Judith Dornan speaks to the Darkness...
The Darkness singer Justin Hawkins is not happy. “Did somebody just ask if we were a joke band? How dare they?”
While interviewing Justin’s brother Dan, whose guitar orchestrates Justin’s outrageous frontman antics in the Spandex revivalists who shot to fame in 2003 with Numberr One smash debut album, Permission to Land, I dared to suggest their band may be a little .. tongue in cheek.
It’s a step too far for the Lowestoft-born vocalist. He wrenches the phone from his brother’s hand. “Hello, who is this?! You have the audacity to ask us if we’re a joke band? ”
Loud laughter from the rest of the band suggests this diva strop may not be entirely serious. But The Darkness represent a strange dichotomy when it comes to being serious.
Behind the attention grabbing Spandex, the stage entrances riding a giant pair of breasts and the Christmas single endowed with rather un-Christmassy double entendres, The Darkness take themselves very seriously.
Dan and Justin remember playing around with instruments aged three or four. Dan laughs: “It was as early as we could talk really.
“It was just horrific noises - then one of us bashing the other round the head with a guitar because they wanted a turn. But we were really hooked by age eight. I got my first drum kit - which I saved up for myself and did paper rounds for!”
The die was cast when their mum one day decided to buy her sons “something to keep us quiet.”
Dan recalls: “We were allowed to buy a cassette album each. It was a really big deal for us because we’d never had a record before.
“The two albums on sale were Europe, The Final Countdown, and Huey Lewis and the News IV. And to this day, because we swapped them over so many times, we just can’t remember who chose what. But we were both massively into those.”
As their musical obsession grew, they branched out into Queen, Thin Lizzy, Pink Floyd. And when, having left school and “moved to London to seek fame and fortune”, they first became The Darkness, despite the outrageous accoutrements, they were deadly serious. Dan remembers: “We would book writing sessions. We rehearsed a lot and we booked a lot of time just around the table with a guitar.”
But in their early days, playing hipster pubs in Camden, they were often perceived as a joke.
But critics couldn’t deter the fans, won over by the passion and professionalism to the point that the Darkness performed a prestigious Carling Homecoming gig at the famous London Astoria before they even signed a record deal.
Dan says: “People wouldn’t take us seriously because they felt maybe threatened by it or they couldn’t really pigeonhole it. “How do you market this sort of thing?”
“But our aim was never to really care what people thought, but just to build a fanbase. People who get the band understand where we’re coming from, come to the shows and just have a great time - that’s all we ever wanted.”
Even the writing of what became their ticket to success, I Believe In A Thing Called Love, was approached in businesslike fashion. Dan says: “We wanted to have massive hits - and that’s why we wrote that song!
“The intention was to write something really direct, the most over the top song we could possibly write. Something just totally ridiculous really.”
But Dan didn’t immediately spot its potential. He admits: “I didn’t take that song very...” he falters over the word “seriously”, then continues, grinning: “Well, I didn’t take that song seriously as a contender for even a single.
“I just thought, well, it’s a laugh, it’ll disappear after a couple of weeks and we’ll get something else more rocking in there.....then 10 years later, haha!”
“It was quite a surprise... a nice surprise. We always wanted to be successful. Every band that has ever formed wants to be as big as they can possibly be and they’re lying if they say they’re not.”
Dan admits the runaway success of Permission to Land led them astray. He says: “It’s hard to say no when you’ve spent 10 years toiling, throwing any education you may have had away and dedicating your life to rock and roll.
“So, when you suddenly get an opportunity to actually do it, you just say yes to absolutely everything because you’re so scared that it might just evaporate.
“So we said yes to virtually everything - unfortunately including drink and drugs!
“I was 27 before I even earned a penny from music and I left school when I was 16 and moved to London. So you’re not about to say no, when the record company says we think you should back into the studio write an album and record it within six months...
“We should have been strong and said, no, if you want a decent album, you have to spend at least this amount of time writing. But we didn’t.”
Despite enlisting Queen producer Roy Thomas Baker, the follow up, One Way Ticket to Hell and Back, became their nadir.
Justin disappeared to rehab in August 2006, announcing his decision to leave The Darkness when he returned.
Dan won’t discuss his brother’s problems, saying awkwardly: “That’s a personal thing for him - that’s his journey. Everyone had their own issues and problems and that was just one of them. All of them as serious. It had all got to ridiculous excesses. It all just had to stop.”
The singer formed his own band, Hotleg, and also scored a hit with a cover of Sparks’s tune, This Town Ain’t Big Enough For the Both of Us, while the others reinvented themselves as rock band, Stone Gods.
Dan insists this was a good time, giving him freedom and allowing him his first chance at producing. He says: “It didn’t feel as much like wilderness years as some people tend to think.
“When the band split up, I don’t think I drank for six months, I gave up smoking and did God knows how many detox diets - and just hit that reset switch - which I always maintained we should have done around the time of the second album.
“It was as much of an admission that the whole thing needed to just stop really. It had become a bit poisonous for us.”
But the lure of The Darkness remained - and the seeds of reunion were sown one day about four years ago when Dan found himself in London with a few hours to kill.
He says: “I thought, let’s go and see Justin. I phoned him up and he said, ‘Yeah, come round,’ and within an hour, we’d played some computer games - and written a song!
“And that was the beginning of it all again. There was no dramatic reunion, no Spinal Tap-like thing. It was just like, yeah, we should do this again. This will be a laugh.”
These days, they don’t drink on tour - although the crew are allowed a “few ales - it’s not like that Aerosmith atmosphere of “drink and you’re fired” because that’s how far over it we are.”
And it’s all working well again. “It’s a riot every night. Justin’s on the best form he’s ever been. He’s completely unhinged, totally fearless of the audience and you don’t have a clue what he’s going to do next - which is good AND bad!”
The Darkness play 53 Degrees on Sunday December 1. Some tickets are still available.