It's 9 AM on a bright, frigid October morning in Greenwich, South East London, and a Thames Clipper river bus is floating gently down the water, past St John's Wharf, carrying a few dozen bemused commuters to Waterloo. At the front of the boat, with the skyscrapers of Canary Wharf glistening in the background, The Darkness, once Britain's biggest rock band, are playing "One Way Ticket." Justin Hawkins, the band's frontman, is dressed in a brown leather catsuit open down to his crotch, miming air bass, snarling a little, walking his fingers along with the beat about two inches to the right of his genitals.
When the song ends, Hawkins looks up at the dozen or so commuters that remain. A few people are taking videos on their phones, but just as many are sitting at the back of the boat, staring out the window, pretending that this isn't happening. Hawkins looks to the back of the floating venue, towards a barista behind the bar. "Is there any alcohol here?," he asks. "I've been sober for 11 years but…" A few nervous laughs. Right now, he says deadpan, he wouldn't mind a drink. "At least until the memory of this excruciating experience fades."
There are two ways of explaining why The Darkness have ended up here, on a commuter boat, early on a Friday morning. The short way of putting it is that the band's fifth studio album, Pinewood Smile, is out today, and this seemed like a good way of celebrating. The latest single from the album, "Southern Trains," is a dig at the mundane frustrations of travelling with a British railway company. An alternative mode of transport made sense.
The other way of putting it is that The Darkness – completed by Dan Hawkins on guitar, Frankie Poullain on bass, and Rufus Taylor on drums – are trying to return to the public consciousness on their own strange terms. A surprise show on a river bus is attention-grabby, silly, awkward, fun, and therefore perfectly suited to a band who have built a career by resurrecting, reshaping, and lovingly parodying the most ostentatious clichés of classic rock. They became bona fide rockstars after breaking out with their third single, "I Believe in a Thing Called Love," in 2003. Their debut album Permission to Land went to number 1 in the UK and then four times platinum. But, quickly, things fell apart. The band's second album, 2005's One Way Ticket To Hell… and Back, was a patchy affair that didn't sell nearly as well.
And while the Darkness were lovingly borrowing pieces from from their heroes – AC/DC riffs, Freddie Mercury poses, Def Leppard bombast – they'd also fallen into the familiar traps of rock stardom themselves. Hawkins left the band in 2006 and checked into rehab, later saying that he'd spent £150,000 on cocaine a year at the peak of their success. The remaining members of the band went on to start the more metallic Stone Gods and Hawkins made odd synth music as British Whale before they all got back together in 2011. But the band has never returned to its glory days.
The Darkness first broke out during the garage rock revival, when The Strokes, The White Stripes, and Kings of Leon were on the rise and emo was starting to dominate. In the context of all that sincerity, The Darkness were seen as a "joke" band – four men from the decidedly uncool town of Lowestoft in Suffolk who favoured spandex over leather jackets and falsetto over pained emotional candour. With the passing of time, that's only solidified.
When I meet Justin Hawkins at a cavernous East London bar in September, he's happy to talk about the band's highs and the self-sabotage – his own, mostly – that took them to their lows. He is gauntly handsome with his shaped goatee and high cheekbones, dressed all in black. If you were looking to cast the leading man for a playful BBC sitcom about Satan, you could do much worse than Justin Hawkins.
He's just finished off an interview with The Sun, the notorious British tabloid whose sister paper, The News of the World, shut down in 2011 amid admissions that they'd hacking the phones of celebrities, searching for dirt.
Hawkins, it turns out, was named in that investigation too, but he couldn't care less. "The police contacted me and asked me if I wanted to get any money for having been abused in that way," he says. "I didn't ask for the money because I just wouldn't be able to not talk about it. That would've been part of it, I'd have had to not say anything. I'd rather just talk about it because it's funny."
In fact, far from seeing that as a gross invasion of privacy, Hawkins revels in it. "It's an indication of how big we were, being at that peak. We want to be that big again. We want people to care about what we're doing. I want people to hack into my phone and listen to my shit messages from shit people."
In a word where bands spout platitudes, Hawkins's admission that he wants to be a rockstar again – a famous guy in a good band who gets his phone hacked – would ordinarily seem gauche. But there's no point in pretending otherwise. Long before The Darkness got started, Hawkins knew what he wanted. He remembers working an office job for a charity in 1999, a job he was forced into after being on unemployment benefits for too long. Hawkins talked about his musical aspirations to another guy who worked there, Kevin, who was training to be an accountant. "He said to me, 'Do you really see yourself as a star? Do you think you've got the charisma?' And I was like, 'No, actually I don't. Fuck. I don't.'"
It came as a revelation. "It was just that guy saying really that made me realize that, if he doesn't believe in me, how the fuck does anybody else? And the only way to really sell the idea of it is to change and just be it." Stardom, to Justin Hawkins, involved "method acting"; it's about playing the role until everyone sees it as fact. And if you dress for the job that you want, there's no better costume than a catsuit.
So when The Darkness did break through with Permission to Land, when they selling enough to finally be considered to have made it, the critical response to the band as a throw-away cut deep. "What used to annoy me was that the things I was taking really seriously, I would get accused of joking about, and vice-versa," he says. "I would say something so facetious that it would have to be a joke and they would be like, 'Look at him with his attitude.' But if I was playing a guitar solo that I was proud of it was, like, 'Come on a moment, he's joking.'"
