Q&A: The Darkness' Justin Hawkins On Being Surrounded By Drama, His Pre-Rock Star Life, And Learning From Lady Gaga
Fans of falsetto-laden cock-rock and spindly Englishmen in catsuits have been shit outta luck since the Darkness broke up in 2006, amid out-of-control tension and lead singer/guitarist Justin Hawkins' heading off to rehab. Then a performance at last year's Download Festival heralded the reformation of the lineup that appeared on 2003's glammy, hammy blockbuster Permission to Land. Now, two sizable events mark the Darkness' official return to the spotlight: a new album, Hot Cakes (out tomorrow), and a support slot for the European dates of Lady Gaga's Born This Way Ball. While the Darkness hopes Hot Cakes translates into fat stacks, being snapped up by pop's leading lady was a surprise. "We didn't prepare for it; it was so unexpected," Hawkins says. "We always thought we were too old and too ugly, and it turns out you're never quite old or ugly enough!" The Voice asked Hawkins for some insight on the London Olympics, recording a Radiohead cover and the importance of scoping out Gaga's balls.
Any idea why the Darkness was excluded from the Olympics' opening and closing ceremonies?
It didn't even occur to me that there was going to be an opening ceremony. I thought a plane gets there, and everything's kicked off. I have no idea why we were excluded. I actually think that we'd have a better shot of being included at the Olympic Opening Ceremony if it was held in New York or L.A. It just seems like at this exact moment in time, the U.K. is slightly hesitant to a Darkness reunion, revival, resurgence, whatever you want to call it. It doesn't matter to us. The world's a big place.
How is the U.K. being resistant to your return?
I just mean that we're not getting stuff played on the radio. It doesn't feel, to me anyway, that it's firing on all cylinders like it is in places like Australia and Italy, where everyone is loving it straight away. But it doesn't matterwe'll go where the work is.
If you could be a gold medalist in any sport, what sport would it be?
I'd probably go for archery. I think of all the disciplines involved, it's the one where you have to be the most aware of your surroundings, you know. You have to really stand there and absorb what the wind's doing, be aware of the distance, have a steady hand. Those are traits that I was born with anyway. I'm also an elf. Though I am Pisces, so maybe I'd do something aquatic. I'm a Piscean elf.
The band's trajectory has gone from super-high to super-low, leading to a bunch of drama and an eventual break-up. Now you're headed for the top again. What mistakes did you make before that you were careful not to repeat this time?
They're all lessons that you have to learn, so in a way there's no regrets, but at the same time, I've learned that a lot of television is evil, so if you're not performing, avoid it. If you're there just to talk about stuff and be silly, that's not what you're supposed to do. I'm supposed to play music or write music. My experience is, if you're not playing music on the telebox, you shouldn't be on the telebox. Stick to what you're good at.
What you said earlier about the split and the drama around the split, the thing I love about the Darkness is that there's been drama around the reunion, drama around the gigs, drama around the hotels. There's drama everywhere! (laughs) That's part of the reason it took so long for us to revisit it, because unlike anything else that we've ever been involved in, there's just so much drama. I'm exhausted.
You start Hot Cakes off with a presumably autobiographical song, "Every Inch of You," where you sing about your life as an awesome rock star that everyone wants to suck off, but the first lyric is "Baby, I was a loser." Before rock n roll, what was Justin Hawkins like?
Actually, that song is two-thirds not autobiographical because it was written 10 years ago. I was actually still on the dole when I wrote that. But it was a bit like a dream sequence, how I imagined my life unfolding, and I was completely committed to it. It especially describes my relationship to the stage, working every inch of the stage. The dream-came-true kind of thing. But before [playing rock n roll], I was actually doing charity work. It sounds like a cliché, but I was working at a puppet theater. When the serious troubles happened in Kosovo and Macedonia, there's refugee camps down there, and I was helping them with theater that would do shows to entertain the kids during that time. In all honesty, I was a puppeteer. And now I'm a puppet!
You mentioned in that song that "Communication Breakdown" was one of your turning points.
Yeah, it's my ringtone.
What did that song awaken inside of you?
That song has the filthiest guitar sound in it. It's inspiring because it sounds like anybody can do it. And when you try, actually, it's a lot more complicated than you think it is. You have to totally commit to it. It's like the first line of cocaine: You think it's easy, something you can dip in and out of. You hear that song, you're in. You ain't coming back out.
Speaking of cocaine, how has your approach to the stage and performing changed now that you're off drugs? Have you had any revelations?
Completely. I'm a much, much easier person to distract now, because I'm more aware of my surroundings, I suppose. When it comes to performance now, I'm completely committed to it. I throw myself right into it. I don't have any set list onstage. I don't have anything that's going to make me ask what's going to happen next. I don't want to be glancing down and seeing what's next to come or what the rest of the set is. I only know what the next song is going to be when I pluck my guitar from my tech and he tells me what the next one is, which means sometimes I finish the show without realizing it's finished!
What's your preshow ritual?
Preshow ritual for me starts the second I wake up, and thenI'm not afraid to say it, I'm not sponsored by thema giant Starbucks, and I have oatmeal, and then I do exercise to get my heart rate up, do some core exercises. Everything's leading up to the two hours before the show. And then, just before the show, we've always done a group hugging thing, and somebody speaks for a while.
The hard bit is coming off after the stage. Unfortunately, I suffer a bit of tinnitus. It's the kind where I can't stand it. I sit there with my head in my hands going "Aaaaaahhhhhhhooooowwwwww!" And then back to the hotel for meaningless sex! (laughs)
You've been covering Radiohead's "Street Spirit" live in your set for a while now, and it's finally been recorded on Hot Cakes. Any concern that fanatical Radiohead fans will think you're mocking the song?
I think it's one of the all-time great songs. I love it; I love singing it. We've covered a few things over the years: King Diamond, Abba, Radiohead, Queen, Nirvana. We were asked to do a cover for a radio session for the BBC about three years ago, and at the time everybody was saying to us, "Oh you must hate Radiohead. You must hate Nirvana," because of the impact they had on the kind of music that we're associated with, and we wanted to show people that that wasn't the case. We love Radiohead; it's one of the few bands that we all agree on. So it's kinda like we wanted to respectfully pay tribute to them, I suppose, and do it our way, try to put our thing on it, which just means playing it a little bit faster and sing it an octave up.
You're going on tour with Lady Gaga for her Born This Way Ball tour. Both of you are hardcore performers. What do you anticipate learning from her?
You asked the correct question. Everybody asks, "How will you be able to compete [with Lady Gaga]?" and that's like the opposite of what I envision. I got excited about the Gaga tour because it's an opportunity to learn from somebody is at the very top, not just of their game, but of the game. When I heard we were going on tour [together], I was like, thank god for that, it's going to be amazing. If there's anybody in the world to know from that, it's her. I mean, we've done so many support spots, and [after] we do our show, I get dressed and I go out and I watch the main attraction. For me, there's a reason why they're the main attraction, and you've got to find out what that is. You've got to find what makes the performance work and if there's stuff in there that's transferable. I'm often surprised at how similar we are to the people we've supported over the years. In certain circumstances, we just outright steal from them. If something's amazing and if you can do it, then you should do it.
What kind of impression do you want to leave on Gaga's fans? What do you want them to walk away with?
Ringing in their ears. [laughs]
The Darkness play Terminal 5 on October 21.
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