“People still don’t really understand how it happened. Twenty years later, it’s still a bit of a mystery to all of us.”
So states the Darkness lead singer Justin Hawkins with a chuckle, speaking with Yahoo Entertainment from the home studio where he hosts his popular music-commentary podcast and YouTube show, “Justin Hawkins Rides Again.” From the moment the famously, fabulously unitarded Hawkins and his fellow British rawk ‘n’ roll brigaders came riding up on their white swans with their magnum opus Permission to Land — a pretty much perfect debut album — in 2003, they went against the grain. “My idea of what a frontman is was not the same as most people that would be trying to make it in the music trade [in the ‘90s/early 2000s],” says Hawkins. “The stuff that you would aspire to do then would be the Verve, Radiohead — you know, a bit more, I suppose, serious songwriting, done in a ‘cool’ way. And that really isn’t what I do.”
And yet somehow, the spandex-and-leather-sheathed glam revivalists became the coolest band on the planet in 2003, with their ubiquitous monster single, “I Believe in a Thing Called Love,” even becoming a surprise U.S. Billboard top 40 hit. The next three years unfortunately played out like a particularly harrowing VH1 Behind the Music special, as the Darkness’s success was followed by actual darkness: Hawkins’s struggles with substance abuse and disordered eating, an underrated but rush-released sophomore album that was considered a disappointment at the time, a bitter band breakup that lasted until 2011. But now, as the Darkness prepare to embark on their Permission to Land 20th anniversary tour, Hawkins is in a great place — happy, healthy, 17 years sober, and making new fans not just as a delightful internet personality but through high-profile guest spots like London’s big Taylor Hawkins tribute concert, The Masked Singer, and De La Soul’s final studio album.
Hawkins and the Darkness’s renaissance is vindicating, considering that two decades ago they were dismissed as a joke band, novelty act, or one-hit wonder, with, as Hawkins puts it, haters always “questioning where we sat on the irony/seriousness scale. … But we don’t hear that anymore, do we?”
Looking back on the Darkness’s wild ride, with all of its (sometimes chemically induced) highs and lows, Hawkins goes back to the beginning, when he was writing ad jingles for a living and playing keyboards in a pre-Darkness band, missing his true calling as a front-and-center rock ‘n roll showman. That all changed on New Year’s Eve 1999, when he “did an interpretive dance to ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’” at a party at his aunt’s pub, and his guitarist brother and future Darkness bandmate Dan “was like, ‘Oh yeah, you should be the frontman. That’s it!’ And I was like, ‘Yeah, no shit,’” laughs Justin.
The new Justin-fronted glam group, formed in Lowestoft about a 110 miles northeast of London, eventually secured a residency at a now-defunct club called the Monarch in London’s trendy Camden area, and they began to build an audience. The flamboyant frontman instantly stood out amid the hipster scene’s leather jackets and drainpipe leans in his signature catsuit, which had been inspired by his rock ‘n’ roll mother’s tales of hanging out with the Rolling Stones in 1960s Swinging London. (“She always described this story about Brian Jones: He’d turn up at the disco wearing a pink catsuit, and he’d be dancing seductively, unzipping it and stuff. And I was like, ‘OK, so that’s what rock stars wear.’”) But in an era when Camden Town was still overrun by indie-rock Libertines and Strokes copycats, it seemed unlikely that the Darkness would ever land a record deal.
“The thing is, the momentum really started to gather when Dazed and Confused, the fashion magazine, followed us around for a bit — and what they emphasized was our plight at that time, that we were basically doing something completely unfashionable, unapologetically. Like, ‘It’s never gonna make it, but we do it anyway,’” laughs Hawkins. “They sort of made us into these heroes that we kind of weren’t. We didn’t seem ambitious, because we were doing something that couldn’t possibly be taken seriously, and so they were celebrating that and the kind of audience that’d find that an appealing story and appreciate the sort of underdog-ness of it all. And then it’s almost like the ‘cool kids’ started to like us! And that’s a really powerful ally to have: a readymade army of people who only like it because they’re not ‘supposed’ to. That’s where the irony comes in.”
The actually-quite-ambitious band continued to build their momentum without any major-label support. They self-funded an over-the-top music video for “Growing on Me” shot by Alex Smith (director of Coldplay’s “Yellow”) by “calling in all the favors and getting helicopters and a stately home and all that stuff,” and they used money that Hawkins had earned from an IKEA commercial to record Permission to Land on their own. By the time they were selected to open for pop superstar Robbie Williams at Knebworth for an audience of 350,000 people, “It was clear that we were a viable proposition, just because of the headway we’d made independently. And then suddenly it was like, ‘OK, we’ll sign you now!’ And then there was a bit of a bidding war.”
