The Darkness: Toilet humour, self-deprecation and a hint of internal strife

What a year it's been for Lowestoft's campest band of brothers. They've lost a bass player, found a new one (it took, oooh, seconds) and tackled the biggest rock'n'roll question of all: how do you follow that? Simon Price dons his spangliest catsuit to hang in their hotel suite
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"I had a vitamin injection in my arse," Ed Graham remembers dolefully. "Then I had to sit on a drumstool for two hours. My performance on the first night at Wembley was... unsatisfactory."

"Was it compounded by the telling off I gave you in front of a full auditorium?" Justin enquires, with a mixture of mischief and apology. "I was in a mood that night anyway. Some personal shit was really getting to me, and I swore at the audience."

Toilet humour, self-deprecation and a hint of internal strife? Yes, they're back. The Darkness, for the benefit of passing Venusians, are the long-haired Lowestoft lads who, despite the initial mockery and disbelief of the media (who dismissed them as a novelty act) and the music business (likewise), somehow leapt from the London pub circuit to festival-headliner status, becoming one of Britain's biggest rock bands.

Their unfashionable but refreshingly feel-good heavy rock, laced with humour and shameless showmanship, struck a chord with a public tired of the whine-rock of Radiohead, Coldplay and their legions of imitators.

In 2003, their big breakthrough year, they sold three million copies of their debut album Permission To Land, and by the end of 2004 had bagged a treble of Brit Awards (Best Album, Band, Rock Act), headlining three nights at Wembley Arena in December. They were, without question, the people's band.

Since then, apart from the release of leader Justin Hawkins' solo single (an enjoyable, but ultimately superfluous cover of Sparks' "This Town Ain't Big Enough For Both Of Us" under the name British Whale), we haven't heard a peep from The Darkness, and the much-publicised sacking of bassist Frankie Poullain (of which, more shortly) only fuelled rumours of disharmony and Difficult Second Album Syndrome.

What really went on?

The Hawkins brothers, Justin and Dan, Ed Graham (the lugubrious, laid-back drummer) and new recruit Richie Edwards are in a suite on the ninth floor of Kensington's Royal Garden Hotel, high above the sirens and the traffic, with a view across London's night skyline.

"I'm a bit of a worrier," Dan admits. "I could see that this thing, the first album, was gonna end at some point, and people would expect us to go in and do something bigger and better."

Easier said than done. In the autumn of 2004, as soon as a break appeared in their touring schedule, the band decamped to a studio in Stanbridge (near Brighton) to work on new material.

"Instead," Dan sighs, "we mostly just slept. We were knackered. I'd be hammering away, trying to drag the rest of the band with me. We had the foresight to prepare for the second album, but we didn't have the foresight to realise that we needed a break. Looking back, maybe we should have had two or three weeks of downtime. But," he adds, "in hindsight, I'm an optimist."

Although two or three songs from those initial sessions would survive, there was no time to build up any momentum. Almost immediately, they were back on tour. As Justin remembers, it turned into a Groundhog Year.

"The biggest challenge for a band," Justin opines, "is being allowed to develop on what you did first time around. If you're a band like us who recorded an album that didn't take very long to record, didn't cost very much money, and then is unbelievably successful, the record company thinks 'That's the golden goose! I want another egg now! We'll give them two weeks to lay the egg, and we'll sell it again.' Second album syndrome is often caused by 'financial years', and companies trying to get a return on their investment. Max from Atlantic turned up with a briefcase with a bit of paper hanging out, which said 'Darkness Timelines'. We said, 'Just ignore the timelines bit, double the budget, and you're laughing.' And to be fair, that's exactly what he did..."

Rather than buy a country retreat, Dan - not thrilled by "the thought of the clock ticking in some sterile studio" - built his own residential rehearsal studio in the wilds of Norfolk, "in a farmhouse that was built for dwarves," Justin laughs. "Our dad's a builder," says Dan, "and it's ongoing. I can walk around downstairs and I don't have to duck any more. He's taken head-sized chunks out of the beams. When the others first came to stay, whenever everyone woke up I'd hear these massive bangs, then swearing!"

At first, there was talk of bringing out of retirement the veteran producer Mutt Lange (famed for his work with AC/DC and Def Leppard, but now more preoccupied with country-pop artists such as his wife Shania Twain).

"We had one dinner with him," Justin recalls, "and before he'd even heard a note of what we'd written, he insisted on having a writing credit. I nearly..."

He pauses, restrains himself. "No, it doesn't matter. But what he said to us was the thing that we have to eliminate about ourselves in order to break America - which is the least of our concerns - is to 'take away any ambiguity' as to what we are, and really dumb down. So... NO! The crux of his argument was: we're too gay, and we really needed to get our balls out and make this sound like a rock album. But when people are telling you you're too sophisticated and you need to dumb down, the first thing you do is say 'Lets be more gay!' I want to be massive in America on our terms."

