Durbin – Piercing Steel

Sunday, 18th February 2024

The combination of fantasy, magic, and mysticism have always been hallmarks when it comes to creating a new world for heavy metal. Durbin brings out the traditional follower of the movement – when artists like Dio, Judas Priest, and Iron Maiden ruled the record stores and concert halls of the 80s. Screaming Steel is the second album, another powerhouse outing that adds more twin guitar harmonies to the mix, while not sacrificing the hooks, high octane vocals, and riffs that make you headbang for days. It’s always a pleasure to catch up with James Durbin in his lair – and this Zoom chat was no exception. Prepare to learn more about the new record, guest guitar solo choices, fun memories with Chris Jericho on his recent cruise outing, how gratitude and humility take him places, and how the right positive energy can create a lot of what people want to achieve in the world.

Dead Rhetoric: Screaming Steel is the latest Durbin album – assembling a new mix of players across both the US and Italian territories. Tell us about the process and songwriting behind this new effort – where do you see the greatest differences compared to The Beast Awakens from 2021?

James Durbin: The greatest difference with Screaming Steel compared to The Beast Awakens is between the release dates there’s almost three years, almost to the release date. The last song on Screaming Steel is called “Rebirth”. That was the very first song I wrote for the second record following The Beast Awakens. With this one, it’s not a concept album, although some of the concept from the first album continues a little bit with “Rebirth”, “Beyond the Night”, “Blazing High” a little bit. It’s traditional metal, so there’s still all the cliches you’ve come to expect, and I certainly enjoy – I love cliches in metal. Someone described my music once as meat and potatoes – but it’s the best damn plate of meat and potatoes they’ve had in a while! (laughs). And I thought that was pretty cool. I love meat and potatoes – it’s what the hobbits eat, so you gotta love that.

The first album was proving to myself that I’m capable of writing this kind of material on my own. When we went through the pandemic, originally, I was going to do co-writing different sessions with different guitarists and different people to write the riffs. And then we hit the pandemic, and I had no choice but to write it myself. I hadn’t considered myself a riff writer, until I had to. That was super challenging. With this one, I knew what I could do, and what I wanted to improve at. With the first Durbin album there’s a lot of excess, with extended intros and that kind of thing. I tried to trim down that excess as much as possible with this one. Since it’s been mixed and mastered and gone off to printing, there are still certain things I feel I could have cut. I wanted to write stuff that was more centered for twin guitars. There was always a second guitar vibe on The Beast Awakens, but I mainly wrote for a single guitar line with some harmonies. For this one we wanted that dual guitar attack, as made famous by Iron Maiden. Anytime you hear twin guitars, people think you are copying Iron Maiden. It’s ridiculous. I love traditional metal. Anything that gives you that feeling of Maiden, Priest, or Dio, Sabbath – it’s warming, sign me up.

As far as the clientele. The first album I had Mike from Y&T, Barry on bass, myself on guitar and a bunch of other people playing solos. With this one, I didn’t feel like playing guitar. I was trying new methods and writing methods that I’m not as skilled on my right hand, especially with some of the thrash element stuff that’s on here. I can fake it in the studio for my demos, but the execution Aldo the producer is an amazing guitar player in his own right. He played, and then I hate tracking drums. I let him take care of that with one of his guys out there in Italy do that. For bass, my bass player in Santa Cruz for Durbin for live sessions Mike Roberts, he wrote the bass lines and he performed those. I had a bunch of guest guitar players again provide solos – which I think is a fun thing. Last year I appeared on Magnus Karlsson’s Free Fall album, on a song called “Thunder Calls”. I think it’s cool when a guitar player has all these different singers on his albums, so I was inspired by that.

I went to a show in Santa Cruz sometime last year – it was Paladin, Exmortus, Phantom Witch, Warscythe. I ended up talking with everybody that night- I had Conan from Exmortus play on “Hallows”, I had Taylor Washington from Paladin play on “Tear Them Down” – a beautiful solo, possibly the most beautiful solo on the record. I enjoy bringing different people to play on this, it’s been great.

Dead Rhetoric: Do you find that you have to be in a specific mindset or atmosphere to channel these 80s influences best – especially in terms of the lyrical content?

Durbin: Not necessarily. My studio is pretty 80s in here. I have The Lost Boys, I’ve got the comic books from there, vampires, Star Wars, whatever else, E.T., all this random shit from my childhood. And then I have my Harry Potter stuff in here, costumes. Lots of retro and 80s influence everywhere I look. I also live in a beautiful place. I have foothills off of a mountain range, it’s trees and a hill. I am so incredibly inspired by looking around here. Everywhere I look, I can put myself into a place that I referred to on the first Durbin album as ‘the realm’. The realm of endless possibilities. The realm of wherever my imagination can take me. I love that. If you choose to look at things – that’s a head of lettuce, whatever. But at the grocery store, if you look closely at vegetables and fruits, we eat this. We take everything for granted.

