We chew the fat with The Darkness’s Justin Hawkins and hear all about the band’s new album, his love for Marshall stacks and the downsides of taking barbarians on the road.
When we hook up with Justin Hawkins - The Darkness’s ever-eccentrically attired front man - at Gibson Guitars in London’s Oxford Circus, we find him in characteristically effusive mood.
During our photo shoot, he bounces around the studio space pulling absurd poses. One second he’s doing the splits with a single eyebrow raised, à la Roger Moore, the next wielding a Flying V like a cricket bat. Despite admitting he’s shattered, the man is seemingly all energy.
As our interview begins, however, Justin’s innate sensitivity, self-awareness and heartfelt passion all come to the fore. It’s a few weeks before the release of The Darkness’s fourth album, Last Of Our Kind, and Hawkins couldn’t be prouder of the results. The impressive long player was produced by Justin’s brother and Darkness co-guitarist Dan at his own Leeders Farm studio in Norfolk, which has now sadly closed its doors.
Aside from the new record, Hawkins has other reasons to be in an upbeat frame of mind. The night before our chat saw the band rock a small crowd in the same building, Gibson’s London HQ, that we are currently camped out in.
Not only did The Darkness have a selection of barbarians onstage with them for the performance (their new single is called Barbarian, so you can see what they did there), but the gig also marked the debut of their new drummer Rufus, son of Queen’s Roger Taylor. Exciting times all round...
Call it a comeback
How do you feel about Last Of Our Kind now it’s all finished and mixed?
“I’m quite realistic about albums. I wouldn’t have been able to say that I was really proud of the last one [Hot Cakes, 2012], but I think the last one did a job. We had to get something out in a timely fashion because we had some live opportunities that we couldn’t turn down.
“As far as I’m concerned, this is the proper comeback. We’ve taken another year away to really concentrate on having the strongest material that we could have and for the first time - possibly ever - we’re all 100 per cent proud of every song on this album.
“It’s the one Darkness album that I still enjoy listening to. I still work out to it. All the others, including the first one, it was like, ‘Once it’s done, it’s done.’ You move on and never listen to them again.
“Recently, I was sat in the car and something from Permission To Land  came on the radio and I didn’t even recognise it. There were all these harmonies and I thought, ‘I don’t even remember recording those!’ But with this one, I just haven’t stopped listening to it. I think it’s a very good body of work and I’m very proud of it.”
Did the band have a particular concept for the album?
“It was more that we wanted to feel unanimously proud of what we’d done for once! We wanted to make something that we could honestly say was a valuable part of our legacy. But, when it comes to the music, I think Dan wanted there to be more riffs in it. I also think that Dan and I have increasingly established what our roles are as guitar players.
“In the olden days, there were certain times when I might have wanted to have a solo and he wanted to have a solo and so then we’d argue about who was doing the solo. If anything, it’s the other way round now. It’s like we know what we do now in an ‘Oedipus know thyself ’-type way. We’ve finally unlocked the mysteries of our roles and we know who’s supposed to do what and it’s very instinctive.”
And how would you define those differences in your roles as guitarists?
“Well, if there’s a song that requires a sort of a filthy edge-of-the-seat rock ’n’ roll solo that doesn’t adhere to traditional scales and is just a guy expressing himself, then that’s Dan.
“If it’s a solo that is perhaps a bit more technical or maybe it’s got some faster work in it, then it’s me. If it’s a solo that’s more like Lindsey Buckingham or something like that, it’s Dan. If it’s an Angus-y thing, it’s me. If it’s a Brian-y thing, it’s me and if it’s a Thin Lizzy thing, it’s Dan.
“We’re just much better at working out what each song needs. For example, there’s a song on the album called Sarah O’Sarah and it’s got this ludicrous sort of LA 1980s thing at the top of it, but then, after that, there’s mandolins and it almost becomes a Fleetwood Mac-y song... but without that sort of LA lead guitar stuff at the top of each verse, it would be a bit too much, so we pulled it back in the most uncool way you can.
“That is a Darkness thing, really. If something’s sounding too much like we’re climbing up our own arses, then the best way out is an electric guitar solo. That’s a Darkness trick isn’t it, I suppose?”
Are all of your guitar solos spur-of-the-moment things?
