We Talked to Justin Hawkins of The Darkness About Queen, East Anglian History, and Brotherly Love

If you are surprised to learn that The Darkness, the band responsible for the omnipresent mega hit “I Believe in a Thing Called Love,” recently released a new album, you shouldn't be. While the album that produced that single is now a decade old, The Darkness have continued making music, playing shows, and generally doing the kind of things throwback hair metal catsuit-wearing bands are likely to do.  In the years since Permission to Land was released, The Darkness has gone through enough drummers to make Spinal Tap take notice, seen lead singer Justin Hawkins get sober after a 2006 stint in rehab, and released three more albums.

Their latest, Last of Our Kind, hit shelves in May. Now on the verge of a lengthy fall tour in support of the record, Justin Hawkins spoke by phone with SF Weekly about working with his brother, whether he karaokes his own songs, and a hypothetical Darkness episode of VH1's Behind the Music.

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Next month, The Darkness is embarking on a world tour that starts in California. Are you guys excited to be hitting the road behind Last of Our Kind?

Yeah. We’ve waited too long really. It’s hard when you release an album at the beginning of the festival period. You can’t really get a good run at hearing it. In a way it’s good, because everyone will know the songs. They’ll be able to sing along, so I don’t have to.

How’s the addition of Rufus Taylor on drums impacted the band? It must be cool to be one degree removed from Queen.

It’s cool. Sometimes we get a bit of a reminder that we’re working with the son of a living legend. He’s actually really quite down to earth. He just wants to have a good time all the time. He plays drums hard and powerful, he’s in time — he’s really talented. Super funny, just a great laugh. All the qualities that you can imagine his father has instilled in him. He’s kinetically sort of ideal to be in The Darkness I think., and he’s proven that every day.

And he’s been your drummer only since you last recorded. I know you’ve played a few dates, but your real tour is kicking off next month. Are you looking forward to going out on tour with Rufus behind the drums?

We’ve done some festivals already, but it’s been erratic. Like you said, we haven’t done it properly yet. So that’s the next step, and I can’t wait, because he’s just a really great person to have around. The other thing about Rufus is that he’s good at soccer as well. Last week we went and won the Celebrity Soccer Six tournament and Rufus scored a great goal. He even provided an assist to me, so me and Rufus link up well as a full partnership. That was one of the main reasons we wanted him in the band actually, was because of his football skill.

Another member of your band is your brother Dan, who produced your latest album. What was it like to work with him in that capacity?

It’s good to have somebody who you can trust, someone who you can sort of express yourself to. In my experience when I’ve worked with big-name producers before, you’re always trying to impress them a little bit, which means you’re not necessarily doing the right thing for the song. You might just be hotdogging, if that’s what you call it, or is that a sex thing?

I think it could be both.

[Laughs] Even in the context I’m talking about, it could be actually. It’s nice to have somebody that you don’t feel you need to impress, that you’re only doing it to make the song better. Dan’s very good. He doesn’t use clicks, he doesn’t use any fancy tricks, and he won’t copy and paste things. So you actually have to work a bit harder, but you’re working towards having something that sounds organic and human because it is organic and human. It’s much more satisfying to produce something that’s like that, I think. Plus he’s my brother, which is a good laugh.

Listening to Last of Our Kind, it comes across as being quite possibly your heaviest record to date. Was something you anticipated going into the studio?

I don’t know. We don’t usually think in terms of heaviness, but I think you’re right. It hasn’t got any obvious ballads on it, apart from the one that Frankie [Poullain, bassist] sings, and because he’s singing it sounds a bit gruff and grittier. There’s a sublime bass performance on that with yours truly. Uncredited bass performance. I do think we’re going to get progressively heavier from here on in, because that’s what we’ve started to really enjoy playing. I think what happened is we won several Ivor awards in 2004 for songwriting, and after that we got a bit carried away with the idea that we were songwriters, but we’re not. We’re a band. Of course we write our own songs, but not in the old-fashioned sense of songwriting. We should be making riffs, I should be screaming over those riffs, the drummer should be playing really loud and powerfully, and everybody should be having a good time. That’s The Darkness experience. I think we’re getting back to realizing that now.

Speaking of your songwriting, a lot of the lyrics on your new album delve into themes of historical battles. Is that something you have a personal interest in?

I like all things. I like all the humanities: I like history, and geography, and the sciences as well. I am particularly fond of East Anglian history. On the first album we had a song called “Black Shuck,” which is almost East Anglian mythology really, but the songs “Barbarian” and “Roaring Waters” [off 2015’s Last of Our Kind] are actually about proper invasions that happened in the UK. I may have messed around with some of the facts a little bit in the lyrics, but that’s cool. Is it artistic license? I’m allowed to lie basically, in the name of history.

