Cleanbreak – Hustling for GloryTuesday, 12th July 2022
After establishing himself in the theatrical/classic metal mold through last year’s Durbin debut record The Beast Awakens, James Durbin returns with a band-fronted outing chock full of familiar, established musicians for Cleanbreak. This is more in the late 80’s mold as far as influences (Riot, Fifth Angel, Queensrÿche as reference points), a quartet featuring Riot V guitarist Mike Flyntz plus Stryper’s rhythm section of bassist Perry Richardson and drummer Robert Sweet. Their debut self-titled album delivers high quality songs, undeniable hooks, stellar riffs and lead breaks, proper and professional backbone foundational elements and James’ stellar voice to bring these tracks home.
We reached out to Mr. Durbin on Zoom and he was happy to bring us into the circle regarding the formation of this group – the work behind finding the right musicians, songwriting, thoughts on the supergroup record output of Frontiers, plus plenty of talk regarding what the modern musician has to do to build a career today, some more wrestling talk, and plenty of future plans.
Dead Rhetoric: How did the seeds of Cleanbreak start – did you know straight away the musicians you wanted to work with and collaborate on for this band, as well as where you wanted to carve your niche to develop this entity differently than your previous Durbin album from last year?
James Durbin: The original plan with Frontiers from the get-go – I signed my deal with Frontiers in December of 2019. The plan from the start, from my very first phone call, I remember it like it was yesterday. We were parked in the car at a Starbucks, my wife and I, the original plan was for me to do a solo album, which ended up being Durbin – The Beast Awakens. And then after that was to start to lay the seeds for a group collective, pulling from different individual bands on Frontiers and beyond, as we ended up with Mike Flyntz for this case, thankfully.
As far as making it its own thing, I was working on the Durbin record for the bulk of 2020, and then the pandemic hit. That’s where my album started to take shape – I wrote the title track and listened to the demo the other day. It was all there, it worked out as a fully formulated song. I sent the song out to Rob Halford, he thought it was great. The Durbin album came out, we haven’t done any touring to support it, I have a show booked now with Enuff Z’Nuff in San Francisco, Friday August 26th. Frontiers reached out to start this new group out, the next project. It will be produced by Alessandro Del Vecchio, who I requested. He did some mastering for the Durbin album, bringing up levels. That was great, I wanted to work with him more. I got to play with Alessandro in Milan when I was with Quiet Riot – we did the One Night in Milan live album, he played “Thunderbird” with us, the first time that song had been performed live with the piano. There seems to be a new album, signing or band with Frontiers almost every day, and so many of those are under the tutelage of Mr. Del Vecchio. He’s a machine.
And I’ve worked with machines in the past. My very first album after American Idol was Memories of a Beautiful Disaster, I worked with Howard Benson. At the same time Howard was recording and producing with me on my album, he was also doing Theory of a Deadman, Halestorm, Daughtry, and I think one other one. He was in and out of the studio. It’s just very fun like that. Frontiers approached me about how I felt about Robert Sweet and Perry Richardson for this band – I said absolutely. I met Stryper for the first time in Milan- they played that same festival as Quiet Riot. Alex Grassi of Quiet Riot had thrown all of our picks out to the crowd. They wanted us to do an encore, which we did with “Highway to Hell”. Alex went and grabbed an Oz Fox pick and played that song with it – complete blasphemy (laughs). We searched for a guitar player, Mike Flyntz’s name came up and he was into it. I breathed a huge sigh of relief and got cracking to write songs.
Following the Durbin album, I had writers shock if you will. I wrote a concept album, interweaving all these lyrics and themes, trying to tie up loose ends and leave some loose ends open. I had ideas that were new – I like to write things for things. I want to be very intentional with my writing. I wrote the song “Cleanbreak”, which we ended up naming the band after. “Before the Fall” and “Dream Forever”, which is a three-way cowrite. And that’s it for me as far as songwriting on this new record. We had a lot of great contributors’ songwriting-wise to this album. And I’m no stranger to that, coming off of Idol with my first album to that – I had two or three cowrites. As things progress, I haven’t done an album like this, getting songs from other writers in quite some time. It took the pressure off it, be a fan myself and just see how I felt about singing these songs. It all came together, and we have a solid, cohesive album. What are the odds? It’s very exciting, very humbling.