“Well, they’re all improvised to the point where I sort of stumble on something and then Dan goes, ‘Yeah, do that!’ and it’s like, ‘Okay, I’ll do that... what was it again?’ Then I have to try and remember what it was. Some of it is a bit contrived.
“When we do a demo, we usually just leave the solo section blank and you don’t even think about it for months. Then it comes to the album recording and that’s when you actually write the solos.”
Which amps did you and Dan plug into during the sessions?
“For me, it was all Marshall, but my brother experimented a lot with different stuff because he’s got to do a lot more of the textures. My role in the recording process is just to make sure the solos kick ass!
“Dan has got a Gibson combo that he really likes for some things because it’s very small and has a certain bark to it. I think he’s got a Fender Twin and some Wizard amps, and all kinds of stuff really... but I’m a Les Paul into a Marshall guy almost every time!”
Did any effects go into the mix?
“With Dan, on Mighty Wings there’s some sort of synthesizer intro but it’s not a keyboard. It’s a Line 6 POD with a special patch on there that turns guitars into Giorgio Moroder synthesizers. Dan was much more involved in the sort of pastoral colours and all those tones whereas I’m ‘notes guy’. I did use an old Tube Screamer for solos, though.”
Brothers in arms
Dan produced the record at his old studio, Leeders Farm. How does it feel having him as producer?
“Well, we wanted him to do it. We were doing the demos and were just really enjoying the process of recording them. He’s got the experience, too. We have done it before. On the first album, Dan was sort of co-producing, but it interfered with the band relationships a little bit and made things strained between Dan and the band, you know.
“I think now Dan’s able to wear the two different hats in a more effective way, really, and the results are that you end up with a warmer-sounding record. I don’t know whether it’s because there’s less nerves or less tension, but it feels like you’re able to sort of express yourself a bit more freely when you really know the person.
“In some circumstances, we’ve played really well in front of a producer but we’re doing that to impress the producer. Really, you should just be trying to make the best record you can and the performance should be coming out of a love for the music as opposed to a desire to impress. With Dan, I think we’re able to achieve that a little bit more.”
The Darkness are going to be touring the UK with the Blast Of Our Kind tour this winter - are the barbarians going to be joining you on the bus?
“Well, we’re looking at the live shows at the moment, but I think [the barbarians] were just a one-off thing really. We can’t afford to keep them on the road, because they just eat and pillage, and then you just end up picking up the pieces all the time. Throwing chicken bones over their shoulders and stuff? We don’t want that on the tour bus!”
Taming the beast
Justin on how to wring the most from Marshall stacks...
“When I first started playing, I used combos because I couldn’t afford stacks, but I used to look longingly at them through the music shop windows in Lowestoft! I’ve actually only recently got back into the Marshall stacks and now I’m playing the Mark II Super Leads. I actually have two so I’m living my childhood dream now... in stereo!
“Going back, I didn’t want a Marshall stack because of the guitarists that used them, actually, although I am aware that everybody that I like plays through them, or at least pretends to!
“It’s partly because they’re so iconic, isn’t it? It’s just a brilliant colour scheme, a really great design and even if the cat’s pissed on the grille at the front, it’ll still looks cool! Whether it’s beaten up or brand new, it’s something that you always enjoy looking at.
“Marshall stacks have a much more precise sound than anything else I’ve used. And I think you have to become a better player to justify owning one. They don’t do any of the work for you.
“They just present a very honest interpretation of what you’re doing. They don’t saturate in a way that conceals shortcomings so you’re very much exposed and it makes you play harder, it makes you more involved in your playing... and they’re fucking loud!
“There was a trend actually to have all the amps underneath the stage and then have fake [stacks] on the stage with in-ear monitoring but, in my opinion, that’s cheating. I think part of the glory of the Marshall stack is to stand in front of it and control it and be master of it.
“It’s like a Siegfried & Roy thing [lion-taming American magicians], because a stack is just an untameable beast. I think the most impressive thing about people who use them is that you know not everybody can. You aspire to be one of those players because until you are, you really shouldn’t have one!
“For anyone buying a stack, I would say get some sort of power soak like an old Power Brake. Power soaks are really good because you can have everything as cranked up as it would normally be but instead of sort of destroying buildings, you can actually manage it incrementally. There isn’t another sound like it in the world so you really need to have it cranked up. Either invest in ear defenders or get a power soak of some sort!”
The Darkness’ new album, Last Of Our Kind, is available now.