Cover Stories

Santa Cruz’s James Durbin Returns to His Metal Roots on Solo Album

Durbin couldn’t be happier about larger-than-life classic metal album

James Durbin grew up playing in Santa Cruz hard rock and metal bands before fronting Quiet Riot. Now he has a solo metal album of his own. COURTESY PHOTO

In August 2016, local singer-songwriter, American Idol fourth-place finisher and all-around Santa Cruz icon James Durbin was living in Las Vegas and rehearsing for the upcoming classic rock/illusionist variety show “One Epic Night” at the Plaza. He got an email from Frankie Banali, drummer of classic ’80s metal band Quiet Riot, saying that they were interested in him becoming their new lead singer. Durbin was stunned and excited.

The only problem was that Durbin was already committed to “One Epic Night,” which opened in September of that year. He tried to figure out a way to do both, but it wasn’t going to happen. However, Quiet Riot guitarist Alex Grossi came to the opening night of the show. During Durbin’s performance of “Sweet Child o’ Mine,” Grossi hopped on stage and took over for the onstage guitarist Brent Muscat from Faster Pussycat. It was, as the title suggested, epic. After the show’s run ended in October, and Durbin moved back to Santa Cruz, Grossi and Durbin kept in contact and sent song ideas back and forth. They eventually recorded an EP, Volume 1, under the name Maps To The Hollywood Scars the next year.

But during that recording session, Durbin got another surprise email from Banali. He sent an unused Quiet Riot track that they could maybe use for their project. It was odd because of the timing, and because it didn’t sound like the music he and Grossi were already recording. That night at dinner, Durbin wrote lyrics and a melody. Twenty minutes later, Durbin recorded his vocals, and Grossi recorded a solo, each in one take. The engineer gave it a quick mix and sent it back to Banali to show him.

“It wasn’t like we were there to just write and record random songs. We knew what we were doing there,” Durbin says. “I think it was somewhat of an audition. Had I known that, I would’ve written something a little easier to sing.”  

The band members were impressed with Durbin and asked him—again—to join the band. In March 2017, he was announced as the new lead singer of Quiet Riot. The “audition” track they recorded ended up being the fun, bluesy-rocker “Can’t Get Enough,” and was on Quiet Riot’s Road Rage album. The band shot a music video for it—their first in 29 years.

Durbin joining Quiet Riot was an exciting moment for his fans. In 2011, he’d made American Idol history by bringing metal to the pop-dominated reality show with a riveting performance of Judas Priest’s “You’ve Got Another Thing Comin’,” with sublime high notes and devil horns. Even though he was immediately signed to Wind-Up Records, he hadn’t released a record of intense heavy metal. But with this new Quiet Riot gig, he would be able to show America that he was born to front a metal band.

“I always made a point to play the shit out of those songs like they owed me money, and really to play them like Kevin DuBrow,” Durbin says. “Just being associated with them [Quiet Riot] doesn’t automatically do anything for anyone. That goes for anything. It’s what you do. I made a point to never hold back in the live performances; balls to the wall.”

Metal Cred

Durbin earned his metal credentials before he ever auditioned for Idol. He did musical theater as a kid and took music lessons from prolific local rocker Dale Ockerman, best known for his time with the Doobie Brothers. It turned into a rock ’n’ roll mentorship—Ockerman taught Durbin which cool classic rock bands to listen to, and in 2008 enlisted Durbin to perform in his Beatles cover project the White Album Ensemble.

“It was spell-binding, just hitting those notes during ‘My Guitar Gently Weeps.’ He always got a standing ovation in the middle of the song,” Ockerman says of Durbin. “When he’s singing anything, he’s 100% into that word at that moment. He’s a natural.”

As a teen, most of Durbin’s pre-Idol Santa Cruz bands were hard rock or metal, including Leviathan/The Taken, Whatever Fits, and Hollywood Scars, so fronting Quiet Riot wasn’t a huge leap, aside from the number of people in the crowd watching him. But his time in Riot didn’t last long. In 2019, he announced that he was parting ways with the band to focus on his own music. Fortunately, the music he left to focus on turned out to be his most metal record he’s ever done. The Beast Awakens, which will be released Feb. 12, is pure uncut classic metal with prominent Dio, Judas Priest and Iron Maiden influences—and absolutely no consideration of what’s popular in the mainstream right now. It’s an album for metal fans.

Two days after Durbin’s departure from Quiet Riot, he received an email from Frontiers Records, the hard rock Italian label that put out Riot’s last few releases. They told him that he was a great frontman and an amazing talent and wanted to discuss the possibility of a James Durbin solo career. On Sept. 20, they had a conference call. They asked what kind of album he wanted to make. He’d been thinking about diving headfirst into classic ’70s/’80s metal. Frontiers couldn’t have been more delighted at this answer.

