One of the greatest pleasures of recent times was seeing the return of The Darkness, the four-piece who had become the UK’s ‘Saviors of Rock n’ Roll’ only to have gone their separate ways some five years before. In the eleven years since their phoenix-like resurrection, the band have grown from strength to strength, a string of well-received albums under their belts and sold-out tours added to an impressive CV.
With the addition of Rufus’ Tiger’ Taylor on drums in 2015 to the original lineup of Justin and Dan Hawkins and Frankie Poullain on bass, the band have certainly entered a new era, their stock higher than ever. It was then, a genuine treat to get to sit down with them to discuss their forthcoming arena tour with fellow road warriors Black Stone Cherry and Danko Jones around the arenas of these isles, the package a mouth-watering prospect.
Interview: Paul Monkhouse
The Darkness at Download Photography: Stuart Isteed
Cover photo: Steve Ritchie
It’s certainly been a busy time for The Darkness recently with their recent set at Download, and the band are just back from Hellfest, the huge rock and Metal festival in France. “Hellfest was hot,” Justin says. “It was 109 °F, and remember, hot yoga is conducted at 105 °F, so it was even hotter than hot yoga.”
All this must seem a long way from the early gigs at the Fighting Cocks pub in Lowestoft and The Waterfront venue in Norwich. “The Fighting Cocks is never far from our hearts,” says Justin as Dan nods in agreement.
Whilst appreciative of the past, the band are not content to live there, and the albums since the comeback, from Hot Cakes onwards, have been better and better. For this writer, Easter Is Cancelled, and Motorheart have been up there with debut Permission To land.
“That’s really kind of you to say so,” Justin says. “I think we’ve found a good rhythm in terms of the way we write songs and just play together. That comes across in the music. Easter Is Cancelled was the nearest thing to a concept album that we would probably embark on. Then Motorheart was the opposite of that. I think if we hadn’t done Easter Is Cancelled, we wouldn’t have been able to make Motorheart. Like any journey, it’s just one step at a time.”
When The Darkness first emerged properly into the wider public consciousness with I Believe In A Thing Called Love, for a lot of people, they had the ethos of the hard rock we all grew up with and had a passion for.
“I think that particular kind of hard rock was from our childhood,” Justin says, “because the really good stuff was from the ’70s and ’80s. Then bands like Nitro came and took it so far that you couldn’t do anything else with it. They did something so spectacular and changed the perception of the aesthetic. Somebody said to me the other day, ‘I saw you jumping off the piano at Jools Holland, and I saw you in the boob chariot’. And then, when they saw the boob chariot, they realised that we had crossed the line.”
The Darkness were something near that line in the first place. “I think the whole point of the lines,” Justin says, “is you have one foot on each side of it for it to be exciting. That line straddling isn’t something that happened in the ’90s. It is very firmly in this serious reductive, you know? Less flashy guitar playing and, you know, smaller hairstyles. It really died off, didn’t it? By the time we came along, I think it was just like here’s a lot of bands like The Datsuns and other sorts of AC/DC inspired things. But there was nothing out there that was doing anything that was flamboyant and had that hard heart.”
They were certainly flamboyant. “We were pretty defiant because no one else was doing it,” Justin says, “but it was pretty obvious that if we did it right, there would be something there for us, you know? But people like [local music legend] Buster James… I just think he’s always done that. He was a hard rocker from the beginning. Never surrendered, never compromised, and he’s just brilliant.”
All over a 52-year career and counting.
“That’s it,” Justin says. “I mean, what a career, you know. He was an inspiration to us because he was out there doing it and showing us. You could learn a lot from a Buster James gig, especially in terms of being a frontman. There wasn’t anybody in that region that was as good as him. There was a bit of a scene for it in Lowestoft. The East Anglian music scene has always been hard rocking.”
Dan talks about a school visit from another band that was a formative experience. “Their frontman, Jay Bell, actually came to Pakefield middle school,” he says, “and did a show in assembly once. There was a massive drumkit, two bass drums, lighting rig and dry ice. The full thing in assembly, in front of nine to 12-year-olds. It was really quite an education.”
There was also Gene Simmons turning up at Kirkley High School, where Justin and Dan had been pupils. I bumped into him in Lowestoft town centre. “Gene Simmons was buying doughnuts?” Justin asks. Sadly, the answer is, in a way, a little more prosaic, the KISS legend hanging out in the town with the band he had put together for the second series of the television show Rock School. It was certainly a bizarre moment, though.
One thing that always struck me about The Darkness is they have such a passion for what they do. They are all obviously music fans. Even the cool and normally taciturn Frankie comes truly alive when on stage. “There is real turmoil existing,” Frankie says. “Still waters run deep.”
Sitting in the room with the four of them, you’re struck by their individual characters. On stage, the sharply dressed Frankie is very enigmatic, whilst Rufus is a bundle of energy. The brothers are out front, Justin doing handstands whilst Dan focuses on cranking out the riffs, a black-clad rock machine, and that is one reason why they work so well as a live band. They have that love for music.
This certainly seems the best lineup the band has had. “There’s something magical about it,” Justin says. “We can rely on each other, and even when things cook up, we can laugh about it. If Frankie makes a cock up, I say. ‘Frankie Poullain, electric bass.’ We can do that because we are strong enough. We believe in each other.”
