By Thomas S. Orwat Jr.
James Durbin, who is best known as the heavy metal vocalist from the 2011 season of popular TV series, American Idol, has teamed up with Quiet Riot guitar-wiz, Alex Grossi, for a new band called, Hollywood Scars. The dynamic-duo just recently released an impressive five-song EP entitled, ‘Maps To The Hollywood Scars: Volume 1.’
During Durbin’s American Idol stint, he made quite the impression on millions of viewers, performing with special guests, Zakk Wylde and Judas Priest, and finishing 4th overall.
Since American Idol, Durbin has released three solo records.
As we go to press, it is confirmed that Durbin has been hired by Quiet Riot to be their new vocalist.
What follows is an exclusive Rock Music Star interview with James Durbin.
RMS: Let’s start off by discussing how you got together with Alex Grossi, from Quiet Riot, and how this whole project, Hollywood Scars came about.
JD: Yeah, of course. We go back a few years- Alex and I- about six years through a mutual acquaintance. And then, we lost touch; he had been to a couple of my solo shows, post-Idol out in L.A. We lost touch, and I was doing a Vegas residency show, and I was out and about promoting it. We ran into each other. I found out that he was in Vegas. He ended up coming to the premiere performance of that residency. There was a party afterwards, on top of the hotel there, and there was a house band. I got up and sang with them, and he got up as soon as I got up there, and it just kind of worked itself out. That said residency would go to end, and then Alex contacted me with some instrumentals that he had, and said, “Hey, you know, I just have these sitting around, and I’d love to collaborate and write.” And I said, “Hell yeah!” So, I took a listen, and was just inspired immediately. I got to writing, and I popped it into the Logic on my computer, set up my little microphone, and quickly tracked an entire song idea and sent it back to him. I think he shit his pants (laughs). He sent me four more, and we just kept going. It was really cool, it happened so organically.
RMS: Your first five-song EP, ‘Maps to the Hollywood Scars: Volume One’ is already available to download. From what I understand, you already have songs ready to be released for ‘Volume Two,’ in the spring. Is that correct?
JD: That’s correct, yeah. We have about, 11 or 12 songs, and we decided to put out the first five. We recorded an exclusive acoustic version of one of the tracks, “‘Till Death.” It’s just been- It’s amazing, when you write together with somebody who totally gets it and understands. Hey, this whole thing started off as a just for fun project. And then, we had the idea of songs for movies and commercials and whatnot. As we kept writing and writing, we were like, “Holy shit, we have some heavy-hitting songs.” We own the publishing; there’s no big corporate record label involvement. It’s very organic. Most parts are independent.
RMS: With, Alex Grossi’s other band, Quiet Riot being recently signed to a record contract, and them losing their vocalist, Jizzy Pearl, was there ever any talk about you joining Quiet Riot as their vocalist?
JD: There was some talks; there was some discussion. At the same time that that was going on, was when I jumped into the Vegas residency show. So, it didn’t really work itself out at that exact moment. But, all things happen for a reason. The Hollywood Scars thing came together, and who knows what the future has in store.
RMS: Since there’s only five songs on the EP, I really wanted to go through the five songs individually, and kind of get the meanings behind the songs. I’d like to start off, with the first song, of course, “Roads.” If you could just give us a little insight on that particular track.
JD: I was listening to a lot of Michael Monroe- I almost said Michael McDonald. Oh boy, that would have been a completely different interview. I was listening to a lot of Michael Monroe- he’s the original singer of Hanoi Rocks. He has some phenomenal material and a really great, cool, badass, old man style. So, I was listening to that particular song instrumental that Alex sent me. I thought, “It could totally have that Michael Monroe backyard babies vibe.” So, I just kind of went for it, and it started to just kind of write itself. It’s a punk rock anthem. So you wanna sign up for rock ’n’ roll? It’s not all glitz and glamor. Get ready for sleeping on dirty floors. It’s kind of an anthem for the people that really love rock ’n’ roll- the culture, the lifestyle, the music itself- just because of its imperfection. We’re not searching for something perfect. There’s a void somewhere in us, and rock ’n’ roll fills that void. It doesn’t have to be perfect. That’s the overall idea.
RMS: My favorite song on the EP is the second song, called, “’Till Death.” It’s an absolutely brilliant song. It has a really cool power ballad vibe to it. What was the inspiration behind that?
JD: I really had to dig really deep to write the lyrics for that one. That was one of the songs that I had the longest; where I had the instrumental itself and the music the longest. I just kept listening to it over and over, and I guess I was overthinking it for the longest time. I gave myself a deadline, and then came that day. It was after noon, and I was like, “Oh shit, I have an hour to write this.” So, I took a hot bath. I submerged my entire head under water, and just tried to do a kind of sensory pool, where you just submerge yourself and cancel out all sounds, all feelings and everything else. I got up, and I just had this line pop into my head. Death takes away from you, but what if you look at it on the other hand? Death takes away, but yet, when you die, death will bring you back to life with whatever you lost; whatever it is that death took away.
