Famous Firsts: Justin Hawkins

He’s a bona fide rockstar with a catsuit fixation, but what music influenced Justin Hawkins in the early stages? Surprisingly there wasn’t any spandex involved…

What was the first album you ever bought? “My grandmother lived longer than I think she was expecting, and she had some kind of windfall because of some insurance thing. Or maybe she just cashed in her pension, I don’t know how it worked, but she found herself with some money to treat the family. I suppose I was about 11 years old, and I used the money she gave me to buy Raising Hell by Run DMC on cassette tape. I also bought a Philips ghetto blaster to listen to it on, and I used to walk around with the ghetto blaster on my shoulder listening to Run DMC. That’s how I cool I was!

“I really liked the whole album. Walk This Way, obviously. It’s Tricky is on there. I really like the title track as well because Rick Rubin plays a guitar part on there – a really sleazy guitar solo that goes on for ages. I listened to that album for a long time. It pushed me into the rock zone, and was different to other hip-hop albums at the time because it was a genuine half-rap/half-rock record. Then when I was about 13, Pump came out, and I got into Aerosmith in a big way after that. It had a profound effect on me, and I couldn’t stop listening to that album before I eventually went back and started listening to all their earlier stuff as well. But it all began with Raising Hell by Run DMC.”

What was the first single you ever bought? “It was Joe Dolce’s Shaddap You Face. I was six years old, and I used my first bit of pocket money to buy it. I think in the same month I also bought This Ole House by Shakin’ Stevens. You never forget those things. They were both 45” vinyl singles, and I’d go sit by the record player to listen to them. My family was always in to listening to music, so that was the beginning of a deluge of purchases. And Dan and I would swap records as well. I remember we both went to a record store in Halesworth, and I bought The Final Countdown by Europe and Dan bought Fore! by Huey Lewis & The News. So I had the Europe one and Dan had the Huey Lewis one, and then after a few months we swapped. They’re still really important albums to both of us. We should’ve bought two of each really.”

What was the first gig you ever went to? “I didn’t go to many gigs growing up because we didn’t have a lot of bands coming though our town. We were too remote. So you’d have to go to Norwich to see a show, and I think my first proper one was at the Norwich UEA where I saw Thunder. They were brilliant, and it obviously had an effect on me because I’m still playing a white Gibson Les Paul custom guitar like Luke Morley. But before I went to my first real gig I was already playing guitar and pursuing that path. My guitar teacher encouraged me very early on to make a decision and choose whether I wanted to pursue sports or music – it’s easy to fail at both if you don’t decide one. I thought I had a greater chance with music.”

What was the first gig you ever played? “It was August 2000 at the Barfly in Camden, back when it used to be called The Monarch. There were two other bands on after us, and we went on really early; around 7 o’clock. But we approached the gig as if we were playing Wembley. I was pulling all the – what would probably now be described as – trademark moves. And we had a friend that was working in the music industry and managing some cool bands at the time, and he was sort of sniffing around us for a minute there and wanting to get involved. He approached the band after the show and asked, ‘Does Justin always do that? Is he taking the piss or what?’ So the serious question was a factor from the first show, and we experienced a lot of resistance early on. But by the time we were famous we’d beaten all that.

“This was during a time when everybody in London wanted to be signed. It might not be like that now because of the way the music industry is, but in that day and age the ambition was to be signed to a record label so that you could tell people you were a professional musician. But we didn’t want to do that. We actually wanted to ignore the music industry and get our own live following, so that we’d be bulletproof. We wanted to put in the work and do it properly. And we developed a live following pretty quickly. The numbers were rising all the time, and we were selling stuff out as an unsigned and unheard of band in 200102 around London. In 2003, we were the first unsigned band to sell out the London Astoria.”

How was the first Darkness tour? “We did a lot of sporadic shows and spates of things, but the first time we had to actually get someone who was a designated guitar tech, and actually plot a course around the British Isles, and actually do it properly, would’ve been when we were on tour with The Wildhearts. And I’m eternally grateful to Ginger. He’s always been a great friend of the band and I think he saw something in us that a lot of people didn’t at the time, so he took us under his wing and he put us out there. And it wasn’t always a popular choice – with a band as cult-y and great as The Wildhearts the support band is always going to have a difficult time – but towards the end of that tour we’d actually made quite a lot of friends amongst their audience.

“I got to know Ginger really well during that period of time as well. I was so nervous about meeting him, because of knowing and loving his music so well from the ‘90s. And he was just a really nice guy. Watching the way they interacted as a band was really important too – both on stage and off. They were renowned for having drama and other troubles within the personnel, and watching the way they coped with it was really inspirational. There was always a lot going on; on stage, off stage, around the side of the stage, beneath the stage, backstage… there was always something. But Ginger always appeared to be an oasis of calm amongst all this madness, and seeing his coping strategies was really important.

“You learn a lot playing to an audience that isn’t interested in you as well. You gradually find ways in, and work out ways to try and ingratiate yourself to a disinterested crowd. And also you find out which songs work and which ones really don’t. You learn what to do, what not to do. You learn what to say, what not to say. It’s all a learning curve really. You’ve just got to be prepared to learn, that’s all. It was great to have that opportunity during that tour, and that was all down to Ginger.”

The Darkness’ new album Last of Our Kind is out now.

DJ, presenter, writer, photographer and podcaster Matt Stocks was a presenter on Kerrang! Radio before a year’s stint on the breakfast show at Team Rock Radio, where he also hosted a punk show and a talk show called Soundtrack Apocalypse. He then moved over to television, presenting on the Sony-owned UK channel Scuzz TV for three years, whilst writing regular features and reviews for Metal Hammer and Classic Rock magazine. He also wrote, produced and directed a feature-length documentary on Australian hard rock band Airbourne called It’s All For Rock ‘N’ Roll, and in 2017 launched his own podcast: Life in the Stocks. His first book, also called Life In The Stocks, was published in 2020. A second volume was published in April 2022.