The Darkness: Never Say Die

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When the giant, guitar-shaped cake emerges it takes several minutes to reach the stage. Not because of the enormity of the venue its intended recipient is playing tonight – Cork’s sweatily intimate Cyprus Avenue club – but because the dressing room from which the cake, and before it the band, came is a storage basement that can only be accessed through the audience, and a trio of roadies have to wade through the 300-strong crowd with the oversized confectionery raised above their heads.

Later on it will be eaten at an after-show party, laced with nothing stronger than coloured icing (vegan-friendly at that) and washed down (in the birthday boy’s case at least) with mineral water. No nubile young lovelies will jump out of it. It will remain in situ on the table rather than be ejected onto the street. And nary a morsel will end up used as a missile in a juvenile food fight or smeared over an obliging supermodel’s flesh./o:p

Happy 40th birthday, Justin Hawkins – you’ve come a long way./o:p

Ten years ago the scene might have been decidedly different. The Darkness had finished their most recent UK tour with three nights at Wembley Arena, and were recording the follow-up to Permission To Land with Queen producer Roy Thomas Baker, on a £1 million budget. Yet all was not well – the pressures that come with being in Britain’s most celebrated rock act were calling time on the 24-hour party, and the classic line-up of the band was about to splinter, as bassist Frankie Poullain would walk a few weeks later. Justin Hawkins was also well on the way down a slippery slope of alcohol and drug abuse that would end in rehab and his own exit from the band, and its split the following year. /o:p

“We were having the time of our lives,” Poullain shrugs, a decade on. /o:p

“And partying is in no way depressing,” adds Hawkins. “But it is exhausting.”/o:p

“Not that we’re expecting any sympathy,” says Poullain. “I’m just having to rationalise it. Partying for two years definitely fucks you up.”/o:p

As the three survivors from that period – Frankie, Justin and the singer’s younger brother, guitarist Dan Hawkins – sit around a table sipping tea (the four pints of Guinness poured for our photoshoot go all but untouched) in a Cork restaurant a few hours before tonight’s show, you get the feeling they’d probably rather be here than there, all things considered./o:p

With cockatoo-haired new drummer Emily Dolan Davies now in the line-up (for now, anyway) the visual dynamic of the band has also been refreshed. Whereas it always used to look like two incorrigible showmen (the elder Hawkins and Poullain) backed by two no-nonsense rockers who wished their bandmates would stop fannying around (the other Hawkins and original drummer Ed Graham), the quartet now resemble the quintessentially British pack of misfits they always were at heart./o:p

While the lanky, Afro’d Poullain is more dandy eccentric these days than the louche cartoon outlaw of the noughties, Dan Hawkins is impeccably dapper in pin-stripe, having aged offensively well for a man of 38 who lived through some decidedly high times. Justin, on the other hand, resembles an eccentric Hungarian professor parachuted in from renaissance Paris. He also may have suffered a serious head injury, judging by the way his noggin is swathed in a curious headdress (“It’s a cross between a turban and a hat. A twat?”). His face is now framed by thick horn-rimmed glasses, while his teeth look at first glance to be wasting away but are in fact clad in braces, which he claims have small shamrocks on in honour of St Patrick’s Day, a date he shares with his own birthday./o:p

“I was going to get them Bon Jovi’d – replaced with a sparkling new white set,” he explains, “but the dentist said I was grinding them with such powerful jaws that I would have cracked them. Sexual repression, apparently.”/o:p

The Darkness men may sometimes look a touch ravaged by the past decade’s challenges, but the snowballing resentments and bitter sarcasm that once seemed to chew at the edges of every other interview quote seem to have faded. They’re finishing each other’s sentences again, while new drummer Dolan Davies seems to have been welcomed in like an adopted sister. A former session musician, she has an impressively eclectic-looking CV to which The Darkness is a suitably unlikely addition. /o:p

“Who’ve I played with?” she says. “Cher Lloyd, Devlin, Bryan Ferry, Tricky… whoever would have me, really.”/o:p

Of course, there’s the question of Ed Graham’s departure. We’re duty-bound to ask: did he fall, did he jump or was he pushed?/o:p

Justin pauses. “Erm… depends whether you mean consciously or subconsciously. I think we all realised it had to happen but didn’t want to believe it. Unfortunately it was quite obvious that he didn’t have the ability or inclination to do his job properly and… didn’t want to be in The Darkness any more.”/o:p

Medical problems were mentioned. Is that a euphemism?/o:p

“No, he had some issues with osteonecrosis, which is a terrible thing for anyone to get but particularly a drummer,” says Justin. “He struggled with that over the years, and had both of his hips replaced, which makes it hard for him to do his job properly. I’m sure that situation was exacerbated by other things as well, but the long and short of it was that it wasn’t sustainable. I am talking in euphemisms but that’s all I can say. Sorry.”/o:p

