Darkness on the Edge

For somebody who wears a catsuit and sings heavy metal power ballads, Justin Hawkins has a surprising distrust of cliché. “Less is more? That’s bollocks,” he says. “More is more. That’s why it’s called ‘more.’ If it was actually less, it’d be called ‘less.'”

That nothing-exceeds-like-excess philosophy has served Hawkins’ band, The Darkness, well: their debut album, Permission to Land, went gold in the United States and has sold over three million copies worldwide. The record combined the most anthemic aspects of Queen, AC/DC, and every other Monster of Rock that ever inspired mullet haircuts or vomiting in the parking lot outside an arena show. Topping it off was Hawkins’ insane falsetto yowl, which made lyrics like “get your hands off my woman, motherfucker” sound like messages from a Biblical prophet.

The band came on as excessively as a real-world Spinal Tap: Hawkins did splits onstage, while the video for “Love Is Only a Feeling” featured a pterodactyl humping a spaceship. Despite all the evidence to the contrary, the Darkness insisted they weren’t a parody band a la Tenacious D: they were just making the type of rock music they loved best. Sure, “Growing on Me” might be about genital warts, but didn’t Queen already scale the heights of absurdity with “Scaramouche, Scaramouche, will you do the fandango?”

Hawkins feigns astonishment at the suggestion that people might think of the band as a comedy act: “If people think it’s a joke, then they’re laughing at us.” His face contorts, as if he’s about to cry. “And that’s awful, isn’t it? We just sold three and a half million records to people who are laughing in our faces!” Turning more serious, Hawkins says, “We used to get more feverish about this debate, but there’s no point in arguing about it. You either enjoy it or you don’t, and you enjoy it for whatever reason. I don’t glean any enjoyment from watching a Coldplay video, because the music is dour and doesn’t touch me in any way.”

So it shouldn’t be any surprise that on their second album, One Way Ticket to Hell… and Back, the Darkness don’t back down. The sound is even bigger, thanks to producer Roy Thomas Baker (most famous for his work with Queen). The falsetto screeches are more intense. And the subject matter is even more ludicrous: witness “Bald,” where a huge Aerosmith-style riff is married to lyrics about male pattern baldness and “diabolical” is rhymed with “follicle.” Hawkins says, “It’s basically a five-and-a-half-minute attempt to do cock rock about losing your virility.”

Hawkins muses, “My favorite catchphrase is ‘If something’s worth doing, it’s worth overdoing.’ Even subtlety. If you’re going to be subtle, you should really fucking be subtle.”

The Darkness have chosen the location for today’s interview: a boat on the Thames, the central river in London. Hawkins is joined by his younger brother Dan (guitar), Ed Graham (drums), and Richie Edwards (bass). They lounge about, drinking bottle after bottle of red wine, floating down the river, reflecting on how much their lives have changed in two short years. All of them are chatty, but when Justin begins a monologue, as he often does, they get out of his way and enjoy the show.

Clowning around for a photographer, Justin puts a life preserver around his waist. It’s a good sight gag. But more is more, so pretty soon he’s also dragging around a deck chair and hoisting two oversized buoys over his shoulder.

Justin, born March 17, 1975, grew up in Lowestoft, a tourist town on England’s east coast. At school, he’d tell people, “I’m Justin Hawkins and I’m going to be a rock ‘n’ roll star.” Since he would also show up for classes wearing his underwear on the outside of his clothing, nobody paid too much attention. He and Dan played in a sequence of bands; Justin was the lead guitarist, never the singer—although offstage, he would sometimes tackle Mariah Carey’s octaves-spanning “Visions of Love” for a laugh.

By 1999, Dan was doing session work for people like Natalie Imbruglia while Justin had an advertising job writing jingles for clients such as Ikea. Technically, they were professional musicians, but they knew they weren’t living the dream. On New Year’s Eve 1999, the Hawkins family gathered at a pub owned by Justin and Dan’s aunt. There was a karaoke machine; Justin selected “Bohemian Rhapsody” and performed it bare-chested, doing interpretive dance all the while.

Caught in a landslide, Dan convinced Justin to start another band with him in the new millennium, with the emphasis on hard rock and fun. They recruited Graham and bassist Frankie Poullain, and named the group The Darkness after Graham’s periodic black moods. Early songs included a number about a Satanic gazelle; one early show was attended only by the three workmen who had built the club’s new stage, plus their wives. “It was like they were blind,” Dan remembers. “They were listening, but they were watching the stage, not us.”

Justin found this state of affairs intolerable. “So I ran over to this pole and tried to do some racy pole dancing, but I’m being totally ignored. So I walk along the bar, jumped off that, and broke my hand.” Hawkins looks a bit like a ferret that’s convinced himself he’s Robert Plant, but onstage, he has so much confidence, he pulls off the sex-god act. “I know I have a selective appeal in terms of the way I look,” he admits, paraphrasing Spinal Tap.

One manager saw them and gave Justin his card, although he was puzzled by the onstage headstands and high-kicks. “What are you doing with those moves?” he asked. “Maybe you’d like to come around the office and explain it to me.” The Darkness were ultimately managed by Sue Townsend; she and Justin began a romance that they kept secret from the rest of the band for years, and now have a common-law marriage and a daughter.