The band presented their finished debut album to various interested record labels and said, “‘Look, this is what we’re gonna do next. Do you wanna be part of it?’ Not, ‘Do you want to develop this band and create it in your image?’” Hawkins stresses. “It was more like, ‘Here we are. This is the realized entity of the Darkness, and here’s the first record. Would you like to be part of this journey?’” The Darkness eventually signed with Atlantic Records, and Permission to Land, released in July 2003, sold quadruple-platinum and went No. 1 in the U.K., where it yielded four hits, including “I Believe in a Thing Called Love” (No. 2), “Growing on Me” (No. 11), and “Love Is Only a Feeling” (No. 5). They capped off the breakthrough year with a cheeky holiday single, “Christmas Time (Don’t Let the Bells End),” that also went to No. 2.
The Hawkins brothers’ wildest rock ‘n’ roll fantasies were coming true. Justin says “meeting the surviving members of Queen” was a life/career highlight (in a full-circle development, Queen drummer Roger Taylor’s son, Rufus, now drums for the Darkness), and he laughs as he recalls his rock-loving mom flirting with “sexiest man in the world” David Coverdale — right in front of Hawkins’s father! — when the Darkness played on a bill with Whitesnake. But two years after the smash success of Permission to Land, the band began working on their follow-up album, the perhaps too aptly titled One Way Ticket to Hell… and Back, this time with a massive major-label budget. And things started to fall apart, with all the speed and drama that had characterized their meteoric rise.
“The whole thing about the Darkness is it was about momentum. All the things that happened in such a quick time, all those dominoes fell, and it was just like nobody could control it. Nobody saw it coming, and nobody knew how to stop it,” says Hawkins. “And then I think it was like, ‘OK, now what do we do? We do an album, right? Let’s do an album.’ And so, I think the whole thing was rushed. We should have taken a year off and maybe not done anything.
“Recording the [second] album was an unbelievable experience,” Hawkins clarifies. “It was really fantastic. We worked with [legendary Queen/Cars producer] Roy Thomas Baker. We were recording in the best studios. We spent 10 weeks mixing the thing while we were in L.A., while I was staying at the Beverly Hills Hotel amassing ridiculous bills. It was sensational. It was one of the most exciting periods of my recording career. … I just didn’t like the songs that much. I think we probably went in the studio too early. … It could have been way better.”
One Way Ticket sold a fraction of Permission to Land, “and it came out in an age when people had already started to stop buying records. But it still sold a million copies and it was gold in America — it was a successful record, really the kind of successful record that I would give my right and left testicle for today, because you just don’t see those sort of numbers anymore,” Hawkins quips. “A million records! It’s a preposterous amount for a band from Lowestoft. That’s crazy that we did that — on an album that was considered a ‘flop.’”
However, Hawkins more seriously and somberly stresses, “I don’t think it was about the success [or lack thereof] of the second record, really; it more about how much fun, or how little fun, I was having,” when he looks back on the darkest period of his life in the mid-aughts. “While it’s fun, it’s fun, and then when it’s not, it really isn’t. And then when it’s not, nothing’s fun. That’s the problem. When it gets to the point where you’re relying heavily on either sedation or the opposite just to get through the travails of a day off, that’s what I was like. I was a mess for a lot of the time and not able to get a handle on it at all. I would’ve been able to ride that out and white-knuckle it a bit, if I was writing songs that I felt proud of.”
The now 48-year-old singer, who has started to pen his memoir, reveals that he recently “wrote a potted history of drugs, and it took me six pages just to get to ‘cocaine.’ … Narcotics and all the usual extraneous, superfluous elements of the traditional rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle were more interesting to me in the first instance than perhaps they should have been. I was into getting into the drug-fueled behavior the more successful we were becoming.”
But at the time, no one was really stopping Hawkins, and Hawkins wasn’t trying to stop himself, because it was “a kind of nihilism and self-sabotage that for some reason worked for a while — for the career trajectory, it really worked,” he admits. “I think people saw the sort of reckless, wild person that I was on the stage, and I was that person when I was offstage as well. … I was completely out of control, all the time. It was brilliant, absolutely brilliant. I mean, it was dangerous, but it added an authenticity to [the band’s image] that you just couldn’t deny. You actually couldn’t deny it. You couldn’t say, ‘Oh, this is all a put-on!’ … I was putting it on 24 hours a day, so you might as well just accept that it’s for real. And so reluctantly, I think the majority of people that bought into us recognized that I was in a dangerous place, but I think that’s part of the reason why it was appealing.”
