Durbin – Raise Your SwordsSunday, 14th February 2021
Most music followers probably know of vocalist James Durbin through his weekly exposure through season ten of American Idol. Educating the public to his love of heavy metal music to a wider commercial audience in quite some time, he launched into a solo career, joined Quiet Riot for a couple of years, and now returns to his passion for classic heavy metal through Durbin. A bold statement for the current generation, the songwriting, melodies and hooks evoke the magical/mystical themes that put Dio, Iron Maiden, and Judas Priest into the hearts of millions.
Here is a wide-ranging conversation with James Durbin – who tackles the musicians and generation of the debut record The Beast Awakens, playing with Judas Priest and lessons learned from American Idol, how much of a homebody he is away from music – and great thoughts on professional wrestling, what the future holds, and his good natured outlook on life.
Dead Rhetoric: The Beast Awakens is the latest album for you – the next chapter of your musical life. Tell us about the development of the material and how you assembled the players for this record?
James Durbin: Absolutely. Following my leave from Quiet Riot in September of 2019, the next email in my inbox was from Frontiers. I followed it up with what kind of album do you guys want me to make? They followed back with wanting to know what kind of album I wanted to make. I said perfect – a classic heavy metal record. They said great – we want you to make a heavy metal album. We were on the same page from the get go. I started writing songs, compiling the material from outside writers and musicians who had some instrumental tracks. Just trying to get a big assortment of different styles of music that I could maybe attack.
And then the pandemic happened in March. I’d already written a couple of songs for the album myself, but when that happened I looked at those songs and listened to the songs from the other writers, sent them back and said thank you for this – but with this pandemic we can’t finish these songs and capitalize on them together. I am going to write this album on my own, 100% me. I wrote all my own riffs, every riff, every lyric, every melody in the midst of the pandemic sat at my desk, looked out the window and wrote. I played all the rhythm guitars.
As for the guys in the band that I brought in and are featured on there. I have on drums Mr. Mike Vanderhule who has been with Y&T for 15 years, studied under Steve Smith long before then. I was opening some concerts for Y&T at the end of 2019 and beginning of 2020. Just playing acoustic guitar with Marc Putnam, who is also featured on two songs on this record – Mike and I were talking backstage before one of the shows and he told me if I was ever working on an album and need a drummer, he would love to play. He saw my vision and would love to take me there from a drum standpoint. Before I signed the deal with Frontiers, I was contacted by Mr. Barry Sparks – bassist extraordinaire. He’s played with Ted Nugent, Dokken, Michael Schenker, B’z, a huge stadium act in Japan. He wanted to have me join a musical group he was putting together, but then my offer came in from Frontiers and I let him know. Barry just said, if you are looking for bass, I want to put my name in the hat. You send me the music, I’ll play the bass tracks. I said, really – wow! This is crazy, I’d love to have him.
I got a bunch of friends to play solos on the album. I play one of the solos on “Necromancer”, a very simple, melodic approach on that one. Solos are provided by Nick Gallant on “The Prince of Metal”, Dylan Rose on “By the Horns”, Marc Putnam who I mentioned before played on “The Sacred Mountain” and “Battle Cry”, and Jon Yadon Jr. plays on everything else except for “Kings Before You” which features Phil Demmel on lead guitar and Chris Jericho on guest vocals.
Dead Rhetoric: The record definitely has a lot of classic textures that remind me of 80’s Dio, Judas Priest, and others in that traditional ilk. What originally attracted you to this style, and are you careful in your approach with the lyrics and music to stay true to the ideals of the genre?
Durbin: Yes and yes, absolutely. I’ve grown up with this style of music. It’s my favorite style of metal, classic metal. I listen to nothing from the 90’s, I don’t really listen to modern metal with the exception of bands like Hardcore Superstar or Crashdiet, my favorites growing up. I don’t listen to much new stuff, very few exceptions that I can count on one hand. I’m still listening to the Dio albums, the first solid three or four albums. Holy Diver, The Last in Line, Sacred Heart, even Lock Up the Wolves. And I went back and listened to a lot of Judas Priest albums in their entirety this last summer when I was working on the album. I realized how important Sad Wings of Destiny is, and Defenders of the Faith, both incredible albums only recorded eight years apart which is so crazy because they are so vastly different from each other.
