On Tuesday, Oct. 20 at 7:15 p.m. PT/10:15 p.m. ET, Yahoo Live will live stream the Darkness’s show from the House of Blues in Chicago. Tune in HERE to watch!
VH1 really dropped the ball by never making a Behind the Music rockumentary on the Darkness, a band of rock ‘n’ roll titans who suffered every setback imaginable and lived to rock once more. The band famous for its catsuits has truly powered through a catlike nine lives. After storming out of the gate in 2003 with Permission to Land and its surprise pop-crossover single “I Believe in a Thing Called Love,” the band fell on tough times: the chart failure of the (excellent, underrated, Roy Thomas Baker-produced) follow-up One Way Ticket to Hell… And Back; frontman Justin Hawkins’s rehab stint and temporary departure from the group; a long hiatus and various other lineup changes; and then finally, in 2012, a glorious comeback with third album Hot Cakes, a tour opening for Lady Gaga, and a widely seen Super Bowl commercial. After all these years, clearly many people still believe in a thing called the Darkness.
And as the band returns with new album Last of Our Kind, they’re still rocking despite more setbacks (like the departure of founding member and drummer Ed Graham, who was replaced by Emily Dolan Davies, who left shortly after Last of Our Kind’s recording). And Justin Hawkins is still one of the wittiest, funniest interview subjects around. He truly is the last of his kind, the last of the red-hot rock stars. And Yahoo Music was delighted to catch up with Justin to discuss the Darkness’s awesome new permanent drummer (Rufus Taylor, son of Queen’s Roger Taylor!); whether he misses the old Permission to Land days or has any regrets; whether he still wears his famous catsuits; and why he still believes in a thing called rock.
YAHOO MUSIC: The title of your new album is Last of Our Kind. Is that some sort of grand statement about the death of rock, about there just not being that many bands like the Darkness anymore?
JUSTIN HAWKINS: It’s a statement about not just about doing [rock music], actually; it’s about valuing it and revering it. People will appreciate proper big elements of proper rock that are dying. We’re the last of that kind, really. Rock is becoming increasingly marginalized. They don’t want to have people that genuinely live the life and feel the music in a way that you and I do. They want to have the tamer elements of it, but overlook the true core of it… Once we’re gone, the fraternity of people that appreciate the finer aspects of rock music, that’s it. It’s over. So we’ve got to stick together!
It’s true. Even the term “rock ‘n’ roll” has been diluted. Sometimes people use the term “rock star” to describe a supermodel, or an athlete, or a non-rock musical artist like Nicki Minaj…
I hate that! I hate the misuse of that word. That’s a pop star, and it’s a very different thing. The demands are different. I’m not saying it’s easy, better, or worse. But it’s not the same, and it really must not ever be considered the same. It’s a misuse. You know how strongly I feel about misuse of language!
So, what’s the difference between a pop star and a rock star?
I think it’s all to do with genre and attitude. I think a pop star is a much more corporate existence. Having never been a pop star, I can imagine you’re much more at the mercy of whatever the wave of popularity is doing. You have to be aware of what people want to listen to. You have to do what gets on the radio. And it’s much more conformist, I think, for better or worse. I do think there’s some great songs in pop music, because a great song will transcend genre. The difference between a pop star and a rock star is a rock star is chasing an emotion at the expense of everything, and risks everything in pursuit of a feeling and an existence that is completely at odds with what it means to be a pop star. A pop star is somebody that does what they’re told, maintaining their status at the very top of the tree. When you’re a rock enthusiast, being anywhere near the tree is a bonus.
Well, do you ever miss the days around the time of your first album, when the Darkness crossed over to pop radio with “I Believe in a Thing Called Love” and you were sort of at the top of the pop tree for while?
Yeah, we were up there with the squirrels and sort of fell in on a branch, enjoying the best of the fruit. I suppose if I miss anything from that period, it’s the debauchery. It’s the debauchery and the other perks of fame. You’re able to get the best seats in a restaurant. People know who you are. It’s a real icebreaker when you walk into a room and everybody knows who you are. You can really own a party much quicker than having to own the party by stealth, which is what you have to do nowadays. You have to really work a room nowadays, whereas before my simple presence, this delightful face of mine, would do the work for me. I guess I miss that.
