Many know James Durbin as the cutting edge singer from American Idol with heavy metal roots. But there’s far more to him than that. In between taking part in music school and theatrical productions, James was inspired by the iconic bands of the Sunset Strip. So much so that he followed their footsteps to become the frontman for his glam rock band, Hollywood Scars. In 2011, he auditioned for American Idol and not only did he make it to the top four of the competition, he gave the show’s status quo a swift kick in the keister by rocking out with Judas Priest and Zakk Wylde on stage, embracing the glitz and glamour of hair metal with his exciting stage attire, and being an inspirational free spirit.
But the road for Mr. Durbin didn’t end there. He’s currently touring with his band, Justin Kastner on bass and Jeremy Cross on drums, and spent the past few days for a pair of shows in New York City. I had the privilege of seeing his first of those two shows at The Studio at Webster Hall.
Despite living on the West Coast, he’s no stranger to performing in the Big Apple. James has had the pleasure of performing there a lot in the past. His show on January 30rd was an absolute spectacle. It’s no secret that he has an extraordinary talent for singing with some of the most impressive pipes in quite some time. With his live show, he brings the soul of the sixties, the arena rock stage presence of the seventies and eighties, the powerful songwriting of the nineties, and the 2000s influence of dominant bands such as 30 Seconds To Mars and Muse.
Describing this tour as being similar to an intimate performance in a living room with all your friends, James took his acoustic guitar on stage for a mellow, yet bold performance of twelve songs. With his second album, Celebrate, coming out on April 8th, he gave the crowd in attendance a beautiful display of various tracks. From the moment that he opened with the powerful song, Children Under The Sun, he proved himself to be a must-see singer. James also performed the first single off of Celebrate, the catchy song called Parachute, which will be a full-on hit. Other songs of the night included the hard-hitting Higher Than Heaven, the edgy Love In Ruins, the melodic All I Want, the emotional May, and an impressive collection of songs from his upcoming album.
When I say James Durbin is a force to be reckoned with in the world of music, I mean it. Watch for James to be touring throughout the year, spreading the word and the sounds of Celebrate. I got to meet up with him for an interview to discuss his love for music and his own journey as a frontman.
Alex Obert: First of all, you said this on American Idol, how would you explain “give metal a chance”?
James Durbin: I felt like I was being put into a certain category when I was in Idol and people were trying to make my decisions for me. And I’ve always been the kind of person that if I’m gonna go down with the ship, I’m gonna go down as the captain. I’m gonna be the captain of my ship, I’m gonna be the one making the decisions. If I’m gonna fail by something, it’s gonna be my fault. It’s gonna be my choice. So that way, I don’t have anyone to blame. And give metal a chance came out from being told, “You can’t do this.” “You shouldn’t do this.” “You’re gonna sound like an impersonator. It’s gonna be a spectacle and people are gonna laugh. It’s gonna be something where people think you’re completely joking.” And I was like, “No, give me a chance to prove you wrong. Give metal a chance! I’m gonna show you. I’m gonna show you that this can be awesome and how people are gonna talk about it and people are never gonna forget it.”
Alex Obert: You received a huge endorsement from Dave Grohl where he told you that he voted for you on Idol. What does that mean to you?
James Durbin: That’s one of the biggest things that keeps me going. There’s a lot of times in your day to day life of being a musician where you feel like giving up. But I hear those words from someone that prestigious and someone that means that much to me as far as a musician. He’s someone I look up to as a musician who’s just conquered all odds in everything and can do whatever he wants to do. He can go perform at the Country Music Awards. He can play with Paul McCartney. He can produce Paul McCartney. He can put Nirvana back together with Paul McCartney singing. He can make a movie. He can do whatever he wants. He can be in The Muppets movie! He’s someone I really aspire to be like when I’m his age or later or whenever it happens, it happens. Meeting Dave was like, “Oh my God! This is one of the gods of music in general, regardless of genre.” He is one of the greatest ever and I have his stamp of approval. That was very cool.
Alex Obert: Someone else you met that is making an impact in the rock world, how did you form a friendship with Chris Jericho?
