The Darkness

The rise, fall, and rise again of The Darkness contains all the ingredients of a classic rock opera. The basics are a matter of public record: unfashionable good-time hard rock band from Lowestoft slog their way around the Camden pub circuit, build a word-of-mouth following that can fill theatres without a record deal, then rocket to world stardom selling over 3 million copies of their debut album worldwide, winning three Brit awards and becoming one of the biggest British rock bands of the Noughties. Charismatic bassist gets kicked out in acrimonious dispute during making of fine-but-flawed second album, which 'only' goes Platinum. Singer supposedly burns through a reported £150,000 on cocaine. They try to make him go to rehab, and he says "yes, yes, yes". Singer leaves band, and in doing so, falls out with his own brother. Badly.

What came next, after The Darkness' dramatic demise in 2006, is less well-documented. Singer Justin Hawkins launched his own band, Hot Leg, threw himself into production roles (see Foxy Shazam's 'The Church Of Rock'n'Roll for evidence) and writing songs for others (Meat Loaf, Adam Lambert and more). Departed bassist Frankie Poullain wrote a "nonsensical and contrarian" autobiography, 'Dancing In The Darkness'. The remains of The Darkness - guitarist Dan Hawkins, drummer Ed Graham and late-period bassist Richie Edwards, resurfaced as The Stone Gods, whom Ed later left due to a medical problem which necessitated a double hip replacement. "I went from having money and being in a successful band", he recalls, "to being skint and walking with a limp."

Meanwhile, the fracture in the fraternal relationship was taking a long time to heal. "When I left," Justin explains, "I think Dan was hurt by what seemed like a selfish act. But I was heading towards getting so fat I'd have a heart attack, dying on the toilet like Elvis. I was expanding exponentially. And part of my process of getting sober was to stop drinking and change my situation. In my mind, I was only taking a break from The Darkness, but I knew it wasn't fair on the others to keep them hanging on, so I left." Dan's perspective on the rift is similar. "It took a while to find our feet. Quite a lot had happened. We'd run into each other at family gatherings, and it was like walking on eggshells."

If rock'n'roll tore them apart, rock'n'roll brought them together again. In March 2009, Hot Leg played Brighton, where Dan was living, and Justin invited him along. "That was the key one," remembers Dan. "A hug hello." Two months later, Hot Leg were back by the seaside for The Great Escape festival and, after much audience-assisted cajoling, Dan joined Justin onstage for a historic rendition of "I Believe In A Thing Called Love", calling his brother "an absolute cunt" in the process, in what Dan calls "the big Spinal Tap moment. (It's on Youtube, have a look.) "I think he realised he was missing it," says Justin. "And I loved being in Hot Leg, but it didn't have the magic The Darkness had. It was only a matter of time."

"What happened next," Dan recalls, "is that I was expecting a baby, and the whole family thing kicked in. Justin moved back to Lowestoft, and I ended up staying at his at Christmas. And some people play computer games when they get together, some watch TV, and we have a tendency to piss around on guitars." Soon afterwards, Justin visited Dan in West Hampstead. "His place was so small that his room had all his gear in it, so it was his studio. It was inevitable we'd start writing. The first thing we did was called 'Can't Believe It's Not Love' (not on the album). The only question was to decide whether this was for The Darkness, or to do something else with."

Meanwhile, the other Darkness alumni had been breaking the ice too. Frankie had emailed Justin about having a game of tennis some time, and Ed had run into Frankie and Dan at various times in Camden. "I'd met Dan in the Spread Eagle (pub), but we weren't on the best of terms. I heard through the grapevine that The Darkness was happening again, but I assumed I wasn't in, so I emailed Justin to clarify. He said 'We're writing songs, and we'd like to try the original people.' And everyone seemed to agree that was the best idea."

"It was fairly obvious people wanted to see the classic line-up", says Justin. "Stuff had happened with Frankie, but he's an interesting guy, good to spend time with. And Ed had his health problems which meant he had to leave The Stone Gods, but he's OK now." Psychologically and emotionally, the Hawkins-Hawkins-Poullain-Graham formation felt right. "The early songs were written with Frankie and Ed," says Dan. "Also, we didn't want to start from where we left off. We wanted to go back to the beginning, which wasn't easy – it meant a battle of egos – but it's conducive to a certain magic."

