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‘I always try to be the Randy Quaid to Dan’s Chevy Chase’: Justin Hawkins on The Darkness, Christmas traditions and life in Switzerland

The Darkness frontman Justin Hawkins has fond memories of childhood Christmases with his brother and bandmate, Dan Hawkins. For our ‘at home with’ mini-series, he reflects on the making of the band’s hit single, ‘Christmas Time (Don’t Let the Bells End)’, the battle for Christmas No 1, and his own family traditions. As told to Roisin O’Connor

Sunday 11 December 2022 06:30 GMT
The Darkness’s Justin Hawkins: ‘It’s important to us that it’s always around and it’s become a part of a lot of people’s Christmases, that they’re playing it while they’re peeling the sprouts in the morning or whatever it is they do. I’m not usually awake at that time'
The Darkness’s Justin Hawkins: ‘It’s important to us that it’s always around and it’s become a part of a lot of people’s Christmases, that they’re playing it while they’re peeling the sprouts in the morning or whatever it is they do. I’m not usually awake at that time' (Press image)

The Darkness, with their skin-tight catsuits and love of Eighties hair rock, certainly stood out a flock of peacocks among the grey pigeons of Noughties soft-rock. Some feathers were ruffled by the band’s endless parodying and supposed lack of sophistication; nuance was not exactly part of frontman Justin Hawkins’s vocabulary. But within months of signing a record deal they were everywhere the charts, festivals, a No 1 debut album. They even did a Christmas song...

One of the most enduring Yuletide bops of the past 20 years, “Christmas Time (Don’t Let the Bells End)” was released in 2003. It charted at No 2, beaten only by Gary Jules and Michael Andrews’ dolorous cover of “Mad World”. While it’s got everything you could want in a Christmas song sleigh bells, Santa, Christmas trees it’s also a full-throttle, spandex-clad rock song that puts Hawkins’ bauble-shattering falsetto to excellent use. Double entendres abound: “bells end” and “ring in peace”? Definitely no coincidence.

The track was released the same year the band launched their debut album, ‘Permission to Land’, a bold and brilliant collection of glam-rock that included singles “I Believe in a Thing Called Love” and “Get Your Hands off My Woman”. Their latest album, ‘Motorheart’, was released in 2021 they’re currently working on a follow-up.

I’m in Scotland at the moment, near Inverness, we’re doing a writing session. I’ve just been running – I run every day. We’re working on another Darkness album. We haven’t done it for a long time... it’s too early to describe [this one] yet but we’re having fun. It’s a departure from our usual stuff, you know? I imagine our fans get a bit depressed listening to that.

Christmas memories… There were things me and [my brother] Dan were obliged to share because Santa recognised that we were equally good during the course of the year, so he’d bring a present that was for both of us, like an Amstrad CPC 464. It was brilliant because we could play on it together, the arguments started later. There was another one called Tarantula or something, and it was just a plastic mat you put on the ground, and then this battery-powered tarantula as big as your head scuttles towards you and you have to shoot it with infrared beams from pistols. And then there was one that was a bit like Buckaroo but it was themed around Jaws, and you had to get treasure out of the shark’s mouth. I think mum and dad – sorry, Santa Claus – were determined to get us things that’d help us get on. Maybe the creativity has gone out of kid’s toys now, but I do understand [why]. We had a third brother, Richard, and he choked on one of the pieces of treasure from the shark’s mouth. We don’t have to speak about him, though, it was a terrible Christmas tragedy. And the year after, Tarquin, our first brother, perished at the hands of a tarantula’s leg...

My favourite Christmas film is National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation – I always try to be the Randy Quaid to Dan’s Chevy Chase. He’s Clark Griswold and I’m definitely Cousin Randy. My brother’s much more into Christmas than I am. I do it reluctantly. Last time I was on tour, and when I came back my daughter and my ex-wife had decorated a tree, a real one, and put it on my porch so all I had to do was move it into position, because they knew I wouldn’t do it. Not because I’m Scrooge or anything, I just can’t be bothered. I work really hard all year, and while most people might assume I’m the Christmas guy, I’m really not! My brother is, so this year, like many years, I’ll go and join in with his family. Me and my daughter (she’s nine) will fly to England and go there. She’s definitely excited about it because she understands it’s an opportunity to get some expensive gifts. I want her to do some of the traditional service things this time so she understands it’s also about giving as well as receiving. I like the pageantry of it, you know? The stories behind it.