I was meticulous with the lyrics and the melodies, and very true. I knew I wanted to write something in the fantasy realm, and really stuck to that. You listen to those Dio albums, and the themes – he may be singing something really heavy, and there may be a surprise bridge where they will do verse, pre-chorus, chorus, verse, pre-chorus, bridge, end of chorus, solo, then come back in with a pre-chorus and chorus. I love that unexpectedness you get with Dio. I love listening to and watching Sacred Heart live from 1985 on YouTube. They are performing the song, there’s this dragon on stage, a light saber, he guts it and out comes this glowing neon heart design out of there. The costumes, the stage design, the lore of all that – the world is in a series of decay and turmoil, where can you go? You put on these records, I put headphones on my ears and go for a walk on the beach and get transformed on an audio experience with these records.
I wanted to make something of my own that could replicate that sensation.
Dead Rhetoric: Tell us about the video choices for “The Prince of Metal” and “Kings Before You” – the latter featuring guest vocals/appearance from Chris Jericho? Do you enjoy the art of creating visual media to promote your product, especially in these times where live shows are at a standstill?
Durbin: “The Prince of Metal” video was done on a very low budget. You look at videos for “Holy Diver” or the video for “Rainbow in the Dark” from Dio, he is singing on rooftops in England, and Vivian Campbell is suddenly playing a pawn shop guitar on the streets. It’s a visual accompaniment for the song. Heidi my wife and I, we wrote a treatment for the video. I knew I wanted to get our son Hunter in there, playing the boy to the prince. The music video is very open-ended and offers the viewer a couple of different options for what could be happening. Is the boy playing in the modern world, dress up and playing with toys, and this is what’s happening in his imagination? Is he conceiving his future with these toys, do we see something that is happening in the distant future of him and the orc? Or is this something where he is having an effect on another realm? He is playing with toys but the toys are actually people somewhere else? It was a lot of fun to do and get my new friend and accomplice Gronk! the Shaman, the Orc shaman from A Band of Orcs. They play death metal if you will, toured with Gwar over the years. It was great to get Gronk! on board – bring him into the realm of Durbin and take a break from the realm of Hirntodia. And I did get a pardon from their leader hail Gogog Bloodthroat. It’s fun to enter the mind of somebody else, the world they have created to live in and be inspired by that.
With the “Kings Before You” video, there again was no budget. Let’s do a performance video, and we wanted to do a quarantine performance video for it. Unfortunately Jericho was not available to appear in it in video form due to his busy schedule. I thought about it, how can I incorporate Chris in an improvisational way? I wrote a loose script, I gave it to him and he added a bunch of things. Recorded his audio on his phone, and I recorded that intro video with some not so special effects. As Beavis and Butthead would say, ‘these effects aren’t very special!’ (laughs). Just trying to do something for fun.
Dead Rhetoric: How did it feel on the finale of American Idol to appear on stage with Judas Priest performing with your musical heroes? And what do you think you learned most about your time on that show that you’ve been able to apply now in your musical career?
Durbin: Performing with Judas Priest, that is something that today I still pinch myself. Just the fact I got to get up on stage with them, in front of all those viewers – over 40 million viewers on national tv when it still pulled that kind of a viewership. That was crazy to look back on – that was almost ten years ago. And here I am. Still have kept in contact with Rob Halford, when I finished writing the title track of the actual song “The Beast Awakens”, I sent it to him. I got his thoughts on it, got the thumbs up, sounds great – keep it going. He was one of the first people I shared the album with after it was completed. He said he listened to it multiple times and really enjoyed it. Wow, to hear that from somebody like that, it might not be something that they put thought into how this could affect me. Just to get that stamp of approval, high five, good job, or horns up – it means the world to me.
Really what I’ve learned from that whole experience is to not set too many expectations of what I’m going to get out of an experience. I set the expectation of no expectations – because when I do that, I find there is so much in an opportunity and a performance. An outreach program, anything – there’s so much in that moment to be really grateful for. Whether big or small, whether it’s 150 people or 15,000 people, it’s still a chance to get new fans, win people over, convince people. It’s like a campaign trail of sorts, anytime you are doing a show, promoting yourself and showing people who you are and trying to get people onboard with your band, your brand, and your belief.
