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Interview: Dan Hawkins (The Darkness)

17 November 2021

Photo by Simon Emmett

Emerging from lockdown as rambunctious and flamboyant as ever, Motorheart, the seventh album by The Darkness is a glorious exercise in meaty arena rock guitar riffs and soaring falsetto vocals. In other words, another worthy feather in the U.K. band’s cap.

With 2019’s Easter is Cancelled still in the promotion cycle when Covid changed life as we know it, The Darkness made the best out of the situation and got to work on writing and recording new music with guitarist Dan Hawkins handling production duties once again. Files were recorded in home studios and shared back-and-forth via email to much success. The Darkness has never shied away from it’s influences and Motorheart is a wonderful mash-up of Queen’s theatric rock and Def Leppard’s sonic power, each member playing a pivotal role in the band’s sound.

Hawkins, who is joined in The Darkness by his brother Justin (vocals), Frankie Poullain (bass) and Rufus Taylor (drums), recently joined a Zoom call from the other side of the pond to talk about why the band’s tongue-in-cheek humor endears them to listeners, how they incorporate ’80s influences into their sound without overdoing it, what it’s like to wear multiple hats within the band and the always unique and visually stimulating cover art.

Welcome back! We’ve all been locked down for the last year-and-a-half, it must feel good to be on the verge of releasing a new album and getting to get out and play shows.

DAN: We only did 2 festivals this year, whereas over the summer we normally do 25. The first one we did was basically the earliest festival after you were allowed to do it. I thought it would be weird, everyone’s going to have masks on. It’s just going to be a horrible experience. It just wasn’t. It felt like nothing had changed, nothing had happened. That was a long time ago, as far as the history of things go. People want things to go back to normal and it feels normal.

I found a message board post I made after discovering The Darkness and I said, “I’d listen to this any day over The Strokes,” who were popular in 2003, but I did say, “I wonder if the novelty with my friends, who like The Darkness, will wear off eventually.” Here we are 18 years later and my friends who liked you in 2003 still like you today.

DAN: That’s cool. Some of the songs were pretty good in the first place but we’re still kind of a square peg in a round hole. We don’t quite fit in anywhere. We haven’t really changed or tried to. In a way, we were as irrelevant then as we are now. [laughs]

I have friends my age who didn’t like hair metal in the ’80s but like Steel Panther and The Darkness now. They like rock, but in 1989 they would never have admitted to liking any of the bands I liked. People enjoy the rock stuff and don’t get enough of it these days.

DAN: That sense of humor, the thing that’s present in AC/DC, Bon Scott’s lyrics, and to some extent Def Leppard’s tongue-in-cheek element right through to Aerosmith and loads of these bands who were our heroes, even Queen. You can’t accuse Queen of taking themselves completely seriously lyrically. I think there’s been a bit of a drought for bands that are being honest in the way they do the music and have the balls to inject a bit of fun into it. “Fun” equals “not serious” which equals “not getting a record deal”. That’s why a lot of people have steered away from it in the last 25 years because they’re all so career minded. We weren’t really, and we still are, in a sense, shooting ourselves in the foot.

You released three singles before the full album hit stores. Do you pay attention to the reactions? Do you read reviews and/or social media to see what people are saying?

DAN: I learned very early on to not care. If I’m producing another band, then I’m all over it. But when it’s your own band, I don’t think you can because otherwise you start second guessing what you should and shouldn’t do. You just have to not care. It’s always been the case, I love reading good reviews. If somebody is like, “You’ve got to read this, it’s amazing,” then I’ll read it and it’ll make me feel good. But I’ll only read them if they’ve been pre-vetted as being major ego boosters [laughs]. I just don’t need any negativity in my life, I don’t need it.

“Jussy’s Girl” is an obvious reference to Rick Springfield’s “Jessie’s Girl.” When you go into writing songs like that, are you using those reference points or is that just the way the song ended up?