Party by Stealth would be a good title for your fifth album, actually. So what keeps you going? You’ve have some rough patches, personally and professionally, and there have been so many changes in the business…
I think the business is not relevant to us at the moment. There’s not a business model that exists which can sustain the Darkness. We’re actually living beyond our means. And we have been doing so for many years. There’s only one actual year when we didn’t sort of operate at a loss. To be honest, that’s part of the fun. We’re always in a precarious financial position. We’re always just about surviving. That’s actually a rewarding existence, because the ups feel so much more significant; they’re real triumphs. Now the best we can expect to achieve is our fans like what we do, and even that actually is not guaranteed. Luckily, the response to this album has been phenomenal. The people whose opinion actually count, like the people who are our target audience, really do like it. That feels great. Maybe that’s what keeps us going, that affection that we have from people who feel we can do no wrong.
You sort of went from being a Top 40 band to being a really popular cult band…
When you’re popular, with a capital P and with a normal-size p, I think you do have a transient following who will abandon you the very moment you’re deemed not popular by people who make taste and tell you what’s what. But we’ve always done something from the beginning that’s never actually been fashionable. Even when we were super-successful, it wasn’t part of a movement. We weren’t sort of leading the way. We were just doing something that nobody else was doing, and it made us famous. I suppose “cult band” is something that we do really welcome, because a cult band is an existence. A cult band is enough to keep the thing going. It’s about putting food on the table to keep us all alive. You could argue that it’s not living in the strictest sense. But it is living by the seat of your pants.
By the seat of your leather pants!
We’re living by the seats of our fake leather pants. We wouldn’t have it any other way.
So what’s going on with your drummer situation? Your history with drummers is a bit Spinal Tap-like.
We’ve had problems with drummers. Ed had to go. Emily had to go. We had Darby Todd from [Justin’s previous side band] Hot Leg as well for a little while. He was actually stepping in when Ed was not well enough to drum a few years ago, doing us a big favor. I suppose it’s been an issue over time. But now with Rufus [Taylor] in the band, we feel like we’ve found the right guy who’s a sustainable solution to a long-term problem. He’s really fun to play with. He’s really powerful. He’s got a great attitude. He’s utterly hilarious to talk to. And I think we all really love him, so it’s an easy win for us. And long may it continue.
This has to feel like a full-circle moment for you. Your music has often been compared to Queen’s, and of course you’ve worked in the past with Queen producer Roy Thomas Baker… to have Roger Taylor’s son, rock royalty, in your lineup is pretty amazing.
It all came about because of a sort of relationship to Queen that we have. There’s always been a fondness between the two bands. We were brought up on Queen. They’re a large part of the reason why we do what we do. It goes long way towards explaining why we do it in the particular way that we do it. It’s nice to have somebody who’s also associated with it, but it is important to stress that in his own right Rufus is a fantastic drummer. He’s definitely super-talented. He’s a great keyboard player as well, I’ve discovered recently. His voice is fantastic, too, so I’m really looking forward to hearing him sing a song and help out on backing vocals. He’s going to bring so much to it. Which is all awesome. The fact that he comes from that stable is just an added bonus.
So you don’t act like a fanboy or anything?
I try to resist the temptation to talk to him about his dad too much. I don’t want him to think he’s only in the band because of his dad. It was a bit weird when he sort of walked in and I had to sort of confess that I’ve got a tattoo of his dad’s face on my hand! He was totally cool with it. He didn’t realize until I showed him, and I think he found it funny. The good thing is he’s got a brilliant sense of humor. He’s got a proper rock 'n’ roll attitude. He doesn’t give a f— about the things you’re not supposed to give a f— about. He does really care about what he’s doing. He’s really conscientious and passionate. We haven’t actually experienced that for long time, to work with somebody in that capacity who’s got that attitude. I’m really grateful to him for rejuvenating the band and making us feel 24 again.
But you’re only 28, right?
Er, 29, actually. [laughs]
How come it didn’t work out with Emily Dolan Davies?
