The Darkness stage comeback
The Darkness have returned and are stronger than ever. The band that brought the fun and grandeur of rock and roll to the 21st century went on hiatus in 2006 when frontman Justin Hawkins left the band. They regrouped in 2011 for a few festivals overseas and in August of 2012 released Hot Cakes, a riff-laden rock and roll opus chalk full of the Darkness’ cheeky humour and of course Hawkins’ trademark falsetto. Since their return, they have been touring the world over, most recently opening for Lady GaGa. MSN caught up with frontman Justin Hawkins at the Phoenix Concert Theatre in Toronto to discuss songwriting, love, getting the band back together, and touring with Mother Monster herself.
Having just got off the road with Lady GaGa, on a massive tour like that, what has that taught you as a performer? Did you take anything away from the experience?
Well, I mean it’s a lot of production. A lot of money was spent on that thing. It sort of reminded me of what a Bon Jovi show used to be like. You’d have a huge set list, and the stage, the concept, it’s everything. Then you would have another one in storage. It’s a lot of money spent on something like that. It’s a totally different world. Also, because we got to spend a little bit of time with her, we sort of recognized that she never stops working. She’s always consumed and surrenders to the existence of it.
We are, just not in the same way. We’re old-fashioned. I very seldom tweet, and if I do I sort of need to inflate my ego a little bit. If somebody says something nice, I’ll retweet it. I try not to do that. But if it’s about the shows, I think that’s crucial. I want people to know that we’re doing good work. Aside from that, I don’t really put anything of myself out there.
You’re talking about the new music industry model.
Yeah. I’m not on Facebook.
I talk to bands about that all the time. The mystique that Zeppelin had would have not worked today.
You’re speaking my language. I wish it was like the olden days. I saw a piece, like one of these think pieces on the music trade, and it used this lovely expression of “Mystery is history.” I immediately flipped to the back of the book to look at the classifieds to find another f---ing job. I don’t want to be involved in something that hasn’t got that kind of thing.
So how do you survive in the industry now?
We just don’t sell as many tickets. [Laughs.] We don’t sell as many t-shirts, and we’re not on the radio as often. We’ve got no interest in being the boy next door and I don’t think we ever did. Nirvana comes along and it was amazing, but what it inspires is less amazing. You can say that about David Bowie and all that stuff. In England, Oasis came along and they’re amazing. They’re one of my favourite bands. I think that he’s a great front man. But I think what people took from that was the boy next door can also play guitar, and he doesn’t need to jump around. He can just stand there with his anorak on and do that. It’s fine if you’re Oasis, but it annoyed me that the rest of the music trade was also doing that. Then came Big Brother and all this f---ing reality TV. I’m personally bored of it and I’m sure other people are as well. Nobody aspires to be different anymore. Nobody wants to be weird. The people that actually manage to do that and be weird, they’re sort of pushed aside of the mainstream. You have to be really f---ing amazing to exist properly within it.
But then you get the cult following.
That’s what we’ve got at the moment. We’ve definitely got that. We’re very happy to be one of those bands. I think that’s partly because the last album hasn’t got a clear single like the first one had. Hot Cakes, in my opinion doesn’t have a song in there that’s obviously a single. That doesn’t mean there aren’t singles on it. I’m just saying there’s no opportunity to go, “This is the single. Let’s put it on the radio!” It’s funny, because we heard they were using things like focus groups. I even know people who use focus groups to write songs.
Talking about groups, and maybe this isn’t a good segue-way, but it got me thinking about your experience writing for Meat Loaf. What was that experience like, going into that songwriter’s camp?
The first half of that was spent with a lot of Nashville guys who really know how to write songs quickly, not necessarily formulaic. I think he got a bit frustrated with that and he needed something more performance-based. Traditionally, I write songs with the performance in mind. He wanted to get some of that.
You write with the performance in mind. That’s fascinating.
For The Darkness, yeah.
How does that happen? Are you thinking, “Oh this would be a great time to do a jump karate kick or to wail a solo?”