If you look at the world with wonder, with mysticism, and through the eyes of a child, you will have a different outlook on things. And the same goes with music. Especially with traditional heavy metal. If it’s already been done so well and so expertly in its prime in that time, why even do it? It’s fun, and it’s fun to challenge yourself and place yourself in that mindset. I try to think of Ronnie’s influences, what were Halford’s influences in that time, and what were they trying to build themselves. If I can put myself in that time traveler, I have the knowledge of what you guys made, and yet I’m going back to the past to use the knowledge from the future of the shit you’ve already done – and bring it back to the past. I’m just having fun.

Dead Rhetoric: Aldo Lonobile worked as producer, mixer, and master beyond his guitar work for this effort. How much did you enjoy his work behind this record – do you feel he has a proper understanding of where to position things for the best final outcome?

Durbin: I definitely think so. He didn’t necessarily produce. I wrote all these songs 100%, I have a whole vision of what they are supposed to sound like. In one case there was an issue – I gave him the songs, play them, and then when you give them back to me I’ll lay down the final vocals. One of them came back, it was “Tear Them Down”, and the riff.. it wasn’t something talked about or discussed. I’ve had instances like that working with producers, sometimes it works, and sometimes it doesn’t. Where you have to go back because he was playing the riff in D and it’s supposed to start in G and drops to D and gets that lift where the payoff is from. I’m not super anal about this stuff – but I wrote it a certain way. That’s why it’s Durbin. Cleanbreak for example, that’s different. It’s whoever. Durbin will remain and always be Durbin 1000%.

He performed everything amazingly. He played a solo on “Where They Stand”, played a beautiful guitar solo on there. I think his guitar playing is great. He had somebody else also contribute some guitars as well. With the first Durbin album, it’s whoever wanted to play on it. It’s an enjoyable experience. I love his mix, enjoy the master. The thing with recording music, everybody has a different set of ears and hears things differently. Some people want more bass, or less vocal, a clear mix or a drier mix. I’ve had it all. You might feel in the moment we need this snare to be super wet, going ‘tusssh!’. And then you mix and master it, and go ‘shit – I wish I hadn’t done that!’(laughs). And if that’s just the single release – okay, we are fixing that for the final record. I’ve been there. I have final say on this, and I really like the mix.

Dead Rhetoric: Discuss the cover art work for Screaming Steel – as it seems to pay homage to aspects of Judas Priest and Dio as far as the design and color scheme? Do you believe this type of imagery is still appreciated today and as important as it was during the 80s and 90s?

Durbin: The album cover is inspired by one of my cats – Bear. He’s a good boy! (laughs). As far as cats go, he’s pretty cool. I had done a t-shirt release sometime last year with a similar image, I really liked it. I like the black cat, macabre spookiness of that. Let’s give him wings. It has a Y&T sort of feel, Judas Priest feel. We were developing the cover, and then the Judas Priest – Invincible Shield cover came out. It’s very similar, I thought it was awesome. I love that old style of album covers.

Again, music and album covers, all of this is all subjective. I’m still Durbin – it’s by me, for me. I enjoy it, my bass player enjoys it, my kids enjoy making fun of me. It’s all done in fun. It’s in respect, tribute, and homage, a continuation of that era. It’s exactly what I wanted – I saw the sketch and said yes, cool. It is the coolest album cover I’ve ever had, and it sets the bar.

Dead Rhetoric: You recently had the chance to play on the Jericho Rock Cruise – how did things go, and what do you consider some of the highlights on this type of multi-day event? What do you believe about Chris’ multi-layered presence in the metal and wrestling realms, has it helped keep the music thriving in the modern world?

Durbin: Chris is a pioneer; the man is a pioneer. The same with everything I’m talking about at a different scale. Everyone’s journey is their own, and I am in the practice of not comparing my accomplishments to the accomplishments of others. My journey is my own, and my accomplishments are more than I could have fathomed or imagined. The same with Chris – he’s an inspiration. He keeps reinventing himself, he keeps pushing himself. Getting to hang out with him – we became friends when I was on American Idol, he was on Dancing with the Stars. Where they filmed, one side was Idol, the other was Stars – and that thin black line between the two screens was a hallway. We didn’t go over to that side; they didn’t go to ours.

One day off the poster in my bedroom, Chris Jericho comes sauntering over. We started hanging out, we were each other’s sanctuary, we had families. This vacuum of energy, it was bonkers. We went to concerts together. I sneak out of the back door of the Idol hotel and go in through the front door eight hours later – and the security guys are like ‘James- ahhh!’. Go to bed! We got mobbed at the Hollywood Bowl, we went to see Stevie Nicks and Rod Stewart. All the lights come on after Rod finishes his set, and people are like, ‘oh my God – it’s James Durbin from American Idol’…. Get out of the way, Chris! (laughs). It’s funny, Chris talks about it… he’s like, I’m Chris Jericho, I’m on Dancing with the Stars. People were grabbing me, ripping my shirt, they wouldn’t let us go out the security tunnel, it was wild. Beatlemania… which is probably was why they didn’t let us out.