Dead Rhetoric: You wanted to pay homage to American heavy metal from the 80’s/90’s – unsung acts like Riot and Fifth Angel among them. Even though it was slightly before your childhood in terms of development, do you believe this style struggled to garner as much attention the first go around because of heavier subgenres like thrash and death metal pushing traditional metal to the side? And that people in 2022 have a newfound appreciation for the versatility and musicianship behind this style?
Durbin: Yes, I definitely think so. I’m not so concerned at all; I don’t care really. I love making music. There’s no real intention about music in certain decades not getting a shot or the attention. I like to write and put my name and brand on well-written songs, songs with a good hook, songs that are catchy. Bringing that pop sensibility into it. I was listening to Judas Priest the other day, and so many songs in their catalog could be straight up pop if you took out Rob and put a female fronting it and modernized the production, I could come up with a list of different artists that could do it and have a hit with it today.
We just wanted to make a kick ass record. I feel like we have that. I have been enjoying listening to this for quite a while now. I got the masters to this in February or March of 2022. I have been living with it. That’s the tricky thing about putting out records – once it’s time to do press and once it’s time to release the record, you’ve been listening and living with (the songs), and most of the time onto the next thing already. It’s almost like going back to it and reexploring it, it’s fun.
Dead Rhetoric: How does it feel to work with such seasoned musicians as Mike Flyntz, Robert Sweet, and Perry Richardson in this group? Were you already big fans of their previous discography and work over the years in Riot, Stryper, and Firehouse?
Durbin: Less awareness. Growing up as a kid with high functioning autism, I have a very horse with blinders outlook. I see one thing and get really obsessed with it. Not so much until these years of my life – just a little bit ago I was listening and looking at Behemoth, Mercyful Fate, and King Diamond. I just do little deep dives, and I have done little deep dives on Stryper, Riot, and Firehouse. There is a real appreciation for that – but for me it’s not so much of what… I don’t get starstruck. Sometimes with wrestling, if it’s pro wrestlers, they are like superheroes and larger than life – especially when I was a kid. I was so stoked to just… I pulled up to the music video shoot and it was the first time I met Mike, Perry, and Robert all in one place. I met Perry and Robert briefly in Italy like I said, Perry’s very first show with Stryper was in Milan. Super crazy in that way.
It hadn’t occurred to me, but pulling up and saying, ‘hey guys – you want to start a band!’ (laughs). That was the first word out of my mouth. A studio band and finally getting to meet them. We exchanged emails, and I didn’t hear everything until I got to hear the final masters. Perry and Robert’s parts were in there on some of them, but Mike. Oh my god, his solo work – especially on the songs that I wrote, I put down placeholder solos and I grew accustomed to listening to my shitty guitar work in the solos, but that he didn’t just clean slate what I did. He took what I did and turned it into something. If I played you the demo right now, you’d be like ‘yeah, I hear that part – he used it as a guide’. It’s really humbling to hear that; I was so psyched to hear what he did cranked up loud in my headphones. I was shocked in disbelief. Hearing real musicians coming in and being produced. Going from this lo-fi demo thing and then putting it in the hands of Alessandro Del Vecchio and Perry Richardson and Robert Sweet and Mike Flyntz, this is just good for business.
Dead Rhetoric: What are your thoughts on the supergroup model where consumers can get more releases from their favorite musicians that differs from an old platform where artists usually stuck to one band for a lifetime?
Durbin: For me personally, I love it. It breaks up the monotony of just doing one thing and always doing one thing. I’ve never gone by that philosophy in the first place. If you look at my discography of my solo albums, there’s a pop/rock album, switched to a straight up alternative/pop album, I go independent and do a classic rock with metal album, and then the next one is an Americana, kind of storytellers’ country-like album. The one after that is a New Wave of British Heavy Metal, traditional metal, theatrical album, and then followed by this album which is melodic metal. Plus in between I did three Quiet Riot records of whatever you can call that. All of the stuff I’ve done in between – a Hollywood Scars side project, different projects never released, I do voiceover work, I have a catalog of Disney songs that I have re-recorded. Sometimes I play with a yacht rock group, sometimes I play with a 90’s cover band, a 70’s and 80’s cover band, sometimes I do theater. Everything, it’s all over the place.