So, it’s really just a play on words. I just dug down, and drew inspiration from love and loss in my own family; my father, my grandpa. That day, or the day before, a very close family friend passed away; definitely gone too soon. It was the first person that I had known that wasn’t a direct family member to pass away. I don’t stay in super contact with anyone from high school, so I don’t really know who’s died, who’s still around. In this town, I can only imagine. But, it pretty much wrote itself; the lyrics for the most part. I had the chorus, I had the lyrics. I pretty much just put on the song and hit record, and started to sing, and let whatever come out. Whatever was meant to come out just needed to come out. I didn’t have a verse melody, I didn’t have a bridge. I just went for it. I hit record and made it through the whole song. I listened back and was like, “Oh shit, there’s some really cool harmonies in here.” There’s some Scorpions-style harmonies in there. It’s definitely one of my favorites.
RMS: Yeah, all of the effort that you put into it was well worth it, because you really have quite a track, there.
JD: Thank you so much. I really appreciate that.
RMS: You’re welcome. The next track is, “Lost Boys.”
JD: “Lost Boys.” That is a song… I’ve been kicking around those lyrics for five-six years. I tried it in a different song that I had written. I tried it live, and it really didn’t fit, so I kind of just scrapped the song. But, I knew I wanted to keep those lyrics. I from Santa Cruz, California, and that’s where they filmed the movie, “The Lost Boys,” the vampire movie from the 80s.
It’s basically based on the town of Santa Cruz; in the movie, it’s called “Santa Carla,” and it’s known as the murder capital of the world. For a time, in Santa Cruz in the 80s, Santa Cruz was known as the murder capital of the world, because they had so many murders in this short amount of time. There were some mass serial killings up in the mountains. So, that kind of inspired this movie. So, not to romanticize murder, but there’s always been this allure of vampires in the movies. I grew up loving the movie. I live right by the boardwalk. Once you see that movie, you’re totally inundated with that. I really hope that they never try to remake the original; I know they’ve made a couple of sequels. In the off-chance that they do, I wanted to be sure that I had written the theme song (laughs). It’s a vampire song.
RMS: “Abomination,” is the next track. What was the inspiration behind that one?
JD: Another song I had kicking around for awhile; the lyrics. Alex happened to send something over, and it fit perfectly. The lyrics, I had sitting in my phone and my notebooks for five-six years; I may have started writing it before “Idol;” seven, maybe eight years. It’s probably the longest idea that’s on there. It was originally inspired by a song by a band called, “Crash Diet,” from Sweden. I don’t think they’re together anymore, but it was a song called, “Armageddon.” I really liked the dark mood and tone that it set. So, I wanted to write something like that. Also, with, “A.” Abomination- I’ve never heard “abomination” in anything. I also wanted to wait until Obama was out of office, because it kind of sounds like “abomination;” like, “Obama-Nation.” Which is great, I voted for him. But, I just didn’t want there to be any like, “What is this?” It was kind of confusing. But, it’s really about Frankenstein; Frankenstein’s monster. If you break down the lyrics, you’ll see it right away.
RMS: The last track is called, “Never Ending Ride.”
JD: “Never Ending Ride,” yeah. I have this formula that I like to stick to, when writing; kind of the pop-punk, pop-rock kind of vibe. It’s really a mix of what I listened to growing up- AFI, December Underground, My Chemical Romance, 30 Seconds to Mars- music like that really fired me up as a kid. Him- I love Him. So, I just tried to throw all of that into there. It’s just kind of about finding your place in a world that you don’t feel like you belong in. I wanted to throw in a hint of darkness. It’s kind of like you’re lost in a post-apocalyptic world, and you’re trying to find your way. Finally, you do find somebody that’s also trying to find their way. What better way, to go through life trying to find out what your meaning is, than to do it with somebody else?
RMS: I see. At this point in your career, is this project going to be your main focus, or is this more like a side project, with you still focusing on your solo career?
JD: I’m really not sure. I’m kind of just taking things one thing at a time. Last July, I put out my third album; I put it out independently. It was a really important thing for me to do that. I compiled a bunch of songs that were turned down by the record label that I was a part of since “Idol.” So, I just really got a chance to release those, and get those off my chest. So, I think what will be next for me, as far as the solo material goes is, I really want to do an acoustic album. I’ve been thinking, on what spectrum- if it’s songs that are basically acoustic demos that I’ll later record- if it’s an electric full band, or stuff that specifically recorded for acoustic. If it’s gonna have other instruments on it, I’m not sure. I kind of just want to do me and a guitar. It’s very intimate, and I think it’s something a certain part of my demographic of fans will definitely enjoy. I think it could fare well amongst my other recordings. At this point, I really like the Hollywood Scars vibe, and I really like what’s going on with it. Hollywood Scars was originally a band that I had before, “Idol,” and it didn’t last very long (laughs).
