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Published: 2013/06/28
by Mike Greenhaus

Adam Duritz’s Ongoing Roadshow

It’s interesting: you were writing a play at the same time you did the last Crows album, which was all covers. So you were singing other people’s lyrics from other people’s perspectives, but a lot of those songs must have resonated with you personally, both as a fan and as a performer.

That’s one of the reasons we did that record. I didn’t want to write for two [projects] at the same time. I really wanted to work with the band. I didn’t want to take all that time off and not work with Counting Crows, but I didn’t think I could write from two different perspectives at the same time. I wouldn’t know how to decide where the songs should go: to the play or to me. But we’d been wanting to do those covers for a long time. I mean, I think for a lot of bands covers albums are just karaoke machines, you know what I mean? They just kind of pick something in the songs and they don’t really think much about it. But for us, it’s really an act of interpretation. We really get into it. And for years and years, interpretive singing was what people did because most people didn’t write songs; they were just singers. From Frank Sinatra to Elvis Presley to The Supremes—none of them wrote songs, really, but they were great singers. Dionne Warwick’s entire career was based on being able to interpret Burt Bacharach songs. And they’re good.

So I’ve always really enjoyed covers because I think you can put yourself in someone else’s head. When you cover a song, it’s like collaborating with someone who’s not there. People have a different way of looking at the world, a different way of translating their life into song. They look at rhymes differently; they look at chords and rhythms differently. There’s a whole other way of using meter and melody. It gets you back into musician mode as opposed to songwriter mode, because I’m just interpreting the song as a singer and an arranger, as opposed to: “How do I want people to think I felt about this?” But it’s not that different from the way we work with Counting Crows – we’re very, very collaborative.

I mean, I might bring in some chords and some words and call it a song, but it’s really just a skeleton. It’s the work we all do together that makes it a Counting Crows song, and that’s what makes it the full-fledged song that you hear on the record. It’s the same with covers: all of us get into a room, take an idea someone’s had and make it into a whole song that we play. Most of these versions are pretty far from their originals. But that was the only real rule for this record. If you have songs you love but have no idea how to make them into anything original, then why do it? On this album we were really looking for our own take on things. The closest we came to just playing along is on “Amie”—it’s just fun to sing that song. [Laughs.] Even then, our version turned out to be pretty different from Pure Prairie League’s – and almost unintentionally, because it was a lot of us just sitting around, playing it and enjoying singing the harmonies. We almost left it off the record because it was just a little too close, but in the end we decided, “Well fuck it, let’s leave it on.”

I like that on the album, you cover a band like Dawes – a young, emerging band that some of your fans hadn’t heard of…

There’s a lot of that on this record. The Dawes song—actually, it’s not even off a Dawes record. I found it on the first Daytrotter session they did. I don’t think it’s on any other records. I’ve never heard it anywhere except for that Daytrotter session and, then, when he played it for me to show me something about it. Coby Brown’s [“Hospital”] is a song that the Outlaw Roadshow [artist] Kasey Anderson recorded. I don’t think a lot of people had heard of them. [Counting Crows’] David Immerglück had been playing with Coby for fun on the side the last few years, and he brought that song in – they had just done a demo of it. It was a brand new song. I’m not even sure all of the lyrics were on the demo, and I had to figure out what Coby was saying. My lyrics are different than [Coby’s] because I figured out wrong. There were no rules except that you love the song. We weren’t trying to be obscure, but we certainly weren’t trying to play a bunch of famous songs. I mean, even the most well-known songs here are only well-known to music geeks like us. It’s not like Big Star is out there in the mass culture very much.

Speaking of your covers and also your unique song selection, I know that when you played the Capitol Theatre here in New York, you covered the Grateful Dead, which was a nod to the venue’s history. Can you talk about your cover of “Friend of the Devil?”

We play it often—not every show, but it’s one of the songs that we play because I really like it. We came up with a really cool, original version of that song. We really made it our own. It’s a song that I loved growing up—we all grew up with that shit. We grew up in the Bay Area, so the Dead was everywhere, for better or worse. [Laughs.] I mean, I love that song, I don’t know why we played it that night. I mean, we’ve got about 100-some-odd songs in rotation, and that’s certainly one of them. I just love the song. Like all the songs on this record, it’s a part of what we love about music.

Speaking of musical influences and getting back to the upcoming Wallflowers tour, I actually saw you guys with The Wallflowers probably 15 or 16 years ago in Saratoga Springs. Levon Helm was sitting in with The Wallflowers, and you mentioned that that was the first time you’d met him. Do you remember that show? Could you talk about meeting him for the first time at SPAC?

I don’t really remember much about it, except that I remember meeting him. I remember thinking, “Wow, Jake grew up with this shit. Crazy.” I mean, because those are people that you idolize your whole life, and for him it was just Uncle Levon—not that [Jake] wasn’t thrilled. I’m sure he was, but I barely spoke to [Levon] that night. I’m not really good at meeting my idols. It’s never been my strong suit. I think I spoke three words to Levon that night. There’s not much that’s memorable about it other than the fact that it actually happened. But I don’t think I talked to him for very long, I was probably far too shy for that.

Well, I guess that’s the good thing about Twitter and the blogosphere. It’s easier to interact with everyone from idols to fans in a very direct way that still feels very guarded in a sense.

It’s true. You know, it’s funny ‘cause Taylor and I—Taylor Goldsmith from Dawes—we became friends through Ryan and other friends’ mutual acquaintances on Twitter. It’s strange: we have a lot of mutual friends, like Sean from Daytrotter and Ryan. We were talking on the phone, emailing and tweeting back and forth for a year and a half before we actually met. It was funny to all of our friends that we had never actually met. And then we did! He was playing a show at Webster Hall, right on [my] corner. And the night before, he was out with one of my best friends—another Outlaw Roadshow musician who also manages a lot of bands. And they called to ask me to come down and have beers, so I did. And we’re sitting there talking for a while and then we realized, “Oh shit, you know, we’ve never met before. We’ve got to tell everybody.” And we did. We got on Twitter and told all of our friends and they’re all talking about how, “Oh, that’s great.” It’s sort of silly. But it’s nice, I guess, you know? I’ve made a lot of friends that way, which isn’t the worst thing in the world.

Yeah, and it’s another medium to bring back that community.

Yeah it really does, especially with musicians, it really does function that way.

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