ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED IN THE GEORGIA STRAIGHT, MARCH 27, 1997
Sometimes musicians on the lookout for a creative partner will just bump into the right person while browsing in music stores or hanging out in nightclubs. Other times they’ll follow the proven route of taking out want ads in papers like the one you’re holding. And once in a while they’ll manage to skip right past luck, fate, and advertising and have a third party make the connection.
That’s what happened when guitarist David Bryson was introduced to singer Adam Duritz by San Francisco musician David Immergluck in 1989. Hey, there’s nothing wrong with a little matchmaking in music, especially when two former strangers hit it off as famously as Bryson and Duritz did.
“One of the first times we got together we were in this little home studio kind of a thing,” recalls Bryson from a Minneapolis hotel room. “We wrote a song together, and what really struck me was his [Duritz’s] abilities to improvise as a singer—I could play a series of chords, and he could just start making up words and singing right over the top of it. He had this real natural ability, the voice as an instrument, and he is still that way. We still write songs that way occasionally.”
Realizing they were onto something special, Bryson and Duritz began performing as an acoustic duo in Bay Area coffeehouses in 1990, calling themselves Counting Crows after an old English divination rhyme. Their set included “Anna Begins” and “Around Here”, songs that would eventually wind up on their multiplatinum debut album, August and Everything After. After assembling a full band with some music-scene buddies in ’91, then releasing August in September of ’93, the band took to the road, making a name for itself while opening for such groups as Midnight Oil, Suede, the Cranberries, and Cracker.
“At the time I was a huge Midnight Oil fan,” says Bryson, “so that was a total dream come true for me. We later did a two-week stint with the Stones [on the Voodoo Lounge tour], and it was the same kinda thing. To me, being on the same stage that they were going to perform on later was completely mind-blowing. But both of those tours really did nothing for us—they were just these little moments of excitement. The Cracker tour was what we all count as the biggest part of our touring cycle; it was key to the success of the record, ’cause we just got to play so many shows in front of so many people.”
Steady touring and a timely appearance on Saturday Night Live in January of ’94 helped boost sales of August, which peaked at Number 4 on the Billboard Top 200 chart three months after the SNL gig. Much of the CD’s success was due to the popularity of the debut single/video, “Mr. Jones”, a tune the band actually had to go to bat for with its label, MCA.
“The record company didn’t want us to release ‘Mr. Jones’,” says Bryson. “They thought it was a mistake. They wanted us to release ‘A Murder of One’, but we believed in ‘Mr. Jones’, we thought it was more representative of the record. And it just worked. It seemed to be the right song at the right time.”
Although “Mr. Jones” became a rock-radio staple and was a smash with the record-buying public, the striking similarity of the jangly number to previous Van Morrison material caused some critics to cry foul. Duritz’s vocal phrasing was highly reminiscent of late-’60s/early-’70s Morrison, especially when he opened “Mr. Jones” with the “sha-la-la-la-la” bit from Morrison’s “Brown-Eyed Girl”. But Bryson contends that there was no conscious ripping-off of the Irish troubadour, whom Counting Crows actually filled in for at a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony during a break from the August sessions.
“The easiest way to criticize bands is just to describe them as being like other bands,” he asserts. “Certainly Adam grew up listening to Van Morrison—I mean, we all still listen to Van Morrison—but, my god, every band today has grown up with rock ’n’ roll, and all those influences show themselves at one point or another.”
Whether or not Counting Crows crossed the line into plagiarism on “Mr. Jones” is debatable, but it should be noted that the group has taken a more original route on its latest release, Recovering the Satellites. Like August, it was recorded in a rented Hollywood Hills mansion, with the band living on the premises for the duration of the project.
“That was a suggestion given to us by Robbie Robertson,” says Bryson, “and it was how The Band recorded Music from Big Pink. It made sense to us as he told us about it, so we thought we’d try it, and now it is just how we record. There’s some challenges, you know—it’s not a professionally built control room, so you’re working in the dining room—but it’s just so much more relaxing. You don’t feel like you’re going to work, whereas with studios you gotta go and hassle with parking, then at the end of the day everyone leaves, and then you come back at 11. With the house, it was more just like, ‘Hey, we’re all here, let’s get goin’.’ ”
At the controls for the latest album—which Counting Crows will be focusing on at a sold-out Orpheum show on Monday (March 31)—was famed Pixies producer Gil Norton. According to Bryson, Norton took a more “hands-on” approach to recording in a big house than did T-Bone Burnett, who helmed the debut.
“Gil was there 12, 14 hours a day,” says Bryson, “and was actively involved in every inch of the record. T-Bone tended to kind of drift in and drift out. He likes to just sit back and make sure things are going the way they should.”
So how important are big-name producers—and their varying techniques—to the end result, anyway? I mean, shouldn’t bands be able to make their own records, without outside intervention?
“I think a producer’s role is huge in this sort of intangible way,” argues Bryson. “If you just walked into a studio and saw a producer working with a guitar player, you’d think, ‘Oh, he’s just tellin’ the guitar player when he’s screwing up,’ but if the producer only moves the [console] marker for that one instrument an inch, that inch is multiplied by every single part on every single song. It becomes a lot of inches, you know, and it adds up to a real stamp.”