Q&A: Chris Daughtry

He lost 'Idol' but has a Number One album. The singer on his grunge roots and pals the Presleys

Chris Daughtry (2R) and his band Daughtry pose backstage at the MTV Times Square Studios November 5th, 2007 in New York City. Credit: Bryan Bedder/Getty

In high school, Chris Daughtry had three career options. "I always wanted to be a comic artist," he says. "And I wanted to be the next Jean-Claude Van Damme, a martial-arts actor. But I really liked being onstage." Inspired by early-Nineties rock, Daughtry started bands like Cadence and Absent Element, both of which failed to vault the singer-songwriter to stardom. In 2006, he finally realized his dream via American Idol, where predictions of a Daughtry victory gave way to a shocking fourth-place ousting. But Daughtry laughs last: His debut album (Daughtry) by his new band (Daughtry) is the second-best-selling album of the year so far, with multiple radio formats spinning hits such as the post-grunge smash "It's Not Over" and the nostalgic power ballad "Home." Daughtry, 27, checks in from Chicago, the day before his album hits Number One, yet again.

The Chicago Sun-Times called Daughtry "slick, generic hard rock that...quickly reveals a serious lack of substance."
Yeah, I did see that.

Were they missing something?
I don't know. It's certainly very slick, and we wanted it that way. As far as my songwriting, it was all about hooky melodies that people could sing along to. And some people have problems with songs people like [laughs]. Songs that are mainstream, that a majority of the audience gets and likes, are generally the albums that get bad reviews.

Other people equate your music with that of Nickelback.
That's a huge compliment for me. They sold 5 million albums last year. Compare me all day to people like that! It gives me hope.

Your teen years collided with the grunge revolution.
I was fourteen, listening to all the Nineties bands: Bush, Live, Alice in Chains' Sap, Soundgarden's Superunknown, STP. It just had this honesty to it that sucked me in.

What else do you listen to?
I went through the whole Eighties thing with G n' R and Skid Row — "18 and Life," baby! — and Rick Astley and Ace of Base. I also went through my rap phase with Public Enemy, N.W.A and License to Ill. House of Pain was badass, and you can't forget Vanilla Ice. Later, I became a big Elton John fan — Tumbleweed Connection — and my wife turned me on to Led Zeppelin. Now I'll listen to the Killers or Fall Out Boy. But the stuff I go back to are those Nineties bands.

Did you drink a lot?
No, and growing up I was never exposed to drugs. We drank beer, and a couple of my good friends were also friends with Jäger. I tried that a couple of times — I had my share of going to bed with my head in the toilet. On tour now, it's strictly beer.

Playing your first big shows, it must be hard to come down after a gig.
Yeah. We stay up until about 4 a.m. Four of the five guys on the bus are married with children, so it's a bunch of dudes hanging out. We'll have a few drinks, but last night it was all about Talladega Nights.

Shake and bake!
Yeah, shake and bake [laughs]. The night before, we watched Pantera DVDs until 5 a.m. We realized how rock-star we are not.

Do your late-night conversations ever veer toward renaming the band?
No! We joke about it all the time. People ask, "How'd you come up with that name?" and I say, "It came to me in a dream, and I thought it was a good word. Then I was like, 'Wait, that's my name! It's perfect!' "

What is your favorite lyric?
One that comes to mind is from the Live song "Lakini's Juice": "I rushed the ladies' room/Took the water from the toilet/Washed her feet and blessed her name." It's bizarre, but it stands out.

Before Idol, you tried out for Rock Star: INXS. What was that like?
When I heard they were coming to Charlotte [North Carolina], I sent them an audition tape of, oddly enough, "Voices Carry," by Til Tuesday. They e-mailed me immediately, and I got a private audition — no waiting in lines. Then I did "Desire," by U2, I don't think the band was digging my style too much.

What was it like having Slash guest on "What I Want"?
I was expecting him coming in too cool for school, not wanting to have anything to do with anybody from American Idol. He was the nicest, most down-to-earth guy — and he had no top hat — so I was disappointed from the get-go [laughs]. I could hear him out the door just ripping it. I finally said, "Do you mind if I watch you shred in here?" He was laid-back, asking me, "Do you like that solo?" I was like, "Dude, whatever you think!"

In your liner notes, you also thank Lisa Marie, Priscilla and Elvis Presley. Why all three?
I met Lisa Marie and Priscilla when we went to Graceland [on Idol]. They were so cool to me. 

Sorry, I missed that one.
It's OK, you didn't miss much [laughs]. Kidding! Anyway, the night I got kicked off the show, Lisa Marie was the first to call me — I had to hold the phone about a foot from my face because of all the f-bombs she was dropping. She was really pissed! Priscilla called me ten minutes later and said, "You did Elvis proud." [Daughtry had performed "Suspicious Minds."] As I was thanking both of them for the encouragement, I couldn't leave Elvis out. You've got to thank the King, right?

Do you still wish you'd won?
No way.