The belief with this album… when I was on American Idol it was give metal a chance, and it is once again. That classic heavy metal sound and that visual of being remembered from your past. I pinch myself that I didn’t get the chance to experience it growing up as I was born in 1989, I love it so much. You have to be a special kind of crazy to go out and make this kind of album in 2021. I’ve seen all sorts of other things from the 80’s come back, be praised and lifted back into prominence. This album I hope deserves that attention as well, its music that still lives, still breathes, these bands are still out there and performing. If it brings some attention to me for doing something like this, that’s great- but if it brings attention back to the bands that are still doing this, the movement that is still continuing and giving this music a chance, keeping it in your hearts, in your minds, in your ears, and in rotation – then that’s the mission.
Dead Rhetoric: How do you feel about the state of the rock/metal scene on a domestic and international basis today? What would you like to see develop, change, or improve in the coming years?
Durbin: I’m not really sure. I haven’t really dug into what it is, I’ve been focused on doing this. I know this style of music is much more prominent in Europe. Frontiers is based in Italy, they put the belief in me to make an album like this. And put the belief in so many different bands to make these bold choices in album form and promote it and tour it. I’m a positive outlook sort of person, and choose to look at those sort of things with everything I do. I certainly hope that once touring resumes that we can dive back in. With Durbin now – this is a brand new project. The sky is the limit, we have to start somewhere, wherever that starting point is I’m looking forward to meeting and entertaining those fans.
Dead Rhetoric: Do you believe your work in children’s theater as well as your love of music and performing has helped you come out of your shell more as a person living with Asperger’s as well as Tourette’s?
Durbin: Absolutely. I had a theater teacher growing up named Robin Aronson. She found out from my mom that I had Asperger’s and Tourette’s. Asperger’s is a high functioning form of autism. I had a shell. My shell now is my family, my house. I’m a homebody. My wife just saw me at the beach when I carved a hopscotch field in the sand and did that with my daughter, she said I can’t believe you are the same guy who gets up on stage and does all that (performing). There’s a difference there.
Growing up, theater helped me find myself, and that teacher told me when I am performing on stage, I have no ailments, nothing is bothering you because you’re assuming the role of somebody else. How about when you step off the stage, who is the role and the character of James Durbin? Who is the person that you see yourself as, behind closed doors? Assume that character and put that role on when you have to. Make eye contact with people, make friends, and be a good person, and utilize these traits and human characteristics that you didn’t because I believed in my diagnosis, that these are your limitations, this is who you are, this is what is expected of you by society. Instead I was able to change that mindset, and change that belief system in myself. That’s part of the reason I am who I am and where I am.
Dead Rhetoric: Did you also know at a specific time when you had that power and range in your voice, and you were making an impact with your voice?
Durbin: My mom was taking care of her mom who was sick in the hospital. I was home a lot, and I had YouTube and was big into metal at that point, classic metal. I would put these songs on YouTube, live performances, and I would try to match the singers. In tone, in range, in note, the way they got to the note. Some guys scoop up into the note, like ‘ahhhh’ and some guys go straightforward and just belt out the ‘AHHH’. It was nice to have that time to develop it. I have always been a tenor in choirs, honor choirs, California honor choirs, performance in men’s group chorus, theater chorus. All that stuff growing up. This was around the time my voice started to go deeper, and I didn’t want it to go deeper. At that time I found Robert Plant, Freddie Mercury, Steve Perry, Rob Halford, Ronnie James Dio, Bruce Dickinson. Even Miljenko Matijevic of Steelheart, listen to that guy sing! He is older and can sing like Mariah Carey. Stuff like that.
Dead Rhetoric: What would surprise people to learn about James Durbin the person away from what they’ve been able to know and learn over the years?
Durbin: I’m not the guy that I am on stage. I’m a homebody, I’m just a regular guy. Lately I’ve really been enjoying listening to Michael McDonald (laughs). For some reason I really like his vocal tone, his note choices and his musical sensibility. I think that would be the most surprising. From time to time I put on a mustache and sing with a yacht rock band.
