Dan Vickrey has been the lead guitarist and background vocalist for multi-platinum alternative rock band Counting Crows for over two decades. He’s graced the cover of Rolling Stone magazine, been nominated for a Grammy, an Oscar, and a Golden Globe. He took home a BMI Award for co-writing “Accidentally in Love,” which was featured on the movie “Shrek,” and in his spare time, plays and writes in a band called Tender Mercies.
To say he’s an accomplished musician is the understatement of the year.
It all started in the sixth grade, when some neighborhood kids showed up on Dan’s porch, asking him to join their band.
“I went in and asked my dad and my grandmother, who both used to drink 7 and 7. One was a Republican and one was a Democrat. They used to sit there and get drunk and yell at each other. So they were in there arguing. I asked my dad, ‘Hey, dad, can I take guitar lessons?’ and he said, ‘No!’ And my grandmother said, ‘Of course he can!’ So we started a band called The Unknowns, which actually featured Steve Bowman, the Counting Crows’ first drummer,” Dan says. “We played ice cream socials, and I just excelled at it. I heard somewhere along the line, ‘do what you’re good at,’ so I think that’s where that all started out. I thought, ‘I’m pretty good at this, so I’ll do it.’"
Everyday after school, he would head to the local music shop and just play guitars until closing time. Then he’d head home and do it all over again the next day.
“It’s a benefit in life to know early on what you want to do. I think that’s one of the hardest things people deal with in life- what they want to do with their life. To solve that riddle so early is pretty cool,” Dan says.
When asked if Dan remembers what song he first learned to play on guitar, he sings a few bars. “I think it’s called 'As Tears Go By' by the Rolling Stones.”
Although his entire life has changed in the years since joining the Counting Crows, his circle of friends remains similar. Patrick Winningham, one of his current Tender Mercies bandmates, was hot in the local music scene back in the early 1990s, introducing Dan to people like Chuck Prophet and Jeff Trott, who later would play for Sheryl Crow and write many of her hits. One night, while playing guitar for Patrick, Dan met multi-instrumentalist Charlie Gillingham, an introduction that would change the course of Dan’s life.
“It was just a small community of everybody kind of knew each other back then and played together. One day, Charlie said, ‘Hey, I’m quitting all these bands.’ He was in, like, six bands at the time. And I was like, ‘Why would he do that?’ And then I went and saw the Counting Crows play Paradise Lounge, a small venue. They had all the songs for the first record. It was the first time I saw Adam sing. And I was like, ‘Uhhhh, yeah, I get why you would do that.’ I told him soon after, ‘If you guys ever need another guitar player, I’m in. Call me.’ And they went and made the record. Afterwards, [David] Immergluck passed on going out on tour, so they wanted someone else. Charlie called me up, and I did the audition.”
The rest, as they say, is history. The band went on the road for the August and Everything After tour, one of the hottest tickets that year. Dan went from playing small clubs in San Francisco to playing Saturday Night Live and sold-out venues across the country.
“It was fun. I had always wanted to see the country and take a road trip, so I obviously got to do that. I think that tour was more difficult on Adam, you know? I’m not sure how well Adam was dealing with that year. It’s kind of crazy when you’re just a singer/songwriter singing in your room, and then it blows up and you can’t go anywhere and everybody thinks they know you. Overnight, your songs go from being deeply personal to public. It’s quite an adjustment,” Dan reflects. “I remember thinking that whole year, ‘Is it better to have gotten to this point and never make another record?’ or ‘Is it better to have not done it at all and never taste success?’”
Dan pauses. “We were in the eye of the storm. I think it was bigger for the people around us then it was for us. We were still driving in a van with one of us driving Adam’s car behind us. It was pretty small for us, for the most part, until we played SNL and got buses.”
When asked if Dan every thought he would end up where he is, he laughs. “Foolishly, I did. I always thought I’d play with Elvis Costello or Bruce Springsteen, but that’s the beauty of youth. You don’t put any barriers on yourself. That being said, once I got there, it was completely different than what I imagined it was. There’s nothing that can prepare you for what it actually is.”
Twenty years later, the Counting Crows are still selling out venues and hitting the road nearly annually together. How have they managed to keep it all together as a band for so long?
“I think it helps that we started when we were in our late 20s. Being in a band is pretty difficult. There’s a lot of give and take, a lot of ego, there’s a lot of….it’s not like working in a bank, where the boundaries and parameters are pretty set. It’s like you’re all on this one artistic endeavor, and everyone has an opinion. Everybody is passionate about the end result of it all. I often find it amazing that we’ve been doing it for twenty years. Ultimately, it’s like a family. I know the people in our band better than my family, and they know me better than that. Which can be good and bad,” Dan laughs.
When asked who Dan considers to be the greatest influence on music as a whole, there is no hesitation: “I think the Beatles are the gold standard for all music. There’s a lesson to be learned from the Beatles in every aspect of music: arranging, writing, production, harmony, bass playing, guitar playing, drumming. It’s pretty fascinating. And at one point I thought, it’s the easy way out to say the Beatles. Then I read an article where Pete Townshend said even he didn’t know how they did it. And he’s Pete Townshend. Making records, you realize how hard it is to make a great record stand the test of time. And they did it with every record. Knowing everything I know about touring and live music and record making, I still don’t quite understand how they did it.”
He goes on to say, “That’s not to say other bands can’t do it or it can’t be done again. I listen to Radiohead’s Ok Computer, for example, and I get a little bit of that from that record. It’s the closest thing. It’s a pretty layered record as well.”
The Counting Crows’ success has been phenomenal, and the longevity one of the most impressive in modern music, but Dan remains humble in spite of it all. “You realize in music, even at the level we’re at, there is another level. The generation before us…they’re kind of like the Mt. Rushmore of music. The McCartneys, the Springsteens, the Townshends, the Richards….there’s just a weight and heaviness to them. It’s still inspiring.”
As a band, the Crows have been especially encouraging of younger bands coming up, and Adam is even a producer in an annual music showcase that focuses on talented indie acts. In spite of the easier access to growing a fanbase via social media, it can be an even more daunting task to overcome the overwhelming noise from the multitude of young acts trying to break into the industry.
“My nephew wants to play music, and it’s fairly difficult- it’s always been a difficult task to do, but maybe more so now, I don’t know. So I asked him a couple of months ago, ‘Why do you want to play music? Cause if you want to play music because you want to become famous or just because it’s cool, then I wouldn’t even try. Just get another job.’ And he said, ‘I have to. It’s something I feel like I have to do.’ And I said, ‘That’s really the only correct answer.’ I would have played music, whether I landed here or not. I’d still be playing music because it’s all I ever wanted to do.”
Dan thinks about what advice he’d offer to up-and-comers. “I took a few lessons- a couple of years. Then I just put my ear to my favorite records- solos and bands. I just listened to them. My dad, who was an Accountant, actually gave me good advice early on: ‘You have to write music.’ He didn’t have a lot of input in my music career, but he did insist on that, which was a good thing. In order to do anything musical, it’s like anything else, whether it’s being a great athlete or painter- you need to know the history of what you’re doing. At some point, study the blues or Beatles or whoever it is that inspires you. I think you have to have some grasp of the past to go into the future.”