The Lange option rejected, another "classic rock" legend was enlisted. Roy Thomas Baker, the man responsible for, among other things, "Bohemian Rhapsody". This time, they clicked.

In a number of locations, with instruments ranging from Peruvian pan-pipes and Freddie Mercury's actual piano, the second Darkness album, One Way Ticket To Hell... And Back, began to take shape.

A major player, however, wasn't to be involved. In March 2005, the story broke that Frankie Poullain had been sacked from the band.

In some ways, Poullain had always been something of a square peg. Not one of the Lowestoft contingent (he hailed from Milnathort, near Dundee), he was what Dan describes as "one of the 'circuit boys' - people who join bands on the off-chance that they might get a record deal." At early gigs, he didn't look very Darkness - until he grew his hair into an afro, donned a bandana, mirrored shades, leather strides and open-to-the-navel shirt, and grew a Charles Bronson moustache.

"That would be the day," jokes Justin, "that we said 'Grow a moustache or you're out'. Kidding!"

The new-look Poullain was to become iconic and emblematic, something of a mascot figure for fans (who would chant "Fran-kie! Fran-kie!") and for many, the embodiment of the spirit of the band.

"His contribution to the band was largely image-related," Justin bluntly puts it. Dan agrees. "Imagine if you're in a rock band and you don't like rock music, for example. And you'd rather do a Hail Gainsbourg than a Hail Angus. Imagine presenting yourself as something that you're not. Imagine being in a band where your musical input - that you think you're worthy of - actually amounts to next-to-fuck-all, but your ego can't handle it. And imagine becoming rich and famous. Anyone on this planet can do the maths."

This, the Hawkins brothers believe, led to an "identity crisis", exacerbated by sudden success. "People respond to surprise success in different ways," Justin explains. "And of all of us, Frank was the least prepared for it." The rags-to-riches element of The Darkness's ascent is highlighted by a marvellous story that Ed Graham, when opening his account at Coutts, used a British Gas disconnection letter for an unpaid £50 bill as his proof of address.

Poullain's reaction, Justin believes, was to take too much notice of acclaim and attacks alike. "He believed his own hype, and conversely, he also took on board all the criticisms that were levelled against us. And that's so wrong, so not what we're about! The most acute thing that made me not want to work with him, was that I felt he didn't trust me. I think he thought that the fact that Sue (Whitehouse, Darkness manager and Justin's girlfriend) and I were together meant that she was misrepresenting him with a view to making me more money. So he got his own financial team, and every day our accountant has to deal with quibbles from them. Which isn't good. If my brother doesn't trust me, he's not my brother any more. If my friends don't trust me, they're not my friends any more."

So it was definitely a sacking, rather than a resignation or a mutually agreed decision?

"Oh definitely," says Dan. "That guy is sacked as hell. The band is a legal partnership, and we all unanimously had to sign documents to say he wasn't wanted any more. People will always feel sorry for the sacked guy, and we will always be the villains, but people never think how pissed off I was to be put in the position of having to do that. It isn't rocket science. Be a nice bloke, keep your feet on the ground, be level-headed, and work your arse off."

Do they have anything positive to say about him? "He had an admirable trait," Justin concedes, "in that he was really devoted to making it. And it's not something that I suffer with: I'm the laziest bastard you'll ever meet. And I need someone in the band to do that, and that's a dynamic he really did bring to the table."

"This," concludes Justin, "is the final time we'll discuss it."

Within thirty seconds of Frankie's formal sacking, his position was already filled. Richie Edwards is a tall, shaven-headed, affable Midlander with a dry sense of humour ("He's the funniest one in the band!" says Justin). He's been in bands since the age of 11, and "every one was the greatest band ever". When I ask whether any of the names might ring a bell, he insists (correctly, as it turns out), "None at all".

"What was that one beginning with G?" Ed enquires. "Gloy," Richie replies with a blush, and a discussion of child-safe glue ensues.

Edwards also boasts an encyclopaedic knowledge of rock history in general (Dan calls him "the behemoth of rock knowledge") and Darkness history in particular: he can rattle off Darkness tour dates with photographic accuracy. "I can remember stuff from years ago," he says. "But I can't remember last week".

Neither Edwards nor Poullain actually play on One Way Ticket To Hell...: it's an entirely Hawkins/Graham/Hawkins affair.

It is, it's fair to say, an insane record. The word "magnificent" frequently springs to mind. It's lavish to a frankly berserk degree, produced to within an inch of its life by Baker, with everything including the kitchen sink thrown in. At times, it seems as though every other line of the vocals has been multi-tracked, or vocodered, or backmasked, or twisted in some other way. It sounds like an almighty finger to anyone who hoped The Darkness might come back meeker and more sensible.