I’m so used to this already – especially coming from American Idol, where every week it’s recording a different track from a different era. That’s the allure of it. In this way, I am super open to it. Of course, if I didn’t want to do it, I would have not done this. As long as I am able to sing, perform, and write songs, record music, and hopefully we can do some live gigs with this at some point, whether it be one or a hundred, just the fact that I am sitting here talking about music that I’ve been fortunate to be a part of, that’s what it’s all about. It’s my philosophy from day one, even before I auditioned for American Idol, is I wanted to be a working musician, to support myself and support my family. Through that hustle, it can get tiring and there have been dips, through that 2020 was my best year. Coming out of singing from a known band, and having some of the worst financial years, and then into a pandemic. Sitting at home, writing my own album, betting on myself, it was the most successful financial year for me in many years. I bought a house in California in the Bay Area and had another baby. Wow, you bet on yourself, you put the work in, it’s a double-edged sword. I have done so many different types of albums too, I haven’t maintained one lane and you can always expect James Durbin to deliver this kind of sounding album.
Dead Rhetoric: What are some common misconceptions about being a musician in 2022 that you would love to enlighten people about?
Durbin: Hmm. I’m signed to a record deal, but it’s not what it was in the 60’s, 70’s, 80’s, or even the 90’s to early 2000’s. When I was coming off of Idol, it was still like… my first album sold 200,000 copies in its first week. If a record now sells 200,000 copies period, it’s doing really good. A lot has changed, it’s constantly changing, it’s constantly evolving. That’s why we are not just singers, songwriters, or musicians anymore. We are content creators. I have to have a YouTube channel, I create videos. I haven’t done one in a while; I started a YouTube series of one take vocals. Setting up a camera and microphone and going at it, recording in Pro Tools or Logic, taking that audio and video and editing it together. It’s all just one-take, performing. Not only the songwriting, but I’ve been independent before I signed with Frontiers from 2015 to 2019, I was independent. When I was with Quiet Riot, the records they released were through Frontiers of course, but that wasn’t any of my business or my name either. I’ve done album design, merch design, designed my own t-shirts, my own album covers. Done the whole CD packaging and learned how to do it with Photoshop. Recorded, directed, edited, produced albums, music videos.
These days you are kind of expected to do that kind of stuff. It brings up the subject of quality versus quantity. If you want quality, you have to pay for more expensive cameras. Or pay somebody who knows how to use them. I think there is so much more that relies on the artist these days. Back in the day from watching VH1 documentaries, you were given a $300,000 record deal, and a record advance. Bands would buy cars, this and that – and then oh wow, we have to make an album? It keeps changing every day. Every day I’m hustling, that’s what it is like to be a musician today. If you want it, you have to hustle for it – and that doesn’t mean you are always going to get it. It’s a gamble – you hope to get 10% back of the 100% or 150% you put into it.
Dead Rhetoric: Cranking the way back time machine, you have the chance to assemble the ultimate one day/night Durbin Metal Festival. Pick six to ten bands you would love to see from any era past or present for your ideal live experience?
Durbin: Oh boy! I would not be performing on that bill. I would just be sitting there enjoying that festival. If I had to do that. Motörhead, Dio-era Black Sabbath. Sad Wings of Destiny-era Judas Priest. Let’s see… a hippie long-haired Rob Halford. Dio, solo – doing the Sacred Heart tour, with the dragon and all that. The light saber. In high school, I loved the band HIM – I only got to see them one time, at the Project Revolution tour, Linkin Park’s tour. Performing the Razorblade Romance album from top to bottom. Who else? I don’t know… we could throw Led Zeppelin in there, let’s throw Queen in there, let’s throw Journey in there. Get a time machine and get all of my favorite singers to perform at the peak of my favorite eras of there. Get Michael McDonald up there doing “Minute by Minute”. That would be bitchin’. It keeps going and going. Too Fast for Love-era Mötley Crüe. I’d love that with Vince hitting those highs.
Dead Rhetoric: Any thoughts on the latest developments for professional wrestling be it WWE, AEW, NWA, or any of the other promotions across the globe? What excites you most, and where do you think things need to be improved product-wise or promotion-wise?
Durbin: Well, I’ve been really enjoying AEW. There’s less for my personal taste in WWE that really excites me. I haven’t had cable for a couple of years, so I just watch clips on YouTube. I enjoyed the stuff that just happened with Ezekiel and Elias, that pulls at my heart strings. It seems like there have been so many occasions in WWE when someone is rising to the top, on fire, and they don’t just pull the plug and give them the belt. Like with Braun Strowman. If this man can lift an ambulance and tip it over, put the title on this guy. They pushed him, and the champion didn’t have that much buzz. I remember with the Daniel Bryan thing, and the Kofi Kingston thing, they stretched it out until WrestleMania, that actually ended with them getting the title. I was at SummerSlam when Daniel won the belt, and then Triple H and Randy Orton steal it from him with the Money in the Bank. They take you to these highs and gut you.