The idea of The Darkness as a "joke," as far as Hawkins is concerned, is based on the perception that all music ought to be humourless: "Somebody decided what you can and can't laugh at. 'You're not supposed to enjoy it, it's supposed to be cathartic, it's supposed to be unloading your soul. It's not alright to smile with that type of thing.'" Humour and emotion, he says, shouldn't be split off. "They're supposed to all be emotional songs."
Hawkins has a system when he writes a Darkness song. Anything too weighty or self-serious is cut with some comedy. "If the music climbing up its own arse or becoming too serious, it's my obligation to pull it away from there and turn it into a Darkness thing by approaching it in the wrong way," he says.
Pinewood Smile is defined by that balance. Opener "Solid Gold" strings together stadium rock riffs with bold proclamations of genius: "We're gonna blow people's fucking heads off / Ooh, they're gonna shit themselves." There's "Why Don't the Beautiful Cry," a genuinely pretty ballad, that stays straight-faced until Hawkins extends the question: "Why don't the beautiful cry[...] Even if you poke them / Poke them in the eye."
The strangest of all is "Japanese Prisoner of Love," a song that starts out with a burly riff, speeds through its verses, and gives way to an absurd, acoustic chorus. It could have been too earnest, but Hawkins wasn't going to let that happen. He didn't want it to sound like "Metallica or Pantera or something like that." So he peppers it with realisation about the conditions in a POW camp. "I used to sit on a toilet, with a seat," for example.
"Japanese Prisoner of Love" probably won't turn The Darkness into rockstars again. Lyrics like "Solitarily confined / Taken by force from behind / By a surly white supremacist named Klaus" don't tend to top the Billboard charts. But while it's true that The Darkness remain unsuited for superstardom in 2017, Hawkins admits that he sabotaged their chances at lasting success a long time ago. " I think I've upset people who are too influential," he says.
There was the dispute with Glastonbury Festival, for one. After opening the Pyramid Stage in 2003, Hawkins says that the festival's founder, Michael Eavis, dismissed the band as a flash in the pan, declining to invite them back the next year. So The Darkness signed up to headline the next summer's Reading Festival. When it became clear that the band were still selling records, Glastonbury came back in and tried to book them. The Darkness refused. Eavis was upset.
"So he said that we were mercenary. He accused me of being mercenary," Hawkins says. "And I overreacted to that and I said that he was a cunt. It means that we'll never play at Glastonbury. But in fact, what I said was true." (Strangely, Hawkins is quoted at the time as caling Eavis a "cock," not a "cunt." Eavis denied that he'd ever turned the band down for the festival).
This is not the best way of guaranteeing longevity for your band. Hawkins knows that. A few years later, BBC Radio DJ Jo Wiley criticized Hawkins's solo album, in particular the tone of Hawkins's vocals. "And I was like, 'No that's how I sing, for fuck's sake.' And I said anyone that doesn't believe that has a smelly bum." It's still better than calling Michael Eavis a cunt, but it's not exactly sensible. "I thought I was being playful, but I never really heard from her again," he says.
There is one incident from the band's early years that Hawkins doesn't seem to regret though. In 2004, The Darkness toured Australia on the Big Day Out alongside Metallica, Muse, and, fittingly, The Strokes." That's another band that we upset," Hawkins says with a smile.
While on tour, somebody dredged up an interview with The Darkness in which they made "disparaging remarks" about The Strokes. So the New Yorkers went to The Darkness' dressing room to confront them. Things were smoothed over and, Hawkins tells me, they actually got on pretty well for a while. "And then another interview came out and was published while we were on the tour." It included a quote attributed to the band's then-drummer, Ed Graham, in which he called The Strokes' most recent album "appalling." When confronted about this again by The Strokes, Hawkins and the band tried to cover it up by claiming Ed was misquoted – they insisted that he'd actually called the album "appealing." Predictably, nobody bought it. "The funny thing about that was it was me that said it," Hawkins told me. "But it was Ed that got the blame for it."
This, I tell Hawkins, feels like a microcosm of The Darkness' career. Four oddly-dressed men from Suffolk, halfway around the world, annoying the trendy American kids, the ones that everyone saw as more authentic.
Hawkins doesn't pause before responding: "I mean, for me, authenticity is, when you're in a rock band, being able to play your fucking guitars for a start."
After a little more than an hour on the riverboat, The Darkness' set is coming to an end. There aren't many commuters left now – we've passed most of the major stops. But The Darkness are still in full flow. They close out their set with 'I Believe In a Thing Called Love," a showcase for everything that makes The Darkness worth listening to. It's showy, virtuosic, catchy, and pulled off with a ridiculous grin.
Before the boat pulls in under the London Eye, it turns 180 degrees on the river, sunlight streams into through the window, wind whips up off the Thames. Justin Hawkins stands in his leather catsuit, open down to his crotch, and plays a flawless solo, contorting his face in satisfaction, as his hair flies about his head and jumps about in the light. For a moment, Justin Hawkins looks like every perfect rockstar cliché that you could imagine. And he looks happy.
Alex Robert Ross is hellbent for denim and leather. Follow him on Twitter.