It was one of those post-high school bands. But, I really loved it, and I loved the name, and I loved the meaning and the vibe, and what it stood for. This project just kind of fit that mold. So, I think, as long as we can keep continuing to write, and have fun doing it, then I think that we are golden. I mean, that’s the best thing about this project- that it wasn’t created around the necessity of needing to make money, or the necessity of needing to fulfill an album for a label; arguing with your A&R guy about this song, “This line needs to be changed because it’s not recognizable enough.” This shit, that shit. It just kind of happened, and I really like that. As long as it can keep just happening without a bunch of other people telling us what to do, then we’ll still do it.
RMS: I think you’re definitely on the right track with the Hollywood Scars. I think your band would be great on a packaged tour with like, a Def Leppard/Poison type of thing. I think you would go over really well on something like that.
JD: Hell yeah, thank you. Yeah, that’d be fuckin’ rad (laughs). Sky’s the limit.
RMS: I want to talk a little bit, of course, on your experience on, “American Idol.” I’ll admit, I never really watched the show until that particular season that you were on. Being a fan of Steven Tyler, of course, I was curious.
JD: That’s the whole reason of when I auditioned, was because of Steven.
RMS: Being a rock music fan, you were definitely the one I was rooting for. You brought out Zakk Wylde, you of course, did that song with Judas Priest. Overall, how was that experience for you? It must have just been pretty incredible.
JD: Yeah, it was other-worldly. Going from just being a small-town local singing star, to being, you know, everything that it was, it was pretty crazy. I’m really glad, and really fortunate to have had that experience. Being a part of it definitely changed my head about things, and really inflated my ego to the point where it was just about to burst wide open. Thankfully, I have a really amazing, grounded better half- my wife. She brought me back down to Earth. So now, at this point, if I could go back and do it again, I would do it the exact same way. I wouldn’t change a thing. I feel like it’s important that I went through that and experienced that, and got humbled by it. But, looking back, it’s just so much fun. One of my buddies is from season 10, Casey Abrams. He played a show here, in Santa Cruz- he specifically routes his tour through Santa Cruz to come stay with us. We crack a couple beers, smoke a little doob, and watch “Idol.” It’s just so fuckin’ funny to watch this TV show that we were a part of together, and laugh at it (laughs). It’s just so fuckin’ ridiculous. But, it definitely brought me a lot of really amazing things, and a lot of really amazing opportunities. I mean, I have Hulk Hogan and Rob Halford in my phonebook.
Sometimes, I’ll just be scrolling through and just look at those and be like, “Wow, that’s pretty fuckin’ cool.” I don’t know if that’s still Hulk Hogan’s number, but that’s definitely Rob Halford’s. That’s a nice little reminder, to never take for granted, your dreams, your hopes, and your aspirations. You can manifest that stuff. I’m manifesting stuff right now, I manifested something in the past month; I can’t tell you what it is, because it’s a surprise. But, it’ll happen very, very soon.
RMS: Were you, at all, disappointed that you weren’t the winner, or were you happy enough that you got as far as you did, and made the impact that you did on that show?
JD: Of course, everybody wants to win; that’s the point. But, when you’re surrounded by that many talented people, you have a constant reminder on a daily basis that anybody could win. ANYBODY- going up to number 11, Naima. Every single person- This Megia, Paul McDonald, Pia Toscano, Stefano Langone, Casey Abrams, Jacob Lusk, me, Scotty McCreery, Lauren Alaina, Haley Reinhart- everybody was just incredible. It’s not often, that you’re part of something that big, and on that scale. “Idol” was getting revitalized at that moment. It was the first season without Simon Cowell, so everybody thought it was going to fail right off the bat. You have Jennifer Lopez, you have Steven Tyler- already, there’s this big magnifying lens on our season to begin with. Then, you pack it full of the talent; and the caliber of talent that it had. I always remove myself from that conversation, I’m not even talking about myself in there.
As a fan, and as a viewer, it was fucking phenomenal. The producers picked the best talent, at the time, that they possibly could have, and they made a real, real show. Now, throwing myself back in there- when I understood, a few weeks in, that it is a show, and that there are producers, and I finally understood that push and pull of how they move votes this way, or move attention that way, then I tried working with the producers as much as possible to make my performances as memorable as possible. Whether it was bringing in a drum line, or bringing in Zakk Wylde. I asked them, “Can I do this? If I could get Zakk Wylde to come, you guys don’t have to do anything at all. If I can get him to come, would you allow it?” And they said, “Yeah.” So, I got to work (laughs). I had just met Chris Jericho, who is one of his best friends, and figured it out, got him in there, and really wanted to stick it to (23:05). Yeah, I’d do it all over again in a heartbeat.
