20 Years Ago: Counting Crows Take a Strong Step Forward With ‘Recovering the Satellites’ – Exclusive Interview
It’s a June 1995 evening at the Viper Room, a popular nightclub on the Sunset Strip in West Hollywood. The Counting Crows, who have been hard at work writing songs for what will become their second album, Recovering the Satellites, are about to take the stage. Even though the record won't be released for more than a year, they will be premiering some of the new material for an audience comprised largely of their friends.
“Children In Bloom” is the second song of the night. It's a track that the Crows began playing in front of concert audiences in late 1994, towards the conclusion of the touring cycle for their debut album, August and Everything After. The song that comes before it, an early version of “Have You Seen Me Lately,” is even fresher than that.
“Those are both brand new ... or, one of them’s not brand new. They’re both new – and the first one, I don’t know what it’s called, because I just wrote it. But the second one’s called ‘Children In Bloom,’" frontman Adam Duritz tells the crowd. “This is kind of supposed to be like a working rehearsal ... because we know all of you. And the rest of the people didn’t get in.”
“Round Here,” the next song in the set, comes from August and illustrates the difference between the band's old and new material. It’s already fully broken in by years of relentless road work, and the band knows every nook and cranny of it. Duritz even works in a section of Sordid Humor’s “Private Archipelago" during the song's middle section, which to this day serves as a launching pad for his extended improvisations.
The new songs, by comparison, feel a bit more tentative, with lyrics that are still in progress. But there are already plenty of signs, both in the tone of the material and the chunks of now-familiar sentences that will make it to the final recorded versions, that the band is about to take a big leap forward.
“We did a lot of that. We would play shows at the Viper Room before we recorded the records, just to get the song and see what they felt like live,” Duritz recalled during a recent conversation with Diffuser. “It was easy to get a gig there because I was bartending there, so we’d do two or three nights there [and] it was cool to play those songs. Especially because I had moved to Hollywood a year before. I had made a lot of friends. It was a working artist town at the time, which I really liked, having come from a struggling artist town. Having been down there for a while, it was very satisfying to show everyone, ‘This is what I’ve been doing.’ I didn’t just get famous last year and sit around. I got famous, worked on all of this stuff and this is what we’re about to do next. And people were really excited about it.”
Recovering the Satellites was a stunning album that proved the depth of tracks like “Perfect Blue Buildings,” “Sullivan Street,” “Round Here” and others on the Counting Crows' 1993 debut had been no fluke. The album was well-received by critics upon its arrival in October of 1996. While it didn't match the nearly seven times platinum success of its predecessor, Satellites landed at the top of the Billboard album charts and sold two million copies in less than a year.
The songs from Recovering the Satellites are part of a solid foundation of material that has kept the Crows busy and in demand over the past two decades. Duritz and the group still hold the album high as one of their favorites, and its songs maintain a heavy presence in their setlist. Their most recent album, Somewhere Under Wonderland, was released in 2014. They spent this past summer touring with Rob Thomas (celebrating his own milestone with the anniversary of Matchbox Twenty’s debut.)
According to Duritz, nobody was ready to see the touring run come to a close. “It’s kind of been the best summer of our lives, I think. It’s been really fun. It’s like the rare tour where ... I mean, I like touring, but I’m always kind of happy to go home at the end of it,” he says. “But I don’t think any of us are that excited about this tour ending. It’s been such a great tour that I don’t think any of us really felt the strain of being out at all. It just seems like it could go on for months and months. We keep running into people in the hallways and everyone’s like, ‘S---, we’ve only got eight shows left, five shows left, four shows left.’ Everyone seems to know exactly how many it is. Three as of today. It’s sort of sad. It’s been really fun.”
So what's up next for the band? Duritz admits that he's not quite sure what's in the cards, but there's a good chance that new music and more shows will probably find their way onto the calendar at some point.
"You know, it’s the life we’ve sort of chosen. It goes on and on and on, I guess. There’s nothing ground-shaking in the works. I think maybe 20 years ago ... everybody would have been really excited," he says with a laugh. "But now, it’s just what we’re doing!"
