Q&A: The Darkness On Vikings, Music Media, And Nickelback + “Hammer & Tongs” (Stereogum Premiere)
Remember the Darkness? They caused a brief sensation in the music press in 2003, when their debut album, Permission To Land, was released. In the UK, it went to #1 and spawned five hit singles, including a Christmas song. In the US, the band was seen as a joke, because … well, mostly because of singer Justin Hawkins. While the actual songs on Permission To Land are crunching hard rock in the vein of AC/DC and very early Def Leppard, Hawkins’ persona was highly divisive. He tended to wear catsuits open to just above his pubes, and his voice frequently rocketed up into an almost cartoonish falsetto. This caused a lot of listeners to overlook the Malcolm Young-level crunch of his brother Dan’s guitar riffs, which were the secret best thing about the band.
Two of the Darkness’ singles — “I Believe In A Thing Called Love” and “Get Your Hands Off My Woman” — created enough of an impression in America that they at least came through on tour a time or two, but overall they were filed under “probably a joke/just another English hype job.” Thus, their second album, 2005’s One Way Ticket To Hell … And Back — produced by hard rock legend Roy Thomas Baker after negotiations with “Mutt” Lange fell through — landed on largely deaf ears here. In 2006, Justin Hawkins left the band, and both he and his brother formed new groups: Hot Leg and the Stone Gods, respectively.
Then, in 2011, the Darkness reunited, and the following year, their third album, Hot Cakes, came out. The songs were as catchy as ever; the band hadn’t lost a step. They went on tour with Lady Gaga in Europe and Africa, and headlined one of the stages at the 2012 Isle Of Wight Festival.
The band’s fourth album, Last Of Our Kind, is due out in June, and it’s their heaviest record to date. The most recent single, “Open Fire,” bears a remarkable resemblance to the Cult, and the one that preceded it, “Barbarian,” is about the Viking invasions of England, specifically shouting out Ragnar Lodbrok in the chorus — but apparently they’re not fans of the History Channel show Vikings.
We sat down with Justin and Dan Hawkins in the offices of their music publishing company to talk about the new record, their unfair reputation as a novelty band, (not) working with “Mutt” Lange, and more. We’re also premiering a new song from Last Of Our Kind called “Hammer & Tongs,” which you can listen to below.
STEREOGUM: There’s a lot of Viking imagery in the songs “Barbarian” and “Roaring Waters,” and “Barbarian” specifically mentions Ragnar. Are you fans of the show Vikings?
JUSTIN HAWKINS: Haven’t seen it. I downloaded it after we did the song, because I thought might be good to see how different their interpretation of the history is. Because that’s the first dramatization of history on the History Channel, isn’t it? So I thought it would be interesting. But I watched about five minutes of it, and couldn’t justify keeping it on the iPad when there’s Game Of Thrones. I’ve heard it’s really great; I didn’t give it enough of a chance.
STEREOGUM: It’s been a big boon to the Irish metal scene, because they hire all the local bands as extras. They say, “We’re filming a battle; we need 200 headbangers.”
JUSTIN HAWKINS: Well, that’s good that they’re getting some work.
STEREOGUM: “Roaring Waters” and “Mudslide” are both built around fairly AC/DC-ish riffs. Is that inevitable, when writing hard rock songs, at some point, you write an AC/DC riff?
DAN HAWKINS: Personally, I think “Roaring Waters” and “Mudslide” lean more towards Aerosmith, honestly. I mean, everything I play has shades of AC/DC in it, because the way I learned to play guitar was by listening to people, primarily Malcolm Young. The way he dampens his guitar with his right hand, I do the same thing, so it tends to sound like him. I don’t think that’s the case with every band, but they’re definitely a dominant force in the world of rock, that’s for sure. I think it’s because their stuff’s so simple.
STEREOGUM: Yeah, it’s like a lineage: Chuck Berry, Johnny Ramone, Malcolm Young — it’s all one thing.
DAN HAWKINS: I was gonna say, if you go back to Chuck Berry, and the Stones, and then add those two together, you get AC/DC in a way, and if you take AC/DC, you get us, and who knows what’ll happen next. Maybe there’ll be another band.
STEREOGUM: You produced the new record yourself, right?
DAN HAWKINS: Engineered it.
JUSTIN HAWKINS: I was executive producer. In a sort of advisory capacity. [laughs]
DAN HAWKINS: There was no executive producer.
STEREOGUM: How were the sessions run? Was it recorded live in a room, or was it, “Today we’re doing kick drum sounds”?