Yeah. Definitely with solos. Maybe not so much the choreography. Just the journey of it. The musical element, there’s definitely one eye on that when writing for The Darkness. Not for other stuff. He got a few people in like me, and Eric Nally from Foxy Shazam, and a load of other people who were performers to write stuff. We all got stuff on that album. It actually worked really well. And it was fun. It’s nice to sort of have the artist there that you’re writing for, so you know what you need to do to get it cut. Having that immediate feedback is helpful.
How are you with letting those songs, the Meat Loaf ones, go. You’ll never play them.
What’s that like as a writer?
To be honest, as a writer, I used to do jingles. That paid for the first album, literally. The money I got from [jingles] was exactly what the album cost.
Do you miss writing jingles?
Yeah I do. It was kind like a brilliant existence. I had really good relationships with advertising agencies. Without that, you can’t interpret what they want. You need to understand their vocabulary and try to translate it into musical vocabulary. You only do that when you work with someone for a long period of time or you have the client in the room.
Like Meat Loaf.
Yeah. You’ll either get a Meat Loaf scenario or you have people you’ve worked with before. It got to the point where I was getting paid really well just to do demos. A lot of them weren’t getting used, but it was fine because that’s just how it worked. If it got used it was a bonus.
How did “Communication Breakdown” change your life? What was it about that record, that song?
Actually, getting back to focus group thing… originally that lyric was “until I heard ‘The Kick Inside’ [by Kate Bush] on the TDK D90 cassette.” It wasn’t deemed rock enough.
Why’d you take it to a focus group?
It was Bob Ezrin.
So the producer.
He was pushing me to find a more rock reference. That was the second one. What I loved about that song, not ‘The Kick Inside’, but ‘Communication Breakdown’ is that it sounds really simple. Like you could pick up a guitar and walk into a pub and do it, but then you hear a million people doing it and it’s very difficult to pull off. It’s one of those things that looks beautifully simple but it’s actually really hard to capture that thing that they had.
Who made the call to get The Darkness back together again?
Well, my brother and I had been writing songs, so it was just a case of, “Now what do we do with all these songs?” He likes producing bands and obviously writing’s good whenever you can do it. We were just collaborating on songs. We didn’t know if it was for The Darkness or whoever really. We had enough and it was sounding like a Darkness record. We did a month in May, then we planned to do two months, but we stopped and started rehearsing so that we could do the festival thing that we’d been offered. Basically, we were sort of reluctant to take the Download Festival offer because we didn’t want people think that we were sort of cashing in or doing something for money. Now, I don’t think we’d give a sh*t, to be honest. We wanted to make sure it wasn’t going to interfere with the fact that we were doing an album. We wanted to really stress that. After we did a sort of a “festivel-y” run, we went back into the studio to finish it off.
How was it for you to get back on stage? There’s a lot of athleticism to your performance. Were you back in fine form off the bat?
Yeah. I’ve always been fit actually, apart from the period where I wasn’t fit. That was addressed during the interim. I addressed all of that stuff. What hindered the development I think was this one eye on what people were thinking. We were worried that we weren’t as good as we used to be. We wanted to make sure everything was perfect. That’s not how we used to do business. Now we have a year of solid touring. We know what we’ve done wrong really, and that’s that we cared. It’s really important not to, I think. When we first kicked off, it was like we were doing those athletic things, it was because nobody else was and we weren’t interested in being like anybody else. Then I think after the break, we were like, “Oh sh*t. We better do our thing.” Our thing is whatever we feel like. I know what 2012 is all about for us. It’s us getting back into it. 2013 is us finding our identity again and holding on to it. Last year, I wanted to dress like I was dead for five years and then dug up. Effectively I was. I don’t feel like that anymore. I feel like, “F--- it. We’re The Darkness now. That’s it.” It means flares. It means cat suits.
Where does that come from, the costuming?