We spoke with the veteran singer/songwriter to get his thoughts on the creation of and response to Recovering the Satellites, and to get some details on how it all came together.
What comes to mind when you look back at the experience of making Recovering the Satellites?
To me it’s the first real Counting Crows record. It’s the one where we really become ourselves. We just weren’t able to do a lot of that stuff on the first record. I think we were held back a lot by our original drummer who wasn’t really happy with a lot of it. And also, we just didn’t have a lead guitar player yet. When Dan [Vickrey] came in, we were really able to do a lot of different things. Dan and [drummer] Ben [Mize], that’s a different band. Like, we couldn’t have played “Angels Of The Silences” or “Have You Seen Me Lately” or “Another Horsedreamer’s Blues.”
Most of the songs on that record, we couldn’t have played them before Recovering the Satellites, so they weren’t even available to us. I think that was a really good thing, because there’s still songs like “Goodnight Elisabeth” or “Daylight Fading," even maybe “A Long December,” that could have been on the first album. But there’s a lot that we could never have played back then. It’s a fuller picture of what we are as a band. It felt like we were only limited after that by whatever we could imagine doing. Whereas before that, I felt like we really had some serious limitations.
You’ve talked about how it was pretty brutal for you, getting used to that group dynamic and exerting the proper amount of authority when the band was making the first record. Were things easier when you guys made the second record?
Yeah, but I mean, literally anything would have been easier than the first album. [Laughs] It did go easier. I don’t want to say that it was easy, but I mean, anything would have been easier than the first album, because it was just the worst experience. And I think it’s a great record, but I think before that album, if you can imagine this, we had a sound sort of like late-model Roxy Music, like Avalon-era Roxy Music. That’s kind of what our band sounded like. And while I liked it, it just felt really dated and really glued to a part of a time that it had come from, as opposed to being our music.
When we went in to make the record, I kind of unceremoniously jerked everyone out of that. I took away all of Dave Bryson’s guitar effects, took away half of Steve [Bowman]’s drum kit, took away Matt’s fretless basses. Made Charlie [Gillingham] -- although Charlie didn’t care, he was thrilled – play piano and organ. There were no synthesizers really on the first album. And that was hard on everybody. We were trying to find something that was more us, and I think we did. But it was a brutal process. Especially because it was being headed by a guy who had no idea how to lead a band. I learned on the job there, and I wouldn’t say I did the greatest job at it. We survived it and the album’s great, so maybe that’s the way to judge it, but I was pretty hard on everybody, because I didn’t know what the f--- I was doing. But I mean, nobody does. You have to learn in life as you go anyway.
Listening to Recovering the Satellites, it really stuck out that it still sounds like a record that could have been made today. The production doesn’t sound extraordinarily dated. It still sounds really current.
Yeah, that’s one of the things I love about it. I felt like there was a real freedom to that. Because we were making a thing that was us as opposed to something that was …. I mean, we were trying to do that on the first album, I think we got to an idea of what our band should be like, but I think the recordings are a little slick. But on the second album, it could take place anytime to me. It could be now, it could be ‘90s grunge music. Also, one of my memories of August and Everything After is playing things a hundred times, over and over and over again. Playing things and singing them and just trying to get some form of right that we didn’t even know what it was yet.
But on Recovering the Satellites, “A Long December” is not just recorded in a few hours, it’s written and recorded in under 24 hours. I wrote that song between two and four in the morning one night … or four and six in the morning, more likely – and then it was recorded by dinner time the next night and done. It’s a single take. The only overdubs on that song are I walked back in the room and sang one background vocal straight over it and then sang another one and that’s all of the harmonies. That’s it. It’s a live take. It’s like take six, that’s it. That’s not a hundred takes. That’s six takes and no overdubs. It’s just a live thing. And that happened a lot on that record. We would write things, come up with ideas and just play them. I mean, not that we didn’t work on stuff, because we really did. But it’s a lot more raw and I like that.
You can hear that. I feel like hearing a song such as “Monkey,” which references “Ben Folds on the radio,” that’s an artist and a band that had really just kind of started getting serious radio play that previous year. It kind of shows how current some of the thoughts were in your mind and how quickly some of that stuff went to record.
