The Darkness

Posted: January 1st, 2017 | Author: | Filed under: Feature story | No Comments »

Beware Of Darkness

Background note: This good-humored interview originally appeared as a cover story in Guitar One. The band broke up fairly soon after, but they’ve since reunited for an album and tour (and now star in a Samsung commercial). Hopefully they’ll actually make it to the stage in Cleveland this time so they can finally utter the immortal salutation.

Expectations precede The Darkness. Mine do at least. Beer in hand, I perch on a comfy settee in a well-appointed sitting room in Cleveland’s swank and indeed ritzy Ritz Carlton Hotel. I’m awaiting the group’s catsuit-sporting Justin Hawkins and his younger brother Dan. Together they form the band’s twin Les Paul fury–singer Justin taking the classic widdly-widdly lead role and Dan holding down the power riffage and rhythms.

It’s only noon, but I figure the party never stops around Britain’s new rock royalty, right? Or so I have read. “Wasting beer is disrespectful,” Justin recently pronounced. And in England, it’s certainly well past tea time. Judging from the waaay-over-the-top videos for the band’s insta-anthems, who knows what could happen?

In the clip for “Growing On Me,” a wildly infectious ode to STDs (or perhaps just a simple love song?), a pterodactyl gamely humps the group’s spacecraft, engendering our manor-dwelling heroes. In the rifftastic howlathon “Get Your Hands Off My Woman,” a stripper catfight breaks out over the band and Justin eventually collapses onstage from scissor-kick exhaustion. And in the lighter-waving “I Believe In A Thing Called Love,” the singer fends off a nasty astro-crab with his supersonic shriek and piercing fretacularness. Yes, awesome indeed.

But… alas… the party ends before it even starts. While I unpack my tape recorder, I’m informed by the band’s label rep that Justin isn’t feeling well (a recurring throat infection brought on by stomach-acid reflux, I later learn). They may even have to cancel tonight’s show. Bummer. Furthermore, I’m instructed not to incite any sort of revelry. So… no stripper catfights. No astro-crab battles. Not even a friendly pint or six. Suddenly, the mood begins to resemble Cleveland’s London-like weather. Dreary.

Fortunately, I’m told, Justin and Dan will troop through my interview. And, I’m assured, I won’t be disappointed–these are smart, funny guys and true rock stars. When they do emerge–merely sauntering into the room rather than beaming down in alien birthing pods, but… whatever–they certainly look like rock stars, albeit one very hoarse rock star and his duly concerned rock-star brother.

In person, they actually appear taller, slimmer and younger than their videos suggest. (The reverse is generally true.) Justin wears fawn-colored leather trousers with horsehair fringe and a short-sleeved polyester shirt tied at the waist to reveal the tattooed flames that lick up from below his belt line. Dan, meanwhile, sports a classic blue-jeans-and-black-tee ensemble. With his serious mane and prodigious silver jewelry, he looks as if he’s just stepped off the cover of Deep Purple’s Machine Head.

After a brief introduction, the brothers slump into chairs, order tea and bran muffins from room service, fire up Marlboro Lights, and smile wanly as they prepare for interrogation. They–unlike me–have a real reason to be glum. They’re already mega-selling stars in their native U.K., but if they’re to truly conquer America, they must first win over the country’s heartland. It’s a time-honored hard-rock tradition perhaps passed down to the band by mentors such as Queen’s Brian May, AC/DC’s Angus Young, Def Leppard’s Joe Elliott and Whitesnake’s David Coverdale. Like Spinal Tap before them, they must rock Cleveland–like a heavy-duty big-bottomed sex-farm woman. (Note: Justin’s voice later fails him at soundcheck and they end up rescheduling the date.)

Dan fields most of the warm-up questions, but soon Justin can’t help himself and he begins weighing in. He gets especially animated discussing the “Justin Hawkins” edition Les Paul that Gibson will soon unveil in the U.K. Features include a thinner neck with coral inlays, a Bigsby tremolo and a variety of custom finishes, including what Justin describes as Pepto Bismal pink. Price tag: £7000, or roughly $12,000.

My eyes bug out at the price, but Justin smiles and offers a rationale for the hefty tag–one that handily sums up The Darkness’ entire philosophy as well.

“There’s no point in getting on the ladder if you don’t want to go to the top.”

We’re in Cleveland today. Does the city hold any special significance for you guys?

Justin: [Laughs.] You know exactly where we’re going with this one! I just can’t wait to get out there and say “Hello, Cleveland!” If we have to cancel because of my voice I’ll be really upset.

Just don’t get lost under the stage.

Justin: [Laughs.] But that’s the sort of thing that happens to bands that have been on the road for a long time. This Is Spinal Tap is funny because it’s true. A lot of people were upset by it when it first came out. Jeff Beck reportedly stormed out of the theater because he thought Nigel Tufnel was based on him. We’ve met Jeff since then, and it’s so well-observed.

