Counting Crows lead singer Adam Duritz has been a busy man, with more than just fronting one of the most successful bands of the last decade. With the formation of his new record label, Tyrannosaurus Records (T-Recs), Duritz announced the first two artists he helped to produce and nurture. One is a pop/punk band from Chicago called Blacktop Mourning and the other is Notar, a New York City-based MC and formally trained jazz trumpeter. We recently got to chat with Duritz, and while he did most of the talking, it was quite interesting to hear about his new endeavor.
BE: Hey Adam. How are you doing?
Adam Duritz: I'm good. How are you?
BE: Pretty good.
AD: What's up?
BE: Not too much, man. Actually I saw you guys over the summer at Starwood here in Nashville.
AD: Oh you're down in Nashville?
BE: Yeah. I've interviewed Immy (Counting Crows guitarist David Immergluck) a couple times for Bullz-Eye. And he got me into the show. It was a great show.
AD: How was he?
BE: He was good. (laughs). He's a good interview. I always get him when he's hung-over too.
AD: Well yeah. You can do that on tour with him. (laughs). Yeah, he's my oldest friend. I've known him longer than I've known anyone in the band. Him and Charlie I've known for probably about 20 years maybe.
BE: Oh wow.
AD: Oh more than that. What am I saying, god! I think 22 years each. I think I met them both in 1985 or something, 1986.
BE: So you started a record label?
AD: Yeah, Tyrannosaurus Records.
BE: Okay. Is it safe to assume you like being abused?
AD: Well, I've certainly had enough experience at it, let's put it that way.
AD: Between running a band and being a famous guy, you certainly take your share of shit. I went from being a very private person into a life that involves no sense of privacy whatsoever. But you know, it's been 16 years or however long it's been now. I've adjusted to all that.
AD: I'm hoping that I don't get abused too much. My bands tend to appreciate me. I'm a very caring record executive.
BE: Well that's good.
AD: I don't get abused that much by them. I'm still waiting for people to start up with that.
BE: Yeah, it's the rest of the industry I was talking about.
AD: Oh I abuse my record company. But they deserve it when they get it. (laughs)
BE: (laughs). That's cool. So this is your second label, right?
AD: Yeah, I had one years ago.
BE: And you sold the first one?
AD: Well sort of. I hear it reported that we sold it, but really what happened was we just made a deal to be distributed by Geffen. Basically what happened was we started this indie label at a time when college radio was disappearing and the indie label business was disappearing and they were all being bought up by the majors. Because bands like REM and Nirvana and The Replacements, all those bands had been on indie labels. And Sub Pop bands that had made it big made….indie labels seemed like a really good business to get into. And so every major label bought all the indies and then let everyone who ever had a band start one. It destroyed the indie label business, too. But when they did that, independent distribution dried out. So we started our label and were having so much trouble with independent distribution that we finally partnered with Geffen. When they say "sold," we didn't get any check for any amount of money. It was just that we went into a partnership where they would distribute our music. But right after that happened, Geffen, my wonderfully beautiful boutique tiny artist label that I had been signed to, was bought. Well it already had been bought by MCA, but that didn't change anything. It was quickly soon after bought by Interscope, which was bought by Universal, and suddenly we became part of like a 20-label conglomerate that was all in the process of consolidating. No offense to them, the last thing that they could possibly have been interested in was a tiny indie label with indie bands. They were suddenly a huge corporation and they had a bottom line to be terrified of from corporate headquarters. We could not be their concern. Plus all the people that had been interested in us, in fact anyone that I knew that had been interested in Counting Crows, after about two months no longer worked there. We had enough problems with our band. I mean, they were interested in Counting Crows. We had sold 12 to 13 million records at that point in our career. They were plenty interested in us, but there wasn't even anyone there that I knew after that. The only person that came over from Geffen I think was my A&R guy. And he was gone two months later. So there wasn't anybody there that cared about an indie label. And so after a while we found we couldn't get anyone to do anything. And so we were forced to sort of disband the label at that point and just sort of let the bands go. And so I've never really wanted to do it again since then, because you grow very attached. I feel like that label made wonderful records. I'm very proud of the records we made, the music end, which was my end. I executive produced or help produce all the records and we made great music. I'm so proud of those records. But as far as the business end of it getting out there, it just became impossible. But I kind of fell into this one. I really had no plans to ever do it again.
BE: And you found both of these bands on MySpace?
