Chances are if you’ve seen the video for The Darkness’ lead single from this year’s sixth full-length Easter Is Cancelled, you will have noticed Justin Hawkins sporting a bit of a new look.
Three and a half minutes into Rock And Roll Deserves To Die, right as he’s letting off one of those trademark wails, his hair ends up flying off leaving his bandmates – who soon experience similar ‘tragedies’ themselves – rightfully shocked and concerned. Thankfully, the singer/guitarist speaking with MusicRadar today has all of his hair intact…
“Just think, were it not for all the cauliflowers I eat, I may well have gone bald by now,” laughs the charismatic frontman, referring to the clean-living, vegan lifestyle he’s adopted since their reunion in 2011. “There must be a parallel universe where I am bald – which actually ties in with the concept of the album.
Maybe it wouldn’t be that bad. The bald wig was quite liberating in ways, I didn’t have to worry about what my fringe was doing. When there’s nothing there, you just move on and think about other stuff. It’s a good way to live.”
As for the music, the first taste of Easter Is Cancelled utilises acoustic guitars, mandolins and flutes alongside the Les Pauls and Marshall stacks The Darkness have long favoured. When we put it to the frontman that, while there are some clear moments of Led Zeppelin worship, there’s one acoustic part that sounds more like something you’d hear from Swedish prog rock trailblazers Opeth, he seems genuinely pleased...
“I love Opeth,” says Hawkins. “I’ve been a big fan since their Heritage album, I love that stuff. We met them earlier in the summer at Rock The Coast festival near Malaga and they were so nice. I opened the cultural exchange by knocking on their door and asking for a picture. We started a good friendship there and have since talked about the possibility of an Opeth/Darkness double-header… it shall be called Openess!
“This album is a battering-ram of the powerful, intricate and catchy. I guess there is a progressive side in there somewhere. We were exploring some allegorical and heart-wrenching metaphors but a lot of it is about multiverse theory – what the world must be like in other realms where anything is possible. Music should have no boundaries. Though the biblical title is slightly misleading as it’s more sci-fi and love than religion!”
Earlier in summer, the group had been invited to play six outdoor shows with Ed Sheeran – ending the run with four nights in Suffolk, home county to not only the headliner but The Darkness’ guitar siblings as well. The exposure, says Hawkins, came at a crucial moment for his band, tapping into a whole new audience right before a big release and their own headline tour through the UK and Ireland…
“We enjoyed ourselves, though I’m not sure if it was a comfy listen for the crowd,” jokes the frontman, admitting his band “stuck out like a sore thumb” in between the somewhat less overdriven sets from Scottish popstar Lewis Capaldi and the chart-topping main act. “What we were doing was a bit challenging for some of them and that’s a good thing! I could see some slightly incredulous expressions, others with their fingers in their ears but also pockets of people really loving it. I caught Ed’s shows too. He’s a much better guitar player than I thought he was...”
Could there be scope for a possible rebrand as Ed ‘The Shred’ Sheeran, we wonder?
“Shred Sheeran, that’s brilliant, I reckon so!” grins Hawkins. “Before you even get to the cleverness of the looping stuff, he’s a great guitarist and singer with loads of familiar songs – a surprising amount of which I recognised.
He’s a lovely guy as well, coming into our dressing room every day, giving us all a big cuddle. It felt good to play to his crowd. We’ve pissed in the mainstream before, we did it the first time round… and coloured it forever with our rich urine. We’re only ever one step away from doing that again!”
On that bombshell, here are the 10 guitar players who blew The Darkness frontman’s mind...
1. Brian May
“He’s got to be first in this list for all the reasons you can imagine and more! I’ve met him loads of times. I grew up with him – well, not literally – but listening to his music. Brian May was the one who brought sophistication, precision and finesse into guitar playing. There’s that unmistakable vibrato technique that I’ve tried to copy and got somewhere near…
“He actually texted Dan to congratulate us on the solo for Curse Of The Tollund Man because it’s harmonised and on the neck pickup. We were totally doing that Brian-y thing and he clearly recognised the homage and gave us a wink! With anything I do, I’m always aiming somewhere close to what he managed to achieve.”
2. Angus Young
“He just runs around, playing an SG… that’s all you need! He’s obviously the best at being Angus. To maintain a career like that you need discipline yet I love his brilliant way of hiding it, appearing out of control every night. He always sounds brilliant too, with this massively unmistakable tone."
“I’m a big fan of the earlier Bon Scott years, Powerage being my favourite album. Up To My Neck In You has a really good long blues solo from Angus where you hear the full dynamic he’s capable of. He plays the same phrases twice, but faster and harder the second time round.
