Frontman Adam Duritz shares how the band was reenergized on the new album Somewhere Under Wonderland, why it’s important to play cover songs, how he finally made peace with his mental illness, and the reason the Crows have lasted so long.
So I caught the last night of the tour. It seemed to be a really fun one for you guys.
Yeah, it was a great tour. I was wiped by the time it was over though. I was so tired.
I’m sure playing two hours a night can take a lot out of you.
Yeah, they were really good shows though. It was really satisfying.
Since you’ve been around for a while, do you find you’re still able to attract a new audience, or is it mostly the people who have grown up listened to you guys?
No, it seems to be turning over. You can tell especially in the GA shows where there’s a pit because the front always seems like the people are 18. The shows where people are actually going to go out early and stand there the whole time to get in the front, those are the shows where you can tell.
It’s hard to tell in the other shows, because people are further away, but you can really tell in those shows there’s a lot of 18-year-olds out there. I mean not everybody, obviously. It’s harder to tell in a seated show, because the front row you can tell they clearly spent some money to get up there.
You’ve been talking a lot about how your previous record, Underwater Sunshine, reenergized the band to make this one. Can you talk about what you mean by that and why that last one had maybe more of an effect than some of your previous records have had?
There’s something really refreshing about doing other people’s songs, for one thing. You do a whole record of other people’s songs and it really does outline how much of a waste it is to spend your entire career only singing or playing one person’s songs. It’s really limiting, even though in this case the person’s me. As a musician, there’s a lot out there.
When you make a record with all those different songs, it’s like working with the 15 people who weren’t there, collaborating with people who weren’t in the room, because they all have a different way of writing. For me, from my perspective, they have a different way of writing. They have a different way of taking a look at their life and turning it into a song, a different way of using chords or rhyme.
For the band, I think there was something about the fact that it was not my songs that everyone took a little more ownership themselves in it and dove into it a little harder. They were a little more daring on their playing. I don’t know. A little more relaxed, maybe.
Whatever it was, when we came out of making that record, the band was so much better live all of a sudden. We had always been a pretty good live band, but all of a sudden we took a huge step up, which is kind of weird to take this late in your career. But it seemed to have had a huge effect on everybody, and that was one of the reasons we were so excited about recording because we had just come off the best year-and-a-half, two years of touring of our lives.
It was a combination of the kind of broadening of perspective you get from doing all those other songs and playing so many of them over the course of a year touring, and then me working on a play at the same time. That was the first time in my life I had ever written for characters other than myself. I wrote for women’s voices, other men’s voices. It was really liberating to do that for me, to take it out of myself, but also it showed me about how much it is possible to make a song really personal and talk about things that are really important to you without it being first person singular, without it being I did this.
I don’t know if I ever thought it consciously, but it seems like in my songwriting being personal meant this is me. Writing for the play forced me to get outside of that and still invest a lot of emotion in songs that were about other people or stories. I think those two experiences, with the play and Underwater Sunshine, really bear fruit in this record. The band’s a lot more daring, a lot more participatory, and also the songs are from a completely different perspective than I usually was writing.
I saw how you were wondering at first if it was less personal, since you were writing from these different perspectives, but then your friend said it was maybe more personal, just because it gave a different perspective of what it’s like to be inside your head.
Yeah, he thought it was a much fuller picture. As a friend of mine, he said, “I like all the other records, but you’re not like that all day. That isn’t actually what you do all day, sit around being tragic. This is a lot more like you. There’s dumb jokes. There’s bizarre connections made.” I can see what he was talking about.
I think at first my concern was also that, and I didn’t recognize it at the time, but when you’ve done one thing for a long time, you recognize quality as different gradations of that one thing. It was like different shades of blue. I didn’t think everything I was writing was great my whole life, either, but it’s different shades of a certain kind of one thing I was doing and I recognized quality by that.
When I started writing songs for this record, it was completely apples and oranges. They were really different, and I mistook them being different for them not being of the same quality. They weren’t different kinds of apples. These were oranges. I mistook them for shitty apples at first because I wasn’t used to being humorous in a song. There are songs in the past I had written, like “Elvis Went to Hollywood,” that I didn’t really like all that much. I thought they were more clever than they were meaningful.
