James Durbin Talks ‘Riot on Sunset’ Album, ‘American Idol’ Finale + More
James Durbin is back with this third studio album, Riot on Sunset, which just arrived in stores. Much has changed for Durbin since his poppier-leaning sophomore set, with the vocalist taking on a more hands-on approach, co-writing and co-producing on this latest effort. In our recent chat, Durbin discusses the more independent route he took with Riot on Sunset, some of the album's key tracks and what fans can expect from the upcoming live shows. He also comments on the ending of American Idol, the singing competition that helped launch his career. Check out our full interview with James Durbin below:
First off, congrats on "Smackdown." The video has been a big hit here on our Battle Royale Video Countdown. Can you talk about how much fun it was to shoot the video, hop in the ring and take advantage of the announcer's microphone?
It was tons of fun. It's always a trip making a music video and even more this time. I've done a few videos with the same director, Chen Dubrin. It's funny, he's no relation to me even though our names are close. It's a bit funny that we live in the same town. But it's really cool. We did the video independently, really low budget and it's all local resources, so it's so cool. It was all serendipitous. I knew that there was some small independent wrestling promotion in Santa Cruz and so I get hold of the guy who owns it, who has the ring, and it turns out at the time that the place we were living, he lived a block away from our house and had the wrestling ring there. So it was just so odd to know that oh, I've driven passed this house so many times and there was a wrestling ring set up in his front yard. So that was cool.
That's perfect! Can you tell me a little bit about the song "Smackdown." Where did it come in putting this album together?
Absolutely. I did a writing session with a couple of guys who had written a song called "Deeper" on my first album, Memories of a Beautiful Disaster, and I went back with the intention of writing something with them. But they ended up playing me a bunch of different cuts that they had written with me in mind and one of them was titled "WWE Durbin" as a working title. And I'm like, "Guys, this song has gotta be called 'Smackdown' if I'm going to record it." And sure enough, we tracked the demo right there that day and I knew that it was just going to be the perfect fit for the album. At that point, I didn't exactly know where the album was going. There was probably about five or six songs written, but not the whole vision. And it's really great how it turned out on the album. It's stands out on its own. It stands out as the single, but it works. It's stands out with everything else too.
I know you had a bit of writer's block at one point. But was there a song that kind of opened the floodgates to finishing up the disc?
It's probably split among a couple of songs, but most notably would be a track called "Mustang Livin'." That story just really poured through me. It's a true story about my wife and her mom and chasing through a rough patch in life and going through a struggle. And at one point they lived in their car which was a '69 Ford Mustang, and so that story really inspired me and I felt like a lot of people could relate to that and they could really get a lot out of that. As an artist and a singer you are, you're a target. You're a target for people's emotion and I feel that that song a lot of people can relate and latch their problems onto and overcome them through this true music and the beautiful power that it has.
So it would be that song and it would be the closing track called "Keeps Me Alive." I wrote that song over the course of five years. Talk about writer's block! I started that song back when the Idol tour started in 2011. I was sitting in my little makeshift studio and at different times and different points I've kind of added to that song and tried to finish it, but it never felt right. Most of it was written for quite a time, but I was waiting on a bridge and earlier this year I just kind of stumbled on it. I was just humming something and it just really moved me. And sure enough, I popped it in and completed the song.
And I've read some of the interviews you've done. I know the second album you didn't necessarily get the direction you wanted to go with it. But with Riot on Sunset, you've co-written and co-produced. Can you discuss what it means to have more of a hand in how things turned out this time?
Just that in and of itself, it's so powerful. To start with nothing. I mean I got shelved and then fought my way out of contract. So to be there and sit there and just kind of be at a ground zero kind of level and just be looking and thinking about all the different options. Is it to take a break from music and is it to stop trying to do this as a career or is it go full force and don't look back and don't worry and just do it ourselves? And that's what it's ended up being. My wife's been managing me and we look at everything together and plan everything together and we agree on everything together and we're basically running our own label which we call Wild Vine Records, because it's just that. It's just starting to bloom. It's starting off at the ground level. And it's a learning process every single day. I knew it was about damn time to put out some new music -- about two years -- and this album, it's really me. That's what I found. When I'm being in a situation where I have to either put up or shut up I really have to put out and it forces me to be my best and be vulnerable, and that's a big word in my book. You've got to just be vulnerable to it and sure enough the songs came out.