"Apparently, his amp blew up while they were recording Problem Child and if you listen closely you can hear the flames flickering around the microphone or something. Have I met him? No, but I have met the next guitarist I’m going to choose though…”
3. Joe Perry
“Joe was the foil to Steven Tyler’s rapier. Those guys have influenced me a lot in terms of their presence and attitude. Then there’s all the clothes and hair. I met him when we did the Hollywood Vampires tour last year. I went up to him and said, ‘Mr. Perry, I just want to introduce myself, I’m Justin from The Darkness, I grew up with your music, this is a real privilege for me and I’ve loved pretty much everything you’ve done… ever!’ And he turned around to me and said, ‘Yeah, I know who you are.’ That was cool. It’s all I needed. I didn’t even know I needed it until he said it, but I did.
“He’s totally absorbed in his guitar. He’s also a tightrope-walker – I don’t think he practices that much and it’s like he’s discovering the material as he plays it. I try to keep some of that approach myself, you don’t want to ruin the magic on the night. Rehearsing can be a waste of time. The way Joe Perry often presents his playing suggests he might agree with me.”
4. Mark Knopfler
“I love the expression in his playing, as well as the band just in general. There’s so much versatility in his playing, there’s a huge range of different guitar approaches that he’s mastered – even stuff like alternate tunings, which I’ve never really gotten into myself.
“I’ve always wanted to know how he did all of it but never really came close to finding out. I try to play with my fingers a lot though, and I always think about him while I’m doing it. What are the letters: W, W, M, K or something? Letters to live by, clearly ha ha!”
5. Eddie Van Halen
5. Eddie Van Halen
“Or, as I like to call him, Eddie Van Halesworth ha ha! He was the fast guy who managed to still keep it really exciting. It was so boundary expanding without ever needing to sound like a spaceship taking off. To be honest, the door he opened led to ruins that I don’t really like, but his own work is categorically sublime.
“I really loved that Frankenstein guitar he played, it looked so cool. It’s hard to pick a favourite with a band like Van Halen, but every single part to Drop Dead Legs is virtually unbeatable in brilliance.”
6. Richard Thompson
“Dan has always talked about him and I finally got round to studying him a bit. Now I’m totally obsessed with his lead work and I love him as a lyricist too. I like the way he wears a beret much like a revolutionary. Originally I think he had this whole androgynous vibe when he was young and had long hair, before eventually entering his revolutionary phase. It’s a really strong look, come to think of it. Maybe I’ll use it myself!
“He’s known for his folk playing, though I like the rockier end of his stuff. I like any guitarist who plays things in a way that makes you wonder how they’re doing it – but I usually won’t be bothered to try and find out, partly because it spoils the magic and partly because I wouldn’t know where to start. Plus there’s all this fancy tuning with him that I don’t know much about. His music feels exotic and outside my own understanding.”
7. Dan Hawkins
“I have to pick my brother Dan, mainly because I have no idea how he plays the things he plays. Or, indeed, why he plays the things he plays. That’s what makes him distinctive, especially as a lead player, though his rhythm playing is exemplary anyway. I just find myself in awe of his ability.
“I’m glad we’re so different, because if we were both pub rock blues players like me, it would probably get quite boring quite quickly. My playing probably has more Angus and Brian in it. Dan’s playing, on the other hand, owes a lot more to the guitar players from Thin Lizzy and, of course, Richard Thompson.”
8. Jeff Beck
“I think he invented that ‘brrrr’ sound. What’s it called again… a gargle? I’ve been a long-time admirer of the gargle and he does it the best, probably because he invented it. I went to see him play at the Wintershall Rock Charity Festival a couple of years ago. Even as a fan, I was surprised by the amount of dynamics in his playing – from the softer bits to the loud stuff and everything in between, it was all flawless.
“He’s got an iconic haircut to go with it, too! I’d probably call him my favourite out of the Fender players. I always wanted his signature Fender Esquire, it was about 12 grand at the time when I was looking and probably goes for about 20 grand now. I loved that grazed finish of it… I found it incredibly tempting!”
9. Steve Jones
“Never Mind The Bollocks was one of the albums we grew up with and we always loved the guitar playing on that. It is him, right ha ha?! We do have some punk roots, I think you can hear it on songs like Concrete or Get Your Hands Off My Woman.
“Whenever we’re in LA, we’ll end up seeing Steve in one capacity or another. I just think he’s one of those blokes who seems to have done it right and survived. He’s hilarious, plays really well and likes his white Les Pauls – can’t argue with that!”
10. Jimmy Page
“Have I said Jimmy Page yet? I’m being stupid – I should have said him first! Can we nudge everyone else down? I particularly love How The West Was Won, it’s just brilliant, and the BBC Sessions too. All the stuff where it sounds like he’s taking off the shackles.
“He seems to be a bloke who doesn’t give a fuck. You hear moments where he’s changing sounds and there are split seconds of silence – most guitarists would be keen to edit that out of a live recording. Not him! Jimmy Page just doesn’t care. Live is live. I think that’s a bit of a punk attitude, in ways.
“I like the way him and Brian May have this look, where you get a bit older and your hair goes white but you embrace that. They’ve ended up looking a bit like Mozart or members of the French aristocracy… or a judge. It’s inspiring, now I’m thinking about whiting my hair up for all the winter stuff later this year!”