When The Darkness arrived on the scene back in 2003 with their debut album, Permission To Land, they were announced by a singer with a mindblowing falsetto that no one had ever heard before and a band sound that fell somewhere between Queen, AC/DC and something uniquely their own. Justin Hawkins, singer and songwriter for the band, was an outsized figure who loved classic rock as much as he dug wearing leotards and flashy costumes. Though the band experienced huge success with the release of their debut and follow-up, One Way Ticket To Hell…and Back, they broke up around 2006. But they’ve returned with Hot Cakes, a melodic hard rock album produced by Bob Ezrin that brings together all the best elements of their first two recordings: crunchy and hypnotic guitar riffs played by Justin and brother Dan; melodic vocals that conjure the ghost of Freddie Mercury but always maintain Hawkins’ signature; and burning solos.
Justin Hawkins found a window in his schedule to talk about Hot Cakes and the music he made. He was talking on a cell with an international number though he was in the States so from time to time words became garbled or unintelligible. This writer replaced some of those missing words with what he thought Justin was originally saying and you’ll find those quips in brackets.
UG: Did you realize you could always sing?
Justin Hawkins: Yeah, because I’ve been writing sort of jingles and stuff since about ’97 and I used my voice a lot in those recordings. I always knew I could sing.
Did you always have that high falsetto?
Yeah, I used it a lot. It was really handy for me actually because I was often writing for female parts when I was doing jingles and stuff. And it made life a lot easier to be able to sing them myself without having to use any sort of pitch correction or sessions singers and stuff.
When you were first looking for a record deal for the Darkness labels didn’t take you seriously. After Permission to Land came out and you sold a lot of records, was there a feeling of vindication for you?
Ummm yeah, I suppose so. It’s hard to be bitter about something like that when you’re successful really. It was a really great time for us. I suppose early on you experience rejection a couple of times and you become rhino-skinned and you don’t care anymore. In a way it became like our mission to sort of prove people wrong. There wasn’t really no point in just sitting there and go, “I showed you.” Even though we kind of may have said it we didn’t really feel that way.
When you finished recording Permission to Land did you have any sense that this was a special collection of songs?
Umm, we thought we did; we thought we knew but we didn’t really. We all have different ideas of why it’s popular and why it’s sort of successful. But it’s a combination of the four of us and it’s not like we can really quantify what’s really magical about it. It’s just something that happens between the four of us that really works.
“Growing On Me” from Permission to Land was a cool rock song and a great solo. Do you and your brother Dan both play lead guitar in the band?
We both do but it depends on the song actually. On “Growing On Me” I played both the solos on that one. Yeah, I mean you’d have to go on a song-by-song basis and I’ll tell you who played what. On the second album I think I played most of the solos except for on the ballad. And on the first album I played solos on a lot of it.
Did you play the solo on “I Believe In a Thing Called Love”?
The first solo after the first chorus is me and the second one is Dan and the one over the outro is me.
Did you always have that kind of musical sympathy with Dan in terms of putting together guitar parts?
It’s hard to explain but we sort of just know whether a chord progression is gonna suit my style or his really. But Dan’s always been more of a rhythm player—an exceptional rhythm player. He’s a very rhythmic lead player as well.
He’s an unbelievable rhythm guitar player.
Yeah, I don’t think I’ve ever seen anybody better actually. At that particular thing he’s better than me. But there’s a certain style of lead work that I do better than him. We always know who’s right for what role.
What guitar players were you listening to?
"I suppose early on you experience rejection a couple of times and you become rhino-skinned and you don’t care anymore. In a way it became like our mission to sort of prove people wrong."
I’m very much a Brian May-stroke-Angus Young type player. The thing that unites me and Dan is Jimmy Page as well. Dan’s influences were like Lindsey Buckingham and Richard Thompson and people like that. A wide spectrum of playing styles between us. Mark Knopfler as well has been a big influence on me.
On “Love Is Only a Feeling” you broke out some of those acoustic influences you’ve just mentioned by pulling out acoustic guitars and mandolins.
Yeah, 12-strings and capos and acoustics and mandolins and all sorts of things. That’s actually Dan’s area to be honest. I play some acoustic stuff live and fingerpicking stuff. But that more strummed and alternative tuning kind of thing, I don’t really get into. Because for the majority of stuff we play and have played, I’ve always just played a normally tuned E – A – D – G – B – E guitar with no capo and I’ve never really had anything to do with that. It helps me to sort of feel my way around and work out what I’m supposed to do whereas Dan is much more experimental in that area. He will have different tunings throughout the set even, which means that he really needs a great guitar tech. And we’re really lucky because we’ve got three really great ones at the moment. We’ve had really [bad] techs in the past who fucked everything up for us.
