Songwriter Interviews

Justin Hawkins of The Darkness

by Greg Prato

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On their latest album, his tendency to fudge history in songs, and the right way to be daft.

Is rock dead? Alive? Hibernating? It seems like every few years (months?), this puzzling question arises once again. According to author David Hepworth, Kurt Cobain was the last rock star; in 2014, Gene Simmons declared, "Rock is finally dead." And listening to the top mainstream rock bands at the time I am typing this... you can certainly make an argument that rock artists have become extremely same-sounding, predictable, and quite safe.

Thankfully, The Darkness have come to the rescue, swooping in just in the nick of time to revive the sputtering corpse of rock and roll.

Armed with a dazzling array of V-cut jumpsuits and a shimmering falsetto, Justin Hawkins led The Darkness to glory with their first single, "I Believe In A Thing Called Love," which is still probably on your old iPod. They tallied up the hits in their native UK, but in America, radio stations weren't sure what to do with these guys - they didn't really fit on playlists alongside Puddle Of Mudd and Hoobastank. MTV had more clarity: They put the super-awesome "I Believe In A Thing Called Love" video in hot rotation.

The Darkness were big winners at the 2004 BRIT Awards, gathering gongs for Best British Group and Best British Album for their debut, Permission To Land. For their next album, they hired Queen producer Roy Thomas Baker and spent a year making mini-"Bohemian Rhapsody"s. Released in 2005, it could not save us from Nickelback.

Hawkins developed a substantial drug habit around this time and left the band in 2006. The next time we heard from The Darkness was in 2012 with their album Hot Cakes. They followed with albums in 2015 and 2017, which brings us to their latest, Easter Is Cancelled, with the rockin' lead-off single, "Rock And Roll Deserves To Die." It's more bombastic fun from these extremely hook-y rockers.

Justin spoke to Songfacts shortly before the album's release to explain why Easter is cancelled, why rock and roll deserves to die, and what it was like making the now-classic "I Believe in a Thing Called Love" video.
Greg Prato (Songfacts): What is the story behind the new album's title, Easter Is Cancelled?

Justin Hawkins: Last year, I was asked to compile a book of my lyrics and poems and musings - anecdotes. One of those stocking fillers for the ultimate Darkness fan. I didn't have time to do it, because we were working on the album - we had a couple of songs, and that was the beginning of the process, really. So I said, "I haven't got time for this, but perhaps we can do it next year." My manager suggested I write a little Easter poem, so I wrote an Easter poem, and it went, "Wishing you Easter pleasure that you cannot measure, boola boola, boola boola." I thought that "boola boola" bit would have a slightly Buddy Holly/'50s vibe to it. Kids love that. And then my manager shot back, "Easter is cancelled."

For me, that's an ideal starting point for the album title discussion. Up to then, "Rock And Roll Deserves To Die" was a potential album title, but it was a bit negative. Easter Is Cancelled, in a way, is positive - there's no need for the crucifixion. Which leads into a bit of the multiverse theory that everyone loves at the moment - especially me. It's one of my favorite things, the idea that there is a universe where I don't feel like slitting my wrists when I can't get the heating to work and I'm freezing my nuts off. In an alternative universe, there is a tank full of oil just waiting to permeate up through the floorboards and make me feel good about my life. So, that's what keeps me going: that somewhere, on another frequency or plane, life isn't shit. [Laughs]

I understand that there is some concern about the abhorrent misuse of religious iconography. Because of course, we're the first band that's ever done that. Nobody's ever played with that imagery before. And it's not my fault that I'm this buff. When I'm representing Christ the Savior... it's not my fault that I'm buff. I tried to cut back food, and some of the fat went and then the muscle ratio went through the roof. That's just the way I'm built.

Three of the four founding members are still with The Darkness: Hawkins, his brother Dan (guitar), and Frankie Poullain (bass). Their drummer these days is Rufus Tiger Taylor (far left in this photo), son of Queen's Roger Taylor.
Songfacts: What was the lyrical inspiration behind the song "Rock And Roll Deserves To Die"?

Hawkins: A lot of the album talks about history and the way we feel about our experiences. I remember when we first started, people were like, "Ah, rock and roll. At last, there is a band that has come to save rock and roll." And it always makes me laugh, because I think, "Rock and roll is the only genre that seems to need saving all the time." It's like terminally tied to the train tracks - a night train being driven by rap artists and jazz artists. You never hear the whole, "Who's going to save hip-hop?" None of them say that, do they? I always think, "If it's going to come precariously close to creative inertia - to the point where everything is completely retro and nothing exciting or challenging happens - then yes, the genre does deserve to die."

We saw a video of some shitty band, and that was my brother's actual words when he saw that. He got about a minute and a half into the video, and he said, "Well... rock and roll deserves to die." I thought that was a good way to start the process.

Songfacts: Memories of filming the video?