"When I was that age, I was writing pompous bullshit. I was listening to The Doors all day long and getting stoned and trying to write songs about walking down the corridors of doom, I was depressed." AD: Well sort of. Not exactly. I noticed that's coming up in a lot of these interviews. I mean, MySpace definitely played a big part in it. I spend a lot of time on MySpace listening to music. I think it's really cool for that. I've always done that. That's how I discovered MySpace. A guy sent me over there to look at his music because he didn't have a demo. Before I had a record label I met a guy at show and he said, "You should check my MySpace site out." So I've always been really into it. Notar came to me through some friends who knew of him. I got really interested in his stuff and I think he's really brilliant. So I started working with him, kind of helping him hone his songwriting. I didn't write any of it, not a word. He'd bring me ideas and I would talk to him about the core of what he was writing. I would take a part of the song and make the whole song about it. I kind of helped him out that way. Then Immy and I have a kind of production team we call "The Devil and the Bunny Show." So we went in and produced some demos with Notar, and we came up with the idea of starting a record company really just to buffer Notar from what I was afraid the sort of dangers of the record business were going to be for him. Because being white and being a rapper, you're either going to be labeled Vanilla Ice or Eminem. Neither of them is a good thing because one of them is something that people are not into and the other is so good that you get disregarded because you are being compared to someone that good. But I think Notar is brilliant as a lyricist and does remind me of Eminem in that sense. I think he's very, very, very good and I'm a huge fan of Eminem. But we really just formed the record company as a buffer so we could oversee Notar and help him navigate the waters.
BE: So he came first?
AD: Yeah. We were talking to major labels and in discussions about Notar with Universal and over at Atlantic and he was setting up a meeting with Jay-Z's people, the guys who produced a lot of the Nelly stuff. But then meanwhile one of my friends had a business partner who knew the people in Blacktop Mourning, like their parents or something. They had heard about the label and were saying, "We really want to sign with Adam, we want to work with his label." And I kept saying, "Look, there is no label." And then they were getting offered all this money from other indies and kept turning them down and saying, "Look, we want to sign with Adam's label." So I went to their MySpace page and checked it out, and you know, the music's great. And I kind of heard a little bit more about them and they sent me their demo, and it was also great. And then I kind of found out more about them and read about them on the MySpace site a lot. It turns out that Max, the band's leader, he was 11 and was playing guitar in blues clubs in Chicago. Ahmet Ertegun apparently saw him and said that Max was the greatest talent he'd ever seen. But Ahmet counseled his parents and said, "Don't take this road. Don't turn him into a novelty act, because with 11-year-old guitar prodigies, it doesn't really matter how good they are, it's all about them being 11. And don't go down that road with him. Let his music develop, because he's really talented." So by the age of 14, Max started to write his own songs and by 15 he'd learned to run a Pro-tools set up and is producing himself. Some of the stuff on the record, some of the basic tracks were laid when he was 15 years old he did himself. He puts his band together then and for the next couple of years their playing around. He's producing a lot of the stuff himself and I realized that the kid is like a little genius. And then when we played our show in Chicago last summer, they all came out to the show and came back stage and hung out. I realized how much that they're just great people. I was worried about them being so young, but they have this really great support system with Max's family. So I felt like they weren't just going to just crash and burn being at their age. They have a really good support system behind them, which is important. Especially at that age, because it is scary getting thrown into what they can get thrown into. And also just talking to Max, he's so smart and so talented. Immy and I decided to take The Devil and the Bunny Show and go work with him again. So he came to Berkley with a lot of tracks he had already produced himself and we kind of re-did all the vocals, most of the guitar, some of the bass. We left the drums. A lot of it we did was stripping back because I didn't realize how good a guitar player Max really was. That's because he's such an amazing composer that there were 12 tracks of guitar parts on every song and 11-part harmonies. And it didn't sound cheesy at all, it was just that he had a million ideas and he put them all there and they all fit together like a symphony. It was incredible. But I was sort of saying, "Look you can absolutely shred, so let's somehow figure out how to make these 10 tracks into two tracks. And then let me hear you really play. And let's get the 12-part harmonies out of here and just find the best harmonies and make it two, three, four part." You know, he's got such a compositional mind. I mean, I've been composing for a seven-piece band for a lot of years with all of us working together, and that's complex enough. Max is composing for a 20-piece band that only has four people in it and doing a lot of that himself. He taught himself to play piano over the summer so that he could put piano on the record. When you see the album credits, I insisted that he put his name first because as far as I was concerned, he really produced it. We helped, we guided, we provided vision and suggestions and ideas. We were there but he did a lot of it himself. He's pretty brilliant. At that point I decided we would sign them, and then all of a sudden, we actually have a record company, which I really didn't want to do. But it seemed like what I kept thinking of. I wouldn't compare Blacktop Mourning to anyone band-wise because there is nothing like them. But when I was coming up out of Berkley, Counting Crows was starting out at the same time Green Day was