"Good," says Justin in response. "Because that means we'll sell more records. People who love the band, and loved the first album, will come round. In however long it takes - three seconds, half a second - to realise it's magnificent. There's nothing else we could have done. We gave it our best shot. If you concentrate on it, you'll unlock something new every time. Watching [Baker] work is incredible. When I think about it, I get shivers and get weepy. It probably is too much for some people. But they're gonna have to broaden their horizons, 'cos we're not going away. It's the perfect second album, for a Darkness enthusiast."

"Every album now," says Dan, "is made with the idea that it's something to listen to while you're doing your hoovering or going about your business. That doesn't interest us remotely."

"The key word," says Justin, "is 'overt'. Almost every song has either a joke title or a Benny Hill familiarity about it that's exclusively English. The whole debate over whether we're a piss-take or a joke or a parody is the very thing that's made us successful. After all, we went to number 11 with an independent single ["Growing On Me"] about genital warts...

"The album title is just something we found funny. But we can't win. If we do something deep, we're accused of being funny. If we make a cheap gag, we're accused of being deep: 'Novelty band The Darkness have been through Hell, but they've come back - hence the album title, which deals with a really deep subject... in a jokey way!'"

"One Way Ticket To Hell" the title track (and first single), is all about cocaine. Cryptic it ain't. Whereas the heroin-based "Giving Up" (from Permission To Land) was written about a friend of the band, is it reasonable to assume that "One Way Ticket" is somewhat more autobiographical?

"Well," says Justin, "everyone knows I'm not on heroin because I put on loads of weight. We've seen what happens to folk [he arches an eyebrow] when they become embroiled in this terrible world of cocaine...

"Most songs about drugs say 'Oh it's terrible, don't do it,' but the listener thinks 'There must be some reason why people do it'. So what we're saying is: Yeah, it's a really good laugh - apparently [arches eyebrow again], from what I've read - and you do throw your head back in euphoria like Kate Moss and think 'this is wonderful!' But what you don't know is that your whole life is falling apart around you. And then the minute you sober up, you think 'Right, I've got a choice. I can either deal with my life... or I can take some more COCAINE!' Apparently. Allegedly. This is what I read. So I wanted to write a song from the perspective of someone who takes the drug. I have an associate, let's call him Jason... Hawkwind, who has endeavoured to seek therapy for just such a problem ... And you have to understand the upsides to demonise the downsides."

Justin would evidently prefer to keep some things private. "It's like, when Will Young won Pop Idol, suddenly he announces 'Oh, by the way, I'm gay! Forgot to mention that.' And any mystery is gone. I hope we manage to keep a little mystery..."

Why, are you gay?

"A bit, yeah."

Whether or not the single reflects first-hand experience, The Darkness definitely party hard.

"You can say you'd drink a cup of herbal tea straight after a gig then sleep," says Dan in their defence, "but I defy anyone to do that. The last thing you want to do is go to bed."

The most lost-in-showbiz I've ever seen them was on a South Bank Show special, which caught them on a promotional trip to America, wearing expensive suits and designer sunglasses, but clearly completely trashed, and falling asleep on hotel carpets. They looked like real rock stars: the epitome of "elegantly wasted."

"A polished turd?" ventures Justin. "We weren't wasted. It was just bad lighting! Essentially the actual experience involved is, you arrive in LA, get wasted, then wake up the next day thinking 'Oh God, we've got to do Jay Leno', and treat it with the same contempt as you do any other TV show. We don't give a frog's fat arse."

Ed is the quiet man of the band, but parties perhaps the hardest of all. He has minor but persistent health issues, and vows he's going to take things slightly easier from now on. "I never wanna feel physically weak again. I'm definitely gonna look after myself."

How, exactly? He pauses, and replies - to gales of laughter - "I'll just try and... sleep... and eat."

"When we signed our massive publishing deal," Justin remembers, "Ed had somehow slept with one eye open and it had dried out, so he had an actual eye patch on. And we had to hide him from the publisher."

"I actually signed this huge publishing deal from my sickbed," Ed confirms. "That's my most rock'n'roll anecdote."

"It was September 2003," says Richie, scarily.

The Hawkins brothers, like the hotel vino, are in full flow by now.

"I'm sick of the culture of consumption," says Dan. "I feel like McDonald's sometimes..."

"Without the quality of meat," interjects Justin, before switching to serious mode. "McDonald's is an exact analogy. McDonald's would never change what it does unless it had to. Record companies are the same. Ideally they want to sell the same thing over and over."

"This sounds wanky," says Dan. "But I think we're special. We may not be the most culturally important band. But we're honest and we speak from the heart. We come from pretty much a working class background initially, and..."

His rant is interrupted by Justin's assertion that "Every decision we've made has paid dividends. It's been a massive exercise in showing those bastards how it's done."

"The new album was originally going to be called Nails," Dan reveals. "Because it meant 'No one can fuck with us. We're hard.' The new band logo has two nails shaped like T and D, representing the two brothers."

Justin: "And Ed is the spanner."

Ed: "Can you not put that in, please, Simon?" m

'One Way Ticket To Hell... And Back' (Atlantic) is out on 28 November