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Adding to the Rock Lexicon: Looking Back and to the Future With The Darkness

Wednesday, 25 January 2023 Written by Simon Ramsay

Ever since they illuminated the beige, post-millennium guitar scene with a fashion-be-damned explosion of vintage glam metal, Carry On-esque humour and Liberace-styled attire, premature obituaries have circled The Darkness. They appeared to be primed for a trip to the printers after the four piece came, saw, conquered and spectacularly imploded, but since reforming over a decade ago they have steadily amassed a catalogue of fine albums that have kept the doom-mongers at bay.

Given how they were ripped apart by the maelstrom of massive early success, which contributed to their second album flopping, nobody expected The Darkness to still be delivering gleefully unapologetic, boundary-blasting rock ‘n’ roll records in the here and now, let alone headlining arenas as they are about to do as part of a huge co-headline UK trek with American southern rockers Black Stone Cherry.

Yet, once the foursome of brothers Justin and Dan Hawkins, bassist Frankie Poullain and drummer Ed Graham (who was replaced by Rufus Taylor, son of Queen’s Roger, in 2015) had morphed from Empire into The Darkness, defying insurmountable odds became second nature for one of music’s most loved and loathed acts. 

If that longevity, and the fact such a shamelessly fun, anachronistic gang somehow gatecrashed the mainstream in 2003 with their multi-million selling debut album ‘Permission To Land’, seem equally surprising, it’s merely representative of a career that, after some dizzying highs and hellish lows, appears to be as bulletproof as it can be for any group plying their trade in the crazy ol’ world of rock ‘n’ roll circa 2023. We caught up with Poullain to discuss last year’s irrepressible ‘Motorheart’, the band’s wild glory days and why, if all goes to plan, their next magnum opus could be one for the ages.

A lot of musicians say it’s not until they get out and play their new songs live that they come to terms with the material. You’ve been playing it live for over a year, so how do you feel about ‘Motorheart’ now and where would you rank it in The Darkness’s catalogue?

You make it sound like somebody coming to terms with depression. It’s quite unusual for people to use that terminology and actually be talking about something positive. But, yeah, you’re quite right. The truth of the matter happens on stage…the response you get from the crowd, how it makes you feel and how it makes you move around. Sometimes you think the best material is where it’s got a constant kind of groove or rhythm to it. If you chop and change a lot, that can take away the momentum.

(‘Motorheart’) is one of our more off the cuff albums because ‘Easter Is Cancelled’ was probably our most thought out. We always go in the opposite direction to our previous album, so wanted to do something different. But both stand out as strong. We’ve hit our stride now and albums are playgrounds for us to explore different things that give us creative freedom to…we’re not trying to write hit singles. We’re trying to find something new, something enjoyable, to add to the rock lexicon. 

Since reforming, you’ve continually shot for something new on your albums and have never repeated yourselves. Do you get the respect you deserve for that approach? 

Not in all aspects of the industry or the press because it’s not an idea that sells. It’s not a headline is it? On a day to day basis on tour people express their appreciation for that side of us and the fact we’re taking on these challenges and consistently coming up with a certain level of variety. Fans, the community that appreciate classic rock, recognise Dan and Justin together as being great guitarists. At festivals we get bands watching us at the side of the stage too. We do get the appreciation that’s important and the appreciation that counts. And it’s nice to be creating a bit ‘under the radar’ because then we can build up this body of work unmolested. It’s a blessing to be honest.

Just going back to the beginning, when you guys transitioned from Empire into The Darkness and decided on the music you were going to play, how strong was your belief that you could achieve something with a style of music that was a million miles away from what was happening in the charts and very out of fashion?

You have to have a kind of madness and also a survival mode, which is a type of madness, because you do anything you can to survive. We didn’t even have a Plan B, because if we had we probably wouldn’t have made it. Not that I recommend that philosophy to everyone, but at the time we just gave it everything. And Justin really dug deep. I didn’t realise what level of showman he actually was. He just kept digging deeper and deeper and developed into this incredible frontman. At many gigs I was just as astonished as people in the audience. It’s incredible and he never fails to amaze me. Just the amount of improvisation that he does live, especially in the bits between songs. He’s very intuitive. He just clicks into people. I would say he’s mercurial. Not all frontmen are, but he definitely has a mercurial side.

When The Darkness subsequently burst onto the scene people didn’t know if you were a parody, novelty act or serious about your music. Did that rankle with you or did you revel in the ambiguity?

It was annoying sometimes, but it didn’t really matter. It’s quite a small country Britain, isn’t it? Especially when it comes to the media. You can go in and out of fashion very quickly in this country, whereas in the States they have much more of a long term classic rock point of view. They believe in the fundamentals more; if it entertains, being a virtuoso, the hum of the voice, the guitar sound. In Britain it’s not like that, it’s more about your image. Hence the art school band is a very UK thing. 

Why do you think you were so misunderstood?

