With ‘American Idol’ behind him and a hot new debut album, James Durbin talks candidly about the power of belief, life before and after ‘Idol’—and the woman who saved him from ruin.
When James Durbin mania reached its height earlier this year, the town of Santa Cruz started to resemble a restaurant in Being John Malkovich where the only word anyone says is “Malkovich.” It seemed you couldn’t walk a full block without hearing a conversation about James Durbin, seeing a James Durbin banner or window display or stumbling upon a James Durbin-based gathering at a local establishment (James Durbin cupcakes, anyone?). The grand finale, of course, was James Durbin Day, a homecoming concert at the Boardwalk that drew 30,000 fans, generated about $1 million in visitor spending and inspired the folks at Zoccoli’s Deli to name a sandwich after Durbin. (That would be The Durbinator.)
Eventually even the most TV-averse among us caved in and checked out a YouTube clip or two of the young hard rock vocalist from Santa Cruz who had taken fourth place on American Idol’s 10th season. Most holdouts warmed to Durbin when they learned that he’d risen to national fame in spite of having both Tourette’s syndrome and Asperger’s syndrome—conditions that can make it difficult just to get through the day, let alone perform for tens of millions of TV viewers.
Or, for that matter, slug it out through hours and hours of interviews, as has been the case for James on the day of his chat with GT. “This is my third interview today,” the 22-year-old vocalist states. “My first interview today was supposed to be a 15-minute interview, and it went 40 minutes because I couldn’t stop [my symptoms].”
Durbin explains that his conditions have been more noticeable lately because of all the stress he’s been under. “Some days it’s really tough,” he says. “It all depends on what my mind or my nervous system decides to adopt as a tic for the day, for the week or however long until I’m able to try and figure out a way to suppress it.”
In spite of the day’s challenges, Durbin’s mood is far from heavy. Truth be told, he sounds downright fired up about his latest undertakings, one of the most recent being a shoot for the video accompanying his new single “Love Me Bad.” As the singer recounts, spirits were high on the set: He was “hangin’ out and tanning” with the rest of his band when he received a message from Mars. To be specific, it was a text from none other than Mötley Crüe guitarist Mick Mars, who wanted to let him know that the site of the shoot—a dried-up lake bed in Barstow, Calif.—was the exact spot where the Crüe’s “Dr. Feelgood” video had been filmed in the late ’80s. In light of one particular image from the tail end of the “Feelgood” clip—a vintage car going up in flames—Mars’ text was not a bad bit of foreshadowing.
If you caught Durbin’s pyro-enhanced performances of 30 Seconds to Mars’ “Closer to the Edge” or Judas Priest’s “Living After Midnight” on American Idol, then you know that this man is no stranger to fire. In April, he even landed in a little hot water when he made a fairly innocent comment about his fears of having a “Pepsi moment” during a flame-heavy performance of Elton John’s “Saturday Night’s Alright (For Fighting).” (Apparently Michael Jackson’s family got a little hotheaded over the reference.)
So it was probably a mistake to let James behind the wheel of a ’71 Dodge Charger.
“I was driving so hard that the engine overheated, died, then caught on fire,” he recalls excitedly. “It was burning through the hood, and then it began smoking like crazy.”
But Durbin and his bandmates were just getting warmed up—the “Love Me Bad” video itself features more fire than all of Durbin’s Idol performances combined. Because the clip ends with the vocalist dropping a torch and engulfing the entire set in flames, the video shoot found him “violently throwing gasoline all over furniture. It was crazy,” he recalls.
Maybe I’m Amazed
Top 40 radio listeners can expect to become well acquainted with “Love Me Bad”: It’s one of two singles that are being issued to coincide with the Nov. 21 release of his debut album Memories of a Beautiful Disaster [Wind-up Records]. Durbin’s management is aiming the harder-edged “Stand Up” at the ears of rock radio listeners.
Boasting a guest spot from the aforementioned Mick Mars, Memories is dominated by catchy, arena-ready hard-pop anthems co-written with industry pros like James Michael (Sixx:A.M., Papa Roach, Mötley Crüe) and Marti Frederiksen (Aerosmith, Def Leppard, Ozzy Osbourne) as well as Season 7 Idol winner David Cook and the members of Durbin’s favorite band, Hardcore Superstar. The album’s marriage of grit and gloss calls to mind not only the music of ’80s hair metal bands like Slaughter and Skid Row, but also the more recent efforts of commercial hard rock acts like … well, Papa Roach and Hardcore Superstar.
Memories opens with the driving “Higher than Heaven”: “Going insane/I was on a one-way train/Surrounded by my so-called friends … I lost hope; you gave me reason … Angels saved me, God forgave me, but you alone take me higher than heaven.” As Durbin explains, the song is about the turnaround he’s made with the help of his fiancée Heidi Lowe, with whom he has a 2 1/2-year-old son, Hunter.
