Interview: The Darkness' Justin Hawkins Says New Look 'Not A Disguise'

Hawkins Discusses New Album, New Drummer, New Look, and New Spandex Catsuit Idea

The Darkness' Justin Hawkins: 2003/2015
The Darkness' Justin Hawkins: 2003/2015. Photos: Left 2003-Kevin Kravitz-FilmMagic-Getty Images. Right 2015: Promo Photo-Scarlet Page.

The Darkness burst onto the music scene in 2003 when their infectious glam metal rock single "I Believe In A Thing Called Love". The song and campy, space themed video were hits in the U.S. and U.K. Their debut album Permission to Land sold 1.5 million copies in the U.K. alone. Their second album 2005's One Way Ticket to Hell... and Back  experienced a sophomore slump. Frontman Justin Hawkins completed a successful rehab stint in 2006 and decided to break up the band.

In 2011, The Darkness reformed and released their third album Hot Cakes in 2012The band currently consists of singer/guitarist Justin Hawkins, his brother guitarist/producer Dan Hawkins, and bassist Frankie Poullain. Original drummer Ed Graham parted with the band before they recorded their fourth album Last of Our Kind  (due June 2) with drummer Emily Dolan Davies. Davies left the band in April 2015 and was replaced by Rufus Taylor, son of Queen drummer Roger Taylor and also live percussionist/backup singer for Queen + Adam Lambert.

I caught up with Justin Hawkins who called from his home in the Alps. He came off as engaging, intelligent, quick-witted, and funny. Hawkins deftly conducted this interview while his young daughter, as well as his canine doppelganger (his mustached and bearded Griffon Bruxellois dog Bonnie) were also vying for his attention. He handled the interview with the same effortless style in which he belts out The Darkness' songs live while simultaneously playing scorching lead and rhythm guitar.

Bob Schallau: In 2003 your single "I Believe In A Thing Called Love" went to #2 in the U.K. and the album Permission to Land went to #1 in the UK and did very well in the U.S. Was The Darkness' initial success overwhelming?

Justin Hawkins: No, not really. I think we were just busy. Sometimes it didn't feel like we were successful, to be honest, because it took us a really long time before we made any money.

It can take a long time, months, before it trickles in. You can be playing in front of 80,000 people at Knebworth [the British music festival The Darkness played in August 2003] and have nothing in your bank account at all. It was a strange time because we felt like we were making progress but there were all these things holding us back.

The Darkness came to prominence shortly before MTV stopped promoting music videos. Do you think the music industry has become too fragmented these days?

I don't think about that stuff too much really. I would say that I miss that element - I mean I used to like watching MTV as a kid. But I suppose it's just an 80's and 90's thing that has run its course. I know that they make reality shows or whatever else they do, but there was something really special about seeing a Dire Straits or an Aerosmith video on MTV or watching Headbanger's Ball. I think is a bit golden. Also there's other stuff from my childhood that was important and disappeared as well. Things like Top of the Pops which was a sometimes live, mostly I suppose a mimed, music show on BBC television. I watched it every week basically as a child.

Other sibling bands like Oasis and the Black Crowes seem to have rivalries which cause them to eventually unravel. How have you and your brother Dan (Hawkins) managed to get along over the years? 

Well, to be honest, we don't see that much of each other when we're not working (laughs). So I think that helps. We live in two different countries, so it's always exciting when we meet up. It feels like an ally as opposed to an enemy. In some ways I think it works to our advantage because he trusts me to approve things like photographs and vice versa. We actually share the workload in quite a unique way. We lend to agree on most things. There's a powerful force in a democracy when there's only three people voting (laughs).

Did you need to step away from the music business for a while in 2006, when The Darkness broke up, to regain your enthusiasm for making music?

I don't know if it was so much about the business. I think I was having an identity crisis and I needed to relax a bit. Basically the focus of the theme of The Darkness really changed.

It became something that was really not about music. It was about fame and I wasn't into it that much. And so I committed career suicide, and now it's about the things that I think it should be about.

Dan produced your new album Last of Our Kind. Was it easy working with you brother behind the recording console?

Yeah, I think we all wanted him to do it. There wasn't anyone else banging on our door (laughs). It was partly through necessity and partly in the name of just doing things our way without any sort of outside influences. Some people value an extra set of ears, but there aren't any ears that are as good as ours. It was really nice to have that kind of familiar presence, and it really allowed us to express ourselves more I think.

You have a whole new look now, it's almost like a disguise. When you walk down the streets in London do you get recognized much these days?

No, actually. Nobody recognizes me. It's great. But I think it's evolved. A few years of obscurity have changed me. I mean, I probably look like what I would basically look like if I wasn't in a band (laughs). But it's not a disguise, not a deliberate one. I know what you mean, and I actually do appreciate the anonymity sometimes. It's really quite brilliant. Sometimes we go to even interview situations and people think Dan is me (laughs).

Has anyone ever come up to you before your shows and asked you 'Where's Justin?' if they haven't seen your new press photos?

