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Justin Hawkins (The Darkness) : « Without rock, we’re fucked »


Justin Hawkins - The Darkness by Scarlet PageLike any self-respecting rock band, The Darkness have had their share of disappointments and difficulties. Just a few weeks ago, a couple of days after this very interview was conducted, they announced Emily Dolan Davies was leaving the band, even though her arrival had only been made official at the end of December 2014. But according to singer Justin Hawkins, setbacks are more than just part of a rock star’s job: they’re actually necessary. « Nobody wants to live life on the tea cups of the funfair, you want to go to the roller coaster! It’s much more interesting », he says.

The band’s latest album, The Last Of Our Kind, is a vibrant homage to a special brand of rock: the unifying, licentious, slightly exuberant kind. A genre Hawkins talks about with genuine passion, which makes him feel like a super-hero, and which he would like to put back in the spotlight in popular culture, although he remains pragmatic and realistic. In the meantime, The Darkness took the matter into their own hands, and now they’re putting out an album they can be proud of. Hawkins tells us all about it after the cut.

The Darkness by Simon Emmett

« We just try to survive; we’re more like a barnacle on the side of the long ship [laughs] »

Radio Metal: You guys reunited in 2011 after a six year long hiatus. You guys did some shows, released the album Hot Cakes one year later and eventually did a tour. How did you feel about this comeback and how did you perceive the response of the audience?

Justin Hawkins (vocals): I don’t really know, I don’t think about that so much nowadays. The album doesn’t feel like a complete work to me. I feel like there are some songs from the old days that we never got around to finish them. And then there are some new songs that haven’t really found their direction. All the process wasn’t quite established. So when I think back I don’t feel like it was a proper work, we weren’t firing, we weren’t in great form. But it was just nice to be doing it. I think the response was very good, the fans were brilliant. The people have stuck by us, they were really excited about us being back together, the shows were really fun. So, good and bad, really.

You had to split with your drummer Ed Graham in late 2014. In the press biography given with the album, it’s mentioned a “dissatisfaction gnawing inside” him. Can you tell me more about what happened?

Not really, can’t really say much more than that. We said what we were comfortable saying about it. We’ve made sure that Ed was comfortable about what we said. It’s a complicated situation, just like any break-up. It was unavoidable and very sad.

Can you tell us more on Emily Dolan Davies’s recruitment?

She’s a person with a real ability, real power, and really the right taste for what we’re trying to do musically. And we’re so lucky [to have found] the right person. She has a freshness, a completely different approach to drumming compared to what we used to do. When Ed was ill before, we’ve used a drummer that was really, really technical, like jazz level, an advanced metal drumming guy. And I think people out there find it quite difficult to just drive in a straight line and do the kind of drumming that we need. But she’s really great for that and she’s versatile as well. She’s able to resist the temptation to do fancy stuff until you actually need it, and she does what’s needed and I think that’s a rare talent to have the confidence not to show off until the right moment, until it really counts for something.

And do you think she brings a feminine touch to The Darkness?

The opposite actually, I think that I bring a feminine touch to The Darkness, she brings a masculine touch. We’re both androgynous in opposite ways, you know what I mean? Whereas Dan and Frankie are extremely neutral. I’m the girly one and she’s the manly one.

You went to a special place called Valentia Island to compose your new album Last Of Our Kind. Apparently Frankie’s brother Wise Tim had something to do with this. But how did the idea to go there arise and what’s so special about this island?

It’s a tiny island, off the costs of Ireland. You can run around it in about two hours. There’s not many people living there. There’s a pub, there’s a shop, but actually it’s quite an interesting place because the first ever trans-Atlantic cable, which went to Newfoundland in North America and Canada and came to Ireland on Valentia Island, so the cottages that were built there were for the people who worked on the cable to send Morse code messages across the ocean. So it’s a really strange place. The only reason why reason people live there is for communications between Europe and America. Otherwise it’s slightly inhabitable. It goes really unusually windy, wet and fierce climate because it’s completely exposed to the Atlantic Ocean. There’s a slight quarry and there are slight structures that are coming out of the sea. So it’s a really weird place, when you go there you just feel like you’re on another planet. In fact they shot some of the new Star Wars film there, because it’s really strange. It’s just a really inspiring place to be and there’s no distraction, only inspirations. If you’re doing anything creative, I can’t think of a better place, it’s just great.

Would you say that it has put a mark on your music?

Yeah, definitely. It’s definitely the spiritual home of the album and I think in time it will become our spiritual home, do you know what I mean? We’ll probably always work there.

