The Darkness: Keeping rock alive

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The Darkness: Keeping rock alive

the darkness
(Image: Simon Emmett)
Words by Alasdair Belling and photography by Simon Emmett

Frontman Justin Hawkins discusses the current state of rock music, the pandemic, and of course, their latest album

It’s a bygone conclusion that in 2021, rock is dead.

The likes of Ed Sheeran, Billie Eilish, Lizzo, The Weeknd, and old rehashed Taylor Swift cuts rule the world of streaming and album sales (for better or for worse), with the world of guitar music firmly resettled in the underground.

Unless of course, you’re The Darkness and filling arenas and theatres on both sides of the Atlantic with every new album of glammed up stadium rock-come Sunset Strip anthems.

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“The rock genre suffers terribly because of reverence – a lot of bands come through, they look good, but they base their image entirely on stuff that was happening in the 70s – 1971 to be specific!” says frontman Justin Hawkins, when we catch up to chat about Motorheart, their latest slice of retro riffage.

“There’s a reason why rock loses to hip-hop and rap when it comes to being the prevalent thing that alternative kids are into, new bands that come through need to establish their own thing, it can’t be a rehash of things that happened in the 70s, otherwise we’re never going to win,” he says.

the darkness

Hearing established rockers talk about the genre’s lack of innovation can be as eye-rolling as it gets for tabloid music content, but Hawkins’ word comes with a higher degree of credibility than some of his crustier peers.

Having been founded in 2000, the smokey dive bar always seemed like it would be the limit for The Darkness, with their 80s-influenced quasi-metal sound seemingly more of a homage to an era long-gone.

However, a signing from multinational Atlantic Records, which issued their seismic 2003 debut Permission To Land, catapulted the club band to theatres around the world – a standard progression for some, but a jaw-dropping achievement for a modern glam act.

Nearly two decades later, things are looking as strong as they ever have for the outfit, with Hawkins chatting to us from the band’s tour bus shortly before taking the stage at Cambridge’s Corn Exchange, the 1600-cap venue a testament to the band’s sustained cult success.

“I’m going to come out with one of those waterboard hats with the tassels on – that’s how I’m going about the entire show,” laughs Hawkins.

“The production stuff is understated for us on this tour – we can’t afford to cancel any shows – we used to fly over audiences, have the trapeze work that we usually do – COVID has wrecked the trapeze industry you know!”

Hawkins is expectedly quick to drop in a sly wink and have a laugh about the travelling circus which he finds himself embroiled in. 

But at the end of the day, as with any successful rock band, it’s ruthless quality control that allows him and his bandmates to enjoy a career playing the heavy guitar music to audiences at a size that most teenagers can only dream of.

Hawkins says they “would never settle for knowingly rehashing a load of old shite from before – we listen with a very skeptical ear to everything we do.

“Inevitably our influences creep in, but we really make an effort to do our own thing, we don’t throw stuff out there just for the sake of it.

“The amount of bands that call themselves rock bands, despite hardly being able to hear guitars in their music, it’s quite disgusting really.

“I mean Coldplay, fucking hell. It’s just some guys with a producer and the guitars are right in the distance nowadays, you strain your neck to listen to it, but they call themselves a fucking rock band! How can you expect the genre to thrive when you can’t even hear what defines it?!

“Maybe that’s what you need to do to maintain your status as a radio rock band, you need those synths so your songs sound like the advert which pays for the station in the first place, it becomes so corporate, and corporate rock is synonymous with that type of production.

“We don’t want to be on the radio if it means sounding shit.”

It’s a strong statement from the frontman, but hard to argue with when one sees the fruit he and his bandmates have borne from sticking to their creative guns.

Indeed, Motorheart takes its name from Motorhead and Heart two of the least relevant bands in 2021, but groups that were themselves outliers even in their hey-day due to their unwavering approach of being unapologetic about their influences and artistic direction.

“The name came just from an e-mail, and that’s where this idea of the sex robot… I mean love robot… I mean companionship cyborg – that’s where it all came from,” laughs Justin (a sex robot features as a main character on the record).

“We didn’t pull anything out of the vault – this is all fresh, brand new stuff. 

“There’s a little bit more Guns N’ Roses in there than usual – maybe that’s what you get when you combine No Sleep ‘Til Hammersmith and Dreamboat Annie.”

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Of course, due to the context surrounding the release it’s fair to assume that lockdowns would have played a part in the composition of the record, with the break from touring and unease in the world offering up some low-hanging thematic inspiration.

However, Hawkins is quick to point out that Motorheart was conceived in the same manner as all other records The Darkness have put their name to – from a love of writing music. It’s not a lockdown album.

“At the beginning of the pandemic there was way too much ‘creativity’, people doing very much of-its-time Covidian music – that stuff won’t stand the test of time,” he says with a grimace. 

“How often do you listen to songs about SARS? Who wants to see videos of split-screen, people playing in their bedrooms or bathrooms – we waited until that had run its course and people were ready to rebuild something that didn’t look like that.

“We really go hard for a short period of time when we write – all focus, no fucking about, you know? 

“Some bands do it differently but we’re an albums band, and for it to have a vibe that’s consistent across 10 songs, you really need to out the time aside to do it, and capture it really quickly – we want to show people where we’re at, at that particular moment when you make the record.”

Of course, The Darkness weren’t immune to the effects of the pandemic on the industry. 

Their final shows before the world shut down were here down under, with the group’s summer tour last year cut short.

As Hawkins points out, that means there’s some unfinished business the band have down under.

“We were there when the pandemic kicked off and started to be a real problem – when we played in Sydney, there was this sense that people were starting to get a bit worried – there was a very subdued atmosphere about the entire thing… that was the day Trump declared a state of emergency in the USA.

“We thought ‘oh fuck, are we going to be able to get home here?’”

“We certainly have unfinished business down in Australia – we have to get back and finish off those shows I think.”

If Motorheart is any indication of what kind of mood the band are in, we can expect one hell of a rock n’ roll storm, featuring all manner of ‘companionship cyborgs’, to blow down under in the very near future.

Motorheart is out now, via Cooking Vinyl.