There is a slight Freddie Mercury vibe in your vocal on “Love Is Only a Feeling.”
Yeah, my favorite singers are Freddie Mercury, Bon Scott, Steven Tyler, Robert Plant and a whole plethora of others. But Freddie is definitely a voice I grew up with.
Did you ever have a chance to meet Freddie?
Oh no. I remember when he died. We were on a school trip to London, a coach trip to London from out little town. And I was there along with my friend and somebody drove past in the car and for no reason at all wound down the windows and shouted at us, “Freddie Mercury is dead.” And then just drove off and he died the next day. I’ll never forget that.
The Darkness opened for Metallica in 2003. What was that like?
Yeah, we all loved Metallica but we only played with ‘em a few times. They were really kind to us and hung out with us. We had some good laughs particularly with Lars. I remember we were sort of intimidated by their crowd a little bit and I sort of felt like I might sort of experience some hostility. I’ve always worried about hostility when there’s a heavier band really because we’re not that heavy. But when our techs went out and were sort of testing the guitars even they were getting cheered. So there was a really [cool] vibe and we really Metallica’s fanbase for that. They were very welcoming.
On One Way Ticket To Hell…and Back you bring in Roy Thomas Baker to produce. Was that specifically because he had worked with Queen or was he someone you thought would be interesting to bring into the studio?
Yeah, both of those reasons really and also we got on really well with him in a social way. So lots of different reasons to explore that.
Did you like what Roy Thomas Baker brought to the band’s sound?
Yeah, completely. I’ll never forget the experience of working with someone like that. We’ve stolen so many of the tricks that he taught us and it was a really great experience.
Did Frankie Poullan leave the band before you recorded One Way Ticket To Hell..and Back?
No, he left during it.
Did Frankie Poullan play any bass parts on that album?
No, Dan played all the bass on that album.
Dan is a remarkable bass player as well as a guitar player.
Oh, he started off as a drummer and he’s a really good drummer and a brilliant bass player. Then he became my favorite rhythm guitarist. I’m just glad he can’t sing ‘cause I’d probably hate him.
You’d be out of the band.
The arrangements on One Way Ticket To Hell…and Back sound more complex than the song structures on Permission to Land. You can hear that on a song like “One Way Ticket.” Did you want to push the boundaries?
Yeah, kind of. We wanted to take the opportunity to play around a bit and interfere with things and see what happened. The solo on that one I played on one of those…
Was that the Coral sitar?
Yeah, that’s it.
That was a terrific solo.
Thank you. I actually tried to do it live but it’s very hard to pull that sound off in a sort of live environment when there’s sort of drums and stuff around. I ended up smashing the sitar up onstage and I got really pissed at it and lost my temper a little bit. So now I just play it on a normal guitar.
Who plays the guitar solo on “Is It Just Me”?
That’s me. Live the bit when it goes to the sort of hammery part, we harmonize that live. But on the record it’s me and I played the sort of main part of the solo.
Do you think because your image is pretty big and people have focused a lot on your vocals that maybe you don’t get your kudos as a guitarist?
Umm, sometimes I feel that. I started off as a guitar player and that was my first instrument. When Dan was learning drums, I was playing guitar. I never put that down really. When I started in the Darkness there were two guitarists and I was just singing and I didn’t really let on to the other guitarist that I could play. And then we did one show where I sort of leaned around and played the solo. I sort of stole his guitar a bit and the next thing you know we have to sack him ‘cause I was playing sort of lead guitar and stuff in the band.
So you didn’t even play guitar in the Darkness in the beginning?
No, we were a five-piece first of all. Then when I started playing leads I didn’t really see the point in having an extra guitarist.
That’s like Phil Collins stepping out from behind his drums and singing after Peter Gabriel left Genesis.
Same sort of vibe, yeah.
“Girlfriend” had strings and features you playing a keyboard solo.
That was a Minimoog solo. I’ve got a Minimoog, which I’ve used on certain recordings and that was one of those.
You’re a good keyboard player.
No, when it come to keyboards I’m a real bluffer. I knew a few chords but I don’t really feel myself as that. It’s handy to be able to play keyboards for certain [things] here and there and just keeping it simple. Or doing a ludicrous Moog solo. But I don’t really pursue it and I don’t practice it really.
Do you write on keyboards?
"Freddie Mercury is definitely a voice I grew up with."
I have done that before, yeah actually to be honest. It sometimes just brings something new ‘cause you instinctively go somewhere that you wouldn’t normally go or you accidentally hit a chord ‘cause you’re not really a keyboardist. Sometimes you accidentally play things and it works. Then you gotta try and remember what you did.