We found a great producer locally, a guy named Rick Vierra of Rocker Studios, and basically we just tried to use local resources. Use local musicians, local guys and Rick engineered it and mixed it and mastered it and another guy who did some mixing is Aaron Lee, who is the current bass player for Y&T, so just getting different guys and different local talents in. I used my band, we recorded everything live -- all live drums except one song, so it really just had that hands on approach to it and because it's an independent, there's nobody else to answer to but ourselves.
I know you're proud of the songwriting on this disc. We often ask about musical influences, but I'd be curious to know who influenced you as a songwriter both coming up and during the album process.
Well, Guns N' Roses of course, Aerosmith. Steven Tyler's an amazing songwriter with Joe Perry. Paul McCartney, John Lennon. But those are obvious ones. As I was making this record over the past year I got pretty obsessed with the Backyard Babies from Sweden, Hardcore Superstar, also from Sweden. Michael Monroe from Finland. He was in Hanoi Rocks. Aerosmith, My Chemical Romance. I've just been trying to listen to something that has a little bit more live production and things that are a little bit more real. There may have been a point in the record where I sang a wrong note and it may have been a little flat or a little sharp and I didn't really want to go out and fix those things because that's what came out and the rest of the performance is solid. So if that's what comes out in the studio, that's probably what will come out live and why should people be robbed of me, you know. Where we needed to fix things, we did. But for the most part, it's true.
Getting into the album a bit. Let's talk about "Beautiful" and the great guitar work in that. It sounds like you're having a blast...
I was listening to a lot of Muse, and Muse is also a big influence on this album in a lot of different ways production-wise. But there's this riff (sings riff), and that kind of became the interlude in it and a part of the pre-choruses and I was building on that and rocking out to it. And it was kind of bare bones and I just built it up on my dinky Logic rig and I just held myself up in my room for about an hour with the door closed as I was screaming into the microphone with different melodies and stuff. My wife was yelling that I needed to be quiet because the neighbors were probably going to call the cops [laughs]. But it was awesome.
I hit writer's block with that song, too, and I was sitting on that for a while too, until my wife Heidi thought I should see the movie Pitch Black with Vin Diesel. First off, I didn't think that watching a Vin Diesel film would kick off our date night, but boy was I wrong. And pretty much immediately by the end of the movie I was inspired by it. Like in the middle of it, I brought out my phone and started typing stuff out and the song just kind of came right out and it worked so it's definitely one of my favorites to listen to. And other than the lyrics, getting my guitarist Mark in there and all my band -- I actually played rhythm guitar, and some of the leads (sings leads), mainly the thing in the middle, the kind of "Rainbow in the Dark" part was done by my guitarist Mark Putnam, and we produced it and directed it and it's a beautiful song, literally.
I loved hearing "Scratchers and Cheap Beer." And I know you brought in Casey Abrams to join you on the track. Can you talk about putting that song together and reconnecting with Casey for the recording?
Absolutely. I wrote that song a couple of years ago for what was supposed to be my second album. It was supposed to be a rock album at that point, and we wrote it but never used it, and with Mike Green and Simon Wilcox, who co-wrote two songs on the album which are "Scratchers and Cheap Beer" and "Lost in the Shadows." But we had that song ready to go and my brother Casey Abrams was in town and he was on Idol with me and we shared a lot of experiences together and he keeps telling me to get over to his place, where he does this thing he calls and orchestra of people where he shoots YouTube things and there's cool productions of his songs in the live setting. But I'm thinking, "Man, I gotta do something to one-up Casey," so I got him over here and got him on something and it was so cool. He was playing in town and he was staying at my house and it happened to be right in the middle of post-production, but it was really easy to get him in there, get him on the track and have him singing it and it was nice to produce a friend of mine and be in there and figure out who sings which parts. I mean Casey is an orchestra in one person. So sometimes you've gotta wrangle him and sometimes you've got to let him know that it's okay, we can go a little crazy. And this was the perfect song to go crazy to, so we just kind of pulled out all the stops. That song we had so many great takes. So we got in there and cut things up and copied and pasted different parts just to get that ending. Casey gets to scatting and his riff on it is so good and the ending is priceless.