James Durbin: I was on Idol, which films at CBS Studios in Hollywood on Beverly Boulevard. Dancing With The Stars happens to film at the exact same studio, in the exact same building, nonetheless. In the building, there’s two film studios, there’s one on the left and one on the right. You walk in the building, Idol was on the left and Dancing With The Stars was on the right. When I brought out Hogan, of course Chris watches Idol and he saw Hogan there one day. He saw on TV that Hogan came out and showed how big of a wrestling fan I am. And then the next week, he walked over into the Idol studio when we were rehearsing and was like, “Hey! How’s it going? I’m Chri…” And I’m like, “I know exactly who you are! I have your DVDs, I have your t-shirts, I’m a huge fan. I’m not marking out right now, don’t call me green but this is fuckin’ cool!” So we became buddies and we started going to dinner together and just hanging out whenever we could each find a spare time to get away from it. We could just be human. We went to the Rainbow a couple times. We met Sebastian Bach and we got up on stage with Steel Panther. And then Dane Cook ended up getting on stage and so did Corey Feldman. And then I went and got dinner with Chris. He was like, “Yeah, meet me out here!” I get out there and it’s Chris and The Miz and Miz’s fiancee (now wife), Maryse. That was really trippy. They’re hilarious together talking about road stories from traveling together and they’re using all the guys’ real names, Paul and Oscar. Paul being The Big Show, Oscar being Rey Mysterio. It was just such a trip! It was so cool.
Alex Obert: Are you open to performing on stage with Chris’s band, Fozzy?
James Durbin: Yeah! I’d love to. I haven’t talked about it with Chris, not yet. But we would drive around because he would come pick me up at the hotel I was staying at for Idol. I had no other way of getting out and they were like, “Okay Chris Jericho, you’re chaperoning Durbin now.” One night, I snuck out and he picked me up. We went to go see Stevie Nicks and Rod Stewart. It was complete pandemonium. That was the first time I had ever been out and away from Idol while it was happening. So it was really weird and all these people were surrounding me. Hundreds of people were like, “That’s James Durbin from American Idol! He’s on American Idol right now! He was just on last night. He just made it through! And here he is at the concert!” There’s people grabbing at my clothes and it was very uncomfortable, but it was really trippy. We got to watch the whole show, it was great. On the way back, we were screaming 18 & Life in the car. We talked about doing music together, but it just never happened. Not yet! It could happen one day, who knows?
Alex Obert: A big project that Chris Jericho has hosted and that you’ve appeared at, what was it like being at the Revolver Golden Gods Awards?
James Durbin: That was very cool. That was another really cool opportunity and a really cool moment. I got to present and I was nominated. I lost, but it’s okay, I’m used to losing. (laughs) I got to see Myles Kennedy sing live in person with Slash and that was on my bucket list. Next is to sing with Myles Kennedy. I’d give both my nuts to sing with Myles Kennedy!
Alex Obert: You’re also a big fan of wrestling. There’s been a lot going on lately with WWE. What are your thoughts on the controversy surrounding Daniel Bryan and the Royal Rumble?
James Durbin: It’s sad. As a fan of WWE and a longtime viewer and supporter of the product, it feels like a slap in the face. We all know that Batista sucks on the mic and he’s not phenomenal in the ring. He’s a big guy and Vince likes big guys. Daniel Bryan is a lot bigger than he used to be. That and there’s no one on the current roster that gets that big of a pop every single show. So why bury him at the Rumble? I don’t know.
Alex Obert: More big news to come out this past week, what is your opinion on CM Punk walking out of the WWE?
James Durbin: I don’t blame him.
Alex Obert: While performing covers on Idol, have you received feedback from any of the original bands or artists?
James Durbin: Judas Priest, of course. Other than them, Sammy Hagar for doing Heavy Metal. When I sang Uprising, I got permission from Matt Bellamy to do it. That was really special. He challenged me. He’s like, “Okay, you wanna do it. I want you to go up the octave on the last parts.” And I did. And I made him proud. That was a trip too! I think Carole King was there when I sang Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow. Thirty Seconds To Mars doesn’t ever really let people use their songs and they let me sing one of their’s. I fucked it up! That was my weakest.
Alex Obert: About your musical influences, the Sunset Strip plays a big role in that. How were you introduced to LA rockers, Steel Panther?
James Durbin: For some reason, I heard their cover of I Want It That Way by the Backstreet Boys. I was like, “Oooh! That’s fuckin’ cool!” I was in a hair metal band at the time and I was listening to everything current in that genre that I could possibly find. And that’s also how I discovered Hardcore Superstar and Crashdiet, bands from Sweden. Just awesome.
Alex Obert: What was it like when you first met Steel Panther?