The vocalist says he “wasn’t really being a very good person or contributing anything to society” prior to meeting Heidi. “I was a high school dropout, living on disability, and that was it—going off to raves in the city every frickin’ weekend, and just being a dumbass, just being an idiot,” he states. “I was put on this earth for a reason, and I wasn’t living up to that purpose.”
On April 8, 2008, Durbin was singing karaoke at The Fog Bank in Capitola when he met Lowe, who was at the bar for a coworker’s going-away party. “She wasn’t even going to go that night, and I was always there, ’cause I didn’t have a life,” he recalls. He adds that because their mothers had been friends at Soquel’s Lighthouse Church, he and Heidi had previously met when he was 4 and she 13. “It was destiny,” he says of their encounter at The Fog Bank. “To meet back up again at that time, when she was going through a hard time, and my whole life was a hard time, was pretty special.”
Knowing immediately that magic was afoot, Durbin turned to his buddy and quoted Wayne’s World: “I love this woman. She will be mine. Oh, yes, she will be mine.” “Sure enough, God and Wayne willing, she is mine,” he said contentedly.
Durbin’s relationship with Lowe has inspired him to go from “living without a cause, if you really want to call that living, to becoming a good person, getting a job and starting to actually care about my life. Someone popped up in my life who actually gave a shit about me and wanted to see me succeed. She saw more in me than what I was doing, which was nothing.” (See Memories’ second cut, “All I Want”: “You saw my pain, and you took me in with open arms. I’m not sure just what you saw—maybe the better parts of me. All I know is that what I have is all I’ll ever need.”)
Throughout James’ Idol outing, Heidi coached him in the art of staying humble, being himself and maintaining the all-important attitude of gratitude. In the interest of helping him succeed on the show, she turned him on to books like “The Secret” and “The Art of Believing,” which got him into the proper mindset “to believe, believe, believe: believe in yourself, believe that it’s possible, believe that you already have it, live as though you already have it. We believed, and it happened. And it’s real. It’s the power of the Universe; it’s the power of the mind; it’s the power of God. I’m not preaching religion here—the proof is in the pudding. I was very skeptical at first, but it happened, and it continues to happen. So I can’t be a skeptic anymore.”
As we all know, Durbin did, in fact, kick all kinds of ass on American Idol. Interestingly, the last song he performed before being eliminated was “Don’t Stop Believin’.” Durbin has suggested that the song is cursed, noting that his friend Chris Jericho, a fellow pro wrestling enthusiast and heavy metal singer, danced to said Journey anthem just prior to being eliminated from Dancing with the Stars, and that the same song served as the theme for Tony Soprano’s “elimination” from this world on The Sopranos.
True to the spirit of the song, James has kept the faith. He sounds entirely sincere when he claims to have no regrets about not winning the Idol competition. “I’m forever grateful for everything that happened on the show. I credit them for launching my career,” he offers. “I did it for the experience, and boy, a hell of an experience it was, and a hell of an experience it will continue to be for, God willing, the rest of my life.”
Along with making him a household name, Idol has given Durbin opportunities to perform with many of his heroes, including Judas Priest’s Rob Halford and Ozzy Osbourne/Black Label Society guitarist Zakk Wylde. It’s also enabled him to establish ties with Dream Theater/Avenged Sevenfold drummer Mike Portnoy and, needless to say, legendary Aerosmith vocalist/American Idol judge Steven Tyler. But for all the Rock ’n Roll Fantasy Camp-style stuff that’s come his way, he claims that his life hasn’t really changed since Idol. “I’m still James in Santa Cruz,” he states. “I get noticed a little bit more, and I eat for free at Zoccoli’s—that’s definitely a perk. Thanks, guys! I’m a recording artist now. We get to live in a little bit bigger of a place now—that’ s absolutely awesome just to be comfortable. But that’s really it.”
Nonetheless, the vocalist confesses to getting a kick out of being recognized by Idol viewers. “I enjoy it more when they know my name, but I do still enjoy it when people are like, ‘Oh, man—I voted for you! I wish you would have won. What’s your name again?’” he laughs.
Don’t Stop Believin’
Fringe benefits aside, Durbin believes that his Idol stint unfolded according to a larger plan that had little to do with his own agenda. In his view, the higher purpose of his TV appearances was to raise awareness and understanding of Tourette’s and Asperger’s syndromes. “To be able to go on national television in front of 30 million people, tell them about me, tell them what [my condition] is and make it somewhat important—that’s what I was supposed to do,” he offers. “So I did that, and 30 million more people know what it is now.”
In the documentary Different is the New Normal: Living a Life with Tourette’s, Durbin sits face to face with Ariel Small, a teenage Tourette’s syndrome sufferer who has found inspiration in the singer’s accomplishments. Durbin tells Small that when he was growing up, he was bullied so relentlessly for his Tourette’s symptoms that he was forced to switch schools twice before dropping out of high school entirely. “Middle school was definitely the worst,” he explains to Small. “I don’t even like thinking about it. I thought maybe I had some sort of super power: I have the super power to make situations awkward and piss off my teachers.”
