Call it a comeback. Listen to Counting Crows’ latest album, Somewhere Under Wonderland, and you’ll get a feeling similar to when Neo took the red pill in The Matrix. You’re racing down a waterslide chute—a rift in the space-time continuum—that splashes you out around 1997, when the radio was still the place you heard all the latest music and Miley Cyrus was 5 and pasty-less.
What you’re hearing approaches the greatness that Counting Crows conjured up in the mid-to-late 1990s… 21 years later. With standout tracks like ‘Earthquake Driver’ and the sprawling piano-laced opener, ‘Palisades Park,’ the album feels like it could’ve come out in the window between the band’s 1993 debut, August and Everything After, and 1996’s follow-up, Recovering the Satellites.
Full disclosure: The original idea for this Oral Hit-story was to go right for the obvious Counting Crows hit, the one that broke the band. That would be ‘Mr. Jones,’ possibly the greatest self-fulfilling-prophecy-in-song of all time. Write a tune about wanting to be famous, wake up the next day and your debut album has gone platinum seven times over. Simple, right? Wrong.
“I don’t have stage fright, really, because everything I do up there is honestly about expressing how I’m feeling. Any place your emotions want to take you is fine. Even if it changes the song, well, the songs are there to be changed.”
That sudden burst of fame took its toll, especially on Counting Crows’ lead singer and primary songwriter Adam Duritz. And given the long stretch of touring in support of August—as well as Duritz’s then-undiagnosed mental illness—you can literally hear what fame sounds like on Satellites (not always a pretty thing). The band’s music took on a harder edge, with screaming, distorted guitars from new axe-handler Dan Vickrey, and Duritz skating between poignant, nostalgic compositions like ‘Catapult’ and ‘Children in Bloom,’ and high-octane cries for help like ‘Angels of the Silences’ or ‘Have You Seen Me Lately?’
But out of all that sonic chaos and lyrical despair, one song witnessed a light at the end of the tunnel: ‘A Long December.’ Like the Beatles’ ‘Here Comes the Sun,’ it contains the perfect metaphor for overcoming a major life challenge: realizing that at the end of every biting-cold winter is the spring. All of us have been there at one point or another, and it struck a major chord with audiences. ‘A Long December’ would reach the Top 10 hit on four Billboard charts and became one of the era’s greatest lighter-lit live moments.
We tracked down Duritz to talk about his band’s great new album—and the marathon writing/recording session that wound up spawning this classic track.
What sources of inspiration do you pull from when writing an album?
I don’t really think about it. There’s a weird misconception about influences—that people are more consciously thinking about things like that. I don’t really think that’s true, generally. There are certain musicians who are technically good enough to do that. Like I can hear Lenny Kravitz clearly doing different tricks on records, especially his early ones, where he’s aping a kind of music. But he’s technically good enough to do that. I’m just not.
I did that ‘sha-la-la’ thing as a joke 20 years ago on ‘Mr. Jones’ because I thought it was funny. And the A&R guy said, ‘What are you doing, some kind of Van Morrison thing?’ And I think it’s a joke. Next thing I know, we’ve been influenced by Van Morrison. I always thought the choruses in ‘Palisades Park’ should be like glam rock—to have that sort of New York City-London, Mick Ronson guitar thing. Like a Spiders from Mars or Mott the Hoople guitar moment. That the song should go from this open sort of thing, more piano-based with guitar slipping in and out of it to, like, a rock guitar, glam-rock ’70s thing. That’s certainly an idea I had, but I don’t know that we draw our inspiration from that.
We attended one of your Outlaw Roadshow showcases at CMJ and fell hard for a young band called Daniel and the Lion. What did you see in them that got you to first invite them to play on the Roadshow and then afterwards, go out on tour with Counting Crows and Toad the Wet Sprocket?
Well, the same thing I see in a million other bands in the Roadshow: They’re really good. And they’ve got some great songs. They have a really cool sound. The first time we saw them was when we were doing a tour a few years ago, and in the middle, we went and played Maquoketa, Iowa, a Codfish Hollow Barnstormers show for Daytrotter out there, and we had bands from the first half of the [Roadshow] tour: Filligar, Foreign Fields and Dave Godowsky,** and put a whole show on, seven hours that day in a bar on the Fourth of July.
And we came back from the show late that night, we’re all pretty hammered, it’s like 3 in the morning, and on the front porch of the farmhouse when we got back, these two guys are sitting there playing this song, and a couple of guys from Foreign Fields are playing with them. Daniel and the Lion were playing ‘Flash Food.’ I was stunned by how good it was, and they gave me their CD later that night, and I ended up really liking it, and we became friends, and we invited them to the next Roadshow down at South by Southwest, and they’ve played all of them since then.
Let’s talk a little bit about ‘A Long December.’ Do you remember exactly where you were when you wrote the song?