But if we really were like Spinal Tap and taking the piss out of the music, I think the people who actually shaped rock ‘n’ roll would be pissed off at us because we’d be taking the piss out of them. But for those people to turn around and say they appreciate what we’re doing–that’s a tremendous honor.

But you obviously appreciate the inherent absurdity of hard rock and heavy metal.

Justin: Yeah. But the more accurate statement is that we’re not afraid to be ridiculed.

Dan: I.e., having balls.

Justin: People are too concerned about being cool nowadays. Cool is a very restrictive concept. It just means you can’t be yourself a lot of the time. We’ve all got a sense of humor–and so did Queen and so do Aerosmith and AC/DC. They all started off their careers to ridicule and to people just trying to ignore them. We’re following the same path in a way.

You arrive in America as a fully formed act, but you’ve actually been around since 2000. Was the vision for the band in place from the start?

Justin: It’s still developing. It’s changing all the time in terms of what we’re wearing and stuff. We’re still honing our craft individually and collectively.

At what point, for example, did the Steven Tyler-like striped catsuit make its first appearance?

Justin: I started wearing leotards after the first year.

Dan: You wore the first one in a pub in South London. It was almost completely see-through, wasn’t it?

Justin: That wasn’t Steven Tyler-style, though; it was more like a leotard with flared legs. I had the thunder bolt from my tattoo [he points to the JUSTIN tattoo on his left deltoid] on the legs. But that outfit wasn’t quite what I had in mind.

Did people threaten to beat you up?

Dan: We’ve been quite lucky, actually. Except once when we played with that band Disturbed. Half the crowd wanted to kill us.

Justin: And the other half wanted to kill the half that wanted to kill us. [Laughs.]

Who the hell booked that show?

Dan: Our agent. It was one of the first support shows he arranged for us. I think it was his way of saying, “Right–this is as bad as it’s going to get.”

Justin: After that everything seemed easy.

Dan: We were angry afterwards, but basically it was like, “Fuck it, if we can do that…” When you’re a support band, you have to remind yourself that even though everyone’s not going crazy for you, you still have pockets of people clapping. You add those up and you’ve got about 1000 new fans out of 4000 or so. That’s why you do support tours. But after having coins chucked at you… and a banana…. [Laughs.]

Justin: I had a piece of chewing gum land in my mouth. It was a really good shot. [Laughs.]

As brothers, have you been refining the band since you were kids in a sense?

Dan: Not this band, but we’d been in other bands when we were kids. We’re from a very small town [the seaside burg of Lowestoft]. There’s not a big music culture there, really. Most of the bands play covers. But when we hit 14 or 15, we were both in bands and writing our own songs. But we generally ran in different circles and played in different bands and didn’t really get on.

Justin: You can hear the difference in our musical upbringing in our guitar styles. My influences are bands like Van Halen and Whitesnake, and his are more like Led Zeppelin and Thin Lizzy. We used to fight about it, actually.

So even though Dan is the younger brother, he liked bands that were older?

Justin: No. His influences are just more tasteful. Mine are about showing off, really. That reflects my personality more, as well.

Dan: When I started to play, I was a drummer for years, then I was a bass player for years. I only started to consider myself a proper guitarist about six years ago. I always played guitar, but I didn’t have the balls to step forward and do it. But then again, I didn’t pick up the guitar to be the fastest and the best. If you’re a singer or a lead guitarist, I think you have that attitude in the first place. Justin had it straight away; he wanted to match Steve Vai note for note.

Can you shred like Vai?

Justin: No. I can’t physically go that fast–I’d break a finger or something. But I do like a good solo. I’m actually quite melodic. Brian May has influenced my playing style a hell of a lot.

Did you take guitar lessons?

Justin: I took guitar lessons for a year. But you know how they say practice for a half hour each day? I was practicing for four or five. I just became better than my teacher and he couldn’t take my money any more. At that point I had to go and join bands. I was about 14 at that point.

How did you teach yourself?
Justin: Just listening to stuff and recreating it. But not properly. I couldn’t play like Steve Vai. He was too much, really–a stunning innovator, but it stopped sounding like guitar after a while. My influences are Brian May, Angus Young, Mark Knopfler… and I love Eddie Van Halen. At least he made a guitar sound like a guitar. And Joe Perry. Aerosmith are my favorite band of all time.

That’s an unusual choice for an English kid. They were never big in the U.K. during their initial heyday.

Justin: One of the reasons I got into them so much was because no one else liked them–it feels more special to you. I was always afraid that when we got big, people who liked us in the beginning would be disappointed by that–because you always like to have something that’s just yours. But you can like something as long as it’s different. You can still say, “Oh, I was there when….”

Do you think the Americanisms in your sound have helped you translate over here?