RMS: Were you surprised, when “Idol,” was cancelled, after all of those seasons?
JD: I kind of was, but not really. I was just very happy that I got asked to come back to the grand finale and perform with everybody else that was asked to come back. That was so much fun. I was sitting there, hanging out with Justin Guarini, from season one. He’s Little Sweet, from the Diet Dr. Pepper commercials. I love me some Little Sweet. Everytime I’d see him, I’d be like, “Is that Little Sweet?” And he’d be like, “Is that Little Durbin?” All these fun, fun things. It’s funny to see who smokes weed, and who’s drinking at all hours of the day. It’s just funny. It’s just the part of it that makes you go, “Huh, wow.” (Laughs).
RMS: That season you were on, I just remember everybody I knew watched it. People that had never watched it before did, too. Just taking that into consideration, I can’t think of anything else that could have promoted someone’s career, at that time, better than “American Idol.” You probably feel a bit lucky to have been there, but I also think you deserved to be there, as well.
JD: Thank you. It definitely takes a lot of work. The thing that I really have to explain to people that have a misconception about, “Idol,” is that, it’s not a lot of hard work. A lot of people think that you just audition, and you get in front of the producers, you sing, and then they put you on TV. For some people, it’s like that, but those are the people they make fun of, unfortunately. Everybody still has to go through the same, rigorous process. I waited in a line- in a cattle call, basically is what they call it- outside, in the freezing cold, in the rain in San Francisco, outside of AT&T Park, where the Giants play. I waited outside with my wife for 18 hours the first day- that’s just day one.
On the second day, I probably waited another 16 hours. Day one was to just get a wristband to say that I had a place in line, and that I would get to sing at an earlier part of the day, and not have to wait even longer. So, skip a day, go a day later, andwait in line again. Basically, I waited in line for a total of about 36 hours, just to sing for 30 seconds. First impressions are everything; they’re going through 17,000 people in one day. To know that two people made it from San Francisco to the live show- myself, and Stefano Langone, who went on to be my best man at my wedding. Going from that to Hollywood week, which I flew down on my 22nd birthday.
You’re just thrown into it with all these other people. Everybody, at that point, is really evil (laughs), and really, really fuckin’ mean, because everybody’s competing for one of those spots. Hell week- Hollywood week. That’s when you’re not sleeping, you’re singing. Everybody’s getting sick, everybody’s screaming. Everybody’s being a complete bitch or an asshole. You just keep going and going. It’s like a monthly process. Finally, if you’re lucky, you make it to the performance rounds. Then, you’re basically up at five every morning. You get back to the hotel, or the mansion or whatever at like, midnight or one.
You’re getting an average of four-five hours of sleep. You get put in a room with no windows and one door on the second or third floor of a building, with two security guards outside of that room. You are not allowed to call your family- only at certain times. You basically just have to sit and focus on your songs. I didn’t get to see my wife or my son for six months. And then, if you’re lucky enough to make it past all of that, then you go home for a little bit, and then you go on the tour. And then the tour is another three and a half months gone from your family, and all that stuff. There’s a lot of sacrifice. Basically, it’s a crash course in the musicindustry. It’s a crash course in getting used to people telling you what to do, what you’re going to be doing. For, “Idol,” of course, we have all the choreography. You’re in choreography sessions, you’re in recording sessions, you’re in rehearsals. Fittings; you have to go get your show clothes. Then you’re doing events. It goes from nothing, to everything all at once. And then, as soon as it’s over- nothing. You’re just dropped, and you’re done. It’s shocking.
I’ve had this conversation with producers, with people that have worked with Iron Maiden, Ozzy, and Manson. They look at, “Idol,” as being this carbon copy and paste bullshit TV show that just exploits people and gives them false entitlement. I’ve had a chance to talk to these people, and pretty much explain all of this in even more depth, and they’re like, “Wow! Let me buy you a drink,” (laughs). You start to have an appreciation for it. When you sign on for reality TV, you’re singing on everything. In order to do it, you’ve really gotta have nothing else to lose at that point, and everything to gain. I mean it more than every when I say I’d do it again. I was very, very desperate for that moment, when it happened. I knew that anything was going to be better than the situation that I was in. Little did I know, that it would take me to much greater heights, and much lower lows, also. But, I’m still glad it happened. Everything happens for a reason. If that reason was to be a better song writer, be a better performer, be a better person, a better listener, a better understander, then it all worked out for the best.
For more on Hollywood Scars, please click here.
Special thanks to Dana Kaiser for transcribing this interview.