This interview was conducted to mark the 300th issue of Classic Rock magazine, which launched in 1998. The anniversary issue is available to purchase online (opens in new tab), and also features interviews with Ozzy Osbourne, Gene Simmons, Def Leppard, Alice Cooper, Geddy Lee, Rick Nielsen, Slash and many more.
Back in 1998, Justin Hawkins had no idea that his soon-to-be band The Darkness would be the first new group to grace our front cover.
With their 2003 debut Permission To Land – and a generous supply of cat suits – they brought classic rock to mainstream audiences in a way that almost no one else has done since.
Their wild days of the early 2000s are in the past, but the band haven’t stopped creating nuggets of rock perfection, most recently with Motorheart. But will they help make Hawkins’s dreams of becoming king of his own castle come true?
What were you doing with your life in 1998, when we launched?
I was doing advert music, a few bits for movies. I nearly got this one thing, one of those magical gender-swap films and suddenly they’re their mum or something like that. I had to write and interpret a song in a feminine and in a masculine way. I did pretty well, but the person that beat me was Hans Zimmer.
What were your highlights from those two years of promoting the first Darkness album?
Reading Festival was a dream come true. That was the festival I used to go to when I was a kid. I saved up for it even when I was unemployed. But the biggest highlight had to be winning an Ivor Novello Award for songwriting. We had our parents there and everything. It was mental. There were paparazzi photographers outside and the lights were blinding. We were trying to get in the van, and we sped off as quickly as possible, but we’d left our parents behind so we had to go back and get them.
Have you still got your old props? Is the white tiger still around?
No, it got sold off. I love doing theatre shows, but when you get to the next level, arenas, you’re very reliant on the production to create magic moments. You have to be careful where you’re standing so you don’t get blown up by pyro. And watch what you eat in case the rigging doesn’t hold your weight when you’re trying to fly. But it’s a totally different experience. You need to spice it up with things people are gonna remember. Wembley is a horrible sterile room if you don’t pull out all the stops.
You had a huge mainstream audience for Permission To Land.
I was surprised, shocked, startled. This is my first band as a singer. The kind of music we were playing was us going: “Well, fuck it, if we’re not going to make it we might as well be playing music that we actually enjoy instead of trying to do this fucking indie stuff that everybody’s listening to.”
We were on television all the time – on Top Of The Pops and CD:UK, which was for kids. So we crossed over because very young people were listening to it too. I think it’s just because we didn’t really say no to anything. My dad was a builder – it’s always: you get an opportunity to do work, you do it. We were working every day for a year and a half. It was a bit difficult on the liver, but it ended up with opportunities like that.
How do you think you’ve dealt with success?
My lawyer once said you have to protect yourself from failure, but also from success. Those are words to live by, in every aspect of the musical or artistic existence, because it’s quite traumatic. Everybody wants a piece of you, and people think they know who you are. That takes a lot of adjusting to. Without the right guidance it can really fuck you up. Which is what happened to me.
So you felt really ready for it when you came back to The Darkness after a few years away?
I would say that we’ve rushed it a bit. We were making a record, and just getting used to the relationships again. Those are relationships that have a lot of strain put upon them.
Are you happy with your life at the moment?
Every day you experience a myriad different emotions. When we’re together, we’re getting on really well. The last tour we were probably more in each other’s faces than usual. We ended up talking about buying a massive castle together. Whenever we do interviews, journalists will come on a little bus ride, and then the drawbridge will go up. And within the walls of Castle Darkness will be social activities, and then we’ll let them go at the end. Or if you don’t want to do an interview, you pull the drawbridge up and throw boiling-hot oil over the side.
What advice would you give to your 1998 self?
Stop smoking. Go to the gym. What I know about 1998 me is that I wouldn’t have listened. I never used to plan anything. It was actually a really good carefree existence in 1998. I was living in a bedsit in Belsize Park. It was cheap, cheerful. Everything was in one room, including my studio. I was quite happy.
Can you remember seeing in the millennium?
Yes, I was with my brother at my auntie’s pub, and I did a little dance to Bohemian Rhapsody. And then my brother said I should be the singer of the band.
What are your hopes for the next decade?
There’s some more Darkness albums to be done. At least three in that time, I would say. Every time we make an album we should be proud of it, and that means lavishing time and attention and chasing every idea. I can’t see the point in doing something that isn’t amazing. If we don’t think it’s amazing, who the fuck else is going to think is amazing?
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