A lot of them were written during the making of the record. There were plenty of songs like “A Long December” and “Monkey” that I was driving around L.A., finishing the lyrics and coming up with “Monkey” as we were going. A lot of songs on that record were kind of composed during the making of the record itself – and all of the records after that to.
You mentioned “Daylight Fading” and it’s really interesting listening to all the layers and things that are happening in that song. And the guitar solo is a moment of climax that’s really, really great. There’s good energy in the song musically, which is a really interesting contrast compared to what’s in there lyrically. It’s almost like there’s an uplifting tone musically, knowing that you’re shutting the door on some things in your life that you have realized are dead weight. I just thought the lyrical side of things was an interesting contrast to the mood of the overall song musically.
I’ve always had that sort of tendency to write [like that]. I mean, it’s kind of nihilistic. [Laughs] You’re celebrating the dissolution or celebrating the falling apart or celebrating the frustration as opposed to making it entirely mopey. You know, it’s the same thing in “Hanginaround” [from This Desert Life, released in 1999] it’s a very, very joyous song about realizing that you have been f---ing off and your life is going nowhere. You realize it, but I’ll deal with it when the lights go out. You know, right now, it’s fun and it’s late and I’m wasted and I’ll deal with it tomorrow. Because you know, we’re all judging some of those things, also realize that you revel in them too.
You’ve talked about how perhaps you weren’t totally equipped to deal with the success that came around pretty quickly. You’re on magazine covers and all of that stuff. How much did it feel like you got a chance to kind of reconcile that and make sense of it all sort of with the songs that you wrote for the album?
Oh, I thought they were great for that. There was a sense of … talk about putting your head on the chopping block. I think I knew [that] even going into it. I don’t know why it is, but you don’t get to write songs complaining about being famous without getting trashed for it. Even though it’s an experience that people go through. Because it is such a weird thing to suddenly become famous that inevitably, people write about it. But then everyone says, “Oh, f--- him -- he’s whining about being famous.” But you know, the truth is, it’s what your life is. You can only write about where your life is. Or I can only write about where my life is. So I knew it was coming. This is what all of the songs were about. I knew I was going to take a hit for that. Before we recorded “A Long December,” I wrote it this one night, I had to go visit a friend in the hospital that day.
On the way to the studio, I stopped into Geffen and I went and I talked to my A&R guy for a little while. I sat in his office, he had a piano and I said, ‘I’m going to play you something.’ I played him ‘A Long December’ and he said, ‘Oh my God” and I thought he was going to say, ‘That’s the greatest song in the world.’ He said, ‘You really shouldn’t put Hollywood in a song’ I said, ‘What?’ He goes, ‘Yeah, you really shouldn’t put Hollywood in a song. You’re going to catch a lot of s--- for that. It’s going to be like, ‘Look, I’m famous.’ And I said, ‘Well, yeah, I know that’s probably true, but what do you think of the song?’ He’s like, ‘Oh yeah, it’s great, whatever. You really shouldn’t put Hollywood in it.’
And I was like, ‘Listen, do me a favor and don’t ever say anything f---ing stupid to me like that again!’ [Laughs] I mean, he’s right, it’s just that as an artist, you really shouldn’t edit yourself to get people’s approval. I mean, I knew what was coming too. It’s just, that’s what the record was about, so I wrote about it. In that sense, it was very satisfying, just like everything I’ve ever done artistically is satisfying. Because to do something and to make something out of nothing or to turn a bunch of weird feelings and experiences into music is a very satisfying thing to do. Because it’s not easy. You know, we got pounded for it from week one when the record came out. But you know, whatever. There’s two things in life. There’s the actual life you’re experiencing and there’s how that’s seen in the public eye. You’ve got to live with the second one, but you really shouldn’t try and live for it. You’ve just got to live with it.
How did you guys end up working with Gil Norton?