coming up. I sort of knew those guys, but not real well. But my friend's brother Ben was the Green Day roadie. I always remember listing to the EP before Dookie. Before they actually got their major label signing. And there's a song on it about a kid sitting in the library and he's looking at a girl. And he wants to go over and talk to her but he can't sort of figure out how to say it. And he's trying to figure out how to get the courage up to talk to the girl and he feels like she's looking over at him and he's looking over at her, and he finally makes the decision to get up and go over, and she's gone. Okay, so it's a really simple story. But 17-year-olds don't tell simple stories. When they try to write songs, they write pompous songs, you know what I mean? They try to write songs that "sound like songs." They don't write really about being 17. That's why like it stirs me when 15-year-olds try and sound like they're singing like 40-year-old blues singers. I'm not impressed by that. I want to hear what a real 15-year-old sings like. I did some songwriting with Mandy Moore because she was a friend of a friend. And I was helping her try to learn how to write her own songs a few years ago. And part of it was trying to teach her, "Sing like you. Don't try and sing like you're a great singer. You don't need to be Dinah Washington. You need to be Mandy. Mandy's got something to say. You have all these diaries and all these writings, you have something to say." My point was there was a thing in Billy Joe that I saw at 17 that was like, "Wow, he's a genius right now. He's going to be incredible." And Max isn't like Billy Joe lyrically. He's not in that league at the moment. But compositionally he's really something else. It was like seeing a different side of that same thing. Seeing a kid who, at that age, already had all these skills. Like I said, they don't sound anything like Green Day. The band is nothing like Green Day. But the experience reminded me of remembering Billy Joe at 17 and thinking to myself, "Wow, what must it be like to have that much insight and be that brilliant at that age?" When I was that age, I was writing pompous bullshit. I was listening to The Doors all day long and getting stoned and trying to write songs about walking down the corridors of doom, I was depressed. Even though I was sitting in the library looking at the girl, I wasn't thinking that. And these kids in their own way are light years past where I was at that age. And so it seemed really exciting to be involved with someone like that, to watch him grow up, help guide him through really becoming something. There are people who guided me into really becoming something that were a big deal in my career. To me that is the point of indie labels, and it should be the point of all labels, even though it's not. It was the point of Geffen when I first signed there, to find artists and nurture what was great about them, and not try and turn them into what the last great thing was. Which is why my manager Gary (Gersh) had signed his bands that he signed to Geffen. It was us, Nirvana, Sonic Youth, The Posies, The Sundays, Peter Gabriel, Rickie Lee Jones. I'm sure there's a few more I'm forgetting, but you can see the range of it. He was able to work with each of those bands in their own different way.
BE: All great artists too.
"I felt like I might be selling my bands down the river if I'd sign a major label deal, although every day I look at my bank account I'm a little more regretful of that."AD: Yeah, and to bring out what they brought out. And other people at Geffen had the Aerosmiths and the Chers and the Nelsons and some other huge bands like Guns and Roses, but Gary was responsible for making indie rock huge in the ‘90s because he signed all those bands. And by the way, 10 years before that his first signing when he started out was Stray Cats -- another thing that was unlike anything anyone else had been doing for years. I think an indie label should do that, not try and make them into the last big thing, but help them be what's great about them. And that's kind of what we try and offer at Tyrannosaurus Records. We demand of you. We try and push you. We try and push you to be great. But we don't try and push you to be great like the other guy was. We try and make sure we get the most out of you. And not coddle. I want to push my artists. Art is demanding. You want to be great in this business because it's cutthroat. You have to be great. There's no sense in being good or okay. I want to give them the freedom to be great in their way. I don't make choices for them. I'll make suggestions and I'll argue with them, but choices are theirs. Hell, I learned shit from Max's recording. He comes from a world that is totally different from the way I record. And there were things I learned that I would never do on a song. Counting Crows is about raw emotion, and things sounding really natural like they accidentally happened. We're not about really producing things to sound a certain way. But there was one point when we were recording a month ago that I said I wanted this one line to sound a certain way. And I said to my producer, "You know, this kid Max did something in the studio where he recorded the vocal four times and he had two in the middle and one on each side panned out. And it made this great sound and I bet it would work for this one line to do that." And we did it. It was amazing. I didn't realize a 17-year-old just taught me how to produce part of a record. They learn from me, I learn from them. Actually he turned 18 while we were in the studio. So they're going down to South By Southwest to play March 15 at Stubb's. I'm really pissed I can't go. We're in pre-production for the last half of our Counting Crows record right then and I cannot go. And the record comes out May 15. We're starting to work on the Notar record. I just did a really great rap track with this kid, Young Cash and his producer, mgz. He's from Jacksonville. They had this song that they based on a sample from "Color Blind," a Counting Crows song. And I did all the vocals for them on it. And I loved the song and I totally hit it off with Young Cash and mgz. They offered to help me with Notar, so I'm hoping to get Notar down to Jacksonville to work with them. And we're looking into signing some really cool, talented, young producers. I think in the