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Stage Buzz Q&A: The Darkness • Appearing at The Vic Theatre • Chicago

| September 28, 2023

The Darkness (Simon Emmett)

Stage Buzz: The Darkness

Q&A with Frankie Poullain

Written by Jeff Elbel

British band The Darkness made an auspicious arrival in North America in 2003. The band’s bombastic lead single, “I Believe in a Thing Called Love,” was an explosive blast of hard rock replete with a soaring falsetto melody, rich harmonies, guitar heroics by brothers Justin and Dan Hawkins, and cheeky fun. Debut album Permission to Land followed suit with the heavy pop hooks and two-ton rhythm of ensuing songs like “Get Your Hands Off of My Woman.” Trips to Chicago venues beginning with the Double Door established a loyal local fanbase that has embraced material from the band’s seven albums, including 2021’s Motorheart. The Darkness have deployed their winning assets in stunning live shows that never fail to deliver a raucous, technically dazzling, head-banging, campy, and joyful escape. On Friday, October 13, the band will return to the Vic Theatre in celebration of Motorheart and the 20th anniversary of Permission to Land. Bassist Frankie Poullain responded to a series of emailed questions with a characteristic level of snarky wit.

IE: What makes this Darkness tour unique and something to look forward to for you and for fans?

FP: Chaos and spontaneity and variations thereof. Humans are always unique when they have the wherewithal to be themselves. It’s taken us a while, but that’s the journey we’re on.

IE: What are the tried-and-true things about a Darkness tour that you love the best?

FP: The things I can’t remember – elusive and intangible moments that dissolve into the past.

IE: Will this tour lean heavily into Motorheart, or will it skew toward the 20th anniversary of Permission to Land?

FP: This set will skew towards a barbecue, precious and unplayed gems skewered on a kebab stick and fired until succulent to the taste. There will be the inevitable gooey marshmallow encore, but this time you won’t burn the roof of your mouth – and that’s a promise.

IE: I remember reading that during the time leading up to your record deal before Permission to Land, the Darkness wasn’t taken seriously because the music was so over the top, the show was so bombastic, and the lyrics were so cheeky. Music businesspeople must have been avoiding the Darkness because you were just too much fun. It seems like the band’s spirit and presence would be such an easy sell.

FP: Not in the UK. They couldn’t sell a wet bag of cement. Wait, that doesn’t make sense… We were against the grain. The UK is, in fact, a small island that is consensus-based, obedient, and ridiculously myopic and petty. Perfect for a band like us.

IE: I suppose someone could have said that hard rock was outdated for mainstream chart acceptance at the time, but it seemed to me that the Darkness embraced the actual reasons that rock music was invented. Were you ever discouraged that you wouldn’t get a shot, or was it just a matter of time? Was your collective faith in your songs and your live show ironclad?

FP: That’s a good question. We did, in all seriousness, face many moments of discouragement, but the fact is we didn’t have a choice; we just had to do it. The brothers are made of stern stuff and possessed of remarkable talent, and we were very stubborn, in a good way. Perhaps we’re really just a band of donkeys.

IE: I don’t suppose The Darkness will ever be considered a “message” band a la U2, but I think the band does send a message in a meta sense. I get this from The Darkness: Be serious enough to become excellent in the things that you do, but at the same time, don’t take life or yourself so seriously. Be willing to have fun. Does that ring true?

FP: That’s a great observation and very well put. It’s so well put that I can’t have any fun with it.

IE: There was a gap following One Way Ticket to Hell … and Back when the band dissolved, but the Darkness have steadily produced new material since reforming and serving up Hot Cakes in 2012. Are you working on another album?

FP: Yes, we are. It’s going to be the worst album we’ve ever done. The songs are dreadful, just more of the same rubbish. I wouldn’t bother if I was you.

IE: Will you perform anything new? Do you have an album title or ideas for one?

FP: It’s a little early to be giving previews, but we are poised to deliver our masterpiece. We have hundreds of ideas all swarming around our giddy heads. We’re swapping instruments and open to all manner of sorcery. There’s a freedom and confidence I almost can’t remember feeling before. A warmth that tingles the toes. Electric Blanket, perhaps?

IE: What are the qualities that elevate one song idea over another when you’re developing an album? Killer riff? The perfect melody? A lyric that makes you laugh? Actual depth beneath the surface?

FP: It’s never as simple or as literal as that. I suppose boiled down to its essence; it’s the process of transporting an emotion or way of feeling from one place to another, utilizing annoying and troublesome technology.

IE: What is your favorite track to perform from Motorheart?

FP: The title track because it’s unhinged, but I’d love us to try “Speed of the Nite Time” next year.

IE: What is your favorite performance by someone else in the band on Motorheart? Why?

FP: Ru’s [Rufus Tiger Taylor’s] drums on “Welcome Tae Glasgae.”

IE: What do you personally consider to be the best song on Motorheart? Why?

FP: “Motorheart.” No idea why.