So, getting to do the Jericho Cruise, thirteen years since Idol back in 2011 – spending time together like we used to, he definitely put my ass to work. I played with my cover band The Lost Boys, I was a musical director for Les Carlson from Bloodgood, which was awesome. I learned a bunch of Bloodgood and Les Carlson songs, got my brother Dylan Rose to join us on guitar. We recorded a bunch of tracks, I got booked through Les on the Immortal Fest, I’ll be playing that in Ohio on September 1st. We hung out with his wife and kids, all his friends from Canada, also hang out with wrestlers because I love that too.

For me, professional wrestlers are independent contractors. If you are with WWE and you have a creative team, they come up with ideas for you. But in this day and age, you start off on the independent scene and you punch your ticket. You come up with the ideas – talking about Matt Cardona for example, what he’s done since leaving WWE. He has changed himself every couple of months, coming up with a new gimmick. Commits to it completely – and that’s so inspiring, especially as a musician. I find myself a singer who likes to sing in all of the different genres. I consider myself more in that role, as the one guy. Rebooking and repackaging myself, especially with Durbin now. Chris does that with all his wrestling personas, with Fozzy, with the cruise, his books. He does it all.

Dead Rhetoric: You are in your mid 30’s. Where do you think you’ve seen the greatest growth or shift in your life at this point – what do you believe you are working more on consciously as a person?

Durbin: Don’t remind me! (laughs). Gratitude, definitely. Humility. Right when I got off American Idol, I had this inflated ego. If I need to access that, if I’m on working and I need to be confident, not cocky to lead the show – yeah, I’m stoked and proud of myself. Ambition. One of the things I was just talking with my wife about before I jumped on – hi Heidi – being open to doing it all. It goes back to that wrestling thing. If the promoter wants you to win, or the promoter wants you to lose – you are still booked, you are still collecting a check, it’s your spot. Your spot on the card is only reliant on what you do with that time with that spot. I’m fine to open the show. I’m fine to play mid-card. I’m fine to headline. I’m happy to be on the show, because I know I’m going to do the best that I can do. That goes back to not worry about anybody else, not comparing myself to the accomplishments of others.

I was doing a charity event for a good friend of mine, and looking at the room – all of these people, that second guessing thing was settling in. We are there for a great cause, obviously celebrating someone. We look around the room, there’s Stanley Jordan, there’s Rick Allen, Polo Jones, phenomenal musicians’ musicians. Bonkers talented musicians. And then it came around to me – everyone here kicks ass, no one here sings like I do. I know what I bring to the table. I can help boost and support people. I love that. I love working, I love singing. I’m in eight bands that work or are studio projects. If I was in twenty bands, I would be stoked. Thirteen years ago, I was on American Idol, yeah, the token metal guy. People ask me ‘are you still singing?’. Yeah! Absolutely. I don’t have the marketing campaign from American Idol and the distribution reach in Walmart like I used to. Music still pays the bills; music still pays the mortgage. I live in the Bay Area, I can afford it, thrive, I have a wife and three kids. Moving forward and growing, being better today than I was yesterday.

Dead Rhetoric: If you had the opportunity to create a high school or college level course about any subject outside of music, what would you like to teach and why do you think this subject is important?

Durbin: I’m inspired by… the whole reason why I did American Idol, and why I continue to still have a music career, it’s working for yourself and trying to have fun with it. A high-level college course, believing in yourself. Maybe I would call it You Don’t Have to Work with Assholes! (laughs). Especially in the music industry, it goes back to gratitude and humility, as there’s a lot of inflated egos, people who think their shit doesn’t stink. I love music, I love all kinds of music, and made all kinds of music. I’m putting out a traditional heavy metal album, and in the last couple of weeks I’ve recorded a pop song, an Americana song, a country song, R&B, I sing yacht rock, acoustic stuff. Love life, love the opportunity that you have in this time. The opportunity is only at your fingertips, literally.

Every tool you need to succeed. Not comparing your success to the success of others, or your accomplishments. Your journey is your own. If you can be 1% better today than you were yesterday, you are on that right track. You have to be 100% in on yourself – if you are 99% in on yourself, you might as well be 0% on yourself. 100% or more, in on yourself, your decisions, your career, your goals – and you are already succeeding. That belief, that energy, that power is only going to have a ripple effect. The only reason I was able to do American Idol is because my wife Heidi was bringing to the table things like Eckhart Tolle, The Secret, The Power of Now, putting positive energy towards your goals out into the universe. The manifestation of your dreams, your goals, and your wishes. It’s the law of attraction, it’s how it works. I don’t deserve anything, but if I put all of my energy out there and focus my energy on that and work hard towards that, it will manifest. How it manifests? I don’t know.

I was open to it for Idol. I put the energy out there that I wanted to sing for an established band, I got to do that. Was that the full manifestation of what I’d originally hoped for? No. Did I get to experience that? Yes. These little opportunities started to manifest. Or talking to this band, and the singer passed away, but I wasn’t right for that audition or that band. And that’s okay. My opportunity did come up. Did I get a lot out of it – yes, for better or worse. The best thing that I can give my kids is wisdom. I’m not probably going to be giving my kids an inheritance or properties, stocks, leaving a fortune. If you want to know something, or wisdom from someone that’s done a lot of stuff in a short amount of time, and I hope to be able to keep along this same path. Little morsels of wisdom – it would be more like a symposium.

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