The Darkness are one of rock’s most unlikely success stories. Bulldozing through the entropy of bubblegum bands and Nickelback sound-alikes in the early 2000s, the Suffolk quartet surprised the masses with the heavy-hitting debut Permission to Land.
They shouldn’t have caught on. But we’re glad they did.
The group’s throwback ‘70s sound, salacious songs, and glittery attire were so over-the-top and in-your-face that many critics mistook the band for a joke. AC/DC riffs, Thin Lizzy-like guitar solos, and Led Zeppelin braggadocio all rolled in one? Unitards, catsuits, feather boas, and handlebar moustaches a la Queen and Black Sabbath, circa 1974? Glass-shattering, multi-octave vocals…in 2003?
The Darkness had to be a put-on, right?
Well, no. And yes. For while British bad boys Justin Hawkins (vocals, guitar), Dan Hawkins (guitar), Frankie Poullain (bass), and Ed Graham (drums) took their rock and roll seriously, they didn’t have high regard for much else. Songs like “Growing On Me,” “Get Your Hands Off My Woman,” and “I Believe in a Thing Called Love” may have sounded like kooky castoffs from a bygone Bowie era, yet they were very much of the here-and-now—fascinating musical mutants that defied listeners (and MTV onlookers) to ignore them.
The Darkness delivered ‘em all wrapped in irresistible, timeless pastiches of gritty guitar rock and pulsating rhythm…and marinated in equal measures of sex appeal, swagger, and smarm. And they did it all over again on One Way Ticket to Hell…and Back in 2005.
At which point the runaway train went careening off the tracks: Justin bailed after a stint in rehab for his rampant drinking and drug addiction. Frankie left too, leaving Dan and Ed to soldier on with replacements Richie Edwards and Chris McDougal (as both The Darkness and The Stone Gods). Upon cleaning up his act, Justin dabbled in musical side projects like British Whale and Hot Leg.
The original lineup regrouped for a handful of festivals in 2011 and comeback effort Hot Cakes in 2012, but then health issues forced Ed from the drum riser. Nevertheless, the guys held it together…with a little help from a girl drummer (Emily Dolan Davies) on 2015’s The Last of Our Kind.
The fourth album finds brothers Justin and Dan adding to their expanding catalog of beefy hits (“Love Is Only a Feeling,” “Girlfriend,” “Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us”) with sizzling new Darkness ditties like “Barbarian,” “Mighty Wings,” and “Open Fire.” Produced in-house by Dan and company, the disc is a welcome slab of signature Darkness muscle rock and glam-slams that simultaneously cements former glories and inches forward into a bright, bawdy future.
The Darkness finally returns to Cleveland on Sunday, April 24th, for its first-ever appearance at House of Blues. We spoke with Frankie Poullain about Last of Our Kind, the impending tour, and classic Darkness kitsch. The bassist’s responses were as cheeky as one might expect from a man who dresses like he raided Jimi Hendrix’ wardrobe.
CLEVELAND EXAMINER: Hiya, Frankie! Can you discuss the writing / recording of Last of Our Kind? How did the process differ from Hot Cakes and previous albums? Where and when was it recorded?
FRANKIE POULLAIN: It was recorded last year in a fit of pique. But ironically we were in peak fitness. It was written in Ibiza and Valentia—both islands off the coasts of Spain and Ireland, respectively. I guess that makes sense when you think about it. It was recorded in East Anglia, not far from Norwich, in Dan’s studio. He did a great job. His patience, aptitude and ability to concentrate for huge swathes of time are astonishing. We had our backs to the wall as there was a lot of upheaval within the ranks—record companies, management, drummers. Emotional turmoil in our private lives, too, that you may be able to ascertain from reading the lyric sheets. We worked our way through it all and came out stronger and better. This album is warmer and fuller than anything we’ve done before; it’s more impassioned.
CLEVELAND EXAMINER: You do some lead vocals on the new record. Can you discuss the song (“Conquerors”) and your approach?
FRANKIE POULLAIN: I didn’t know what the hell I was doing, and that’s why it sounds bruised and raw. It came from the guts, which a lot of people don’t realize are the seat of the emotions. The heart’s got fuck all to do with anything; that’s just propaganda!
CLEVELAND EXAMINER: You have one of the most badass moustaches in rock. Was it inspired by anything or one in particular?