She had to go. It was simply untenable, working out the nature of the deal and things had been moving forward. She had some requests we weren’t able to accede to, and vice versa. I think it’s all about expectations. To be honest, it’s no big deal. I think she did a great a job, but she’s not an original member. When we realized that we were going to have to move on, nobody really thought, “Oh dear, this is a disaster.” It’s a shame, but having experienced what it’s like walking away from a relationship with a founding member, she’s definitely not that. Nowhere near as bad as that.
Are you still in touch with Ed Graham? Will you work with him in the future?
No, I don’t think we’ll work with Ed again. We said we were going to give it a year and a half, and in that time there’s been no improvement, really. So I don’t think it’s going to happen, unless there’s a dramatic sea change and something terrible happens to Rufus, which I cannot anticipate that. As far as I’m concerned, Rufus is now the Darkness’s drummer. It feels great to work with somebody who’s that enthusiastic, that cool, and that awesome at his job.
Do you feel the band is in a good place now?
I don’t know, really. I don’t know if there’s such thing as a good place. I do my best work when I’m heartbroken as a songwriter. And also edge, you need edge. You can’t be comfy when you’re doing this job. You need to be hungry, heartbroken, and angry all the time. When you get into a situation where you’re comfortable, well-fed, and half-content in your relationship, that’s the worst music. So you end up sabotaging yourself, to make it edgy again. Maybe that’s the difference between rock and pop. Pop comes from a place of contentment. Rock comes from a place of malnutrition.
Hungry, Heartbroken, and Angry would be another good album title, actually. Are you any of those things now?
Yes, always. I try to focus on the negative things.
The band and you have had ups and downs, but you do seem to be in good spirits at the moment…
You know when you go the Fun Fair? Well, I’m one of those people if I’m on the teacups, I’m wholly dissatisfied by it and I want to be on the rollercoaster. And after being on the rollercoaster a couple of times, I want something to break on the rollercoaster because it’s not exciting enough. People think that they’re stronger under crisis, all that stuff. I love it. There’s no point in pretending. If it’s going right, it’s probably not going right.
Do you have any regrets about your past with the Darkness?
No, I feel like every move we made has been utterly contrived to within the last the variable. So much like method acting. It did what it did because it had its own momentum. We were steering it. It was out of control, but we were steering it. There were no brakes, but we knew where it was going. I don’t think that any of us were especially surprised by what happened, and therefore you can’t be disappointed or elated by it, really. I don’t quite know what I’m trying to say here. I suppose I’m saying that a lot of my decision-making and behavior is regrettable. But there’s absolutely no point in wasting time thinking about that stuff. What’s really important is making sure that the material that we write and the material that we put out, we feel 100 percent cocksure about. Peacock-sure! When we play the stuff, we’ve got to feel like we want to ruffle our feathers and be full-plumage-chest-out. This is us, and we really want to own every note of it. I think on this album, we totally achieve that. It’s a good place to be, in a sense that we’ve made a great album and we know it. It’s a bad place to be because everyone’s got a theory about the Darkness. One way or another, they’re going to impose that on their perception of what we do. So I don’t understand why the past is relevant when it comes to a collection of songs that were written last year on a remote island by men who were determined to overlook every old idea in favor of new material. We’re plucking it out either out of our asses or from the air. It’s completely fresh material, so the past is irrelevant. That’s why it’s important not to bother with regrets, I think, because there’s too many of them.
What do you mean by “everyone has a theory about the Darkness”?
I mean that since day one, there’s been confusion around it because it’s such a weird project. I think that we’re all very different characters. I’ll give you one example. When we first started doing shows in London, there was a theory as our following grew that someone from the music industry had actually put the Darkness together cynically, like a kind of boy band. Like it was the rock Spice Girls and it was a big trick that the music industry was playing on the general public. Which is completely preposterous. Who would ever come up with an idea like that? It’s just maddening. The idea was it was a kind of Simon Cowell-type person, some nefarious overlords living in a very beautifully furnished sort of modern lair, deciding what was the most unlikely rock band that could possibly take over the entire world. A lot of people thought we were a joke, or that we’re deadly serious. Nobody ever seems to get it right. I suppose what I’ve learned is that the only opinion that actually matters is mine. Just as I always suspected, I’m the most important person in the world. In my world!