Durbin, who as a kid was assaulted on two separate occasions by skate park patrons who mistook his Tourette’s-induced facial twitches for dirty looks, hopes that songs like his new “Screaming” can be a voice for young people with Asperger’s and Tourette’s (“We’re screaming—everybody hates us/Screaming/But they can never break us/We’re not gonna give up/Come and throw your hands up”). He’s pleased to have the opportunity to “take that aggression that I once had about [getting picked on] and put it into songs that might inspire kids that are the same age, going through the same stuff.”
Durbin was diagnosed with Tourette’s and Asperger’s at age 10, shortly after his father died from a drug overdose—an experience that left him with a strong disdain for drug use. While he admits to having strayed a little when he was younger, he’s outspoken about the destructive power of controlled substances: “I’ve grown up seeing so many people in my neighborhood that are just so stuck on doing drugs—no goals, no aspirations, no wanting to progress. They’re doing the same thing now that they’re pushing 40 that they were doing when they were in frickin’ high school. I think people are meant for a much greater purpose.”
While he was growing up, such people served as an example of how Durbin never wanted to look, dress, sound or be. From a young age, he decided to do things differently: Rather than skating like his peers, he took to rollerblades, and when other kids were off partying, drinking and smoking pot, he busied himself with theater and music. In 2006, he landed lead roles in musicals from the local theater companies Kids on Broadway and All About Theatre, both of which he credits with helping him develop his stage presence. “The whole weight of the musical would be on my shoulders,” he notes. “And I think that’s what kept me out of that [drug] scene, because a bunch of people were relying on me to learn my lines, learn the music, the choreography and everything. That’s definitely where that drive and that passion for living came from.”
If Durbin’s early theatrical endeavors made him the performer he is today, then it was in Dale Ockerman’s Musicscool Santa Cruz that he discovered his identity as a musician. “That’s where I found where I could go more with my voice—hearing how Robert Plant and early Paul McCartney would just frickin’ wail,” he states. “I heard that, and I was like, ‘Well, that’s emotion. That’s energy. That’s soul comin’ out: years of hardships, love, life and learning just being let out.”
James’ early bands included the melodic metal band Leviathan and the mock-’80s metal band Hollywood Scars. A videotaped interview he gave with the latter band in 2010 caused a stir with the celebrity gossip website TMZ, which made a big to-do of a song about “whores” that he’d written with the group. Durbin, for his part, points out that Hollywood Scars was something of a novelty act, with each member of that band adopting a fake name and an accompanying persona. “I don’t talk like that,” he states. “That’s not who I am; that’s not how I act.”
Back in the day, Durbin had aspirations to be the singer in the local metal band Archer. Unfortunately, that group’s guitarist, Dylan Rosenberg, nixed the idea. “I told him, ‘All right, fine. If that’s how you’re gonna be, then when I make it big, I’m just gonna bring you out to be the guitarist for my band,’” Durbin recalls. The vocalist has made good on that vow: Rosenberg, whose playing can be heard on four of Memories’ tracks, is the lead guitarist in Durbin’s current band. Also on board are Dirty Penny bassist Tyler Molinaro and two members of the metalcore group In This Moment: drummer Jeff Fabb and rhythm guitarist Blake Bunzel.
With his new band and album ready to go, James hopes to play a show in Santa Cruz sometime around December. “Judging by how many people we had come out to Durbin Day—30,000 strong—I have good, high hopes that maybe we could sell out the Civic, maybe have to get the fire marshal out there to hold people back ’cause we can’t take in any more,” he laughs.
So, what’s left to accomplish for a 22-year-old who’s sung for tens of thousands of fans in his hometown and tens of millions of TV watchers nationwide? Nothing. Durbin is already living his dream. “My long-term goal has always been to be a working musician and to be able to live comfortably—not lavishly, not rich, just comfortably, like we’re doing now, and to be able to feed and support myself and my family,” he offers. “Just to be stable, and not to have to worry.”
Well, there it is: Two rather debilitating disorders notwithstanding, a directionless high school dropout can become a nationally known musician whose every dream has come true. What’s more, a glossy, pop music-oriented TV show can give hope to the disadvantaged and help our species become more compassionate. A night of karaoke can give rise to the kind of healing that’s possible when one human is blessed with the deep caring of another. And a deli sandwich, of all things, can bear testimony to the power of belief and to the human ability to triumph over seemingly insurmountable challenges. Strange world, ain’t it?
Any parting words, James?
“I’m very proud of everything that’s going on and all the support that I get from my amazing hometown,” the singer offers. “Everywhere we go, there’s so much support. It’s magical. I never thought any of this could happen until I started believing.”
To learn more about James Durbin, go to durbinrock.com. Catch James (live) at 4:30 p.m. Monday, Nov. 21 at Streetlight Records, 941 Pacific Ave., Santa Cruz, 421-9200.
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