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Interview: James Durbin Discusses His Debut Record, Memories of a Beautiful Disaster

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On November 21, American Idol season 10 favorite James Durbin released his debut record, Memories of a Beautiful Disaster, on Wind-up Records.

The 11-track album, produced by the highly acclaimed Howard Benson, is a well-crafted mix of rock music. From the roaring “Higher Than Heaven” to the nod to Aerosmith on “Love in Ruins,” to the power anthem “Stand Up,” 22-year-old Durbin proves to be a real contender in the world of rock.

James Durbin - credit: Michael Scott SlosarLast week, I had the opportunity to speak with Durbin, where we discussed his debut record, which collaborator he’s learned the most from, and what’s coming up next for him.

How does it feel to have all your hard work out there for people to hear?

It feels great. That’s exactly what it was; it was a lot of hard work. I actually finished the vocals on the record in two and half weeks. It was basically singing three songs a day and getting them finished, having to sing each song 15 times or so to really get the right one. That was a lot of wear and tear on my voice, but it was well worth it.

On the release date, were you more anxious or more excited about your record coming out?

Definitely more excited. Before the release, all my fans were counting down the days, and I was counting along with them. It was very, very exciting. I think it’s more exciting to have it out there. I found out today that I sold 28,000 copies my first week. It’s like, wow, you know? This is like the moment of truth. This is what all the hard work paid off for. It wasn’t just having a record out there, it was really seeing the extent of my fan following. It’s so great to know that I sold that many. It’s unbelievable.

So you had a signing in your hometown of Santa Cruz the day your album was released; what was it like being home on your big day?

It was great. Not only that, but one of my favorite things to do is to see all my fans; just to see all my fans face to face, see who’s buying this record, getting to thank them and shake their hand. And be like, “You know what, thank you so much for your love and support. It means so much to me, it means so much to my family.” This has been my dream. And now my dream’s come true. I get to work in music and support myself and support my family in the process. That’s all I’ve ever wanted.

Did you feel any pressure to release an album as soon as you could after the Idol tour wrapped up?

I was very anxious to get it out there. I had just come off of Idol and I was singing cover songs all the time. It was definitely, definitely worth the experience. But then I did the Idol Live! tour and that was another two and half months of singing the same two cover songs every single night. I was really itching to play my own music and get it out there.

With the tour, you guys played the U.S., then you went over to the Philippines, so when did you record the bulk of your album?

There was a week in between right after the U.S. leg ended. We had a week off before we went to the Philippines. That week off, I recorded two songs, then went to the Philippines for a week and came back and finished all the rest of the vocals. I think, in all, we had 14-15 songs recorded; really just chose the best and chose the bonus track and the pre-order track. So all in all, it took about two and a half weeks to record all the vocals, which wasn’t a long time at all.

Did you go into making the record with a specific message that you wanted to get across?

No, I wanted to make a record that had songs that I could relate to, songs that I could sing about personal experiences; to sing them with that intensity, that emotion. And that’s where the name of the album comes from, Memories of a Beautiful Disaster, looking back on my life and looking back on moments of my life that at the time I thought were disastrous. And maybe at the time I was thinking, I wish this never happened. Why am I like this? Why did I do this? Why did I do that? But now I can look back at those moments and see the beauty in the pain and see the beauty in what was once a disaster.

How did you decide on Howard Benson to produce your record?

Howard actually reached out as being interested in producing the record. Amazingly talented producer. Grammy Award winning producer. One of my longtime favorite bands is My Chemical Romance. He produced their record, Three Cheers For Sweet Revenge. He did four Motörhead records. I mean, the guy’s a genius. I wanted to come out with my first album saying, “I’m here. I’m ready to be a real player in this game.” I wanted to make a statement and I got Howard Benson to produce it. He’s one of the biggest producers in the world, so it was definitely a no-brainer.

How did “Love Me Bad” come about and what was the decision behind making it your lead single?

The song was written by Marti Frederickson. Marti wrote it with me in mind. The reason I chose the song is because it’s a really available song. It’s very available, it’s very acceptable. You know, Idol has a wide variety of listeners and viewers, who I wanted to make an album that was available to each and every one of them, so that they could find something within the songs that they like, even if they don’t listen to rock, if they don’t listen to active rock, or contemporary, or any of that, you know? And I really think that “Love Me Bad” embodies that. It was soft enough for someone that doesn’t listen to rock and it was heavy enough for someone that does. I think we really found a common ground with that song, and it worked really well to make a kick-ass video.

Well, how was the shoot for the music video, and who came up with the overall concept?