DAN: How this album, in particular, worked was I wrote the backing tracks and recorded them at the same time. Rufus would come over to my place, even in the mega-lockdowns, as soon as we were allowed to legally work, we did because we could work in separate rooms in my recording studio. He’s be in his room, I’d be in mine, never the twain shall meet. It allowed us to make an album where we wrote backing tracks, record them, I would build up guitars, send it over to Justin and he would send back the words.

As a producer, I would make suggestions. I wouldn’t really make any changes as a writer to the lyrics he’d done but maybe occasionally melody and key and whatnot. He’s obviously heard, in the backing track, that I’m on a Def Leppard fest and just trying out a lot of ’80s techniques just because I have the time to do it. I went deep into the Mutt Lange archive on that song and tried a lot of different techniques and dropped them all in there. The result is something that sounds pretty ’80s. Justin heard that. When he heard the backing track, he’s like “That’s the best thing I’ve ever heard.” I knew he would say that because it’s right up his street, the tone of music that he likes. He sent back his first demo recording of what he was going to do and it was like, “Yeah, this is fantastic.” That’s it. There aren’t really many conversations like “Should we make it sound more like this?” or “Can we do this or that?” It just happens and it happens really quickly. We tend to throw a lot of stuff at it and then look back and either admire it or chuck it in a bin.

“Motorheart” almost sounds like a completely different band. That is not Def Leppard sounding at all.

DAN: No, no. That was the first thing we did on the album. That was really just me and Rufus gauging how we were going to do the album. By the time we had recorded “Jussy’s Girl,” which was like one of the last tracks we did, we calmed down a bit in terms of furious, progressive arrangements. It sounds like a band unleashed and free to do whatever they want because that’s how we felt. We also felt a bit nervous about the first thing that we do so we overdid it hence why there’s a million different sections in that song. Because I produce, engineer and mix the stuff, there’s different phases, different hats I put on and take off. I need to remember the last hat when I put the next hat on because mixing songs that have that many dynamic changes, it just changes into a different sounding album on the outro. It kind of gets like Pink Floyd. Trying to mix that stuff is really fucking hard. It’s not like “Set all the levels. Sounds good.” It’s not. Everything is vying for loudest position and it’s like trying to cram four songs into one. I wish I wouldn’t do it to myself sometimes.

Do you produce The Darkness because you felt like you had learned from watching a producer on the first couple Darkness records and could take on that responsibility?

DAN: On the first album, when we started making that album, I was co-producing it with Pedro Ferreira. In fact, we had a production company called Pedro Productions. He was more of an engineering and I was a producer and wouldn’t claim to be an engineer at all at that point. After we had done “Love is Only a Feeling,” “I Believe in a Thing Called Love,” “Out of My Hands,” which was a B-side, the much more produced songs, Frankie had a bit of a melt down and felt, probably rightly so, that I had turned into a complete control freak and no one was getting in a suggestion in anywhere and I was taking way too long. Which I was. So, at that point, I stepped down and the rest of the album we knocked out in 2 weeks. That’s why that first album has two songs that sound different to the others. You have two overproduced, which is what I do, and then a load that were recorded by an engineer, which is what Pedro does. I was never credited for the production on that album.

On the second album, I worked really closely with Roy Thomas Baker and he and I were in each other’s pockets for a year making that record. He was one of my favorite producers ever growing up. We became really good friends and I learned a lot from him. He helped me build my studio and he taught me how to EQ and stuff like that. He set me on my journey to be an engineer. The album after that, after the band had split up, I basically engineered and produced two Stone Gods records but didn’t mix. After that, I produced and engineered Hot Cakes, Last of Our Kind, I stepped out for Pinewood Smile, Adrian Bushby did that because I had just had a baby, and then I was back on it for the last two albums.

When I left school, that’s what I wanted to do but I couldn’t afford to go to the School of Audio Engineering in London because my family didn’t have much money. It’s been that underlying obsession of mine since I can remember. I’ve always had a studio.

Do the rest of the guys not like the “Dan Producer” but like the “Dan Guitar Player”?

