Daughtry: Town Where You Belong

Chris Daughtry is famous—hard not to be, what with the "American Idol" thing and the heartthrob thing and Grammy Award nomination thing and the gazillion records sold thing. But he still tries to be a normal guy. He runs errands when he's home in North Carolina; a favorite pastime is taking his kids to the movies. And it was when he saw "Alvin and the Chipmunks" in the theater with his children that he realized his life had reached the point where weird is the new normal.

"Whoa! Whoa! This chipmunk is oversinging my song," he says with a wince, recalling the dog-whistle octave stylings of Alvin on "Feels Like Tonight" in the film. "There were runs everywhere. I didn't even know what it was until the chorus."

Music video for "No Surprise," the first single from Daughtry's second album, "Leave This Town."

It's been an impressive couple of years for Daughtry, both the man and the band, which includes Josh Steely on lead guitar, Brian Craddock on rhythm guitar, Josh Paul on bass and Joey Barnes on drums. Its self-titled first album sold 4.4 million copies since its release in November 2006, according to Nielsen SoundScan, and 7.1 million digital track downloads. "Daughtry" sold at least 15,000 copies per week— every week—from its release until May 2008.

The album was a perfect storm of the commercial and the creative that paired Daughtry's gigantic fan base from "American Idol" with the set's instantly winning "Guitar Hero"-worthy guitar riffs and lyrics. The group's second album, "Leave This Town," set for release July 14, gets a leg up from this foundation; it's another record full of songs that make you want to roll down the car windows and bust a vocal cord or two while trying to match Daughtry's gravelly wail. But there's one key change to the music: Daughtry—the band—created this album, instead of it being the work of Daughtry the brand.

"So much of the focus of the launch of the first record was on Chris," RCA senior VP of marketing Aaron Borns says. "But they really are a band. When a band clicks the way they do, they work with such a good energy. It just comes through that they love what they do."

After finishing fourth in the fifth season of "American Idol" in 2006, Daughtry was obligated to complete the summer tour for the program's top 10 finalists. To capitalize on his appearance on the show with an album as soon as possible after the tour ended, it was a frantic rush for Daughtry, 19 and RCA to write songs, rehearse and record with session musicians. Only then were there auditions for the band members that would make up Daughtry and take those songs from the album on the road.

"That tour is 60 cities in 12 weeks," says Daughtry's manager, Stirling McIlwaine of 19 Entertainment, of the American Idols Live tour. "It's a grueling schedule. He had like one day off a week, so what we did is either fly Chris in or fly people out to meet him on the road." After a series of auditions, the final lineup of Daughtry was set for the tour, and the very next day the band had its first photo shoot. The making of the album continued to avalanche until November 2006, when "Daughtry" arrived with a No. 2 debut on the Billboard 200 and eventually reached No. 1 after nine weeks.

For "Leave This Town," the album's creation was much more collaborative and inclusive. Case in point: The cover of the first album showed Daughtry alone, front and center, with blurred, anonymous bandmates in the background. On the cover of "Leave This Town," the faces of all of the band's members are clearly seen.

While Daughtry remains the band's primary songwriter, he worked with Steely and Craddock on several tracks, as well as longtime friends of the band like Nickelback's Chad Kroeger and Brian Howes, who co-wrote "Over You" for Daughtry's first album.

The first single, "No Surprise," was first played live on "American Idol" and now stands at No. 51 on the Billboard Hot 100, with 268,000 digital copies sold, according to Nielsen SoundScan. Touring with Nickelback bolstered Daughtry's reputation—besides exposing the band to the established act's audience, it also melded the relationship between Daughtry and Kroeger as songwriters. "They just get along famously," McIlwaine says. "Forget about the music side of it—they really just get along as people." On "Town," Kroeger and Daughtry wrote numerous tracks, including "No Surprise."

"No Surprise" - Daughtry
Listen to the new Daughtry single "No Surprise."

"You're looking for something that's obviously going to be radio-friendly," McIlwaine says of the first single. "The second requirement is, 'Will it be a great launching point for the campaign? Will it tell people he's back? Does it have the signature Daughtry sound?' That's the song that raised its hand."

Right now the leading contender for the second single is the ballad "Life After You," a plaintive take on loss that's reminiscent of "Home" from "Daughtry." McIlwaine is giving "No Surprise" plenty of time to develop; "Life After You" will start being worked to radio in the fall.

And while Daughtry's voice and rock riffs still play center stage to most of the album's tracks, several songs take some creative chances. Daughtry wrote "You Don't Belong" on his own; it's a hard-driving song that wouldn't sound out of place on an Alice in Chains album. And "Tennessee Line," featuring a fiddle and vocals from Vince Gill, fits comfortably in the country-rock crossover space, a la Lady Antebellum.

"Leave This Town" came together in a couple of months, without any deadline pressure from the label, McIlwaine says. "We didn't do that knee-jerk thing when you have a hot record," he says. "The first album was a great run for us, and the record company usually wants you to churn another one out by Christmas, right? And we just didn't do that. We said, 'This is a really important album—the first album we didn't have the band hired yet.' Chris has always been in bands, and it's really important to Chris to go out and be a band."

Band Aid

The week of the "American Idol" eighth-season finale in May (Daughtry was rooting for Kris Allen, despite Adam Lambert's more overt rock leanings), the band is sitting in McIlwaine's office at 19 Entertainment in Los Angeles and chowing down on the nouveau rock god snack of choice: granola bars, water and coffee. They're laughing about the amount of bass and the volume at which McIlwaine listens to music in his office: "It's like 'Jurassic Park,' " Craddock says.