FRANKIE POULLAIN: The small of a woman’s back.
CLEVELAND EXAMINER: Which bands inspired The Darkness’ fashion sensibility? Your bandanas rule.
FRANKIE POULLAIN: One-hit wonders from the early 70’s, those deluded yet loveable losers.
CLEVELAND EXAMINER: Who inspired you to play bass? Can you name some favorites? Any thoughts on the passing of Chris Squire (Yes) last year or David Bowie this year?
FRANKIE POULLAIN: Being around grey unhappy people inspired me to play bass—that, and the mysterious sound and the effect of that sound on people with loose bowel syndrome! I felt depressed and then reflective when Bowie passed away. But then it lifted, and I felt inspired and thought, “How fortunate we are that one guy could have enriched our lives and memories in so many weird and wonderful ways!”
CLEVELAND EXAMINER: What was it like working with Roy Thomas Baker on One Way Ticket to Hell…and Back? He produced a lot of great stuff (Queen, Yes, etc.).
FRANKIE POULLAIN: It was a disaster, really! It cost a fortune and sounded clinical and sterile. Wrong time and wrong place I guess. Some of the songs are better than that.
CLEVELAND EXAMINER: How are things different with your new band member, drummer Rufus Taylor, as opposed to previous Darkness drummers?
FRANKIE POULLAIN: It’s not fair to answer that question. He’s a lovely guy—but then they were lovely people too. I guess the moral of the story is that music brings out the best in people! Rock ‘n’ roll does, anyway.
CLEVELAND EXAMINER: Can you discuss your own initial leaving the band, and how the reunion came about after Justin’s rehab?
FRANKIE POULLAIN: Somehow we allowed the fun to get sucked out of it. Perhaps we were guilty of taking ourselves a bit too seriously, especially given the reasons why people liked us in the first place. And we were surrounded by greedy scavenging blood suckers! I wouldn’t say we were shafted per se; we probably shafted ourselves, really. But we were leeched upon and bled almost dry. The reunion was a surprise to me. The timing was good for all of us, and we felt lucky and honored to have the opportunity to be bled dry yet again!
CLEVELAND EXAMINER: Permission to Land was my favorite album of 2004. Can you talk about the band’s origins, and the transition from semi-obscurity to stardom with that album and those particular songs?
FRANKIE POULLAIN: It was a magical time. Justin and Dan really had the bit between their teeth. The two words I would use, strangely enough, would be love and determination. Our love for each other, Justin’s love for Sue, our love for the music, the fan’s love for our shows, the songs with love in the title. It was all that—and a monstrous determination to do it and prove the industry wrong. Because there was nothing else we could do!
CLEVELAND EXAMINER: Can you talk about how the holiday song “Christmas Time (Don’t Let the Bells End)” came about? It’s still one of my Christmas favorites, right up there with Bowie and Bing Crosby, McCartney’s song, and The Kinks.
FRANKIE POULLAIN: Dan really pushed for it and got stuck into it musically speaking. He was right, and it was and is a success. The choruses are very simple and rote but the verses and the middle eight are quite sad and melancholic. At least for The Darkness, certainly.
CLEVELAND EXAMINER: Do you have any memories of playing in Cleveland, Ohio? You guys did a show at Nautica Pavilion…and a meet ‘n’ greet at the Rock Hall. An initial appearance at The Agora was scrubbed because Justin had throat issues.
FRANKIE POULLAIN: Distant memories, yes! You’re always wanting something to go wrong in Cleveland because of the Spinal Tap thing. The Naughty Pavilion? I wonder what what kind of meet-and-greets happen there?
CLEVELAND EXAMINER: What does the band do for fun and leisure while traveling on the road? Do you have any favorite films, movies, music, or books?
FRANKIE POULLAIN: Trevor is the new tech for Rufus and me. He was with Ed Sheeran for a few years and Marillion for a long time before that. He’s been introducing us to obscure delights like The Bonzo Dog Dooh-Dah Band’s The Adventures of the son of Exploding Sausage. Apart from that, we watch wall-to-wall airplane disaster documentaries. Just like all the other bands!
The Darkness / Raveneye. Sunday, April 24, 2016 at House of Blues Cleveland (308 Euclid Avenue, Cleveland, Ohio 44114). Doors 7:30pm, show at 8:30pm. Advance tickets $25-$35 on sale now. http://tinyurl.com/h4r52nv