Counting Crows - Biography
My Marcus Kagler
Any band with a near 20-year career is bound to have their fair share of ups and downs. Counting Crows breakthrough single “Mr. Jones” made the San Francisco quintet a household name in the 1990s, but by the end of the decade their popularity had waned. Although the group burst onto the public scene at the height of the grunge movement in the mid-1990s, Counting Crows were one of the few alternative bands that made it doing it their own way. They built an international following on the strength of melancholy alternative rock packed with sublime pop hooks, a style that had more in common with early R.E.M. than it did Nirvana. Despite the continued adoration of a diehard fanbase, massive overexposure eventually resulted in a severe public backlash, which also affected the groups lead singer, Adam Duritz. With studio albums coming few and far between throughout their career, Counting Crows developed more of a reputation as a touring band. After a six-year recording gap, they made a comeback in 2008 with the strongest album of their career—Saturday Nights & Sunday Mornings. The album reintroduced the band to mainstream success some ten years after its original heyday.
Counting Crows formed in Berkeley, California in 1991 when vocalist Duritz quit his full-time band, The Himalayans, and began writing and performing acoustic songs with guitarist Dave Bryson. The duo experimented with various line-up’s before settling on Matt Malley (bass), Charlie Gillingham (keyboards), and Steve Bowman (drums). The quintet took the name Counting Crows from a lyrical phrase Duritz heard in the John David Coles film, Signs of Life—though Duritz would eventually uphold that the name was arbitrary and meant nothing.
After establishing themselves on the San Francisco club circuit, Counting Crows recorded a rough demo that they appropriately dubbed Flying Demos. The tape not only featured an early version of “Mr. Jones,” but many of the tracks that would end up on their debut full-length. After signing to Geffen Records in early 1993, the breaks came early. The band was invited to perform at the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame as a replacement for Van Morrison, who couldn’t make it to his induction ceremony. At the time, they had yet to publically release a single note of music.
But that would change soon thereafter when they released their debut full-length, August and Everything After (1993 Geffen). The album was an enormous critical and commercial success, boasting the pop-rock behemoth hit “Mr. Jones” and mournful heart-tugger, “Round Here.” August and Everything After sold seven million copies, marking one of the most successful debuts of the decade by any artist in any genre. Counting Crows spent the majority of 1993 and 1994 on the road in the album’s support, performing various headlining and supporting tours over that span. The heavy road schedule took its toll, as Steve Bowman quit the band and Duritz succumbing to a highly-publicized nervous breakdown.
Duritz spent the early portion of 1995 working at a San Francisco bar in an attempt to escape his newly-acquired fame, all the while writing songs for a follow-up album. After recruiting replacement drummer Ben Mize and a second guitarist, Dan Vickrey, the band got back in the studio and recorded Recovering the Satellites (1996 Geffen). The guitar-heavy album leaned toward alternative pop more than the melancholy material of their previous effort, yet there were allusions to the buck-back consequences of fame, as evidenced in the introspective track “Have You Seen Me Lately.” The redirection in sound didn’t hinder the success of Recovering the Satellites, as the hit single “Angels of the Silences” would prove. The album peaked at #1 on the Billboard 200 charts.
Counting Crows again set out on the road, this time on year-long international tour. They added longtime touring member and multi-instrumentalist David Immerglück to the permanent line-up to round out the roster. After another three-year gestation period between albums, Counting Crows released their third full-length, This Desert Life (Geffen), in 1999. Produced by Camper Van Beethoven alum David Lowery, the album was more lo-fi than the previous two, earning universal critical acclamation. This Desert Life wasn’t as commercially successful as previous albums, and although the up-tempo pop-rock single “Hanginaround” was a moderate hit. As 2000 drew near, the public backlash against Counting Crows—and particularly the perception that Duritz’s self-serious persona had run its course—was beginning to mount.
By the time Hard Candy (Geffen) was released in 2002—their fourth full-length—the musical landscape of the ’90s had shifted to an eclectic indie-rock movement. Hard Candy’s saccharine pop, which was by turns more hook-laden and polished, caused many fans to consider them commercial sell-outs. The media was split on the album, many of them regarding such songs as the Ryan Adams co-written “Butterfly Reverse” and “Black and Blue” a sign of band’s maturity. The album peaked at #5 on the Billboard 200.
Midway through the subsequent tour, Ben Mize left the group and was replaced by Sheryl Crow’s former drummer, Jim Bogios. By tour’s end, bassist Matt Malley also exited the band and was later replaced by Millard Powers.
Counting Crows stayed relatively quiet over the next six years, only releasing the best of compilation, Films About Ghosts: The Best of . . . (2003 Geffen) and the Hard Candy-era live album, New Amsterdam: Live at Heineken Music Hall (2006 Geffen). Duritz would years later confess to suffering from a debilitating genetic mental illness known as a dissociative disorder, an affliction that left him bedridden for extended periods of time during Counting Crows prolonged hiatus. After undergoing extensive psychiatric therapy, a healthier Duritz reconvened the band with producers Gil Norton (of The Pixies) and Brian Deck.
Counting Crows’ long-awaited fifth full-length, Saturday Nights & Sunday Mornings (2008 Geffen), was split in half with the Norton producing rock tracks on the one half (Saturday Nights) and Deck the brooding, existential tracks on the other (Sunday Mornings). After a six-year absence, Saturday Nights & Sunday Mornings was critically-hailed as a welcome return to form for the band, as well as a genuine, refreshingly-introspective album one of alt-rock’s most mysterious bands.