Wise Tim was around when the band was composing. Did he actually have an input on the music?

No, no, but he cooked for us [laughs], he’s a very good cook. He plays trumpet on one of the bonus tracks. But he kept out of it, really, it was just important to let us do our thing.

Dan recently said in an interview that Last Of Our Kind was “built more around riffs this time as [you] decided to abandon trying to write ‘songs’ and just tried to write riffs then turn them into songs.” Were you actually missing making a more riffy kind of music?

Probably, yeah. I think having the singing and the guitar to fight each other for attention, it’s more challenging to perform and that makes it more awarding.

Dan also said that you had “lost light” of writing riffs like you did with your first record after you were given an award for songwriting. Would you say that this award had gone to your head at some point, loosing track of what was essential to you?

Maybe, yeah, I think that that particular award is the Ivor Novello Award. And that was one me and Dan really wanted to win. It was the only one that mattered to us. We’ve won MTV awards, Brit Awards, all kinds of awards, really, but that’s the only one that we decided that we really wanted. So when we got it, it was a really big deal for us.

The Darkness - Last Of Our Kind

« Rock stars used to be super heroes, and they’re reduced to mere normal people now. But we don’t feel like that. […] And without rock, we’re fucked, aren’t we? »

Has your first record actually become a point of reference for you? Did you measure the new music that you were making to that album?

No, I never listened to it. I never listened to the first one, the second one or the third one. But I do listen to the fourth one! Because I think it’s an exciting chapter for us. I think it’s the first time we’ve hit forms since the first album, and it’s the first time we’ve written, recorded and produced everything our way, with Dan, you know, he’s just producing on its own. I mean he’s always been involved on the production level, because he would always be there. He was absorbing tricks and knowledge from the other people we’ve been working with and sharing; that’s part of what producers do: sharing ideas and techniques. This is the first time he felt strong enough to actually take it on himself, so that’s what makes him really special, and I think it sounds better as well.

Your album will also be released on your own record label Canary Dwarf Records, so did you feel like you really wanted to be independent, not to be needy to external people?

Yes, it’s really important to us. The first album we made ourselves with our friend Pedro [Ferreira] producing, and at the point we had a product that we were able to take to a label. I mean from the minute we got signed on a label, we gradually lost control. For a while we were ok but it’s inevitable that somebody’s who’s invested in something feels like they have to be involved in the creative level as well, and that unfortunately doesn’t suit us. So I think this is the first time when we haven’t allowed that to happen, to any degree. We work with Kobalt Label Services, and they have actually been my publisher for the last five years, and I love the way they do business, I love the people, and I love the way they’re not even interested to be involved in the creative side of it, it’s our responsibility. Their responsibility is to manufacture, market and promote the album. And that’s really what a record company should do. You don’t tell the difference, really, in terms of the service that you’re receiving. The only difference is that you’re much happier [laughs]. There might not be as much money flying around but you’re happier.

You described Last Of Our Kind as « brutal » and « stripped-back ». Was it important to get to the point, discarding what was maybe superfluous?

Only in production terms. I think that frivolity and virtuosity can be fun, like you’re hearing a guitar solo and there’s too many notes in it, you know? Of course you do because it’s fun to listen to things like that sometimes. But it’s really about when it’s necessary. This album is all about hearing what you want to hear, when you really want to hear it. That’s what we tried to do. So it’s not big bags of Queens harmonies, just for the sake of doing that because that’s annoying after a while, but you know, a big bag of Queens harmonies when you least expect it is really exciting to listen to. We tried to make an exciting record to listen to.

You called this album “medieval rock” or “medi-urban”. Apart from having a mandolin, what does that actually mean?

[Laughs] It doesn’t mean anything! [Chcukles] It’s a thing I said in an interview just for being silly. I know this isn’t medieval. Medieval music operates in a completely different mode, like Dorian mode, maybe pre-Dorian mode, and we’re basically running pop rock [laughs]. I think I was just being silly saying that.

There are a couple of songs talking about invasion, like “Barbarian”, “Roaring Waters” or “Conquerors”. Are you particularly fascinated by these stories about invasion?