DAN HAWKINS: Well, when we were doing preproduction as a band, settling on the arrangements and the songs were being written … it was about getting to the point where, when we recorded it, it wasn’t a case of remembering it, it was a case of trying to find the magic take. During those rehearsal periods in the run-up, I was ducking out during breaks to go work on kick drum sounds, snare drum sounds. So I kind of got the drum sound up and running during that period. It was quite handy, ’cause in the studio, we had a rehearsal room where we were all together, routinely, and I had the drum kit and the guitars all set up in the studio, so I’d go back and forth. I’d get the sounds up separately, and then it was pretty much live, yeah. Emily was in a different room, and the rest of us were doing our parts in the control room, but we were playing together and a lot of those original guitar parts and bass parts stayed. The biggest challenge, personally, being in the band and engineering the album, was recording myself, because I’m completely detached for everyone else. I’m not in the band, I’m just a producer or an engineer. And then when it comes to my bits, I find it almost an inconvenience for me to have to play guitar at that point, ’cause I’m so not in that mode. So I end up kind of rushing my parts sometimes. I have to force myself to spend as much time on my bits as everyone else does — as I spend with everyone else on their parts.
STEREOGUM: The album title — Last Of Our Kind — what “kind” is that? It seems like traditional metal has made quite a comeback in the underground over the past few years; are you aware of younger bands working this style?
JUSTIN HAWKINS: But that’s the point. Why are they the underground? As a genre, it’s increasingly marginalized, and the bands are very often retrospective, in the sense that they’re not doing anything new with the genre. And those are exactly the kind of people who say, “The Darkness aren’t a real rock band cause they don’t do what that band used to do, which is what we do, ’cause we’re a real rock band!” It’s that attitude that’s part of the reason why that particular kind of rock is a dying breed, and it just annoys me to be honest.
STEREOGUM: Why do you think you you were called retro for your sound on earlier albums, when bands playing college rock straight from the late ’80s don’t get the same tag?
JUSTIN HAWKINS: And there were bands that were not just retro in the sense that they sounded a bit like — in our case, people always think of us as doing ’70s or ’80s rock — but there are bands criticizing us for being retro who were playing in exactly the style of a particular band in a particular album cycle of their career. And you can really pinpoint it and say, without that band, this other band wouldn’t have even thought of starting a band. Not just that they wouldn’t exist — their whole concept wouldn’t exist. Because it’s somebody else’s idea that they were doing. Obviously, that was insulting at the time, but that’s the world, isn’t it? When you’re doing something exciting, and are successful, people get excited about it.
STEREOGUM: Generally, is the UK media atmosphere bad for bands, encouraging high speed turnover and making it harder to have a career?
JUSTIN HAWKINS: Everyone’s got a theory about that, but my personal theory is the reason why that happens is the press is becoming less of a tastemaking force in the UK, so they’re really desperate to say, “This is the greatest thing ever — buy our magazine!” Next week, “This is the greatest thing ever!” They can’t put the same thing on every week, and they’ve got to shift magazines. They’re struggling because of the internet just as much as musicians, I suppose. Maybe more so. But I think it’s a good environment for bands, actually, because more of them get an opportunity. In fact, a lot of the bands that get that exposure are completely unworthy of it. But there is a fondness for music, even if it’s just the flavor of the week, and that’s a great thing. I wish the whole world was like that, really. I think people thought the internet was gonna make the whole world like that, and it’s still just England.
STEREOGUM: Does it make it more difficult to break out of the UK? Because I feel like there’s a certain amount of cynicism — “Oh, here’s the thing they’re pushing on us this month.”
DAN HAWKINS: We don’t see it from your side, really, and it’s interesting that you say that. I imagine it would be annoying, that everything that comes out of the UK is just hyped the fuck out of, isn’t it?
JUSTIN HAWKINS: And mostly shit.
DAN HAWKINS: But then, when something half decent does come through, and gets hyped, it’s all good, then, isn’t it? We were quite hyped at the time, when we slingshotted into America.
STEREOGUM: How much irony was there in your early presentation? Was the over-the-top showbiz aspect just a way to get attention in that UK media landscape? And did that hurt in the long run — irony being misunderstood as parody, and thus having a short shelf life/inbuilt ceiling?
DAN HAWKINS: I think it still is misunderstood as parody.
JUSTIN HAWKINS: I can remember the first time it became an issue, was when that guy who was a manager, who was in a major band …
DAN HAWKINS: Oh yeah, that twat.
