In May 2011, 30,000 fans turned up at the Boardwalk to pay tribute to James Durbin, the ambitious young rock vocalist who placed fourth in season 10 of American Idol. Durbin Day was the largest public gathering in Santa Cruz’s history, generating approximately $1 million in visitor spending. Not too shabby a turnout for a guy contending with both Tourette syndrome and Asperger syndrome—a state of affairs that easily could have derailed his plans to be a performing musician.
James Durbin Riot on SunsetJuly 15th marks the release of James’ third full-length album, Riot on Sunset. Along with co-producing the album, the singer wrote seven of its 12 songs by himself. “I think this album has really pushed me, as far as my personal songwriting goes,” he notes. “It’s definitely made me a lot stronger. Next album, I’m going to try to do it all myself.”
James Durbin “Smackdown”.When it came time to shoot the video for the album’s first single, “Smackdown,” Durbin opted to use completely local resources, enlisting producer Chen Dubrin and the pro wrestling organization FIST Combat for a shoot inside a wrestling ring at the Kaiser Permanente Arena.
Between his primary band and his cover band The Lost Boys, James has several local shows on the horizon, including a Crow’s Nest Summer Beach Party on August 4th, the Santa Clara County Fair on August 6th, the Capitola Art & Wine Festival on September 10th, the Santa Cruz County Fair on September 15th and the City of Santa Cruz’s 150th anniversary celebration on October 1st.
Local Santa Cruz: What inspired your new song “City of Nightmares”?
James Durbin: “City of Nightmares” is about the struggles of the music industry. I can look at it between New York and L.A., because I’ve spent time working on music in both. And just the power struggle of working sometimes with a label that… they say that they have your best interest in mind, but they have their best interest in mind. And so it quickly becomes less and less about the art and more and more about what’s trending right now; what’s going to make the biggest impact for the label. And so I’ve found that a nice way to vent is to sing about it, and the perfect way to sing about it is to put it into a big ’80s hair metal song.Does that mean there was pressure on you to conform to a certain style of music?
Well, I’ll put it this way: It’s the differences between my first album and my second album [2014’s Celebrate], which were both made with the same company. The first album was a great rock album. It sold 40,000 copies in its first week. [With] the second album, I delivered a rock album. I delivered enough songs for two albums. I got to work with James Michael from Sixx:A.M., one of my heroes, in Nashville, at his house, in a studio for two and a half months. I brought back those songs, and they said, “We don’t like ’em. We’re gonna shelve ya.” And then they decided, “No, we’re not gonna shelve you. We might, but you’re going to make a pop album. You’re going to start all over.” And so we did, and I wrote a bunch of great songs that I’m really proud of as songs, but not for me to perform, necessarily. And that album sold 5,000 copies in its first week. It really shows what can happen with a label: Things change, and they can make the call to do whatever, because you’ve signed a contract with them. I’ve been independent since last November. My wife has been managing me. I make a steady living, and I’m still able to do music as my career. There’s so many tools out there today in this day and age in order to do things independently, and so I’m just using all of that to my advantage.
What about “Nineteen”? Where did the lyrics to that one come from?
I was traveling with my band—I had just had a falling out with the guitarist, so we went and played as a three-piece live gig with me doing rhythm and a few leads. So we played that gig and drove back to the airport to find that our flight was delayed, and then the flight was canceled. We were given two options: staying and sleeping at the airport or going to a hotel, coming back to the airport the next day and hoping to get on a flight out of there—but it turned out all of the flights were booked, so the only other option was to rent a car and drive four hours from Duluth, Minn. to Minneapolis. So we took the drive and finally got to the hotel four hours later. My phone charger is broken, somehow; my phone is dead; I’m really aggravated and pissed off. There were a lot of things piling up on me, and I just felt like quitting at that moment.
The next day on the plane, I was not focused on music at all. I was not focused on songwriting, singing or career or anything; I was removing myself completely from it. And suddenly this overall feeling came over me that whenever you go through a big change in your life, these changes become cycles. My wife refers to it as the seven-year cycle: Every seven years, everything in your body recycles, regenerates and renews itself. And so I’m thinking of these different situations where right before something big and amazing happened, I’ve hit the bottom. I have this personal low, and I just feel like quitting and giving everything up. I felt like that on the flight, and it really worked to my advantage, because once you get to your lowest of lows, you can only look up from there: “Okay, what are the positives of this experience? What is going to get me out of this?” And I realized at that moment that it reminded me of when I was 19, and when I met my wife, and when we became pregnant, and then when I auditioned for American Idol, and all these different things started changing and happening in this few-month span. From that, the song just literally spilled out within an hour on the plane.
Tell me about “Scratchers and Cheap Beer.” What was the inspiration for that one?
Pretty much just when I’m on tour and fans give me things. They bring me Doritos because they found out that I like a certain kind of Doritos, so now suddenly I’m inundated with all of this stock and this inventory of bags and bags of Doritos. So I was talking with the songwriters that day, Simon Wilcox and Mike Green, and just [saying,] “It’s the thought that counts, [but] I don’t need all those Doritos and candy and different things like that, so if you really need to thank me by giving, you can thank me with scratchers and cheap beer.” I’ve already had a bunch of people ask me, “What the hell’s a scratcher?” Really, you don’t know? So, that’s pretty funny—it provides some sort of mystery to the song.
Casey Abrams, my buddy from Idol, was in town; every time he’s in town, he plays Moe’s Alley and stays over at our house. That certain time, we just happened to be right in the middle of recording the album and decided to bring him in on [“Scratchers and Cheap Beer”] real quick—gave him the song, gave it a couple listens and produced it… and it kicks ass!
James Durbin Live
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