"I'm in a band with my brother and my two best mates…" - The Darkness, "Every Inch Of You"

It started, as so many great things do, with a curry. In early 2011, a meeting was arranged in an Indian restaurant in Swiss Cottage. "It was a real summit", says Justin. "There was a worry about the fact we'd been slagging each other off." Frankie was very surprised to receive the invitation. "The meal was quite tense. I was the last to arrive, But the power of jalfrezi worked wonders.". "There was polite conversation," remembers Ed, "a little bit awkward, just catching up. Then, at the end, Justin said 'Right, what happens next?'"

The answer was to get right back where they started from. The quartet reconvened a week later in the Café Studio in Lowestoft (formerly the Soundhouse), where Justin, Dan and Ed had rehearsed as teenagers. "It was important to steer away from London and get back to our roots," says Dan. "It was a test period to see if we were gonna get on," says Ed. "But the songs are hardwired in me." Hardwired they may be, but a little rust had set in. Justin: "The first song we did was "Growing On Me", and it sounded like shit. And as soon as it ended, we all laughed. That's when I knew it was gonna be alright." Frankie corroborates this. "We were terrible. I hadn't played bass for six years - it's not an instrument you play on your own. But we smiled at the end as it was OK."

Asked how the atmosphere in the band has changed after a five-year hiatus Justin replies, "if we look at old photos, we were tired and bloated.. But now there's a lot of yoga going on! Dan and Frankie still have a drink, but me and Ed play Scrabble on the iPad." As Ed puts it, "We're older, wiser and a bit more professional."

Recording of the third Darkness album began at Dan's own Leeder's Farm studio, continued at the legendary Rockfield in Wales ("I had bad memories of Rockfield," says Ed, "so I deliberately chose the same bedroom to exorcise them"), with some mopping-up in Hoxton. Produced by the band with Nick Brine (Stone Roses/Oasis/, it was mixed by Bob Ezrin, who had previously produced The Darkness' festive hit 'Christmas Time (Don't Let The Bells End)'. "Every mix he sent back", says Justin, "was 'WOW'."

Only two months into the making of Hot Cakes, the offer came in to play the Download festival as second headliners beneath Def Leppard. "There was always the intention," says Frankie, "of finishing a new album first – we didn't wanna milk the past – but the Download people heard on the grapevine that we were back together, and we couldn't say no."

After a warm-up tour beginning with an almost-hometown gig in Norwich ("a baptism of fire" says Frankie, "we played everything at 100mph 'cos we were nervous" says Ed), The Darkness faced the general public for the first time since the split. "At Download we expected hostility," Justin recalls, "and we got the opposite: people with their tits out! I think we timed it just right. People were happy to have us back." Ed agrees. "There could have been metal kids throwing bottles of piss, but they were singing along."

No-one was more amazed by the rapturous response than Frankie. "My expectations were lower than the others. By the nature of how I was sacked, people often said negative things to me about the band. I thought we'd do better in the States, if anything. The USA is unfinished business for us, and there's a hunger for good-time rock'n'roll."

He was right. After a successful UK tour in the winter, The Darkness made a surprise return to the American consciousness when Justin appeared in a Samsung commercial during half time at Superbowl singing "I Believe In A Thing Called Love", sending the song shooting to the top of the iTunes Rock Chart, and paving the way for an enthusiastically-received US tour this summer.

So - after the small matter of their own mini-festival at Thetford Forest on Saturday 14th July - The Darkness will spend the autumn as main support on the entire European leg of Lady Gaga's Born This Way Ball, an irresistible pairing for Little Monsters and Darkness fans alike. But what to wear? How can Justin Hawkins hope to keep up with the most flamboyant pop star on earth? "Frankie said 'We've got to wear more neon to fit in', but I've said 'We've already got the gig, we don't have to do that…'" Dan remembers an even more outlandish plan. "We came up with this idea that everyone would have their stage done like a different historical era, and dress the part. I was gonna be ancient Egypt, Frankie a Greek philosopher, Ed a Mayan, and Justin the Spanish Armada." Of course …

By then, Hot Cakes will be on sale, and selling like, well, you know. Permission to take off…

Free Energy

There are certain bands that demand to be listened in a certain way: Pink Floyd might require a bong & lazer light show; Led Zeppelin benefits from giant, wood-paneled speakers, and FREE ENERGY—a band responsible for having crafted some of the finest guitar-filled power pop this side of Weezer or Cheap Trick—should be played on a cassette deck in a Camaro screaming down the highway; stereo cranked, feather roach clip dangling from the rearview.

