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INTERVIEW: The Darkness
Laurie Tuffrey , August 7th, 2012 10:16

We talk to bassist Frankie Poullain about The Darkness' reunion, their upcoming LP Hot Cakes and their tour with Lady Gaga; we've got a UK exclusive listen to their cover of Radiohead's 'Street Spirit (Fade Out)' from the album below

As we reported back in May, The Darkness, the UK’s finest contemporary exponents of straight-up rock & roll, pyrotechnic fretwork and tight trousers have finished a new album. Hot Cakes is released on August 20 via PIAS, and promises "a musical explosion of multi-platinum rock riffs, pop hooks, and the best infectious choruses and balls out stadium anthems around."

It’s their third LP, the follow-up to 2005’s One Way Ticket To Hell... And Back. After that album, frontman Justin Hawkins’ addictions got the best of him, leading to a spell in rehab and subsequently quitting the band. Fraught with internal strife for some time, The Darkness then disbanded, with guitarist Dan Hawkins and drummer Ed Graham forming the Stone Gods, while Justin set out with Hot Leg, as well as releasing a couple of singles under his synthpop guise British Whale (and appearing in a Superbowl advert). However, the band buried the hatchet in 2011, reuniting their original line-up, with Frankie Poullain back on bass, to tour and record a new album.

As well as new material, Hot Cakes includes their live favourite cover of Radiohead’s ‘Street Spirit (Fade Out)’ - have a listen to our UK exclusive stream of the track below. Also, scroll down to watch the video for the album’s first single, ‘Everybody Have A Good Time’, and have a look at the LP’s sleeve art below.

The band are about to set out on a mammoth 29-date tour with Lady Gaga, so before they did, we caught up with Frankie to talk about burying the hatchet, the Teenage Fanclub influence on the new album and bestiality on YouTube.

How's the new album?

Frankie Poullain: The album has shaped up nicely - it's very hard to be subjective about it! But the reviews are coming in quite nicely. I suppose back in 2006 was the lowest ebb critically, and just the perception of us, it had to kind of rebound didn't it? Now, I think its finding more of a balance and people are actually listening to the music and not thinking so much about the fact that we're a lycra-clad bonkers tribute from Lowestoft. Feels like a real album, it's got a real balance. It's quite heartfelt really; well, apart from the Radiohead one, I guess that's more of a fun thing.

When did you finish recording?

FP: It's probably springtime we finished. Almost all of the recording was done in Dan's studio. Leeders Farm over in Norfolk, which is a residential studio that he built up and has been running for the last few years. W were the last band to record there before the place was dismantled, and it was quite symbolic really, because we were frantically trying to finish takes while all around us the studio was literally diminishing before our eyes! Bits of kit were getting taken away, so during my very last bass take, we had to use a kind of diminished recording system - we just about managed to get there with it!

Why was it being dismantled?

FP: He was converting the studio into his family living quarters, which was really cool, because it had this huge library that he converted into this massive living space for his partner and his two daughters. The old manor part of the house, he sold off. I guess children in the studio is not good when you're out with a touring rock band!

What kind of sounds can we expect?

FP: There's quite a lot! There's windswept, romantic, there's Justin beating his chest like a gorilla with its heart torn asunder. It's heartfelt sentiment. The songs have been flavoured by small town concerns and sentiments. I would say the heartfelt thing is something which rings true to me, because we've all been through such intense times with each other and also in our private lives, post-fame, and you learn a lot about yourselves and about other people. By Darkness standards, it's probably slightly reflective, but by the time we all got together and started beefing the songs up and egging each other on, they're all overblown. That's one thing The Darkness’ music will always be, because we're reaching out to other people - that's our duty, to just encourage people to get over themselves and not be hostages to this “cool” thing.

There's a song called 'She Just A Girl, Eddie' and that's basically Justin writing about Ed breaking up with his girlfriend and reaching out to him and telling him there's plenty more fish in the sea. The pay-off line is “there are other girls that want to make love to you”, and the second time he sings it, it's “there's four billion other girls who want to make love to you”, he kind of follows it with an “and me!” which is very Justin! He's kind of thinking a bit self-conscious about empathetic towards Ed, so he has to stick in the honesty, the little punch line thing and that's a very Lowestoft thing.