While One Way Ticket actually received more critical acclaim that the Darkness’s polarizing-at-the-time debut (“I remember Kerrang! said it was like the best rock album of the last 20 years”), Hawkins was still smarting from the vicious media treatment, or “unjust shittiness,” that he had already received, particularly from British papers. “I’m not really talking about criticism, because I think musical criticism or creative, constructive criticism is really welcome. … I don’t care about the bad reviews or whatever. I’m talking about things like when somebody tells you that you should be killed, stuff that’s just not about music at all,” stresses Hawkins. “There’s lots of things that that can happen in when you’re in the public zone, especially in England, that’s really difficult to stomach.”
This led to Hawkins’s eating disorder, when his fragile mental state sometimes made “eating food just optional” and he “would go on benders where I wouldn’t eat for eat or sleep for a few days,” while there were other times when he’d “just [binge] everything. … If you have a sort of history of approaching the way you consume food in an emotional way and things like that are happening, it can really affect you. … It’s not just because of the [tight, body-conscious] clothes you’re wearing, and it’s not even specifically about your body. It’s actually about what’s happening in your mind, and whether you feel as though you’re in control of the stuff that’s happening to you.”
Hawkins’s weight rollercoastered along with his life in general, and he recalls a time when he was “a lot heavier” and one of the Darkness’s tour crew members was genuinely worried that “the rigging would not handle the additional weight” when Hawkins flew over a concert audience in a harness (as he had in his thinner Permission to Land era). He also remembers a time when he was “about to drop down dead because I was too skinny,” and a U.K. audience began sarcastically chanting to him, “‘You fat bastard, you fat bastard, you fat bastard!’ I was like, ‘Only in England!’ A guy that’s obviously on the edge — I was on the edge and you could see it, you could see my ribs and all that sort of stuff — and they were doing that. But I took it as like an affectionate, ‘go eat a sandwich’ kind of vibe. Such an English reaction!”
But this was no joke, and eventually Hawkins checked into England’s famous Priory rehab clinic, which resulted in the Darkness splitting up in 2006, a year after One Way Ticket’s release. “The only thing that you have to do is prioritize the recovery, [even] if that means leaving the band that you’re famous for,” Hawkins says. He still won’t publicly discuss the “rock-bottom moment” that led to him getting sober for good, and says he won’t even include it in his forthcoming autobiography. “Part of it is because I haven’t processed what happened,” he admits. “I’ve had periods of sobriety before that have been quite long ones, really, but then nothing really bad happened, so it never seems that dangerous to go back. So, then you go back, something bad happens, you stop, you go back, something bad happens, you stop. One day something really f***ing terrible happens, so you stop and then you don’t start again. And you almost revere that event, because it’s the thing that keeps you on a straight and narrow.
“Rock-bottom moments for people who are in recovery… the thing about getting better and sort of turning it around is that it never comes from anything positive,” Hawkins continues. “It’s always something cataclysmically awful that you can’t live with anymore. And it might be because of shame or because somebody’s physically hurt by something that’s your fault under the influence or whatever. But the point I’m making is that it’s the darkest, darkest moment of my life, which is also the time that probably saved my life. I’ve never talked about it, and I never will.”
Whatever it was that finally inspired him to get clean, Hawkins says it took a long for him to actually start “enjoying life again. It took me at least six years before I started smiling. … The band got back together [in 2011] before I was happy again, so the first period [after the reunion], I still wasn’t smiling. I was moody all the time. … It took me a while, but I was ready to talk to those guys, and I was ready to do stuff. And I was ready to be part of the Darkness.”
The Darkness have released five more (critically acclaimed!) albums since reuniting, the most recent being 2021’s Motorheart, and nowadays, the happy, glowed-up Hawkins is smiling quite often — in music videos, in interviews, on YouTube, and especially onstage — even if many of the Darkness’s deceptively upbeat anthems explore the darker topics discussed above. “Yeah, there’s stuff in there that’s not as palatable as it seems,” hints Hawkins. “We’re a good-time rock ‘n’ roll band, but if you actually look underneath the bonnet, at what’s happening in the engine, there’s stuff in there that’s pretty serious. They’re serious subjects, just done in a daft way.” However, when the Darkness embark on their 20th anniversary tour in October, every show will no doubt be celebratory affair, and everyone will be dancing like it’s Friday night.
“It’s a different thing now,” rock survivor Hawkins says of his band’s career, 20 years on. “Sometimes we bubble up, and sometimes we’re a cult band. But we’ve always got this unbelievable following. You see the same people at the gigs, and a lot of people travel for multiple gigs. We do tours and they’re successful, and it’s an awesome thing to be involved in, because it’s kind of bulletproof. We don’t need hits. We don’t need anything. We’ve got our people and we do our thing, and they love it. We love them. That’s how it works.”
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