James Durbin: It was cool! They’re all super nice guys. I went with Jericho to go see Motley along with New York Dolls and Poison. When we get there, Lexxi Foxx didn’t have his makeup and concert attire on, but he still was wearing lip gloss. He just looks very metro. He’s such a sweet guy. They’re all super nice. I got to open for them at Rams Head in Baltimore, Maryland. It was a great show and then they brought me out on stage to do Sweet Child o’ Mine for their encore. I totally crushed the shit out of that! And it’s on video from multiple angles, different people recorded it. It’s seriously one of my favorite performances that I’ve ever done. I heard back and listened to myself and I was like, “Oh my God! That came out of me? That’s fuckin’ awesome!” For the last note, I just went up and went major instead of going down. It just gives me chills.
Alex Obert: You mentioned Motley Crue earlier, what was it like working with Mick Mars on your song, Outcast?
James Durbin: Mick Mars is great! He came in the studio and spent a couple hours of dialing in his guitar tone. He was hanging out the whole time and being a sweetheart to my son and my wife and me. He was really good to work with, really great guy.
Alex Obert: What are your thoughts on Motley Crue splitting up and announcing the farewell tour?
James Durbin: It’s unfortunate. I thought maybe it’s because of Vince, but he has no ownership of the band whatsoever. He sold it back in the day and he was broke. I always wanted to sing with them. But that’ll never happen.
Alex Obert: Maybe you’ll do a cover of one of their songs someday?
James Durbin: Yeah! Oh yeah, definitely! I did Kickstart My Heart with Steel Panther. That was fun.
Alex Obert: Getting into singing, who are some of your favorite voices in rock?
James Durbin: Chris Cornell, Myles Kennedy, Freddie Mercury, Robert Plant, Gerard Way, Jared Leto, Ville Valo from HIM, Jocke Berg from Hardcore Superstar, Steven Tyler. Not Vince Neil. I don’t like his voice, but the songs are great. John Lennon, Paul McCartney, Dave Grohl, Kermit the Frog. (laughs)
Alex Obert: About stage presence, how did you develop your constantly revolving look?
James Durbin: I’m always changing how I look. It makes me happy, but it’s also like, “Is that the guy? Didn’t he have blonde hair the last time I saw him? Didn’t he have long fuzzy hair?” Now I’m just letting my hair be its regular color again.
Alex Obert: As a live performer, what does it take to be a frontman?
James Durbin: You’ve gotta be able to talk to the crowd. You’ve gotta work your audience. And if someone in the back is giving you shit, fuck ’em up! Not physically, on the mic. Just be like, “Hey! This is MY show! That’s why you’re down there and I’m up here. You don’t piss off these people, you don’t piss me off. If you’re over there, you’re not up here. You’re not getting paid to be here. This isn’t your spot to shine. This is not your spot to show these people who you are. This is my turn! If you wanna yap, go outside and yap. Fuck off! This is my show, people came out on a weeknight and spent their hard-earned money to come see good music and a good show and goddammit, I’m gonna give it to ’em. If you’re pissing me off and you’re taking away from my show, fuck you! Cause you’re fuckin’ me and you’re fuckin’ them!” (laughs)
Alex Obert: In closing, first, I’d like to thank you for your time.
James Durbin: Absolutely!
Alex Obert: What do you have to say to those who want to go after their dreams?
James Durbin: Do it. Absolutely do it. Whatever it is. If you wanna do music and you’re scared of what people think if you go on Idol or you do The Voice or X Factor, fuck everybody else! It’s your dream. Whatever chances you have to take to live your dream and to feel successful. Even if you fail, do it. Try it, even if they don’t like you, even if they say, “Not this year.” Keep doing what you’re doing. Keep practicing. Keep perfecting your craft. No one got anywhere for just sitting on their ass not doing anything, you gotta do something! You’ve gotta play locally. It’s not all about tour. Build yourself up in your local town first and let people know who you are. Be a force to be reckoned with. Make the people want to come see you. When you have that, then go for Idol. Then you have your whole town supporting you because they all know who you are. They’ve all seen you, you’ve let each and every one of them not forget who you are. That’s probably my biggest advice. Just tackle it locally, if there is no local scene, go close by where there is. Play open mic nights and coffee shops. Do whatever you have to do to get someone to hear you. And keep practicing. You’ve gotta get on stage. If you wanna be a musician and you’re shy, there’s something wrong there. Keep getting up there and conquering your fears. You can’t play turned around with your back towards the audience. I mean you can, but I don’t know if anyone’s really gonna see that. Unless you’re Jesus. I’m sure Dave Grohl could play turned around.
Alex Obert: Thanks again for the great interview!
James Durbin: No problem. Thank you!