Speaking of Simon Cowell, I think you would make an amazing talent show judge.
OK, I’ll let you represent me in that respect. I’ll let you put the feelers out there and see how it goes. I’ll cut you in on my fee, don’t worry.
Back on the subject of misconceptions, one of the fallacies I’ve seen about the Darkness is that your influence is entirely from '80s hair-metal bands, when there are so many obvious '70s classic rock influences, too.
I would say that my musical influences are definitely more '70s, although I do love a bit of Van Halen. I love '80s Aerosmith as well, late-'80s Aerosmith. I also like a lot of '90s music as well. I borderline-worship Morrissey as a lyricist. I think there’s a lot of great stuff around from other decades, too. The '80s thing confused me a little bit, too. I think it was just because of some elements of our presentation.
Do you not wear catsuits anymore? I don’t see you wear them as much these days.
The funny thing is, I’m carrying around a bag with two catsuits in it at the moment. We’ve got a couple of shows in Germany. I don’t know if I’ve got a policy about catsuits. If I feel like it, I’ll wear it. I don’t want to have it as a strict rule.
Well, one change I am hearing on this album is your vocals, particularly on the single “Open Fire.” Your voice sounds a lot rougher and deeper, not at all like the Justin we expect.
It’s not deeper, I don’t think. I think I’m just pushing more air through the old larynx on that track. The reason why I did that is because when we wrote it I was trying to find the character to sing it in, to be able to sort of justify that riff. The sound of it is so '80s and so Cult-y. Obviously the Cult is a huge influence for me. I wanted to sort of get a bit Ian Astbury on that song’s ass and maybe kind of channel something of that. Maybe channel some of the more Motley Crue approach to it. But obviously when I think I’m singing like Motley Crue, I’m falling way short and doing something totally different. That’s how bands find themselves, isn’t it? By trying to explore. Basically trying to emulate their heroes and getting it wrong. I wanted to try something different just to that particular song because I felt like it needed it. When I sing it in my usual voice, as you might put it, it doesn’t really pop in the same way… When Dan [Hawkins, Justin’s bandmate and brother] heard me sing that day, he was like, “Yes! At last!” He was really pleased.
You have some American rock influences, but do you feel like you’re quintessentially a British band?
Yes, I think we are. I think we totally are. I think that was really important, that we maintained that identity, really. I don’t want to slag off the last record [Hot Cakes], but I think it was too international, in a way. I feel like some of the things were too broad. Now we’ve reined it in and almost had to keep it deliberately regional, because that worked for us. If we consider East Anglia — it’s not even as simple as England or the U.K., it’s actually East Anglia where we grew up as a barometer for the world. As soon as you forget that, I think we lose our way a little bit and it dilutes our identity and we become less British. I think one type of person the Darkness definitely appeals to is the Anglophile.
Well, that would definitely be me.
Oh, I’m grateful for the Anglophiles. I think the more Anglophiles there are, the better, as far as I’m concerned. It’s good for the Darkness.
Do you have a fondness for the British metal era the late '70s/early '80s?
To be honest, I don’t have a favorite period of metal like that. I just love songs, you know? I particularly love it when songs and riffs collide. There’s another album title: When Songs and Riffs Collide. It can come from anywhere, really. As I’ve said before, I really love a lot of pop songs. Somehow I’m actually more fond of things like Aerosmith, and I do have lot of American stuff in my influences that are really important to me. Aerosmith and Van Halen, basically. You would never see bands like that from England. I think Aerosmith is American band trying to do English music. Do you know what I mean? I feel like the Rolling Stones are an English band trying to do American music, falling short and doing the Rolling Stones by accident. I feel like Aerosmith is trying to do the Rolling Stones or Led Zeppelin, falling short and doing Aerosmith by accident. It’s a beautiful byproduct of imitation. Long may it continue, the cultural exchange project between two great nations. And the only winner is rock.