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A Conversation With James Durbin

James Durbin talks about his new single, artistic control and “the Santa Cruz mentality"

by Jacob Pierce on Jan 18, 2012

James Durbin, who started singing in bars at 15, has an edge that even his most ardent fans may have missed as they watched his ride on national television last year. He’s the first to admit it.

“Being on Idol, you get this stigma of being this wholesome person, or else you don’t make it very far,” Durbin said before a secret concert held earlier this week at Kuumbwa.

These days, the artist isn't afraid to speak his mind. In a wide-ranging interview with Santa Cruz Weekly, Durbin criticized some Santa Cruzans for laziness, expressed qualms about his album’s first single and bragged about head-butting the wind out of a professional wrestler at a WWE match the week before.

The Santa Cruz native, who has both Asperger and Tourette syndromes, released a new album, Memories of a Beautiful Disaster, last November. The music video for his second single, “Stand Up,” comes out Tuesday, Jan. 24.

Durbin spoke about living with disabilities, being a rock star and the importance of staying true to James.

You set a piano on fire for your “Love Me Bad” music video. Was the Santa Cruzan in you disappointed about the pollution and the waste? Or was it just pretty fucking badass?

It was pretty fucking badass. They had firefighters on hand and paramedics just to make sure it was as safe as possible. But on the first take when we lit all the fire, the smoke was billowing so much I couldn’t open my mouth. It literally knocked me down on the ground.

You’ve said you want to stay in Santa Cruz forever. Are you sticking with that?

Everything I need is in Santa Cruz, but there’s this curse with people. They get to a certain age, and they wake and bake. They sit home and do nothing with their lives. Maybe they’re a “professional skateboarder.” That’s what they say their title is. They’re really unemployed, and they just hang out and don’t do anything. It’s like Highway 17 scares them.

I love driving Highway 17! It’s fun getting over and saying “It’s not Santa Cruz! This dude doesn’t look like he wants to kill me! And he’s not wearing khaki Dickies shorts with tall white socks with a handlebar mustache and his head shaved and a swastika on his back.”

So you’re making fun of Santa Cruz?

No, I grew up on the Eastside. So I saw a lot of that. And even a lot of people that I went to school with are now like that, and I’m just amazed that I didn’t turn out that way. I didn’t have that mentality of not wanting to do anything with my life, and I see that a lot. I refer to it as the Santa Cruz mentality.

Former Mayor Ryan Coonerty gave you surfboard last year with your face on it. You said it would be an incentive for you to learn how to surf! How’s that board treating you?

It’s treating me pretty good. I get to go into my garage and look at it. I couldn’t tell you the last time I went into the ocean in Santa Cruz. It’s so damn freezing.

Does Tourette Syndrome ever interfere with your performance?

No. When I’m on stage, everything goes right for some reason. I can be sitting right here having a simple conversation with you and ticking my brains out, and it really bothers me. But as soon as I get onstage and as soon as I start singing, it really just takes my mind off of it and takes my mind off of the stress.

Some people say you’re a role model for people with disabilities.

I’m actually really honored to be thought of as a role model. I’ve always stayed true to who I am. I’ve never tried to be someone else. My interest and my style may change, but I’ve always been James. I was just the outcast.

And that’s why you took to metal?

Yeah, I noticed metalheads were the outcasts. People don’t really understand it. They think it’s just annoying, and people have this strange misconception about metal. I mean, Judas Priest is so enjoyable to listen to, and Black Sabbath too. Something about it I really enjoy. It’s so melodic and so much fun, and it really gets me in the mood.

“Love Me Bad” was your first Top 40 single off the new album. But “Stand Up” was later released to the rock charts. Which do you like better?

“Stand Up,” definitely. “Love Me Bad” is good for what it’s worth, but it’s definitely not my favorite song on the album. There’s so many other songs on the album that would be a better representation of me coming straight off the bat.

“Love Me Bad” sounds like a radio pleaser.

Yeah, it definitely is a radio pleaser.

So it doesn’t feel like you?

Yeah, it doesn’t. I play it so much. I play it acoustic. I play it electric. We did it on Conan, and switched it up. And then I actually heard the recording on the radio for the first time. We were in Portland, and it was so strange. I said, “Can we re-record that? Like the way we did on Conan? That was more fun.”

How much artistic control do you expect to have in your career?

As far as songwriting and recording and music videos and style and how I present myself, I have complete control over it, and I intend to keep it that way. If I’m going to be the one singing the songs, I’ve got to be happy singing ‘em. You’ve got to stick to your guns.