The reason why I like AEW more, and the reason I liked it more a couple of years ago than even now, it seemed like they were developing new stars. Slowly it turned into we’ve got these already established stars, let’s put them with these up-and-coming stars. Now we have established stars, and these other established stars, let’s put them together. I would enjoy more of building new talent. They built MJF up, and now he’s not in the company anymore. They gave him a live mic, nail your own coffin. Here’s rope, hang yourself with it. I’ve been young and made stupid comments, I can look at that and learn. This is a different world than when Ric Flair did it. It created such a buzz; I wish there was a way it could have been a work. But when they went back from commercial, there was zero mention of him, and they didn’t even mention him when Wardlow came out.
I like what AEW is doing with New Japan and doing the Forbidden Door thing. The concept, I like the name for a pay per view. It’s been wide open for two years now. AJ Styles just appeared on an anniversary package for another company. I just like wrestling. It’s my sport. I don’t watch football, basketball, baseball, hockey, or soccer. It’s just wrestling.
Dead Rhetoric: What worries or concerns do you have about the world that we live in today? What do you think the common person needs to put more time and energy into to make the world a better place to live in?
Durbin: My philosophy is I don’t seek the news. If something is noteworthy that I should know about, I will find out about it. In my everyday life, the news, what the president is doing, what the previous president is doing, what any senator or any election or any of that nonsense going on is doing, has zero effect on my daily life. It has zero effect on how much attention I give my wife, my children, the work I get done every day. It has zero effect on getting the chickens fed, eggs collected, and the puppy not peeing in the house. It has zero effect on the concerts I’m going to play, songs I’m writing and recording. I choose to live with happiness and positivity. I will get on Twitter and use my phone, but I don’t like when I am reactionary. I am on my phone enough being a musician, and my computer. It’s input all day and imagine if I was coupling that with the news, all the anger, all the hatred. I know people, I’m friends with people that voted for a different candidate and president than I did, but we don’t ever talk about that stuff. Someone’s difference in opinion and political stance has nothing to do with music and friendship and love. Those are two different things – love and conflict.
I’m not here saying that’s the right way. If more people thought about it that way, would there be less arguing? I’ve been in bands with people that sit in their hotel rooms and watch CNN all the time, looking for something to be mad about. Block people on their socials, they’ve been friends with these people for thirty years. That’s no, no thank you! I just wish people moved forward in life with love and positivity. There are so many things that love, kindness, and friendship can do. It sounds like a Hallmark card, but if people lived by the book of Hallmark cards, there would be a lot happier people living happier lives. Fear sells, hate sells, bad news sells. If you look for good news, there’s so much good news out there. I want a good news station.
Here’s what happened in good news. There’s a YouTuber that my wife, kids, and I are watching named Ryan Trahan. Starting in LA, twenty something days ago, he gave himself a month to start with one penny and make his way all the way to North Carolina with that one penny from Los Angeles, to deliver it to another notable YouTuber that does a lot of good things. He’s raising money to feed people in America, he’s already raised almost $600,000. That’s good news, content that is happy and positive. You can literally start with nothing and turn things into money, if you want. He would trade a penny for something else, sell that and trade for other things. You get a hammock, a bus ticket, a bike, a plane ticket, start over again. There are so many things that we can do. I feel like the good news is you can, you just have to have the will to do it and not stand in your own way.
Dead Rhetoric: What’s on your schedule and agenda regarding activities for Cleanbreak, Durbin, other ventures either studio or live performances over the next year or so?
Durbin: I do a lot of private gigs, constantly gigging every weekend. I have a cover band in Santa Cruz, our season is starting to pick up in the Bay Area. You can find those at jamesdurbinofficial.com or on Bandsintown. I’m doing the very first Durbin live show in San Francisco at Bottom of the Hill. Taking something that came out in 2021 and finally getting to do it live a year and a half later. I have assembled a group of like-minded pirates who want to go on this quest with me. It’s all about starting and betting on yourself. As far as Cleanbreak goes, I am putting it out to the universe that we hope to do live shows. I would like to do a Frontiers Music festival sort of thing, with other supergroups if you will. With Skills, Iconic with Nathan James, that just came out. Black Swan, the list goes on and on. There are so many great groups being released on Frontiers. There seems to be a built in, loyal Frontiers base – a listening family. It would be a cool community thing, for the fans and the bands.