The guitarguitar Interview: The Darkness
Published on 17 September 2019
For fans of true Rock music, the Darkness are a special band. Since they broke through the ranks in 2000 with their spandex, flowing locks, leotards and Les Pauls set to stun, this hard rockin’ group from Lowestoft, led by brothers Justin and Dan Hawkins, were a breath of distinctly glamorous air. Riffs, vocal hooks, actual choruses and proper solos: it was like the late 70s again, when Rock was fun!
When the Darkness hit, they hit big: debut album Permission to Land was a UK number one, selling over 1.5 million copies. They’ve won BRIT Awards, Kerrang awards, MTV awards, all proving that the band could walk the walk at least as well as they could talk it, which was not inconsiderable in itself! The Darkness’ signature humour and surreal, larger-than-life personas have made them stars, particularly vocalist/lead guitarist Justin Hawkins and his guitar playing brother, Dan.
The Darkness have furrowed their singular path through 5 albums, with their sixth, Easter is Cancelled, due for release on October 4th. With the additional muscle of Rufus Tiger Taylor (he calls Queen’s Roger Taylor ‘Dad’) behind the skins, they are a most lethal proposition than ever before. Success has not blunted their edge: indeed, they seem hungrier than ever and ready to throw the gauntlet down to other underachieving Rock bands out there.
We were happy to catch up with Dan as he sat in his car, patiently waiting in a queue to go through the Dartford Crossing in East London. The idea was to discuss the new record, but we still managed to get in some plectrum questions and refer to Sting’s underwear choice...
Guitarguitar: Hello! Is that Dan?
Dan Hawkins: Hello Ray! Listen: if I lose you, it’s because I’m in a queue for Dartford tunnel.
Guitarguitar: Haha, ok!
DH: It’s quite a big queue so there’s every chance we’ll be fine.
GG: OK, cool! I’ll to get through as much as I can before I lose you, OK?
DH: All good, we’ll get reconnected if I lose you!
GG: Nice one! Ok so: the new record, Easter is Cancelled, is the first time you guys have done a concept album. That is a surprise to me, that you haven’t done one before!
DH: It is to me as well! (laughs) I think, um, I guess we needed the right vehicle, I suppose. It ended up being like that because we gave ourselves an infinite amount of studio time. Like, if you give a dog a feast, (laughs)...so, we gorged. And the concepts got more and more out there and there seemed to be, you know, a link between them all.
DH: I always thought that we would do something like that one day.
GG: I’ve listened to the record and there’s almost a statement, like a throwing down of the gauntlet to other Rock bands. Would you agree with that?
DH: I guess so, in a way. It’s kind of the birth, death and rebirth of Rock n roll in one album, sort of thing: it’s a journey. It’s hard: I’m not very good at analysing this stuff, you guys are much better, but generally, maybe there’s a ...you know, Justin went through some pretty tough times. It’s most definitely a ‘divorce album’. Maybe the only way he felt he could channel his sense of loss and his fear etc was relating it through the other most important thing in his life, you know?
GG: Yeah. So, are there overt characters and narratives? Because it wasn’t necessarily coming across to me that way.
DH: Um, not really, it’s not that kind of thing, it’s more of a, you know, I know what you mean about concept albums with characters and stories and you follow them through it. This is more like loads of individual stories about roughly the same theme. It’s a series of short stories with a collective narrative, I suppose.
GG: Yeah, that makes sense. And what about the artwork? It’s fun, obviously, but are you expecting any controversy from religious people?
DH: Nah, not really! I we had a good stir up of controversy, it would be no bad thing for us but, you know, it’s quite easily explainable! (laughs) If you were offended by the artwork, you would probably want to ask ‘why’. The message is very simple and it’s a positive one for guess any Christians maybe that want to get a bit pissed off about that. Essentially since it’s questioning what the world would be like today had Jesus Christ not died. As in he lived through it (the crucifixion) and was ever-present, and actually present, through humankind. Would things be better? Would they be worse? You know?
GG: Yeah, go you! So, this time out, you were not only playing guitar and co-writing, you also produced the album. Did you have a lot of material ready before you went in to record? I know you said you guys have a lot of studio time available...
DH: No. Haha! I fucking wish it was! That’s maybe why it took so fuckin’ long! Oh my God. You know, by the end of this album, like, I was umm, fantasising about selling everything and never, ever getting involved with studio work ever again! Hahaha!