Dead Rhetoric: What are three albums that you consider an essential part of what shaped your viewpoint on heavy metal as a genre – and what has been the best concert that you personally witnessed from a fan perspective, and what made it so special to you?
Durbin: Oh, the concert one is tough. For albums currently I’d have to say Judas Priest – Sad Wings of Destiny. Dio – Holy Diver. And… what would the third be? My Chemical Romance- The Black Parade. All three very different albums, especially the third. That really shaped me and where I come from.
As for concerts. Man I’m not really sure if I have been to a concert that’s shaped me or changed me. I saw an awesome concert, Halestorm opening for Eric Church. I’m a fan of music, to not have an expectation of Mr. Church’s concert. I was blown away by the drums coming down from the rafters from the hockey arena they were playing. A 50 foot inflatable Satan with these glowing eyes coming out of his palm in the back of the arena. Great songs, great mood, a great atmosphere, surprises. Solid memory.
Dead Rhetoric: Knowing you follow wrestling, do you have a specific era or company that you follow more than others – and how do you feel about the evolution of professional wrestling these days?
Durbin: I think it’s great. I just got done with a wrestling podcast interview, that is what I was doing before this. I have been following professional wrestling since I was in middle school. I found it by accident. One night I was flipping through the channels, I had a rough day at school, getting bullied and I found Monday Night Raw. It was Rob Van Dam versus Jeff Hardy in a ladder match for the Intercontinental Title. Wow, that made me realize what a great first match to see. This is professional wrestling – two guys at the height of their performance and abilities, putting on an awesome showcase of performance fighting, physical performance.
I followed it ever since. I was for the longest time a dedicated WWE fan – and now I follow where my different friends have gone and that happens to be AEW now. I still watch WWE from time to time, but I really enjoy what AEW is doing and their partnership with Impact and the stuff that Kenny Omega is doing now. He’s back to being The Cleaner, to being the belt collector. I love that stuff, that we are finally getting the building blocks of an international wrestling coalition. We might be getting New Japan coming into this partnership which is incredible. The best part of wrestling is the performance, the storytelling and if we can get more ways to tell bigger stories. The Bullet Club is back together with Kenny Omega, and Gallows and Anderson, and the Young Bucks. These opportunities to do these incredible things with stories that have gone on for so long. New Japan coming back, Kota Ibushi and Kenny Omega, the Golden Lovers are back, this saga that is being told over decades. I love those opportunities in this, I’m excited to see where this goes.
Dead Rhetoric: Now that you are in your early thirties, how do you feel your career has unfolded – and what sort of goals do you set out to achieve, are there specific items on the bucket list left to check off and accomplish?
Durbin: There’s definitely items, I don’t keep a bucket list per se. The things I’ve been able to accomplish up to this point, are enough of a bucket list. To not give myself any sort of bucket list, I keep thinking of new things to do and lay the groundwork to manifest those. I’m very grateful for opportunities, and the opportunities to gain wisdom. To try new things and gain wisdom from those experiences. It’s been fun to this point, and if it ended career-wise tomorrow, I would say I’ve had a very successful run.
The thing I try to do is to not compare my successes to the successes of others. On my own streak I’ve done really incredible things I am very proud of. I’m in disbelief of the fact that these things happened to me or for me. If I were to compare that to somebody else who’s had higher successes in pop culture, it would be poisonous, I’d be looking at those and comparing to think I have done nothing. I’ve had a really good run, and I’m continuing to focus on making good music to be true to myself. I’ve learned that in the last couple of years. You can’t always get what you want when you are working for somebody else. If you can’t do that, put your pedal to the metal and get things done. Do good, be good, be a good person and follow your instincts. Put your family first, every time.
Dead Rhetoric: What’s next for James Durbin and plans to support this release over the next twelve to eighteen months?
Durbin: I’m planning on this being the first of the Durbin saga. Whether it’s two, or three, or four, or five albums – I’d like to do something that is fun and that I am interested in, and that’s currently this. I’ve got the support of Frontiers behind me, the support of old fans and new fans. We’ve been waiting ten years for this. As long as I can keep delivering the goods, then I’ll keep doing it.