The current musical climate is utterly dominated by pop music and hip-hop, with artists tapping into computers and software programs to craft songs. In the digital age, the information superhighway has made the ability to create music instant, if a bit inorganic. As a result, instrument-driven music like rock ‘n’ roll has taken a bit of a back seat. But what’s popular in culture is always cyclical and if there is one man up for the task of bringing rock ‘n’ roll roaring back to the forefront, it’s none other than James Durbin.
Pop culture watchers will recognize the name and the tagline. Durbin, 22, was known for “bringing heavy metal to the ‘American Idol’ stage” last season by performing Queen and Muse songs and then by singing onstage with metal legends Judas Priest during the final episodes. Durbin ultimately placed fourth on Season 10 of the ratings juggernaut, going that far due to his “rawk” edge, his unbridled emotion, his undeniable swagger, his powerhouse voice and his God-given talent, all of which meshed into a potent cocktail that allowed him to stand head and shoulders above a sea of pop singers. He was also rock music’s crusader; there Durbin stood on the frontlines, navigating the murky pop landscape with aplomb and vigor. He emerged on the other side with his mission in tact: to bring rock to the forefront. Call Durbin rock music’s 2012 revivalist and ambassador, because that’s what he is.
At this point in his nascent but undoubtedly bright career, ‘Idol’ is fading into Durbin’s rear view and was merely a launching pad for this musical force of nature. Durbin is ready for liftoff, armed with his Wind-Up Records debut Memories of a Beautiful Disaster, which is an intricate lattice of all factions and facets of rock. The singer has a singular focus and a noble goal and that’s to have you standing on your feet, pumping your first in the air and rocking the hell out for every minute of his concert.
Durbin’s debut album siphons inspiration from the music of the ’80s and ’90s, but it’s never overly glammy, gimmicky, or throwbacky. He gives this time-honored sound a modern update, thanks to his youthful, impassioned flair.
“I tried to make the album as much like a real, live experience as possible,” Durbin says. “You can’t get everything from a live show onto an album, so I want people to enjoy the album and then come see the show. [The album] is built on so much pent up frustration, anxiety and excitement that I want to deliver it live and in person. I want people at my shows to be standing the whole time. For every rock show I’ve been to, I’ve been on my feet. I want my fans to get up on theirs, too!” It’s a noble goal and the music contained within Memories of a Beautiful Disaster should find fans obliging Durbin’s desire!
The stage is where fans will find James Durbin in his most natural state, as he (and his songs) truly come to life in that atmosphere. But on Memories of a Beautiful Disaster, Durbin has effectively captured his firecracker live energy. You can feel the adrenaline coursing through the veins of songs like album opener “Higher Than Heaven,” which is a rowdy, riffy number that positions itself as the “get it out of the way” song. All the heavy artillery present in the song quickly alerts the listener of Durbin’s intentions: that he is here and he’s ready to rock. You’ll be hit with that same pulsating energy on the soaring “All I Want” or even the power ballad “Love in Ruins,” which is infused with Durbin’s confidence and a Steven Tyler circa “Dude Looks Like a Lady” scream.
When it came down to creating his first album, Durbin approached the project unapologetically, revealing, “I didn’t want to make something that was straightforward the entire time or one lane. I wanted it to have lots of depth and to be a timeless classic.” With a few listens to Memories of a Beautiful Disaster, it’s obvious that the mission was more than accomplished, as Durbin has turned out an album full of moods, tempos and tones. He continues, “It’s my take on rock, which is all about having a good time. It’s who I am and what I listen to.”
Durbin, who suffers from both Asperger’s Syndrome and Tourette’s Syndrome but refuses to be sidelined by either of those medical hurdles, co-wrote five of the 11 songs on the standard edition of Memories of a Beautiful Disaster, and was afforded the dream come true scenario of working with his favorite band (that’d be Swedish cult heroes Hardcore Superstar) and with a guitar god (that’d be Mötley Crüe’s Mick Mars) on “Outcast.” He also wrote with several seasoned songwriters and it was a sink or swim scenario, as writing his own songs was something the singer had never done before. Judging by his co-writes on Memories…, Durbin was doing a backstroke by the end of the process! He says, “I had never written with other writers, so it was a cool, neat way to find out that I have that talent.” His fellow writers were like the spark plugs that jumpstarted his newfound creativity and confidence in this realm.
Durbin reveals that doing co-writes with professional songwriters also afforded him the opportunity to assert his voice, saying, “They want you to shine, so they give you a lot of freedom to do just that, and it’s a group effort.” When he sat down with Marti Frederiksen and James Michael of Sixx: A.M. fame for the aforementioned “Higher Than Heaven,” he explained the ideas in his head, to help lace the song (and ultimately, the album as a whole) with a personal, from the heart vibe. Durbin reveals that lyrically, the song “is about my life before I met Heidi, my fiancée. I was going on a downward spiral and was on a broken path. Then I met her and it lifted my spirits,” and it’s a confessional sentiment encased in a rowdy, balls out jam.