He’s just one of the greatest producers there is. I mean, the guy made all of the Pixies records. It would be hard to think of anyone else being more influential in those decades, because the Pixies were the blueprint for Nirvana. Kurt [Cobain] said in many interviews that they were one of his favorite bands. The way they wrote songs was just completely inspired by the way the Pixies wrote songs and the way they recorded them. I thought Gil was a genius. It was just as simple as that. I knew the moment we started writing songs for that record that it was very different from August and Everything After. I wouldn’t have gone to T Bone Burnett with “Angels Of The Silences” or “Catapult.” It’s just not his thing.
Those songs were so much louder. They were so much rawer and so much more searing to me in a way. Believe me, everybody wanted us to go back and do it with T Bone again, do August and Everything After After. That sort of has never appealed to me very much and it didn’t even occur to me at the time. I mean, it was something we talked about after the first album, because it was so successful, but literally the moment I wrote songs for the second album, I knew we weren’t going there. I’m still not sure T Bone’s ever really forgiven me for that. But the truth is, I don’t know, you’ve just got to do what’s right artistically. Maybe we would have been more successful if we’d done stuff the other way. But I don’t know, it’s just ... I love Recovering the Satellites. I love all of our records.
One of the reasons I love them is because I think we went where we wanted to go at that moment. We did what we wanted to do. We didn’t just try and replicate success – we went to make the best possible records. You know, and Gil, he’s just a brilliant, brilliant producer. He’s the first guy we ever went back to and worked again with, on Saturday Nights and Sunday Mornings and you know, he’s just amazing. Still a really close friend of mine. I think that he’s brilliant. I don’t know what else to say, he’s just amazing.
I’ve go two final things and a half and then we’ll wrap. The first one just relates to the recording. I noticed that “Miller’s Angels” was recorded in San Francisco. Was there a thought initially that you guys might do the record in San Francisco?
No, it’s just that that song was written and recorded for a movie called The Crossing Guard. Sean Penn brought the movie to New York and showed it to us and I actually wrote “Miller’s Angels” in a bedroom at the Paramount Hotel the next day. It was always meant for that movie, but the movie, it went through two or three years of recuts and I think the people at Miramax just sort of put Sean through hell. In the end, I had pulled the song because I was frustrated with how they were treating him and he ended up using a Springsteen song at the end. But that’s why it was recorded. It was recorded before the other songs, because we needed to finish it for the movie.
Have there been thoughts about an expanded edition of the record at some point? I was kind of surprised that there wasn’t something put out there for this year. I didn’t know what might be in the vaults.
Well, what we have in the vaults for that record is actually kind of cool. It’s not so much audio stuff as it is video. Because we shot four films that year. While we were making the record, Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, who made Little Miss Sunshine, who were just young documentarians then, they shot a whole thing during the making of the record. Josh Taft, who did like the “Alive” video for Pearl Jam, he shot the Ford Theater concert [where the band played all of the tracks from Recovering the Satellites during their set] in its entirety.
So we have that. And then we also did MTV’s Live at the 10 Spot, we recorded a very wild electric show at Hammerstein Ballroom in New York and we did Storytellers for VH-1, which has never been released with all of the stories in it. So what there are, there are these four pieces of film that document that time, that I think would be really cool as part of like a box set. But it’s hard to find them. Like, you know, Geffen, because they’re a record company, it’s their sovereign right to lose everything. [Laughs] They’ve also lost the master tapes for Recovering the Satellites. They’re gone.
They’ve been gone for ... they’re never going to find those. What we do have is we lifted everything onto digital 48 tracks. We moved everything over to digital to mix it from, because otherwise you had to use slave reels back then. It was harder to set up two 24 tracks together. They have those, but they lost the original two inch tapes. So I thought about that, but honestly, I’m not sure anyone cares. I don’t know. I’ve often thought about doing that. That’s the package I wanted to put together, but I’m not sure I’ve ever found anyone else all that excited about it. And I don’t care all that much.
All of that stuff you mentioned is cool.
Yeah, I think so too, but I’m not big for anniversary stuff. I mean, I like the idea of it if we can find cool stuff and obviously there’s cool stuff to do that with, but I’ve also just never felt a huge need to celebrate the past as much as just to do new stuff. I mean, I understand why people do it, but ….
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