indie world you really have to look for people that really want to work with you. One of the decisions we made was not to affiliate with a major at all. We're distributed and aligned with Mega Force Records, which is distributed through Sony Red. But we're not receiving any funding from a major label. We're doing this on our own, which is scary as hell, I have to say. It's hard to make any money in the record business right now and a lot of my savings is going into this. I'm kind of afraid of tying my bands down to a future with these companies that don't know where they're going to be in a couple years. The Tower Records down the block from my house went out of business, so where are they selling CDs? I don't know how it's going to work in a few years. I went and asked a lot of friends for advice on this, and one friend said to me that there are three big advantages to major labels. One was they could pay for videos and get them on MTV, which is gone because MTV doesn't play videos anymore. Two was they could play for independent promotion and get you on the radio. But independent promotion isn't guaranteeing you anything anymore. It's too much money anyway. And radio alternative is really Top 40, and Top 40 is really Top 5. So there is not very much music being played, so what are your chances of getting on it? I don't know. The third thing is that they give you money up front. But then you're trading away 85 percent of your company for a loan. Plus, you loose all your flexibility. This business is changing every day and I don't know how it works or how it's going to work next year. But I bet I'm going to find it out and be flexible enough to change before my label is. And by my label, I mean the label I'm on with Counting Crows. They've always allowed us to run our own record company inside Geffen, because Gary is so experienced. So I'm hoping we'll retain the flexibility we need. But in general, now that everyone's owned by a corporation, they have to go so far up the ladder to get an okay on something, that you don't have the flexibility or the agility or the quickness sometimes to do the things you need to do when you think of doing them. And that can be just putting things online for free, or downloads, or anything you might want to put up there. They think that is content they own. A lot of it now is viral marketing. Things you give away to people, they're going to take them anyway, so if you can give it to them for a good reason instead of them just taking it, it's better for you. I felt like I might be selling my bands down the river if I'd sign a major label deal, although every day I look at my bank account I'm a little more regretful of that.
BE: I guess you'll see how it goes.
BE: Are you actively looking for any more artists to sign? Or are you just going to take it little by little?
AD: Well not at the moment. I feel like it was a real blow to the careers of bands on my first label when the thing fell apart. I feel pretty bad about that and still do, although they've all gotten together. Half the lead singers from the bands that I had on my first label are all together in a band called Low Stars now, which just signed to a Starbucks and came out last week. And they are awesome, man. It's four lead singers. They all write songs. It sounds like Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young. It's incredible. But I feel like I owe all the time I have to these two bands and Counting Crows right now. This is going to be a big year for Counting Crows because we're almost done with the record right now. Between that and my responsibilities with these two artists, I don't think I should be out there signing other bands. I just think it would be irresponsible right now.
BE: And you're not going to be sleeping much.
AD: Yeah. We have to live or die with the company for now on these guys. And we owe it to them anyway. They're counting on us too, so just blindly running around finding bands doesn't seem to make sense to me. What I am doing is listening to stuff and looking at stuff because I do that anyway all the time, and cataloging the ideas in my mind. Some of my friends in other bands have called me and said, "Hey, we've got this record done. We're looking at ways to do it." I'm interested in that, but I don't think I can really take on the responsibility of fully signing another band. We're a record company/management company as well, so we are looking into overseeing some other projects. There are some projects that really want to work with us that probably will be going to major labels, almost certainly because they are being courted by a bunch of them. And they sort of want us to come along to oversee the projects. So at that level I think we will be involved with some other bands. But not just straight signings. I owe it to Notar and Blacktop Mourning right now. There's enough that I wish I could do that I can't do because of Counting Crows. Like I should be at their show at South By Southwest. But it's just impossible. I can't do it. My partner will be there. I hired one of my ex-managers. She used to be my associate manager for Counting Crows for years. She moved to New York a couple of years ago and I sort of hired her away to be my partner and run the company with me. She's fantastic, Nicole Pierce. I have a lot of faith in her. She's probably smarter than me anyway.
BE: So you don't need to be involved day to day with the operations of the label? You can do your Counting Crows thing and have her run that?
AD: Well, I mean, I am. I don't think it's going to quite work that way. We talk five times a day. I'm on the phone with the Blacktop guys, with their parents, and to Notar. There's a day-to-day involvement every day, but the Internet helps things because you can listen to a song. We mixed the whole Blacktop Mourning record, but I got the mixes every few hours. I would call back with my comments and we would talk about it and then I'd get another mix. I had to be off in Colorado for a gig when they were mixing, but I was in the whole mixing process just over the Internet. Same with the mastering. Just get it over the Internet.
Oh there is my front door. I think I've got to go. I think I've got another interview.
BE: Okay dude!
AD: Are you cool?
BE: Yeah, you gave me plenty to work with here. I appreciate it.
AD: Thanks a lot man. Take care.
BE: Thank you Adam.