JUSTIN HAWKINS: He said to Chris [McDougal], who was in the band very early, we were a five-piece with a second guitarist, and he was very pally with some people who were movers and shakers on the music scene, and one of them came to the first show and said, “Does Justin always do that stuff?” And he was like, “Yeah, that’s what he does.” And the response was, “So, is it serious?” That was the first show, before we had any sort of following. But I think there was a correlation between how much of that stuff I was doing and how many people were talking about us at that moment, rightly or wrongly, for whatever reason. Probably not for the best reasons. But it wasn’t something we did because of that.
DAN HAWKINS: No, this is the thing. I remember at the time, people thought we were some sort of industry thing, created by a label. But firstly, why the fuck would you do that? If you could create any rock band, why the fuck would you create us? It’s a fucking mess, isn’t it? We’re all completely different — have different attitudes. For the first two albums I just wore the same Thin Lizzy T-shirt and jeans, yet we’re supposed to be a hair metal band that wear spandex, according to various people. It’s just something that’s …
JUSTIN HAWKINS: People never got us, did they?
DAN HAWKINS: I still don’t get us. It’s just a weird mix of characters.
STEREOGUM: How much discussion goes into the group’s visual presentation? Is anyone in the band in charge of the whole group’s look?
DAN HAWKINS: We all ask each other’s opinions.
JUSTIN HAWKINS: Yeah, it’s like that “Does my ass look big in this” type of thing, that level of debate. “Does this look all right?” And the answer’s usually, “it’s not shiny enough,” or “It’s a bit small” …
DAN HAWKINS: “It’s a bit small for you” or “It’s not sparkly enough, you can’t see that from 300 yards away” … “There’s no way you’re going to extend that with that.”
JUSTIN HAWKINS: There was one time we came on tour in America and we thought, we’ll try to do the workingman thing, so we went to the Levi’s outlet store and we got white T-shirts, Levi’s 501s, little bandannas to pop in the back pocket — not because we’re into fisting, not a prison thing, but just something a bit Springsteen-y. We were aiming for a Bruce Springsteen, Bryan Adams workingman’s rock type thing. And then someone on the team said, “Wait a minute, the stuff you’re wearing on the street looks more outrageous than this. You can’t be serious.” Never wore it.
DAN HAWKINS: What were we thinking?
JUSTIN HAWKINS: So we do have to make the effort.
DAN HAWKINS: I wish there were a master plan, but it tends to be more like, someone makes a move — “I’ve got this” — that’s suitably outrageous enough for the rest of us to have to match it somehow or beat it. But I think people are surprised just how into the dressing-up box we are as a band, how seriously we take it. I think it’s one of the majorly fun parts of being in this band, is being able to take those elements seriously. It’s quite a laugh.
STEREOGUM: Justin, you’ve been writing for other artists, yes?
JUSTIN HAWKINS: Adam Lambert, Weezer, Meat Loaf, Foxy Shazam, and the guy that won American Idol last year, Caleb Johnson. I did his first single. That was another record-breaking composition, in that it was the first American Idol winner’s single not to chart. [laughs] I was delighted by the opportunity, but it was so funny because there ended up being a big stink, many angry phone calls from his label, because unbeknownst to me, someone in South Africa had already covered the song that he did, so in the end it was also the first American Idol single that wasn’t original. So that was unfortunate. But then all this money came through from the South African thing. I actually made more money on that than the American one.
STEREOGUM: How did you get into that, and what have you learned about songwriting from doing it?
JUSTIN HAWKINS: Well, Kobalt have been publishing me for a long time, and I had a couple of songs from when the Darkness wasn’t working that I just wrote, and I got a phone call from a guy called James Diener, who worked at Octone Records. He was working on the Adam Lambert record and he called and said, “Have you got anything knocking around?” cause he likes me, and he likes the Darkness, and he had a lot of writers preparing stuff for him. Everyone was excited about Adam Lambert, they thought he was unusually talented for somebody on that show, and everybody wanted to get a song in there. So I sent in a few things, and they really liked one of them. I suppose what I learned … I learned about what it’s like to be part of the hit machine. It felt like — ’cause I had to come around and work on Meat Loaf at the same time, coincidentally; that one song sort of made everything snowball, and suddenly I had a load of people who gave me gigs and stuff like that. But it was a bit like how I imagine it used to be in the ’50s. I was working at Rob Cavallo’s place for months on end, writing and playing a bit of guitar and doing backing vocals and working in writing camps and just watching how it unfolds. And it’s totally different to every other experience [I’ve had], cause it was always the same. There’s all the amps set up, and there’s microphones that are on axis and off axis, and they just go through this set group of options; everything’s tuned by the same guy somewhere else. It felt like — I don’t know how to describe it politely and kindly, cause it was a great experience, but it wasn’t for me. It didn’t feel like — I didn’t feel like any of the songs I wrote sounded the way I wanted them to, at the end of it. I haven’t actually heard the Weezer one yet, so I don’t know if that’s different. I’ve been in a situation where I’ve been working with somebody, and it’s for someone else, so what they do is they listen to their stuff and they’re using a machine to sort of check out the tempo, or it’ll be, “Yeah, we want something that’s a bit like this song.” “Oh, OK, let’s listen to that song.” There’s nothing natural about it, nothing real. But I did work with somebody who I was astounded by how pure and honest the songwriting was, and that was Linda Perry. She’s fucking amazing. That woman is just, in my opinion, a genius. She dismisses anything that’s contrived, anything that’s cynical — she’s worked on a lot of big pop stuff, but she comes at it from a place of real honesty. I was really impressed by her. I actually think she’d be a good match for the Darkness, in a production or co-writing role or something like that. She’s really fantastic. But there’s a lot of stuff out there that isn’t.