Justin, it’s his sense of humour, he likes to make people think he’s much stupider than he is. Just being really childish and tapping into that thing of being a kid. You do that and people find it easy to dismiss you. But everyone’s trying to be grown up and sophisticated aren’t they? It was sad that, in rock music, they were trying to make out ‘is it hip, is it clever?’, and that was everything we weren’t. So we were very easy to dismiss because of that and the way we dressed up. We very deliberately gave people excuses to write us off and it almost made it harder for us. It was like a bloody mindedness, to be as opposite to the zeitgeist as we could possibly be.

You seemed to be ahead of your time as well, understanding that rock music, with all its brilliantly ridiculous history, couldn’t and shouldn’t be taken seriously at that point. Where some bands were doing the same thing very straight faced, you knew it had to be presented in a new way for a new generation.

We just trusted what made us laugh. If something kept making us laugh and kept making us think ‘no we can’t do that’ we did it. It became like a mantra. If something was ridiculous we kept it. Breaking rules, not just rules that are outrageous like biting the head off a bat or shocking people by being vulgar, but anything that was against existing rules. And it just so happened it was against the rules, in that generation, to enjoy yourself, have a sense of humour and dress up. Now everyone does, but at the time it happened to be the most unfashionable thing, dressing up and wearing outfits, so I’m glad we pushed that boat out. It’s contrariness, isn’t it? That’s what it all boils down to. Being contrary is the closest definition to rock ‘n’ roll.  

It’s well known the famous Astoria gig was a big turning point for you as an unsigned band but, on a personal level, was there one moment where you realised things would never be the same again and something pretty amazing was happening?

The MTV2 Christmas party with The Music, Jane’s Addiction and two other bands I can’t remember. It was presented by Zane Lowe, who had an axe to grind with us. He was one of the naysayers. Justin gave one of his best ever performances and we played an incredible show. Then, at the end of the gig, Zane did this thing with his thumb where he went (slowly raised it skywards in approval) and had to admit we had kind of converted him. Perry Farrell said some really good things about Justin as well. It was pretty special.

Also, the MTV Europe awards, which just so happened to be in my home town of Edinburgh, was a pinch yourself moment for me. What are the chances of that? The MTV Europe Awards being in Edinburgh, with us playing, and being presented by Christina Aguilera and Justin Timberlake. That was completely surreal and on a huge scale, going out to hundreds of millions of people. After that I realised things wouldn’t be the same.    

When everything exploded Justin got a lot of attention as the face of the band, but where a lot of bass players—even in huge groups—often have the luxury of anonymity, because of your distinct image you were as instantly recognisable. What was that like?

It was overwhelming, albeit great when we were all getting on well as a band. But as things unravelled the simple pleasure of enjoying playing rock ‘n’ roll gigs…somehow all these other things got in the way and the atmosphere soured. There was obviously a lot of politics involved with us, given the management situation, so it was a shame things played out like that.

Is there anything that could have been done to prevent that situation and your subsequent departure from the band or was it inevitable?

I guess having good people around you. It was a time when you could make really good money from hard copy, but at the same time there were all these mergers. There was a lot of change at the major labels because they knew what was coming next. So we had that unstable background, the management situation and then, of course, a lot of drugs, booze and…the usual stuff. You need to take yourself out of the situation, keep the connection between the band members and have fun. 

In hindsight, a band like us shouldn’t have been on a major label. On the surface it looks like we’re a major label band, given the image and playing a type of classic rock, but if you actually look at the sensibility we had, the attitude we had, the contrariness, it’s all the things that belonged to an independent label. So one thing that could have prevented everything would have been being with a good strong independent label with real personality. All of us had British independent personalities and if we’d had the benefit of that things could have been different. I think we’d have been happier, had gradual growth and a stronger second album.

You’re about to perform some big arena gigs with Black Stone Cherry in support of ‘Motorheart’, but 2023 is also the 20th anniversary of ‘Permission To Land’. Aside from that tour and marking that milestone, what are your plans for the rest of the year?

We’re focusing on the next album, rather than getting too hung up on the 20 year anniversary, which is a wake up call for us to dig deeper and really do something special, like a legacy-defining piece. We’ve given ourselves more time and no deadline. We’re quietly looking at each other, it doesn’t even need to be said, it’s just a common understanding that this one has to be special. We’re really putting ourselves under pressure with it. We went to the Highlands of Scotland last month and did our first writing trip of the campaign. There’s going to be a few more and hopefully we’ll have something to release before the album, maybe a stand alone track sometime this year. 

The Darkness Upcoming Tour Dates are as follows:

Sat January 28 2023 - CARDIFF CIA
Sun January 29 2023 - LIVERPOOL M&S Bank Arena
Mon January 30 2023 - GLASGOW OVO Hydro
Tue January 31 2023 - BIRMINGHAM Resorts World Arena
Thu February 02 2023 - MANCHESTER AO Arena
Fri February 03 2023 - LEEDS first direct Arena
Sat February 04 2023 - LONDON OVO Arena Wembley

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