James Durbin: So much to celebrate
A former American Idol contestant (he finished fourth in Season 10), singer James Durbin is a musical chameleon of sorts. Years ago, he sang in a country band and then segued into metal with Hollywood Scars. His first proper studio album, 2011’s Memories of a Beautiful Disaster, sounded a bit like hard-rock crossover acts such as Daughtry, but his new single, “Parachute,” has much more of a power-pop feel to it. We recently phoned in to get the scoop on the new album and the current tour. We also got Durbin to weigh in on the recently retooled American Idol.
I think you’re in the middle of the tour. How’s it been going?
Great. We played five shows in a row this week. It’s nice to have that momentum and not just playing a show or two and taking a day off or two. It’s nice to just go for it.
Isn’t that hard on your voice?
Yes, and no. You have to have moderation. If you have a really good crowd, you want to give your everything. I usually try to give my everything no matter what. I don’t know. I don’t drink a whole lot and I don’t smoke cigarettes . I take care of my voice for the most part. I just chill after a show. There’s no yelling. I don’t put too much strain on my voice before and after the show.
Talk a bit about your sophomore album that’s due out in April. What did you try to do differently this time around?
The record is called Celebrate. It comes out on April 8. I had a lot more time to work on this record than I did for my first. I had over a year to make the record. It’s mixed and mastered and now we’re working on album packaging and everything. I went a little more radio-friendly sound. I use that term loosely because the songs on the radio are anything. There are no genres. If I had said that a couple of years ago, it would mean I went pop. Of course, the single is produced a little more poppy. It’s catchy. It has to be in order to get played on the radio. It’s getting some spins. It’s awesome. I’m living the dream.
What inspired the song’s retro-looking video?
I am a big kid. I have Spiderman tattooed on my elbow and Popeye on the inside of my arm. I’m not a new school video game guy. Too real. I don’t want any reality in my video-gaming. I love my Super Nintendo and I still play those old games. I love the cheesy, shitty quality.
Talk about the song’s theme. Have you ever been skydiving?
I was out at Universal Studios in L.A. I did a show there at CityWalk. Before the show, it’s outdoor and there’s this big vertical wind tunnel. You can do indoor skydiving. It’s super cool. You’re always in a free fall. There’s not much jumping. You don’t have a parachute. I really liked that. I can’t picture myself throwing myself out of a plane. If I could control my own gravity and start from the ground and take off like a plane, I would do that all day, every day. Flying up and just falling down is not for me.
Did the experience at Universal Studios inspire the song?
Yeah, definitely. I was writing with my producer. It was Scott Stevens. He had that idea. They had it as a ballad — like a Rihanna ballad. We worked on it for awhile. The chorus was perfect but we rewrote the other lyrics. On the fourth try, we got it.
You come from a heavy metal background. How’d you make the transition to pop music?
Definitely showmanship. I like to have fun on stage. I like to be a total goof. You watch any video of Sebastian Bach and Skid Row, he’s really goofy. Maybe it was the drugs. Maybe it wasn’t. I love the theatrics of watching Kiss and Queen and Guns N Roses. They knew how to put on a show. I’ve seen Kiss twice. They know exactly what their fans want. They know what they want and how to do things. As soon as you are that comfortable with yourself and you know that everything you say is going to go off without a hitch, you’re in it. I’m not there yet. There are plenty of things I say on stage and I think, “Shit, I shouldn’t have said that. No one will understand that.” I’m still learning. I want to be inspired by my heroes but I don’t want to be one of my heroes.
Were you nervous when you performed on American Idol with Judas Priest?
Oh yeah. I wish they could have recorded rehearsal. That was the first day I had met them. They invited me out to dinner. They sent a car to pick me up. I was on my way to go have dinner with Judas Priest, and I didn’t know what to expect. Are there going to be male strippers and a pile of blow? I don’t know. I walked in and everyone was drinking tea. It was very British. It was definitely my speed. We were talking and cracking lobster. It was a good time.