Well, you do it well.

I’ve kept in many of the truths. The most interesting thing about Edmond the Martyr is that he tried to conduct a diplomatic exercise with the Vikings. He gave them some land and gave them some horses, and then they fired loads of arrows into him and chopped his head off, kicked his head into the forest. “Thanks for that. See ya!’ Absolutely brutal. Impressively brutal. And that sort of thing, to a lesser or greater degree, is still happening in the world, so it’s always interesting to tap into that and see the common themes.

You’ve said that Last of Our Kind is your favorite Darkness album, and the only one that you continue to actively listen to. Clearly your album Permission to Land  launched your careers. Have your feelings about Permission to Land changed in the 12 years since it was released?

No, I’m very fond of that album, but I don’t listen to it. I think that’s what I meant, really. The new album I do listen to, because I think it’s more about where we’re at now and I really enjoy the sonic properties of it. I think the first album is quite scratchy in terms of the sound in places, and it’s super luxurious in other places. It’s a document that captured a moment in time, so I don’t listen to it anymore because I don’t really think about that time so much. I did listen to a couple of songs recently, and there was some stuff on there that we didn’t even recognize! [Laughs] It’s been so long. But we still love playing those songs live.

Speaking of those songs, I think “I Believe in a Thing Called Love” is a perfect karaoke song. Have you ever gone to a karaoke bar and given an incognito performance of it?

No, because I usually do A-ha’s “Take on Me.” I bring the house down and then I’m out.

The Darkness is known for their high-octane live shows. Are there bands that you saw before The Darkness came together that you’d cite as inspiration for how you guys perform live on stage?

Well, for me the influences in that respect are Aerosmith, AC/DC, and Queen. I don’t think anybody has really ever done it better. When we were touring with Def Leppard we learned a hell of a lot about how to use space on a bigger stage. You learn all the time really, but if you want a shortcut to how to make the perfect rockstar, just look at anything Queen did in the '70s and early '80s and anything AC/DC did…ever. [Laughs]

On Hot Cakes, your last album, you have a cover of Radiohead’s “Steet Spirit (Fade Out.” What inspired you guys to cover that song in particular?

I think there were a few options on the table. We needed to do a cover for a radio session — the BBC radio back in 2003. We wanted to pick something that people assumed we hate, incorrectly. People assume we hate Radiohead or that we hate Nirvana because they killed hair metal. People have all these assumptions about how we feel about things that are just plain wrong. So the first thing we tried was “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” We tried to make that into a pop rock thing, but that wasn’t working. Then we went through pretty much everything on The Bends and Ok Computer to try and figure out which Radiohead song would work. “Street Spirit (Fade Out)” jumped out as the one that was the most Iron Madien-ifiable. We basically just wanted to illustrate our love for something, and to illustrate how versatile great songs are: you can make them sound like anything from Iron Maiden to ZZ Top to The Darkness to Radiohead.

If VH1 had made a Behind the Music on The Darkness — and they should’ve — what are a couple of things you think viewers might’ve learned about you guys?

I don’t know actually. I’ve never seen a Behind the Music. What kind of stuff is it usually?

A perfect example would be Motley Crew. It’s their rise, fall, and resurgence in a three-act pattern with lots of drugs, sex, and scandal thrown in. You guys just have such a rich history of having risen to the top so quickly, disbanding, and coming back together several times. The Darkness struck me as a ripe candidate for the show if it hadn’t gone the way of the music video and disappeared.

There’s a documentarian that’s actually following us around at the moment. His name is Simon Emmett. He’s a really great documentary filmmaker. He had a documentary about Barnet Football Club when they dropped out of the league and lost their stadium. It’s quite beautiful. He’s just been following us around — God knows what he’s going to make of it. A lot has happened in the last year and lucky there’s been cameras there. Maybe there will be something along the lines of a Behind the Music or maybe it should be called “Aside from the Music” to avoid any legal ramifications.

In an interview with Yahoo!, you said, “A lot of people thought that we were a joke, or that we’re deadly serious. Nobody ever seems to get it right.” So what is the right answer?

The truth is that sometimes we’re just trying to enjoy ourselves. I think the personality of the band comes across in the music, which we take very, very seriously, but unfortunately our personality is that we don’t take ourselves very seriously. We’re not precious about looking cool, and we’re not too worried about what people think. I think because of our reckless abandon and because we often have headbands on that there is confusion, and long may it fester. I think confusion and ambiguity are two of my middle names.

The Darkness play the Regency Ballroom on Sunday, Oct. 11. Tickets are available at axs.com.

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