"My job has forced me to be a far more public person than I'd like to be..." - Counting Crows' Adam Duritz on coming out of isolation and the band's new project Butter Miracle Suite One
It’s been a long time since we had a new album from eclectic rock collective Counting Crows, almost seven years in fact.
With career sales of over 20 million albums, the band’s hearty back catalogue, with hits like ‘Mr Jones’, ‘A Long December’ and ‘Accidentally In Love’, keeps them in business with constant touring all over the world.
There’s no rush on new material, with the band having departed their longtime label over 10 years ago and now working on a release by release basis, but frontman Adam Duritz had been hinting that he’d been working on something. Fans were expecting a new album, but what they’ve got instead is something a little different.
Butter Miracle is a four-track EP with a runtime just shy of 19 minutes, written by Duritz with the stated aim of seeing if he “...could write a series of different songs that each played seamlessly out of the one before and flowed together like one long song. A suite.”
Heavily influenced by the good time rock and roll of Mott The Hoople, The Who and T-Rex, the ambitious collection could potentially be one half of a full album, though, as he told us from his farm in the West of England, Duritz isn’t really sure about that yet...
When was this record created?
“It was done before the pandemic. I was living in the UK on the farm in August of 2019 and that’s when I started writing these songs. I wrote more in October and then I finished it in January. We started rehearsing to go into the studio in February and the plan was to do two weeks with five of us in the studio, take a quick break, then our other two guitar players would come in and we’d finish. Then, just as we took the break, the pandemic really hit, so we had to delay. In the end, they had to send it to us, we didn’t get back in the studio.”
Did the release date get delayed? Lots of people have been shifting things around?
“It was more that we had a delay in finishing it. There was no real need to be in a rush and we took our time getting the artwork together. I can’t pin any delay on the pandemic really. No plans were changed, the record wasn’t done and it wasn’t like we had a tour booked that we were chasing. You may as well take your time.”
You’ve said in other interviews that there may well be a second EP, which brings the two together as a record, was that the plan from the get-go?
“There was no plan. And, at the moment, there’s no second EP. I was in the UK and I hadn’t written anything in a good while. I was on my own on the farm a lot of the time and I found myself wanting to play piano. I rented a keyboard in London and a friend drove it down for me and I started playing, a day later or so, I wrote ‘The Tall Grass’. I remember playing it back to myself, checking it was actually done and messing around. I couldn’t decide if I wanted to end it or keep it going.”
So you kept going?
“I tried the ‘I don’t know why” refrain over some different chords and it worked really well. Then I came up with a new line and it felt really cool. I wondered if it was like ‘Palisades Park’, which is our song that has several different movements. I worked some more and it became clear that it was going to be a different song, but I really liked the way it flowed right out of ‘The Tall Grass’ and I wondered if I could write a series of songs where the end of one song was always the beginning of the next."
"It’d be like ‘Palisades Park’, which has multiple movements, but instead of movements, it’d be songs that flowed together in one long piece. Once I’d settled on the idea, I became really excited about doing it.”
But not as an album?
“I didn’t want to write a record. I didn’t want to get into the business part of putting out a record. I know what I’m like, when I start to write, I want to finish writing and I want to record and I want to put out a record. I don’t have a lot of breaks on me and I can’t seem to slow that process down. Once I had the idea of the suite, I worked on it non-stop.”
“There was no plan for a second suite or a concept. I knew it should work, it was composed a certain way, but I didn’t know it’d really work until we finished mixing. I got asked if I wanted to do a second suite and I said maybe I will, because maybe I will, but it’s not been the plan all along.”
Having had it happen by accident with one song running into the next, did it get harder when that became your stated goal?
“It’s hard either way. You’re trying to compose something that works, that’s always difficult. It was hard to do. I felt like I could do it. I just went to the end of each song and then figured out where to go from there.”
Why did you stop at four?
“It just felt like the right place. There was no reason beyond that. I mean, it’s long enough, it’s 19 minutes long, that’s a good chunk for one piece of music. ‘Bobby And The Rat Kings’ felt like a great closer. There was one more song, but I had to throw it out because I accidentally ripped off an Elvis Costello song. ‘Bobby And The Rat Kings’ had these huge power chords and I knew the end of ‘Angel of 14th Street’ was going to be this big crescendo and I wanted it to come crashing down. And going into those big power chords, I loved it. I’ve always wanted to write something like that. It’s like The Who. Real power. I don’t write a lot of songs like that and it seemed like a good place to end it.”
How did the rest of the band take it when you presented them with the idea?
“They loved it. I sent it to them so they could hear it. I was in England, so I was recording the songs on my phone, just me and the piano. I’d record the song and then the next few lines so they knew where it was supposed to go. Everyone was pretty excited about the idea. They knew it’d be a challenge, but they like that feeling.”
Did you have any trepidation about sharing the idea?
“No, I wasn’t worried about it. There’s never much kickback from the band. I don’t send them songs unless I know it’s good. I don’t remember sending a song and anybody telling me they don’t like it since our first album. Back then, our drummer kept saying he didn’t want to play country music, that he hadn’t signed up to play country music and he didn’t want to play on ‘Mr Jones’. That’s the only time I remember it happening, anybody objecting to any song.”
You can understand why they all learned that lesson…
“He ended up literally not playing on that song. He got himself in trouble with that. Most of the time, the band are excited by the songs. I write pretty good songs, so they know they’re in for something good."
Brian Deck produced the record, having made it by yourself initially, were you ever tempted to produce yourself?
“I was never tempted. I play a big part in production, but you need an extra ear, somebody whose instrument is the band. It’s too easy to get tunnel vision when you’re making a record. I feel like I’m an asset to a producer and I know I’m a good arranger, but I wouldn’t trust myself to be a producer. Brian is so good, he’s really good with the band and he gets ideas I wouldn’t have.”