Musically, it's got a bit of the new-wavey, American new wave Tom Petty/The Cars-kind of thing. There's also a song called ‘Forbidden Love’, which is singing passionately about forbidden love. It's probably the closest we've come to that kind of U2/Springteen-y vibe, it's definitely moving away from metal. It's even got a bit of a flamenco-flavour to it as well. We also have a song called 'Concrete', which I think is one of the strongest on the album, which is about looking for love in the concrete jungle. That's quite epic, skyscraping - I kind of see that as our 'Paranoid Android'. That's sonically one of the biggest things we've done, I'm very proud of that. Then Dan got to indulge his Teenage Fanclub obsession on one of the tracks too, very unusual for us to do that. That's the last track on the album called 'Love Is Not The Answer'. Musically, it's very Teenage Fanclub and very different sounding to any Darkness track. Ultimately, I think the vibes and the melodies are actually quite Abba-esque and that's always been an influence on is, in stuff like 'Love Is Only A Feeling'.

What was it like to get back into the studio together again?

FP: Well, there were tensions, but it was quite good to have tensions, because it meant we all had to prove ourselves. We're always giving each other shit anyway, we're always giving each other a hard time, because we all have blind spots like anyone. We all egg each other on and we all have different approaches when we're in the studio. Obviously Dan and Justin's are more artistic, they're flavouring everything. In my opinion, Dan's a very underrated arranger and songwriter.

Was it difficult having left the band and coming back into the studio with them?

FP: It was tough for me because in the previous six years I didn't play with anyone; I had a few offers but there was nothing that was going to be as much fun or as liberating as being on stage with The Darkness, it just would've been a stupid, poe-faced rock band and I didn't have the desire to do that. I kind of started off with a clean slate; in a way that was interesting, because I'd changed a lot as a person, and it felt like I had a more positive energy, a bit more free. Technically, yeah, I have limitations. Sometimes, if you're not a virtuoso, it forces you to adopt one way of doing it and just staying there, making that your trademark. I think the primitive aspect is really important: in a rock band, I think you need one or two members who are primitive, and I'm quite conscious about that and I think it's a really important thing. When people talk about dream line-ups for a band, it would never work, it's as dull as dishwater, it's a bunch of guys playing in the comfort zone. This way, you've got two guys playing without an ego and not getting in each other's way. It's these minute little differences and combinations that kind of create bands.

Who instigated the reunion?

FP: I suppose effectively you could say outside influences: family and friends of ours, kids in the music industry who knew us, just several different people giving us a nudge. Practically speaking, it was our ex-manager who got us back together, because she knows us well and certainly knows Justin well, from being his partner, and she said we should just talk and get back together. I think each of us began to entertain the possibility for different reasons. Dan, for example, entered into the possibility because he'd had daughters and that calmed him down a lot. Dan and Justin are both capable of holding grudges - they'd be the first to admit that - and sometimes that's a good thing. They believe people should accept the consequences of their actions, they're quite old-school like that. Basically, they haven't got time for bullshitters, you know? All of us had little grievances, but we'd had enough time to get over it, and yeah, this just feels like the right time.

On to the tour with Lady Gaga - how did that come around?

FP: Well, according to our booking agent, she requested us and is apparently a fan. I've heard that she's got a soft spot for '80s metal, and it kind of makes sense - [The Darkness] are a band that have a certain attitude of not appearing to care too much about what people think and chancing their arm when it comes to presentation and not being afraid of being perceived as garish or in bad taste and just having a dedication to entertaining people at all costs.

Gaga's got quite a reputation for live performance - have you got anything up your sleeves to try and top her?

FP: No, we definitely won't think about what she's doing or try and top her, we'll just do our own thing. I think she's smart enough to realise that we're different enough. Of course, the crowd's going to be different, and maybe subconsciously, when you're playing to different crowds on successive nights, you might alter what you do very slightly, but essentially you've just got to do what you do and do it better.

What's it like on the tour bus now - you mentioned that Justin's on a health drive, are things a bit more zen?

FP: I wouldn't say zen, because we're not all poe-faced and eating yogurt and taking ourselves seriously and everything - we definitely don't do that! We kind of have more of a laugh and look out for each other more, you know. We'll probably have most fun on stage, whereas before it was the other way round, after the gig and then it was almost like the gig was just there so you could have a party afterwards. The lifestyle was just one party after another, so now we're channelling all our energy towards the gig and just focussing on that. We're trying to visualise it the night before and give it as much as we can, because we've been given a second chance. In most walks of life, you don't get given a second chance, so we feel very fortunate. Somehow no-one's filled the vacuum, there have been no other rock bands occupying the same territory as us. I suppose, like our American manager says, there are very few bands playing rock n' roll with a sense of fun, rock n' roll started with a sense of fun.

After playing a blinder at the 100 Club last October, do you think you're making up for lost time with your live form?