I am. I think it’s something that we’ve talked about in songs before, “Hazel Eyes” (note: from the 2005 album One Way Ticket To Hell… And Back), for example, talks about invasion, to a degree, because it’s about Scottish fishwives who moved to East Anglia. It’s an invasion of sorts, but it’s more of a cultural infiltration. That happens in England, you know. England is an island or Britain is a collection of islands, and this is what you’re subjected to. The whole culture is based on immigration and invasions in history. And that’s what makes such a diverse and interesting place to live in, and history has always been my favorite subject. I love writing about that stuff because I think it’s really pertinent and relevant to modern life as well. The fact is we’ve always tried to write songs that are specific to the region we grew up in because I always feel like if you do something, if the ideas work regionally, then it’ll work internationally because people are people.

Would you consider yourselves as conquerors wanting to invade the music industry with your rock n’ roll music?

It’s a good question actually, never thought about that. We just try to survive; we’re more like a barnacle on the side of the long ship [laughs]. We’re not trying to succeed, as it were. I think that a musical project has its own momentum. It comes a point where it has to stop because you can’t afford to sustain it anymore. But the first goal is survival, that’s what we have really in us, it’s what we’ve got.

The Darkness by Simon Emmett

« I think one thing I learned (touring with Lady Gaga) is that at that level, you can be as successful as you want but you’re not necessarily happy [chuckles]. »

Since the new album is called Last Of Our Kind, would you say that The Darkness is the last band of its kind?

No, I wouldn’t say that. It’s called like that because the album is talking about the genre of rock, and the people who prevail and the people who enjoy listening to it. We’re the last of our kind, you know. It’s a sub culture, it’s not mainstream, it hasn’t be mainstream for a long time, and who knows how long it will be before it becomes mainstream again, if it ever does become mainstream again. And the whole point is that, as a family, we’ve all got to fucking fight for it because it’s not sustainable in the shadows. Everybody wants to live, you know. Rock used to be something that we all aspired to. It’s a lifestyle that you’d read about in books and think: “Fuck, I wanna live like that, that must be amazing!” Rock stars used to be super heroes, and they’re reduced to mere normal people now. But we don’t feel like that. Rock makes you feel good. Listening to good quality rock makes you feel something that other music doesn’t give you. It makes you feel super human because it’s something special. And without rock, we’re fucked, aren’t we? It’s really important to me that people nurture it.

You guys have been opening for Lady Gaga. As she’s known to be a huge performer, what did you learn from her?

The real question my dear is what did she learn from me? [Laughs]

[Laughs] Did she learn something from you?

I don’t know [chuckles], she probably didn’t even watch us! I really personally really enjoyed that tour because we went to a lot a places we have never been to before, like in South America, and parts of Eastern Europe like Russia, we’ve never been to Russia before. So it was brilliant to be able play to audiences in parts of the world we’ve never even seen. And there’s a lot days off, because of the whole production needing to move, so I spent a lot of time on the beach, at the gym, sampling the local culture. It’s just great; it was a really fun tour. I think one thing I learned is that at that level, you can be as successful as you want but you’re not necessarily happy [chuckles].

I’ve read that at some point in the past you grew tired of the constant routine of the band, recording and promoting an album, going on tours for months, back in the studio, etc. which you considered “monotonous and boring” and “could not understand how bands like the Rolling Stones could sustain it.” Do you still feel that kind of routine sometimes now or get tired sometimes?

Well we’re not as busy as we used to be. I think it’s monotonous if you’re doing arena level because every arena is essentially the same thing, it’s a rectangular building with your own stage, and every night’s the same. My favorite level of touring is theater-level, because you see some really strange architectures, really odd sounding rooms, it’s always different and the experience is quite varied. Same as festivals, you get to play some really quite spectacular places. Just be careful of what you wish for, I think, because if you’re doing arena level all the time it’s not that much fun.

The start of the hiatus for The Darkness was actually you going into rehab. How did you feel these past years being off drugs?

I don’t know. It affected me because I never should have talked about drugs in the first place in the press. Because it really makes it really difficult when you want to get your driving license renewed, and certain insurances are concerned about it… I tried to be quite open at the time and I completely regret that now, I wish I had never said anything.

There’s been a bit of drama surrounding The Darkness at several points in the past, ultimately leading to a breakup. Do you think you’re now past that?

No. You have to have the peril, and the danger of it all falling apart because that’s what makes it worth fighting for. Nobody wants to live life on the tea cups of the funfair, you want to go to the roller coaster! It’s much more interesting.

Interview conducted 24th, march 2015 by Valentin Istria.
Retranscription: Valentin Istria.
Introduction and questions: Nicolas Gricourt.
Promo Pics: Scarlet Page (1) & Simon Emmett (2 & 4).

The Darkness official website: www.theactualdarkness.com.



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