They fly like an eagle
Counting Crows return with 'This Desert Life'
November 2, 1999
By Donna Freydkin
(CNN) -- If the credo of many rock 'n' roll artists is to live fast and die young, the Counting Crows once may have seemed precocious poster children for the concept.
Three years after meeting in the Bay Area of San Francisco, playing at local clubs and coffee shops, and finally signing a record deal with a major label, the Counting Crows released their 1993 debut, "August and Everything After." At the time, says lead singer Adam Duritz, the band didn't even really know how to play together.
Nevertheless, Duritz was hailed by Rolling Stone as the "lyricist discovery of the year." On the strength of his anguished lyrics and hook-laden radio melodies, "August" yielded the monster hit "Mr. Jones" and became the band's ticket to ride.
"August" went multiplatinum and the Counting Crows were all over MTV, even picking up the music network's 1994 best new artist award. But in keeping with his music's soul-searching, existential themes, Duritz, an amiable man with a caustic wit, says he wasn't happy.
"I remember I was in this theater in Alabama during our tour," he says, "and a kid sat down next to me and kept trying to talk to me. I told him I wanted to be left alone. And then one of the ushers walked in and asked to talk to me. He said that the kid had called all his friends, told them I was in the theater and that now there was this mob scene outside. So I had to sneak out of the theater by the back door. I didn't even finish watching the movie -- and all I wanted was to be alone for a while. You can't imagine what it's like.
"But it's not like that now. It's fun now."
Duritz says he slammed on the brakes. His band's 1996 follow-up, "Recovering the Satellites," went multiplatinum -- without the benefit of a single released domestically -- and 1998's "Across a Wire: Live in New York City" went gold. But the singer says he focused on coming to terms with fame and making good music. Of course, despite a vow to live a quiet life, Duritz managed to take up briefly with the woman sporting the decade's most-imitated hairdo: Jennifer Aniston.
Enter 1999's "This Desert Life," slated to arrive in stores Tuesday. The first single is "Hanginaround," which Duritz describes as The Beatles meeting hip-hop. The song entered the Billboard Hot 100 singles charts at No. 84 and is wooing radio listeners.
"I'm so excited and proud of this album," Duritz says, "but it was so f-----g amazingly hard. Every record is a new experience."
And Duritz took some time out of his London schedule to explain why.
Q: For this album, you went into the studio without having written a single song. Why?
Duritz: We didn't write any songs before starting, so we were unprepared and unrehearsed. We wanted to try and make an album that way, to make it really free and catch the moments and inspirations. We wanted to lay the songs down as we created them.
Q: This album is more robust, more of a rock album.
Duritz: Our first album has us forever misinterpreted as a folk band. We wanted to be louder. Plus, we ditched all the effects on this album. We just stripped down.
Q: Would you ever want to wing it in the studio again?
Duritz: This album was exciting to make, but I don't know if we would ever do it this way again. Because I have a mistrust of doing anything exactly like you've just done it.
Q: When "August and Everything After" became such a big hit, you seemed to have a certain ambivalence toward success and fame. Is that still the case?
Duritz: I don't know how to deal with people very well -- that's my problem in life -- but I had no choice but to deal with it. And that freaked me out.
I love having a career now, but I have to work hard at it. Records are so hard, touring is so grueling, but I get a lot of satisfaction out of the pleasure (of knowing) that at the end of the day, I did the work. My money doesn't come from being famous or in a popular band. (It's the) satisfaction in tracing what you get from the work you put into it.
Q: But as a big-name band with a major label (Geffen), you have a certain responsibility to deliver successful albums.
Duritz: Yeah, but with this record deal we gave up a lot of money to get royalties and utter creative control. We pick our producers and our songs. We make our videos. We decide what we will or won't do. That means we won't lip-sync or go on shows that want us to. And we won't cut our songs for shows."
Q: So describe what it was like for you guys when "August" started steamrolling its way up the charts.
Duritz: It was 10 million records more than I'd ever sold in my life. I had imagined it and dreamed about it, but it wasn't like what I had expected. There was this total frenzy. I didn't know what frenzy was like until I was the subject of it -- and it was terrifying. Everybody is looking at you all the time. There are constant demands on your attention.
Q: Clearly, you had problems coping with all of that?
Duritz: It totally freaked me out. After we played "Saturday Night Live" (in January 1994), the album started to jump up the charts a lot. It flew 40 slots a week for a few weeks and the song was a huge hit on the radio. It started to fly up the charts. Right before we left for Europe, we played Letterman and that added to the frenzy.
I had agreed to do the cover of Rolling Stone and I had real doubts. I started to feel that there was something ahead of me and I didn't know what it was. At this point, Kurt Cobain had attempted suicide and I had hung out with him a few times and that attempt really freaked me out. He seemed really freaked out.
While we were in Europe, he killed himself. We had just landed in Paris to talk to the reporter from Rolling Stone. Then we flew to New Orleans to play Jazzfest and I started getting mobbed. We had gotten famous while we were gone, and we'd had no idea. I didn't know what was going on. That's when I realized that everything had gone through the roof. I can't tell you how scary that was.
Q: So how'd you deal with it?
Duritz: I shut "August" down after the second video because I felt it was too big, but we continued to tour for a year and a half. But five months into it, we stopped making videos. I'm so glad we did that, because if we had kept releasing videos I think we would have no life right now and everyone would hate us.
Q: And if it happened again with this album?
Duritz: I won't be so fazed by fame if this record is as big as "August and Everything After." In L.A., I'm a normal popular guy -- that's what I always liked about being famous. I can still go to the grocery store without being accosted. Back then, the world speeded up to me."
Q: On the heels of a such a successful debut, is there a pressure to churn out hit singles and sell gazillions of albums?
Duritz: We make albums we want to make. We're not a folk band but we write the songs we want to write. Basically, we just try to not let that other stuff touch our music. You're going to have press you love and press that hurts your feelings, and that can affect your life but it can't affect the way you do your work.
Q: You certainly seem more at ease with yourself and the music business.
Duritz: I'm making a living doing what I dreamed about when I was 6. I'm actually doing it. I'm a hero to some people, but I'm also not a role model. My life is a mess and I wouldn't encourage anyone to live like I did. But the things I say do matter, and people listen. My music can get people through hard times and I understand that, because music also did that for me.
Live from New York: It's Saturday night music
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