Hawkins: It was a bit of a rush, to be honest. I wrote a treatment for the idea of guitar amps being so loud that wigs come flying off, and then later, clothes come flying off. There is another song on the album called "In Another Life," and it's more of a power ballad. I thought it would be really funny to put a treatment like that on a power ballad. But then the label said, "We need a video next week for this other song." So I said, "Well, then just use the same treatment. Transplant - if you'll pardon the process of that word - the hair-themed video treatment into this." And then we had to do it in seven days. It was really a lot of time in a chair, having my scalp manipulated by a talented young lady. Hard work.

Songfacts: Judging from the video's final scene, did you catch a draft?

Hawkins: Or...did I emit one?

Songfacts: What about the song "Heart Explodes"?

Hawkins: That is a love unrequited, to the point where matters get taken into their own hands, and the whole thing falls apart. But it's partly about the freedom and the enjoyment of the new emotional freedom.

But I think it's also a lament, because for once, it isn't the protagonist's fault. It's not just relationship mismanagement, it's fate. There are a lot of things that are unsaid in that song, but alluded to - I don't really want to go into it, because some of it is a bit personal. It's a fairly direct expression of complete and utter despair with a little tinge of hope.

That's a Julio Iglesias T-shirt Justin is rocking

Songfacts: What inspired the song "Love Is Only a Feeling"?

Hawkins: I'm not sure if "Love Is Only a Feeling" you can really say is a specific relationship. It's more a hybrid recollection, drawn up of lots of internal dialogue on the subject of hearts and all that. When we wrote that one, I was thinking, "People always say that it's more than a feeling." It really isn't. It's just that: it's a feeling.

So, I wanted to express that, really. Because for me, that's enough. The way you feel is really essential to what frames your perception of a day or of an existence. I struggle with the idea that it can be any more than that... or is there?

Songfacts: What do you recall about filming of the second video for "I Believe In A Thing Called Love"?

Hawkins: When we first did it, we were just kind of running around with a camera, trying stuff out with a video director called Alex Smith, who is a friend of our stylist, who is someone we grew up with. So, it was just a way of him introducing himself to us and showing us how creative and cool he is. And we were trying to impress him.

It went really well. He stole a lot of the effects from Big Trouble In Little China. It was really cool. The original video was mostly shot in a market down the way from his. At one point, I was singing into a sausage.

And then we remade it, but with the full realization of what we were trying to put across, with genuine props and interiors that were built by carpenters, and monsters and the spaceship and everything. But the one thing that remained - the one prop that we kept from both shoots - was the sausage. The garlic sausage. Which probably by the third time we reshot it was really quite fizzy, I'd imagine.

But also, do you remember the old Doctor Who, with everything about Daleks and K9? Well, the guy who created K9 and a lot of the Doctor Who props and characters and puppets, his name is John Friedlander. But the guy who made the pterodactyl and the spaceship for us was Jim Friedlander, and that's his son. He was the son of the guy who created the Daleks, and he came and did our spaceship and beasts that you see in there. It was all real things - we didn't do any CGI stuff. We did old-fashioned, British science-fiction stuff.

Songfacts: Which Darkness song brings you the most joy?

Hawkins: There's a bonus track on the new album that has been kicking around for a long time, but we'd never gotten around to recording it until now. It's called "Sutton Hoo." What I enjoy the most about "Sutton Hoo" is, I thought it was an ancient burial site - which was an old ship buried near Woodbridge. I didn't bother to do any research - I just theorized why that place is there, and what happened. I was just pulling it out of my ass.

I went on to research the site and the archaeological significance of it, and found out that everything I had said was completely wrong. [Laughs] It really makes me laugh, because I thought I contributed to the folklore of the thing, and just ignored the facts.

I did a similar thing with "Black Shuck" that makes me laugh as well, because not any of that stuff is accurate or even researched. How can it be accurate - I was just making it up. But "Black Shuck" does run parallel with the legend. I wasn't too far off with "Black Shuck," because I was working from childhood memories of when we used to visit that place. They used to tell us about the scratch marks on the door, and that lightning struck a tree. As the legend goes, the church was attacked by a giant hellhound, and then it burnt to the ground and everybody died.

And then when you actually look at the records, there are some bits of the accounts of that fateful night - somebody saw a dog, some lightning struck the church, which caught fire, and then later they found a boy and a man dead in the graveyard, which might not be connected. They were probably struck by lightning or something like that, but not by a mythical hellhound with bloody red eyes. Probably. But we can't be sure.

Songfacts: What's the best lyric you've written?

Hawkins: Some of the most stupid stuff is the ones that people sing at you, and that always makes me smile. Things like, "My heart's in overdrive and you're behind the steering wheel" [from "I Believe In A Thing Called Love"]. That's just daft. But in the right way, it's not too stupid, and it's not clever-clever stupid. Just daft. And that's quite uplifting, I think. Or it makes people feel like they're part of something innocent and pure.

I think that's quite challenging actually, because being daft in the right way is very difficult. I've only done it well a couple of times. That's probably one of them.

September 11, 2019
Easter Is Cancelled is out October 4. For more Darkness, visit thedarknesslive.com.

Further reading:
Andrew Stockdale of Wolfmother
Satchel of Steel Panther
Lou Gramm
Joey Tempest of Europe
Gunnar Nelson
Long Live Queen: An Excerpt

photos: Simon Emmett

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