dawes, Gram Parsons, Travis, Big Star, Bob Dylan, the Byrds.
"The intent wasn't for us to make the most obscure covers album ever made," he says with a laugh, "(but) it also wasn't our intention to make it full of really famous songs. It's us playing what we love and coming up with our own take on it. We weren't looking to pick the obvious, strum-along, almost karaoke-type songs. We wanted to come up with our own versions of these songs."
During its current tour, which stops at the Wiltern in Los Angeles on Saturday and then City National Grove of Anaheim on Sunday, Duritz says the band that still attracts new fans via the Americana rock that launched its career (especially 1993's widely acclaimed August and Everything After) has been routinely changing up sets, adding in new remakes as they become more confident about the live delivery.
"We've done 'Mercy' by Tender Mercies and 'You Ain't Going Nowhere' by Bob Dylan and the Byrds for a while now," he shares. "The ones that we're not playing, it's because our version isn't good enough live. We're still trying things out.
"But 'Untitled Love Song' (by the Romany Rye) ends up being in the set just about every night, and 'Like Teenage Gravity' (by Kasey Anderson & the Honkies) … we all love that. The ones that we haven't played at all, strangely, are probably the two most famous, 'Ooh La La' (by Faces) and 'Amie' (from Pure Prairie League)."
Not every cover is a good idea, he contends, noting that the Crows made several attempts at songs that failed miserably and were aborted immediately.
"It just doesn't always work out," he says. "We tried to do a version of 'Girls Talk' by Elvis Costello, which didn't work, and then we spent some time on 'Local Boy in the Photograph' by Stereophonics, which I still think has potential to be good – we just didn't finish it.
"There were a few, too, that just were never going to work. We didn't like our version of 'It's Different for Girls,' which is a Joe Jackson song. It was really cool and everyone loved it, but it kept bothering me and I think it was just because it sounded too much like a cover. I don't think we took ownership of it, so we left that off the record – which (ticked) us off because we really liked that song."
Another failed cover: the Cars' "You Might Think." Last year Duritz offered up a solo rendition of the song, along with other tunes by Steve Earle, Ryan Adams and Tom Waits, posting them online for free download during the week leading up to Valentine's Day. He'd just had his heart broken and decided to learn a new song a day to keep his mind of the romantic holiday.
"I thought maybe we could do 'You Might Think' with the whole band but it was beyond terrible," he admits. "It sucked. It wasn't the band's fault; it was just my bad idea. We recorded it and then went into the control room and listened to it, and we got to the first chorus and I started laughing because it was so horrible."
The collection's title also pays homage to some favorites. Underwater Sunshine salutes Robyn Hitchcock and English band the Soft Boys' 1980 cult classic Underwater Moonlight – "We were supposed to do one of their songs and I kinda just forgot," Duritz says – while the disc's subtitle is a nod to Fairport Convention's second album, What We Did on Our Holidays.
"Coming up with a title was hard," he adds, "but once we got all of these songs together, and I started thinking about all of the indie music showcases I had been putting on and all of the blogs I was following, I thought that by releasing this album, we're revealing a lot of music that will be new to people – which is what you do when you're a music geek, sitting around making playlists. I liked Underwater Sunshine because to me it was just that light that manages to shine right through."
After its last effort, a double-disc job that separated the more rock-infused Saturday Nights side from its softer, country-influenced counterpart Sunday Mornings, the group parted ways with Geffen Records. Since then the septet has kept busy with tours. As for more original material, Duritz says he just keeps putting it off. Still working on his script, he's been in a holding pattern, though he admits it may be time to wrap that up and get to work on a proper Counting Crows album.
For now, he isn't giving up on his dream of bringing a story to the stage. "I'm really excited about the play because I really do want to do that," he says. "I also discovered that I really liked writing and then not having to perform it. I liked writing for other people and it was very liberating, in the same way that I think singing songs that I didn't write has been liberating in a totally other way."
Counting Crows play Sunday, Nov. 25, at City National Grove of Anaheim, 2200 E. Katella Ave. Tender Mercies and Mean Creek open at 8. Tickets: $49.50-$65. Also Saturday at the Wiltern in L.A., $39.50-$75.