The band broke up in 2006. Had you been high when you recorded the first two Darkness records?
I don’t really wanna talk about that.
After a hiatus you returned and put together British Whale.
No, actually that ran concurrently with the Darkness. It was a bit of a fun side thing.
If I made you mad with that previous question I apologize.
It’s OK. No, I’m not mad.
OK. You covered the Sparks’ “This Town Ain’t Big Enough For Both Of Us.” Were you a Sparks fan?
Actually that came about because I’d signed a publishing deal for my external Darkness stuff and at the same time they signed Sparks. The Sparks catalog even though they’ve got like 20 old albums was kind of like not generating as much revenue as you’d imagine it could. So I did a cover of one of their songs there as a sort of gesture to demonstrate how they could get the catalog moving. I did it and it just turned out so good that they put it out as a single. And then the Sparks people appeared in the video and it went Top 10 and I didn’t really have to promote it at all. I just sort of sat there and watched it happen really. It was a bit of fun you know and never intended as a sort of launch pad for anything else. It was just literally a bit of fun.
In 2008 you did the Red Light Fever album with Hot Leg. There was that sort of AC/DC-sounding “I’ve Met Jesus” on there.
I played everything on that album and I remember that song in particular has got that sort of chicken pickin’ riff in there. I played that on the perspex Dan Armstrong Ampeg guitar; the clear one.
That was an amazing guitar part.
Oh thanks. Yeah, I’ve had that guitar for a long time and it just has that real sort of twang when you pull it with your fingers. It sings a lot more than a normal guitar does.
Randy California, one of my favorite guitar players from Spirit, used to play the Dan Armstrong.
Dave Grohl had one of those guitars. I’ve got a particularly good example of one. It’s like a 1969 and the neck’s really flat and I’ve only got the Country bass pickup in there because you know you can swap the pickups out because they’re quick-release pickups. I only have one original sort of Country bass pickup. I gather they still make them although they’re reissued pickups but I’m just gonna leave it the way it is.
“Trojan Guitar” has acoustic guitars.
Yeah, some nylon string stuff and some 12-string.
Was the Hot Leg project completely different than working with the Darkness?
It was more just to sort of try performing sober really and see how that feels.
What did that feel like?
Exhilarating and really fun. We had started to sell a few tickets and stuff towards the end of it as well. It was a really good laugh and we enjoyed it. It restored my faith in it a little bit actually.
Right around the time you were working with Hot Leg, Brian May joined the band at the HMV Hammersmith Apollo in London?
Obviously it was a dream come true. But we actually rehearsed with him before a performance with Queen years and years ago when they played at Hyde Park. We were supposed to sort of be there as a guest performance. But they don’t really do anything without rehearsing it properly, which is commendable. So we rehearsed with them but that’s when the terror attacks happened on London so the Queen shows were rescheduled to a time when we weren’t available. We were actually in the States at that time and they were rescheduling it for us but unfortunately we weren’t able to play with them. But it was most fun to get around to doing it finally.
Hot Cakes is the first time you’ve recorded with the original band since 2005. What did it feel like being in the studio with them again?
We didn’t go straight into the studio. Obviously we rehearsed a lot beforehand and fine-tuned the material together to work up what we needed. To see where we stood material-wise and what was required and also to go through the old stuff as well. There’s a lot of tidying up in rehearsals that by the time we got to the recording [we knew what we were doing.]
What made you decide to work with Bob Ezrin and have him mix the album?
Well we worked with him before on the Christmas single [“Christmas Time (Don’t Let the Bells End)”] that was a big hit in the UK. He produced that and mixed it and everything and we always thought that was one of the better sounding things that we did in the whole period. Various different aspects of the record we recorded in different places: the Music Box in London; Rockfield Studios in Wales; my studio and this other studio in London, which I’ve currently forgotten the name of. So we had all these various kinds of sound sources and signal chains and stuff and we needed somebody who really knew what they were doing to be able to pull the thing together and make it sound like a cohesive album. Or even within each song; a cohesive song. And he’s consistently made brilliant records over the years and obviously he was an existing friend of the band and he was up for doing it and I think he really nailed it.
You and Dan Hawkins produced the record?
And Nick Brine as well. He worked on the second Darkness album and worked on the Stone Gods as well. He’s experienced a lot of us and he’s a brilliant engineer and has worked with Oasis and Stone Roses as well. He’s a close friend of the band too and we all work together.
You has final veto over one of your vocal performances?
If I really wanted something then I would fight for it and that’s how it’s always been. Whether RTB is producing it or Pedro Ferreira or us or whatever.
“Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us” was the first song released from Hot Cakes. Was this meant as a sort of rallying cry for the Darkness in 2012?
No, it wasn’t intended that way at all. It’s actually a song that’s telling a story of when years and years ago my friend and I were really drunk in Lowestoft and needed to walk home from the pub and got really tired. Then we saw a BMX outside this hotel so we just nicked it. But that song is trying to sort of relive that exhilarating moment you decide to go off road and try and avoid any sort of attention from the authorities—and then run straight into a policeman. I’ve been working off bad karma for that long enough now to be able to put it into a song I think.
There was a little bit of a Todd Rundgren vibe around “Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us.”
"I’ve always worried about hostility when there’s a heavier band really because we’re not that heavy."
Yeah, actually I’m a really big fan. I mean obviously Something/Anything? is one of my favorite albums and I love Hermit of Mink Hollow. I listen to a lot of his stuff and I think “The Range War” is one of my favorite songs ever. I think the lyric on that is amazing and I think he’s a brilliant lyricist and one of my favorite singers, writers and producers as well.
No other writer has ever made that comparison between you and Todd Rundgren before?
Yeah, you might be the first person who’s ever spotted that actually. I was a big into that guy for a long time.
And a really brilliant producer as well.
And a pretty strange guy.
I’m glad to hear he’s a strange bird.
A lyric in “Every Inch Of You” was very telling: “I wanted to be a doctor/I wanted to be a vet/Until I heard ‘Communication Breakdown’ on the TDK D90 cassette.” That’s a nod to your heroes and to analog.
Oh, you remember the D90s from childhood days?
I still use cassettes.
Yeah, the D90 was like the classic model and you had Maxell LN as well. Because you could usually fit a whole album on each side.
Your reference to “Communication Breakdown” was also very cool. Did you listen to Zeppelin a lot?
Yeah absolutely. I, II, III and IV and Houses of the Holy were the ones that I was most sort of smitten by as a teen. I listen to Physical Graffiti a lot now as well. It’s always kinda like I have a favorite album and I go, “I is my favorite” and I listen to that for ages and then it’s II and then I go around. I started to really enjoy How the West Was Won, those live performances that you can get. I’d work out to those quite a bit.
What about some of the other classic English rock bands like Humble Pie or Free. Did they register on your radar?
None of that stuff made it to my brain or heart. I didn’t connect with it as a kid. I loved blues playing but in a much more mainstream way.
And how about more contemporary bands like 30 Seconds to Mars or My Chemical Romance?
I enjoy My Chemical Romance and I’ve never knowingly heard 30 Seconds to Mars. A lot of the modern stuff I haven’t listened to at all. There’s too much great stuff in the classics.
Bassist Frankie Poullain plays a great riff in “With a Woman.”
Oh yeah, the bass line. I think he’s got better as well over the years. I think he’s matured and grown into it. When we first reformed his playing had really improved.
Your solo in “With a Woman” was really good. Is the sound of your guitar on that solo and on the album in general a function of Bob Ezrin?
Yeah, it might be. It’s the classic sort of Les Paul Custom played through a Marshall Super Lead with a bit of a Tube Screamer in there.
“Keep Me Hanging On” is a good example of how you approach the rhythm guitars—one guitar plays a staccato sort of figure while the other one strums legato chords.
Well actually I think Dan played all the rhythm parts on that recording and I just played the guitar solo.
That was another one of your chicken pickin’ solos?
Yeah definitely. It’s the Les Paul again; I didn’t use anything fancy for that. The only sort of song that didn’t have a Les Paul solo would be “Livin’ Every Day Blind.” I played the first solo on a Les Paul and then the main solo I did on a Strat, which is very rare for me. And then the last bits of lead I played those on a Les Paul. I have to do two guitar changes if we do that one live.
You did that rocked out version of Radiohead’s “Street Spirit.” Are they a band you’ve listened to a lot?
Yeah, it is actually. The band has deeply influenced all of us. We just love that band.
You’ll be performing at the Isle of Wight?
Yeah. We played it once before actually back in ’03 and it’s a really nice day out. I’m really looking forward to it.
And you’re touring with Lady Gaga on the Born This Way Ball Tour. How did that happen?
Yeah. She chose us and for me it sort of feels ideal. I’m really excited about the opportunity and I think it’s gonna be a brilliant tour.
The Darkness haven’t really been around for about seven years. Does Hot Cakes represent who the band are in 2012?
Yeah, I think it’s a fair reflection of how things are at the moment. We’re playing better than we ever did and we’re kind of writing great stuff. And just really excited about the touring thing. Everything is going well.
Interview by Steven Rosen
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