Well, I came up with the concept. I talked with the director, Roman White, about it. And it was so much fun to shoot. We shot it out in Barstow, California, an hour and a half southwest of Las Vegas. Out there driving around, the car accidentally blew up. It was on fire, burned a hole in the hood. And I got to pull stuff out of the car and light it all on fire. For anyone that watched American Idol this season, they definitely know that I’m a pyromaniac.I love fire and explosions in my performances. That’s just the music I grew up listening to. A lot of KISS and Mötley Crüe. A lot of their music videos and stage shows were all about pyrotechnics; it was all about putting on a show, and that’s what I really wanted to do on Idol, and that’s what I did in the “Love Me Bad” music video, as well.

Speaking of Idol, you collaborated with David Cook on a track called “Screaming.” Had you originally thought about collaborating with someone who had also come off the show?

I didn’t, actually. The story’s sort of funny. It was in the middle of the Idol Live! tour, and we had a couple days off in New York. I showed up at the studio ready to do a writing session and David Cook was there in the studio. He was there before me, and we were sort of just hanging out and talking. A half-hour, 40 minutes go by and I decided to ask him. I’m like, “David, what are you doing in New York?” [laughs] He says, “Well, I’m here to write with you.” I was like, “Okay.” Everything sort of clicked at that point. We all started working on the song and that’s what happened. I love the song; it’s one of my favorite songs on the record.

Another big collaboration on your record was with Mick Mars on “Outcast.” How was your experience working with him?

Oh, Mick was great. Mick’s amazing. It was so great just walking into the studio and getting to hang out with Mick Mars and watch him record this song. It was so great, you know? He really is a one of a kind. He has so much history in the business, and it was really cool. Everything that Mick puts his hands on is recognizable, you know? Everything that Mötley Crüe does, you hear that Mick Mars guitar line and you know it’s a Mick Mars song. You can tell right away as soon as he starts playing, like, “Alright, that’s Mick Mars.” On “Outcast,” you hear that and you’re like, “That’s Mick Mars.” It was definitely a very impressionable experience.

Very cool. I know you collaborated with a lot of different people, during the Idol tour. You mentioned working with James Michael and DJ Ashba from Sixx:A.M.; which one of your collaborators did you learn the most from while working on your record?

I’d probably have to say James Michael. He’s a really, really intelligent guy. It was so much fun to hang out with him, being in the same room with him and [figuring] out how he gets his vocal melody ideas. He’s really, really in tune with his songwriting capabilities. He’d just think of something on the spot, it’s just amazing. I definitely try and every time I hear something that could be a song idea, I record it. That’s one of the things he told me. Every time he hears a song idea, he records it. That’s one of the things that I took away.

What are you hoping that fans take away from Memories of a Beautiful Disaster?

I think a better knowledge of who I am as a musician. People got a good idea as to who I am as a person and as a singer, but now, this is really me. This is James Durbin, the songwriter. This is me singing my songs, songs that I wrote, you know, singing songs that are inspired by my life. Not songs that inspired me, as I sang on Idol, but this is really my chance to shine. And my fans have been nothing but supportive. They continue to be supportive, from my Idol days, and just so supportive of everything I’ve been doing and up-to-date and keeping up with what’s going on. It’s great.

When I listened to your album, I felt like the songs were recorded with the live experience in mind; was this a conscience decision on your part?

Absolutely. One of my main goals when making this record was to make a record that you can come to one of our live shows and hear the exact same thing. You’re not paying for some overly produced bullcrap when going to a live performance and everything sounds completely different. Our live performance sounds exactly like the record, and that’s always been something that I’ve felt strongly about.

As someone who has come off of Idol, do you feel like your record represents the person that people got to know on the show?

Definitely. These songs are about my life, my love, my experiences. There are songs about how much I love my fiancé, and then there’s also songs about growing up being bullied, songs about being singled out and being different. There’s, of course, love songs and ballads and that’s what I am. I didn’t want to make something that wasn’t true to who I am [or to] open up and reveal some big thing that I left out on the show. I gave everything on American Idol. I left everything on that stage, and the fans took it. And they still have it; they still ask me what’s going on with stuff. The intro would be Idol, and this is the real deal, you know. This is the rest of the album of my life.

I saw earlier this week that “Stand Up” hit the Top 50 on the Active Rock radio chart. How important is it to you to be embraced by rock radio?

I mean, that’s the mecca of my career. I’m trying to make it as a serious rock artist. That’s what I love and that’s what I listen to. A lot of the time, former Idols or Idol contestants aren’t normally embraced on rock radio. That’s something I’ve been very anxious about. And to find that out, that they’ve embraced the song, embraced me as a true standout rock artist, it’s great. That’s what I’ve worked for. And really all I wanted out of this was to be accepted in the rock community. I’m still working for that. I’m going to work for that for the rest of my career. I don’t want to disappoint anyone. I’d like to try and please everyone if possible.

