It’s hard to believe that ‘Permission to Land’, the debut album from UK rockers The Darkness, is 20 years old next year. What an exciting and eventful couple of decades that has been for the band in terms of tours, shows, albums and line up changes. The band’s 7th album, ‘Motorheart’, was released in November 2021 to great critical acclaim as the band returned to doing what they do best after the slight left-of-centre release that was ‘Easter is Cancelled’.
The Darkness embark on a joint headlining tour of the UK with American southern rockers, Black Stone Cherry in January and we were thrilled to speak to bassist Frankie Poullain all about that and lots more besides.
Lovely to speak to you today Frankie, thanks for your time. Lets start with the tour in January with Black Stone Cherry. How did that tour come about and have you played with them before?
Not really, maybe once when we played Thetford forest, the homecoming gig for the people of East Anglia back in 2012 but that’s it really. They supported us back then. We’ve got the 70s and 80s covered and they’ve got the 90s and the 00s so it should please lots of different people!
They’ve got that thing where they are a bit red-neck, you know? Lowestoft is about as close to redneck as you can get in the UK so it’s a good match! And I mean that in the complimentary sense.
Who reached out to who?
It wasn’t really a reach out, it was more a reach around. Somebody tickled Justin’s (Hawkins, The Darkness frontman) g-spot, you know?
Was it an instant ‘Yes’ or did you have to go away and ponder it?
We don’t really think about what we do. That’s what makes The Darkness different from other bands. We don’t think. We did one album that was quite thoughtful which was 2019’s ‘Easter is Cancelled’ but we’re more instinctive and off-the-cuff usually.
That doesn’t mean we don’t put effort into writing our songs, we spend a lot of time doing that, but we don’t labour over things or over-think things too much.
With such a rich back catalogue now, how do you guys settle on a set list each night when you are touring and are there any hidden gems or favourites of yours that don’t get played any more?
Again, that’s something that we don’t think about too much. We instinctively go with our guts in terms of what to play.
You recently returned from a tour of Australia and New Zealand. Were there any stand out moments or memories from that tour?
I’m not just saying this, but it was the best ever! For some reason our ticket sales have just shot up there and so most gigs were sold out. Maybe it’s an effect of feeling cut off after the pandemic and the restrictions that are being placed on them, I don’t know, but they came out in droves and they fucking love a good rock and roll show!
There were so many good nights. Sold out shows in Melbourne and Sydney. The atmosphere from start to finish gave me goose bumps all the way through the tour.
What are the best and worst things about being out on tour?
Good question. The best thing is soaking up all that love from the audience and the smiles on the faces of the people out there in the crowd. If you can tap into or create a kind of euphoric atmosphere – there’s nothing better. Communal euphoria is gold dust, particularly in the times we are living in right now. A song like ‘I Believe in a Thing Called Love’ kind of embodies that, I think, but it’s so hard to encapsulate that in a song.
The worst thing? Airports. All the forms and all the bullshit about them. All the health and safety stuff in hotels too, it drives me nuts. You can’t open a window in a hotel anymore because one person committed suicide in a hotel a decade or more ago, you know? Everyone else has to choke on all the sprays and chemicals in hotel rooms these days, including all the people who work in hotels too, I feel so sorry for them for what they are breathing in on a daily basis.
You released current album ‘Motorheart’ last year. It is a bit more of a typical The Darkness album, if there is such a thing, after the more left-of-centre ‘Easter is Cancelled’. Was that a conscious decision or was it just how the songs evolved at the time of writing?
They just really evolved as they did. We weren’t really in the same room all the time during the making of this album, due to the pandemic and the after effects. It was quite difficult, backs-to-the-wall stuff, making this album. There were some good things that came out of making this album in the way that we did and there were some bad things too.
It’s a good album and it’s got some really nice, off-the-cuff moments, like ‘Nobody Can See Me Cry’.
Were there any things you did differently that you might do recording albums going forward. Wasn’t Justin in his studio in Switzerland most of the time?
Good point. There are some good things about what we did that we will take forward. We slaved over the title track, ‘Motorheart’, the most. Sometimes when you have to slave over something it takes the life out of it but I think it’s the best track on the album. It sounds like it’s just chaos but actually we took a lot of time getting that one right and re-recording it a couple of times to fine tune it.
Contrast that with a song like ‘Welcome Tae Glasgae’, which literally took 5 minutes to write and record! And that one might well be the second best song on the album. We love playing both of those songs live because what they have in common is that our drummer, Rufus Tiger Taylor kicks the ass out of both them! He’s really stepped up a level as a drummer on this album.
One of my favourites on the album is ‘Speed of the Nite Time’. I love the vibe and the bass line on that track. Which song is a favourite of yours that you don’t often get asked about?