Plenty of bands with slimmer back catalogues than you have are already going into self-production. But if it doesn’t work, it doesn’t work…
“It might, but I like having a collaborator. It also means it isn’t me leaning on everybody all the time, it’s good to have someone else pushing them. You have to push each other because everybody gets that moment when they think something’s good enough, but deep down you know it’s not. You want to be pushed. But I like that it’s not me doing it. Running a band is exhausting enough without being the guy who is sat in a room working on guitar tones. This way I can kick everybody’s ass and Brian can come in and pick them up. A bit of good cop, bad cop doesn’t hurt sometimes.”
Having conceived and written the thing, when it was done, what was it like hearing it all back for the first time?
“It was incredible. It might have been the most satisfying moment of my career. I’d held this concept in my imagination for so long. I always love moments like that. To me, that’s the coolest part of being in a band. I don’t know why people are so fascinated with songwriting. The studio is the magic part, people collaborating. A song, when it’s written, is just a skeleton, some chords and some words. Nobody is buying that on a record."
"When we come together as a band and take these little iPhone recordings turning them into something bigger. That’s the cool bit. Not the bit the guy does in his house by himself. I’ve never wanted to be a solo artist, I love being in a band, I love my ideas being taken to new places that I couldn’t have taken them. I couldn’t have done this on my own, it’s why I’m in a rock and roll band. It’s also why we don’t have many problems in the band, I really appreciate those guys.”
How have you found managing the pandemic without seeing each other? Are you good at keeping in touch?
“We’re actually okay if we don’t see too much of each other. We've known each other for such a long time that we're closer to brothers now. Apart from Immer (guitarist David A. Immerglück), I haven't seen a lot of them in the last couple of years. But as soon as we're back together it'll be like we've never been apart. Half of our crew have been with us for more than a decade. It is a family, you show up and within 10 minutes you're f**king around together again. The routines kick back in, the weird rituals before shows, they all come back. It's not the worst thing in the world to have periods like this, you spend so much time together, it gets you excited to see each other again."
This must have been a very weird time for bands, you spend so much time in each other's pockets, then suddenly you couldn't...
"It would have been different when we were younger and we all lived in the same place. Now we live all over the country. I have friends in this Australian band Gang Of Youths and they all live in a house together in London. They live in each other's laps with wives and girlfriends. At this point, if we lived in a house together we would probably kill each other. All the guys have families and in their lives, they're the bandleader. They don't need me around their families and being in charge in the other part of their lives."
You're about to go on a big US tour in a few weeks, are you excited to get back out?
"I am. I view it with a bit of trepidation too. All this enforced isolation has done a bit of a number on me. I'm not great with people, certainly not all the time. In a lot of ways, a year and a half of staying at home has been kinda nice. It's just been me and my girlfriend hiding in a house. My job has forced me to be a far more public person than I'd like to be."
"I went to a restaurant about three weeks ago, that was the first time in a year and a half. It was really nice to do it, but it did feel weird and it got me thinking. I hope everybody is ready to go back to concerts, but I don't know if I'm ready. I'm excited to play and see the guys, but all that time at home has made me a little agoraphobic. I'm not chomping at the bit to go."
The rest of the band probably are though...
"I would imagine so. They're a lot less crazy than me. They've also been locked in the house with their kids for a long time so they might be ready to get the f**k out of there..."
What kind of set will you be playing? Have you started discussions yet?
"No, we switch it up every night anyway. I give everybody a list of songs, but it's a big list. It might be 60 or 70 songs. That might be too much, but it's easier to go overboard. The only thing I've given a lot of thought to is what to do with the suite."
This is the big question, because it's a decent chunk of time...
"I want to play it all together, so where does it go? Does it go at the beginning? In the encore? I don't like either of those. I like playing 'Palisades Park' in the encore. We play an acoustic set in a lot of our shows, maybe we'll go straight from the acoustic set and build into the suite. But I don't know, it's difficult to know if it works until you do it and you get some instant feedback."
It's an interesting problem to have, especially as you want to present it as one piece of music...
"We've just got so many f**king songs. You find what works and you make adjustments. We rehearse every day on tour in soundcheck and we tweak the set all the time. There's a lot of time to work it. I'm not a big believer in planning too much ahead of time. I don't think about the future as people think I should."
Your US run bookends 2021, how's 2022 looking? Is it blocked out?
"We can't. I would love to take 2022 and do nothing but tour internationally. Nothing is open that way. Maybe the UK would be fine. We'd like to do all of Europe. We'd like to go to Australia and South Africa, but they've just had another wave. We'd love to go back to South America, but they're really getting f**ked."
"That's what I'd like to do. Go hard internationally. I feel a little ahead of the curve touring this summer. Next summer, from what I've heard, every band in existence is going to be touring the US. I think it'll be hard to find a tour bus, let alone book a venue. It's a smart thing to do to get out early. We're talking about touring all over the world, but it all feels very conceptual."
Tour managers already had difficult jobs, now they're all going to be walking around with a stack of lateral flow tests, which all have to be taken at slightly different times for each country...
"There's going to be so much to worry about. Probably more for audiences than for bands. But you can only sort it out when the country is ready to be sorted. At least in Europe, you've got a continent that has one set of rules. But those rules can change very quickly. Hopefully, by the end of the year, it'll be a lot clearer."
Have you started on the next recorded thing yet?
"I'm on the farm where I wrote the suite and I've got a room set up. I like writing suites. I like writing these interconnected songs and I want to keep doing it. At least, while I'm here. I'm hoping to get started again soon."