All the time, more than you would imagine. It's really funny.

What do you tell them?

"Actually, I haven't seen him. I have no idea." Always. It's just brilliant.

Were you happy with how the album Last of Our Kind turned out?

Yeah, I really love it. I think it's my favorite one. I still work out to it and I can't say that about any of the other albums that we've recorded. I never listen to them again. But this one I'm still enjoying.

Was "Barbarian" the first song written for the album?

Yeah, it was. It was written in Ibiza actually, the Spanish island.

I really think that set the tone for the album. It's funny because as soon as I did it I thought it was the greatest thing ever. Not everybody agreed with me. So I really had to fight to get it included; second of all, to open the album; and definitely, third of all, to be the teaser track which had the video made for it. But I think that the response to it has justified that. Now I think people are like, 'Oh yeah. Justin's right' (laughs).

Watch the graphic-novel style video for "Barbarian" here.

I read recently (via Loudwire) that years ago The Darkness were flying to South Africa and your plane was stuck by lightning and rapidly dropped 2,000 feet. What was that like?

Yeah, everybody else were shitting themselves. I was fine. I was basically standing in the aisles screaming for the god of thunder: "Bring it on! Bring the noise! I'm ready for you!"

I heard that you sold some of your old spandex catsuits on eBay in 2014. What do you think the new owners are doing with your outfits? 

Their probably doing selfies, masturbating, watching videos of me of the Internet. That kind of stuff.

Do audience members who basically watch concerts through their cell phones bother you?

I feel sorry basically for people that do that really. I've never done it myself. I actually went to a Depeche Mode concert and I filmed somebody filming it [the show] because I thought that was amusing. But that's the way it is, isn't it? It's the modern world. We have to live among these folk and that's how they see things. I mean it must sound dreadful when they play it back. But as a reference for bands to see what they've done right or wrong I suppose it's helpful.

The Darkness have had a bit of a Spinal Tap-esque rotation of drummers in the last couple of years. How did Rufus Taylor end up joining the band on drums and how is he working out so far?

Well, he was recommended to us by a friend of our's who happens to be [Queen guitarist] Brian May's guitar tech. We've been friends with Queen for a long time and he's been on our radar for a little while now. So when the drummer situation inevitably came to a head he was the first person that we contacted. We needed somebody urgently. He played at the [Last of Our Kind album] launch show. Now, I think he's fucking awesome. I really appreciate the energy and power he's brought to the game, and it's really made me feel like a man. I was thinking that. I really hope that it's permanent - but who knows what the future holds. At the moment he's just helping us out and being a friend. But I would love to see him take it on as his actual gig.

You have tattoos of the members of Queen on your left hand fingers from the cover of their Hot Space album.

Yeah, I don't know if that would be weird for Rufus seeing his Dad on my ring finger. He [the Roger Taylor tattoo] looks particularly good wearing a silver head band [Hawkin's wedding ring] now that I'm married (laughs).

Was it difficult getting your bassist Frankie Poullain to sing lead on your new album's closing song "Conqueror"?

It was challenging actually. I had to twist his arm a little bit, but I think he realized that he was able to sing that song in quite the correct way and he's definitely the man for that job. I'm open to things like that and I'm really looking forward to hearing Dan sing.

The Darkness doesn't seem to have any beefs with other bands like Blur and Oasis used to. Do any bands get on your nerves?

Yeah, but you know that's because Blur and Oasis were two mega-bands around at the same time in British pop rock. There was never really a band that we gave a shit about. We just didn't care about anybody else enough to get upset with them I suppose. Can you suggest a modern band that we can do that with?

(Joking) I've heard that you don't think that the singer for Maroon 5 (Adam Levine) has moves like Mick Jagger. They might be a good target.

Yeah, I think he dances like more like Norman Jagger, Mick's elderly, geriatric uncle (laughter).

Considering the state of the music industry today do you have any sales expectations for the new album?

I'd be delighted if the album sells well, but expectation wise I don't think you can afford to think like that really. I think that the label that we're with and the partnerships we've made have been really fruitful. But I'm trying to enjoy the process and try not to think about that stuff really.

I just watched The Darkness' 2012 Los Angeles Club Nokia concert on YouTube. You changed stage outfits three times during that show. When are you going to stop dressing up for shows and just wear jeans and a T-shirt like all the other bands?

(Laughs) To be honest I often fantasize about wearing jeans and T-shirts, but I think the short answer is probably never. Hopefully never. I don't think that I can. Actually, I did think about making a spandex catsuit that was designed to look like jeans and a T-shirt. Then people who like jeans and a T-shirt will like it - but I'll be tricking them, because really it will be a catsuit.

The Darkness' fourth album Last of Our Kind was released June 2nd via Canary Dwarf Records. The album and other special merchandise can also be ordered at The Darkess PledgeMusic site. Watch the video for their first single "Open Fire" here.

(Interview published May 6, 2015)