In Switzerland, where we live, it’s funny because they have this thing on 6 December where Santa will go to your house, but he’ll bring this really weird hairy bloke [Schmutzli] and the kids will talk to Santa about how good they’ve been, and then they have to confess to the hairy bloke about when they’ve been naughty. And between Santa and the hairy guy, they’ll decide whether you’ve been good or bad. And if you’re good you get presents, and if you’ve been bad, the hairy guy puts you in a bag and takes you away!

The best Christmas songs are sad, aren’t they? I was aiming for that. It’s the bit of the year you look forward to even if you’ve had a s****y time. You dread it if you’re hosting, but if you do what I do, which is be a parasite on other people’s Christmases, then you’re looking forward to putting your feet up and letting someone else do all the work. It was 2003… I’ve been talking about this with my brother, actually. We remember it a bit differently – I think we had the chorus, and the “Ring in peace” and “Bell’s End” things that I was really hoping to get over the line. We’d had that chorus for quite a few years, we wrote it before the first record, but the rest were things we developed after we decided to do a Christmas song. And that was because we had this campaign, the culmination of it was “I Believe In a Thing Called Love”, and we’d just signed a major record deal, and the label said, ‘What do you wanna do next?’ And my brother was a bit drunk, I think, he’s Christmassy all year round, and he said, ‘Let’s do a Christmas song!’ And to our surprise the label said ‘yeah OK cool’.

Justin Hawkins (furry hat): ‘My brother said “let’s do a Christmas song” and the label were like, “OK!”' (Press image)

Next thing was they gave us a list of producers, a list of engineers and a list of studios. And we said: “Bob Ezrin, Cenzo Townsend, Abbey Road.” Chose our favourites from the three lists. And then we recorded it around the end of August, beginning of September, because it was around when the Kerrang! awards were happening, we won some that year. So we went to Abbey Road, it was amazing. Kevin Spacey was in the next room doing a soundtrack for something. We’d gone from a self-recorded, self-funded first record and suddenly we were at Abbey Road surrounded by movie stars, doing a Christmas record with Bob Ezrin. It was completely surreal.

The first day was great, Bob Ezrin is an excellent guy, such a laugh. You arrive at the Darkness sound by pissing around in posh studios, that’s how it works. And Bob, who’s an amazing musician and composer, really helped me with some of the lyrics. I get hung up on true rhymes, and the second verse was killing me, I couldn’t make it work. And he was like, “Well just have another line that says ‘hurts’ at the end of it.” And obviously he was right. It changed my life really, because it made me realise that the narrative is the thing that matters, not to get hung up on the minute details that no one else gives a s*** about. And funnily enough the ones where I let go are the ones that turn out to be hits.

The year that song came out was a really busy year for us. It was crazy, the momentum pulled us around the world a few times, and we were struggling. I ran away, I ran off with somebody just before Christmas because I couldn’t be arsed with any of it. And then we got a call from the label saying, ‘Look, you’re No 1 in the midweeks, we need you to come back and do some promo.’ And I was like, for f***’s sake… So because of the bitterness of my tone during [interviews], I think it actually swapped it round and we ended up at No 2 against Gary Jules [with “Mad World”]. But we didn’t care, it wasn’t about that. If you write a Christmas song it’s the sort of thing that pops back and haunts people. It’s important to us that it’s always around and it’s become a part of a lot of people’s Christmases, that they’re playing it while they’re peeling the sprouts in the morning or whatever it is they do. I’m not usually awake at that time!

The Darkness are on a co-headline UK arena tour with Black Stone Cherry from 28 January to 4 February, tickets available here.

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