Having performed live on TV with Zakk Wylde and written and recorded a song with Mick Mars, James Durbin’s rock credentials are solid, despite rising to fame on “American Idol,” a shown known for producing pop stars. Supporting his debut album, “Memories of a Beautiful Disaster,” released in November 2011, Durbin is on the road this spring opening shows for Buckcherry, Evanescence and Steel Panther, with a few headlining and festival appearances mixed in. He’s set to enter Live Metal territory May 17, when he will open for Steel Panther at Rams Head Live in Baltimore. Durbin recently called in to Live Metal’s Greg Maki to talk about his new album and more.
LIVE METAL: This past year or so, I’m sure, has really been kind of a whirlwind for you. Have you had a chance to kind of take a step back and enjoy how far you’ve come and the success you’ve had so far?
JAMES DURBIN: It’s such a crazy experience and you’re out there for such a long time, and you just really learn so much. I think one of the only times I step back and look at things is when I get asked the question, do you step back and look at it? I’m like, hey, you know what? I don’t step back and look at it, and that inspires me to.
For most kids, at some point growing up, they have the dreams of being a rock star. But for you, when did you start taking it more seriously and really decide to pursue music as a career?
It wasn’t until I was older. I’d say, probably the last four years I definitely started to care more. I had been playing in bars since I was 14, 15 years old and did that very periodically. It wasn’t until about 18, 19 that I actually started to play in a band every single day and gig and all that good stuff. It’s been a long four years. It’s been every day for four years, juggling family—my wife, my son—the band, and then splitting up with the band, joining a new band, splitting up with that band and joining a new band and splitting up with that band, then going on “Idol”—like clockwork. Everything’s come full circle because now I have two hometown guys in my band—very cool.
When you decided to start playing every day, was there something that made you, at that point, start to take it more seriously?
I’d say definitely my wife. She really motivates, she really pushes me, kicks my ass to just strive for something, strive to achieve something. And I wanted to do it not just for myself but for her. You gotta please your wife. If the wife ain’t pleased, no one’s pleased. (laughs)
Who were some of your early musical influences?
I love powerhouse vocals. Robert Plant, Freddie Mercury, Steve Marriott from Humble Pie, Edgar Winter, Axl Rose, Miljenko Matijevic from Steelheart, Steven Tyler of course. I think that about wraps it up. I always find myself going to powerhouse singers who are just really dramatic in the way they perform and their expressions. I really look up to that ’cause they’re being themselves onstage. That’s who they are. They’re giving you a piece of themselves on the record and in the music. It’s not like it’s some other character. It’s really them.
When you went in to make your new album, “Memories of a Beautiful Disaster,” it was kind of an unusual situation because millions of people had already seen you perform, you were already well known. Do you think that put any extra pressure on you?
I don’t know, man. I went in to make the new album basically with a clear mind. I wanted to make something fun, something that I’m going to enjoy playing—not some factory-fabricated bubblegum pop with a rock edge to it. I went into it determined to be myself and how I would had I not gone on “Idol.” “Idol” gives you a stereotype, and it’s up to you to break the stereotype.
On the album, you worked with Howard Benson, who’s a bigtime producer in rock music today. What was it like to work with him?
Howard’s amazing, man. Howard really put a stamp on it. It was really cool going into the studio and working with someone who’s produced some of my favorite albums. I didn’t quite know what to expect going in—should I be reserved and professional, or should I be just me, like a bumbling idiot? And it was cool because he was just him. He wasn’t some hardass; he was just a cool dude. We saw eye to eye on everything, and periodically, he’ll still call me now and ask me something, see if I’m interested in it. I’ll be like, “No, you serious? No way.” He’s like, “OK, good ’cause I didn’t think so either.” He’s just a really cool guy.
You worked with a bunch of different writers on the songs. I’m not a musician or a songwriter, but it would seem to me that it might be kind of awkward to sit down and write a song with someone you don’t really know very well. How did the writing all come together?
As soon as I got off “Idol,” we went on tour. We had about a month of tour rehearsals, and during that month is when I got most of the writing sessions down. The first guys I got to write with were Marti Frederiksen, who’s written for Aerosmith, Buckcherry and countless others, and James Michael, who’s written and produced Papa Roach and is in the band Sixx:A.M. with Nikki Sixx; he’s written stuff for Mötley and he’s worked with a bunch of different bands. Those guys are two of my favorite songwriters, and James is one of my favorite singers. It was really cool. I didn’t know them personally, but I grew up knowing their work. It was the same thing like when I went in with Howard. I’m going in like, should I be clean and professional, or should I be just myself? We ended up banging out some awesome, kickass songs. And then going to write lyrics, we were sitting by Marti’s pool, our feet in the water, drinking ice-cold beer—it’s like, this is cool, let’s write every day.
You also got to do a song with Mick Mars from Mötley Crüe, who I think is one of the real underrated guitarists in rock music. What was he like to work with?
He’s a total sweetheart. I was actually coming out of the bathroom when he was coming into the studio. The bathroom door is right by the entrance. I walk out and he walks in, and we collide, and it was like, “How are you? Let’s kick ass today.” That was cool. And it was the first time that my wife and my son got to come into the studio … and Mick gave him a pick and let him strum on his guitar, and he was loving it. It was great, man, just a really fun time. He really is a sweetheart. He was kind to my wife, me and my son. Then as soon as he got into the studio, the magic happened.
Going back to “American Idol,” you got to perform on the show with Zakk Wylde. How did that come about?
Someone in the powers that be didn’t want me to sing a song that I wanted to sing that week. It was songs from movies that week. I wanted to do the song that I ended up doing, which was “Heavy Metal” by Sammy Hagar from the film “Heavy Metal.” They wanted me to do “Pinball Wizard” by The Who. I was all about really sticking to my guns and doing something different. I really wanted to go out of the box. So I stuck with what I was gonna do, but I knew that I needed something else to really give it that big boost in the song and in the performance. So I made a couple calls to a buddy that I met, Chris Jericho, who was on “Dancing with the Stars” at the time. I knew that he was really good friends with Zakk, and I called my now lead guitar player, Dylan (Rosenberg), ’cause I knew that he had gone on tour with Zakk a couple times. I got in contact with Zakk’s wife—his manager who I later found out was his wife—and just took it from there. It was a very long couple days trying to convince them to get Zakk Wylde. I met him. Really great guy, sweetheart.
You’re on tour right now. What can people expect when they come to see you and your band play live?
It’s just a great show. It’s a great, fun, get-on-your-feet-and-stay-on-your-feet kind of show. Buckcherry is a really, really great mentor. They’re just such a great band to watch. They kick ass. It’s such a high-energy show. It’s a rock ’n’ roll show. That’s exactly what it is, man, a fun rock ’n’ roll show. We don’t want people to go home saying, “How was James Durbin?” “Oh, it was cool. Yeah, cool show.” No, we want people to come away from our shows like “It was fuckin’ awesome!”
Looking forward into the future, what kind of goals do you have for yourself and your music?
Keep being alive, keep being in love. I’m in love with my wife, I’m in love with my life, I’m in love with my son, I’m in love with the music, man. The music is what fuels me to do this. And the fans, we can’t do this without the fans. We’re focused on the here and the now, not so much what happens in a year or five years.
Is there anything else you’d like to add?
For anyone that needs to know anything about where I’ve been, where I’m going, when I’ll be there, go to www.durbinrock.com for the latest and greatest, sign up for the e-newsletter, check out the merch and check out the album. We greatly appreciate it.