Justin: It’s hard to say what an Americanism is any more. I don’t rhyme “chance” with “romance,” for example. And I don’t sing in an American accent. And if you think about the origins of someone like Aerosmith, what’s deemed an Americanism in their music was influenced by The Rolling Stones and Led Zeppelin, so….

But then again, those bands took their influence from American blues guys, so where do you start? British music heritage in its rawest essence lies in folk music. Whereas here, it’s the blues. And a combination of that creates rock. So geographically, rock is the Atlantic Ocean, I suppose. [Laughs.]

But then a line like “get you hands off my woman, motherfucker” sounds distinctly American.

Justin: That’s funny, because when Americans say “I really like that song,” they get it wrong. They always say “take your hands off my woman.”

Dan: In London, it’s [adopts a posh British accent] “please remove your hands from my missus. Bloody love that song.”

Justin: “Kindly refrain from molesting m’lady. Tremendous.” [Laughs.]

Have you ever used the phrase in real life?

Justin: That song is about the frustration of not being able to say it. The context of that song is a situation where I was with someone who I shouldn’t have been with–an illicit affair–so you can’t be territorial. But the person you’re with is considered fair game by the people you’re trying to hide the relationship from.

And by the chorus you just can’t help yourself?

Justin: Yeah, you just lose it completely. It’s a good outlet. There’s a lot of catharsis in the music–in a very juvenile way.

You recorded Permission To Land in two weeks with £20,000 of your own money. Now that you’ll have a larger budget for the next one, where do you want to take it?

Justin: The same place. It’s one of the cheapest albums released last year, and it’s one of the biggest selling in the U.K.

Dan: It’s like with videos. If you’ve got a great idea for something, it doesn’t matter how much money you’ve got to make it–it’s a great idea!

Justin: Great advancements have been made in artist materials, but the best paintings are always done on canvas. It’s as simple as that. And an album should document where a band is at in their career. You don’t get a decent idea of a band’s progress if they spend five years turd-polishing.

Dan: I’m not into modern production sound. I just think it sounds empty and processed and boring. You can’t hear the players. The only decent thing I’ve heard is [Dave Grohl’s metal supergroup] Probot–you can hear the drums drifting and people trying to keep up with each other. That’s exciting; that’s a real band. Fucking computers and producers rule the world now. What the fuck happened to the band?

Commercial success has ruined a lot of groups, but it seems like it’s afforded you…

Justin: …clothes…

…and the resources to achieve your over-the-top vision for your videos and stage production.

Justin: You get to the point where you start doing things just because you can. But you grow out of that quite quickly.

Dan: We’ve done the video on the cliff top.

And in doing so, you’re obviously providing some much needed escape for people. Do you think you’d be as successful if the world wasn’t in such turmoil?

Justin: That’s exactly why I think it’s happening. Bad things happened in the ‘90s, but we didn’t have something like September 11th back then. Generally speaking, I don’t think there’s anything to moan about in music, but popular music has been very dour and inward-looking lately. There’s a lot of turmoil–not just politically, but in many other areas–and people need an escape from it.

During World War II, for example, the last thing people wanted to do after blacking out the windows during the blitz was put on the radio and listen to someone moan about his parents. You need some sort of musical escape just to get through it.


And now that you’ve projected that image, do people expect you to actually own the mansion and the horses and, well, maybe not the spaceship…

Justin: We just owe it to ourselves to have a really good time. It’s less about what people expect of us and more about what we’re going to do to keep it exciting for ourselves. The thing that’s infectious about our band is that we enjoy it so much that everyone else does as well. You’d have to be a real cunt not to enjoy it–and then you certainly shouldn’t be going to gigs.

Kids these days are used to hearing, “Oh, it’s too bad you missed so and so in their prime.” But in a sense, you’re like a living version of the Rock Hall Of Fame And Museum. You’ve grabbed the best bits from hard-rock history and put them in your act.

Justin: There are certain aspects of this genre that have been overlooked for a long time. In a way, we’re bringing them back. In a way, it’s 30 years of experience that we’re drawing on. We’re doing rock with the benefit of hindsight, but we’re also taking it forward.

The kind of stuff we’re doing has been in arrested development for over ten years. Some bands have toyed with it, but what motivated them is the desire to experience the lifestyle, whereas we’re using the art form creatively, rather than just to shag loads of women and take loads of drugs. Those things should be a by-product of being successful–they shouldn’t be why you do it.

Do you worry that your success will launch a trend of copycat bands?

Justin: No, that’s nothing to be afraid of. Queen is a good example–they developed in their own right. And even if other bands did nod towards them in terms of production, they couldn’t possibly recreate Brian May’s guitar sound or the sound of Freddie Mercury’s voice. That’s what we’ve got that’s special, as well.

It doesn’t seem like this concept would really work for more than one band.

Dan: On paper, it shouldn’t work.

Justin: It’s a terrible idea, really. [Laughs.]















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