And on top of that, Revolver Magazine listed you as one of the “100 Greatest Living Rock Stars.” How did you react to that news?

Originally, I thought that they were interviewing me, asking me about the “100 Greatest Living Rock Stars.” I never in my wildest dreams or imagination thought that they would be naming me as one of them. That’s just madness. That’s just craziness. When I got on the phone to interview with them about the “100 Greatest Living Rock Stars” alive today, I definitely wasn’t prepared for them to tell me that [I was] actually listed as one of them.

Well, that must feel good to be accepted by that community.

Absolutely. I’ve gotten a lot of support from Revolver Magazine. They’re just really good people. I never thought I’d be embraced by Revolver Magazine after coming off of American Idol. It’s really nice to have that support there. And them considering me as one of the “100 Greatest Living Rock Stars” is…wow, I can’t really describe the feeling.

L to R: Blake Bunzel, Jeff Fabb, James Durbin, Tyler Molinaro, Dylan Rose - credit: Nikola DupkanicSwitching over to the band, were these guys that you knew or was there some kind of audition process?

Two of the guys I knew, my bass player, Tyler Molinaro, and my guitarist, Dylan Rose. They’re two longtime buddies from Santa Cruz, my hometown. And then we had an audition process and got out drummer, Jeff Fabb, and our rhythm guitarist, Blake Bunzel. The two of them were formerly in a band together for eight years called In This Moment. And Dylan, myself, and Tyler have prior experience being onstage together and performing together, so the three of us already had that real camaraderie. Jeff and Blake come in, it’s just great. There’s so much musicianship, there’s so much friendship, and we’ve only been a band for a month and a half. It feels like we’ve been together and known each other for life.

So you feel like the band is really gelling together onstage already?

Oh, absolutely. Personally, I think you have to be. You gotta love doing what you’re doing, you gotta love the music that you’re playing, and you gotta love the people that you’re playing with. ‘Cause those are the people you’re on the road with, those are the people you’re traveling with, and those are the people you’re making history with. You have to like ‘em and enjoy actually being around them in order to put on a really great show. I don’t think you can really perform with someone that you hate. Doesn’t make sense.

I wanted to ask you about a documentary that I an opportunity to watch a couple months back about Ariel Small’s story of living with Tourette’s that you took part in. How did you get involved with that project?

I got a call from his people wondering if I would be interested and it was an immediate yes. Before I even knew the full logistics of everything, to know that I inspired someone with Tourette’s is absolutely unbelievable. Growing up, for me, I never had anyone that I could look up to that had Tourette’s, no one that inspired me that had Tourette’s, and knowing that I’m that person for all these kids and for Ariel was just mindblowing. It was really crazy. And getting to talk to him, getting to know this kid, it was an instant connection there. He’s a really nice guy and very real, definitely very real. He’s really got a strong head on his shoulders for such a young kid.

With your debut record out now, what’s up next for you?

We are currently planning a tour for next year and just trying to get everything sorted out. Our biggest thing as a band is just loving playing music. We just really want to get on that stage and just play for these people, play for the 28,000 that bought the record this past week and then some. We just want to play music. That’s always been it for me. I just want to play music.

 

James Durbin’s debut record, Memories of a Beautiful Disaster, is available now. For more information, check out his official website.

Photo credit: Michael Scott Slosar and Nikola Dupkanic


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About Kirsten Coachman

Kirsten Coachman is an Entertainment Writer from the San Francisco Bay Area. She has interviewed a variety of people from across the entertainment spectrum, including singer-songwriter/Matchbox Twenty frontman Rob Thomas, Andrew Dost from the Grammy Award-winning band fun., singer-songwriter Christina Perri, and acclaimed writer-director Derek Cianfrance.
  • WYB

    Great interview Kris, you ask some good questions and James did a fantastic job of answering them! The album MOABD is so good I just play it over and over. My favorite in Love In Ruins but I don’t skip over any of them!

    R

  • Ellie G.

    Very nice article, thank you! Love James Durbin and his debut album, Memories of a Beautiful Disaster!

  • Mary H

    This is the story of James Durbin in great detail. This interviewer asked just the right questions & he answered them perfectly for us. Acutally were things with all my reading about him over the months that I didn’t yet know! Great album–Memories of A Beautiful Disaster. A mix of all good music! Like the band–it does appear they enjoy working together!