DAN HAWKINS: We’re not brought up that way, are we? We would never listen to something and then try to copy it. It would just be like, this is so pointless, isn’t it? How unrewarding would it be to just copy something exactly and then …
JUSTIN HAWKINS: But the people who do that, you’re talking about some of the most wealthy and successful people in the music industry. But I’d rather not be successful than do that, cause there’s nothing exciting about that, is there?
STEREOGUM: I’ve heard there’s a story about you and Mutt Lange — you wanted to work with him, right?
JUSTIN HAWKINS: We had a dinner with him, and I think it was second-album time. He was somebody we wanted to talk to, Roy Thomas Baker was somebody we wanted to talk to, I think we would have taken a dinner with Rick Rubin if there had been one on offer. We were asking around, and obviously we were asking the biggest and best people. He’s made loads of albums that we love, and Roy Thomas Baker has as well, so it was between those guys, really.
STEREOGUM: So what happened that it didn’t come together?
JUSTIN HAWKINS: Nothing dramatic, really. He had some concerns about how I would be perceived. He said to our manager that — I think he thought that I was gay, and that that might be challenging for certain markets. That’s not to say that he’s homophobic, ’cause I don’t think he is at all, just that it was something that was mentioned at the time. Which put me off a little bit. I mean, I still love his work, but that’s missing the point of it a bit. I feel like there was another issue as well, wasn’t there? To do with the actual writing or something?
DAN HAWKINS: There were a couple of things. There was — well, I wasn’t totally OK with the fact that he’s one of those producers that takes 25 percent of the publishing for any song he works on, whether he contributes any songwriting or not. Chances are he probably would, but right off it’s down in writing.
JUSTIN HAWKINS: To say something like that, without hearing any of the material …
DAN HAWKINS: Yeah, but I’ve since realized that’s just what he does, and that’s it. And over time, I think I’ve mellowed on that point.
JUSTIN HAWKINS: I would love to have the opportunity come up again. ‘Cause I still think his stuff is probably the most timeless, you know what I mean? I mean, I even really enjoyed his Nickelback stuff.
STEREOGUM: It’s interesting you mention that. He’s working on the new Muse record, and a friend of mine, another writer, got really excited about that, and my response was, honestly, what’s he done in the last 20 years? It’s been Shania Twain, Bryan Adams, Nickelback and Maroon 5 — he’s not the Mutt Lange of 1980-84.
JUSTIN HAWKINS: But his approach is different to the other guys those bands work with normally. Because I actually got a bit friendly with Nickelback for a while there, at the time when they first started recording with him, and they said they were essentially a grid rock band. Everything had to be perfect, for most of their recordings. But when they were working with him, he was making the vocals slightly off, deliberately, and some of the contrivances he used were in the name of making the band sound more human. I think that’s quite admirable, actually, cause if you’re too perfect, who wants to hear that?
DAN HAWKINS: We’d love to work with someone of that caliber. As far as producing the band, I love doing it, but I’m also keen to learn from the masters. But anyone under that caliber, I really couldn’t give a fuck about, I’ll just do it myself. And if you look at the bands he has worked with in the last 20 years, they’re not really to be sniffed at, when you look at how many albums they’ve sold. And that’s all he ever went out to do, was sell millions of albums.
JUSTIN HAWKINS: Yeah, the hit machine. That’s the only reason why he was concerned about my sexuality, was because he thought it was some skeleton in the cupboard that would diminish our chances of being successful in the most important territories in the world. So why would he bother?
DAN HAWKINS: Why would he waste his time with something that was flawed in that sense? Which, I guess, we are. [laughs]
Last Of Our Kind is 6/2. out Pre-order it here.