Thetford: Justin Hawkins and The Darkness descend on forest

Frontman of The Darkness Justin Hawkins talks fame, stepping back into the spotlight and Lowestoft school days with entertainment writer WAYNE SAVAGE

Justin and I once shared the same stage. Okay, we were both long-haired students at Kirkley High School in Lowestoft back then and, yes, he was one of the stars of the play and I was a stage-hand but it still counts.

Fast forward 20 years, he’s basking in the French sun preparing for what he calls “the onslaught” of touring while the British rain rattles my window. My long hair is sadly long gone.

“Now I think I know who you are,” Justin says when I remind him he was also invited to my 18th birthday party; a favour for a friend with a massive crush.

The play was Faust and Furious, a modern spin on the Christopher Marlowe tale in which he played a TV host who sold his soul to the Devil in exchange for fame. It scored with audiences; my friend didn’t with Justin after he turned up with another girl.

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Suffolk, particularly Lowestoft, did win a place in his heart though.

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“Whenever I used to drive back I felt like I was coming home. Even when I lived in London and came back to see mum and dad that feeling became stronger and stronger so I ended up moving back there in 2009.”

Justin, who shares his home with two dogs and two cats and can be seen playing five-a-side or turning out for local Saturday and Sunday footy teams, wrote most of the band’s new album, Hot Cakes, in the town.

He’s not named-checked roads or dogs [debut album Permission to Land’s opening track was called Black Shuck] this time but adds “there’re a lot of small town Lowestoft-isms on it and stuff in there relating to the town”.

The Darkness exploded into the public consciousness with rock anthems like I Believe in a Thing Called Love and stayed there until 2006.

Strangely, they never had a number one, beaten into second-place twice – first by The Black Eyed Peas’ Where is the Love, then by a cover of Tears for Fears’ Mad World by the relatively unknown Gary Jules and Michael Andrews.

“We had a number one album, does that count?” asks Justin, referring to Permission which achieved five times platinum status.

Their follow-up, One Way Ticket to Hell… and Back, didn’t fare so well.

“I must correct you on that because the perception was that it had mixed reviews and it did not; it had exactly the same type of reviews as the first one,” he counters, adding both Kerrang and Q loved it.

It’s a misconception that’s frustrated him for some time.

“If anything, the people who liked it liked it more. It might not have sold as many copies [as Permission] but it still went platinum and that’s good enough for me. In some countries it performed better than the first album. It’s just in the UK we weren’t fashionable, that’s that.”

The first album, he adds, was a real anomaly, selling a lot of records with a very surprising sound that didn’t fit into anything at all.

“To even expect to get anywhere near what that did would sound unreasonable really.”

Much was made of The Darkness calling it a day. Truth is they needed a break, or Justin did.

“For lots of different reasons, personal, public, private, well documented…”

A few months before he left the band, Justin entered the Priory rehabilitation clinic amid claims of alcohol and drug problems.

“It was pretty much everything you could imagine,” he says when asked what really happened and if he’s laid those demons to rest.

“I’ve been sober for six years in answer to your question.”

Justin, brother Dan, Frankie Poullain and Ed Graham announced their return at the start of 2011 but were actually rehearsing from the year before that and writing songs from the year before that.

“It’s been quite a lengthy process but it’s another one of those things, where it seems meteoric when it’s not,” he laughs.

It was a painless, very organic as people in the business say, process.

“How hard could it be, four blokes playing guitars? We actually rehearse in Lowestoft, keep everything really simple. Ed stays with his mum when we do that and Frankie comes to stay with me. It’s very much a Lowestoft band still.”

They may not have changed in the short time they’ve been away, but the music industry has.

Music is a service and the ownership fans can claim of a band has grown via the likes of Twitter.

“We don’t think about that stuff, we’re just musicians. People around us worry about that and I think they would like us to provide more content and accommodate the world we live in.

“We want to at least maintain or claw back a smidgen of mystique bands like Led Zeppelin and Queen had. Unfortunately the world doesn’t work like that; you just have to lay it all out there and tweet every time anything happens at all.

“It’s not a bad thing; people like to be in touch with what you’re doing. I yearn for the olden days when you could get away with just doing music.”

Justin’s massively excited and proud of the new album, out in August, and looking forward to fans being able to sing new material back at them. Nothing else really matters to them except the music and putting on the best show they can.

He promises audiences an even higher energy spectacle than before. You can judge if that’s true when they play Thetford Forest as part of Forestry Commission Live Music 2012 on July 14.

“I heard it’s a lovely clearing and a really nice atmosphere; it’ll be a great family day out,” he says.

On the horizon, a support slot on Lady Gaga’s UK and European tour.

While they may not attract the numbers Robbie Williams’ appearance did, Justin says modestly, he imagines it will be among the biggest things they’ve done.

“Part of the fun of support slots is you go there to learn. We learned from the Wild Hearts, Def Leppard, the Rolling Stones, Whitesnake; all the bands we were lucky enough to be on the bill with over the years.”

The first thing Justin does after performing is go out and watch the show from where you’re supposed to watch it – the front.

“We didn’t just start doing what we did overnight, it took research and dedication and a lot of it was watching the bands we were supporting.

“There’s never been a more appropriate tour for that kind of lesson really. There’s something vaguely akin in what she [Lady Gaga] does to what we do. It’s going to be amazing.”

Given The Darkness’s flair for the flamboyant, will the rest of the band carry Justin on stage in a giant egg the way Gaga arrived at the Grammys?

“It’s a very good idea actually, I like that; but it has the potential for me to be trapped inside the egg which is no yolk.”

Now there’s the Justin I remember.

Tickets are still available for the July 14 gig in Thetford Forest.

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