In 2003, The Darkness took a seat at the popular table. In a musical landscape dominated by identikit, leather jacket-wearing indie rockers trying their best to look like they woke up like this, The Darkness were a blast of fresh air. With their soaring vocal histrionics and bedazzled spandex, they borrowed ferociously from bands like Queen, Iron Maiden, and Thin Lizzy, but they took these influences and put them on an intergalactic spaceship jetting off to the new millennium. While shooting laser beams from their guitar heads. The Darkness were making an effort and the results were ridiculous fucking fun. Then the rock lifestyle clichés took hold—the drink, the drugs, the egos—and by 2007 the relationships were suffering, and consequently, so did the artistry. But then The Darkness did something that few disbanded groups manage with even a modicum: In 2011, they came back.
In 2015 the band released a new record, Last of Our Kind, their fourth full length. It’s not their first since troubles hit, but it’s most definitely their best. Written on Valentia Island, a wee spot off the coast of Ireland most famous for its cliffs and the first commercially viable transatlantic telegraph cable, it’s chock full of The Darkness’ signature riffs and smirk-inducing lyrics, and produced by guitarist Dan Hawkins. Last week the band dropped this sweet Christmas throwback single “I Am Santa”—which includes the line, “I’m so hungry for you this Christmas-time”—but on a recent Stateside jaunt we caught up with singer Justin Hawkins backstage at NYC’s Irving Plaza. Given the hurdles they’ve overcome and the mere fact that they’ve survived 15 years as a touring rock band, Noisey thought it pertinent to find out if Hawkins had any advice to offer today’s aspiring rock stars.
BAT AWAY THE CRITICISM. WHEN SOMEONE'S PISSING YOU OFF, LEAVE THE ROOM.
As we nestle into the backstage couches, we contemplate who would constitute a “modern rock star.” He warns me as soon as we sit down that everything he has to say is total nonsense, but I beg to differ. In the past, he’s made a clear distinction between rock and pop stars. “A rock star is chasing an emotion at the expense of everything, and risks everything in pursuit of a feeling and an existence that is completely at odds with what it means to be a pop star,” he told Yahoo Music. “A pop star is someone that does what they’re told.”
But what about Kanye West? Is he a modern rock star? “I think he’s a genius, I really do,” he says, perking up. “He’s completely audacious as a lyricist—utterly outrageous. If your existence as a performer is to challenge people, to make them talk—he does that. I like the more salacious rumors about him, about his sexuality and stuff like that. It really fascinates me that that’s even on the table, and he doesn’t bat it away like he does the criticisms of the fashion stuff that he does. As a persona, he’s really succeeded in making everyone sit up and take notice. It’s impossible to not have an opinion on him. That’s an achievement.”
A few feet away, his brother Dan is sitting quietly, playing on his phone. He chimes in, “Maybe people recognize something in him that they don’t like—like in the same way that people like David Koresh did things,” the guitarist says. It’s an odd comparison. “He would never encourage a suicide pact though, because then he wouldn’t sell any more records,” Justin points out. “His records make me want to kill myself," Dan retorts before exiting the room.
“Yeah, that happens,” Hawkins posits, “Sometimes I drink too much coffee and I speak too much and Dan disappears.”
BE ABOUT YOUR BUSINESS. OR BE BON JOVI.
C.C. DeVille [Poison’s guitarist] once not-so-famously said, “Belief in yourself should be the drug. Your confidence is what should really inspire you and keep you going and doing what you want to do.” That being said, Justin Hawkins has pretty famously gone through his own bout of drug abuse and rehab, so what should “The Drug” be for today’s aspiring rock stars?
“What provides a high? A crutch? A raison d’etre?” he considers. There’s a long pause. “Well, contrariness, really,” he begins, “That sort of rebellion—I think that’s why drugs have popped up in a lot of people’s careers. It’s rejecting what you’re supposed to do. It’s just rebellion isn’t it? Not getting a proper job, not dressing the way other people dress, rejecting normal things.”
The trouble is, these days it’s nearly impossible for rock musicians to earn a living solely from that rebellion. The key to longevity, he says, really is a three-part answer: “It’s difficult because the game is so fluid. The nature of it changes all the time. You’ve got three different types of existence really: you’ve got the studio/creative entity, you’ve got the touring machine, and then you also have to be business people. You have to run two different types of business too. Nobody actually knows how to, especially not people in bands. The only person that has successfully managed to do all that stuff is Mr. Jon Bon Jovi, and the reason why he’s done it is because he considers himself a businessman first, and all the other things second. The Darkness are terrible businessmen; we haven’t paid ourselves in years. We’re surviving on the income generated from our historical catalogue. If we hadn’t had hits, we’d all be under. We’d all be starving. Or I’d be working on a building site with my father, like I used to. You’ve either got to practice like a businessman or be ready to be rough clay.”
