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Justin Hawkins on flying helicopters, white tigers, and why rock is resting

Justin Hawkins
(Image credit: Will Ireland)

Justin Hawkins has experienced all the highs and lows that rock’n’roll has to offer. His band, The Darkness, were a Brit Award-winning early 00s phenomenon, unexpectedly selling more than three million copies of their debut album Permission To Land before imploding after followup One Way Ticket To Hell… And Back

Their second act has been significantly less combustible; exuberant new album Motorheart is their sixth since reuniting in 2011. The Norfolk-born Hawkins currently lives in rural Switzerland, from where he joins us via Zoom to look back on lessons he’s learned from two decades at the rock face. “It’s going to be quite short, then,” he says with a grin.

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You need an ego to be in a band

If you don’t have an ego, you’re not doing it right. But that can lead to problems, as we found out in the past. We saw it all explode once before, and the situations that could potentially lead to that still happen, but we’ve learned to avoid it exploding again. It just takes a little bit of understanding of each other, and of yourself as well. 

Communication is way better in The Darkness this time around. There’s less grudge-holding, less stewing on things, less sulking – we don’t pretend everything’s okay then have a massive fall-out any more. Maybe it’s age, but I think it’s really a case of once bitten, twice shy.


Lowestoft will forever be in my heart

I’ve always loved Lowestoft. If there was a way of having the opportunities that London afforded while still living in Lowestoft, I would have done it. I could imagine retiring there one day. The fact that it’s got a reputation of being a bit of a shitty town makes me love it even more. 

The beach has the softest sand imaginable, softer than you’ll get in more tropical climes. It’s been mashed up by the North Sea’s tumultuous wave patterns until it’s like flour. You just have to avoid the needles.


Swiss is a tough language to learn

I live in Switzerland now. I have the highest residency permit, but you have to learn the language to get full citizenship. How’s my Swiss? [Comedy Mittel-European accent] It’s nerd guud. I play football for an old man’s team here, so I’m picking stuff up, though most of the vocabulary I have is sports-related. Like I know if someone is running up behind me, because people will shout “Hintermann!”, which means ‘man behind’.


Going vegan was a doodle

I’ve been vegan for nine years. The tipping point was when my wife said: “We’re going vegan now.” To be honest, I was already nearly there. I used to be super fit back then, and the only thing I used to eat that was naughty in the vegan world was skinned, poached chicken breasts, so it wasn’t difficult. 

Sometimes I get this kind of fatigue, but I don’t think it’s to do with veganism. I have unusually low iron, I’m just below the level where they start doing infusions. They checked my blood and went: “This is really bad.” Then they went back and looked at older tests and it was: “Oh, it’s always been like this. Carry on as you were.”


Glasgow is a special place for The Darkness

It’s completely different to any other city on these islands. There’s never a better show on any tour. When we drive into Glasgow, the thing we say to each other is: “Welcome tae Glasgae!” We had this song on our new album, and we were like: “We need something that’s a bit like Welcome To The Jungle.” And we went: “Welcome Tae Glasgae!” 

We’re guaranteed not to get a bad reception there now, so maybe we need to think about writing a song for every city we’ve ever had a bad gig in. Actually, it’s really annoying we’ve only just come up with that idea now. It would have been so much better if we’d done it years ago.


Flying a helicopter takes finesse

The first thing I really wanted to be was a helicopter pilot. I wasn’t interested in the Scouts – I couldn’t see the point in being in a forest getting bitten by ticks. Plus helicopters were the thing in the eighties: [reels off ’copter-centric TV shows] Blue Thunder, Airwolf, TC from Magnum

I don’t have a helicopter licence, but I’ve got quite a few hours of flying experience. My friend gave me the best of advice. He saw me really attacking the joystick like I was playing a video simulator. He said: “Why are you grabbing it like it’s a navvy’s prick? Treat it delicately.”


If you're going out into the crowd on someone's shoulders, be careful

The first time I went out in the crowd on somebody’s shoulders was at the fourth or fifth Darkness show. Pedro [Ferreira, original Darkness soundman and producer] was physically perfect for the job of carrying me – he was so powerful he could have had me and [Darkness guitarist/Justin’s brother] Dan on his shoulders. 

But there were mishaps going out into the crowd. Well, I’d describe them less as mishaps, more as sexual assaults. People would finger your bumhole, trying to get stuff up there. It’s like: “What are you doing?!”