“We were on the same page,” Durbin says.

Two and a half months later, they signed a contract.

Excited to get to work on the album, he reached out to several musician friends to see if they wanted to co-write some songs. His mind also wandered while doing other tasks and driving around. Melodies would pop in his head, and he would immediately record them on his phone. One of these half-formed ideas came to him after listening to Swedish hard rock Ghost. He rushed home to get to his guitar. While he was in the elevator going to his apartment, he recorded himself singing into his phone. He realized that as evil sounding as Ghost was, the singer was a crooner—his buddy aptly called them the Satanic Bee Gees. He picked apart and tweaked these elements and came up with an early version of “The Beast Awakens.” Dark, unholy metal music with a mean groove, and ear-splitting falsetto vocals. In other words, the kind of song that will inspire you to immediately throw up the sign of the horns and bang your head till your neck is sore.

In late January, he sent Frontiers five demo tracks. They were all co-writes, except for “The Beast Awakens.” But that was the song that felt truest to his vision. He figured maybe he was better off just writing it himself.  

“I decided to continue down that lonesome road and take the task of writing the album head-on,” Durbin says.

His metal album wasn’t getting his full attention. He had a really busy live schedule between doing solo gigs and shows with his rock ’n’ roll cover band the Lost Boys. Gigs were up and down California, and he had a ton coming up in 2020. They were booked all the time, including two on the Fourth of July. The Lost Boys were booked for a party in Aptos in the afternoon, and Scotts Valley later that evening.

“We were pushing for 2020 to be the year of the Lost Boys,” Durbin says.

This kind of multi-task juggling wasn’t unusual for Durbin. A few years earlier, he wrote much of his singer-songwriter style album Homeland while on the road, between shows. However, after submitting those five demos to Frontiers, he was struggling with writer’s block. When riffs and raw melodies trickled into his head, he recorded them to use later.  

Write Mind

As these ideas started to come together, and he was figuring out how to juggle writing his metal album and regular gigs, Covid-19 shut down live music and sent everyone home indefinitely. This changed the writing process for Durbin—but then, it has been evolving from the start.

In 2011, after Durbin placed fourth in the 10th season of American Idol, he was immediately signed to Wind-Up Records, who’ve also worked with Creed, Evanescence, and the Darkness. On his first album, 2011’s Memories of a Beautiful Disaster, he co-wrote three songs. On 2014’s Celebrate, he co-wrote every song but one. On 2016’s  Riot on Sunset, he wrote seven of the 12 songs himself. And then on Homeland, he wrote every song, except for a live rendition of the standard “House of the Rising Sun.”

He started Homeland while singing with Quiet Riot, an interesting change of pace to the metal they were doing. He worked with “Father” Rick Vierra at Rocker Studios in Santa Cruz. Ockerman added some piano, and Danny Cobo contributed violin parts.

But in April 2018, Durbin moved to Nashville, because he was touring in that part of the country so much. He met with a producer who had a nice studio south of the city, but Durbin decided instead to record the whole Homeland album himself, even if that meant forgoing studio quality and an experienced engineer.

Homeland, which was released in late 2018, was a new step for Durbin. Not only did he write it all himself, but he released it on a record label he and his wife started called Wild Vine Records. It was the first time he’d written an entire record all on his own.

“I chose to figure it out on my own—on the job training, if you will—engineer, produce, record, mix and master it myself. To me, it was a badge of being an independent artist,” Durbin says. “Homeland taught me how to tell stories. And so I knew with this album [The Beast Awakens], what I wanted to do was tell a longer story.”

Recording Homeland in Nashville was an adventure that set him up for what was to come with The Beast Awakens, but he missed Santa Cruz, and returned in the summer of 2019.

The writer’s block that Durbin had been struggling with in early 2020 seemingly went away when the lockdown began. He spent a lot of time sitting at his desk or in his living room, banging out riffs and seeing what stuck. Durbin was devoting himself entirely to songwriting in a new way. He got into it, too, playing and singing at full volume, to see what riffs would hit all the metal buttons.

“I put my wife, kids, cats and neighbors through a lot of high, loud screams,” Durbin says. “It was perfect timing because any other year would have had its own distractions and tours and shows. It was really nice to be able to sit back. Time stopped for everybody. I was able to just create this—create a realm and a world and characters and circumstance for them.”

When he realized that “The Beast Awakens” was the right direction for the record, it dawned on him that he wanted to go all-in on the mystical side of classic metal, where the lyrics of the album send you on a journey. He rewatched the Lord of the Rings trilogy and wrote arena rocker “Into the Flames,” inspired by Sam’s journey in the films. Full octane metal rocker “The Prince of Metal” tapped into the medieval-expedition side of metal. Sludgy metal ballad “The Sacred Mountain” was partially inspired after looking at Mt. Madonna and letting his imagination flow on its hidden spirituality.