“It’s true what you say about doing it with love and passion,” Frankie says. “The principle is you can always use food as a metaphor for music. Exactly the same principle. It’s good ingredients and then doing it with love. Doing it with love, you can’t fail.”
Going back to the start, is the legend true that Justin got the job in the band, initially by singing Bohemian Rhapsody, at The Swan pub in Gillingham, near Lowestoft?
“I didn’t sing it,” Justin says. “It was just some interpretive dance to that song. The song is always true, but it wasn’t karaoke. It was just a family gathering, and it came on the jukebox. So, I did some interpretive dance. That was Dan’s penny drop moment when he realised that, with my natural snake hips and my anatomy, and my ability to interpret music physically and entertain, beguile and seduce an audience with my body. Even before I had sung a note, he knew I was the one.”
“It was quite funny,” Dan says. “He had the whole pub in the palm of his hands. It was building, building, building, and when it got to the big ending, everyone was just thinking, what’s gonna happen? He had run out of ideas, but he was then just doing star jumps for the whole of the outro. Everyone started star jumping. The whole pub was star jumping.”
Justin smiles. “It’s a great way to stay in shape.”
Given the choice of song, it must now seem incredible that way back then, you had no idea that Roger Taylor’s son would be your drummer.
“I think we all knew in our hearts,” Justin says. “‘Because you do get glimpses of destiny, don’t you think? He can ignore the background noise and, you know, the cascading odds of improbability that led to us being here in the first place. You know, it stands to reason that Rufus would end up being our drummer, even if we didn’t realise that he existed. It was destiny from the beginning. You have to believe these things. You have to look for the omens, chase them and make them happen.”
“It’s poetry in a way,” Frankie says.
“Chaos theory is modelled on weather systems,” Dan says. “We get a lot of weather in Lowestoft.”
“Cataclysmic,” Justin says. “It’s the same way when Rufus strikes that snare down my ear.”
“I was abroad when a mutual friend called to say they needed a drummer,” Rufus says, “and the gig was virtually the following day. I had to drop everything and learn the set practically overnight.” Rufus is obviously happy to have joined them after being thrown in at the deep end. The stars align as worlds collide.
The demand for The Darkness continues on the up. When they look back, do they think things happened too fast the first time around? “Not fast enough,” Justin says.
Now, they seem very content. The chemistry between the four is really good, and that shows on the albums and on stage. I’ve seen the band so many times over the years, but witnessing them in Cambridge for the Easter Is Cancelled Tour was one of the very best.
“I think we set ourselves some challenges with that tour,” Justin says, “because we played all the songs from it. Some of the instrumentation required people to play unfamiliar instruments. So, we all had to do our homework and knuckle down. I remember Frankie being in my house with headphones on playing my Juno. Sitting in front of the television, practising, actually practising. We just worked really hard for that tour to pull that off. Because it’s quite a self-indulgent thing to play the whole record. If you don’t nail it, it’s even worse. I think we more or less nailed it… nine times out of ten. Luckily, we only did nine shows, so that was cool.”
Another outstanding and memorable show was at Thetford Forest on the Hot Cakes tour. It was a great evening, and now The Darkness and Black Stone Cherry are going to be such a fantastic mix for a whole tour, both having headlined festivals. How do they feel about the tour?
“This morning, we were really excited,” Justin says. “But now we seem a bit lethargic. But that’s because this chair is just so comfortable, and we’ve just eaten lunch. But rest assured, there will be no comfortable chairs before these shows take place and no lunches whatsoever until afterwards.”
But for me, it’s a dream ticket because you’ve got two bands very much loved by the public. Is there going to be some friendly competition between them, trying to blow each other off-stage?
“I think if you get on stage and you’re not trying to do that, then you’re doing your fans a disservice,” Justin says. “That’s about being competitive with ourselves. We’ve always tried to up the stakes and get more out of our performance than we’ve been able to previously.”
“Just to take your question there,” Frankie says, “I don’t think it’s gonna be so friendly we’ll be blowing each other.”
“Not at first,” Justin says.
Going back to the aforementioned Gene Simmons, I reiterated what he’d famously said about rock being dead and, having heard what Black Stone Cherry thought about this, asked The Darkness what they thought.
“I’m really excited about Rock at the moment,” Justin says. “I think there’s a lot of super original stuff coming through that isn’t derivative, or it is in some ways but in the right way, without the reverence. It’s kind of like Starcrawler. I really like that. I like Crawlers as well, from Liverpool. There are so many things coming through. We haven’t had a music scene like this for a while.”
“We’ve started the move away from that obsession with being authentic,” Dan says, “with people doing what they want to do. It is so cool.”
We leave them as we found them, the four band members good company and seemingly enjoying life more than ever. The world certainly needed The Darkness when they arrived in those sparse and colourless days at the turn of the century, and given the state of things over the past couple of years, their own brand of high octane and good time hard rock played with a healthy dash of English wit is most certainly just as vital today.
With an already proven respect and chemistry between themselves and Black Stone Cherry, the forthcoming tour looks guaranteed to be an unforgettable experience and one that we would be foolish to miss.
Good times are ahead, and that light you can see at the end of the tunnel is probably the sun glinting off Justin’s latest catsuit. Here’s to the future!
Read the Black Stone Cherry interview at https://www.metaltalk.net/black-stone-cherry-its-incredible-what-weve-been-able-to-build-over-here.php