IE: Same questions, different album: What is your favorite track to perform from Permission to Land? Why?

FP: “Get Your Hands Off My Woman,” because it’s childish and instinctual.

IE: What is your favorite performance by someone else in the band on Permission to Land?

FP: Dan helped a lot with production and didn’t take credit for it, so I’d say that was the best performance: one of humility and expertise.

IE: What is the best song on Permission to Land, in your opinion? Why?

FP: “Friday Night.” The charming lyrics evoke a very English nostalgia.

IE: Did you catch grief for the Monty Python-esque cover art for Easter is Cancelled? That artwork might have gotten you banned from the USA in the ‘70s. In 2019, it may have made your fans here more eager than ever.

FP: It was all worth it because it’s our best cover art by far, in my opinion. It works on many levels, but mainly on the anti-establishment one.

IE: … and then, of course, Easter was canceled in 2020 following the album release. So was everything else. Did you feel prophetic?

FP: Feeling prophetic would be the ultimate conceit. But yeah, we did, until we realized our sorry asses were trapped at home for close to two years.

IE: I think you have a reputation as being the band member who maintains the closest relationship with fans. Is that the case? Do you find bassists to be the most socially adept members of most bands?

FP: Ha ha, quite the opposite. Justin is by far the closest to the fans. I’m rather awkward and clumsy socially, probably the most introverted. Ru is very socially adept, and Dan too, when he’s in the mood. Justin is the ultimate extrovert, energized by the crowd. He still needs time alone to recharge, of course.

IE: The cowbell bit at the beginning of “I Believe in a Thing Called Love” is a fun feature that puts the spotlight on you. Have you autographed many cowbells?

FP: Bellends yes, cowbells no.

IE: Is the Gibson Thunderbird that you play on stage also your recording bass? Is there a story about finding your favorite bass?

FP: All equipment choices are classified information.

IE: You left the band before One Way Ticket to Hell … and Back arrived, but you’ve been back for 12 years and five albums. Do you feel like the band could last another 20 years?

FP: Easy. Our offspring will supplant us, a glam rock “Succession.”

IE: What did you do musically after departing the Darkness in 2005?

FP: A band called “Nada Zilch.”

IE: What brought you back to the band for Hot Cakes?

FP: The maple syrup.

IE: Do you have favorite places to visit when you’re in Chicago?

FP: Buddy Guy’s place, where our guitar tech Softie wowed the crowd back in 2017.

IE: When I think of the building blocks of the Darkness, I think of Queen and AC/DC first, along with the Sweet, Thin Lizzy, Led Zeppelin, and certainly Motorhead on your Motorheart album. Who am I missing among your collective favorites?

FP: The Beatles.

IE: What influence creeps into the band’s sound that is unique because of you?

FP: When our songs sound like they’re from a musical, that’s normally my fault.

IE: The song “Motorheart” is about android love with a human interface, in the thematic tradition of “Love Machine” (1975) by The Miracles and “Yours Truly, 2095” (1981) by ELO. There are probably others, but your song is certainly the heaviest and randiest that I know. I hear echoes of “Ace of Spades,” “Overkill,” and “Ballroom Blitz” in there. What do you remember about building this song?

FP: Nothing, as I was locked down. Ru and Dan put that masterful backing track together.

IE: A song by the Darkness called “Jussy’s Girl” simply had to be. I wondered whether the band considered a more overt musical or lyrical nod to Rick Springfield within the song.

FP: No, I suspect it was simply an irresistible pun, like a bone to Justin’s dog.

IE: “Sticky Situations” sounds like a sonic love letter to Queen. What is it like for the Darkness to work on something like that, given that Rufus’ dad is actually in Queen?

FP: It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy of a sticky situation.

IE: I gather that “Speed of the Nite Time” is about a booty call to a haunted house. Has the Darkness broken new ground with this topic? Judging by the past tense chorus and the sound effects, maybe things didn’t work out so well for the song’s protagonist.

FP: Ask Justin, though I think you’ll find a gentleman never tells.

IE: In “It’s a Love Thang (You Wouldn’t Understand),” Justin turns the tables on himself and his frequently braggadocious songwriting character. This time, he’s so insecure that he resists the brazen advances of a goddess; he just wants to snuggle. It’s almost as if we’re not meant to take all of those other Darkness songs at face value.

FP: Don’t believe anything you hear and only half of what you read.

IE: I’m late to the “Justin Hawkins Rides Again” party on YouTube, but I enjoyed the latest segments. His newest topic was some recently published research on the healing power of music, with implications for medical use. As a potential health practitioner, who gets your first prescription of Darkness music?

FP: I don’t believe in a thing called prescription medicine.

IE: Justin also mentioned music as a principal British export, historically second only to steel. I don’t see our governments prioritizing arts and culture. Do you think they ever will?

FP: Keep them away from music, please. Art should never be apologetic, and politicians always are.

The Darkness appear at The Vic Theatre on October 13

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