Some rejected titles for the Darkness’ debut album: Women Who Exaggerate, Death in Both Ears, and Thank You, This Will Suffice for Me, Now If You Please Some Sex for My Friend. The Darkness had always behaved like an arena band, even when there were five people in the audience; after they released Permission to Land in 2003, they actually got to play before thousands of people. Although a steady diet of the Darkness can jangle your nerves and make your dog howl in the night, they soon proved that taken four minutes at a time, they were possibly the greatest band in the world. Speaking of their hit “I Believe in a Thing Called Love,” Justin said, “It’s pure, unadulterated, noncryptic, lowest-common-denominator, catchy-as-fuck rock, and you can sing along with it.”

This May, the band sacked bassist Poullain. “He was a prick,” Hawkins says. “In order for it to be an enjoyable experience again, he had to go.” The replacement was Edwards, Dan’s guitar tech.

“There’s not a great deal of middle ground with the Darkness,” Edwards observes. “People either love them or really don’t like them.”

Us,” Dan gently reminds him. “You’re in the band now.”

Before starting their second album, the Darkness took a month off. Dan reasoned that normal people have hobbies and bought himself a telescope. Graham temporarily gave up drinking for health reasons and found himself with a lot of extra time. Much to the astonishment of his bandmates, he took up pottery. “The [management] office is in our house, so I never really get to escape from it,” Justin says. “People will shout up the stairs: ‘Hey, can you do a phoner?’ ‘Will you approve this photograph?'” He looks indignant on his own behalf. “I’m trying to have a wank!”

Before picking Roy Thomas Baker to produce the new album, the Darkness considered many of the big names of classic-rock knob-twiddling. “I think Rick Rubin produced the best Cult album, where he made them sound like AC/DC,” Justin says. “But then, when he produced AC/DC, he cocked it up and made them sound like the Cult.”

Bob Ezrin (of Pink Floyd fame) produced the band’s pun-filled Christmas single, “Christmas Time (Don’t Let the Bells End),” but earned their ire by not being around for the B-side; the band staggered into the studio the day after winning two Kerrang awards, tremendously hungover, and struggled through it themselves. The Darkness also had a meal with Mutt Lange (Def Leppard, Shania Twain). “It became clear that he’d demand some songwriting money, without even having heard the material,” says Justin. “He eliminated himself there and then, but we drank loads of champagne at his expense.”

Lange also told the quartet that he thought their sense of humor made it hard for Americans to get them. “I really feel like that’s underestimating the audience,” Justin objects. Nevertheless, the British like a bit more flash and theatricality from their rock stars, while Americans generally prefer flannel and the aura of authentic self-loathing. “The most fun thing about the Darkness is that a lot of people still don’t get it,” Justin says; by that logic, the United States might turn out to be the happiest place in the world for the band. One hit single will change that equation, but it seems unlikely that it will be “Knockers”: a falsetto chorus of “I love what you’ve done with your hair” is inspired, but may be too daft for American radio.

One Way Ticket to Hell… and Back begins with the sound of cocaine being chopped up and snorted. A pan flute gives way to a bulldozer guitar riff, and soon Justin is singing “The first line hit me like a kick in the face / I thought, ‘I better have another one, just in case’.” So are the song’s lyrics (which also include “my septum is in tatters”) based on personal experience?

“That’s none of your business,” Justin says cheerfully. “The way we approach drug issues is to patently be honest about the fact that it’s enjoyable to take drugs, which is why people do it, and then they don’t notice that their lives are falling apart. Somebody told me he’d never heard an anti-drug song that made him want to party so much.”

Contrary to earlier reports, Justin insists he hasn’t been in rehab. “I said, ‘I’ve had a lot of expensive therapy,’ which got misinterpreted.”

Therapy for what? “That’s between me and my therapist, who is extraordinarily expensive,” Justin says. “You want to pay him, you can ask him. You pay good money to sit there and work things out with a guy, then you don’t go and tell a journalist.”

“Are these camelhair?” interrupts Dan, who’s been gazing jealously at Justin’s shoes. The entire band starts fondling Justin’s footwear.

“Shall I take it off and we’ll find out?” asks Justin. “I think it’s Pomeranian.”

“Squirrel,” suggests Edwards.

Hawkins’ most famous fashion choice, of course, is his custom-made chest-baring catsuits, some reportedly costing as much as $18,000. Today, he’s wearing an ordinary pair of pants and a cardigan sweater. “There was going to be a policy: no catsuits,” he says. “Because we’re moving on and we want people to pay attention to the music. But when we do a show, I think people want to see a catsuit. If you go see AC/DC and there’s no ten-ton bell, you’re going to be disappointed. And I don’t think I’m going to be able to resist the convenience factor.”

We then have a conversation I never imagined I would have in my life, discussing the pros and cons of wearing a cape. Although Jimmy Page pulled it off, Hawkins has found that capes get in the way of playing guitar, unless they’re elbow-length, in which case, why bother?

The band floats down the Thames, looking at the bridges and the Houses of Parliament, waving at other boats, feeling cheerful in the knowledge that their dreams have come true. I ask each of them what the most rock-star thing about him is.

“My classic-car collection,” Dan jokes.

Graham reflects for a moment, then says seriously, “The size of my liver.”

Justin stares at me. Summoning up his vainest, most vacuous drawl, he says, “My eyes.”

By Gavin Edwards. Previously unpublished (commissioned by Rolling Stone, circa November 2005).