I also wanted to ask about the title track "Riot on Sunset." I know there's a history with the song being with you for some time. How gratifying is that for the track to not only appear on the disc, but also be the album title?
It's amazing. Honestly, it's the biggest closure. The theme of this album is closure. There's a lot of things that I'm just glad to put to pasture. I wrote that song when I was in a band called Hollywood Scars before Idol. I was just trying to write a song that would be ... I guess you'd call it an anthem. It's a moving song that just gets people to get up and stand up for what you believe in basically. I was really inspired by the youth curfew riots on the Sunset Strip in the '60s and basically just pulled from that. But I've been sitting on the song for such a long time. I tried to get it on the first album, label didn't want it. Tried to get it on the second album, label didn't want it. They kept saying, "It's just not good enough. We just don't like it. How about changing it to 'Riot on Main Street'? Make it more synonymous where more people can relate to it." But it's not about that. It's about what it means. It doesn't directly relate to everybody. Everybody has a Main Street in their town, but that's stupid?
Almost like a Rolling Stones rip?
Yeah, exactly, "Exile on Main Street." But you know, I just stuck to my guns. I wasn't going to change it if they weren't going to put it on the album. So it came time for me and I got release and the time there was great, but the time here has been better and we really fought tooth and nail for that song. They weren't getting it back with my publishing. I said, "I really don't care about any of the other songs, but THIS is my song. And it's really pretty evil to try to bogart a song that wasn't good enough for anything." Fortunately we got it and recorded it and it exceeded all my expectations and it sounds kick ass. So it's mine. It's all good.
Speaking about closure, over the past year we saw the end of American Idol. I know you went back for the finale. Can you talk about what the show meant to you and what are your thoughts of seeing it sign off after it being such a juggernaut for years.
I mean yeah, talk about closure. [laughs] I mean at first I've gotta say that it was a huge honor. I'm grateful and fortunate to have been asked to come back and perform at the finale so with that being said, American Idol, it really gave me my chance and opportunity to do this. And it gave me a platform and some people take that platform and do nothing with it. And some people take it and do extraordinary things that I think when it's done with it, it can be looked at on its own level and everyone is different and everyone happened to be on the show at a different time and culture and society and media and everything. So I feel like whatever everybody's done with it is extraordinary. You kind of have to set your achievements at your own pace and not compare them to others. I feel like I just have so much to be thankful and so much to be grateful for, and for the producers, Ken Warwick and Nigel Lythgoe, and Simon Fuller and everyone who worked on the show for giving us that chance and this opportunity was just extraordinary. It's really incredible.
I know you've got tour dates coming. Of the new material, what are you most looking forward to playing live?
Well, I mean we're going to play most of them. Most of them were written or were chosen with the idea in mind that I will be playing these songs live. And with my first album, that was kind of the idea also. With the first album there was maybe more production involved in the songs and more synthetic production, so this one was just trying to do it with the idea in mind that OK, we're four people onstage. Drums, bass, guitar and me onstage, sometimes acoustic, sometimes electric. So we've been through Riot on Sunset and when we play it live, it sounds killer. "City of Nightmares" we play live. It sounds killer. We're going to pull out "Mustang Livin'," "Lost in the Shadows," "N1N9TEEN" we play. "Scratchers and Cheap Beer" we play. We play "Smackdown." We play "We Are the Unknown." We're not doing "Broken" or "Sunday Is Gone," but we are playing "Keeps Me Alive," so that's pretty much all of them with the exception of two.
And then we're mixing in some of the old stuff too, but not really doing anything off of the Celebrate album, because it doesn't stick live the same way. These songs sound really great. I feel like people are going to latch onto them because they're really organic, and especially the ones that I wrote. I feel that if you are a real diehard fan, which most of my fans are, they really tend to grab a hold of those songs that came from me personally and my emotion and my hand and my heart. So I did the album with a PledgeMusic campaign and so those people that pledged, they got their digital copies today and so it's been cool with seeing my Twitter feed blowing up with people saying it exceeded their expectations. It's a pretty gratifying feeling.
Our thanks to James Durbin for the interview. His 'Riot on Sunset' album is out now and can be picked up via Amazon, iTunes and CDBaby. Durbin will be on tour for the remainder of July, with more shows booked in August and September. Dates can be found here.
James Durbin, "Smackdown"