Additionally, when he set out to record songs for Memories of a Beautiful Disaster, Durbin admits he revisited the music of bands he loves, like My Chemical Romance and 30 Seconds to Mars, for inspiration, since he respects and admires each band’s charismatic frontman. He distilled what he learned from them into his own wholly unique style which should help elevate him to the pantheon of memorable rock vocalists.
The album was recorded in serious crunch mode over a period of two to three weeks, but Durbin was unfazed by that pressure cooker scenario. “It worked out well for me, since I work best under pressure and stress,” he explains. He also had a little intangible help from producer Howard Benson (My Chemical Romance,Daughtry, Motorhead), whom Durbin admits “made it so relaxing, there is no way I could get stressed.”
With a batch of songs and support from his producer in the back of his jeans pocket, Durbin was able to get into the nitty gritty of the album, which meant taking songs he co-wrote or that were written for him and Durbin-izing them on mic. He was faced with the challenge of making these songs his own and imprinting them with his stamp. Like everything else, he dismantled this task, which often proves difficult for artists working on their first album, from the top down.
For example, the song “Everything Burns” was written by ex-Evanescence guitarist Ben Moody. Durbin heard the track in demo form and at that time, it existed as a duet between Moody and Avril Lavigne. He was captivated by the highs and lows of their voices, but was determined to make the song his own. “I stripped it down and made it so I could sing it by myself,” Durbin recalls.
Overall, his favorite tune on the platter is “Right Behind You,” since it’s dramatic and has an acoustic intro, allowing for an explosion of dynamics. “I wanted the album to have depth and this song has depth,” Durbin declares. The song “Love Me Bad,” which is the album’s first Top 40 single, is rich with lyrical imagery and shows off Durbin’s ability to cross genres. It’s the type of song that will appeal to music fans regardless of their personal preferences and showcases James’ vocals exquisitely.
For “Outcast,” the guitar-driven, ’80s-inspired anthem he wrote with Mars and Hardcore Superstar, Durbin was bookended by two heroes. That’s enough to make a mere mortal crumble, but this situation played to his strengths and was smack dab in his wheelhouse. Of working with Mars, he recalls, “I get in the studio, two seconds before he does. Then there’s Mick Mars, with the brim of his hat pulled down, over his eyes, doing that walk that only Mick Mars can do. I loved watching him play his solo and do a similar pitch harmonic to ‘Kickstart My Heart’ on the song.” Durbin really clicked with Mars, deeming him one of the sweetest people he’s ever met.
When Durbin hooked up directly with Hardcore Superstar, it was a bit more unorthodox. “It was insane,” Durbin remembers, sounding like a fanboy for a brief second, but hey, he’s allowed! “I’m sitting there in a mall, in a Hot Topic somewhere on the East Coast, during the ‘Idols Live!’ tour and they are asking me on the phone, ‘What kind of song do you want to write?’ and asking me more about myself!” The end result is an old school, in-your-face fist pumper with a purposefully repetitive hook that reels you in and refuses to let go. It could be the next rock anthem for a generation of, well, outcasts, rock dudes and rock chicks.
On the flipside is a song like “May,” a slower, more contemplative number. “Every word is important,” Durbin emphasizes about that song’s lyrics and cadence. For this particular song, the singer was inspired by those great singer-songwriters who put so much emotion into a real or fabricated story. The song forces Durbin to play a character and tell a tale via lyrics that make events feel as though they happened yesterday. “That happens with ‘May,’” he says. “I got lost in singing it.” Meanwhile, “Screaming,” co-written by James and ‘Idol’ Season 7 winner David Cook, tackles a very topical issue and that’s the epidemic of bullying that’s rampant among the youth of the nation and something Durbin himself experienced. “There are a lot of songs that look at and deal with being bullied and singled out, and that’s definitely one. We went at it with a ‘Revenge of the Nerds’ feel, but it’s about how there is light at the end of the tunnel.” Again, ‘Screaming’ could join ‘Higher Than Heaven’ and ‘Outcast’ as the rock anthems for the plugged in generation.
Album closer and first rock single, “Stand Up” is stadium-worthy and arena-ready, literally. It’s been used by the NFL at games during the 2011 season, and it certainly has enough firepower to get adrenaline surging. It’s one of those songs that begs to be worked out to, as well.
Overall, Memories of Beautiful Disaster is an audio document of Durbin’s life as he’s lived it, with a focus on rock with a capital “R.”
“It’s my first record, and I am figuring stuff out,” he admits. “I am looking back on my life. Parts were disastrous, and there are some things I wished never happened. But I can look back and appreciate things that I once considered disasters as things of beauty. They make me who I am today. I’d never go back and change anything.”
With that attitude, and the fact that he set the table for his career thanks to his ‘American Idol’ stint, Durbin’s arsenal is fully stocked with all the necessary tools to fulfill his mission of bring back the rock! He is now ready to step on his own stage and is ready for his fans to stand with him. For the entire show, of course!