"Being from the Midwest definitely informed our aesthetic," says Free Energy vocalist Paul Sprangers. "Growing up in a small town with radio and MTV—then later discovering indie rock and punk rock—really shaped the kind of music we make now. So, I had the same kind of unabashed love for Phil Collins as I did for Pavement—I don't think I ever grew out of that. It probably shows."

The story of FREE ENERGY, however, doesn't begin in the backseat of a muscle car, rather St. Paul, Minnesota, where Sprangers and guitarist Scott Wells—both members of the late, great Hockey Night—were signed to NYC powerhouse DFA records based on their homemade demos. After signing and spending a year writing and demoing they moved to NYC to record with James Murphy. As the record neared completion, Sprangers and Wells moved to Philly, brought in their Minnesota friends to fill out the band, and toured relentlessly behind the release of 2010's Stuck on Nothing.

While it might have seemed an odd fit for a power-riffing pop rock act to put out a record on a West Village disco label, the euphoric vibe of Free Energy—embodied in tracks like "Free Energy" and "Bang Pop"—was actually a perfect compliment to the roster of artistically different but equally accomplished bands, such as Black Dice, Yacht, The Rapture, and LCD Soundsystem. The record spawned nearly two years of solid touring and a pile of accolades, including a Best New Music nod from Pitchfork and Rolling Stone's assessment that the band "totally fucking rules."

At a time when a lot of indie rock is mired in gloom or coated with layers of reverb, FREE ENERGY is interested in sounding like Thin Lizzy or Fleetwood Mac: old-school juggernauts that made clear, well-crafted hook-laden singalongs; songs about love, truth, and the journey within. It's a time-tested formula, but clearly one that can still sound fresh in the right hands.

"For some reason, DFA was the only label that really understood us," says Sprangers, "They got what we were trying to do, and could hear potential in our demos. We learned so much from their philosophy, and continue to apply it to this day—it was a true education. So, after having done a record with James and DFA—which was a dream come true—it felt like a good time to push ourselves further, which turned out to be making and releasing a record ourselves."

As the band began work on album number two they flirted with a couple different producers. They cut an unreleased track with Jeff Glixman (the producer responsible for Kansas' classic rock staple, "Dust in the Wind") before doing a trial run with John Agnello. Agnello's work with the likes of Sonic Youth, Dinosaur Jr. and The Hold Steady made him a good fit for the band, but it was his formative work in the 80's with the likes of Cyndi Lauper, Hooters, and Bruce Springsteen that sealed the deal.

"He really produced," says Wells. "He came to band practices in Philly. He helped us shape the songs and get the sounds that we needed. He helped us get more clean, digital drum sounds like The Outfield used, which was a priority for us. We wanted to make the biggest, brightest rock songs we could. "

The resulting album is Love Sign, to be released on the band's new imprint "Free Energy Records" in January of 2013. Much like it's predecessor, the new record flirts with hysteria-inducing pop songwriting and classic rock production. Tracks like "Electric Fever," "Hey Tonight" and "Girls Want Rock" demonstrate the band doing what they love—condensing handclaps, harmonies, fist-pumping choruses, and lazer guided guitar leads in such a way that the songs always feel vaguely familiar. These are songs that demand to be blasted in a car as one sings along at the top of one's lungs. These are songs crafted by young men who clearly have an understanding of pop music's DNA; the way a good melody can be more catchy than the common cold. Given their go-for-broke vibe, It makes sense that the band keeps a framed photo of Van Halen in their practice space.

Ultimately, Free Energy occupy their own interesting niche. Are they an indie rock band? A classic rock band? A power pop band? Even the band isn't sure ("I wish someone would tell us what we are," says Sprangers, "because we've been described as everything!"), but in the end it doesn't matter. The tracks on Love Sign flirt with the great themes of lasting rock music—the search for truth, falling in and out of love, and the quest for happiness—without ever sounding like retreads of a bygone era. Love Sign proves that there will always be ways to reconfigure the rock and roll archetypes into something fresh and —for lack of a better word—rocking.

"When I think of great songs by Peter Gabriel, or Tom Petty, I hear the them almost like hymns. They speak to something greater than ourselves. Even the simplest rock music—songs about partying and girls—can be transcendental," says Sprangers. "I hope people can relate to what we do on some level. I hope kids like it. I hope moms like it. I don't care about being cool, I just want to connect. I want people to know that no matter what, life is good, and every experience is meaningful. Maybe that's weird. But we definitely feel like weirdos and we always have…maybe we always will, which is totally fine."

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