During the writing process, he thought a lot about the hero’s journey, and read the basic structure of how it plays out in film and literature, seeing that he’d already covered several points in a typical arc on his album. Each song has a personal story behind it, while also tapping into the fantasy realm and larger story on the album.

“The album is happening to the prince himself, and I knew I wanted him to go fight this amazing battle, and then I knew I wanted him to die, and then to be resurrected, and come back as the king,” Durbin says. “Some of it’s true—I can’t be like, you know, back in 2007 I died and came back with a beard and a shaved head, but there’s fact in the fiction.”

After four months of intense songwriting and demoing, with only occasional side projects to take his attention away from this mystical heavy metal world his brain lived in, he was ready to get it recorded. But Covid-19 was still a problem. So, he had to figure out the best way to get the album he wanted.

No Faire

Even though Durbin had decided to write The Beast Awakens by himself, he wanted the final album to sound perfect, so he enlisted a ton of musicians, like Mike Vanderhule of Y&T on drums and Barry Sparks of Dokken on bass, not to mention one song featuring pro-wrestler Chris Jericho and Phil Demmel of Machine Head. He also enlisted several friends and other musicians he knows to play on the record. For the role of producer, he reached out to longtime local friend Ellison, who does tech work at Starving Musician and records bands on the second floor of the building.

Recording at Starving Musician had its advantages. If they needed a new amp or wanted to experiment with pedals, all they had to do was wander downstairs and grab it, assuming they put it back when they were done. Starving Musician staff might wander upstairs and add some texture to a track as well.

They worked on the album in July and August of 2020. Even with the limited time, Ellison was inspired to make a great album, and show that Durbin’s voice was made to sing metal.

“I wanted to make sure James’ vocals sounded like they were the key factor of this album. A lot of people are listening because James is singing,” Ellison says. “I wanted to keep it organic, have James show off his vocals, like a stripped classic metal album. This was his roots. This is what he listened to growing up. I think this is the album he’s been the most excited to produce. That excitement definitely comes through on the album.”

Juggling all the different players during a pandemic, when everyone has recorded their parts in their own home studio, posed its own challenges. Everyone was working off of Durbin’s demos, which were well organized and detailed. Durbin even kept a few of these vocal takes and guitar licks in the final recording. Since everyone was working at the same time, Ellison piecemealed songs together as tracks were coming in.

“It was honestly a free-for-all. They were still recording drums, bass parts, guitar leads,” Ellison says. “It was probably triple the amount of time just organizing tracks. But everyone got their parts done and everything was solid. It was nuts. I was putting in 12-15 hours a day, strictly in front of the computer screen.”

The final product clearly has lots of work and details put into it. Even as they rushed it to meet that month-long deadline, the mix ended up not being right. Frontiers came back with notes. It had to be remixed and then mastered a second time, but the results were worth it.

Durbin is excited about the finished record. In some ways, it’s his most James Durbin album yet, one that shows off his roots and his incredible voice in the context it best fits—classic, head-banging, operatic, emotive heavy metal.

It’s sort of strange though to be releasing this larger-than-life classic metal album at a time when he can’t even perform a release show. While he was writing the album last year, and it seemed possible that everything could reopen by the summer of 2020, he imagined a huge theatrical event to celebrate this grand metal album.

“I wanted Covid to lift and there to be a Renaissance Faire. I’m gonna write all these songs. I’m gonna get super deep into this shit. And then we go to the Renaissance Faire, and we’re drinking mead and eating giant turkey legs and hail the queen. That didn’t happen. So I had to further create that world myself,” Durbin says.

The Beast Awakens is Durbin’s best record, and it’s his least pop-conscious album, going all-in on metal, without making any effort whatsoever to be relevant to the 2021 market. Durbin couldn’t be happier about that.

“I don’t think anybody gets into metal to make money,” Durbin says, recalling a comment one fan wrote on a promo video for the album. “‘You know, maybe he really does like this kind of music, and this is who he is.’ I had a blast writing these songs, and I look forward to playing them live. Whenever, wherever.”   

While he plans a release event for ‘The Beast Awakens,’ James Durbin’s rock cover band the Lost Boys will play an acoustic show at Michaels on Main. For more information, go to jamesdurbinofficial.com.

2 Comments

2 Comments

  1. Chen Dubrin

    February 12, 2021 at 8:50 am

    James is a good humble person that deserves to make it in the world of music.

    Some good people become great by choice.
    Some are born with it.
    James is both.

  2. Sheri K

    February 3, 2021 at 9:47 pm

    Wonderful article on James!
    He’s A class act & I’m so happy for him &
    for the release of The Beast awakens!
    James is made for this type of music,
    But I’d support him no matter what genre he chooses to sing!

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