Are you still on good terms? /o:p

There’s another pause. “Yeah,” says Justin, choosing his words carefully. “He’s still… [long pause]… part of the organisation… [pause]…in some ways, and that’s why it’s so hard to go into much detail about it.”/o:p

If we can attempt to fill in the gaps, it seems that lifestyle issues also played a part, with Graham’s previously documented fondness for a dram not exactly squaring with the cleaned-up, switched-on approach of The Darkness version 2.0. Whatever the truth of the matter, the choice of Dolan Davies to replace him was a typically idiosyncratic move./o:p

“We didn’t just want any boring old drummer,” Justin says. “So we toyed with the idea of getting this ninety-year-old guy in who we saw on the internet. Then there was this kid about six, but I found myself watching a YouTube video of him playing along to Metallica with his shirt off and I thought: ‘What am I doing?’/o:p

“We wanted it to be a challenge, and for it not to be blokey or laddish,” adds Poullain. We wanted someone to challenge us, and look at things differently.”/o:p

The injection of new blood might help explain why the new album, The Last Of Our Kind, seems to have a pronounced spring in its step. Compared with 2012’s downbeat, underwhelming comeback Hot Cakes, the new album a sparky, spunky affair. Speaking of which, it’s also largely stripped of the wince-inducing double entendres the band have sometimes specialised in, although it’s still shot through with the maverick originality they always had at their best, as well as further evidence that they write hard rock songs with a pop edge better than any other band of their generation. So what went right?/o:p

“My theory,” says Dan, “is that when someone hands you an Ivor Novello award for songwriting [for Songwriters Of The Year in 2004], you change your approach to the way you do things. You start thinking you’re a songwriter, and it just gets in there somehow. That was the case with the two albums that followed the first one. But with this I really wanted it to be written in the same way as the first album: the riff and the backing track has to stand up on its own and be exciting or we’re not working on it. And then at that point it’s a competition, where Justin’s fighting against the riff for something to beat it. And that’s the approach – from the riff upwards.”/o:p

The title of the album suggests a mixture of defiance and resignation in their attitude to this record. The defiance of a band who are determined to make their mark again, yet the resignation of people who realise that their career will always be measured against the almost freakish, firework blaze of success they experienced between 2003 and 2005./o:p

“The song The Last Of Our Kind was based on a bit from Hawk The Slayer,” Justin explains, referring to the critically disclaimed 80s swords-and-sorcery film, “which means a lot to Dan and I and is a bit of a metaphor for our musical careers. It’s the bit when the elf man, Crow, talks about being the last of his people going into battle, a case of win or lose for an entire civilisation. That’s what it feels like when you’re doing something you really believe in but you’re going to be subjected to all kinds of scrutiny. Our kind are our people. It’s for people who stuck by us.”/o:p

“The fans sing on it as well,” Poullain points out. “We got a choir of fans to record themselves singing along with the breakdown chorus.”/o:p

Justin: “A bit Brick In The Wall.”/o:p

Dan: “But much more out of tune.”/o:p

On the face of it the pressure should be on for The Darkness to come up with another hit if they are to prove that their re-formation amounted to more than a rather premature grab for a slice of the nostalgia circuit. But they attribute some of the new album’s charms to the fact that they were able to take a year off touring (in Justin’s case, getting married and having a child) and then record the album pressure-free in an inspiring setting. After an initial trip to Ibiza led to “a bunch of calypso songs”, they elected to repair to the island of Valentia off the coast of Ireland, freshly invigorated by a new label deal with Kobalt Music Services, a fast-rising publishing company whose business model is based on a partnership, offering retention of copyright and greater artistic control./o:p

“With the last record we were almost asked to write a certain type of song, which would be marketable,” says Dan. “Now we get to choose singles cos we think they’re awesome.”/o:p

Their band’s preference to do the fun thing rather than the commercially prudent option was evident in their decision to tour their last album as support act to Lady Gaga on her world tour. They admit this meant they weren’t available to promote Hot Cakes much over here, or make money from their own headline shows, but it “allowed us to play the sort of arenas we used to play, without the pressure, and just enjoy it”./o:p

They ended up playing only a couple of gigs a week and, newly health-focused, they often found themselves with ample free time. Goodbye ‘racket’, then, hello racket sports. “We got really good at tennis,” says Dan, “but crap at music.”/o:p

Meanwhile, witnessing Gaga and her circus reminded them of just what it takes to maintain that kind of mega-success./o:p

“We’d go to dinner, and she’d be photographed walking in. Once she sat down, instead of perusing the wine list she’d be flicking through the pap shots for one she liked so she could retweet it and ensure that was the one that got used.”/o:p

You don’t get the impression any of them would want a piece of that action. Conversely, you can’t imagine Gaga taking a year off any time soon. /o:p

“It was quite a brave move of us to shut up shop, just to write music and be inspired for a year,” Dan reckons. “Don’t know if we’ll be able to do it in future, but it’s been healthy to be able to do that rather than churning out a load of shit all the time.”/o:p