I’m not sure. It might be my mum actually. I remember when we first sat down with a proper stylist, and she was working with Kylie Minogue and a lot of big pop people. The first thing I said was that I wanted to wear a cat suit. I actually tried to do it myself by getting a leotard and modifying it, but it was very revealing. [Laughs.] It made people feel very uncomfortable… for the people in the front row. I said that I wanted a lace and leather cat suit. She just looked at me and said, “Would you really let me do that?” [Laughs.] Then we had a great relationship with her. She’s just always a brilliant person to collaborate with. Always coming up with ideas. She always got it because she knew where we were from and she understood our upbringing, and we used to hang out at school. It was cool.
Love has always been a major theme for The Darkness, and well every band. Why?
For me, when we first started writing about love, I said to Dan that there’s a lot of mystical, cosmic, flowery terminology going on in songs. The one word they weren’t saying is love. People were moaning about their girlfriends and their romantic situations. Nobody was saying. I was just like, “F---. Could we just write some songs with love in the title?” That’s the first thing that we did. We wrote “Love is Only a Feeling,” “Love on the Rocks with no Ice,” “I Believe in a Thing Called Love.” Those three songs happened quite close to one another because we were very determined to be honest about what we were talking about like bands used to. I think that’s what went missing in the nineties. They stopped saying the word. When the word became a taboo, that’s the thing that really started to turn us on. We wanted to be out there and be the band that does those love songs.
In ‘Love is not the Answer’, you’re saying “I don’t know what love is but I know what love is not.” So what is love not?
It’s not what you expect it to be. You have a load of experiences in your life, and this is what I discovered as a sober person actually. Up to a point, I was self-medicating, and I’m not sure if any of that stuff counts. So from the point in which I was reborn…
Do you view it that way?
Oh yeah. No question. I found myself operating at an even keel, and I didn’t think I’d ever feel anything. I thought, “This is actually what it’s like. There’s no such thing.” You kid yourself and it goes away. Then you meet somebody and it all changes. It’s a remarkable experience. I know what it’s not, and that’s all the other stuff. It’s not rose petals. It’s not peacock feathers. It’s not f---ing “always’” and “forevers”. It’s everything else.
Are you someone who’s constantly thinking of melodies and writing ideas?
No. I need a guitar. I do think of lyrics all the time.
And what, jot them down in your phone?
Yeah. I normally have some sort of document that I put stuff in. It’s usually just sort of a couple of lines. It’s not usually more than that until I’ve got a melody. It’s really hard to nail that down unless I’ve got a guitar. It’s the most frustrating thing about traveling is that you haven’t got a guitar with you.
Even on the road now?
Well touring’s ok, but you haven’t got any privacy.
You need to be alone as well?
Yeah. It’s like masturbation. Ideally. [Laughs.] There are exceptions. [Laughs.]
How do you know where to put a vocal? Do you test things out. Do you say, “Maybe I’ll try the falsetto here”? Are the situations where it doesn’t work?
When it’s a “me” song, or I’m writing for, let’s say for example Adam Lambert or Meat Loaf.
Adam Lambert, really?
Yeah. The first song on his first album. When I do that, I just write it. I don’t think about the key or anything. I just do it. When it’s time to perform it, we’ll try a couple of positions and move it around. We try different inversions, and different keys. We’ll try every key. We go right through until it hits the “emotion” part in my voice. I actually think that the guys have a different idea of what my voice should be doing then to what I got. The Darkness is four opinions that all count. It’s a four-way partnership. If three of them are saying, “You should sing it like that.” Then I’ll be like, “F--- it. I’ll sing it like that.” I tend to like to save my falsetto, and those high bits of screaming for key moments. Whereas they like me to be in that power zone all the time.
Can you keep up with being in that power zone all the time?
I can. I just don’t like listening to it. If I listen to song like that, like “Get Your Hands off of my Woman,” for example. It’s really hard to relax, because my voice box goes into, not a spasm, but it prepares itself to sing along to it. It’s very hard to relax when I listen to my own singing voice.
Five quick questions. One Word Answers. Road or Studio?
Lennon or McCartney.
When you hear a song, what usually hits you first: Lyrics, melody, or rhythm?
Song you’ve written that you’re the most proud of?
And in one word, The Darkness.