Counting Crows Guitarist Dan Vickrey Talks Tender Mercies
Fri, 02 Dec 2011 15:46:34
There's something very special about Tender Mercies.
Counting Crows guitarist Dan Vickrey began writing songs for the group's self-titled debut almost two decades ago, but he always knew he'd release them at just the right time. That time is now…
The album is a collection of soulful acoustic numbers that are often blissful, mostly brilliant, and utterly beautiful. It emanates a classic American spirit that's simply infectious and unforgettable. It's a must-have for all Crows fans and rock fans at large…
Dan Vickrey opened up about Tender Mercies to ARTISTdirect.com editor and Dolor author Rick Florino in this exclusive interview…
Even though the album is 20 years in the making, it still sounds fresh. Were these songs always timeless to you?
Definitely, I think that's the key right there. I never forgot about these songs. I've always loved them. Some have been gathered along the way. The timeless quality was evident when we first started playing the songs. They felt like an old shoe even then. Kurt [Stevenson, bass], in particular, writes songs that are traditional. "Mercy" is his, and it feels like it's been around forever like a Hank Williams song. At various times, we've taken drunken stabs at recording these back in the '90s. It never really worked out [Laughs]. Since we had some time, I got the idea that we should just do this thing. The beautiful thing is we really didn't think too much about it. We just did it. We've been playing most of the songs for 20 years. We put a Pro Tools rig in the room, got a guy to set the mics up, and played. We didn't bother to even isolate any sound. The drums are being recorded live with the lead vocals. That probably hasn't been done in a while. We're decent players at this point. We're probably better than we were in the '90s—definitely more sober [Laughs].
What's the story behind "Safe and Sound"?
I wrote that song when I was in living in San Francisco right before I joined Counting Crows. It was a song about depression. I was pretty depressed at the moment thinking, "What am I going to do for the rest of my life?" It was the early '90s and I was playing in bands and there were no big prospects. This was probably a year before I even met Counting Crows. I was wondering what I was going to do with my life, and I was around 26 or so. I broke up with the girlfriend I was living with. It occurred to me that "I'm the luckiest man in the world", but it was a joke. I wasn't feeling very lucky at that moment. I had that song. A year and a half later, I joined Crows and went on tour. Adam Duritz and I were living together in Berklee for a brief spell during one of the tours. We befriended Sean Penn, and he was working on The Crossing Guard. He had us write a song for him that ended up not being in the movie, but we got to hang with Sean a few times. He called us up one day and asked, "What are you doing?" I was like, "We're having a party". He said, "I'm coming up!" He was up at the house by mid-evening. We were talking, and he asked me to play one of my songs. I asked, "How did you know I write songs?" He looked at me like, "C'mon". I played him "Safe and Sound" because it was a song I love. He said, "What do you call that song?" I was like, "I don't really know". He told me to play it again. He sat there and listened to it with his hands on his face kneeling down. When I finished the second time, he looked up and went, "Safe and Sound". It was perfect. I called it that ever since. If you listen to the song, you probably want to call it "Luckiest Man", but that's really not what it's about [Laughs].
Is it important for you to tell stories as a songwriter?
Yeah, some of them are true and for some of them, the truth never gets in the way of a good one! That's where the record lies. They're all stories.
How different is writing for Tender Mercies from Counting Crows?
I think there have always been two different hats. The songs in Tender Mercies are my own songs that come whenever they come. I'm not really a steady writer. I just write when I feel like it. I probably did more writing before Counting Crows. Once Counting Crows began, my main goal in Counting Crows was just to come up with riffs and something that inspired Adam. Lyrically, I turned off that part of my brain for about ten years. I got back to it around 2000. In Crows, I'm trying to write a riff or something that inspires Adam. In Tender Mercies, it's whenever I feel a song, that's what I write. It has to fit in with Patrick and Kurt's songs as well.
If you were to compare this album to a movie or a combination of movies, what would you compare it to?
That's a good question! What's that Jack Nicholson movie? Maybe Chinatown or something [Laughs]. To me, it seems epic. It's been so long. I don't know if I have an answer to that one. Chinatown was my first thought. It's got some grit to it. It's not easy, and it's epic in its own way.
How did you choose the album cover?
When I moved back to San Francisco in the late '80s, early '90s, I worked with a guy at Tower Records. I was a starving musician and he was a starving artist. Eventually, he moved to L.A. and made a name for himself. When we needed a cover, I called him up. I worked with him to put the era together. It was all from that era. It's mainly about old friends. That's who all of these people are. It's great to put this together with people who have been in my life for twenty plus years.
Have you heard Tender Mercies?