It seemed like a good idea at the time. The vibe was, I have a studio near my house so the guys would stay at my house and we’d go to the studio each day or whenever we were ready. The only rule I had was: there had to be a verse and a really good chorus, defined with melody, lyrics and everything, you know? Written on acoustic before we went anywhere near the studio, because I know that we’re very good at going into the studio half-cocked and making the best of whatever we’ve got. But I didn’t want to do that: I wanted to make sure that when we went in, we knew the song was good. And then make it better from there. We call it ‘turd-polishing’, haha!
GG: Haha! So, most of the material on this record was written first on acoustic?
DH: That was the main thing, yeah. I wanted to reconnect us with the idea if writing songs the way we did on the first album, really. Back then, we couldn’t afford to go into the rehearsal room because we were all on the dole in London, whatever, and we’d only be able to get one rehearsal a week, two if we were lucky, just because we couldn’t afford to do any more than that. So, the rest of the evenings, or times we would get together and write songs in whoever’s flat it was, whoever’s turn it was to host the band. And we would just have a shitty old acoustic and you know, I would develop a way of playing acoustic so hard that it almost sounded like an electric guitar. That’s where it all developed from. So, mainly on acoustic, yeah!
GG: Brilliant! Let’s talk about electric guitars because that’s the most fun thing, frankly. This record has got some great guitar parts on it, I really love the main riff for the title song (Easter is Cancelled). The guitars are pretty loud, they’re well-produced: what was your vibe for putting out guitars this time?
DH: Haha, well, we are a guitar band, unashamedly. For better or worse, in our career, we fill that spot: that’s what we are, so there’s always gonna be the lead thing.
GG: You seem to be a Les Paul guy, is that the case this time round?
DH: Yeah, so my starting point is always my...I actually made a bit of an epiphany a few hours ago where I thought ‘I have all these Les Pauls, hundreds...I have a Les Paul for every situation (laughs), you know? For every nuance that I might be after in my head. And in the end, I thought, well, there’s nothing really tying this all together! So, a few hours ago I made this pointed decision to only play my number one Les Paul Standard unless I desperately needed to go elsewhere.
GG: Ah, OK!
DH: But the amps have changed a lot! Yeah, we’re switching up amps like you wouldn’t believe. All of the guitars on the album are that Les Paul, bar maybe a couple of chords that were played on an Epiphone Casino.
GG: And your main Les Paul, is that the one you refer to as ‘Dune’?
DH: That’s right, yeah.
GG: Now, is that because of the Frank Herbert sci-fi book with the Desert planet and the corresponding colour of the guitar?
DH: That’s right! Yeah! It’s a nice mixture of the film, Dune, and the colour.
GG: Images of Sting emerging from the gas room with his big green pants on.
DH: Haha, yeah, exactly! (laughs) Great film, great director.
GG: Love a bit of Lynch!
DH: What was really prominent on the record was, we really dug out this black Les Paul Custom that Justin doesn’t play live anymore. It’s been lying around in the lockup for years now and so I wanted to have in the studio a bunch of guitars that weren’t our touring guitars. This was so that if we needed to do some gigs or tours, we didn’t have to keep bringing them in and out.
So, we brought that in as a sort of auxiliary guitar, really. That made a huge impact on the album: that black Les Paul is, I think, the best Les Paul I’ve ever heard. It’s just a weird anomaly, it’s not even like a Custom Shop guitar, it’s just a Les Paul Custom (presumably from before all LP Customs were made in the Custom Shop – Ray) and for whatever reason, it just sounds unbelievably great! All of Justin’s lead guitar solos are done on that, and I recorded a rhythm track or two with that on the album, too.
I would say my ‘Dune’ and his black Les Paul were the main ones, really.
GG: Nice! And do you guys go for gauge ten strings?
DH: Umm, Justin’s on Regular Slinkys, I’m on heavy gauge...I think they’re called Beefy? They go from eleven to fifty-two. They’re pretty big! I used to go bigger, I used to use 12-54 at one point, with a wound ‘G’.
GG: That’s quite heavy duty!
DH: Yeah, I’ve always been that way...I learned to play guitar by playing along to Malcolm Young and I basically read somewhere that he used heavy strings and so I switched to heavy strings and that was the end to my tuning problems! (laughs) Yeah, the reason I play them is that I have quite a bad technique, as discussed by my loud acoustic playing! I was also a bass player before that, so when I switched to guitar, I was breaking strings left, right and centre, never staying in tune...I play the string half with my thumb, not just the plectrum, sort of thing.
GG: It’s all about the power, the brute force!