We had a huge hit a long time ago with a demo that got released, “Einstein on the Beach,” which I’ve always thought was not a particularly great song. I do like it as a pop song, kind of, but it’s more clever than it is particularly meaningful to me. It’s an intellectual conceit about what it’s like to be a smart guy, like Einstein, and have a really beautiful series of ideas and then have it to turn into a bomb. It’s an interesting idea, but it’s not particularly meaningful.
“Elvis Went to Hollywood” could have turned out to be that kind of song, too. It’s sort of a silly idea. I mistook it for that kind of thing at first when I started it, but then I got a lot of really positive response from the guys when I was playing the first verse for them. That got me to start taking it a little more seriously, and I think that song turned out really great.
One thing I picked up on this record is there seems to be a big nostalgic element to it. “Palisades Park” is set in the ‘70s, and then there’s old references peppered throughout the rest of the songs, too. Was that something that was on your mind while you were writing this?
No, but you’re always writing about your life. The same way your songs end up being touchstones in people’s lives, there’s points in your life that end of being touchstones in your songs. I think I’m always writing songs about details in my life from whenever. “Palisades” is certainly set in a different time, but it’s probably the only one like that, I think.
One of the other songs that jumped out at me was the last song, “Possibility Days.” I really love the concept behind that song. Can you talk about how you came up with that one?
There’s a Stephen Sondheim play called Sunday in the Park with George, which is about George Seurat, the pointillist painter. It’s all about color with him, the combination of color, and how the combinations of a thousand colors make one color. At the very end of the play, the artist is looking through a notebook that supposedly was his great-grandmother’s, and she was writing it about Seurat. The last words of the play are, “A blank canvas. His favorite – so many possibilities.” That’s the very end of the play. I had seen that a while ago, and I got to thinking about that.
There’s points in my life where I was really crazy and having a really hard time. You get to thinking you’re doomed to being like that, but there’s a real difference between being actually doomed and being someone who thinks he’s doomed because that’s the way his head works. There are always possibilities. It took me a while to realize that in life.
Not to be like Pollyanna or overly optimistic, but the truth is I don’t know what’s going to happen. There’s no guarantees. Nothing’s meant to happen. I don’t believe in that bullshit about things being meant to happen. I don’t know necessarily that anything good is going to happen, but by the same token I’m not necessarily fucked, either. It’s possible. Things are possible. Blank canvases mean that you can paint on them.
I was writing a song about a relationship that doesn’t really work out, but the fact it happened at all means things are possible. It’s trying to be an optimistic song in a way about something pessimistic that happens. It’s a song about a relationship that doesn’t work out, but it’s about possibilities.
I went through some stuff, dealing with this mental illness for a long time, and really, really wanting to be free of it, to be cured and OK. A few years ago I realized I wasn’t maybe ever going to be cured. I’m not sure you can get cured from stuff like that. That kind of sent me off the deep end at a certain point. I guess what I realized is even falling off that deep end didn’t kill me.
I don’t know what kind of life is available with this stuff. It’s sort of like a disability in a way, but it’s not the same as being doomed, either. It’s just different. You have to reset your sights. I was feeling so depressed about that a few years ago that I let it halt everything in my life. I realized maybe I have to lower my expectations. I could still write. I could still make music. The band is really good. It’s kind of a mixed bag, but that song looks at something going wrong and how it’s not the end of the world.
One thing I’ve always admired about you guys is how remarkably consistent you are. You always release solid albums. When you look at the body of work you have done, is that something you can be satisfied with, or are you more the type where you’re never content and it always feels incomplete to you?
No, I’m absolutely satisfied with every record. I think that’s the point of them in a way. Like them or hate them, that’s what we meant for them to be. For the most part, they’re exactly how we wanted them to be. I don’t know that I’m satisfied where I could just stop or anything. I wouldn’t know what to do tomorrow, but I’m satisfied with them as they are. I don’t sit around bemoaning how the albums should have been better. Not at all, really.