BREATHE, DRINK WATER, SLEEP. AVOID PEOPLE AND AVOCADOS
I ask Hawkins if there are any must-have tools for the trade. “I don’t really need anything,” he says. “Any must-have is a crutch isn’t it? If you have to rely on anything, then you’re fucked. There used to be manuals available, written by people who were successful in the music trade. There’s a guy, Tony Hatch, who wrote one about how to succeed. It was published in the 60s. He said that the first rule is you’ve all got to wear the same suit. Everybody in the band has to wear the same suit. If you think about it, it’s a good tip.”
And on the road, what keeps you sane? “Look around you,” Hawkins gestures around the fairly empty dressing room. “This is it. Air. Water. Sleep. Sleep is quite important. There might be a couple of avocados somewhere but they won’t get eaten.”
As for what young rockers should definitely avoid Hawkins had this to say: “That’s a very personal thing,” he says, “For me, it’s people. Avoid people at all costs. I say that with love... and respect, but I have very few guests [at shows]. Talking to people is draining.”
BE UNIQUE, BUCK TRENDS, BREAK THE MOLD.
Our conversation shifts when we start discussing the proliferation YouTube stars and social media abusers who believe stardom is measured in “likes.” It seems the waters have been muddied. In the past, successful rock stars were rewarded for being unique, but these days it’s hard for an artist stand out in the internet maelstrom.
“The people who turn their back on those things [YouTube, social media], like when Die Antwoord blew up, I really admired that. They didn’t do it through a social media network, they had their own website. People had to go and look at that. It was really unique. It’s one of the only things in recent years that really stood out to me.”
“Eric Nally, who sang in Foxy Shazam,” he continues. “He’s a good friend of mine, I’ve known him for years. I always thought he was this completely amazing, really unique performer. Every time [Foxy Shazam] got signed to a major, the label would try to homogenize him and get him to work with big name producers. For years, I could see Eric falling down the cracks. It was heartbreaking, really, because anything unique needs to have its own infrastructure. As soon as you try to play the game like everybody else, you lose something.”
ALWAYS APOLOGIZE TO YOUR BAND MATES EVEN IF YOU DON'T MEAN IT.
It’s hard to listen to The Darkness without wondering if Justin Hawkins is fucking with you. The band has always been known for its lyrical double entendres—one of their biggest hits, “Growing on Me,” sounds like a love song. Then you realize it’s actually about an STD. I bring up some of the lyrics on the latest record, Last of Our Kind and he assures me that opening track (and first single) “Barbarian” is quite literally a history lesson. There’s nothing hidden there. But after that, it’s all intentionally ambiguous. On the title track, hsings, “I’m honored to have served alongside men who inspire defiance.” This speaks just as easily to life in a rock band as it does to historical battle. Then there’s “Wheels of the Machine,” an only-slightly-veiled ode to relationships destroyed by the road.
But if you push him and ask if “Wheels of the Machine” is about any relationship in particular, he gives a wry laugh. “Oh, it’s definitely about being in a band,” he says, “The exact impact of being caught up in all this mess and what it does to your home life.”
It suddenly dawns on Justin that Dan hasn’t come back into the room for a while. He pops his head through the production office door and asks the band’s tour manager if he knows where his brother has gone. “I think he’s on the bus now,” the tour manager says. “Is it because of something I’ve done?” Justin asks with playful panic, “Can you text him and say that I’m sorry?”
SPEAK LOUDLY AND CARRY A SELFIE STICK BUT BE AWARE YOU ARE A VACUOUS MORON.
In this age of rampant self-aggrandizing, aspiring musicians leave themselves a long distance to fall. But Is there a benefit to the technologic landscape? Do we have to manage expectations? “I think computers are mostly a bad thing,” he says. “I suppose it’s like what television used to be. It doesn’t give you a very realistic impression of what the world is.”
But, in some ways, the internet is a reflection of actual life. The world really is becoming a mess of self-involved people who lack empathy and don’t understand how to interact with others… “Yeah, but people never did though. It seems like there are more stupid people in the world, but it’s not, it’s just that stupid people have now got computers.”
“The thing is,” he continues, “Before people had selfie-sticks, they were carrying mirrors, looking in their reflections.” I laugh. “They used to have mirrors, didn’t they? Or they’d pretend to look at their watch when they’re really checking their makeup... OK, I’m just making stuff up now. You know what I mean though. People aren’t more vain. Necessity is the mother of invention. People wanted selfie-sticks, so now they’ve got selfie-sticks. Supply and demand, it’s the same as anything. ‘At last, thank god for that!’ Somebody knew that everyone is a vacuous moron who wanted to have pictures of themselves.”
Last of our Kind is out now via Canary Dwarf Limited.
The Darkness are on Tour in the UK throughout December.
Follow Karen Ruttner on Twitter.