DH: Mmm, no, it’s more about shit technique! (laughs) I wish I’d learned properly to be honest, but there you go! I have to have heavy strings, otherwise the guitar won’t stay in tune.
GG: What about your plectrum gauge? What do you use for picks?
DH: Well, this is the weird thing! I use nylon .73mm. So, I’ve got heavy strings and some of the lightest plectrums, because again it’s coming back to that thing where I’m hitting it so hard and with my thumb as well: half plectrum, half thumb.
GG: It seems like that should be quite unusual but actually quite a lot of people do that: the heavy string, light plectrum thing. I personally can’t get along with it, but it works for guys like you, so fair enough!
DH: I think it’s like, when you’re really swinging at it, I think you get you get more connection with it: you feel what you’re doing more. Your hand is doing all the mute work, I don’t know...I just strum it.
GG: Haha, whatever works I think is the bottom line!
DH: Yes, exactly.
GG: So, with the kind of influences you had growing up, obviously there’s lots of classic rock, but are there any guitar players or bands that you really love that might come as a bit of a surprise?
DH: Well, to our hardcore fans, probably not, but Justin and I were into Abba! Haha! You know: songwriting, production, the guitar playing as well, the way everything was in harmony, like dual guitars. It’s similar to Thin Lizzy, isn’t it? When we were really young, we listened to a lot of Abba, and then when Thin Lizzy came along, it was like ‘Cool Abba’! Hahaha! But those dual guitars, I recognise from our childhood love of Abba.
And, you know, we were 80s kids, so we were massively into Huey Lewis & The News, stuff like that.
GG: Ah, ok! wouldn’t have guessed that! One thing I would’ve thought, especially with the whole ‘Rock bands aren’t being Rock bands anymore and need shown how it’s done’ and so on...one of your previous records is called ‘Last of Our Kind’. Is that what you guys feel? Like you’re the last guys out there doing it properly?
DH: Yeah, well, you know, we were cajoled into calling the album that because one of the songs was called that and I think that’s kind of how our fans perceived us, really. I always thought, we’re not arrogant enough to actually believe that! (laughs) We’re not and that’s the truth, like, we regretted calling the album that as soon as we did! You know...one of a kind is something, but LAST of a kind is so...not true!
DH: There’s plenty of good Rock bands out there and they just don’t have the exposure that they should have.
GG: Yeah, true enough but it does fit a certain vibe, doesn’t it? And it works!
DH: Yeah, we have revisited that: that feeling of being out there on our own on a couple of occasions, you are right! Because that’s how we feel! We’re like the fucking sock behind the fridge! (laughs) We’re too hot for radio 2, not edgy enough for radio 1, we’re too ‘out there’ for most stations to play, radio-wise...we’re old enough to be a Classic Rock band, or ‘veterans’, but we’re not young enough to be in...
GG: Like NME or whatever.
DH: Yeah, exactly! So, we’re just in this fucking middle ground! And you know what? It does feel like we’re out there, and that’s okay sometimes but also, I think we would really like, over the next couple of albums, to try and move out of this sort of purely Classic Rock genre and try and do some different stuff.
GG: If it’s a lonely place, it’s also a unique place today. There’s nobody quite like the Darkness.
DH: Very true! Over all the years, and we’ve been going for twenty years now, and we’ve never had even a support band that have sounded anywhere near us! I’m not saying I want loads of bands to be doing loads of guitar solos and with like a power-falsetto vocalist but it would be great to have some bands who are more like Queen: who are willing to do something a bit more virtuoso!
GG: Yeah! It’s because it’s not that easy, is maybe one of the reasons!
DH: Maybe, maybe! I’m thinking it just hasn’t been cool to be virtuosic for a long time.
GG: Yes, that’s very true. But then, I suppose you’ve always got guys like Matt Bellamy from Muse: he’s out there doing it, isn’t he?
DH: Yeah, I’d say that’s the exception to it all. They have a format that works: they’re based more in electronics, but definitely yeah, those guys are probably just it.
At this point, Dan’s signal started breaking up. We said a somewhat glitchy goodbye and Dan presumably disappeared under the Thames into the Dartford tunnel.
The Darkness are touring this Winter. In an age of EDM, hip-hop and TV show-Pop, it’s really good to have these guys out making a glorious noise.
The Darkness’ new album ‘Easter is Cancelled’ is released on Oct 4th. Keep up with everything Darkness -related on their site. Their UK & European tour begins in November 25th. We’d like to thank Dan for his time and pleasant conversation. We’d also like to thank David Sullivan for all his helping in setting this interview up!