You find friends in the strangest of places

The main thing I remember about being at The Brits in 2004 was hanging out with the Black Eyed Peas. They’d weirdly become really good friends. The year before, their song Shut Up had stopped I Believe In A Thing Called Love being Number One, and when we met them they showed genuine remorse. We toured with them on the Big Day Out in Australia in early 2004, and I’d get up and do a solo on Let’s Get It Started. It was a brilliant relationship. They’re lovely people.


When it comes to stage props, dream big

I used to fantasise about having myself riding a white tiger frozen in formaldehyde after my demise, so it could be rolled in during my funeral ceremony. So when we had the opportunity to have a stage prop where I rode something, it had to be a white tiger. The first time we used it was at Nottingham Arena. 

The moment comes where I’m going out on the tiger, playing this big guitar solo, except the guitar wasn’t working. So I was just sitting on a giant white tiger, not really being able to play anything. When I got back and got my guitar working, we went back out, only backwards. People say: “‘Oh, you should get the tiger back.” No, you can’t quite do that in Rock City.


Success can make you lose sight of what you're doing

The whole reason we started The Darkness was out of defiance: “Nobody cares about what we’re doing, so fuck it, let’s do what we want to do.” But it became way bigger than we ever imagined, so the defiance changed colour a little bit. Instead of “We’re going to do this no matter what!” it became “Yeah, finally, motherfuckers!” 

Which was never the plan. There was a period where we were getting lots and lots of opportunities and it was not in our nature to turn anything down. It was snowballing, except we were rolling the snowball and getting caught up in it at the same time. We knew we should have stopped, but we just kept doing it.


The masked singer was a lonely experience

The normal rules don’t apply to The Darkness when it comes to stuff that’s a little bit humiliating. Anything that gets us out there is going to be considered. But doing The Masked Singer was lonely. You’re not allowed an entourage backstage, cos other people’s entourages might recognise yours and it would spoil the whole thing. 

So you go on your own, you put a mask on, you sing some songs, and that’s it. I didn’t take it too seriously. I wanted to be out the first or second week. If I’d stayed in any longer I would have missed my daughter’s birthday. Plus the night I was unmasked, my name was the most searched term on Google. It hasn’t been like that for a long time, let me tell you.


Acting is a lot less fun than it looks

I’ve done a couple of small things in films. I was Screaming Lord Sutch [in 2008 Joe Meek biopic Telstar]. When the director, Nick Moran, told me what he needed, it was, like: “Okay, I can do that, but you should really be asking Russell Brand.” And I could tell by his face that he had already asked Russell Brand! 

On set it was strange. There were all these people there, like James Corden, but nobody wanted to talk to me apart from Nick Moran. Ordinarily that would be fine – I don’t particularly want to talk to anybody else. But I didn’t really want to be there, and I wasn’t really enjoying it. I’d just spend hours staring at a plate of Viscounts, thinking: ‘Oh, I better not have one of those.”


Rock isn't dead, it's just idling

It’s always a bit dramatic when people say: “Rock is dead” or “Rock has lost its mojo”. It hasn’t. It generally has an idling mojo until something comes along and reinvigorates everything. It happened with Nirvana and, dare I say it, it happened with The Darkness. There’s that burst of interest, and then it goes back to its resting state. 

There’s been some stuff that’s been nearly exciting recently, but I find it hard to get into artists who only have one very specific influence – one particular album by one particular band. Just get another influence, mix it up. People used to say that The Darkness were like AC/DC and Queen. That’s two influences. Two is literally twice as good as one.


Embrace the ridiculous

Have I ever looked back and thought: “What the hell was I wearing?” Yeah – every single time. The best outfit I ever wore was a pair of flares that were so low-slung that my arse was hanging out the back all the time, combined with a little bolero jacket that was cut off above the nipples, with my name across the back in studs. And a matching tennis visor, obviously.


Life goals are critical

Frankie [Poullain, Darkness bassist] said something to me that’s actually become a life goal. He said: “You’re going to be the only guy who can wear a catsuit when he’s fifty.” I’m four years away now, and I’m still on course. I might balloon, I might lose a leg, but I’m still going to fucking wear that catsuit.

Mortorheart is out now. The Darkness tour The US in March and April 2022.

Dave Everley has been writing about and occasionally humming along to music since the early 90s. During that time, he has been Deputy Editor on Kerrang! and Classic Rock, Associate Editor on Q magazine and staff writer/tea boy on Raw, not necessarily in that order. He has written for Metal Hammer, Louder, Prog, the Observer, Select, Mojo, the Evening Standard and the totally legendary Ultrakill. He is still waiting for Billy Gibbons to send him a bottle of hot sauce he was promised several years ago.