Yeah, very clearly. The first year I was living in L.A., I rented this cottage up in Laurel Canyon on Lookout Mountain, and they had this old piano there that the landlord left that supposedly was Jim Morrison’s piano, although you never hear anything about Jim Morrison playing the piano. But it doesn’t mean he wouldn’t have had one. It was very rundown and falling apart. It was an old Spinet, and I really liked the way it sounded. I wrote a lot of songs on that piano. Almost all of Recovering the Satellites. I wrote [‘A Long December’] between the hours of, I’d say, 4 and 6 in the morning.
I remember the night very clearly, because we kind of had a crazy schedule. My friend had gotten run over by a car—one of my best friends. She got destroyed by a car, the whole left side of her body got crushed, so she was in the hospital that winter, and I would spend days there [with her]. And then I would go to work. And then sometime after midnight or something, I would head over to the Viper Room (or not, depending on how late I was in the studio), and I remember that night, I went to the Viper Room and I was driving home and I stopped at a friends’ house — Samantha and Tracy. We used to jokingly call that little house in Laurel Canyon ‘Hillside Manor.’ I went over to their house at 2 in the morning, they were still up, and we sat around talking until about 4, and then I drove up the hill to my house, and I got home and wrote that song right then.
The gang waiting for another long December to end. Or maybe just the E train.
There’s a real weight-off-your-shoulders feeling that’s captured in that take. Where was it recorded, and was that an early take?
That song was entirely written and recorded in under 24 hours. The next day, we were working on some other stuff, and then right around dinner time, I played it for the guys, showed them the song, [and] taught it to them. We had a house in East Hollywood. We rented this old mansion on a hill there. Hollywood has a lot of these houses, and there’s nobody to buy them or rent them, and you end up renting them for cheap, and that’s how we ended up making our records for years. We’d just rent some house in Hollywood somewhere and soundproof it and set up a studio.
So I taught it to the guys before dinner, and then after dinner, we started running it. Everybody’s in the room, we’re all playing it together. I think that’s, like, take six. We did a couple more and I said, ‘Wait, let’s go back.’ And we listened, and we were like ‘That’s it. It’s done.’ We all went into the kitchen and had a beer or something, and then I went back in the studio and said, ‘Give me a mic,’ to our engineer, and did one pass through for one harmony and then one more pass through for the harmony above that—the nah-nahs—and that’s it. There’s no overdubs on that song really at all. There’s nothing else. A completely live take.
That last song, ‘Walkaways,’ always struck us as a denouement to ‘A Long December.’ Was it written at the same time, or did you mean it to be something totally different?
No, I mean, ‘Walkaways’ was written long before that. We were in Boston on tour. ‘Walkaways’ was one of the first songs written for Recovering the Satellites, strangely enough. There were three songs that were written while we were on tour, I think. They are ‘Children in Bloom,’ ‘Goodnight Elisabeth,’ and ‘Walkaways’. One night that summer we were in Boston, and Dan’s playing this guitar thing in the dressing room while we’re sitting around before the show, and I was just sitting there singing to myself [sings]: ‘I’ve got to rush away … I’ve been to Boston before.’ I just started writing this song about leaving town.
And then when it got time to play the encore, I said, ‘Hey, let’s do that thing.’ At the end of the encore, we just played it on stage. And that’s how long it was, and then it was sort of sitting there after that. And then when we went to make the record, I was like, ‘You know what? I want to put that song on here.’ And everyone was like, ‘Oh yeah, yeah, let’s just finish it.’ And I was like, ‘No, it’s done. That’s as long as it is.’ And they were like, ‘What about the rest of the song?’ And I was like, ‘No, that’s the whole song.’ That’s the cool thing about it. It’s just that long. [Editor’s note: It’s 1 minute and 12 seconds long.]
When we saw you guys perform at the Williamsburg Waterfront a few years ago, you played ‘A Long December’ and added a little intro. It gave the song a new life. Is that a way of keeping it fresh for you?
No. I don’t really think about it strategically. Here’s what I think about being on stage: I think it’s a place to go and express yourself. I don’t have stage fright, really, because everything I do up there is honestly about expressing how I’m feeling. Everything is fine. You can’t do the wrong thing up there. Anything you want to do, any place you want it to carry you, any place your emotions want to take you is fine as long as you’re really following it. You don’t want to make it up, but if you invest it with emotion, it’s going to work in one way or another. Even if it changes the song, well, the songs are there to be changed. I don’t mind going somewhere that’s not on the records. I don’t mind at all, in fact. If it feels right, you should probably just do it.
More than any other Counting Crows song, we feel like you, Adam Duritz, own ‘A Long December.’ What artist do you think would do it the greatest justice as a cover someday?
Oh, I have no idea. I never think about that. I love playing covers, but I never think about other people playing covers. I never think of collaborating as something that I want. I’m happy to do it when my friends ask me—like Chris Carrabba asked me to sing on a Dashboard Confessional record, and I was happy to do it. I’m happy appreciating other people. Musically, I love just being in this band. I almost never think about playing with other people. I’m really flattered when someone else covers our songs, but I never really think about wishing someone would cover our songs. [Laughs] I know Chris Carrabba did. I know Sara Bareilles has covered some songs. I know Panic at the Disco did. I don’t know. It’s weird.