‘Speed of the Nite Time’ was actually something that I came up with. I kinda had three separate collaborations with that song. One of them was with my then partner at the time, Diane Birch – she programmed the drums and came up with a couple of the hooks too. She’s a singer-songwriter.
Then I got together with Dan who helped finesse it a little and finally we took it to Justin who helped with some of the vocal melodies and a couple of the lines too. I really enjoyed doing that and coming up with some sort of Indie disco – Goth rocker based around the bass line.
The song ‘So Long’ has a feel of ‘Bright Eyes’ from Watership Down to it. I don’t know if that is a deliberate homage? What’s your take on artists like Taylor Swift and Ed Sheeran who keep being taken to court for plagiarism?
The funny thing is that when we first started we were accused of just being rip-off merchants but we’ve never once taken anything from anyone. Our music is often redolent of a place and time in rock music and Dan is very clever with the riffs that he comes up with. Justin is also very particular about the melodies he comes up with and will ditch things that are too close to existing songs. We’ve often changed or lost songs because the riff or the melody is just too close to something that is already out there. He’s a real stickler for that.
There are obviously some riffs that pay homage to bands like AC/DC, take ‘Black Shuck’ for example, but I would say that is a tribute rather than anything plagiaristic. And the vocal melody in that song is completely different to anything AC/DC ever did.
‘Jussy’s Girl’ from ‘Motorheart has the feel of something like ‘Animal’ from Def Leppard on the chorus but it isn’t a copy or a rip-off at all. Just a tribute. Would you automatically side with musicians like Taylor Swift and Ed Sheeran when they do get accused of listing melodies or lyrics?
No, I don’t actually. When a musician is being lazy they deserve to be punished, not that I am saying either of them have, just in general. There are musicians out there that are lazy and sloppy and it drives me mad. It really upsets me that people can tap into algorithms and find and create little variations of songs, changing it just enough so that they don’t get prosecuted. I hate that. That’s robot music.
What changes have you seen in the industry since 2003? It strikes me that you guys are the last generation of musicians that have been able to make a living from actually selling your recorded or physical products.
Yeah, we probably are. (laughing) We were very lucky. For me it’s all about the publishing, really, in terms of longevity. That’s definitely helped us to maintain an OK standard of living, you know? I can still live in London but I know so many musicians that have had to move out.
Changes? There’s less cocaine around in the industry now than there used to be! (laughing) That’s a good thing. There’s also less twats around now too because record companies can’t afford to pay those wanky twats in BMWs talking bullshit all the time anymore either! You have to actually have a passion for music to still be around now although some of the younger generation feel like they are just phoning it in at times because that passion and drive to work hard and achieve something is just not there.
I do miss the sense of recklessness and the liquid lunches that we used to be able to do. I miss the mavericks too, there used to be a lot more around the industry twenty or so years ago. Things have become very Americanised and very ‘safe’ in recent times, very polite and generic. (Pauses) I realise I may have just contradicted myself in that answer!! (laughing) What I don’t like is the ‘live to work’, American thing, that has crept into our society over the past twenty years.
Were all the twats in the music industry one of the reasons why you left the band in 2005?
It probably was, actually. It’s funny you should say that because I’ve never actually thought about it in that way before. In a way, that probably is the nutshell because I think the twats in the industry and in our organisation were the ones that really influenced Justin and brought out the worst in him………No, they brought out the worst in all of us. I became very moody and I wasn’t really very happy. Even now I don’t have any of the discs or the awards or the posters up on the wall to remind me of the past.
I don’t think it’s healthy, you know, sucking your own dick in that way. I think it brings out the worst in people.
This incarnation of the band is much better for both your physical and mental health then?
You said it, in a nutshell, again. Much better. We’re empowered, we’re responsible for ourselves now and can’t blame other people. When you’re at a major label you find yourself blaming other people for everything that goes wrong. Playing the victim is bullshit, you know? We are all now responsible for each other and the band. We don’t always get it right but we’re the ones in control of it. It’s great.
They say that you should never meet your heroes. What musicians have you met over the years that have proved that adage wrong?
Oh good, I’m glad you said ‘wrong’ because I’m not here to slag people off. Nice one. Sometimes you do get a bit intimidated or find it hard to have a normal conversation when you meet someone you really respect and admire. You can give off a weird energy which then makes the other person feel awkward which is why I don’t often get involved with other musicians or celebrities.
At the recent Taylor Hawkins tribute gig I didn’t really go up to people and talk to them because I get self-conscious and nervous and I don’t want to come across like a dick! (laughing) Of all the people I’ve met Brian May is the loveliest of guys, just a really down to earth but fascinating and complex person. Rufus’ dad (Roger Taylor, Queen drummer) is a really cool guy as well, doesn’t give a shit, you know, which is something really worth aspiring too, right?