The only one that’s sort of weird for me in that way is the first one, because we were so inexperienced at the time, but even that one I love a lot about it. I especially love the songs on it. Ever since then, when we’ve been more in control of what we were doing, they are very much statements of where we were at for those different points in our lives.
They’re perfect in that way to me. Maybe I would do something differently today, but that’s not where I was that day. I’m really, really satisfied with that. That’s the point when you put out the record, when you’re absolutely fine with it.
You’ve been around for over 20 years now, and while you might not have as much mainstream success nowadays as you’ve had in the past, I know you’re still very much a resonant part of many people’s lives out there. What do you think has been the biggest thing that has allowed you to maintain a longevity like this?
Well, we kind of did things our own way. We had a huge bidding war at the beginning for us. We pretty much got offers from every single record company, and there were millions of dollars at the table. We took home $3,000 each, I think. We took home $15,000 total because we traded all that money away at the beginning, because Geffen was willing to give us complete creative control and a higher royalty, which seemed like a smart thing. I don’t know if it was smart. We were investing in our own success.
The main thing was that we got complete creative control before we ever made the first record. That’s allowed us to operate like an indie band for 20 years now because we’ve just done exactly what we wanted to do at every point. Like it or hate it, like I said, I would take ownership of it. That’s what I mean about those records.
When you sell seven to 10 million records with T Bone Burnett, they don’t want you to go sign with the Pixies guy to go make your next record. When that record goes No. 1, they don’t want you to sign with the Sparklehorse guy to do the one after that. The record company would rather we’d not done any of those things, but they were what we wanted to do and allowed us to keep making the records we wanted to make.
Part of what destroys bands and pulls them apart is they look back on things and they don’t feel clean about it. That causes whatever internal strives there are to really fester, too, and we just haven’t had that. For better or for worse I think there were things we probably could have done to make us sell more records, but we were never really interested in that.
Also, I don’t think anyone knows what sells records. There is literally no one who thought our first record was going to sell that many. There’s no way. Nobody did. It just happens sometimes. You can’t manipulate popular culture. Well, I guess sometimes you can, but we’re not in that business. The smartest thing we always seemed to do was do what we wanted to do, since that’s what got us there in the first place. Our best records were always going to be made by us, so we just made the records we wanted to make. There’s a certain truth in that that bears out to your audience, too, and to the people watching you.
We also go up on stage every night and we play songs we want to play. The setlist changes every single night. There’s no song that has to get played, and as a result we’re not really sick of any of our own songs because we don’t play them every night. “Mr. Jones” gets played at half the shows, probably. I think that’s about right. There are songs that get played more than that. I’m saying that’s one particular one, where in order to keep it to where we don’t hate it, it gets played at about half the shows. I think that as much as an audience member may come to a show wishing they had heard something and not hearing it, they still walk away having seen a show we were totally into playing. We don’t phone it in onstage because we’re not forcing ourselves to play shit we don’t want to play.
The nice thing about that, 20 years into it, is we’re still going onstage playing shows, and I think that’s got to rub off on people, too. I know there’s a lot of people who get pissed off because we change our songs all the time [laughs]. We’re improvising/ruining them, whatever you want to call it, and because we don’t play the hits every night people expect to have gotten.
Now the internet’s out there, so everybody can bitch and moan about everything. The audience feels like they can complain about whatever service it doesn’t get. There’s always someone out there who feels ripped off he didn’t get a song he wanted. Personally, for me, it seems better to play a really passionate show you’re really into than to play the right song.
We stuck by that stuff from the very beginning, and I think it pays off in longevity. People are still coming. We’re not the center of culture, but a lot of those bands that were the center of culture for five seconds aren’t even existing anymore. I don’t know. I’d like to be popular, too, because it sure would make life easier. I could pay the crew more. Most of our crew has been around for 20 years. People just seem to stay.
In the meantime, it’s been a pretty good run. Shit, bands last five minutes, if they make it at all. I don’t even know how to explain it. I can tell you what I think happened, but that’s just fucking guesswork. Honestly, who knows?
Originally appeared on Absolute Punk