Their camaraderie is very much evident—they finish each other's sentences and mock each other with good-natured snark. Two of them are wearing the same boots, which of course draws jeers from the rest of the band.

Sure, Daughtry gets the lion's share of the attention—that inevitably falls on the lead singer, Borns notes—but Steely reveals that fans have made Web sites dedicated to all of the band's members. ("Yeah, like, we're the New Kids on the Block," Paul says.) And after erupting into peals of laughter, they uniformly go mum—and get a bit embarrassed—when asked about a dressing room prank Nickelback played on them when the bands toured together. "Google it!" Paul hisses under his breath. (We did. No luck in finding out exactly what the prank was, but Daughtry says "our families know about it" as he beseeches for the subject to be dropped.)

What all of this means is that now that Daughtry has cemented its relationship as a band, touring is a blast. It's where the members became friends and started to develop concepts for songs for the second album. The quintet hammered out ideas on the tour bus after each evening's show and traveled with recording equipment. In total, they developed more than 70 tracks for "Leave This Town." "It was easy to find the 20," Daughtry says with a laugh about the album's shortlist. "There were about 50 that were about nothing."

They road-tested some of the contenders during their performances—a smart strategy, given their touring success. According to Billboard Boxscore, as a headliner, Daughtry grossed $1.4 million from 29 shows, selling out 28 of those dates. The members really made their name as an opening act for both Bon Jovi and Nickelback; as part of those concerts they played to 1.2 million attendees and grossed $95.5 million.

In particular, opening for Bon Jovi was a turning point for the band—"It was like going to a Bon Jovi show every night," Steely says with a laugh—and it's an experience that the entire band speaks of with veneration. "At the end of the tour Jon did this speech in Atlanta and I was offstage listening to it," Daughtry says. "It was about how he met me years ago, and at the end of it he says, 'This man will never open for another band again.' To get that respect from someone who has obviously stayed relevant for that amount of time? It felt really good."

Not everything was sunshine during the tour though. A bomb scare cleared out the BankAtlantic Center near Tampa Bay, Fla., delaying the show by three hours, and Daughtry had to take the stage before a virtually empty stadium. "It was like playing at band practice and just the neighbors were showing up," Daughtry says. "The house lights were up, and you could see the janitors sweeping," Paul adds.

This time Daughtry will tour as an established headliner in support of "Town." The band will do 15 shows this summer across the country for fan club members and radio contest winners; at the end of September Daughtry begins a 100-stop North American tour. "We're very cognizant of who our audience is and we're going to places where they are," McIlwaine says. "It's going to be everything from Seattle to Spokane [Wash.] to Boise [Idaho] to Bozeman [Mont.], all the way up to Poughkeepsie, N.Y., and down to Tampa, Fla."

Rock This Town

In the wake of his appearance on "American Idol," Daughtry's fan base was, according to McIlwaine, 65%-70% female, generally between the ages of 25 and 45. Since he started the band, however, 19 pushed to broaden his exposure through targeted radio play and youth-oriented concert dates. "We did one of the unofficial balls for the inauguration that was attended by 7,000 juniors and seniors in high school," he says. "I literally felt like I was looking out at a high school dance with no chaperones. Daughtry played an acoustic set—and the kids were singing every lyric back to him."

Plans for international touring are still in the early stages. "The challenge with international is that they always want the U.S. story to be happening," McIlwaine says. "So we've got to simultaneously create the U.S. story and create some windows of time to go international." The label is considering appearances in Australia, South Africa and Europe. The United Kingdom was Daughtry's most significant sales territory outside the United States, where "Daughtry" peaked at No. 13 and has sold 42,000 copies, according to the Official Charts Co.

The band will make numerous TV appearances the week "Town" arrives. There also will be online and in-person shows at locations still to be announced. RCA makes a point of trying to break news through Daughtry's Web site, daughtryofficial.com, and has been flexible enough to revamp its release schedule after a couple of debuts were pre-empted by pirates. (The song and the video for "No Surprise," plus the album's track list, hit the Internet before the label intended.)

Daughtry is active on Twitter—yes, it's actually him, he has an iPhone, and the background of his Twitter page is an old-school Bob Kane "Batman"—regaling his followers with everything from movie recommendations to details about the desolate photo of Fremont Street in downtown Las Vegas that's on the cover of "Leave This Town." Rather sweetly, he engages in a lot of public flirting on Twitter with his wife, Deanna, who has amassed almost 2,500 followers of her own under the name @Mrsdaughtry.

It all goes back to what people find most appealing about Daughtry: that he's a normal guy. That was the compelling back story that boosted him during "American Idol"—before auditioning for the show, he worked as a service adviser at a Honda dealership. Once he made it to the final rounds, it became clear he brought something new to the show, as his rock vocals veered away from the usual heavy pop-and-R&B bias. Without Daughtry, there wouldn't have been a David Cook—or, for that matter, a Lambert.

And, to his credit, his dude-next-door vibe doesn't ring hollow or seem to be part of a Machiavellian "he's so un-Hollywood that he's Hollywood" marketer's contrivance. Daughtry recalls pushing a cart through a Home Depot and hearing one of the band's songs playing over the in-store speakers. He flipped up his hoodie and tried to remain inconspicuous as he lurked in the aisles.

"You hid?" Barnes asks incredulously, and Daughtry nods, a bit sheepish. Barnes starts dancing in his chair and waving his arms frantically. "I'd be like, 'Hey! Hey! Turn it up! That's my jam!' "

Daughtry laughs at Barnes' lunatic enthusiasm. "Yeah, that's your jam," he says with a grin. And it is. Because they're a band.