FP: I must admit, I actually thought that was one of our worst gigs of the year! We were egging each other on and trying to stick in all these B-sides from over the years and whenever one of us tried to say it's a bad idea to do that, we were making chicken noises, so we basically ended up with this crazy set where we had all the songs in the wrong place. Also, playing in small clubs you get extra nervous; when you're playing and the crowd are next to you like that you get much more nervous than when you've got a huge crowd and you're on a big stage. But that's true, we're definitely trying to make up for lost time and those gigs in 2004 when we were effectively shadows of our former selves really and it had gone sour and we basically let ourselves shift into the corporate rock scenario where you're just slugging and playing the same songs for the fourth year running - we should have just said enough is enough then.

With the 'Street Spirit' cover, I know you've been playing that for a while live, but how did you originally decide to cover it?

FP: So we had to do a session for Radio 1, the 'Live Lounge', and you have to do a cover. We went into rehearsal and said "okay, we're going to do 'Smells Like Teen Spirit'". The whole vibe was that we were a band doing a form of music that grunge killed, so basically it was the most inappropriate thing and it would be interesting for us: basically, our influences ended in 1989, there was nothing of the '90s or the '00s that fed into what we did musically, but every time we wanted to do it AC/DC style: it's quite a rigid song, so make it even more rigid and take away all this slacker, whiney quality. That was the idea, and we thought, “yeah, this is pretty funny, but it hasn't got the visceral thing, you know? It's not really actually rocking”, and that's the number one rule with us: it can be as funny or ridiculous as you like, but it has to actually rock. When you hear it, it's got to make your heartbeat faster. So, halfway through the rehearsal with only an hour and a half to go, we started talking about Radiohead and we were looking at all the doleful, mournful ballads and then Dan just started the chugging for a joke, doing that kind of Iron Maiden, galloping rhythm with the chords to 'Street Spirit', and straightaway it was in the right key for Justin's voice and then as soon as we heard him sing that chorus, we just knew that was it, so we did that.

It seems strange that we're recording it know, but people only had the Radio 1 version, which was recorded in a real hurry, so we thought let's put it out there, it's strong enough. Originally it was going to be a B-side or a free download, but then we thought you can never have too much rock on an album and we thought also for the Americans to hear it. Live, the American and Australian audiences really liked it.

But it's definitely a tribute to Radiohead. The bottom line is, it's all about songs, and that's a great song, and a great song can be played in any style. That's what a lot of the critics and haters on YouTube miss when they say "how can you tear apart Radiohead's song like that and play it in that style?" But the thing is, a great song should be able to be played in any style, hence that whole thing for the bossa nova style: any song can be played in that style, it doesn't matter if it's written by the Rolling Stones or even Coldplay. Melodically and lyrically, I'm not a fan of theirs, and what they represent, but there's not doubt that Chris Martin can carry a melody.

I was watching the video for 'Everybody Have A Good Time' before we spoke: it's a lot of fun to watch, and looks like it was a lot of fun to make - how did you put it together?

FP: Well, we basically sabotaged what we were presented with. We were told, "okay, you're going to do this video, it's going to be pretty straightforward, we haven't got much time". We all instinctively thought that this is just a bit too straight, what they're presenting us with here. We got together with the director, Warren Fu, and had a couple of long Skype conversations and suggested that because it's a very straight song and a little bit vanilla, as the Americans say - probably the most MOR thing we've done - so we thought let's make it about the economic crisis and the bear market and then that led to how we'd have a bear there, and then we thought we wanted something a bit sexier, you know. We wanted to sex things up generally with this album, you know, hence the album cover. So we thought there'd not been much bestiality in music videos, and YouTube lets you do anything pretty much. So we thought let's get the bear, but we couldn't afford that, then we just basically did what we did for the 'Growing On Me' and 'I Believe In A Thing Called Love' video, and had a lot of fun and just tried to basically squeeze as much in there as we could.

Who's done the artwork for the album?

FP: Diego Gravinese - he's an Argentinian super-realist, where they paint almost like a photograph, so we heard the concept - Hot Cakes - let's do that literally, and we were thinking, our English manager suggested the flavour of those Roxy Music '70s covers, that weird kind of sexy thing, and then that morphed into a little bit of the '70s porn thing. It was to make it seem less exploitative: there had to be a certain kind of beauty and a certain sense of fun there as well. And we wanted something really positive, and it just seemed to capture the sweetness of the music, and then there's rock n' roll, which is sexy music, or should be anyways. So we had the scenarios photographed with models on giant model pancakes, I think they spent two days there; unfortunately, we weren't flown over for that. Then the various pictures and poses were sent over to us - it sounds ridiculous, because for most other [bands], it's just something you could rattle off in no time - but we did want all the poses to look right, as we didn't want it to seem crass and exploitative. It's mainly guys speaking on behalf of women who think it looks exploitative; most women think it's kind of fun - it's the mood we wanted to get across for the album.