I’ve met [singer] Rob Halford. He’s a great guy.
Yes. This Christmas he sent me a picture of him wearing a Union Jack onesy and holding a red light saber. He had his shades on. I was like, “Is that you Rob?”
You’ve had to overcome some huge obstacles. What’s been the key to your success?
I think it was realizing that I don’t need to let the world tell me who I am. Being diagnosed with high functioning autism [was tough]. I just went to an autism house in North Carolina.
If the doctors tell you it’s a setback, that doesn’t mean it is. You have an extra gene that makes you different. You can understand things much differently. People on the spectrum are very intelligent. What they know, they can tell you everything about. They’re like historians. There’s one guy who started telling me about Nirvana. He knew everything there was to know about Nirvana. He was wearing a Nirvana shirt. It’s so cool to meet these kids.
What were you like as a kid?
When I was kid, I thought I would never amount to anything. I had teachers tell me I couldn’t live my dreams. Something snapped in me. You’re supposed to tell us we are capable of doing anything. I literally told the teacher, “Go fuck yourself.” It was right at the heat of my pro-wrestling days and I kicked the door open and I said, “All you can suck it.” I left and dropped out. I started doing more community theater and choir programs and singing with local groups in Santa Cruz. After that happened all the stuff started working for me. I started listening to older music. I was figuring out who I was and what I liked without the teachers or the kids who bullied me. I went home and started smoking pot and listened to a ton of music and started a band. I played a bunch of shows. And then boom. I met my girl and we found out we were pregnant. I was still playing music and being a boyfriend and then it was 2010 and I was delivering pizzas for Domino’s. Our son Hunter was 18 months old. Heidi and I had just gotten engaged — I proposed to her in front of 6000 people at a free outdoor concert that I performed at. I brought her up on stage. She told me, “If you ever propose to me, don’t embarrass me.” I told her, “I love you. I have to embarrass you.” I had to do it anyway. I found out that Idol auditions were coming. My band was at a standstill. I asked for the days off and they told me, “No. That’s a stupid dream.” It pissed me off, but I knew I had to support my family. I was still always thinking about it. I went into work on a Sunday and Idol auditions are the following Tuesday. They called people in who weren’t even scheduled. They told us they were leaving the state and that we were all out of jobs. What are the fuckin’ odds? I called Heidi and told her and we were shocked, bummed and completely balls-to-the-wall excited.
So you made the audition?
We wanted in line for hours to sing for 30 seconds. That changed our lives forever.
I think the American Idol ratings have been in decline. What in your opinion do the producers need to do to bring them back up?
I think last season got really stale with making it about the judges. This year, they’re trying to make it about the contestants. The judges this year are just so funny. They’re so intuitive. Even if they let them through or say “not right now,” they give them real solid advice. Normally, you’d have to call every Tom, Dick and Harry in the music industry and get the run-around before anyone told you something straight. They give solid real advice. It’s cool. A lot of people I met in the music industry are super real or super fake. I just opened for Dave Grohl. He’s the most real person I’ve met in my entire life. You think he’d be the biggest rock star with the hugest ego. He’s not at all. He said he watched my season and was a big fan. I thought, “What the fuck is going on in the world that Dave Grohl is a fan of mine?” I was doing a benefit for Autism Speaks. I played “Parachute” and then Ryan Bingham played a couple of songs. And then Rick Springfield played and then Dave Grohl played a few Foo Fighters songs acoustically. It was one of the most magical things I’ve seen in my life, including being on stage when Iggy Pop was playing on stage in front of Steven Tyler. It was one of those moments.
Upcoming 2014 Tour Dates
Marlin Room@ Webster Hall – New York, NY
The Rock Factory – Akron, OH
Agora Ballroom – Cleveland, OH
Thompson House – Newport, KY
Austin’s – Libertyville, IL
Another Hole in Wall – Steger, IL
7th St. Entry – Minneapolis, MN
Marquis Theatre – Denver, CO
The Catalyst – Santa Cruz, CA