Geographically speaking, the four of them are further apart than ever, with Justin now living in Switzerland (“Not in tax exile,” he stresses. “I don’t earn enough money”), and only Dan is still based in East Anglia. But on this tour of small venues, designed to quietly get them back in the live saddle before a bigger UK tour later this year, they seem as thick as thieves again, with family members flying out to celebrate Justin’s 40th, and Frankie’s Cork-based brother having arranged a post-gig party with a surprise appearance from Justin’s wife. /o:p

Before the show, they’re all gathered round discussing the artwork for forthcoming singles, and it all seems impeccably democratic. But do they still have to tread carefully and not mention the war?/o:p

“No,” says Justin. “Because those were the kind of things that caused the problems in the first place. Now we’re a lot more open and more likely to talk about the war. Em was involved in some of the writing of the album at the back end, and she saw at first-hand how everything we do is pored over and argued for and against. But ten years ago that might have led to mass arguments and probably led to bitterness and resentments. Now it’s just part of us doing our job.”/o:p

“Everyone fights for what they believe in,” says Dolan Davies, “but in a good way.”/o:p

Within a few weeks, that statement will prove to be prophetically true – though not necessarily for the good of The Darkness – when Hawkwins announces that Dolan Davies has left the band./o:p

But that’s something to worry about in the future. Right now, The Darkness certainly seem to have rediscovered the sense of fun that was missing towards the back end of their original incarnation. On stage at Cyprus Avenue, a band whose exuberance has long outgrown stages this small bound through the hits with the stomping glee of an elephant on an ecstasy binge, and the set ends segueing from Dan and Justin’s histrionic soloing on I Believe In A Thing Called Love and Love On The Rocks into impromptu snatches of We Will Rock You and You’re The Voice, before the most impossibly over-cooked uber-crescendo of a 9,000-note ending this venue has ever witnessed. /o:p

The after-show proves to be an impeccably sedate affair, with the band members sharing a large table full of haute cuisine prepared by celebrity chef Seamus O’Connell, before a birthday cake in the shape of Justin’s iconic white Gibson Les Paul arrives from the venue. It’s not hard to pick up on the sense that The Darkness are a gang of mates once more, hatchets buried, old and wise enough not to make the same mistakes./o:p

“Are we still a gang? More of a tribe, I’d say,” says Justin. “There are scantily clad people in the caves preparing the feast we are bringing home to them, and children running around naked.”/o:p

Irrespective of how they describe themselves, The Darkness are happily rewriting the premature narrative that had them as victims of their own success. Could they be ready for the most unlikely rock resurrection since another hairy celebrity rolled away the stone? Okay, probably not. But they are making some damn good music in the attempt. The last of their kind? Hopefully not. And you’d certainly miss them if they weren’t here.

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“God knows, we’ve been through worse!”

Justin Hawkins on the suprise departure of drummer Emily Dolan Davies.

/o:p

On April 24, just over a month after Classic Rock joined The Darkness in Cork, Emily Dolan Davies announced she was leaving the band. “Sad to say our fantastic drummer Emily Dolan Davies is leaving for new projects, and so we part ways with fond farewells,” said her former colleagues in a statement./o:p

Given the air of optimism that surrounded the Irish shows, the news was a surprise. The drummer’s departure came just 48 hours before The Darkness were due to play a fanclub-only album launch show in central London. Classic Rock collared Justin Hawkins for a more detailed explanation. Was it musical differences? Personal disputes? Haircut issues?/o:p

“We’re all disappointed, including her,” he says, “because I think she enjoyed it, we think she’s great and a really nice person, and we really liked what she’d done on the album. But everything we’d done up to that point was leading up to agreeing personal terms, as they say in sport, and I think she wants to do a lot of other things besides The Darkness. Nothing serious and not much of an argument, really. It just became obvious that negotiations were grinding to a halt, and we couldn’t accede to her requests and she couldn’t accede to ours. She’s got a whole network of friends and things she wants to do that are very different to ours, really.” /o:p

Hawkins also hinted that Dolan Davies found life in The Darkness a little more chaotic and disorganised than what she’d been used to./o:p

“I think it’s quite a different experience to being a session player, when things are actually organised and, dare I say it, professional. But, frankly, it doesn’t really matter, does it? I mean, God knows, we’ve been through worse. Last night we had dinner together. It was funny because there were three of us at the table and then an empty chair, which was really poignant… heh heh! Maybe it was all going too well, do you know what I mean?”/o:p

As Classic Rock went to press, Rufus Taylor, son of Queen drummer Roger Taylor, was occupying the drum stool, although Hawkins was unsure whether he was a permanent choice./o:p

“We really need to have a proper conversation with him about what he expects from this,” says the singer. “He might just be doing it to help us out, or maybe he sees it as a long-term thing.”

Classic Rock 211: Features