Heavy Metal Lover: Justin Hawkins On The Darkness' Sci-Fi Rock Opera
The Darkness have always been a good-times band.
Unashamedly flamboyant, their tongue-in-cheek homage to classic rock arrived with a grin on its face and a pun on its lips.
Launching their second chapter with 2012's 'Hot Cakes', the band have steadily re-claimed full ownership over their sound.
New album 'Easter Is Cancelled' is proof of this. A lavish, complex, ambitious record billed as a 'sci-fi rock opera' it pits their rock bluster against a deft array of lyrical themes.
Clash caught up with frontman Justin Hawkins just before the album's release to find out how it all came together...
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So: ‘Easter Is Cancelled’ is out shortly, will it be a Good Friday for the band?
I hope so! Good Friday… oh that’s not good! That’s when they string him up! Which is not unusual for album release day.
We’re looking forward to it actually. We’ve had some amazing reviews. You can already say that it’s ‘critically acclaimed’.
It feels like a really positive period for the band.
It does, yeah. The process of making the album is really stressful and we became really insular. We didn’t play anything to anybody for the whole period of time we were working on it. For eight months we were just chasing this rabbit down a hole… and we didn’t allow anybody else to help us, really. It was a bit challenging for our relationship in that period of time, but as soon as we finished it, it was like: yay! We did it guys! So we’re feeling pretty good.
I honestly think it’s going to do pretty well. Maybe not immediately, but I think it will be one of those albums that you look back on and think: yeah that was a good’er. We had a good time.
A sci-fi rock opera isn’t something we encounter everyday – why tackle this project now?
Well, I think ‘concept album’ is what happens when you know what you’re trying to put across at the beginning of the process. Every album we’ve done so far has come from us just writing a load of songs and then at the end of it we’ve said: OK, these are the best songs, put that on the album… and then we go, what should we call it? And that’s the very last thing you think about. This is the very first time that we knew what we wanted to call it very early on.
Then we had a conversation about whether we call it a concept record, as we knew what we were doing… or do we just let it happen? We could put the album title in the office. And I think that was partly the reason we were able to do what we wanted, because whilst we didn’t play any music for the label what we did do was tell ‘em it was a concept album, and it had a title, artwork… this is what you’re going to get. But you can’t hear it until it’s finished!
Does having that spine in place put extra pressure on you as a songwriter?
There’s always a lot of pressure on the lyricist. In some songs it made it easier for me, because I already knew what I wanted the song to say but it was a question of finding a way to say it. Whereas before, under normal circumstances, all you have to do is please everybody…and that’s really difficult when there’s four people with strong opinions.
My lyrics aren’t traditional… even for rock. Over the years it’s been quite difficult to sell my ideas to the band on occasion, so a lot of stuff gets thrown away. But when there’s a narrative with two or three prongs going through it, it makes it a bit easier to shape that stuff into something that makes sense to everybody.
I think it’s actually quite liberating. Some things – like ‘Deck Chair’ – are only a couple of minutes long, but I really just sang along with what was happening musically, and the first thing that came into my head, more or less, is what’s on the record. Some stuff really did naturally pop out, and it gave us more confidence to explore the concept.
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‘Rock N Roll Deserves To Die’ is a very confrontational title…
Yeah. I think what we’re trying to say there is that guitar music goes through phases. Every 10 years something amazing happens – like grunge or nu metal or something… but there’s a lot of stagnation in between, and you don’t really hear anything challenging.
When that amazing thing happens everybody always says: oh, they’re here to save rock ‘n’ roll! They said it about The Darkness when we first came out, and I just think it’s because there’s something in the nature of the people that make it which ensures that rock ‘n’ roll never really develops. It takes revolutionaries every 10 years to come and save the day.
I don’t think it’s the same for other genres. The best example is hip-hop or rap which is just winning… and I don’t know why. Maybe it’s because they don’t have the same reverence for that genre, people are literally expressing something over music and it could be anything. As a genre it’s not restricted by a reverence for a very specific way of doing things.
Your style of reverence has always been done in a fun way, though – even the actual song ‘Eater Is Cancelled’ is this AC/DC boogie…
That was really fun to record, actually! I remember when it came to the bit as the end [shouts guitar line down the phone] – I mean, it almost writes itself that stuff and it’s really good fun to play. Now, if you just had that bit without the stuff before it, then there’s no way it would survive, it just wouldn’t end up on the record. It has to be part of something else.
That’s my point about rock ‘n’ roll, really. If you just do one thing all the time then you’d better hope you’re AC/DC because if you’re not, then you’re fucked… cos there’s already AC/DC! You need something else in there to broaden horizons, just to survive, I think.
We’re lucky because we all listen to different stuff so our influences are multiple. I think on this record you’re hearing a lot of that. It’s an eclectic record, while it’s heart is in the rock ‘n’ roll world.
Were there any moments in this process where you thought, actually, we might not be able to finish this?
The only moment of doubt comes before you make the decision to do that. At the beginning we had two or three songs, and it was obvious it was heading in a certain direction, so the decision we had to make then was: do we just do this? That was the doubt moment, at the beginning.
After that, once we were all in and all going for it… that was it, really. We just had to make it work. It was the same with any other album, in that there are two or three songs that you think are going to be brilliant and then they’re just not. And then conversely there is also stuff that you think is a bit of a laugh and you don’t really care about, and it turns out to be quite an important part of the record.
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So which moment was started as a laugh, but then turned out to be a key part of the record?
I think ‘Choke On It’ and ‘Deck Chair’. I was literally just saying stuff over the music and not even thinking about it. And then we managed to find a way to really present those songs in a way that really helps the story on the record.
It seems a thematically complex album, was it a different project to bring together at the end? There are things like mixing to consider, but also there’s a little bit of politics as well. We’ve been in situations before where we’ve made an album that we think contains really strong material, but then there’s a bonus track that the label thinks is good enough to be on the record or even used as a single.
So this time because we knew what we wanted to be on the record we recorded that in a certain way and then we approached the bonus tracks very definitely. The bonus tracks are designed to enhance the album, but they don’t have anything to do with the story – they’re recorded in a completely different way. They don’t sound like the rest of the album.
So really, we wanted to manage it. We wanted to make sure that what we saw as the body of work had to be considered as the album, and that the rest wasn’t. That was the main challenge.
Dan mixed everything. This is probably the third time he’s been super hands on with that, and he’s getting better and better. It sounds really powerful and cool. Mixing’s not really my department, I just go: yeah, that sounds great… turn up the vocals!
Rock operas are notoriously contagious – The Who’s Pete Townshend has spent basically 50 years now writing them. Have you got the bug, Justin?
Possibly! Tonight I’m going to the actual opera… the English National Opera. Maybe the next thing we do will be an off Broadway or off-off-off West End rock opera that’s designed with a script and maybe get in touch with a playwright and do something nice.
How will this translate live?
The production is going to be quite lavish. Depending on which venue people come and see us, it’ll be totally different to anything you’ve seen us do before. It’s gonna be dazzling!
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'Easter Is Cancelled' is out now.
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