The Darkness descends on Belly Up Aspen
January 31, 2013
ASPEN – A dozen years ago, at the age of 33, Frankie Poullain, a Scottish-born lad, was occupying himself as a guide through the mountains and jungles of Venezuela, when he got an email from a friend with a business proposition that would bring Poullain back home to the U.K. His friends and family encouraged Poullain to stay in South America.
Question: What kind of proposal was this, that had Poullain’s loved ones advising him to stay an ocean away and stick with guiding in the backwoods of Venezuela?
What Poullain’s friend, Justin Hawkins, had in mind was a band. A specific kind of band, one that hearkened back to ’70s glam-metal and everything that went with the genre: overt sexual innuendo, a wild stage show, screeching vocals and screaming guitars, album covers that featured images of shapely girls in bikinis.
“Justin’s the kind of guy who’s always kidding,” said Poullain, who had previously played in the band Empire, in which Hawkins was the keyboardist. “But he wasn’t kidding about this, which made me think it was worth coming back for. He said he had decided to be a singer. I knew he had the charisma and talent to do it.”
Poullain, a bassist, returned to London to join up with Hawkins; Hawkins’ brother Dan, a guitarist; and drummer Ed Graham. Inspired by groups that Poullain termed “guilty pleasure kind of music,” the four formed the Darkness. The news of an emerging glam-metal band didn’t exactly take England by storm. “These days it’s cool to be deeper or moodier or pissed off,” Poullain said. “People associate anything that’s humorous or fun or silliness with being unsophisticated. You’re not supposed to like it.”
“Permission to Land,” the Darkness’ debut album, in 2003, demonstrated that plenty of people wanted to go back to the days of KISS, AC/DC and Queen, groups that embraced a brand of unselfconscious, overblown fun. The album went to number one; the following year, the Darkness took Brit Awards for best British group, best British rock act and best British album.
And then, perhaps predictably for a band called The Darkness, with songs like “Love on the Rocks with No Ice” and “How Dare You Call This Love!” the band became overwhelmed with excess. “It’s what in America, I think they call a clusterf–k,” Poullain said. “With regards to management, us f—ing up as well, drugs, too much fun. You have too much fun, you pay the price. The price was our friendship, the band.”
Poullain exited the group, while the rest of The Darkness stumbled forward to record 2005’s “One Way Ticket to Hell … and Back,” which sold decently, but represented a major step back from “Permission to Land.” The next year, Justin Hawkins went into rehab and left the group. A couple of related bands, the Stone Gods and Hot Leg, came out of the rubble, though neither went far.
But in 2011 came the announcement that The Darkness was reforming in its original lineup. Last summer, the band released its third album, “Hot Cakes,” which hit No. 1 on the U.K. rock charts. The band’s current tour comes to Belly Up Aspen on Saturday.
Poullain said that reuniting offered a lot: travel, stage antics, getting reacquainted with old friends. But there are also creative possibilities. The Darkness’ music, on the surface, follows a familiar path, but the connections to ’70s metal, the capes and leather, obscures what’s underneath: solid songwriting and musicianship, a self-awareness sense of humor. There is even tenderness: “Every Inch of You,” the opening song on “Hot Cakes,” features the line, “I’m in a band with my brother and my two best mates.” (To be sure, not all of the lyrics are so sweet and innocent.)
“People are happy to come up with the lazy thing, that’s it’s songs about girls and fast cars,” Poullain said. “We’re not in a straitjacket musically. We’ve got a huge spectrum to choose from,” Poullain said. For evidence, he pointed to the fact that “Hot Cakes” was mixed by Bob Ezrin, a producer who has worked with metal bands including KISS and Alice Cooper, but also folk-rockers the Jayhawks and Julian Lennon. Poullain said Ezrin gave “Hot Cakes” “a sparkly kind of finish.”
Even more proof is the next to last track on “Hot Cakes: “Street Spirit (Fade Out),” a cover of the song by the arty critics’ darling, Radiohead. This version is given the full Darkness treatment.
“People try to dismiss you, saying you’re a tribute band or a novelty act,” Poullain said. “But we’d never just cover someone’s song. We’re musicians, or artists. We should add something to it, not just copy. We took it to the extreme on that song.”
Among the things Poullain did with his time away from The Darkness was write “Dancing in the Darkness,” an illustrated book that combined a memoir of his early years in the band with off-beat, self-help advice.
“There are contradictions,” Poullain said of himself and his band. “It’s not necessarily perceived to be cool or sophisticated. But there’s quite a lot going on musically, and it’s great to be in a band like that. We don’t have to be cool. We’re very unpretentious, I would say. As a band. As a person, I’m kind of pretentious.”