DAN: No one likes a good producer [laughs]. That’s the reality. Unfortunately, you’re there to tell people, sometimes, where they’re going wrong and trying to guide them. In a way, you have to have a bigger ego than the entire band combined to get what you want. I’m sure, it’s a daily struggle with anyone and their producer. I’m not saying it’s always like that but what I’m saying is there are moments where I’m throwing all my toys out of the pram and playing every psychological mind game that I can to get what I want [laughs]. It makes me sound like a terrible producer. As long as you have a vision for where it needs to end up, it’s very easy to get there and you’ve got to help everyone.

I saw Guns N’ Roses recently and Axl’s vocal range is not what it used to be. With Justin’s range being what it is today, do you think about how that’s going to play out in 5 or 10 years?

DAN: I was watching the Download Festival footage from 2019. You don’t notice it with singers as much live because of the sheer power of stuff, but everybody’s voice tends to drop. Justin’s a bit of a phenomena really. When he enters the falsetto range, the really powerful high stuff, that’s the easiest range for him to sing in. It’s all the verse stuff, before he goes up into that, that can be a bit challenging for him. He had an operation on his throat a couple of years ago because he had a polyp on there which is not a good thing to have. He had been struggling for about four years, maybe even longer with this thing. Since that has been removed, successfully, his voice has cleaned up and gotten higher again. Where everyone else’s voices are dropping, because they’re just shredding it with bad technique, he learned to sing around this polyp with extensive lessons from Switzerland’s best opera trainer. I’m not worried in the slightest. He’s completely aware of how to sing properly, it’s quite amazing.

All The Darkness album covers are great. In the world we live in, where everything is on our phone and all album covers are postage stamp sized, Darkness records are ones you want to own physical copies of for the artwork. Do you use the same person for all the album covers?

DAN: No. It’s changed every album apart from Chiara [Mazzoni], who did “Rock and Roll Deserves to Die,” she’s a digital artist. She paints, but digitally. She’s really amazing. She did that and she’s done the Motorheart stuff. She is more of a sci-fi artist, which we really like. The first album, Patrick Ford did that one. It’s normally someone we know or someone like Chiara. She was a fan and sent Justin a picture that he loved. We’re not afraid to use artists that have approached us for being a fan of the band and don’t necessarily have the recognition they deserve. It’s nice to work with people who are not necessarily known. I have noticed recently that there have been a lot of women on the album covers. The amount of women we’ve put on the covers in the last 20 years, we’re probably due to put some naked men on pretty soon I think to make up for it and get in line with society.

There are nine songs on the U.S. release of the album but there are going to be 12 on the deluxe edition. What can you tell me about the three bonus tracks?

DAN: Undoubtedly, they’re going to be some peoples’ favorites. That’s always the way. I wouldn’t say they are B-sides. Basically every track we made, we made for the album on this one. It wasn’t like “Let’s bash out some extra stuff to sell.” We have to release a normal album, we have to release a deluxe album and we have to give Japan an extra track. Those are the rules. So, they are the ones that maybe just tip the balance of the album one way or another a bit too much. There’s a song called “It’s a Love Thing” which is kind of really poppy. It would have pushed the feel of the album away from being a full on blast of rock which is what the agenda was on this one. There’s one where I’m singing a load of medieval stuff, medieval mayhem basically. I can’t remember what the other one is. That’s why they aren’t on the album [laughs].

You’ve got November and December UK tour dates. Will 2022 be a U.S. tour?

DAN: Yeah, I saw some dates last week, like seven weeks. The dates are really interesting, a lot of places we haven’t played before. I think they’ve gone out to individual promoters in cities this time which is good for us. We tend to play the same venues and we have for a few years. I’m looking at this routing and I don’t think I’ve played any of those venues before. That’s really exciting for me. There are a lot of bands vying for those positions, so we’re competing hard for those slots and hopefully we’ll get what we want and get the routing efficient enough to financially be able to do that tour.